Chapter Eight

The Heart of the Enemy

The Jedi Temple was a massive, sprawling labyrinth of corridors, passageways, and branching rooms. Although the thousands of Order members who called the enormous complex home had no difficulty in navigating their way around it, Palpatine would never have been able to make his way to where he intended to go without following the lead of his Jedi guide.

"Master Jinn is in here, Chancellor," the young Cathar Jedi Knight who had met Palpatine at the Temple entrance said after several minutes of walking. "I believe he is expecting you."

"Thank you," Palpatine said, giving the Jedi a grateful smile.

"May the Force be with you, Chancellor."

The Cathar walked off, and Palpatine entered the room that he had been brought to. From inside, he could hear the reports of small-arms blaster fire and the hum and buzz of a lightsaber.

"Keep control of your form, Anakin," said the voice of Qui-Gon Jinn. "Do not become overconfident."

The lightsaber thrummed again, and Palpatine saw the boy Anakin, a year older than when they had last seen each other in the Chancellors' office, a blue training saber in hand and a visor over his eyes as he deflected blaster bolts fired at him by small, spherical training remotes that floated in the air out of his reach. The idea, Palpatine believed, was that trainees would use the Force to sense the location of the remote and the future paths of the blaster bolts without relying on their eyesight. And it seemed as though young Anakin had already mastered the technique, as he sent back every bolt the remotes fired. One of them even struck the remote that had fired it, and it shattered into a hundred or more tiny pieces on the training room floor.

Palpatine announced his presence, applauding lightly at the display. "Very impressive, Anakin," he said, a smile on his lips and in his voice. "Very impressive indeed. You must be proud indeed, Master Jinn."

Anakin removed the vision-obscuring visor and failed to suppress a smile at Palpatine's words.

"Thank you, Chancellor," he said, turning his eyes expectantly toward Qui-Gon, who seemed to bristle under the boy's hopeful expression.

"Your form still needs work, Anakin," Qui-Gonn said, causing the boy's face to flicker with anger before it became crestfallen. "You are improving all the time, but you are not as good as you think you are."

"But I destroyed the remote," Anakin insisted.

"To my untrained eyes," Palpatine said, scenting opportunity, "that seemed to be an excellent display of lightsaber wielding and use of the Force, especially in one so young and inexperienced."

Palpatine favoured the boy with a smile again, and Anakin returned the expression, grateful to have the Chancellor on his side.

"You have great potential, Anakin," Qui-Gon said to his Padawan. "But potential is not the same as real talent. That only comes with practice."

Anakin looked as though he might have been about to argue, and then he thought better of it and bowed his hand.

"Yes, Master Qui-Gon," he said.

Something in Qui-Gon's manner relented, and he finally smiled at his Padawan. "You have a great destiny before you, Anakin. But you must first learn self-control and humility, like all Jedi."

Palpatine barely restrained a scoff of derision. He could think of several Jedi, many of whom had been elevated to mastery within the Order, who had never learned such lessons. Dooku had been one, Sifo-Diyas perhaps another, Jorus C'Baoth a third. Even Qui-Gon, for all his words to his young trainee, was susceptible to moments of arrogance and brash overconfidence.

"Again," Qui-Gon said.

He pressed a button on a wall panel, and another remote appeared from a hidden hatch in the ceiling. Anakin quickly pulled on the helmet that left him unable to see, and re-activated the blue-bladed training saber in his hand. The remote moved silently, orbiting Skywalker several times. He kept pace with it, as though he could see it perfectly clearly, and when the remote sent three small red bolts his way, Anakin raised the blue blade with a hum, and blocked each of the energy beams, sending them ricocheting off his weapon and into the floor and walls. The small droid tried again to catch the boy off-guard, but again Anakin met the blaster bolts expertly, this time batting one of them back toward the remote, which shattered onto the floor as the first had done.

"Well done, Anakin," Palpatine called to the boy, smiling beatifically once more. "Very well done."

Qui-Gon said nothing. Instead he dismissed Anakin, and the boy left, smiling one more time at Palpatine before he exited the training room. Palpatine returned the expression, then turned his attention back to Qui-Gon Jinn.

"He seems an excellent pupil," he said. "Your early faith in him was well-founded it seems."

"The boy's destiny is undeniable," Qui-Gon answered, noncommittally. "And in time he will come to understand that a great destiny does not necessarily make one a great being."

"I am sure." Palpatine said nothing for a few moments and then decided to test the waters. "Was that how Master Dooku instructed you?"

Qui-Gon frowned for a heartbeat before regaining control of his features. "Largely," he answered. "Though my master was not a perfect teacher. I hope to remedy some of the flaws in his training methods."

Palpatine quirked an eyebrow, pretending curiosity. "Such as?"

"Master Dooku was always quick to dismissal," Qui-Gon answered. "It always felt that I was never up to his standards. I daresay that Keelyvine Reus and Komari Vosa often felt the same way."

"Three Padawans," Palpatine observed. "And you have already outstripped him. Anakin is your fourth, is he not?"

A shadowed look crossed Qui-Gon's face, as Palpatine had hoped.

"He is," he answered. "Though I failed so terribly once that I was not sure I would ever be fit to train another Jedi ever again."

Palpatine knew to what the Jedi Master was referring.

"Master Dooku told me about Xanatos," he said as though in confession, though in truth he had been aware of the events at the time thirteen years earlier. "And from the way he described it, you were not at fault. The young man was simply not cut out to be a Jedi."

Qui-Gon shook his head sadly. "I was his master, the failing was mine. I should have done something differently, done something …" He cast about for the right word. "Done something more for him, perhaps."

"You seem to have learned from your errors," Palpatine said. "Obi-Wan Kenobi is a fine member of your Order, and I am sure that Anakin will-"

"Anakin will fall into the same pit as Xanatos if I do not ensure otherwise," Qui-Gon said. He held up an apologetic hand. "I should not have interrupted you, Chancellor. I am sorry."

Palpatine smiled beatifically. "That's quite alright, you are still Human even if you are a Jedi Master."

"You see how poor an example I set for the boy," Qui-Gon said. "It is a daily source of worry to me, Chancellor, I do not deny it."

Palpatine cocked his head slightly. "Do you sense a great deal of darkness lurking within the boy?"

Qui-Gon's silence was answer enough for Palpatine, and when Qui-Gon's back was turned he allowed himself – for a moment only – to smile with triumph.

Standing before the holotransmitter in the LiMerge Building, Darth Plagueis readied himself and removed the transpirator mask that would otherwise betray his identity. Calling on the Force to assist with his breathing, his inhalations were nonetheless strained, ragged and painful as he stepped onto the transmitter pad and waited for a moment before a life-sized image of the Geonosian aspirant Archduke Poggle the Lesser appeared before him.

Poggle clicked and whirred in alarm; the strange language of his people was not one that Plagueis had ever mastered, and he relied on 11-4D, listening from Plagueis's suite in 500 Republica via an audiolink, to interpret for him.

"He is questioning worker drones as to how you have appeared, master," the droid intoned through a communicator attached to Plagueis's right ear.

"Cease your racket," Plagueis commanded, and to underline the strength of his presence and his words he forced the Geonosian to his knees, curling his fingers into claws and moving them as though pushing down on an unyielding surface.

"Who are you?" Poggle asked, his words translated by 11-4D. "You have the Force, but this is not the work of a Jedi."

"Who I am is less important than why I have contacted you," Plagueis said. "And besides, you are not yet ready to hear."

"If I am to be bullied in this manner," Poggle replied angrily, "then I demand to know the name of my tormentor."

Plagueis sneered. "You do not make demands of me," he snarled. "Not if you want my help."

Poggle opened his mandibled mouth to reply, but said nothing for a long moment. Finally, he broke the silence and said, "What makes you think that I require your help?"

Plagueis permitted himself a hollow, mirthless, cruel laugh. "Your would-be revolution is faltering, is it not?" he asked, and revelled in the surprise he saw on Poggle's insectoid face. "Come, come, Poggle. Did you really think that the goings-on of so important a world as Geonosis would not be noticed by those of us who make it our business to remain appraised of all galactic events of significance? Your Archduke Hadiss has been a useful ally until now, if an unknowing one. But his time has come, and I have need of a new contact on Geonosis."

Poggle was visibly baffled. "Do you have informants in my hive?" he asked.

"I have informants on every world of note," Plagueis replied. "I have eyes in every spaceport, ears in every settlement. I am appraised at all times of all things. And I have been watching your little rebellion for months now."

"If you have been aware of our struggle from the beginning," Poggle said, still on his knees though Plagueis had long since ceased exerting the pressure of the Force on him, "why have you not contacted me before?"

Plagueis smiled, pleased that the prospective Archduke had thought to ask such a question. It proved his intelligence, and therefore his worth as an associate.

"Had it been Hadiss who now cowered in fear on the edge of a barely-civilised desert, a paltry hundred supporters left to his name, it would be him whom I would now be courting."

"You have an affinity for under-"

"Do not presume to know my motives," Plagueis said harshly, silencing the Geonosian at once. "But as a gesture of goodwill, I will tell you. No, it is not simply charitable feeling that brings me to you. My needs are, in truth, far more selfish than that."

Plagueis paused for a moment or two, allowing himself the pleasure of savouring the words before he spoke them.

"I have the power to lift you from this pitiful wretchedness you find yourself in, and within a standard year pave the way for you to reign as Archduke of all of Geonosis."

Grandiose, but well within the capabilities of a Sith.

Poggle's eyes grew wide. "How? I doubt there has been a situation more hopeless than mine in all of galactic history."

Plagueis gave the Geonosian another empty laugh. "Then you are a poor student of the history texts. Have you never heard of the Battle of Bothawui? Of the fall of the Eternal Empire of Zakuul? Of the defeat of the Brotherhood of Darkness on Ruusan? There have been many facing far more dire fates than you who have pulled themselves out of the wreckage that, so often, they cast themselves into."

Poggle weathered Plagueis's hidden rebuke, and when he next spoke it was in a voice that Plagueis could have almost described as hopeful – excited, even.

"What assistance can you offer me?"

Plagueis frowned. "At first, nothing," he answered. "I require you to hold your position for half a standard year, and then I will dispatch terror itself among the forces of Hadiss and his High Command. It will be as if a spectral enemy is within their midst. At the same time, you will see a massive influx in your levels of funding and the magnitude and quality of weapons technology available to you. You will, I am sure, not waste such an opportunity. Hadiss will be dead very soon, of that I am confident."

Poggle gave Plagueis a quizzical look. "You ask much and promise little," he observed. "I did not get to where I am by taking such offers at face value."

"You got to where you are today by your own foolishness and blindness," Plagueis replied in a growl. "If you do not wish to be my ally then very well. I will end this communication now and you will die before this standard week is out."

Poggle looked chastened, and when he spoke it was in a hurried, panicked tone.

"No, no, your help would be much appreciated."

"As I expected," Plagueis replied with contempt. "Half a standard year, Poggle. If you cannot survive that long then you will not be worthy of my assistance, and you will die in a wasteland desert with only the scavengers to notice as they pick your exoskeleton clean. If, however, you prove your worth to me, you will soon be Archduke, and all of your kind will kneel to you. You can make Hadiss into a plaything for the reek and nexu of your arenas, and those watching will cheer your name until they are deafened by it."

Poggle's eyes were gleaming, and Plagueis knew that he was dealing with a being of rare ambition. All the better, then. He would be that much easier to manipulate as time went on and one goal after another was achieved.

"I would know who you are," Poggle said. "I think I am owed that much."

"You are owed nothing," Plagueis said sternly. "If we speak again, Poggle, it will be when you have my support. Then, and only then, will I tell you who I am."

Plagueis ended the transmission as Poggle opened his mandibles to speak once more, but he did not move from the holopad. He replaced his transpirator mask, breathing in gratefully as it secured itself over his mouth.

"FourDee, contact Chancellor Palpatine. Use the frequency we reserve only for ourselves."

"Yes, Chancellor Damask."

The droid worked in silence for several moments, and then its voice sounded in Plagueis's ear once more.

"Chancellor Palpatine is ready to receive your transmission, Chancellor Damask."

Plagueis touched a button on the console at his fingertips, and a clear, well-defined image of Sidious appeared before him. He was dressed as Chancellor Palpatine rather than as the Dark Lord of the Sith, in expensive and fashionable red robes and a blue tunic, but in his eyes Plagueis could see clearly the expression of one who had touched the darkness and survived its grasp.

"You have contacted the Geonosian?" Sidious said without preamble or hesitation.

"I have," Plagueis replied. "He is willing to accept our support, though I will ensure that he is worth our attention before committing our resources to his cause – whether credits or otherwise."

"Half a standard year," Sidious said, musing. "Do you think that he will survive so long, with so little support of his own and his enemies closing in all the time?"

"I care little," Plagueis answered. "If Hadiss should eliminate Poggle and his rebels before then, he is already our creature. We would simply need to make him beholden to us, but that should prove simple enough. Geonosis is ours, Lord Sidious, whatever may happen on its surface."

Sidious smiled, pleased at what he heard. "When the time comes I will dispatch Moore to Hadiss's fortress. I will tell her that it will be her final test, and that completion of it will prove her strength in my eyes."

Plagueis curled a finger beneath his chin. "Will that be sufficient motivation for her?"

Sidious nodded. "It will. She is determined to impress me, and looks to me for approval and guidance." The two of them fell silent for several moments before Sidious said, "Our plans advance steadily, Darth Plagueis."

"They do," Plagueis agreed. "Evidence, I think, that the Dark Side approves of our actions, and encourages our success. The dominance of the Light Side of the Force for the past thousand years must be addressed, Lord Sidious, and it is the task of the Sith to return a modicum of balance to the Force and to the galaxy."

"And the destruction of the Jedi Order."

"That above all, Darth Sidious," Plagueis answered. "Thousands will die in the war to come, and when your efforts with the boy Anakin at last bear fruit, we shall annihilate them from the inside out."

"And what if more should be needed?" Sidious asked. "We must always plan for failure."

Plagueis nodded sagely and said in a low, threatening tone, "Then I will march on their Temple myself, Darth Sidious, and I will show them the terrible revenge that the Sith have spent a millennium planning for them." He inhaled, then resumed, "Their time is almost at hand. And when the Jedi have been destroyed, the Sith will stand as masters of the galaxy."