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

STAR WARS: Darth Plagueis: The Empire Ascendant


Gathering Storm

32-25 BBY

Chapter One

A New Day Breaks

Plagueis had given the Sun Guards the night off, and the only other intelligence in the sprawling apartment was the droid 11-4D, their servant for the occasion, pouring wine into expensive glassware as they removed their cloaks.

"Sullustan," Plagueis said, holding the glass up to the light and swirling its claret contents. "More than half a century old."

"A toast, then," Sidious said. "To the culmination of decades of brilliant planning and execution."

"And to the new meaning we will tomorrow impart to the Rule of Two."

They drained their glasses, and 11-4D immediately refilled them.

"Only you could have brought this to fruition, Darth Plagueis," Sidious said, settling into a chair. "I will endeavour to live up to your expectations and fulfil my responsibility."

Plagueis took the compliment in stride, neither haughty nor embarrassed. "With my guidance and your charisma, we will soon be in a position to initiate the final act of the Grand Plan." Making himself more comfortable on the couch, he signalled for 11-4D to open a second bottle of the vintage. "Have you given thought to what you will say tomorrow?"

"I have prepared some remarks," Sidious said. "Shall I spoil the surprise?"

"Why not."

Sidious took a moment to compose himself. "To begin, I thought I would say, that, while we in the Senate have managed to keep the Republic intact for a thousand years, we would never have been able to do so without the assistance of a few beings, largely invisible to the public eye, whose accomplishments now need to be brought into the light of day."

Plagueis smiled. "I'm pleased. Go on."

Speaking in a low monotone, Sidious said, "Hego Damask is one of those beings. It was Hego Damask who was responsible for overseeing development of the Republic Reserve Administration and for providing financial support for the Resettlement Acts that enabled beings to blaze new hyperspace routes to the outlying systems and colonise distant worlds."

"That will come as a revelation to some."

"In a similar fashion, it was Hego Damask who transformed the Trade Federation – "

"No, no," Plagueis interrupted. "Now is not the time to mention the Trade Federation."

"I thought – "

"I don't see any problem with calling attention to the arrangement I facilitated between the Republic and the Corporate Alliance and the Techno Union. But we must take care to avoid areas of controversy."

"Of course," Sidious said, as if chastised. "I was speaking off the top of my head."

"Try a different approach."

So Sidious did.

And as the night wore on, he continued to amend and improvise, touching on Damask's childhood on Mygeeto and on the elder Damask's contributions to the InterGalactic Banking Clan during his term as co-chair. Wineglass in hand, Sidious paced the richly carpeted floor, often vacillating between confidence and misgiving. More than once, Plagueis voiced satisfaction with everything he heard, but he urged Sidous to save his energy for the morning. By then, though, Sidious was too wound up to heed the advice and kept reworking the order of the remarks and the emphasis he gave to certain points.

The droid brought out a third, then a fourth bottle of the Sullustan wine.

Pleasantly intoxicated, Plagueis, who had wanted nothing more than to revel in the sweet taste of victory, was beginning to find his collaborator's performance exhausting, and wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and drift into imaginings of his march into the Senate Rotunda; the looks of surprise, astonishment, and trepidation on the faces of the gathered Senators; his long-anticipated emergence from the shadows; his ascension to galactic power …

Unfortunately, Sidious wouldn't let him.

"That's enough for now," Plagueis tried one final time. "You should probably return home and get a least a few hours' rest before – "

"Just one more time – from the beginning."

"The beginning?"

"Lord Plagueis, you said you wouldn't rest until our win was a matter of fact."

"So it is, and so I shall, Darth Sidious."

"Then let us celebrate that, as well." Sidious beckoned to 11-4D. "Fill our glasses, droid."

With dreamy weariness beginning to get the better of him, it was all Plagueis could do to lift the glass to his nose. No sooner did he set the drink down than it tipped over, saturating the tablecloth. His eyelids began to flicker and close, and his breathing slowed. In twenty years of never having had to contend with Plagueis in a state of sleep, the transpirator clicked repeatedly in adjustment, almost as if in panic.

A few meters distant, Sidious came to a halt, gazing at Plagueis for a long moment, as though making up his mind about something. Then, blowing out his breath, he set his own glass down and reached for the cloak he had draped over a chair, Swirling it around himself, he started for the door, only to stop shortly before he reached it. Turning and stretching out with the Force, he glanced around the room, as one might to fix a memory in the mind. Briefly his gaze fell on the droid, its glowing photoreceptros whirring to regard him in evident curiosity.

A look of sinister purpose contorted Sidious's face.

Again, his eyes darted around the room, and the Dark Side whispered:

Your election assured, the Sun Guards absent, Plagueis unsuspecting and asleep …

Moving back toward the sleeping Muun, intent on seizing his rightful place in the galaxy, Sidious let the Dark Side build within him until it was a veritable storm that buffeted at his very being, desperate to be unleashed. He readied himself, savouring his moment of triumph.

And then a sense of a sudden loss interrupted his thoughts, and at that precise moment, Plagueis's eyes opened with a snap, yellow and staring. Sidious killed the dark storm within him in a heartbeat, but still he wondered.

Does he know? Can he sense it?

Plagueis stood and closed the distance between them in just two short steps.

He does not know, then, Sidious decided. He would have killed me on the instant.

"Can you feel it?" Plagueis asked. "There has been a great shift in the Force."

Sidious called on the Force to show him what had caused the seismic tremor that had startled Plagueis awake, and distracted Sidious long enough to halt him in his murderous intent.

"Maul," he said after a few moments of silence. "Maul is dead."

Even as he said the words, he knew that they were true.

"Naboo?" Plagueis asked, and Sidious nodded. "We will need to find a new attack hound."

"Leave that to me, Lord Plagueis," Sidious said.

Plagueis stared at him intensely. "The Supreme Chancellor of the Republic can hardly be seen to consort with the kind of violent animal we will need for our purposes," he said to Sidious as though in remonstrance. "Senator Palpatine was able to go unnoticed on Dathomir, yes, but that will no longer be the case. There will scarcely be a place in the galaxy that your face, and mine, will not be recognised." He paused for breath, a long inhalation that made the transpirator click. "I leave this in your more-than capable hands, Darth Sidious," he said after he had recovered. "But I caution you against any direct involvement."

Sidious inclined his head. "I am grateful for your trust, Lord Plagueis."

"And now," said Plagueis, "home. We have a momentous day before us tomorrow."

"We do indeed," Sidious agreed, making his way toward the apartment door. "I will see you at the Rotunda then?"

"At the Rotunda."

And with that, the two Sith Lords parted company.

The day dawned bright and warm, as Weather Control had been ordered to ensure it always was on Inauguration Day. On Coruscant and across the galaxy, trillions of beings waited anxiously to see the results of that year's election. Sheev Palpatine of Naboo was the favourite to win, though there was hope among his detractors that the Alderaanian Bail Antilles, or else the Gran Senator Ainlee Teem, might just be able to edge him out and claim the prize for themselves.

The citizens of a hundred and more worlds had cast their votes, and the Senators were left with the decision of whether to abide by the instructions of those whom they represented. Most did, for they had re-election to consider, but there were rogues in every election, and it was to them that bribes, favours and threats flowed most easily and in the greatest torrent.

Hego Damask had, therefore, ensured that truly astronomical sums of money had been transferred into all of the right bank accounts, and that those in receipt of such generosity knew precisely from where their newfound fortune had originated, and what was expected of them in return – and of the consequences of any treachery. Invited to the Counting as repayment of a favour by San Hill of the InterGalactic Banking Clan, Damask arrived at the Senate Complex early in the day, and immediately made his presence known.

"I was delighted to hear of the success of the Naboo and the Jedi Order against the Trade Federation," he told Senator Aun Mothma of Chandrila as they waited with hundreds of others to be permitted entry to the Senate Chamber. "Hopefully now, under the auspices of a new Chancellor, the Republic will be able to return to the calm that we have enjoyed for a thousand years."

Mothma nodded his head. "It is rather astonishing that the Naboo and the Gungans were able to defeat the might of the Federation's private armies without Republic intervention. As I understand it even the Jedi's presence was unofficial. Happenstance, really."

"Fortunate, indeed," Damask said. He spied Palpatine and attracted his attention. "Senator Palpatine," he said as the two of them came together and grasped hands. "I was just telling the good Senator from Chandrila how very pleased I am at the resolution of the terrible events that have beset your homeworld."

Palpatine smiled, the picture of mingled gratitude and pain.

"I thank you, Magister," he said, inclining his head to underline his words. "I am delighted that the plight of my homeworld is at an end, and I hope that I will from today be able to ensure that no other worlds are so tormented."

"I wish you luck," Mothma said, as he too shook Palpatine's hand. "I am obligated to vote as my constituents have bade me, but personally you have my support. The Republic could do a lot worse than Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine."

"I thank you for saying so, Senator," Palpatine replied with humility in his voice. "I am sure that however they have voted, the beings of Chandrila have done so mindfully and with conscience."

As Palpatine and Mothma remarked on the fineness of the day, Damask looked across the plaza, where by now hundreds of Senators, invited guests, notable individuals, staffers and journalists were milling about with a mounting air of excitement and anticipation, and spotted Palpatine's rival nominee, the handsome and austere Bail Antilles. He was flanked by his fellow Alderaanian representative in the Senate, the dark-haired and bearded Prince Bail Organa, as well as by the well-built, middle-aged Senator Garm Bel-Iblis of Corellia, who had been a key ally of Antilles during the campaign.

Damask flicked his eyes in the group's directions, and Palpatine noticed and knew immediately what he was to do.

"Senators," Palpatine said to Antilles and his cohorts as he walked over to them. He shook the hand of each of them in turn, Antilles last of all, and both Palpatine and Damask were gratified to see HoloNet cams by the dozen capturing the moment for all the galaxy to see. "I wish you good fortune today, Bail," Palpatine said, and it was lost on nobody that he had used Antilles's given-name. "The Republic would be fortunate indeed to call you its Chancellor after today's proceedings."

Antilles returned Palpatine's smile, managing to make it seem genuine enough for the cams, though in fact Damask knew Antilles to be a man for whom no slight was ever forgotten, even if it was forgiven.

Let him seethe, Damask thought. What significance is he now?

"Good to see you, Sheev," Antilles replied, using Palpatine's given name as Palpatine had used his own. "I thank you for your wish of good fortune, and I extend the same to you."

It was all very proper, Damask reflected, but too much so. The Alderaanian sounded almost like a protocol droid, and his hopes for a landslide victory rose slightly. He strode over himself, and all eyes flicked to him.

"Magister," Antilles said as they shook hands. "It is good to see you on this fine morning."

"And you as well, Senator," Damask responded. "Well met, Senator Bel-Iblis." Garm Bel-Iblis wordlessly shook Damask's proffered hand, which then moved on to Organa. "Your Highness."

"Good day, Magister," Bail Organa replied, even going so far as to offer Damask a warm smile. "I trust you are well?"

"As well as I have been ever since the incident that left me with this." Damask gestured to the mask that obscured most of his face. "What a beautiful day we have for the inauguration of our new Chancellor."

Palpatine nodded his agreement. "I was just saying as much to Senator Mothma," he said, as though Damask had not already known that. "Weather Control surely deserve a pay rise for the excellent job they have done today."

Antilles said, "If you will excuse us, gentlemen, there are many other people with whom I must exchange greetings before the Senate meets."

They moved away, leaving Damask and Palpatine standing together amid the crowd.

"How many of them will cause problems for us?" Palpatine said in a tone that Damask could almost have mistaken for mild curiosity.

"Not Antilles," Damask replied. "Today marks the end of his political career, and with it his time of influence in the Senate. I think that it is Garm Bel-Iblis of whom we must be most cautious. Nothing matters to him so much as Corellia, and that breed of affection can make a being dangerous."

"Did you notice," Palpatine remarked in the same tone of one who is remarking on some new peice of trivia, "that not one of them expressed their sympathies for the plight of Naboo or their relief at its ending?"

Damask smiled beneath the mask. "That is because none of them are truly glad of the outcome," he said. "At least not coming when it did. And none of them is a convincing liar. It is a weakness they all share, and they know it."

"Do you think the holocams will have picked up on that?" Palpatine said.

"It is inconsequential," Damask said dismissively, waving his hand. "Today the news will be dominated by one thing and one thing only; the ascension of not one but two Supreme Chancellors of the Galactic Republic."

The Senate Rotunda was a vast chasm of a room, so enormous that if one was standing on its floor, the uppermost tiers of pods were barely visible, and vice versa. Sounds echoed around endlessly, the room's acoustics designed perfectly so that even in the gargantuan void between Senate pods and the Speaker's Podium, the Senators and Representatives would not need to bellow to ensure that their voices could be heard.

It took perhaps an hour or more for all of the Senators, Representatives, guests and other attendees of the ceremony to make their way into the Rotunda and take their seats, by which time the hour was already closer to noon than to sunrise. Damask was impatient, but kept a calm and composed exterior for the benefit of onlookers and the holocams. None could be allowed to suspect that he had any knowledge that they did not, not until the words themselves were out of Palpatine's mouth and in the ears of the galaxy. Then, and only then, would he allow himself a smile of triumph, and the posture of one destined to rule.

His own office not in contest, the blue-skinned Chagrian Vice-Chair Mas Amedda stood up to the Speaker's Podium and, clad in the traditional red and gold robe worn on Inauguration Day, he addressed the now silent room in his usual, booming voice.

"We are gathered today for a most solemn purpose," he declared, scowling out at the politicians and holocams as was his habit. "The citizens of the Galactic Republic have cast their votes, and we will now look to their representatives in this august chamber to make the voices of their home systems known." He consulted a datapad briefly, then continued. "The candidates standing in this election are; the incumbent Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum of Eriadu."

Valorum, tired-eyed and white-haired, stood to take the meagre applause that sounded out for him from a handful of pods. His was already a doomed cause, and all knew it.

"Senator Bail Antilles of Alderaan."

Much louder cheering for Antilles, Damask noted, mostly from wealthy core worlds such as Corellia, Hosnian Prime, and Kuat. If there was any candidate in this election who could defeat Palpatine, and scupper decades if not centuries of careful planning, then it was Antilles.

"Representative Ainlee Teem of the Gran Protectorate of Malastare."

For Teem, the sounds of approval came mostly from worlds in the Mid and Outer Rims, worlds like Kashyyyk, Bothawui and D'Qar, but they could be discounted, Damask knew. More than half the Senate had yet to voice their approval for any candidate, and there was only one remaining.

"And Senator Sheev Palpatine of Naboo."

A storm of cheers and applause greeted Palpatine's name, and looking to the Podium, Damask could see his former apprentice smiling as humbly as he could, and nodding his gratitude to all sides of the Rotunda. Antilles, beside him, was grinding his teeth in what Damask knew to be a Human method of suppressing rage, while both Teem and Valorum looked as though any fight that might once have been in them had already burned out completely.

"And now, to the vote," Amedda announced. He consulted his datapad once again, and called out the name of the first system to declare its chosen candidate.

And hour later a conclusion had still not been reached, and Damask was starting to grow concerned. Both Teem and Antilles had performed far better than he had expected, and while the same was also true of Palpatine, and while he had led the race since it had begun, it was now far from certain that he would be the victor by the day's end. Palpatine had remained stoic the entire time, barely changing his expression at all, though Damask could feel faint ripples of anxiety coming from the younger Human through the Force.

All will be well, he told himself. It has to be.

"The planet of Lianna," said the Senator for that world, Hycas Santhe, "casts its vote for Senator Antilles."

That was no surprise, reflected Damask. Regardless of how the beings of Lianna had voted, no member of House Santhe would ever voice support for Damask or for any being aligned with him. Theirs had never been a vote that Palpatine had bothered to court.

There had been some surprises, however, both welcome and unpleasant. Chalcedon had thrown its lot in with Palpatine, as had Sullust, Mon Calamari and Corulag. But worlds which Damask had thought secure, such as Dantooine and Eadu, had voted against Palpatine. If there had been a moment of unalloyed pleasure, then it had been the moment that Eriadu's new Senator Shayla Paige-Tarkin had addressed the Senate from her pod to say that her homeworld had cast its vote, "For a being who has shown unrivalled strength, courage and resilience in times most troubling for his homeworld, Senator Sheev Palpatine." Valorum's face had been a picture of dismay, and Damask had wondered why the man did not simply concede.

Damask glanced up at the enormous, real-time counter that was being projected high in the void above the candidates' heads. It read; "Palpatine - 134; Antilles - 98; Teem - 55; Valorum - 9". Above them all, displayed largest of all, was the number that would indicate an unassailable majority, and the end of the contest; 206, precisely half the number of worlds and systems who had a vote in the Senate Rotunda, plus one additional vote to make a majority. Damask forced himself to sit back and let out a breath he had not realised he had been holding.

All will be well, he said to himself again.

Just then, a sudden hush fell on the chamber as the Gran Ainlee Teem rose to his hooved feet, holding up his hands for silence and attention.

"Honoured Senators," he began. "Representatives, guests to our hallowed chamber, I hereby concede defeat and withdraw from the Chancery contest."

Chattering and shouting began immediately. Damask heard a few shouts of derision at the Malastare Representative, who even now was dismounting from the Podium into the pod of his colleagues, which retreated back into the mass of others. But the majority of the voices seemed to be excited. Teem's withdrawal would trigger a re-count of votes from those planets and systems who had thrown their lot in with him to determine whom their support would now transfer to. Damask sensed new hope, and sat up excitedly.

"This will serve Palpatine well," remarked San Hill across from him in the pod. "Teem's supporters have far more in common with your young friend from Naboo than with the Core-dwelling Antilles."

Damask nodded, acknowledging the accuracy of Hill's words. "The election is truly assured now," he said.

And so it proved, and within the hour, Amedda was declaring to the Senate that the contest was over. "Senator Sheev Palpatine is hereby elected by due process to serve as Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic!"

The Chagrian was forced to shout to make himself heard over the cheering and wild applause of Palpatine's supporters, and the disgruntled muttering of his opponents. For his part, Palpatine sat, wide-eyed and seemingly stunned, before he got to his feet, the picture of dignified triumph, and shook the hands of Antilles and Valorum. Damask saw Palptine's lips move but could not hear what was being said. Empty comiseraitons, no doubt.

As Amedda, Antilles and Valorum sat, Palpatine stood at the Podium. He was silent for almost five minutes, waiting for the Rotunda to follow his example, even as the cheering and applause continued on and on. Eventually he was given the quiet he wanted, and began to speak in a tone of clear confidence.

"Friends, colleagues, fellow beings," he began, looking to all sides as he spoke. "I thank you for the support shown to me today by the beings of the galaxy, and I promise each and every one of you, whether you cast your vote for me or not, that I will be a Chancellor for all sectors, for all worlds, and for all beings."

Fresh applause greeted these words, though was quieted much more quickly as Palpatine held up a hand for silence and made a show of looking through pre-prepared notes.

"The task of governing the Republic is one that demands much of any being, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Finis Valorum for all that he has done in service to us all."

More applause, but this time polite rather than riotous. Valorum was perhaps the least popular being in the room, and from the expression on his haggard face, Damask had a feeling that the ageing Human knew it too.

"I will be unable to govern," said Palpatine as the applause died down, "without the support of my staff, of the Senate, of the Courts, and of the Jedi Order, and I hope that I will be able to count upon each of you to do your duty for the Republic as we enter this latest chapter in our federation's history." He paused, and Damask knew that his moment was at last approaching. "But while we in the Senate," said Palpatine, "have managed to keep the Republic intact for a thousand years, we would never have been able to do so without the assistance of a few beings, largely invisible to the public eye, whose accomplishments now need to be brought into the light of day."

And now, Palpatine looked straight at the pod occupied by the Observers from the InterGalactic Banking Clan.

No, Damask realised, not at the pod. Palpatine was looking straight into his eyes, meeting his gaze, and Damask smiled as he readied himself.

"Hego Damask is one of those beings. It was Hego Damask who was responsible for overseeing development of the Republic Reserve Administration and for providing financial support for the Resettlement Acts that enabled beings to blaze new hyperspace routes to the outlying systems and colonise distant worlds. It was Hego Damask who brokered deals between the Republic and organisations such as the Techno Union and the Corporate Alliance which have benefitted the Republic in more ways than can be properly described."

And as Palpatine continued, every eye in the Rotunda fell on Damask. He could feel each and every one of them, some of them astonished, some fascinated, some angered, but all of them fixedly on him. Beneath his transpirator mask, he smiled, and listened to Palpatine's speech as he expounded on the role Damask had played in securing jobs for impoverished beings, in securing the future of the Republic economy, in curtailing the powers of private armies and mercenary groups.

"And as such, Honoured Senators," Palpatine concluded, "I think it only prudent to extend the formal hand of friendship to the being who has done more than any other, I think, to secure the future of our Republic and our democracy. I hereby appoint Hego Damask, here in this room with us today, as the third Co-Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.

What had Damask expected in that moment? Cheering? A riot? Babble of conversation? He received none of them, not at first. At first he was met with a deafening silence.

And then, the cheering began.