Chapter 1: Picking Up the Pieces
Viceroy Nute Gunray settled himself in one of the plush chairs at the conference table. He was not alone in the undecorated, dimly-lit space; the leaders of the Intergalactic Banking Clan, the Techno Union, and the Commerce Guild were present, as well as heads of state from various important member worlds like Geonosis. He nervously eyed the seat to his right, where a vicious-looking Colicoid perched on the cushion, claws extended and mandibles working as though masticating fresh meat. Gunray carefully tucked his chin closer to his chest to deemphasize the flesh of his throat.
His bionic eye was acting up again. No prosthetic replacement had ever worked perfectly since he had lost his original eye to Darth Sidious as punishment for ordering the assassination of members of the Loyalist Party. He wondered, darkly, if the Sith Lord had purposefully damaged his ocular nerve in precisely the right way to complicate cybernetic replacement.
Since then, Gunray had moved circumspectly, never without the permission of the Sith. He had consolidated the Trade Federation’s gains during the war, minimized their losses, and carefully arranged things so that the Federation had to make minimal military commitments wherever possible, letting the other factions of the Confederacy do the heavy lifting.
But now they had all been called here to discuss a matter of extreme exigency. One that would require the full commitment of the entirety of the CIS’s forces, apparently. The message had not said more. Gunray puffed out his chest at the thought, not caring that the motion drew the beady gaze of the Colicoid. Darth Plagueis would have to make a strong case indeed if he wanted the Trade Federation to cooperate in such a dangerous venture. The first rule of a successful business was to diversify. Putting all of one’s assets into a single investment was a recipe for ruin.
Before he had much more time to ruminate on this essential truth, the door to the conference room slid open. Gunray started and looked up, expecting to see the tall, spindly form of Darth Plagueis, but instead –
Darth Vader looked pale, as though he was ill, and he seemed to be leaner. Weight loss of some sort or other. It was hard to tell precisely what had happened; all humans already looked the same, more or less, to Gunray. He moved to the seat at the head of the table and made himself comfortable.
“Where is Magister Damask?” San Hill, leader of the IBC, spoke up. He used the Muun Sith Lord’s original name, since he had known Plagueis for far longer in a civilian guise.
“Dead,” Vader said flatly. “The Battle of Myrkr was a loss. The Jedi infiltrated his secured bunker and killed him, and Hapan treachery helped the Jedi annihilate our forces.”
Gunray felt his mouth drop open in shock. “What?” he demanded. “How is this possible? This is gross incompetence! You should have stopped them!”
“Oh, I would have if it had been possible,” Vader replied. “But you will simply have to take me at my word that it was not. However, his death came at a high price for the Order. Their own fleet was severely damaged, and Yoda died in combat. The Jedi are vulnerable, my friends. If we mass for one all-out attack on Kamino, we can finish them.”
“You forget the planetary defense shield,” Wat Tambor countered, his mechanized voice buzzing through his body plating. The Techno Union foreman leaned forward, his green, hairless brows contracting over the metal goggles protecting his eyes and face. “We could pour the firepower of our entire surviving fleet into that energy barrier for a standard year and make no progress.”
“I have someone on the inside,” Vader replied archly. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “At a signal from me, they will bring down the shield and allow us to land our forces. We will take the planet intact.”
Gunray made a hissing sound in his throat. “After all the Jedi have taken from me – from us?” he hastily corrected himself. “If the shield will come down, we should level the cities and shoot the oceans until they boil!”
He shrank back in his seat as Vader pitched himself forward, back to his feet, fists thudding against the table as he towered to his full height. “Do you remember the last time you defied the Sith?” he bellowed. “Or perhaps you are not attached to your remaining eye!”
The Geonosian Archduke, Poggle the Lesser, clicked and buzzed in his native tongue. A spindly-looking translator droid standing behind him at attention supplied his words in Basic a moment after he finished speaking. “Do the Sith command the Confederacy?” it asked.
“Of course not,” San Hill said, voice bone-dry. “We are a democracy.”
The tension was broken, at least momentarily, by laughter from the other beings at the table at the notion. Even Vader smiled faintly. The Confederacy did indeed have a democratically elected Senate, mostly to advertise in propaganda broadcasts. What the Confederacy Senate actually did could be inscribed on the head of an infinitesimal pin.
“The Archduke is quite right,” Vader said, allowing himself to slowly return to his chair. “The war effort of the Confederacy is directed by its military high command, all of whom are currently in this room. Previously, Darth Plagueis served as merely a military advisor to that high command – one whose suggestions were taken very seriously indeed, but not taken as orders per se.” He placed his hands flat against the surface of the conference table. “You are all now wondering if I should step into that position, and if my suggestions should be taken as seriously as his were.”
“What military victories we have had during this war were not your doing,” Poggle said through his translator. “You were a commander of droids and ships, but not of fleets and armies. You are not qualified as he was.”
“It’s true. I’m not.” Vader paused, as if considering some idea which had just occurred to him, though Gunray suspected this to be an affectation. “However, Lord Plagueis did leave me the entirety of his substantial financial holdings. Wealth which the Confederacy has been drawing upon quite liberally to keep its droids and ships running. If that support were to disappear, it seems to me that would greatly affect the outcome of the war.”
“You cannot extort us into giving you authority,” San Hill said coldly. “We have sufficient financial resources to survive your potential withdrawal of Magister Damask’s fortune.”
“Yes,” Vader mused. “The withdrawal, certainly. But what if that fortune were to not only be withdrawn from the Confederacy’s coffers, but were to then be given to the treasury of the Jedi Order?”
Dead silence fell. Gunray was the first to find his voice again. “You cannot be serious! The Jedi are your mortal enemies!”
“I have a vision for the galaxy, Viceroy,” Vader said. “Now that Lord Plagueis is dead and Sidious is on the run from both the Order and the Republic, the task of guiding our universe along the Sith’s chosen path falls to me. And I am not particular about what pawns, willing or otherwise, I use to do that.”
Silent until now, the Colicoid spoke in a hissing, buzzing snarl. “Name the terms.”
“I happen to have an electronic document here,” Vader said, withdrawing a datapad from his robe. “It conforms in every detail to the legal systems of the Confederacy. If all of you sign it, I will be named the newest member of the CIS military’s high command, with all the rights and duties implied by such a position. Furthermore, I will be given broad powers which I may use to execute certain unilateral decisions if the Force makes it plain that they are necessary for our victory.”
“The Force is not an acceptable source of quantifiable information,” Wot Tambor sneered.
Vader shrugged. “The document says otherwise. Sign it, and guarantee the Confederacy the continued use of Hego Damask’s vast wealth. Don’t sign it, and I’m afraid I will, to use terminology all of you will understand, take my business elsewhere.”
Glaring at him, Gunray growled, “I say we let him leave. The Sith have been nothing but trouble for the Confederacy.”
Vader grinned at him. “Oh, to be certain. It’s not as though we enabled you to ascend to the Directorate of the Trade Federation, arranged the assassination of the other members to give you supreme executive power, and then orchestrated massive financial gains through duplicitous insider trading to give you the economic power necessary for a military secession.”
He turned to San Hill. “It’s not as though we carefully manipulated the Intergalactic Banking Clan to place you in a position to succeed Chairman Tonith, while bringing various disparate Muun financial factions under your control, to let you form the core of an alternative economy for the blooming separatist movement.”
He looked at Wot Tambor. “It’s not as though we secured a number of extremely lucrative military supply contracts on both sides of the brewing war for your subsidiary, Baktoid Armor, in order to put the Techno Union into a position where you can maintain your supposed ‘neutrality’ by ransoming technical support for your highly proprietary designs and allowing you to enforce your ridiculous planned-obsolescence schemes.”
As Vader turned to the Colicoid, San Hill spoke up. “Your point is made, Lord Vader. I, for one, will sign.”
“I, too,” Wot Tambor sighed.
“And I,” the Colicoid clicked.
Poggle the Lesser hesitated, then nodded his head and whistle-burped an affirmative. The rest of the representatives at the table all agreed, one after another, until Gunray was the only one left. He felt himself begin to sweat as all eyes focused on him.
“This is not a negotiation,” Vader said, his voice deadly quiet. “Let me put it plainly, Viceroy: you cannot succeed without me. Make your choice.”
Gunray hissed. “You will be the ruin of us all.”
Vader smiled, but it was not an expression with even an iota of mirth or humor in it. “Perhaps. But think of the odds. Don’t sign, and you will be proven true. Sign, and there is a chance that you will be wrong. Wouldn’t you like to be wrong in this case, Viceroy?”
The Colicoid to Gunray’s right hissed out an impatient sigh. The vocalization somehow managed to sound hungry.
Forcing himself to swallow in a suddenly-dry throat, Gunray gave the smallest fraction of a nod.
“Then by all means,” Vader said, slapping the datapad down in front of him. “You sign first.”
Wincing, bile bubbling in his throat, Gunray pressed his thumb to the signature panel.
The datapad made the rounds about the table, each being seated there placing some identifying digit or other extrusion to the signature panel. The last to sign was San Hill, who placed his over-long Muun thumb to the datapad before handing it back to Vader with a sense of finality.
“Thank you,” Vader said, accepting it back. He pressed a button on the datapad. “The contents have just been sent to every fleet, relay station, military base, and city currently owned by the Confederacy.”
“Congratulations on your ascension,” San Hill said, his voice still dry. “Now, as the newest member of the military high command, are there any suggestions you would like to bring to the table, while we are all here? Such as the invasion of Kamino, perhaps?”
“Yes,” Gunray said, keeping his tone even and calm with great effort. “I believe there was mention of that. But also a ridiculous notion about taking the planet intact, which I expect the rest of us will not agree with.”
Vader shrugged. “If the rest of the high command disagrees with the concept of taking a valuable military target intact and using its resources for the betterment of our government, who am I to argue?” He got to his feet. “I do have one question, however, as the newest member of the high command. If there is some catastrophe, and all of us die, who takes charge?”
“If, against all logic and chance, there were to be such a catastrophe,” San Hill told him, “then I suspect the Confederacy Senate might actually have to step up and do some governing.” The reply elicited more laughter around the table.
Nodding slowly, Vader asked, “And if all of us but one were to die?”
“Military authority would naturally fall to him,” Wot Tambor said.
There was a moment of silence, and then Gunray felt his guts tie themselves into knots as Vader gave them a huge, toothy grin.
“Oh, no,” Gunray whispered.
“Darth Vader” let himself out of the conference room, returning his lightsaber to his belt. He knew he should feel conflicted about killing a room full of what amounted to enemy civilian targets in cold blood. But all he had to do was close his eyes and remember the fields of Naboo burning, the bodies of clone troops strewn about the fields of Myrkr and a dozen other worlds, the looks of pain and terror and loss on the faces of actual civilians whose homes had been destroyed or conquered.
And all of it because the beings in that room had let the Sith tempt them into enabling unforgivable acts of slaughter for the sake of greed.
The command droid in the situation room outside saluted him. “Congratulations on your promotion,” it buzzed. “Will the rest of the high command require escort back to their ships?”
Vader shook his head. “I’d give them a little more time first,” he said.
“At the moment,” Vader explained, not bothering to hide his grin, “I think they’re a little too scattered.”
Rex found Venge in one of Tipoca City’s many combat simulation rooms, carrying on a gun battle with a holographic squad of the skeletal Trade Federation battle droids.
“Should I come back later?” Rex shouted over the sound of hard-light bolts spattering against phantasmal surfaces. Venge had set the room to emulate an urban battlefield, and so he was taking cover behind the image of a derelict landspeeder while the droids marched down the street toward him, flanked by the flickering walls of buildings.
“I’m almost done!” Venge shouted back. He punctuated the statement by popping up over the landspeeder’s hood to shoot two droids square in the chest, dropping them. The remaining six returned fire, forcing Venge back down. Rex estimated Venge had about five seconds to either break cover and retreat or attempt something daring, else the droids would simply walk around the speeder and shoot him point-blank.
Venge, of course, attempted something daring. He vaulted over the speeder, shooting another droid in the face, and landed in their midst. A swipe of his phrik arm decapitated one of the droids, he kicked another onto its back, and then he barely ducked in time to avoid the fire of the other three. Two of them shot one another.
The last droid stepped back, drew a bead on Venge, and shot him in the chest as he whirled to bring his own blaster to bear.
Venge growled and shot it in turn, ignoring the simulation telling him he was dead, then tossed his blaster aside. The droid he had kicked started to rise, but he stepped decisively on its spindly neck, snapping it, and it stopped moving. He turned to Rex, a sardonic smile twisting his face. “Well. That didn’t go quite as planned.”
“Breaking cover to charge head-first into a squad of blaster-toting tinnies rarely does,” Rex said dryly.
For a moment, Venge’s face clouded dangerously. Then he looked away, the anger disappearing and leaving nothing but bitterness. “Two weeks ago, it would have worked.”
“Two weeks ago you were a – well, not a Sith, but you had all the power of one.” Gently, Rex laid a hand on Venge’s shoulder. The other man twitched, but didn’t try to brush it away. “You can’t fight like you used to, Venge. Let me, or Cody, run you through boot.”
Now Venge did brush Rex’s hand away. “You’d enjoy that,” he said, sarcastic rather than angry. “Having me call you ‘sir’ for a change. Demanding press-ups. Teaching me bawdy marching songs.”
Rex shook his head. “Not the shit parts of it, Venge. The parts where you learn about basic infantry tactics. How to keep yourself alive in a pitched battle – without the Force or a lightsaber,” he cut him off as Venge was about to say something dry. “Unit coordination. Weapons drills. And there’d be no need to call either of us ‘sir.’ You know that, you’re just being difficult.”
With a sigh, Venge turned and began to pace the length of the simulator room. “Rex, I’ve been fighting one way for more than thirty years. I don’t know if I have it in me to learn another way, not properly.”
“I see,” Rex said. “That’s a shame, sir. It pains me to know that you have so little respect for me and Padmé, and care so little about yourself.”
Venge turned, his expression dangerous. “What?”
“You ‘don’t have it in you’ to learn how to fight properly without the Force, so you’re going to rush out next time there’s a battle, charge head-first into a bunch of destroyers, and get cut to pieces because you can’t deflect blaster bolts anymore.” Rex didn’t bother to hide the anger in his voice. “Which is fine, because it couldn’t possibly be true that Padmé and I would rather you stay alive. We couldn’t possibly see any value in you now that you’re not a one-man army. It was all the fancy telekinesis and lightning bolts that drew us to you, after all.”
“You think I believe that?” Venge asked, his voice deadly quiet.
“It’s the only interpretation that makes sense.” Rex began counting off on his fingers. “If you thought we cared about you as a person, not as a magic space wizard, you wouldn’t be so willing to throw your life away now that you’re just a man. If you respected us at all, you’d stop and consider that we prefer a galaxy with you in it to one without you, and you’d give that preference weight. If you cared about your own life, you would be doing everything you can to learn how to live it in a new way, now that the old way doesn’t work any longer.” He curled his fingers back into a fist. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Prove it. Let me or Cody run you through boot. Let me see you taking these simulations seriously.” He saw Venge wavering, and decided to press rather than give him space. “Padmé told me what the two of you talked about while I was still in bacta. You said to her you didn’t know who you were without the Force. This is your chance to decide, Venge. Are you the kind of man who picks up the pieces of his life and makes them into something new?”
Venge growled and made a gesture of impotent frustration. “Don’t think I don’t know what this is. This is the same talk you’d give to any one of your men who’d lost a pod brother in the war and was showing suicidal or reckless tendencies. I wager there’s a script saved somewhere in Tipoca City’s archives.”
“More of a loose outline,” Rex told him, not smiling. “And yes, it is. You think you’re the only man I’ve fought alongside who’s suffered loss? It’s my job to take these men, put them back together into something resembling fighting fit, and throw them back into the grinder. There’s maybe a dozen civilian psychiatrists who volunteered to help the Order out. Maybe another hundred overworked Jedi healers for whom psychiatry isn’t even their primary profession. Last time I checked, it isn’t physically possible to give proper counseling when you have literally millions of patients who all need you. I have to catch everyone in the 501st who falls through those capacious cracks. That includes you, sir.”
Shoulders slumping, Venge closed his eyes and sighed. “Don’t take it personally, Rex, but I’m not happy that you’re right.”
“You don’t have to be. I’m not.” Rex carefully closed the distance between them and pulled Venge into an embrace. He felt thinner than Rex remembered. Has he been eating enough? At all? Their tentative schedule had been in tatters since the Battle of Myrkr, the two of them and Padmé all swept up in preparations for Anakin’s Operation Finale. This was the first unscheduled time either of them had been able to take.
Venge held out against the hug for a few moments, then surrendered to it, relaxing against Rex’s body. “I missed this,” he murmured.
“Me too.” Rex wanted very badly to kiss him, but he sensed that Venge needed comfort and validation, not sex, and to conflate those things would be messy. So he just held him, feeling him breathe.
“I’ll do the training,” Venge said after a few more moments, straightening out of the hug. “But I’d like you to do it. No need to embarrass myself in front of Cody.”
Rex chuckled. “You’d prefer to embarrass yourself in front of me, then?”
He easily dodged a purposefully ineffectual swipe from Venge’s flesh-and-blood hand. “Go ahead and make fun. Get it out of your system now, so when I’m trying and failing to field-strip a DC-17 I can do so in blissful silence.”
“You’re going to make a good meat-can, sir.” Rex checked his chrono. “The big speech is supposed to go out any minute now. War room?”
Venge glanced at Rex’s chrono too. “Damn. I had no idea it was this late already. Yes, let’s.”
As they left the room, Rex carefully lagged a half-step behind Venge. Reaching the entryway, he pressed the reset key on the simulator room’s control panel. If Venge came back here later and saw that the difficulty had mysteriously increased by three levels, he might question why that insane stunt with the battle droids hadn’t worked.
He was still bloody fast.
Padmé waited in the war room with Thrawn, Pellaeon, Mace Windu, and the usual bevy of clone officers. According to the script they had received, Anakin’s dramatic speech was supposed to be broadcast in about three minutes.
The door hissed open, admitting Venge and Rex. Padmé smiled at them and gave Venge a quick kiss on the cheek. She withdrew just as quickly. “You,” she said, “smell like a bantha.”
Venge looked accusatorily at Rex, who raised a hand in a gesture of innocence. “We were having a moment,” he said. “A real breakthrough. Was I going to interrupt it by telling you that you need to go take a shower?”
Padmé raised an eyebrow at Rex. “A moment? A breakthrough?”
“Rex is going to teach me how to fight like a normal human being instead of a Force user,” Venge said. “It just took some… doing… to convince me.”
She gave both of them a mock glare. “Venge I’m not surprised by, but you, Rex? I would have thought you’d be considerate and realize that other people use those simulators.”
“Not that kind of doing,” Rex said, clearly stifling a laugh. “And I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted on Venge’s behalf.”
Mace Windu cleared his throat meaningfully. Padmé looked over at him to find that while he was not precisely glowering, he was certainly tired of hearing the three of them flirt.
“Sorry,” she said.
He waved the apology away. “I’ve been a Jedi my entire life. Some things are hard to adjust to.”
Thrawn spoke up. “We’re receiving a HoloNet transmission. I believe this is it. Captain?”
“Coming on now, sir,” Pellaeon replied, keying the holoprojector’s panel.
Darth Vader’s image blossomed above them, looking quite dapper in black robes and leather. He looked into the lens of the holotransmitter, appearing to make eye contact with the members of his audience, and – Padmé actually felt herself shiver a little – smirked.
“Citizens of the galaxy,” he said, and there was a dark, brooding intensity to his voice. Anakin was doing very well, Padmé noted, with Vader’s more refined Core accent. “I speak to you today to bring you the best possible news.
“After the mutual disaster at the Battle of Myrkr, where the forces of the Jedi Order allowed the fleets of the brave Hapan Consortium to be devastated in order to avoid losses to their own troops and ships, the Confederacy of Independent Systems has secured an alliance with that august body in secret negotiations. Queen Mother Dormé, seeing through the lies spun for her by her ‘friends’ in the Order, is poised to lead her people to a glorious victory in concert with CIS forces.
“The lives of brave Hapan women and men lost in pursuit of the Order’s false ideals will be avenged. The fractured Republic is in no position to stop our combined strength. We will bring an end to this destructive conflict, and unify the galaxy under one banner, one voice.” He lowered his head and grinned, a savage, almost feral expression, his eyes flashing with a hint of gold. “To the Jedi I bring this message: make peace with the Force. You will be joining it soon.”
His image vanished.
“He’s certainly gotten into the part,” Pellaeon murmured.
“The CIS is now entirely under his control,” Thrawn said, consulting a datapad with the latest intelligence report from him. “After we covered up his disposal of the military high command with a surgical planetary bombardment – one which he ‘conveniently escaped’ – there were several coup attempts by various factions within the Confederacy. It seems he crushed them quite handily.”
Mace Windu shook his head. “I hope Master Yoda knew what he was doing. This is dangerous ground for a Jedi to tread.”
“He’s never really been a Jedi, has he?” Venge pointed out. “Trained by Qui-Gon Jinn, brought in at age nine, born when the Force tried to compensate for the damage being inflicted by a Sith Lord?”
The Jedi Warmaster grimaced. “I suppose you’re right.” He nodded to them, asked Thrawn to keep him informed, and swept out. The Lord Admiral and Pellaeon began going over Anakin’s latest report in detail, and Padmé found herself standing alone with Venge and Rex.
Both of whom, she belatedly realized, were grinning at her.
“What?” she asked.
“You’re sweet on Grandmaster Skywalker,” Rex said.
Padmé felt herself blanch, her face growing uncomfortably and unconcealably hot. “Excuse me?”
Venge’s grin widened to impressive proportions. “You were mesmerized. Even without the Force, it’s quite clear. But I think, Rex, you’ve misread the situation. She’s always had a soft spot for our resident Chosen One, but this is a new phenomenon.” He laughed. “Anakin’s handsome, powerful, certainly a catch. But I’ve never seen her like this before. What’s got her going is Darth Vader.”
Her face only growing hotter, Padmé looked away from him, knowing she was caught but not wanting to admit it. “Clearly I have a type.”
“Clearly. What’s most amusing to me is that when this farce is over, he’s going to go back to being Anakin. And how are you going to have the conversation where you tell him, ‘I really like you as a person, but could you pretend to be a Sith Lord when we’re in bed?’”
Padmé gave up and covered her face with her hands, too embarrassed to keep herself from laughing. Damn him, he was right. She truly liked Anakin Skywalker. She wanted to see where things could go with him.
But Darth Vader, she wanted to fuck.
And that is the only time you will ever see me use the actual word 'fuck' in a Star Wars fic! The line came to me and I said, "Fuck it. Worth breaking the tone."
Chapter 3: The 'Great Betrayal'
That evening, Dormé’s guards – Hapan effectives, replacements for the Jedi she had had to dismiss in advance of Darth Vader’s ‘surprise announcement’ – admitted Tsarya to her quarters. Her Commander of the Navy marched in, gave a perfunctory bow, and asked bluntly, “What is this game you are playing?”
Dormé turned in her chair, ignoring the pains the movement sent shooting through her legs, hip, and spine. She was still not completely healed from her injuries above Myrkr, despite multiple surgeries, bacta immersions, and – when she had still had Jedi – healing trances. She knew that she would never have survived without Anakin’s prompt rescue and the efforts of many people unknown to her.
“Game?” she asked, her voice deliberately mild.
“With the CIS and the Order,” Tsarya said. “Oalla hadn’t heard anything about secret negotiations with the Confederacy. This alliance has apparently materialized out of vacuum.”
“We weren’t expecting to take such heavy losses at Myrkr,” Dormé told the Commander. “And with me so new to the position of Queen Mother, and an outsider, we needed some way to parlay that into a political win for me.”
Tsarya frowned, but nodded her understanding. “Thus the Jedi ‘betrayal’ of allowing us to take heavy losses in the first place, prompting our ‘switching sides.’ But that’s not really Darth Vader, is it.”
It was definitely not a question. Dormé smiled faintly. “No, it isn’t. He does a good job, though.”
Tsarya’s only response to that was a grunt which could have meant anything, but she didn’t outright contest the statement. “So, you change the allegiance of Hapes to the Confederacy in order to take revenge for our fallen, despite the fact that it was the CIS that killed them.”
“It’s all about how we frame it.” Dormé tucked a stray strand of hair back into place. She had been leaning over her desk, writing responses to diplomatic queries from various vassal worlds, for almost three hours. “This way, when the CIS defeats the Order, Hapes will be in a position to reap great benefits and become a true galactic power in the aftermath.”
“But the Order’s defeat is not a certainty,” Tsarya countered. “Indeed, shouldn’t they be exploiting having a double agent masquerading as Darth Vader to spearhead their own victory?”
When Dormé had no response to that but to give an equivocal shrug, Tsarya’s frown deepened. “It is a certainty?”
“The war’s been too costly to the Order,” Dormé said. “Plagueis waged too effective a campaign against them, reducing their numbers and breaking their alliances. Even if they were actually to defeat the CIS, they don’t have the manpower to keep the galaxy from fracturing into a thousand warring states. Not with the Republic still reeling and trying to find its footing again after Palpatine’s exposure. The only way to ensure that the galaxy is reunified when the war ends…”
Tsarya got it. “The Order must ‘lose,’” she said, the emphasis on the last word making it clear she understood. “A surrender, with terms, to the Confederacy. Which will then turn and sweep the Republic.”
“Not just the Republic,” Dormé told her. “Hutt Space, the Corporate Sector, Wild Space, even the less remote reaches of the Unknown Regions. When the Order surrenders to the CIS, their combined forces will roll over everything.”
“Total galactic unity? Under ‘Darth Vader?’”
“One of the terms of the Order’s surrender will be that Vader, after unification is achieved, will implement a new democratic government.” Dormé gave Tsarya a sardonic smile. “An actual democracy, rather than the plutocratic oligarchy that the Republic has become.”
“What’s to stop him from ignoring that and using his supreme military authority to create the perfect autocracy?”
Now Dormé let her smile shade from sardonic into dangerous.
“Padmé and me, of course.”
Thrawn and Pellaeon were in the war room when the sensors began to blare alerts. A massive CIS fleet had decanted from hyperspace straight into orbit.
“Twice the size of the fleet they brought for the first Battle of Kamino,” Pellaeon murmured. “He’s certainly playing the role to the hilt.”
“Indeed, Captain,” Thrawn agreed. “A shame that our own fleet is still undergoing repairs at the groundside facilities beneath the shield. We are officially besieged.”
Pellaeon grinned darkly. “So we are, sir. It would indeed be a shame if those shields were to fail unexpectedly and give the CIS the opportunity they needed to win the war here and now.”
The Chiss gave Pellaeon one of his rare smiles. “Yes, Captain. A terrible shame.” He glanced over at a clone sensor officer. “Ensign, countdown to our sudden but inevitable betrayal?”
“Four minutes, sir,” the man sounded off.
Thrawn nodded, completely satisfied. “Well,” he said, looking back at Pellaeon. “Just enough time to steep some tea. Alderaanian broadleaf, shall we say?”
“Excellent idea, sir.” Pellaeon moved to the caf station, turned on the electric kettle, and busied himself with the tea.
It was a fine day to lose a war.
Venge stood next to the control panel for the primary shield generator over Tipoca City. He had already input the energy resequencing order that would lead to a catastrophic cascade failure of the planet’s entire shield grid. He could just press the button and it would all be over.
But Anakin had sent specific orders.
And a script.
At the expected time, Padmé entered, a blaster in her hand, followed by two dozen clone troopers, including Rex. “You!” she exclaimed with all the shock and horror of an amateur at her first improvised-theater performance. “How could you?”
Venge closed his eyes for a moment. If the Celestial Theory were true, the Force itself was actually an intermediary between mortal beings in the galaxy and a discorporate group of godlike entities beyond their present understanding. He hoped it wasn’t true, because if such a group of beings existed, he didn’t much care for their sense of humor. Only true sadists would have arranged for him to be in the ridiculous position in which he now found himself – reading Anakin Skywalker’s hackneyed lines because Padmé and Rex had thought it would be fun.
He looked at the datapad he held in his flesh-and-blood hand. “I have always served the evil of the Sith, you –” he squinted at a word he didn’t immediately recognize – “mewling… ah. Not sure if Anakin actually knows what that means, certainly not calling you it. Ahem. Your efforts are all for naught.”
Padmé gave him a look and let the blaster drop. “Venge, the whole point of the script is for this to look good for the security holocams. Anakin wants to use them for ‘historical footage.’ It ruins the entire thing if you’re reading your lines off a card.”
“I had two choices last night,” Venge told her. “I could memorize my lines, or I could have sex with Rex. Which did you think I was going to pick?”
Rex stiffened slightly and smacked his palm against his forehead, the motion producing a tinny sound against the plasteel of his helmet. “Sir, please. Not in front of the men.” The rest of the troops, of course, were already pretending to inspect their weapons, pointing at the side of their buckets with their index fingers – mime for commlink difficulties, or more accurately I certainly couldn’t have heard that – or giving up and shaking with silent laughter.
“Why don’t we have Rex pull your lines up on his heads-up display and read them to you?” Padmé suggested.
Venge raised an eyebrow. “That’s going to be obvious.”
“Less obvious than you reading them off of a damn card!”
“All right, all right.” He held up his hands in surrender, putting the card down and inserting a bead transceiver into his right ear. “Everyone go back outside and let’s go again. We only have three minutes to get it right.”
They all shuffled back out, then came back in, blasters ready. “You!” Padmé exclaimed again. “How could you?”
It was difficult, saying the words just as he heard them while still paying attention to what was coming next, but Venge dutifully repeated what Rex’s voice in his ear was saying. “I have always served the evil of the Sith, you mewling queen.” Close enough. “Your efforts are all for naught.”
“I trusted you! I loved you!” Padmé was really getting into it, Venge thought.
“Then join me!” he said. “Let the Dark Side claim you, and we will rule the galaxy together with Lord Vader. Flourish with lightsaber.”
Padmé let her blaster drop again and massaged the bridge of her nose. “You’re not supposed to say that, Venge. You’re supposed to flourish your lightsaber.”
“Oh.” Venge drew it, thumbed it on, and did a basic figure-eight flourish. He wasn’t nearly as confident with the weapon now that he no longer had the Force, and didn’t much feel like losing a limb solely for Anakin’s whimsical sense of drama.
“I’m sure we can get that in editing,” Rex said quietly, his tone light. Then he shifted to his stern-captain voice as he spoke his line. “You’ll never win, Venge! Surrender now and stop the shield overload or be destroyed!”
“You’re too late,” Venge told them, and pressed the button to initiate the shield overload. Never mind that Padmé and Rex could have just shot him at any point; it had to look good.
The stormy skies above Tipoca City began to flash even more brightly as massive discharges coursed through the planetary shield, bringing it down.
“Now you do an evil laugh, sir,” Rex said.
Venge sighed, threw back his head, and did his best impression of Sidious in a good mood.
“All right,” Padmé told him after just a few seconds. Her expression suggested that he was causing her real, physical pain. “That was… well, maybe nobody will ever watch this ‘historical footage.’”
The clouds began to vomit forth Separatist landing craft. Tipoca City’s anti-air guns fired, destroying scores of them, but there were hundreds already coming in for a landing and thousands more on the way.
“How does it feel to be the greatest traitor in the history of the Jedi Order, sir?” Rex asked good-humoredly.
Venge clapped him on the back. “Quite good, Rex. Quite good indeed. Let’s head inside, shall we? I believe that there should be a surrender to negotiate within the hour. We wouldn’t want to miss it.”
Cheerful, they all headed inside to witness the fall of the Jedi Order.
Chapter 4: The Ultimatum
The head of the Jedi Order, the leader of the Confederacy of Independent Systems, and the man Padmé badly wanted, right now, to hurl her down onto the conference table and take her violently, seated himself.
She sat down a moment later.
Lord Admiral Thrawn, Warmaster Windu, and Venge were already present. Venge glanced at her, flicked his eyes to Darth Vader, then turned back to her and grinned. She sent him a baleful look that lasted perhaps a quarter second before folding her hands calmly in front of her and giving her full attention to the Order’s conqueror.
“On behalf of the Confederacy of Independent Systems, I accept your surrender,” Darth Vader said with a meat-eating grin.
Windu slid a datapad across the undecorated surface of the table. Vader pressed his thumb to the signature reader, which already contained prints from her, the Warmaster, and Thrawn. It was official.
“You can drop the act now,” Windu said. “You’re enjoying it too much for my comfort.”
Darth Vader melted away – to Padmé’s quiet but carefully suppressed disappointment – and suddenly he was just Anakin again, looking sheepish and somewhat gormless in a Sith robe a hair too big for him. “That was easy,” he said. “Who knew that ending a galactic war would be that easy?”
“What happens now?” Venge asked.
“The members of the Order and their non-Jedi officer corps are officially prisoners of war,” Anakin explained. “You can swear fealty to the CIS – to me, specifically – in exchange for a commutation of your sentence to forced active duty. If anyone doesn’t want to do that, things will be arranged for them to be transferred to ‘specialized holding facilities.’”
“By which you mean what?” Thrawn asked politely.
“Wherever they originally came from,” Anakin replied. “Home is the best place to keep someone safe, right?”
Thrawn nodded. “And the men?”
“The clone troops will have the same choice, but they won’t officially be POWs – for nasty bureaucratic reasons having to do with CIS law, they’re technically military property. The upside of this disgraceful sentient-rights situation is that this means what happens to them is entirely in my hands. I’ll list the ones who don’t want to fight as ‘obsolete units’ or some other bantha shit, and they can be on their way with a CIS pension and a blank ticket to wherever they feel like going.”
Padmé smiled at him. “What’s the next stage of the plan?”
Returning the smile, Anakin began counting off points on his fingers. “With the Republic tangled up in various Senate factions warring for the Chancellorship, Coruscant will be easy pickings for our new combined forces. We roll in, take the planet, disband the Senate, and install the CIS Senate in its place. This alone should be enough to make most planets flip, petitioning for CIS membership as they sense the way the wind is blowing. The remaining worlds – the ones who won’t give up their loyalty to the Republic – will probably flip a few years down the line, when the CIS Senate ‘attempts a coup,’ gets fired en masse, and is replaced with people who aren’t bought and paid for by the Trade Federation, Techno Union, and so on.”
“You have some way of guaranteeing the integrity of the people elected to the new Senate?” Windu asked.
“Of course. When the war officially ends, we dissolve the constituent corporations of the CIS. Their various executives and boards will agree to the dissolution in exchange for rich retirement packages, particularly when the alternative is being dismissed and replaced by someone who will make that trade. With the corporations gone, their various moving parts – all the sub-corporations and local contractors – will be under my direct authority. There’ll be a lot of chaos in the first few years as I decentralize, delegating further and further out until Darth Vader’s eventual abdication won’t do more than create a temporary blip in the financial markets.” Anakin shrugged, coming to the end of his long recitation. “When the power and the money is so totally decentralized, and kept that way by vigorously enforced anti-trust laws and anti-monopolization measures, buying politicians – and letting yourself be bought – becomes dangerous and wasteful.”
Venge was slowly and rhythmically tapping his fingers against the table. “It’s telling,” he said, “that your plan for creating a better democracy involves sending it through the meat grinder of an autocracy first.”
“A benevolent autocracy,” Anakin countered. “And one that won’t last. The people I care about most will be there, keeping me in line.” He looked back at Padmé, and there was a sudden shyness in his eyes. “If they’re willing.”
“Of course,” Padmé told him. She looked pointedly at Windu as she added, “I think you’ve earned our trust.”
Windu returned the look, his own expression dark, but nodded. “During this transitional period,” he said. “That’s when you plan to go after the Hutts?”
“Them, and anyone else who still practices slavery,” Anakin replied, voice soft and deadly. “The measures I take won’t be pretty, Master Windu. You’ll probably think they’re draconian. But I’ll see the galaxy burn before I let slavery keep existing.”
Padmé knew, with a chilling certitude, that he was absolutely serious about that.
“There remains only one question, then,” Windu said. “What about the Jedi Order?”
She was curious about this, too. Padmé leaned back slightly in her seat, waiting for Anakin to let his plan unfold. Would the Jedi be the equivalent of internal affairs in his new government, policing those with power to ensure integrity? Would he militarize them, making them an army in name as well as in effect?
“As of today, the Jedi Order doesn’t exist anymore.”
It was the one response that could have completely surprised her. She sat there, staring at him, wondering for a horrible moment if this was all a trick, if he had Fallen and this was his way of ensuring there would be no one to stop him.
Windu clearly had similar thoughts. His hand drifted below the level of the table, coming to rest transparently on his lightsaber. “What?”
“The Jedi Order is an institution for an age that’s been gone for a thousand years,” Anakin told him. He rose from his seat and began to pace around the table. “I’ve been reading my history, Master Windu. There’s always been an Order, but until a thousand years ago, it wasn’t the sole, single place for young Force sensitives to go. Even today it isn’t, but all the other places are monasteries, esoteric traditions, groups so small that there’s a Master for every ten students instead of every hundred. It wasn’t like this before the last Sith War.
“But that war dragged on for so long, and its cost was so terrible, that we kept absorbing all the other Jedi sects. Millennia of tradition and different ways of looking at the Force were pulled under the umbrella of the Order, because we needed numbers to keep the Brotherhood of Darkness from rolling over everything. By the time the war was done, and Bane slunk away to establish the Rule of Two in secret, there were vastly fewer orders of Force users in existence. The Jedi Order had engulfed so many that, in some senses, we’d done almost as much damage as the Sith!” He punctuated this last exclamation with a fist against the table, making Padmé and Venge jump slightly.
“And then,” Anakin continued, “because we didn’t have nearly enough different points of view, our doctrines stagnated. One philosophy prevailed. We kept recruiting younger and younger because the earlier we could get our hooks into them, the faster we could brainwash them –” Anakin made a chopping motion to cut off Windu’s half-formed retort – “the less chance there was of them turning to the Dark Side. Not because we were teaching them better, but because we were ensuring that they didn’t know any better. To keep the darkness out, we turned all the lights up to blinding levels, and – surprise, surprise – our sight got dull. We lost the ability to see the gradients and the fine definitions of things.” He gestured at Venge. “It took this man, sitting right here, to make it obvious to Yoda that there was value in using the darkness. Not letting yourself get sucked into it, but letting it be part of you. Without him, I think we would have been truly lost.”
Windu’s face was stonier and his eyes more lethal than Padmé had ever seen. “So,” he growled, “because of your personal issues with the Order, you’re using the power Yoda left you to extinguish us?”
“Partly,” Anakin said, his voice blunt. “But don’t think of it as being extinguished, Master Windu. We’ve kept all the light to ourselves, shut away, where it could be let out in controlled bursts when necessary. I’m opening the doors back up, letting the light out into the universe.
“There won’t be Jedi anymore, but there will be security officers, politicians, bankers, artists, builders, architects, monarchs, teachers, shuttlebus drivers, economists, researchers, admirals, advertisers – every kind of person and profession you can think of – that have the Force. And they’ll be free to approach it the way they want to. They might ask other people who know it better than they do to teach them about it. They might figure it out on their own. They might decide to ignore it, because their being Force sensitive does not mean they owe us anything.”
“What about the ones that Fall?” Windu asked softly.
Anakin shrugged. “Then they Fall. Master Windu, you’re forgetting that for every Jedi that went bad in the head and killed thousands with Force storms and Sith sorcery, there are a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand people with no Force powers at all that picked up blaster rifles and committed massacres, marshalled armies and carried out genocide, developed newer and better ways to murder people and sold those methods… I could go on. And if the civil servant in the citizen assistance office snaps and sends someone flying into a wall, think of how much worse it would have been if we’d grabbed them as a child, given them power, and told them that if they misuse it even once they’re damned forever.”
“I understand your position, young – ah, Grandmaster Skywalker.” Windu did not move from his seat. “But nonetheless, I feel obligated to ask: what if I disagree? What if the rest of the Council disagrees, or a substantial portion of the Order?”
Without responding immediately, Anakin returned to his seat. He pulled out a commlink, tapped something into its input pad, and then pressed a button.
There was a sound of distant thunder, and a few seconds later Tipoca City trembled slightly as a tsunami-level wave slammed into its containment-field-reinforced outer walls.
“I’m not going to kill anyone,” Anakin said after a long, tense, silent moment. “Not unless I have to in self-defense. Those who want to remain part of the Jedi Order are welcome to stay here on Kamino, and remain here until they decide otherwise. But it won’t be the Jedi Order that Yoda passed to me. That one is gone.”
“This is an abuse of your position,” Windu told him. “There has been no vote.”
“And there won’t be one. For better or worse, Master Windu, Yoda handed me the whole thing and asked you to let me be the Chosen One. Well, I’m deciding that this is what ‘balancing the Force’ means.” He crossed his arms. “Go talk to the rest of the Council. Call a convocation of the Order, if you want. Take all the time you need. I’ll be here, or else back in orbit, waiting for your decision. But make no mistake: this is the way forward. If you don’t agree with it, your choices are to stay here under my guns or to die fighting me.”
Without another word, Windu stood and swept out of the conference room.
“I get the feeling that this wasn’t part of the plan you initially pitched to them,” Venge said lightly.
“No,” Anakin replied, his voice deadly serious and totally controlled. “It wasn’t. There was essentially a big ‘to be decided’ on that part of it, and they still gave it the go-ahead.”
“I can’t imagine they’re going to agree,” Padmé said. “I – I don’t know how I feel about this, frankly. It’s a radical change, Anakin.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Is this making you question your decision to support me in my quest to become supreme galactic overlord or whatever ridiculous title Palpatine needs to covet enough to come after me?”
Padmé’s lip twitched. “I’m not certain.”
“Well, I appreciate your honesty.” Anakin looked at Thrawn. “And you, Lord Admiral?”
“As far as I am concerned, I am now a prisoner of war with no say in military affairs,” Thrawn replied loftily. “Until such time as I am sworn to your service – with the appropriate caveats about being able to return to Chiss space – I do not feel it appropriate to offer an opinion.”
“And if you were sworn to my service?” Anakin asked. “As a hypothetical. What would you say?”
Thrawn gave him a razor-thin smile.
“I would thank you for destroying the Jedi Order. And for saving me the trouble and lives my method would have required.”
“You were going to turn on the Order after the war, then?” Venge asked.
“Without a doubt. Now…” Thrawn gave a marginal shrug. “Now, I believe the threat will be gone.” His glowing red eyes narrowed to slits. “One way – or another.”
Chapter 5: The New Order
It was quite likely the last Convocation of the Jedi Order.
The assembly halls of Tipoca City were sized to hold hundreds of thousands of beings. The ten thousand or so members of the Order fit easily into a corner of one of them.
Mace Windu looked grimly out over the assembled Jedi from his position atop a speaker’s stage. He and the rest of the surviving Council members had moved a table to the stage and taken their seats. The remainder of the Order stood, sat, or otherwise rested below.
“I call this Convocation of the Order to begin,” Windu said formally. His voice was amplified by the bead commlink at his throat. “Present are Council members Mace Windu, Plo Koon, Saesee Tiin, Shaak Ti, Kit Fisto, Adi Gallia, Oppo Rancisis, Depa Billaba, and Stass Allie. All other living members of the Order are also present, with one exception.”
“That exception being the man who holds a blade suspended above our necks,” Ti said, her voice quiet despite how it traveled through the hall.
“Yes.” Mace laid his hands flat on the table. “Grandmaster Anakin Skywalker has unilaterally made the decision to disband the Jedi Order. Its members will be free to stay with the new, reformed CIS to finish the war against the Sith, or to be returned to their homeworld. If, however, any members of the Order refuse these options – refuse to disband – we will be forced to stay here on Kamino, possibly for the rest of our lives.”
Even Jedi discipline was not up to the task of dealing with that statement in a controlled way. Murmurs swept through the assembly. They lasted only a few moments, but their presence was telling.
“What happens after the war is concluded?” Adi Gallia asked.
“The Grandmaster says that there will be no more Order,” Mace replied. “He says that there will simply be people, of all walks of life, who have the Force, and can choose to use it or not.”
Oppo Rancisis made a noise deep in his throat, his ophidian lower body curling tighter about his chair. “And what of those who inevitably Fall without the guidance of the Order?” the Thisspiasian Master asked.
Mace shrugged. “Then they Fall, he says. Many of the worst atrocities in galactic history have not required the Dark Side to carry out.”
Shaak Ti narrowed her eyes at him, the stripes of her head-tails darkening slightly. “Are you advocating for his position, Master Windu?”
“I’m telling you what he told me,” Mace replied, trying to keep the fatigue out of his voice. It had taken hours to assemble the Convocation, even with the entire Order on Kamino. He’d been furiously turning the problem over in his head for that entire time, trying to understand where Anakin was coming from. “Nothing more.”
“But you are the most senior surviving member of the Council,” Saesee Tiin pointed out. “In power, certainly, if not in years. We all know who would have succeeded Grandmaster Yoda if he had not declared the Chosen One his successor by fiat.”
“A move of dubious legality even now,” Depa Billaba added.
Tiin nodded. “Regardless of that, we look to you, Master Windu. The Order looks to you. What is your response to Grandmaster Skywalker?”
Mace’s fatigue seemed to come to a head, waves of exhaustion crashing in on him all at once. This was the moment he had dreaded, but known he could not possibly avoid. He had to give an answer.
It just wasn’t the one he wanted to give.
“I’ll tell you what I know,” he said, drawing his lightsaber and placing the cold hilt on the table in front of him. “I don’t agree with Grandmaster Skywalker. I am a Jedi. I was trained by Yoda, I have always tried to follow in his footsteps. It is not in me to be anything else.”
Heads were bobbing in agreement around the Council table. Below, there were murmurs of concurrence in the crowd, though they were not universal.
“But,” Mace continued, “I’m not going to tell you what a Jedi is. Because that, I don’t know.”
Silence. He turned to look out at the assembled Masters, Knights, and Padawans. “I turn to you to help me,” Mace said. “Tell me: what is a Jedi?”
After a moment’s hesitation, a Bothan Jedi stood, his fur rippling. “A promise,” he offered. “To protect the weak.”
“Can you do that as a member of a police force?” Mace asked.
The Bothan considered. “Of course.”
Mace nodded. “What else is a Jedi?” he called.
It was a Mon Calamari Jedi who spoke next. “A person dedicated to the service of others,” she said.
“Can you serve others in a citizen’s assistance office, or as a doctor?” Mace asked.
“What else is a Jedi?” he called again.
“Someone who brings justice,” an Echani Jedi said. “And punishes evil.”
“Can you bring justice and punish evil as a district magistrate, or a civil judge?” Mace asked them.
They said nothing, but inclined their head slightly.
Mace repeated the call. He got another answer. He made a suggestion about how that answer could apply in what the Order had always thought of as outside life. He did it again, and again.
After the seventh repetition, there was no answer to his call for a few long moments, long enough that he judged now was the proper time. He picked his lightsaber back up. “A Jedi,” he said, “seems to be many things for different people. For me, a Jedi is a person who preserves order and fights those who would use chaos for their own ends. I can do that as a member of the military arm of the government the Chosen One is planning to create.”
He turned back to the rest of the Council. “So,” he said. “I don’t agree with Grandmaster Skywalker’s decision to disband the Order. But I believe in his vision for what being a Jedi could mean. I think we can come to a compromise. Keep the Order intact, as a place, a group, for people like us – those with the Force, who wish to use it to pursue their own vision of what a Jedi is.
“I don’t believe the Grandmaster’s issue lies with the idea of the Order, but with the orthodoxy we have created. He spoke of how many different philosophies and views of the Force became subsumed. If we eliminate that orthodoxy, if we allow people to discover the Force in their own way, as he wants – I believe he will allow the Order to continue.”
“And if he does not?” Adi Gallia asked. “If he insists on its total dissolution?”
Mace shrugged slightly. “Master Gallia, I don’t believe that Yoda would have left Anakin the position of Grandmaster blindly. He must have known that something like this would happen. He asked us to let Anakin be the Chosen One. Well, if we can decide what being a Jedi means to each of us, we must allow our Grandmaster that same freedom.” He looked pointedly at Plo Koon, who had been silent throughout this conversation. “After all, it’s not as though Yoda didn’t know the lengths to which we had strayed from the Jedi Code. Master Plo, how many of the clone troops have you legally adopted now?”
The Kel Dor chuckled. “Legally, none. But your point is well taken.”
“And Siri Tachi,” Mace continued, the Force letting him instantly pick her out in the crowd. “How long have you and Aayla Secura been in love?”
Even from this distance, he could see Siri flush bright red and cover her face. Aayla, for her part, gave Mace a cool smile and called, “Since Dathomir. Perhaps before, even. I, at least, am new at this.”
Mace returned the smile. “And lest we forget,” he added, “Yoda took Venge – a man who I still do not trust as far as I can throw him, Force or not – and made him Justicar. He gave him power and a position of respect. And while that man’s struggles with the Dark Side have led to complications for the Order, he ultimately defeated Darth Plagueis. No one here can say to me that Yoda loved the Order’s rules more than he loved people. That, I believe, is what Anakin wants. For all of us to have the chance to be people¸ as well as Jedi.”
Kit Fisto showed his famous grin. “Shall we vote on bringing this compromise to the Grandmaster? All of us, not merely the Council?”
Mace nodded. “All in favor, raise your hand or other comparable appendage.”
The vote was not unanimous. Mace knew there would be those who stayed on Kamino. But the ayes comprised more than two-thirds of them, and that was enough for him.
In the same conference room where, only a few hours earlier, he had declared that the Order would disband, Anakin looked up from a datapad at Mace Windu’s solemn expression. The datapad had Mace’s proposed compromise spelled out in simple language.
“So the Order would continue as… what? A kind of lodge? An esoteric society?” he asked.
“There’s precedent,” Padmé said. “And I think it might be good to preserve it as a symbolic gesture, too. You might be on your way to being Emperor, Anakin – at least temporarily – but even Emperors need to recognize the value of compromise. The art of politics is the art of compromise.”
Venge snorted. “The art of politics is the art of systematically organizing hostilities,” he said. “But by the same token, if you organize those hostilities into neat little boxes, it’s easier to close the lid on them. I think this is a fair compromise too.”
Anakin glanced at Thrawn, who had recently sworn a new oath of allegiance and was now Grand Admiral of all CIS forces. The title Lord Admiral had never really sat right with Anakin, for some reason. “Opinion, Grand Admiral?”
“If the Order remains as a way for keeping track of Force potentials in the galaxy, then it will be intrinsically useful to you,” Thrawn replied. “The key will be to ensure that, as an organization, it cannot own property, handle money, or lobby politically.”
Windu spread his hands. “The Lord – excuse me, Grand Admiral has a point.”
With a sigh, Anakin slid the datapad back across the table to him. “All right. I’ll agree to these terms. But I’m resigning the post of Grandmaster. There won’t be one any longer. There won’t be a Council, either. Or Masters, Knights, or Padawans. No organizational structure whatsoever.”
Padmé smiled. “So, in effect, it will be like one of those services you opt into on the HoloNet? One where you get mail every week about ‘relevant news’ and have places where you can meet others subscribed to it?”
“If I sign up,” Venge asked, picking up on the thread, “do I get a membership badge? No, wait – a pin, for lapels. It can look like a little lightsaber.”
Anakin couldn’t help but smile. “That sounds fine,” he said.
Windu nodded. “Then there’s just one more thing to talk about.”
The big Jedi didn’t actually lean forward, but he suddenly seemed to loom slightly over Anakin from across the table. “I’ll be signing on with your new CIS to unify the galaxy, as you were describing earlier,” he said. “But I don’t want to just be an officer, or even a general. I want a special position for myself.”
Now Anakin raised an eyebrow, intrigued. “Angling for perks as part of the transition? That’s awfully mercenary for a Jedi.”
“Nothing mercenary about it, I assure you,” Windu replied. “I want to be – not a Justicar, but something similar. I want to have broad powers and authority for enforcing order and justice. And I’m not talking about within the civilian populace. I mean within the ranks of the government.”
Venge barked a sharp laugh. “There’s a word for that,” he said. “Someone who keeps the powerful in line. An Inquisitor.”
Windu didn’t laugh, or even show a hint of a smile. “That sounds appropriately threatening,” he said. “You’ve told me that Padmé and Dormé will be there to keep you in line while you establish this autocracy of yours, both to get the galaxy back on the right track and to lure Sidious out of hiding. I want to be there, too. Keeping an eye on you and yours. And if you, or anyone else within the hierarchy steps out of line –”
“You execute them?” Venge asked. “No trial, no hearing? Just summary judgment? I like the idea, so it’s probably too sinister.”
Anakin gave Venge a thin smile before turning the expression on Windu. “Is that accurate? You’d execute them?”
“No,” Windu said, unfazed. “But I’d expose their wrongdoings to the galaxy. I would only kill them if it was an immediate necessity to defend the lives of others.” He gave Anakin his signature wall-eyed stare. “The three things we have to ask of anyone in power are these: why should you have this power? What are you going to do with it? And, if we don’t like the answers to the first two questions, how do we remove you from power?” He crossed his arms. “I want to be at least part of the answer to that third question.”
“It’s a dangerous idea,” Anakin said. “You’d want maximum authority and minimal oversight. Accountability would by necessity have to be basically nonexistent – if the people you report to are the same people you need to judge, how do you negotiate that contradiction?”
“You know what else is a dangerous idea?” Windu asked. “Creating an autocracy in order to save the galaxy from itself.”
Anakin smiled. “All right, point taken. You can be the Second Inquisitor.”
He got the small, admittedly petty satisfaction of seeing the small flicker of triumph on Windu’s face quickly turn to confusion. “The Second? You already have a First?”
“You’ll never believe who came in here, of his own accord, while the rest of the Order was in convocation,” Anakin said, grinning. He tapped the intercom control on the conference table. “Private,” he addressed the clone trooper on door duty, “please send in the First Inquisitor.”
Windu turned as the doors to the conference room opened.
Maul stepped inside and nodded to him.
“Makes sense,” Anakin commented. “The only two Jedi to train in Vaapad, the use of the Dark Side in the defense of others, are the ones who both come to me with the same proposition.”
Windu turned to look at Venge. “You knew he was going to say yes,” he accused. “You were just having fun at my expense.”
“I’m a former Sith,” Venge drawled. “Am I supposed to apologize for being an ass?”
Anakin stood to shake Windu’s hand. “Welcome to the New Order, Inquisitor Windu,” he said. “Let’s go unify the galaxy.”
Chapter 6: And Time Passed
Darth Vader’s personal quarters were austere, dark, and oversized. Anakin found living in them disconcerting, a faint sense of cognitive dissonance constantly haunting him as he attempted to sleep in the too-large bed.
Still, after the day he had had, he doubted he would have a problem closing his eyes and passing out. The “invasion” of Kamino, the dissolution of the Jedi Order, and the integration of its willing members and troops into the CIS had been a taxing affair, despite the fact that it had all been meticulously planned and executed almost flawlessly. He hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours.
That was why, when his door chimed mere minutes after he let himself fall into bed still fully clothed, he seriously considered telling whoever it was to jump out an airlock.
“Who is it?” he growled, not bothering to lift his face off the pillow.
“Padmé. Can I come in?”
He sat up, abruptly feeling much more awake. “Of course.” He keyed the door open with the Force, and the CIS’s newest Ambassador stepped inside. “What can I do for you, Padmé?”
The question seemed to take her aback, and she averted her gaze from him, seeming almost shy. Keying the door closed and sealing it behind her, she moved to seat herself in a plush armchair. “I’m honestly not sure how to answer that,” she said. “I wanted to tell you – I wasn’t sure about your move to dissolve the Jedi Order. But your compromise with Master Windu was a good one.”
Anakin frowned slightly at the cryptic nature of her initial reply, but chose to concentrate on the half of her statement he could understand. “Thanks. I honestly think it’s what needs to happen so the galaxy can move forward, and I’m glad that most of the Jedi were able to see it too.”
Nodding, Padmé tucked her legs beneath her in the armchair, a fluid, controlled movement that Anakin found distractingly attractive. He shook his head slightly, trying to make himself focus. She didn’t come here so you could ogle her. You’re tired and not yourself. Behave.
“If,” Padmé said, after a few moments of contemplative silence, “someone – anyone – had approached me ten or five or even one year ago with the plan you’ve outlined, I would have thought it was an obvious power grab. Bring down the very democracy we’re sworn to protect, install an autocracy in its place, so we can build a better democracy? The obvious thing for the dictator in this scenario to do is simply never to give up their power.”
Anakin gave a fractional shrug. “You’re not wrong. But it sounds like you’re implying that you agree with the plan.”
“I’ve already said as much,” Padmé pointed out. “What I’m trying to get at is that it’s you who convinced me, Anakin. Nobody else could have. Not Yoda, not Venge, not even Palpatine back when I thought he was the best and most trustworthy man I’d never known. I’m agreeing to this because you’re the one everything hinges on.”
“I’m flattered,” Anakin said, feeling his face heat slightly. “I promise I won’t betray your confidence in me.”
“And you mean that.” Padmé leaned forward in the chair, legs still tucked beneath her, hands planted on one of the armrests for balance. “I have absolute faith that you mean it.”
“I feel like you’re leading up to a ‘but,’ here.”
Padmé shook her head. “Not a ‘but,’ a question. Which, going back to what you asked me – ‘what can I do for you’ – is what I suppose I’m really here about. Anakin, I’ve never had absolute faith in anything before. Even when I was elected Queen on a platform of staunch democratic negotiation and defensive pacifism, I didn’t really have faith in democracy like I do in you, despite dedicating my entire life to it. It was what I wanted to believe in, so I did, just as I believed in the Republic.
“So, I have to ask: are you doing this to me, to us? Are you, on some level, influencing us through the Force to see things your way? You’re so powerful, Anakin, and you keep getting more powerful all the time. If it’s even a remote possibility that you’re doing this, even unconsciously, then I need to know.”
“It feels like you’re asking the same questions about me that Sidious asked about Plagueis,” Anakin observed. “When he came to Yoda with the idea for the alliance. ‘Am I even capable of betraying him?’”
“Plagueis showed it’s possible to radically warp someone’s personality and views. If anyone else has the power to do that – not even radically, but just gentle nudges, corrections to smooth out rough edges – it would be you. I have to know.”
Anakin pursed his lips and thought. It was a good question. He didn’t have the knack for mind tricks – he could do them, but they felt wrong to him. His touch was too forceful, and he suspected that he could do real damage if he wasn’t exquisitely careful. So he avoided them.
But could he be unconscious influencing people, as Padmé was suggesting? With Plagueis, Yoda, and Vader all dead, Anakin was the most powerful living Force user. Certainly Sidious had better control of its energies, but Anakin’s channel was far wider.
“No,” he finally said. “I’m not.”
Padmé looked at him, her surprise echoing through the Force. “You’re sure? How?”
“Because I have faith in you,” Anakin told her. “Mace Windu, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Maul, Venge – sure, they’re all sharp and strong-willed people, people who I don’t think I could ever use a mind trick on. But when I ask myself, ‘is it possible that I’m doing what Padmé suggested,’ I think it through. And it’s when I come to you that I know, in my gut, that it can’t be true. No matter how powerful I become, I know I’ll never be able to warp or twist you, even if I wanted to.”
She blushed, which was an endearingly honest reaction. “You’re not just saying that, are you.”
“No,” Anakin replied solemnly. “I’m not.” He tilted his head as, even through the fog of fatigue and sleep deprivation, a realization hit him. “It’s not just my plan that you were worried about,” he said. “You wanted to be sure that what you’re feeling right now, about me, is genuine.”
Padmé’s blush deepened, but she didn’t avert her gaze or cover her face. “That’s right,” she said. “There’s been something between us for quite a while, Anakin, and I want to explore it. I want to see what we might have together. But, and this is nothing personal, I had to be sure I wasn’t imagining it. Or being made to imagine it.”
Anakin smiled. “I understand.”
She untucked her legs and rose from the chair, then hesitantly made her way over to the bed. He just watched, saying nothing, as she seated herself next to him and reached out a hand to gently caress his cheek. The contact felt good; the fact that it was her felt better. He leaned into her hand, bringing his own up to grasp her wrist.
“Do you want this, too?” Padmé asked, her voice low and huskier than he had ever heard it.
“Yes,” he murmured. “I do.”
She kissed him, and he was suddenly no longer tired.
Reorganized under the banner of Anakin’s CIS and his Hapan allies, the reformed Jedi Order and its clone armies participated in the attack on Coruscant eight days after the ‘fall’ of Kamino. The planet was taken in forty local hours with a minimum of casualties, in large part due to a mysterious failure of its energy shield. Security footage of Mandalorians planting explosive charges in a shield generator facility was later circulated on the HoloNet. When asked about the footage by HNE, Jango Fett’s only response was, “No comment,” but he said it with a large grin.
Still without a Supreme Chancellor, it fell to Vice Chancellor Mas Amedda – who had miraculously and somewhat suspiciously emerged unscathed from the Palpatine scandal – to offer the Republic’s official and unconditional surrender to the CIS. Darth Vader accepted, disbanded the Republic Senate, and began the process of relocating the CIS Senate to Coruscant. In the meantime, he offered immediate reinstatement to any Senators whose home systems elected to join the CIS. To the surprise of no one, over seventy percent of those systems did indeed choose to join, in no small part due to those displaced Senators calling in every political favor they were owed so they could avoid losing their privileged positions.
Inside of a week, the Republic was nothing more than a loose collection of scattered systems, vastly outnumbered by not only the CIS but also by the Hutts. Darth Vader called for the Senate to offer amnesty and clemency to any world which wished to join the CIS, and in the meantime, he announced his intention to begin campaigning against the Hutts in an effort to wipe out the slave trade. Senators that objected, publicly or privately, were investigated and found to be taking kickbacks from slavers, or even actively participating in the trade themselves. They were tried, found guilty, and imprisoned in record time.
It was two months after the fall of Coruscant, with the campaign to dismantle the Hutt cartels well underway, when Sidious made his move.
Chapter 7: Sith's Gambit
Anakin was in his throne room – an ostentation that he had insisted upon mostly because he’d known Palpatine would want one – when he felt the presences.
He rotated his throne away from the enormous window out onto Coruscant’s government district, allowing it to swing his view around to rest on the small, unassuming old man standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to his seat. Anakin made sure his eyes burned with the golden heat of the Dark Side as he smiled down at his visitor. “Darth Sidious.”
Sidious held up his hands in a gesture of humble rejection. “No need to stand on ceremony, my boy,” he said, his own smile quiet and utterly sincere. “You can call me Palpatine, just as you always have.”
Anakin furrowed his brow. “When have I ever called you that?”
“Ever since I told you I would be watching your career with great interest,” Sidious said, his smile never wavering. “I know it’s you, Anakin.”
He wasn’t sure if he was able to conceal his shock from Sidious, but it didn’t matter. The important thing was not to hide the shock, but to react. If Sidious knew that Vader had been dead ever since the Battle of Myrkr, there was trouble. Anakin’s strategy had been based around the idea of Palpatine’s plans having to do with Darth Vader. The Sith Lord was holding more cards than Anakin had expected, and his own hand was weaker than he’d hoped.
“How did you know?” Anakin asked, sitting up straighter in his seat. “And how did you get in?”
Palpatine gestured, and the second, lesser presence emerged from the shadows at the far end of the room. It was Mas Amedda, the Chagrian Vice Chancellor of the former Republic. He had been reinstated within the CIS government as the Senator for his home system, neatly bumping out the old one through a combination of political savvy and what Anakin suspected to be a less-than-accidental speeder crash.
“He is the answer to both of your questions,” Sidious replied.
Lacing his fingers together, Anakin regarded Amedda. “I’m curious to know how you managed to keep him informed of anything. I had you monitored every minute of every hour, ever since you offered the Republic’s surrender.”
Amedda smiled thinly. “That you did. And if I had been who I seem to be, and even marginally less competent than I am, you would have been successful. But the odds were simply not in your favor.”
Anakin watched as his body deformed, seeming to liquefy, shimmering wetly until it rearranged itself into a four-legged, black-furred, orange-eyed quadruped with a nasty-looking fanged snout.
“A Gurlanin,” he said.
“This is the real genius of it,” the creature said in a lisping, liquid voice. “Not just one of me.”
Another of the alien beings materialized, seemingly out of thin air, from behind Anakin’s throne, padding past him on silent feet. Anakin stiffened; he hadn’t detected the creature in the Force at all, and he’d been facing the window for quite some time.
“We took turns,” this second one said, settling itself on the floor in front of him, within easy striking distance. “I am Jinart, and the other is my mate, Valaqil. We petitioned the Republic many times to remove the human colonists from our homeworld of Qiilura. They were hunting our prey species to extinction for disturbing their farms, and were therefore driving us extinct.”
“When I found it necessary to leave Coruscant in a hurry, I knew I would need to have someone remain on the inside,” Sidious said. “Bail Organa was the only one who saw Terminus kill Amedda, so while the building was in chaos with a general evacuation, I destroyed Amedda’s body. I… visited Organa shortly thereafter, confirmed he had told no one yet, and made him forget the fact of the man’s death.”
Anakin restrained a wince. Plagueis could have done that kind of mind editing without even thinking about it, and without leaving any scars on the victim’s psyche. Sidious, however, subtle as he was, could not have done something like that to the strong-willed Bail Organa without subtly harming him. He would need counseling and help, after this was over.
“Then,” Sidious continued, conversational, “I contacted the Gurlanins myself, and offered to remove the human colonists, no questions asked.” His smile widened, just slightly, and Anakin knew precisely what had happened to those people. They would certainly never be found. “In exchange, they replaced Amedda, and kept me informed about the workings of the Republic. They also helped ensure the political fractiousness and infighting that prevented the selection of a new, strong Supreme Chancellor to keep the Republic safe from the predations of the CIS.”
“Each day, one of us would be Amedda, and the other would stay in his quarters and rest,” Jinart said. “When ‘Amedda’ came home that evening and got into bed, the switch would occur. The one who had been him that day would go and make the report to Sidious.”
Sidious nodded. “When you came to power, my boy, I expanded their mandate to keeping an eye on you. They can become completely invisible to Force senses, however acute. It quickly became clear that, while the galaxy thinks you are Darth Vader, you are actually the clever young lad I first met here on Coruscant, so many years ago.” He spread his arms. “The lad I would still have be my apprentice.”
Anakin flicked his glance across Jinart and Valaqil. “You realize that Sidious, if he gains control of the galaxy, will plunge it into an era of violent despotism.”
“That seems to be the order of the day, judging from your own actions,” Valaqil hissed dryly. “And we do not care. Qiilura has no valuable natural resources. It is not a strategically located world. Its sole asset is us, and Sidious has paid us well for our service. When we have discharged our debt, we will return, and hunt our prey, and live our lives, and continue. Just as we always have. The politics and doings of the outside galaxy mean nothing to us.”
“Thanks to my Gurlanin friends, I know most of the details of your plan,” Sidious said. “You certainly discuss it often enough with your advisers. Almost as though you are reiterating it to yourself, so you do not fail to remember it.”
“That was clumsy,” Anakin told him. “If you’re trying to suggest that I want to be grand galactic emperor, you don’t need to bother. I absolutely want to, because the idea offers easy, quick solutions to the problems facing the galaxy. That’s why I know it’s a bad idea.”
Sidious shook his head with a melodramatic sigh. “Is there anything wrong with taking the quickest, surest path from today to tomorrow?”
“Is that path lined with bodies?” Anakin countered. “Because if it is, then the answer is probably ‘yes.’”
“Your own path is not bloodless.”
“No, but it’s less bloody. And it ends with the people of the galaxy back in charge of their own destinies.”
Beginning a languid back-and-forth pace, Sidious suggested, “I could capture Ambassador Amidala. It would be a simple thing, even now. One transmission and she would be within my power. Subjected to torture and denigration unless you helped me.”
Anakin knew that this, of all Sidious’s possible gambits, was not a bluff. It could not be. The Sith Lord was too cunning to make empty threats about one of the two most important people in Anakin’s life. And it was a frightening, effective gambit, but it also told Anakin about the extent of Sidious’s power. He needed to send a transmission. It would use resources, either material or immaterial, that he would rather keep in reserve. Otherwise, he would have come here with Padmé already captive.
“Or perhaps your mother,” Sidious continued, predictably naming the other person Anakin cared for most. “Ambassador Amidala might still be of use, after all, but your mother is a simple, common woman with no great talent for diplomacy or other weighty matters.”
Casually, Anakin crossed one leg over the other, leaning back in his throne. He affected a tone of boredom. “Are you done threatening people yet?”
“I don’t want to have to take such unpleasant steps, Anakin,” Sidious insisted. “I want this to end with the two of us entering into an alliance. With your dissolution of the Jedi Order in all but name, there has never been a better time for the Sith to assume direct control.”
“You would never be content being an advisor,” Anakin pointed out. “You would want to be either on the throne or the power behind it. The only thing I gain from an alliance is the safety of my loved ones, which I can already guarantee by killing you.”
Sidious’s smile turned smug. “Can you, now? Have you never considered that there is much I could teach you, Anakin?”
“Not,” Anakin said, eyes boring into Sidious’s, “anymore.”
For the first time since their conversation had begun, the Sith Lord’s smile faltered. He glanced from side to side, as though worried that the empty throne room held hidden troops or other pitfalls.
“Don’t make me force the issue,” Sidious said, but the confidence in his voice was less complete. There was a quaver, however slight. “I have plotted every possible move of tonight’s game, Anakin. Your security forces have been bought off, trapped, or led astray. Your communications have been suppressed. My own forces are poised to assassinate or capture Padmé, your mother, the Hapan Queen Mother, and Grand Admiral Thrawn. All air traffic to and from this building has been rerouted. Even your computer control is gone.”
“You did all that,” Anakin asked quietly, “and still thought that the only plan you needed to deal with me was to walk in here and tell me?”
Sidious was too good a politician and general liar to swallow, or otherwise give away his trepidation, but Anakin could sense the edge of it in the Force. “You will not allow those you care about to be hurt,” Sidious said. “Nor will you allow useful allies like the Queen Mother and Grand Admiral to be killed.”
Anakin stood, cracking his neck and calling his Stygium lightsaber to his hand. If it was going to come to a fight, it was actually a good thing that Sidious knew he wasn’t Darth Vader. He’d been practicing with the saberspear for months, and was now quite proficient with it, but he would never be as good as Vader had been.
“If you actually want me to be your apprentice, then you must have at least a faint shadow of something resembling respect for me,” Anakin said. “I’m appealing to that respect and asking you to just listen to me for a minute, Sidious. One minute, no interruptions, and then we can decide how this is going to go down.
“You’re right. I won’t allow my loved ones and allies to be hurt or killed. But I’ve been in a war, Sidious, and being at war has changed me. When I say that I won’t let them be hurt, I mean that I won’t do anything to hurt them. I won’t give orders endangering them unless they volunteer for it.
“But right now, you are the one who is going to hurt and kill them unless you get your way. I’m not responsible for that. I know it’s a fine line, and a morally dubious one, but guess what? I’ve had to cross so many lines and go to such morally dubious lengths during the war you engineered that I can now make these kinds of distinctions. It’s ironic that, as I am right now, I probably would make a fantastic Sith apprentice for you, but precisely those same circumstances that shaped me to be like this have guaranteed that I will never join you.
“So the question you have to ask yourself, Sidious, is this: can you take me? Can you say with complete and total certainty that you can destroy me? Because the threat you’ve made against Padmé, and Mom, and my allies – it’s a credible one, and I’ll stop it if I can. You’ve said it will take one transmission to execute it, so all I need to do is kill you before you can make that transmission.” Anakin thumbed his lightsaber to life. “Do you honestly think that you can keep me from killing you, right where you stand, before you can even react?”
Now, Sidious did swallow. He stared at Anakin, eyes wide and tinged with yellow, the fingers of his right hand writhing rhythmically, clearly wanting to call his lightsaber to his grip but knowing with Force certainty that doing so would lead to his death.
“I must say,” Sidious said, licking his lips, “that I am proud of you, Anakin.”
His other hand was behind his back, but Anakin knew Sidious. The writhing fingers of his right hand were designed to distract his attention from the left hand, the one that held the commlink which would send his deadly signal. The Force shrieked at Anakin, and in a perfect, frozen moment, he sensed Sidious’s thumb moving toward a button on the commlink’s cylindrical length.
Anakin’s reaction was instantaneous. He had known that, given the choice of dying or dying and taking Anakin’s companions with him, Sidious would choose the latter. So, when he received that warning, he was ready. He lashed out with the Force, tearing the commlink from Sidious’s hand. It flew, arcing around toward Anakin, and he cut it clean in half with his lightsaber.
Sidious, of course, knew Anakin too. He had known that by forcing the issue of the commlink, he could make Anakin’s opening move focus on it, rather than simply killing him at the cost of his loved ones and allies. His lightsaber dropped into his right hand, ruby blade blazing to life, and he hurled himself at Anakin in a twisting leap, an inhuman howl booming from him.
The Gurlanins scattered, melting away, as the two blades clashed. Anakin stared into Sidious’s eyes and grinned at him, a death’s-head grin, a skull grin.
Chapter 8: Governmental Theory
Maul slashed his lightsaber diagonally down through the chest of the last of Sidious’s assassins. The Sith Lord had been clever and methodical in his approach, expertly isolating Anakin and maneuvering his own forces into place to take out key targets. Still, he hadn’t anticipated the completely independent transceiver unit hidden within the base of Anakin’s overly-ostentatious throne. The one which, detecting Anakin’s pronouncement of the words “Darth Sidious” without any other context, had sent out alerts to key personnel.
He pulled out his commlink and keyed it to contact Padmé. She answered less than a second later. “You are clear,” Maul told her.
The door to her apartments hissed open, revealing that she was armed with two Naboo blaster pistols and dressed in the beskar’gam given to her by her late adoptive father. “What about Shmi, Dormé, and Thrawn?” she asked.
“Inquisitor Windu has already taken Shmi to a secure location,” Maul replied. “The forces arrayed against her were relatively light; Sidious must not have thought it necessary to use many resources against an unarmed noncombatant. The Queen Mother and Grand Admiral are both in the process of being rescued by other Jedi teams.”
Padmé nodded briskly. “Good. Thanks for the save. We’re heading to help Anakin now, right?”
Letting one of his hairless brows rise the barest fraction of an inch, Maul replied, “My orders are to take you to a safehouse and keep you under guard there.”
She smiled at him, the expression saccharine. “Do you think you’re going to be able to?”
He let his shoulders sag a little. “No. Not without rendering you unconscious first.”
“Then let’s go. Anakin may think he can take Sidious alone, but we didn’t get this far by taking unnecessary risks.” She started down the corridor toward the vehicle bay, and Maul hurried to keep up.
“In point of fact,” Maul told her, “we took many unnecessary risks to get here. If Master Qui-Gon were still alive, he and Anakin would both have to list ‘taking unnecessary risks’ under the ‘other interests’ section of their resumes.”
She snorted. “You’ve gotten verbose in your old age, Maul.”
“Where is she?”
“I do not think she is temperamentally suited to be an Inquisitor. She is serving as an adjutant commander in the 501st Legion, under Captain Rex. I will continue to train her when there is time, but my duties so far have necessitated our temporary separation.”
They made it to the vehicle bay without incident. Padmé leapt into the pilot’s seat of a glossy, chromium-plated Naboo airspeeder, gunned its repulsorlift engine, and rocketed them out of the building. If Sidious had deployed any air forces, Maul thought, now would be when they would spring their ambush. He had been living in Padmé’s apartment building for three months in anticipation of Sidious’s attack, so he had not been able to check their airspace.
No swoops or other airspeeders fell on them as they flew swiftly toward the government district. Maul let himself relax, just a hair, and began to mentally prepare himself for the battle to come.
Padmé was silent for several minutes. Then she asked, “Speaking of the 501st, have you heard anything from Venge recently?”
Maul shook his head. “I would expect you would be the first person he would contact when he returned from his errand.”
“Yes,” Padmé acknowledged, “I would expect it too. But I’m just worried.”
For his own part, Maul could not claim to be worried, precisely, but he still inclined his head in a gesture of agreement. Privately, he thought it was sweet that she could worry about Venge even when they were on their way to face the last Sith Lord in the galaxy.
But he didn’t say anything out loud.
Anakin had not been boasting when he had threatened to kill Sidious before the Sith Lord could react. If he had let Sidious send the transmission ordering his men to act, he could have done it. One blindingly fast Force leap across the room, a stroke of his lightsaber, and it would have been done.
But he hadn’t been sure that Maul, Windu, and his other emergency response teams had been finished. So he had taken the safe option, and now they were going to have a proper fight.
Sidious with a lightsaber in his hand was not faster or stronger than Anakin, and Anakin had the edge in Force potential as well. The issue was that Sidious had the strongest Force precognition Anakin had ever seen, stronger even than Yoda’s. With the battle no longer resting on the outcome of a single, decisive stroke that his opponent physically could not avoid, Anakin was left fighting an armed opponent who was always three steps ahead of him.
Dueling Plagueis had been like trying to fight an opponent with six arms, all of which moved faster than the eye could track. Dueling Sidious, on the other hand, was like fighting mist. The Sith Lord was already fading away, shifting into a blazing counteroffensive, every time Anakin tried to make a move. It was both infuriating and exhausting.
“Qui-Gon taught you well,” Sidious gloated, leaping into a handless lateral somersault over a broad horizontal swing of Anakin’s lightsaber. Like Yoda, he was preternaturally agile despite his age, using the Force enhancement of the Ataru form to great effect. “Your fear is controlled, your mind focused. But your anger – how tight a leash can you afford in a battle such as this?”
Anakin didn’t respond, concentrating on transitioning into a Djem So attack sequence which would keep Sidious beyond arm’s length. If he let the Sith Lord inside his guard, even for an instant, he knew with absolute certainty that Sidious could sever a tendon with a quick flick of his lightsaber and still dance away unharmed.
Sensing that he was going to have to work harder to provoke his opponent, Sidious kept talking. “You’ve come so far, my boy,” he said as he continued to flawlessly step around, twist away from, and deflect Anakin’s strikes. “To rise from being a slave on a nothing planet all the way to the de facto leader of the galaxy – your potential is unlimited. Why shackle it? You don’t need to dole out power and decentralize authority in an attempt to promote harmony, because such measures are useless! The rise of a challenger to your rule is, and always has been, fated. Galactic history is a history of inevitable conflict.”
Something about the Sith Lord’s voice – the smugness, the patronizing derision – began to wear on Anakin’s nerves. “Autocratic rule breeds that inevitable conflict faster,” he snapped, lashing out with a Force wave to try to knock Sidious off his feet. “The tighter you squeeze, the more innocents you radicalize.”
Sidious lacked the raw power to simply block or dispel Anakin’s Force attacks, but he moved with a lethal grace, stepping with the wave, nudging it slightly with his own power, letting it carry him to land unharmed five meters away. “The Rule of One is the pursuit of Order,” he replied, his tone that of a bored professor giving a lecture so obvious that he was insulted at the obligation to deliver it. “Order is the optimization of society, my boy. The greatest production, the greatest achievements, the greatest security. The life of an individual without the Force is nothing. It is incumbent upon us to guide them to the only form of greatness they are capable of achieving: the greatness which comes from helping, in some small way, to build a unified, infinite empire.”
Anakin shook his head. “In your infinite empire there’s no room for innovation, happiness, fulfillment. Even as the One who rules, you can never be satisfied.” On an impulse, he lowered his lightsaber, took a neutral stance. If Sidious let down his guard, he could kill the older man, but Anakin instinctively sensed that the advantage afforded by Sidious’s immense precognitive abilities was too great. He wants to turn me, and he wants me to see things his way. If I can engage him on that level, maybe I can blunt his concentration. “If your empire stops growing, if its energies don’t have somewhere for you to direct them, then they inexorably turn inward. The result is unrest, stagnation, and corruption.”
“More corruption than that caused by the democracy of the Republic?” Sidious sneered.
“That, by and large, is the corruption of greed.” Anakin gestured at the cityscape behind him, visible through the throne room’s grand window. “Wealth accumulates in vast corporations, which have long ceased being interested in competition and are instead interested in profit. The surest way to profit is to shape society to enable your nastiest shortcuts to it, so you buy the elected officials. They take your money, because they can never get enough. When they use that money for their own vices, the people who are supposed to investigate them turn out to be just as fallible and greedy as they are – or they’re not, but their superiors are. The end result, after a thousand years of small slips, is an entrenched, plutocratic oligarchy wearing the skin of the democracy it ate from the inside.”
Sidious actually gave him a mocking salute, flourishing his saber. “My, my. You have been listening to the good Ambassador Amidala, haven’t you?”
“Damn right I have,” Anakin replied. “The corruption of your empire, Sidious, would be the corruption of pure power. People exercising their power over others, because they can. Money isn’t the motivating force in your empire; survival is. The easiest way to survive is to be strong, and when you’re not a Force user, the power of the state can fill in for strength. So the small-minded and petty step over one another to get a little bit closer to the top. Eventually, the most cunning and vicious float to the top of the stack, and you realize you’re surrounded by them.”
His teeth flashing white in the dimness, Sidious showed Anakin a serpent’s smile. “But none are more cunning or vicious than me.”
“My point, if you’d bother to follow it, is that both systems end up in the same place,” Anakin said. “All the worst people at the top, holding all the power. One just takes a nastier path to it, a path that’s greased with blood instead of money. That’s why I’m taking the third option. Decentralize the money and the power to such an extent that nobody can get too big to take on.”
“It won’t work, you realize,” Sidious sighed. “The money and the power are still there, Anakin. Waiting for someone like you, or me, to come along and gather it up. Avalanches begin with a single pebble, but by the time they are noticed, it is far too late to turn them aside.”
Anakin balled his free hand into a fist. “So your solution to the inevitable cycle of conflict is to grab as much power as you can, and hold it as long as you can, by any means necessary, in the hopes that when conflict does arise, you can just smash it flat. You’re not interested in addressing the reasons for that conflict, just in dealing with it so you can get back to the business of conquering more territory and building more monuments to yourself.”
“Succinctly put. Your issue is that your attachment to banal morality shackles you to the idea that you must preserve life and slow down the cycle as much as possible. Think of what you could accomplish if you truly listened to the Force!”
Anakin made a show of cocking his head. “Well, I’m listening to the Force right now, and it’s telling me something, actually. Would you like to know what?”
Sidious gave him a smirk. “By all means.”
“It’s telling me,” Anakin went on, “that on the off-chance you’re right, and the Rule of One is the right way to govern the galaxy – well. It’s the Rule of One, Sidious.” He raised his lightsaber.
“Why should that one be you instead of me?”
Sidious raised his own weapon, smirk widening. “My boy, I have never been prouder of you.”
They leapt at one another, their weapons clashing once again.