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Chapter 4: The plans of Sith and men
Conference room A
Republic cruiser "Dauntless"
"General Skywalker! Congratulations for the great victory!" Palpatine's holo-image beamed at Vader. The old Sith looked mightily pleased with the situation.
Truth to be told, Vader was too – mostly. Unfortunately, Kenobi was still alive and was likely to eventually recover, however the part of him that was Anakin Skywalker was still strong enough to keep him from dealing with the old Jedi. For now, the Sith Lord had to keep himself content with his former Master being temporarily crippled.
"Victory you say?" Yoda's voice grated on Vader's nerves. "Tactical surely it was. Strategic loss it was." The small green troll sighed.
"I know." Anakin answered quietly. "I got the final tally before we left – there are a dozen walking wounded left from Kenobi's army. The rest are either dead, permanently crippled or out of the war for weeks to months. The latter for the majority of the survivors."
"The Separatists can rebuild the forces you destroyed within weeks." The third holo-image, that of Ki-Adi-Mundi muttered. "We aren't so fortunate."
"I'm afraid that our esteemed Jedi friends speak sense." Palpatine lowered his head in a masterful display of faked regret. Vader was sure that the older Sith Lord was ensuring that the Jedi standing next to him would feel nothing but his regret about the loss of life.
Even now, after being that man's pawn for more than two decades, Vader could still be surprised by how easy Sidious could play the role of a harmless old man. There were times since he came back that even he was tempted to believe the charade.
The time-traveler stamped down a smile. For the first time he had the upper hand and only needed to bid his time to destroy his old master. He couldn't wait.
The dark thoughts were pushed to the side as Anakin surged forth and reassessed control within their shared mind.
"That only makes my current mission all that more important." The former Jedi stated the obvious.
"Correct." Mundi nodded his large head. "With the virtual destruction of General Kenobi's army, we simply can't afford to lose the units fighting in the Outer Rim. In fact, we can't afford the current casualty rates – something that can only change once we've secured supply routes for our armies there."
"I'll do my best to rescue and return Jabba's son intact." Anakin promised. He stiffened and lowered his gaze. "However," Vader continued, "We have to take into account the possibility that the Hutts will double cross us regardless. The Separatists can offer them much more than we ever could – they can promise and deliver that the kriffing criminals are left to operate in peace once the war is over. I don't believe that such an agreement would be politically acceptable. Anyway, it will be a disaster in the long term even if the Senate agrees."
Three pairs of eyes looked sharply at Skywalker.
"That's a fear my advisers and I share." Palpatine nodded sagely. "What do you all suggest?"
"We can't afford to fight the Hutts at this time." Adi-Mundi sighed. It was clear to all, that the old Jedi wasn't pleased by the necessity of dealing with the Hutt cartels.
"A better choice we have not." Yoda didn't sound ecstatic either.
"Perhaps..."Anakin trailed off. He straightened up and his face transformed into a cold mask. "Unless I'm successful in retrieving Jabba's son. It might be better if the child remains safe in Jedi custody on Coruscant – to ensure that the Confederacy won't use him against either us or Jabba himself."
Just for a moment, Vader could swear he saw surprise and dark amusement flicker through Sidious' eyes, though the Sith had his composure back under control before the shocked Jedi could notice anything at all wrong with the Chancellor.
"Skywalker..." Yoda rumbled. "Kidnapping you suggest." The Grand-master's long ears were flat along his skull as he spoke in a clipped, almost angry tone.
"Indeed. General Skywalker, we're Jedi! Representatives of the Galactic Republic! To even think that we can step so low as to even contemplating kidnapping a babe an using him against his father… That's simply unthinkable!" Adi-Mundi snapped. "It seems that you leaving the Order either made you even more reckless or it was the best decision for the Jedi." The old man added.
"A whole army died on Chaleydonia. Hundreds of thousands of civilians as well with many more wounded or dispossessed. They died for us, for the Republic. I'll contemplate anything that can bring us victory faster and end the suffering! To do anything else would be a betrayal of my Oath as a General in the Grand army of the Republic!" Vader declared.
The Jedi loved their obsolete views and rules – the Republic too, with the added "bonus" of unbelievable corruption. He was going to make them choke on those things before everything was said and done.
"Besides, I've done nothing! I merely made a suggestion, unless you're going to tell me that it would be better for the child to be raised as a gangster instead under the protection of the Jedi? Besides if anyone entertains my suggestion, it would be until the end of the war or at least until we've secured alternative supply routes to the Outer Rim." Vader did his best to look as innocence impersonated, though he had his doubts on how well it went.
"It's a novel, but radical idea." Palpatine made placating gesture – he was playing well in his role of a mediator. "My friend, while I can see where you're coming from," Sidious glanced pointedly at the fuming Jedi, "I don't believe that your idea can be considered as acceptable. Besides, we aren't the Hutts. We aren't thugs dealing with kidnapping and extortion."
Vader lowered his gaze again and it was all he could do not to laugh. As the Supreme Commander of the Imperial military, he could attest that the Empire had been condoning black ops concerning kidnapping and blackmail. When it worked, it helped keep his competent people alive.
"Anyway, it's all theoretical. I still have to retrieve the child intact." Anakin shrugged, while internally he was busy glaring at Vader – something that pleased the Sith Lord to no end.
"Is this the kind of general the Republic wants?" Adi-Mundi turned to the Chancellor as he asked.
Palpatine smiled sadly. "Apparently it's the one we need. This was his first command and Anakin just won one of the greatest military victories in the last thousand years. I can't justify censoring a man who wins over a disagreement about a over a single radical suggestion."
"We'll be arriving shortly. I have a mission to plan. General Skywalker, out." Vader made sure that the connection was severed and laughed. It was good to be him this time around.
His laughter died out and he frowned. He had to make sure that he got the damn mini-Jabba in one piece. The little slug would be a valuable bargaining chip.
Palpatine's private residence
Sidious was within a meditation chamber carefully hidden into one of his private retreats. Officially, the large loft was owned by one of the wealthier businessmen on Coruscant, but for all intents and purposes it was one of the Sith Lord's bases of operation.
It was a place where he could scheme in peace and recover after a long week or month of constant charade and political games. Dealing with the Senate as a day job was more than enough to test even the almost infinite patience and self-discipline of someone like Sidious.
Besides, this retreat was quite special – it contained a lot of his Dark Side artifacts on Coruscant and more importantly, it had a built in chamber that helped focus the Force when he meditated and foresaw the future. Four powerful artifacts and a single ancient holocron acted as a focal points to increase his power and make sure that he could get reasonably accurate long term sense for the likely possible futures.
Sidious wasn't a fool – he didn't believe in a destiny, fate or the will of the Force. He knew that a resourceful man with a plan and warning could overcome those things. Blindly following old prophecies and murky glimpses of a possible future – that was left for the Jedi. The Sith Lord sneered at the very thought. He had some of the true history of his kind… and their ancient enemies. Sidious knew that the Jedi were in a decline, in a stagnation that made them much weaker than those from the last war against the Sith. Despite that, he wasn't going to underestimate them. After all, right now there were only two real Sith and a bunch of Dark Jedi with delusions of grandeur arrayed against more than nine thousand Order members… and that was only the Coruscanti kind. However, they were the most numerous and influential. Once they were crushed, Sidious would be able to move on the other, smaller Jedi sects and enclaves of Force Adepts.
Nevertheless, that was a problem for the future. He was busy solving a certain mystery – ever since Geonosis, Skywalker was a different man. Initially, Sidious believed that the boy had fallen and that was all there was to know about the changes and demonstrated power. However, as time passed and he studied Anakin closely, through personal contact and covert surveillance, the Sith Lord began to have his doubts.
Oh, Anakin had somehow fallen – of that Sidious was sure within the week. Despite that, Skywalker was just turning seventeen. It would be half a decade at best before he could really come into his Force powers, no matter how much raw talent and strength he demonstrated. Yet… What both Dooku and the AARs from Geonosis, on both sides, said was that Anakin had suddenly made a tremendous jump in both capabilities and power. Much more than simply turning to the Dark Side could explain.
Raw strength in the Force was good, vital even. However, it meant little without a lot of knowledge, a ton of training and experience – by all accounts Anakin lacked quite a lot in two of those departments and the Jedi training… it simply wasn't enough of an explanation. Not for Sidious.
That's why, after he spoke with Anakin earlier in the day and once again was surprised by the changes in the young man, Palpatine arranged to have the evening off and slipped away from anyone who was watching him to come here.
He needed to meditate on the problem, to pierce the veil of the Force and see how this different Anakin was going to alter the possible futures. That was important – getting a reliable insight would permit Sidious to tailor his plans that much better and if needed to make a few more contingencies. The latter wasn't as vital as refining his main plans; after all, the Sith Lord had already prepared responses to every conceivable situation.
Vader was angry. Strike that, he was furious!
"Scan again! Search the whole kriffing plateau if you have to!" Skywalker snapped
Rex saluted and sprinted away from the general, to carry out his orders of course. The fact that being around Skywalker right now felt like someone was threading above your own grave had nothing to do with that. Like at all.
The General glared at the demolished remains of battle droids. His plan had worked like a charm – a very low level shot from Dauntless' ion canons to soften up the droids and dispose off the more flimsy ones, followed by a direct airborne assault a few minutes before half a dozen assault shuttles slammed int the courtyard and disgorged even more soldiers.
The Ionic strike had either destroyed outright or scrambled any droid not within the temple itself, where they were protected by the dense stone it was made of. Even the tanks and AA emplacements were temporarily disabled, giving Vader and his airborne troops a small window of opportunity to land without any resistance to speak of. By the time reinforcements from within the temple could react to the attack, Anakin's men had taken out all enemy heavy equipment in the open.
They had more than enough missile launchers to deal with any unexpected surprise, like the platoon of droidekas and two tanks which were inside the monastery itself. Needless to say, the heavy weapons teams had a field day with the enemy who had only one way out. Once that was done, Vader and Ahsoka led their unit inside just as the shuttles arrived. A short but vicious brawl later, the remaining droids were dealt with.
That's when Vader knew they should have found the little worm – shortly before Ventress arrived with enemy reinforcements. He had planned for that too – there were three light cruisers and four bomber squadrons waiting in hyperspace for a distress call from the Dauntless.
There was only one little problem with that plan.
Vader glared at the place he remembered that Ahsoka was supposed to find the slug.
There was no baby Hutt here. The former Jedi could sense no baby within the old temple, though considering his mental state right now, that was no guarantee. The hand-held scanners, which some of the Clones had couldn't find Hutt life-signs anywhere nearby either.
"Sergeant!" Vader's head snapped up as he felt a group of Clones approaching. "Get the rest of your platoon and start searching this damn rock from top to bottom! I want the Hutt found! On the double!"
"Sir, yes sir!" The NCO saluted and started issuing orders of his own.
"Master, are you all right?" A timid, almost scared voice asked from behind.
Vader whirled around and his hand instinctively fell on the hilt of his lightsaber. Ahsoka recoiled and took a step back when she saw his furious expression and a pair of glowing orange eyes. For a long moment, Vader continued to glare. The Sith became rigid when he saw and felt her fear. He remembered facing his former apprentice in the future – after he fell, after she knew that he had become Vader.
She had been furious, magnificent. She had grown up into a warrior who was a match for him.
Vader's expression softened and he almost smiled. They were no longer enemies. She was in fact his apprentice once again. He sighed. Right now, she was a scared kid too, just like he was when Obi-Wan took him as an apprentice.
The fact that he was going all Sith thanks to his frustration, wasn't helping the matter either.
"Yes, apprentice. I'm all right. Just angry and frustrated."
"That leads to the Dark Side." Ahsoka's huge eyes stared into his. "But I think you know all about that."
"Yes. Yes, I do." Vader spoke quietly. "I didn't fell because of anger, though it helped. It was fear." He smiled sadly. Fear, betrayal, miscalculation and a kriffing master manipulator. Yet, if he had to be honest with himself, Anakin had to admit that he had been walking a dark path ever since his mother was murdered. While Sidious did help him along the way, in the end it was his own choice to fall. To surrender to the Dark Side.
After all, it gave him what he wanted – it helped him blame anyone but himself for what happened the day the war ended and helped him drown his own pain in fury and the suffering of others. At least for a time.
Vader frowned at the terrified look Ahsoka was giving him. "Enough of that, Sips!" He scoffed. "I'm not going to train you into a Sith or something!" Vader knew all about that. All about the Jedi too. Ironically, those were paths for neither of them, which was a good thing.
The creeds, the philosophies of both sides were flawed at best, lies at worst.
He would forge his own path and hoped that Ahsoka would follow.
"You won't?" Snips looked unconvinced.
"We're fighting the Confederacy, who are led by a Sith. Of course we won't be like them!" He conveniently failed to mention that the Republic was led by the another Sith. That wasn't an explanation he wanted to give again. "I won't be trying to convince you to turn on the Jedi either." Anakin smirked. According to Kenobi, they were doing that themselves. "However, by the time I'm done with training you, Snips, you'll be able to take on the likes of Dooku or Windu alone and kick their asses."
"Without having to become all evil?" Ahsoka gave him a flat look.
"Unless you want to." Anakin shrugged. It was Snips. The girl didn't have an evil bone in her body, though at the correct circumstances she could be a vicious little thing.
"Not happening." Snips snapped, making him smile.
"Enough questions. You have a Hutt to hunt down. Go search!" Vader waved her away. He knew that this wasn't the end of the questions. She might even report him to the Council, though that didn't really concern him any more. Anakin was sure that Obi-Wan would be telling them a lot once he arrived back on Coruscant in a few days.
Vader returned his mind to the pressing issue – where the kriff was the little worm?!
Jabba The Hutt's Palace
Being a Sith led him to the "nicest" places. Dooku had to use every trick he had learned as a Jedi and diplomat, all his composure no to sneer at the stench and general shabby feel of Jabba's "palace". The gangster believed himself a man of power, yet this was the best he could get for himself. It was pathetic.
Next to the Sith Lord, his apprentice, Ventress, didn't even try to hide her displeasure. The fact that she was carrying a rumbling Hutt babe who was drooling all over her, didn't help her disposition. At least she could afford to show some anger. Dooku was the leader of the Confederacy. He couldn't afford to let anything ruffle his appearance, not even an understandable anger.
After all, this was what he was – not just a mask for the Sith Tyranus. In fact, it was the reverse was true – the Sith was the mask, which was made easier because that second persona was so similar to Dooku's real self. After all, he wasn't into this to get a revenge on the Jedi like his master. Oh, no. He didn't care about that. After all, when he left the Order, it was on rather amicable terms.
What he did was for two purposes – one was power. After he took his title and seat as a Count, Dooku found that he had a weakness - a great lust for power, one that was left unsatisfied by his station. The second – he became totally disillusioned with the Republic once he had to work with it outside of his previous station as a Jedi.
Becoming a Sith was a means to an end. It gave him tremendous personal power, which was dependent on no one else but himself. Second, it gave him an in on Sidious' plans for the galaxy. A way to deal with the rotten institution that was the Republic. It was too bad that billions had to die so that could happen. Before becoming a Sith, Dooku might have had some qualms in pursuing a path that would sunder the galaxy before making it better.
Now, well it was much simpler. If Dooku played his cards right, he would see the Republic destroyed and replaced by his Confederacy. All he had to do was to ensure his side's victory and the demise of his Master. After all, an apprentice betraying his master, well that was the Sith way.
Finally, they reached Jabba's audience chamber. Dooku shook his head to clear it and concentrated on the present. Geonosis had been an eye opener. That boy, Skywalker, he was tremendously powerful. It explained Palpatine's interest in Anakin. After fighting Skywalker, Dooku simply knew why Sidious wanted the boy – Skywalker was to be the old Sith's new apprentice. It was meant to replace him. Further, the youngster was on the verge of falling if he wasn't already. Sidious would be able to turn him soon anyway. Dooku wouldn't be surprised if he was to be the boy's final test.
That wasn't going to happen. Sidious wanted a long war so he could consolidate his power in the Senate before turning the Republic in his Empire. That wasn't going to happen either if Dooku had anything to say about it. That's why he was here, now.
The doors opened and a Gamorean guard waved them in.
Finally, the Count allowed himself a smile.
"Great Jabba!" Dooku's voice carried into the large chamber. A hint of the Force was more than enough to silence the hangers on and musicians. Everyone turned his way. "As promised, we recovered your son." The Sith Lord gestured to his apprentice.
Ventress sent him a glare, but nodded and walked towards the great Hutt. For once, Jabba was silent. He simply stared at his son, before a huge smile stretched his flat face. The overgrown slug carefully took the tiny babe from Ventress' hands, then his booming laughter shook the chamber. The baby started wiggling and gooing in delight.
A few minutes latter, when his son calmed down, Jabba turned his head towards Dooku and waved him to come closer.
"You promised. You delivered." The crime lord spoke in Huttesse.
"We did." Dooku gave a regal nod. "Further, we know who the perpetrator is – Garuda." The Sith Lord fished out a data chip from under his cloak. "Proof. Once she was aware that we'll be able to recover your son, she sicked the Republic on his location."
"Are you telling me that she's working with them?!" Jabba roared.
"Perhaps. All I'm giving you is facts. Garuda kidnapped your son. We went to recover him. Once Garuda was aware of that, she sent the Republic at the place where he was held. They attacked the forces which liberated your son. It was fortunate that my apprentice here," Dooku nodded at Ventress, "Was able to jump to hyperspace just before they arrived. We have some images of the Republic's 'rescue' attempt."
Dooku's hand disappeared under his cloak again and this time returned with a small holo-emitter. He pressed a button and a projection appeared. It showed a ruined temple built atop a tall plateau. There were tiny dots and larger silhouettes visible – droids, tanks and AA guns. A vast and wild jungle spawned all around the monastery. It was obviously that the camera shooting the holovid had been far away, though the picture was reasonably clear.
"This was where Garuda held your son. And this is the Republic's rescue attempt."
A blue bolt descended from the heavens and struck the side of the plateau near the monastery's courtyard. For a brief moment an almost invisible bluish glow was present, before it vanished leaving torrents of raw Ionic energy that ravaged the droids. A few seconds later, the picture scrambled and shut down.
"They struck the temple from orbit with Ion canon. A good tactic… unless they were there to save a kid." Dooku nodded at Jabba's son, who had fallen asleep after all the excitement.
"Garuda and the Republic will pay for this!" The Crime Lord growled. "But, first. You brought my son back. Name your reward and you will have it!" Jabba declared.
"We have a mutual problem. I propose that we fix it." Dooku declared. "I request that you do your best to close Hutt space to Republic military and civilian shipping. While as the leader of the Confederacy, I would prefer a more formal alliance, that's all I ask."
Jabba looked at Dooku for a couple of seconds and nodded.
"It shall be done."
"Thank you, Great Jabba." The Count gave his host a deep, respectful bow. It also hid Dooku's satisfied smile.
With a single stroke, multiple Republic armies and fleets in the Outer Rim were cut off from reinforcement and supply. Suddenly the war was that much closer to being won. If handled properly, the destruction of those units could weaken the Republic more than even their outright loss.
When Dooku straightened up, there was no trace of his joy – he was once again the perfect image of a noble leader.