AN: I finally finished Ghosts of Onyx, absolute fire, 11/10, made me tear up. I'm gonna continue reading SW EU books now until I finish the NJO which might take a year or so depending if I can get my hands on physical copies of Junior Jedi Knights.

As for the encrypted text (which is rather… cryptic…), I intended this to be the key to solve it: "Charlemagne was Caesar's successor. Decipher that. Minus seven seven seven seven seven seven seven." It's a Caesar cipher, there's 7 encrypted sections broken up between the various letters; the encrypted text would be shifted down by 7 letters for each section, -7, -14, and so on (it would loop back around, but whatever, Bungie and 7, right?). The last two sections would be -343 and -2401 just for funsies. I would've used a positive shift but tgw lmhgx tgw didn't have the same ring as huk zavul huk.

I know there's some inconsistencies with this chapter and the previous ones regarding Operation: SUCKERPUNCH; don't worry, I'm editing the previous chapters to fix everything and assign actual dates to what's happening and when.

Also I made a map of Operation: SUCKERPUNCH that I can't post here. You can find it on the AO3 or SpaceBattles posting of this fic, or my DeviantArt.

Want to read the next chapter early? Subscribe to my Patre0n, zzzxxc1!

1550 Hours, 15:5:15 (GrS), Coruscant, Senate Rotunda

"As Diktat Merricope said before, I will say again: The men and women of CorSec will not be drafted to fight and die on distant worlds outside of Corellia's borders!" Senator Garm Bel Iblis smashed his fist down into his hoverpod. Flashing and pulsating cameras darted around the man, broadcasting the end of his fiery speech to countless worlds.

"Thank you for your words, Senator Bel Iblis," Mas Amedda said with affected pleasantries. "The Vice Chair now recognizes the Senator Ister Paddie of Sermeria to speak."

Padmé braced herself, giving an uneasy look towards Bail and Mon to either side of her.

Senator Bel Iblis breaking Corellia's heretofore withdrawal from its Senatorial obligations had provided the latest dump of coaxium into the runaway annihilation reaction that was the Senate's current state of affairs. It wasn't a surprise to her that he was so adamantly opposed to the new bill. Corellia had adamantly opposed the Military Creation Act to the point they'd pulled out of the vote for it entirely, but it was just so… unexpected that he'd show up.

They both gave her equally uneasy looks. No surprise there either. Senator Paddie had been one of Bel Iblis's most vocal critics. This would be another messy day on the Senate floor; at least some things never changed.

"Interesting that you have come out of your 'meditative solitude' only when the Republic demands but a little from you, is it not? I don't hear you offering protest over the Republic ships patrolling the Corellian system. It seems to me that you want all the benefits and none of the responsibilities of being a member of the Republic," Senator Ister Paddie accused.

"This 'Defense Recruitment Bill,'" Bel Iblis growled, leaning forward, "would essentially strip every sector defense force of their autonomy." Bel Iblis aggressively pressed his forefinger onto the top rim of his hoverpod in quick succession. "And need I remind everyone here that this piece of legislation was drafted not by a member of the Senate, but the military?"

Suddenly, Padmé wondered where Rear Admiral Edmon Rampart was. She'd heard jaw-wag about how he'd been some protégé of Admiral Wilhuff Tarkin, which would corroborate with the events that had transpired in the Senate.

Senator Shayla Paige-Tarkin had introduced the piece of legislation stipulating increased conscription requirements and a more centralized command structure to knit the disparate planetary forces together, yet had been open about its authorship belonging to Rampart. She'd defended the move as a sign of cooperation between the civilian and military spheres, but senators like Bel Iblis pushed that particular point of contention rather hard.

"Necessities of war," Senator Paddie explained. "I'm sure you of all beings could understand the importance of bringing the various sector forces under a more centralized command, especially considering the most recent gains made by the Separatists on the Corellian Trade Spine."

Bel Iblis narrowed his eyes. "I did not come here today to defend the invocation of Contemplanys Hermi, I came here to defend the rights of my constituents, to defend the Republic Constitution as we have all taken oaths to do so as members of this Senate. Calling for an across the board increase of the conscription quota is wholly disproportionate and unjust, not to mention the new punitive measures proposed for noncompliance. This bill would undermine the sovereignty of every star sector in the Republic."

"If you want sovereignty so bad, why don't you just join the Separatists?" Senator Darsana of the Jalor sector broadcast his voice throughout the entire chamber. Bel Iblis scowled at the man, who seemed to shrink back into himself; the blue-skinned Anselmi grew a shade paler staring at the Corellian.

"Never have I considered tendering articles of secession. Never." Bel Iblis's stare could've frozen Hoth over. With that line of dialogue closed off, permanently, Bel Iblis continued, "The Corellian sector has tolerated the deployment of Republic forces in the region, but the enactment of this bill would violate the longstanding rights of countless planets."

"Are you suggesting that non-clone lives are worth more?" Paddie accused, looking almost smug about it. "That the clones should be the only ones dying simply for the fact they were decanted rather than born?"

With the way this deliberation was going, it was no surprise to Padmé why Bel Iblis and Diktat Shyla Merricope had made the decision to withdraw the Corellian sector from its Senatorial duties. What this belligerent senator was implying only made sense to the militarily ignorant (which, to be fair, described more than a handful of senators). The clones, as numerous as they were, made up only a fraction of the Republic Military. In fact, after the First Battle of Geonosis, the non-clone forces had been the ones doing most of the bleeding and dying throughout every sector of the front.

"I'm suggesting that lives are lives," Bel Iblis countered, narrowing his eyes. "Drawing more and more lives into this conflict will only save the Republic at the cost of its own people. I will not see Corellia ruined by this conflict. I will not see Corellians coming home crippled and in body bags because of this bill."

"You might not have much choice in the matter, Senator. The Separatists very well may attack your planet," Paddie pointed out. "Not to mention the hit-and-fade attacks conducted by the Terrans throughout the Colonies and elsewhere."

Murmurs permeated the entirety of the Grand Convocation Chamber. Padmé herself shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Naboo had been hit in one such attack, concurrent with the early stages of the Battle of Taris. The Terrans had taken out a dozen ships alongside a military space station and then jumped out as quickly as they'd jumped in. Although this was not the first attack on Naboo in the war, it couldn't have come at a worse time. Considering how hard she had been pushing for peace with them, it had been a major hit to her approval ratings.

Bel Iblis waved off one of his aides, Sena Leikvold Midanyl. Padmé remembered the violet-eyed woman from before Bel Iblis had invoked the rather archaic Contemplanys Hermi clause to avoid getting Corellia involved in the then-impending war.

Historically speaking, the obscure proviso was a measure that had caused the rest of the Senate to reconsider actions that even the Corellians thought perilous. Bel Iblis's gambit didn't work, which meant for all intents and purposes it was essentially de facto secession while allowing the Corellian sector to remain a de jure member of the Republic, all in the name of remaining neutral in the conflict.

Of course, this hadn't prevented the Republic Military from stationing warships in the sector, or having a Corellian, Flirry Vorru, being appointed the Governor-General of the 2nd Sector Army, or the construction of Fleet Node 6. Just about the only thing it had prevented was the 2nd Sector Army from headquartering on Corellia itself, being instead relegated to Nubia down the Corellian Run.

Bel Iblis spoke again, stern as ever, "Corellia can defend itself, Senator. This bill would change nothing about that, for any planet. It would only see that beings from every sector would be forced to die for planets not their own."

Corellians and self-determination. You'd have better luck separating slime from Hutts, Padmé thought wryly.

"And before you accuse me of selfishness, Senator," Bel Iblis glowered at Paddie, "Corellia has produced warships to quota since the beginning of the war and has been vital in the distribution of aid to thousands of systems. This is not a question of my integrity, but the integrity of the autonomy of every star sector in the Republic."

One particularly important thing Contemplanys Hermi hadn't prevented was Bel Iblis forming his own private fleet of Corellian ships. He'd commanded them in operations to relieve Jedi forces or provide cover for Commando deployments. He was as firm a believer in Corellia for Corellians as Diktat Shyla Merricope, in letting his citizens have a choice to fight rather than forcing them to.

It was a testament to his humility that he hadn't brought up his heroics or sought to be publicly recognized for his tactical acumen, even in the face of a media meltdown and outright assaults on his character. This was just another moment where he again showed great restraint in not bringing up his personal battlefield exploits, though he had every right and opportunity to do so.

"I see, Senator. I just find it interesting," Paddie tilted his head down and his face curled into a condescending smirk, "that you seem to have no care for the other sectors of the galaxy who will benefit from this bill. What about the worlds recently lost on the Hydian Way? Or the Perlemian? Or perhaps, even those systems so close to your Corellia on the Trade Spine? Those worlds who are even now suffering under the metal tyranny of the Separatists? There are still holdouts on Taris waiting for relief; are they somehow less valuable just because they aren't in the Core?"

"The planetary defense forces have done more than an adequate job of protecting Republic worlds around the galaxy, protecting their own planets, their own systems, and their own sectors regardless of region. That is, unless you're suggesting that the blame falls on them for recent Separatist gains."

Padmé couldn't help but admire Bel Iblis's political maneuvering. If Paddie criticized the performance of any one planetary defense force, or even the PDFs as a whole, it might blow up a political tibanna cache, especially with other senators.

"I would certainly hope this is not the case, Senator Paddie," Senator Veedaaz Awmetth of Sarrish said. Awmetth had been a member of the Sarrish Defense Forces before becoming a senator, and his planet had suffered greatly as a result of the war and especially from the recent Separatist offensive.

"I would also like to hear your opinion on this matter," Senator Fang Zar said. That was another heavy blow to Paddie; Zar represented the Sern sector, which was practically on the frontlines of the Rimma Trade Route. "Are you suggesting that it is not right for a senator to look after his own people? That it is not a senator's duty to do what's best for his people?"

Padmé saw Bel Iblis nod in gratitude towards Zar. The two were long-time political allies and also personal friends. Zar gave a curt nod in reply.

Paddie floundered for a moment before he seemed to regain his verbal stride. "Not at all, Senators. I am just saying it would be a wise decision to pass this bill and—" he paused for a second, looking knowingly towards Padmé and the other senators who'd been supportive of the Separatist-Republic peace initiative, "consolidate the military into a more effective command structure while also… increasing the amount of assets at its disposal."

Senator Paddie was slippery, Padmé had to give him that. To her politically trained ear, she knew he was avoiding terms like 'expansion' and 'centralization.' Those terms had become even more politically charged in the wake of the Financial Reform Bill's recent first failure to pass, no thanks to senators like herself. The debates on its second iteration were still ongoing alongside the new Military Enhancement Bill to fund an additional 5 million clone units. Besides the Defense Recruitment Bill, those two were giving her the most headaches. Bills, bills, bills, more bills. It was worse than when she and Rush Clovis had rushed out their Mid Rim Cooperation Motion proposal during Bromlarch's aqueduct crisis.

"What will compromise the integrity of the autonomy of every star sector in the Republic would be if the Separatist offensive was to reach Corellia and then move into the rest of the Core Worlds!" Paddie barked, using Bel Iblis's own words against him.

"Such a question regarding the defense along the Corellian Trade Spine does not fall to me, but rather to the Senate Action Subcommittee assigned to that very purpose, doesn't it, Senator Farr?" Bel Iblis said.

Padmé looked at her Uncle Ono, the chair of the Senate Action Subcommittee for Corellian Trade Spine Defense. She frowned slightly, seeing him shift awkwardly in his pod. She knew something was wrong; he never acted like this, not even when he was in the hot seat. Perhaps it was the stress of his position, given the new Separatist operations undertaken in the area.

"That's correct, Senator Bel Iblis," Farr said. He adjusted his collar and offered no further comment.

"It's not just the Trade Spine," Paddie said adamantly. "The Separatist's recent offensive actions in the region all point to one target: Corellia. If they reach Corellia, they'd have a shot at Coruscant and the rest of the Core Worlds unmatched since Sev'rance Tann's victory at Sarapin."

More murmurs broke out. Padmé would've found it amusing how some of the more… patriotic senators might've accused Paddie of treason for even suggesting such a thing was possible in the past.

Now? It was a different story.

"Your concern is misplaced," Senator Bana Breemu's soft voice called out. The Humbarine sector she represented had been one of the hardest hit by General Tann's destruction of Sarapin's energy industry. "Please Senator, do not allow yourself to be overcome by hysteria. The Core has been safe from attack ever since her defeat."

Paddie was completely taken aback by Breemu's implicit accusation of being hysterical. He stood confused for a second before saying, "This is a matter of supreme strategic importance and planetary security. There exists the distinct possibility of a military catastrophe if measures like this bill are not undertaken."

"We have been assured by the Intelligence Oversight Committee reports that this is nothing more than another Separatist incursion, not a major offensive to be concerned about," Senator Riyo Chuchi spoke, doing her best to reassure her fellows.

"Senator Chuchi, you have not registered to speak—" Mas Amedda began.

"No, it's quite alright. Chancellor's Prerogative," Chancellor Palpatine said, speaking for the first time since the session began. He stood silent once again in the central podium, watching over the discussion with a keen eye and Sly Moore near at hand.

"Thank you, Chancellor. As I was saying, the reports show their efforts are far more focused down the Hydian Way and Perlemian, where Republic troops are bravely holding them and their UNSC allies back."

Paddie furrowed his brows. "I'm sure Senator Robb can agree that it would've aided her world to have had access to a greater amount of troops." He gestured toward the purple swathed Senator Kin Robb of Taris.

She shot Padmé, Mon, and Bail an apologetic look. She'd been one of the ones who'd supported killing the Financial Reform Bill the first time around.

"Yes, Senator," she said, her sullen expression betraying much of her inner turmoil. "While the Tarisian defense forces put up valiant resistance, it is my opinion their inadequate numbers, equipment, and training did not allow them to put up as much resistance as they could've. Their bravery was let down only by what they could not have."

"Indeed." Senator Paddie nodded sympathetically with Robb's plight before turning to the rest of the Senate. "While world after world comes under attack, are we to stand? No! We must pass the Defense Recruitment Bill! We mustn't let our military down! Support the troops!"

Cheers erupted. Paddie basked in the limelight, satisfied he'd maneuvered out of the quagmire he'd been in only a moment ago. Padmé caught Mas Amedda gesturing to a faraway pod, but couldn't make out exactly which.

"What about the convoy that was destroyed in my system?" the Sarkan senator representing the Sarka sector hissed out. "I demand upgraded protection across the Perlemian!"

More commotion erupted, clamors to dispatch ships to the various sectors which had been attacked by UNSC warships and shouts for a larger military.

The Vice Chancellor called for order but was ignored, an increasingly common occurrence in the Senate these days.

"The Republic Military is subordinate to the Senate, not the other way around, Senator Paddie," Senator Lexi Dio of Uyter interrupted the cries of his supporters. "I concur with Senator Bel Iblis. Not only is such an expansion of conscription wholly unnecessary, it is wholly against the principles of this Republic regarding local autonomy. Don't be fooled by the wording of this bill. 'Standardization,' 'enhancement,' and 'centralization of command' are all just thinly veiled terms for nationalization."

Lexi Dio was an outlier, relatively speaking, among the senators who represented agriworlds outside of the Ag Circuit. Unlike Tyreca Bremack and Esu Rotsino, Dio had not seceded from the Republic. Both the Lahara and Abrion sectors had done so, taking with them over 400 agriworlds key to feeding the Core. Although Sermeria was also a loyalist agriworld, the Uyterran reputation for independence and disdain for big government made their allegiance an outright statistical anomaly, not even mentioning Statute 312b, Palpatine's fourth wartime amendment giving the Core and Inner Rim more voting power over Rimward sectors.

"This would also further restrict the power of senators to manage the affairs of their very own sectors," Mon Mothma furtherly objected. "I must protest once again the government overreach of having Admiral Hiram Drayson be sidelined to an advisory role in the Chandrilan Defense Fleet. While I respect the military accomplishments of Governor-General Kohl Seerdon, I do not welcome his appointment by the Chancellor's War Council, an action enabled by the Reflex Amendment. This bill would just be another short-sighted erosion of the power held by senators galaxy-wide. I feel obligated to once again insist that there must be a more even-tempered solution which favors equal cooperation between the Grand Army and home defense forces."

Bel Iblis nodded sagely. "Not to mention that Eriadu has held for the entirety of the war, even in the face of some of the fiercest fighting in the Western Reaches. That accomplishment was mostly due to their existing planetary security forces."

What he said about Eriadu was undoubtedly true. It was essentially the bastion of the southwestern Republic enclave caught between the Thyferra-Yag'Dhul-Mechis and Sullust-Sluis Van-Clak'dor fronts. With its location as a crossroads for the Hydian Way and Rimma Trade Route, those two belts of Separatist strongholds had been straddling the Seswanna sector like an ever-tightening noose since the opening moves of the war.

Even so, Bel Iblis was lucky Senator Shayla Paige-Tarkin wasn't currently here. She was, funnily enough, busy with matters closer to home. The fighting in her sector had intensified with the latest Separatist actions. He was lucky none of the other Tarkins were here, for that matter. Since the days of Ranulph Tarkin, they'd been a massive proponent for the Republic's military expansion.

Admiral Wilhuff Tarkin was off leading a fleet somewhere in the Mid Rim last she'd heard, his son Garoche also doing something to that effect, with his brother Gideon leading the Outland Regions Security Force in actions across the Seswenna, Sluis, and Sullust sectors.

"The success of the Seswenna sector's actions are precisely because of the effective centralized system on Eriadu they have adopted," Senator Ask Aak of Malastare objected, flanked by his Associate Representatives Baskol Yeesrim and Ainlee Teem.

Padmé resisted the urge to roll her eyes. This was shaping up to be a rehashing of the Reflex Amendment deliberations. She guessed Senator Aak would next bring up something about lethargic reaction times.

"It is no coincidence that their campaigns have been met with such great success when they have done away with the lethargic reaction times that the Separatist traitors have so often exploited," Aak said, confirming Padmé's prediction to her internal ire. "Their system of priority theaters commanded by a central authority on Eriadu is nothing less than pure genius. The more bureaucracy we can do away with in this war, the better. The chaos the Terrans have caused is just more proof of that fact."

Though Aak had a good offense, Bel Iblis still found a way to counter. "The system utilized by the Outland Regions Security Force is a perfect example of what Senator Mothma is advocating for and is a far better solution than what is being proposed by the Defense Recruitment Bill. Senators must be enabled to effectively wield their defense forces, not stripped entirely of their ability to do so. More and more conscription will not be what ends this war."

"Well, if it is the further drafting of people you are all worried about, then perhaps the Military Enhancement Bill would be more to your liking," Senator Halle Burtoni said. "What do you say, Senator?"

"With all due respect, Senator, I do not view legislation like a tapcaf menu." His comment elicited a few laughs. "I have only come here to protest the Defense Recruitment Bill as an unjust violation of sector sovereignty. If we cannot convince our people to willingly take up arms in defense of this Republic in sufficient numbers, what does that say about our cause in this war? That is all. I will offer no further comments."

Immediately, an uproar broke out over his last statement. Just like his hasty departure in the wake of his invocation of Contemplanys Hermi, the Senate was out for blood. They cried after his departing pod as though he'd just shot the Chancellor.

"Thank you, Senator Bel Iblis," Mas Amedda said over the tumult, looking none too pleased by Bel Iblis's hasty departure alongside his two aides.

Padmé couldn't help but wonder if Bel Iblis would make another surprise visit when the time came to actually vote on the bill.

Padmé brushed those thoughts aside. Right now, she had to think of ways to recover the peace process. The UEG declaration of war and subsequent offensive actions undertaken by their military had thrown a Kowakian hydrospanner in the peace process. Ever since then, all it seemed the Senate wanted to talk about was the 'Terran Menace' or some other thing happening on the frontlines. It had also practically tossed out all the groundwork she'd laid and tarnished plenty of her political clout, which is why she'd decided it prudent for the time refrain from occupying the forefront of the discussion.

"Order! Order! Will there be any more comments for this deliberation!?" Mas Amedda asked.

Padmé bit her lip. Right now, she didn't have the political capital to interject and jostle in the center stage or make as many comments as she usually did. She had to be deliberate and strategic, not that she wasn't always so; a little extra caution was needed.

As easy as it would've been to remain silent, she felt the need to speak.

"Senators, we have just recently seen where legislation such as this has brought us just as recently as this past week. Had we pursued more peaceful options, the United Earth Government never would have gone on the offensive."

"The time for de-escalation and peace initiatives has long passed, Senator Amidala," the corpulent Senator Orn Free Taa breathed out. "We must now focus on our only remaining option. We must end this war indeed, but by winning it!"

Padmé looked at the rotund senator confidently in spite of all the cheers directed at him and jeers directed at her. "This is more than a war of military arms and manpower carried out between two parties, Senator. This is a battlefield being waged within every single being in the galaxy. Their battle is not one of planets and hyperroutes, their victory does not consist in conquest. Their battle consists of whether or not they will have something to eat or drink today. Their victory is in keeping a roof over their heads. Are we so callous as to forget our sacred duty as senators in this Republic? Will we be able to look our people in the eye after this crisis is over? Will you have them be broken and battered with years of war rather than making any attempt at a peaceful resolution? Those are the questions you should all consider when thinking of this bill."

Padmé's words were met with equal parts applause and derision, the noise drowning out everything. She had chosen her words wisely, implicitly condemning the bill without giving the slower-witted senators anything to grasp onto and hurl back at her.

"We must look no further than your failed peace initiative to show the folly of such a solution. Your efforts have accomplished nothing—" Taa began before Mas Amedda's staff struck the bottom of the Chancellor's podium.

"Do not derail the deliberations on this bill, Senator Taa. Senator Amidala, do you have more to add?"

"No, Vice Chair." Padmé nodded graciously.

"Has anyone more to add?" Amedda asked.

This deliberation had gone on far longer than anyone liked, so it was no surprise that once Taa's considerable momentum had been blunted, everyone seemed to get the hint to prepare for the next session. No one spoke.

"Voting on the Defense Recruitment Bill will commence as scheduled in ten days' time," Mas Amedda said. "I call this session of the Senate adjourned."

Padmé docked her hoverpod alongside the rest of the departing senators. Her handmaidens Teckla and Sabé immediately attended to her with reports and figures.

She was going to confer with Mon and Bail come up with a definitive game plan to find a proactive way to deal with the newly proposed legislation, tonight.

1628 Hours, 15:5:15 (GrS), Coruscant, Republic Executive Building

"Your concern for the safety of this Republic is most admirable, Senator Paddie. Your predecessor was much the same way," Palpatine said, casting his gaze downwards and quirking his mouth to affect a sense of sensitivity. He looked up apologetically. "It is a shame, what the media did to him."

Senator Paddie slowed almost imperceptibly as the pair continued their walk through the halls of the building.

Good… Good… Sidious thought.

"Indeed." Paddie quickly nodded, more a jerk than anything else, and continued walking at his normal pace.

Ister Paddie's predecessor, Lanus Wrede, had made the accusation that Baktoid Industries had been secretly building droids in the Outer Rim free from Republic regulations after shutting down their plants in the Inner Rim and Colonies while not reducing their raw material intake. A three-month long investigation had shown those claims to be baseless.

The resulting media firestorm and political scandal led Wrede to take his life, and for Paddie to take his place.

It was only a few months later that the Separatist Droid Armies made their first march across the sand dunes of Geonosis.

"It is such a shame that this war must go on, and that a swift end cannot seem to be brought to it."

"Truly, Chancellor." Paddie sighed. "It seems like madness to me that my colleagues don't see the necessity of the Defense Recruitment Bill."

"A difference of perspective, is it not?" Palpatine posited. "They want the same thing as you. They want an end to this war."

Paddie considered this for a moment. Only in a shallow manner, of course, Sidious could feel in his mind. Typical for a busy politician. Always looking for something to comment on, something smart to say, never thinking.

His look of introspection might've fooled some of his colleagues in the Senate, though for the Dark Lord of the Sith it was not so.

"I suppose," Paddie said, and then made a show of checking his chrono. "Thank you for the rather long talk, Chancellor."

"It is my pleasure to hear the concerns of the people through their representatives." Palpatine graciously nodded.

Paddie straightened, stopping and wearing a grave expression. "I will do everything in my power to see that our great Republic need not suffer any longer, Chancellor. I will see to it that this bill is passed to your office."

Palpatine smiled. "I thank you for your efforts past, present," Palpatine paused, considering, "and to come."

Indeed it would pass, indeed he would sign it. He did not need to be seeped into the Dark Side to know that. He knew that soon the Senate would be ready to do anything for the Republic. Anything.

Paddie sketched a slight bow. "Until we meet again."

Palpatine smiled at him. "Safe travels Senator," he said as the man departed.

Sidious's smile remained ever so slightly as he made his way to the Executive Office to talk with Director Isard, flanked by two of his crimson robed Red Guards.

Playing both sides has never been easier, Sidious thought. De-escalatory or escalatory, war profiteer or not, it made no difference what stance the senators took. It would have been easy, but disingenuous, to call them two sides of the same credit. Certainly he could flick them through his fingers like a credit, but no; it was more complex than that.

Each senator was like the facet of a precious gemstone, a gemstone he held suspended. He could see each unique side of it, gleaming so brightly. He could shine light through each face, rotate it to see the minute details in how the light fractaled, study it, dissect it, absorb it. Indeed, he could even deign to hold it in his palms, etch its surfaces in any manner he desired. And yet, for all its luster, it was a fragile thing; how the system upon which the galaxy was built could be shattered in a careless instant.

And shatter it he would, but never so carelessly as might a brute beast.

Indeed, he would shatter it. He would shatter the gem. Coruscant. Glittering. Sparkling. He would shatter the gem of Coruscant, the bright jewel whose light could never dim. He would break the heart of the Republic into a million shards.

The long-awaited offensive by General Grievous would pierce into the heart of the Republic. He would lift the veil of opulent ignorance. He would shine the light through the darkness and fragment everything it touched. Soon.

Soon, soldiers would march across the Core Worlds. Alien soldiers.

Vengeance was coming, the visitation of a thousand year grudge to be settled between the Rim and the Core.

Oh yes, they'd make them pay.

Quadrillions would see how their politicians had done nothing to stop them. The dallying Core Worlders would be galvanized, convinced of the necessity of this war. No more talks of peace, of de-escalation and reconciliation. They wouldn't remember anything of the past, only the blood and tears caused by their dithering politicians.

By the end of it all, they'd want something different, something better. All empires had come to an end so far, the Republic's was no different.

His would be the first. His Empire.

Sidious smiled interiorly. Even if every shift in the battlefield was not cultivated by his careful hand, everything was nevertheless falling into place.

The Terrans were playing right into his hand by helping the Separatists. They were a variable he was quickly studying, quantifying, factoring out.

It would proceed as he had foreseen: His power, his Empire, his galaxy. None could deny him this. Not the Jedi, not the Senate, not the Terrans, not the other coming extra-galactic invaders.

This war was the culmination of the thousand year Grand Plan, the final movement in the Mantooine Minuet with him as conductor.

And the next act would begin with Duro.

2113 Hours, 15:5:15 (GrS), Coruscant, Galaxies Opera House

Chants, war horns, and drums reverberated throughout the entirety of the opera.

Clones beat upon the armored backs of their brethren, supplementing the drums in an eerily hollow way.

This music wasn't so much heard as it was felt. Padmé could feel it in her bones, and it sent a chill up her spine.

Padmé sat in the booth transfixed by the performance below them, along with Bail and Mon. Usually charity events were dull affairs, but not tonight.

Senator Den Skeenah, a vocal anti-war and clone rights activist, alongside the Republic Service Organization had put together full traditional performances of Vode An, Kote Darasuum and other such staple songs in the Grand Army of the Republic for the benefit of crippled war veterans, performed none other than by clones themselves.

The beating armor of a thousand warriors filled the hall, accompanied by the rhythmic chanting of a thousand more voices. Dha Werda Verda, Rage of the Shadow Warriors, pulsed through the building. It was a riveting spectacle, enhanced by the sympathetic rippling patterns of the greenish-purple ch'hala trees gifted to the venue by the Chancellor himself.

She had first heard of Dha Werda Verda as a child in school, it was probably one of the most well known epics of antiquity, but she, like many other children, had only been forced to memorize about ten verses from one of the eleven chapters.

Those lessons hadn't done it justice. Never had she heard it performed in its entirety, especially not in a manner such as this.

Clones blew on long lengths of wind instruments, rivaling the bore throats of Ithorians. It sounded as though it were some leviathan bellowing throughout the grand room. Accompanied by the ritualistic chants, one couldn't help but imagine the image of a group setting out for the hunt, preparing to make the kill around a wounded beast uttering its final protest, its final act of defiance flying in the face of all odds. Or perhaps, most appropriately, of warriors preparing for battle. And in the high place we awaited death.

Eventually, the mighty rhythm ceased and, like the Taung it represented, it departed with one final shout and silence reigned. Perhaps it was not dissimilar to the silence that reigned following the eruption which had destroyed Great Zhell and given the Taung their namesake, the shadow warriors. Padmé had wondered as a child whether it was Umate, the tallest of the Manarai Mountains, that had been the one to erupt.

Back then, many respectable scholars concurred with the claim that the Zhell were the ancestral human society and thus Coruscant, or Notron as it was then called, is the homeworld for all of humanity. There were only a couple of other contenders such as Alderaan or, for the more outspoken of them, Corellia. Other than that, there were various conspiracy theories; one of the most entertaining ones being the idea that there was an ancient race of aliens which had placed humans in disparate locations across the galaxy.

Now, the Terrans had joined the Corellians and conspiracy theorists in chipping away at that idea, too.

Without stopping, the choir and orchestra shifted from the rhythmic Dha Werda Verda to the rising crescendo of Gra'tua Cuun with its intense drum beats, blasting organs, eerie strings, and imposing vocals.

"Fascinating, isn't it?"

Padmé nearly jumped in her seat from the unexpected noise and turned around to find Garm Bel Iblis standing there alongside Feng Zar. Interestingly, he was dressed up as part of Zar's entourage. Her surprise faded as soon as she realized who she was looking at.

"Nice costume, Garm." Mon Mothma smirked.

"Indeed, I got your message, Mon," he said. Padmé gave Mon a sidelong glance and found Bail doing the same thing.

She'd been expecting a late night meeting to discuss their plan to defeat the upcoming bills, but a late night, impromptu meeting with a man whom a significant part of the Senate would like nothing better to see than him being drawn and quartered had not been a part of her itinerary for the evening.

Bel Iblis gave a curt nod and pointed to the center of the opera house. "Please, I don't mean to intrude; let's discuss business after the performance."

Padmé nodded graciously and returned her attention to the performance, the other senators present doing likewise.

Eventually, Gra'tua Cuun faded into nothingness with one final beat of a massive gong. The lights brightened, the clone performers bowed, and everyone clapped.

Once the thunderous applause had died down, everyone turned towards the Corellian senator.

"The door, if you wouldn't mind, Officer Horn," he said to one of the disguised members of his entourage. The tall grey-eyed man, presumably one from CorSec, nodded curtly and posted up casually outside their viewing platform.

Bel Iblis turned back to the gathered senators as Feng Zar sat down alongside a disguised Sena Leikvold Midanyl; the woman retrieved a datapad from a satchel and set it on the refreshments table in the center of the room, sliding it towards the others.

"What's this?" Padmé asked.

"The future of the Republic." Mon spoke about the datapad with a ghastly reverential tone, as if she'd stumbled upon an ancient relic.

"It's a piece of counter legislation crafted with more delicate care than the Cathedral of Winds on Vortex," Garm said. "Essentially, it's the answer, if not the cure, to the madness currently gripping the Senate."

"And the finer details?" Bail asked, skeptically examining the device with its now-scrolling text before passing it to Padmé.

Garm sighed, preparing for a lengthy talk. "This legislation's current draft, as it stands, reaffirms sector sovereignty as it stood before Palpatine was granted emergency powers. It also places a limit on military spending, bank deregulation, you name it."

Mon turned slightly to address the whole group. "Everything we've been fighting against in the Senate for the past two years should be covered here."

"This looks airtight," Padmé said, reading it over before furrowing her brows. "But I don't suppose you want to introduce this bill yourself or involve yourself with gathering votes."

"Correct." Garm nodded. "Which is where you all come in," he said, making a broad gesture taking in the four senators before him. "If you'll be so kind as to switch the display over to the next tab, it should have your assignments."

Assignments? Padmé wrinkled her nose. It's the Legislative Youth Program all over again.

"I don't mean to slight you, Senator Amidala—" Garm started.

"Padmé is fine, Garm," she said.

"Right. I don't mean to slight you, Padmé, but your assignment is really a testament to your skill as a diplomat."

Bail had an apologetic look on his face as he handed the datapad over.

She took it, looked at its contents, and frowned. "You want me to continue the peace process? Not help gather votes? As it stands, the Separatists and Earthers would never accept anything from us and I doubt the Senate would accept anything from them unless it came from the barrel of a gun."

Garm sighed. "What's one more senator slugging it out in the realm of favors and trying to speak to those whose first language consists of credits? Deescalation will only help so much, Padmé, it's only a means to an end. You've already laid much of the groundwork for a peace initiative. And besides, I've already got a lead for you. Scroll down."

She did so and was met with a snippet from the HoloNet News CoCo District Edition:

TERRAN RELIGIOUS LEADER ARRESTED ON CHARGES OF DISTURBING THE PEACE

0007 Hours, 15:5:16 (GrS), Coruscant, 500 Republica

Padmé reclined into one of her apartment's sofas, glass of wine in hand. This was quite possibly the only moment she has had to herself in the past few days.

She glanced at the chrono on the wall and frowned. She'd have to attend a Senate hearing regarding Senator Mee Deechi's placement on the Action Subcommittee for Corellian Trade Spine Defense in just eight hours.

She shook her head, took a sip of wine, set the glass down, and leaned back… before her alarm awoke her ten minutes later.

Bleary eyed, she got up and moved to her office. Breaks didn't seem to last long these days.

Just as she crossed the threshold into the room, something grabbed her shoulder.

She started, twisting around and launching a suckerpunch towards her unknown assailant.

Anakin caught her strike at the wrist and smirked.

Padmé relaxed, her heart still beating. "Anakin!" she harshly whispered. "Don't sneak up on me like that."

"I thought I'd give you another surprise," he said, kissing her before pulling away. "I'm home early."

"That you are," she said. "I'm glad you're safe."

Anakin sighed, leaning against the wall in the shadows he'd been hiding in. "The Open Circle Armada was recalled," he said, almost glumly. "Even though the Hydian front has stabilized, the Terrans have High Command worried."

Padmé nodded. "They're not the only ones. They've got the Senate in a frenzy, too." She looked at her desk and considered starting her work before deciding the better of it. "Have you eaten? I have some leftovers in the conservator.

"No thanks, I already ate. Besides, I'm expected at a meeting soon."

Padmé quirked an eyebrow. "I've been home for a few hours, how long have you been waiting here?"

Anakin scratched the back of his head and looked at the chronometer on the wall. "Wow, it looks like I'm running late, I better hurry."

"How long, Anakin?" Padmé asked as he ran for the door. "Anakin!?"

There goes my only excuse for extending my break, she thought and let out a sigh. She shook her head ruefully and sat at her desk.

Padmé pulled up the research she'd been doing regarding the Terran holyman who'd been arrested following a peace rally he'd taken part in for 'disturbing the peace.' With last year's passage of the Enhanced Security and Enforcement Act, Homeworld Security Command had been given a broader latitude for exercising their powers, such as arresting 'dissidents' or other such people.

She continued where she left off in reviewing the holyman's case. Garm hadn't exactly had the time to fully elaborate, but he trusted her resourcefulness.

She kept scrolling. The religious group the holyman belonged to, the Catholic Church, reminded her of the Brotherhood of Cognizance on Naboo who had married her and Anakin.

Padmé viewed them no differently than any other religious group in the galaxy, but found one thing interesting; they actually controlled a sovereign state on the Terran homeworld, Earth. Even more interesting; they were not a part of the United Earth Government. The Vatican City State, true to its name in only controlling a miniscule amount of territory, had refused to become a part of it after their 'Interplanetary War.'

At least that's what Padmé had read; they had sent no diplomatic envoy alongside the UEG when first contact was made, nor to the Separatists. She could only presume they were refusing to recognize either side of the Clone War until it was over.

Padmé cupped her chin in her hand, deciding on the best course of action. After sorting her schedule out, she came up with a solution.

0029 Hours, 15:5:16 (GrS), Coruscant, Republic Center for Military Operations

Taungsdays… Anakin groused to himself, sprinting for the door and stopping just short of the next corner to recompose himself.

He inhaled sharply and turned the corner, passing the two clone guards into the expansive Strategic Planning Amphitheater. It was the weekly meeting for the Strategic Advisory Council. Both him and Obi-Wan had been specially requested as the most famous commanders in the Open Circle Fleet.

"...which has allowed me to close in the siege around the Fondor Shipyards."

Anakin squinted at the holographic form of the man who was talking, recognizing him as Governor-General Octavian Grant of the 20th Sector Army.

Now displayed was the Fondor system alongside the ellipticals of its planetary bodies. Grant manipulated the display, bringing attention to the outermost belt of asteroids in the system and highlighting the Republic's zones of control throughout the belt.

Governor-General Trachta of the 1st Sector Army 'Azure Hammer' Command, attending physically, nodded thoughtfully. "Foerost remains difficult to crack, the Senate has been content to let my forces sit and wait."

Anakin surreptitiously entered and tried to find Obi-Wan, sighing when he discovered him in close proximity to the center of the room.

"You're late," Obi-Wan whispered as Anakin came

"By how much this time?"

"One minute."

"Ah, they started quickly this time."

In spite of Anakin's nonchalant attitude, something was weighing on him. It wasn't just the Force telling him this, but also his experience as a military leader.

He felt it odd that High Command had not ordered, but requested the nearly 3000 vessels of the Open Circle Armada back to Coruscant. He felt it odd that they'd been withdrawn from defensive actions across the Slice, Trans-Hydian, and Northern Dependencies in the face of Separatist offensives driving Coreward down the Perlemian and Hydian hyperroutes.

Soon, he would probably be told why.

"...torpedo siege platform would've been the ideal weapon for the ongoing operation at Skako," said a representative from the Special Weapons Group.

Grant laughed at this, not out of scorn but wry humor. "Of course, but getting such a weapon there in the first place would've been an entirely different matter. Wouldn't it, Trachta?"

Trachta nodded. "Indeed. Making matters more difficult is the fact that we have to capture the facilities on the fuel-rich moons intact."

"A moot point, seeing as the project has been canceled for some time," Governor-General Renau said before the SWG attaché could respond, the blue visage of his holoprojection leaning forward.

Another man cleared his throat. It was Governor-General Therbon, commander of the 12th Sector Army 'Cerulean Spear' Command. The 12th Sector Army had partaken in the absolute fiercest fighting along the Perlemian, making him a legend among the military and, like Renau, Anakin had worked closely with him in the past few weeks in actions along the Trans-Hydian. "Regarding some of our own worlds under siege, I've heard unsubstantiated rumors regarding another Subjugator dreadnought operating around Mon Calamari, but the damage assessments of the several destroyed flotillas are incongruous with what we've seen from previous examples. It could be another one-off weapon like the stolen Decimators."

Obi-Wan arched an eyebrow and gave Anakin a sidelong glance. Surely they couldn't have recalled the majority of the Open Circle Fleet just to go on another wild yunax chase for one of Grievous's toys.

"I have yet to hear any whispers from Pammant or Minntooine," said Ilko Deminar, Sub-Director of the SBI and head of its Cryptanalysis Department. "They've adopted new encrypt schemes that we presume are UNSC made. Those new codes are extremely difficult to slice into, and likewise have made it near impossible for my intelligence sources to attach their reports to carrier signals on Separatist channels."

"The stang Terrans…" Governor-General Tanniel muttered, rubbing his chin.

Tanniel was right to feel sore. As the commander of the 10th Sector Army, he'd lost over a thousand ships and a Mandator II dreadnought in the UNSC's capture of Taris, not to mention losing the planet itself. The UNSC had also staged hit-and-fade attacks on over two dozen systems which had caught the Republic military by surprise, both from the how far behind the lines they were as well as the level of coordination in the timing of them.

"The Eriadu salient remains holding strong," Governor-General Ardus Kaine said. He was the Chancellor's appointed replacement for Wilhuff Tarkin in the 18th Sector Army after the latter was placed in charge of Operation Star Fist. "But since Governor-General Sulamar is indisposed at the moment, the front has stabilized in the southern front of the Corellian Trade Spine at Bomis Koori IV. The enemy General Dassyne has taken the planet and their fleet movements show preparations to move on Kriselist."

Anakin took note that Kaine didn't feel comfortable with referring to his fellows by last name only; clearly he was still getting used to the cut of his uniform, so to speak.

"In short, we've got a mess on our hands, haven't we gentlemen?" Governor-General Flirry Vorru said, eliciting chuckles from some of the junior officers present.

"It's not so bleak, Vorru," Governor-General Vanko said. "I was able to repel the Terrans at Ord Mantell. Therbon was likewise successful in defending Lantillies; in fact, most of the shipbuilding industries remained intact, correct?"

"The UNSC hit-and-fade only damaged half a dozen slipways, mostly for the smaller cruisers," Therbon said.

"If the Terrans had actually wanted to take those systems, they would have," Tanniel scoffed bitterly.

"Just because you've managed to lose the Honor of the Triumph does not give you the obligation of overestimating their strength," Governor-General Kohl Seerdon said, the point made even more sore by the fact the Honor of the Triumph had been one of the first Mandator IIs out of a dozen to be produced since the start of the war.

"And just because you've managed to sit at Chandrila with the Pride of the Core does not give you the obligation of offering a comment," Tanniel shot back.

"All I'm saying, Tanniel, is that the UNSC could not possibly have the amount of ships necessary to wage multiple sustained attacks as large as their actions on Taris and down the Hydian. The reason why they were hit-and-fades and not attempts to seize those systems is precisely because of that fact. It's not a question of if they wanted to take those systems or not; it's a question of if they could take those systems. They couldn't have. That's why they didn't want to."

Anakin did the mental astrogation math and considered what Seerdon had said. Considering the slower nature of Terran slipspace drives compared to even a Class 2 hyperdrive, according to Admiral Tarkin's accounting, they either went above or below the galactic disk, or had spent a significant amount of time traveling to their target destinations from inside the galaxy.

That latter scenario meant they were either operating entirely on stealth ship reports after dropping outside of a system before jumping to the target, or on weeks-old intel, or they could receive communications while still using their FTL drives.

That last option would explain a lot in the way of their proficiency and seeming confidence at coordinating their fleet movements. With a large portion of the Open Circle Armada operating around Lantillies and the rest of the Trans-Hydian, the 500 or so Terran vessels employed in the hit-and-fade would've been crushed had they entered at an inopportune moment. With up-to-date intel, that possibility was lessened to the point they could risk such an operation.

"They probably knew the Open Circle wasn't there at the time," Anakin said.

The eleven Governor-Generals present seemed to pause and regard the two Jedi Generals as if not noticing them before.

"Ah, so glad you could join us, Generals," Governor-General Praji said. The Praji family was a long-lived, wealthy Core World family originally from Kaikielius, just south of the currently besieged Separatist world of Foerost, and had been one of the original signatories of the Galactic Constitution. After having moved to Coruscant, they now controlled a large amount of influence with the Bank of the Core as well as the Coruscant Ministry of Ingress.

All that pedigree didn't make this particular Praji a nepotistic appointment, however. He'd done good in keeping the Balmorra-Neimoidia pocket contained and countering the Separatists incursions on the Nanth'ri Route and the areas on the Greater Kashyyyk Branch when Therbon was preoccupied.

"We are glad to be here," Obi-Wan replied.

'No, we're not,' Anakin said.

'Maybe you aren't,' Obi-Wan said. 'I could stand some peace and quiet from the front.'

'We should be out there fighting, not waiting around here.'

'I presume they didn't call us back here just to have us wait around, Anakin.' Obi-Wan had a smirk on his face only perceptible to Anakin.

Anakin merely nodded.

"And how did you come to this… insight, General Skywalker?" Governor-General Cinzero Gann questioned.

"Given the timeframe and how spread out their hit-and-fades were, they had to have remained in communication with at least some other element during their longer travel times. I doubt they would have risked such a large amount of ships of theirs, relatively speaking, without up-to-date information. Having to revert to subspace in order to communicate would've thrown off their timing. They have to have some sort of way to communicate while faster-than-light in order to execute such a precise attack."

"I see," Gann replied. "But that's assuming they weren't willing to wait at some rendezvous point out-system, and that they only decided to mobilize forces to this galaxy after their declaration of war."

"That may be so, Governor-General. I don't have access to the most current intel as both my Master and I have been at the front before High Command decided to recall us."

"Indeed," Gann nodded curtly. "In any case, I suppose you're both wondering why you've been recalled to Coruscant."

"It was a curious request," Obi-Wan said. "Especially in the face of the operations recently conducted by the UNSC. We only just stopped their advance at Orleon when we were recalled."

"Ah, yes. It might come as a surprise to you, General Kenobi, but there are even more pressing matters to attend to," Vorru said. "If you'll change the holoprojector, Grant?"

"Certainly."

Immediately, the map view shifted to the Corellian Trade Spine. Like Kaine had said, Kriselist now stood on the frontlines. Even more worrying than that particular exchange of territory were the new advances towards the Core in the galactic south.

"As you can see, the enemy has gained a significant amount of territory northwards on the Corellian Trade Spine," Grant said, grimacing. "Unfortunately, by the time I received approval to move my forces to mount an effective defense, the damage had already been done. I could only move to cordon their swift advance. This fleet has moved faster than any other we've seen during the war."

"Upgraded hyperdrives?" Anakin suggested, leaning forward.

"Upgraded maps, more likely," Vorru said. "The Separatist First Fleet had been sitting at Yag'Dhul for over a month before making their move."

Obi-Wan scratched his beard. "And you want us to move to counter them."

"Yes," Vorru sighed, raising one hand in idle thought and using the other to cross his arm. "By the time I am given permission to rally my forces, I fear it will be too late. The Open Circle is beholden only to the Jedi Council; they still have a blank flimsi to operate, correct?"

"Right," Obi-Wan said hesitantly. "But what about the pushes down the Perlemian and Hydian?"

"We have reason to believe this offensive is their real thrust and is being commanded by none other than General Grievous himself," Deminar said.

"Oh," Obi-Wan and Anakin said simultaneously before looking at each other.

"'Oh' indeed," Grant said. "Should they make a move down the Shipwrights' Trace to relieve Fondor…"

"The actual attack will be coming in towards Corellia, of that I am sure," Vorru stated, puffing his chest out slightly to Grant's ire.

"Corellia's defenses—" Grant began.

"Would be no match for the four thousand vessels boiling down the Trade Spine."

"They'd be spread thin across the entire hyperlane if they tried to both hold and take territory simultaneously with such a force—"

Obi-Wan cleared his throat to put an end to the squabbling. "Which is where, I suppose, we come in?"

The Governor-Generals regarded them with newfound understanding.

"Indeed," Gann said. "The full data packet is available for your perusal, Generals."

"Has the Senate been informed of this?" Anakin asked.

Trachta nodded in the affirmative. "But it doesn't seem like they're interested in acting on this information. They're too busy discussing this war in committee. It's why we need men of action such as yourselves."

"I shall first have to convene with the Council." Obi-Wan stroked his beard.

"It sounds easier than penning a letter to each of the four dozen members on the Action Subcommittee," Vorru chuckled.

"How long do we have?" Anakin asked.

"One day," a new voice sounded from behind them.

Anakin and Obi-Wan turned to face the new arrival.

It was General Gentis, the renowned commander who'd led a defense on Balamak against the entire 'Burning Ember' Armored Division on Balamak with only seventy clones.

"Any longer than that and Corellia is as good as gone."

Anakin crossed his arms and shot Obi-Wan a look that shared a meaning which did not require the telepathic bond shared between master and padawan.

I've got a bad feeling about this.

0217 Hours, 15:5:16 (GrS), Coruscant, Jedi Temple, High Council Chamber

"And bring back Master Halcyon, will you? And Knight It'kla?"

"Indeed, Master Yoda," Obi-Wan said.

"Hmph." Yoda nodded. "May the Force be with you."

"And with you, Master."

Nearly as soon as the holoprojections of the Jedi Council members winked out of existence, Master Yoda turned towards Aayla.

"Much distress, I sense in you, Master Secura."

"Indeed, Master," Aayla said, coming forward from her position near the entrance to the Council chambers. "I… have seen things."

"Visions, hm?" Yoda hobbled towards her on his cane as Aayla nodded. "Troubling, yes, indeed. Meditate, must we. The entire Council I have recalled. Once Master Halcyon and Knight It'kla return, then see shall we."

"That might take some time, Master," Aayla sighed.

"Then tell me, you will, all you have seen."

Aayla took a deep breath in and let it out, slowly, letting the Force flow through her. "It all started when the fleet arrived at the Terran colony…"

AN: My book's first draft is 90k/100k words done!

In regards to seeing chapters early on my Patre0n, all chapters will be posted there at least one week in advance.