Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"Crossroads of the Force" [PG-13] - Chapter Two




"CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE"

CHAPTER TWO

OUTSKIRTS OF SALIS D'AAR, BAKURA

Inside Padme Amidala Skywalker's well-decorated study, the holographic image of Bail Organa illuminated from a small holoemitter on her desk. "The conference will be held on Ord Montell. We hope that you will be able to attend." 

"Ord Mantell?" Padme inhaled sharply at the mention of the planet. "That sounds like a military post."

Bail's image shrugged. "It used to be during the Clone Wars. Now, it is basically a haven for smugglers and traders. Mon, Garm and I believe it should be safe from Imperial scrutiny."

Padme continued, "But the reason for this conference . . . why?"

The Alderaanian sighed. "Because we feel that the time has arrived for the Alliance to finally organize. It's time, Padme. You had even said so, during your last visit to Alderaan."

Following her flight from Bail's homeworld ten years ago, Padme and her young family had ended up at the Lars' moisture farm on Tatooine. Owen and Beru Lars gave the Skywalker-Nabierre family refuge until Bail found a permanent home for the latter on Bakura, three months later. She and the children eventually settled in a three-story villa located in the outskirts of Bakura's capital, Salis D'Aar. The villa reminded her of the one she and Anakin had visited on Varykino Island, fourteen years ago. Instead of a lake, her present home stood above the banks of the West River.

The Outer Rim planet proved to be a pleasant home for Padme and her family. It was far enough to avoid the Empire's attention. Although it did not seem as sophisticated as Naboo or Alderaan, it did boast a fine culture that included a national symphony and several beautiful cities - including the capital, Salis D'Aar. Padme only had one complaint about Bakura - the feud between the planet's upper class and political body that threatened to develop into a civil war. She feared that if it grew any worse, the Empire might intervene. Bakura's pastoral climate gave Luke and Leia the opportunity to develop into healthy and lively eleven year-olds. And the planet's isolation gave Padme the opportunity to form contacts with various cells rebelling against the Empire, in neighboring systems.

"Yes, I know Bail," Padme continued. "But Ord Mantell? Why not the Averam System?"

Bail shook his head. "Not safe enough. It is too close to Coruscant. And the Empire has kept a close eye upon it in recent years."

Padme sighed. "All right. When do we meet?"

"A week from now," Bail replied. "At the Hotel Grand in Le Yer." He hesitated. "If you don't mind, Padme, I feel it would be best if I escort you to the conference. We can rendezvous . . . somewhere other than Bakura."

An idea came to Padme. "Why not Tatooine? The children, Madga and the droids can stay with Owen and Beru. Perhaps we can meet in . . . five days?"

Bail nodded. "Sounds like an excellent idea. I will see you in five days." His holographic image disappeared. Padme switched off her emitter.

The 38 year-old senator rose to her feet and made her way to the villa's garden. There, she found the twins engaged in some kind of art project. "What is this?" she asked merrily. "A new project?"

"Sort of," the blond-haired Luke replied. "It's a present for Madga's birthday. A holographic statue of one of Alderaan's famous animals, the Thranta." It amazed Padme how much her son reminded her of Anakin from twenty-four years ago - the same dark-blond hair, lively blue eyes and engaging manner. Only Luke seemed to have inherited her introverted temper.

Padme smiled at her children. "That's quite lovely, Luke. I'm sure that Madga would appreciate it." In fact, Padme suspected that the Alderaanian-born nurse would adore the present. Although Madga had eagerly volunteered to accompany the Skywalkers to Tatooine and Bakura, her first ten months away from Alderaan had been lonely. Madga did not meet any new friends until a week after the Skywalkers' arrival on Bakura.

"She would appreciate it if Luke only had the right coordinates in the program," Leia caustically added.

Luke glared at his twin sister. "What do you mean? I'm using the right coordinates."

Leia shot back, "No, you're not! If you turn on the holoemitter, you won't have the image of the Thranta. You'll just have some animal that doesn't exist!"

Padme winced inwardly at her daughter's sharp tone. The eleven year-old Leia almost seemed like a copy of her younger self - same dark hair, large brown eyes, and the same pragmatic and reserved nature. Yet, Leia had also inherited her father's sharp manner and quick temper. In a deeper way, the young girl could easily be described as her father's child.

"How would you know?" Luke demanded. "We haven't finished."

"Uh . . . children," Padme said, cautiously interrupting. "I need to . . ." But the twins ignored her and continued their quarrel. Padme decided to utilize more force. "Enough!" she finally cried, drawing stares from the twins. "That's enough! You two can fight, later. I have something to tell you." She glanced around the garden. "Where are Madga and the droids? Never mind. I'll tell them later."

Leia frowned. "Tell them what?"

Padme took a deep breath. "I will be going away for a few days. It's regarding an important business matter. Since this is the first time we will be separated, I feel it would be best if I left you two with your Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru on Tatooine."

Luke whooped with joy. "Great! I'll get to see Biggs!"

"Oh no!" Leia bewailed. "Mother! Not Tatooine!"

"What's wrong with Tatooine?" Luke demanded.

Leia rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, Luke! It's boring. Even you think so."

"Maybe. But at least I'll get to see Biggs." During one of their many trips to Tatooine over the past decade, Luke had managed to befriend the young son of a local landowner named Darkstar. Leia's closest friend happened to be the late Sheltay Retrac's only child, an Alderaanian girl named Winter. 

The young girl retorted, "Great! And what about me? Winter lives on Alderaan. And I don't know anyone on Tatooine. Except for Aunt Beru. And she's . . ." She broke off, as her eyes widened in horror. "I didn't mean . . ."

Padme sighed. "I understand, Leia. I don't expect an eleven year-old girl to become close friends with the wife of a moisture farmer. But you must also remember that Luke has never been that comfortable on Alderaan. And I feel that it would best if you two stay on Tatooine. It is farther from . . ."

". . . the Emperor," Leia finished. "Yeah, I know." She sighed. "How long are we going to be there?"

Casting a sympathetic glance at her daughter, Padme answered, "At least four or five days. I'm certain that you will find a way to endure."

Luke snickered, earning a glare from his sister.

"Well, I best find Madga and the droids," Padme continued. "And you two can continue your . . . project." She added pointedly, "Without fighting." Then Padme turned away and began searching for her servants.


----------- 


OFFICE OF THE GRAND VIZER, CORUSCANT

"They're all here."

The Senate's Grand Vizer nodded. "Show them in," he ordered his aide. Of medium height, Sate Pestage was a thin, craggy-faced human with an aquiline nose that has caught the attention of many upon introduction. 

Pestage had served as the leader or Grand Vizer of the Imperial Senate upon Senator Mas Amedda's "mysterious disapperance", nine years ago. The Nabooan had originally served as Palpatine's aide from the moment the latter first became involved in politics as a minor functionary on Naboo. He sat behind his imposing desk, while five other senators filed into his office. They quickly occupied the chairs situated in a semi-circle in front of Pestage's desk. "Good afternoon, everyone," he greeted quietly. 

"Your Excellency," one of the senators replied. It was Senator Ronet Coorr of Iseno. "What can we do for you?"

Pestage cleared his throat before he continued, "Pardon me for interrupting your plans to depart for your homeworlds, senators. I realize that the Senate is no longer in session, but I have something to ask of you. Naturally, you have heard of the disaster that had befallen Volmtrak? The Accom River flood?" He noticed the vague expressions on the senators' faces.

"I'm not sure if I've ever heard of the Volmtrak System," Senator Paddie of Semeria declared.

With a patient smile, Pestage explained, "Volmtrak is a moon. Volmtagge's moon to be exact. And Volmtagge is located in the Velm Sector. Which I believe is where your homeworlds are located, ladies and gentlemen. Or located nearby."

Zoebeida Dahlma of Maldare heaved an impatient sigh. “Pardon me, Your Excellency, but please get to the point. We all have busy schedules.” The other senators murmured in agreement.

Pestage leaned back into his chair and grunted. “Yes. Well . . . if you must know, the Emperor believes that a committee should be formed to coordinate aid for the Volmtrak disaster.” The Grand Vizer reveled in his visitors’ astounded expressions. Apparently, they seemed surprised that the Emperor would even consider such an act. Fortunately, they did not know about Palpatine’s true object behind this act of mercy. “Is there a problem? You all seem . . . surprised.”

“Pardon our reaction, Your Excellency,” Paddie commented, “but this is the first time I have ever heard of the Emperor organizing relief for a disaster. Is there a reason why Volmtrak is so important to him?”

Mustering every ounce of guile he possessed, Pestage lied. “It is just as you had hinted, Senator. The Emperor has spent the last decade trying to bring order throughout the galaxy – dealing with the last remnants of the Separatist movement and tracking down renegade Jedi. We . . . I mean, the Emperor has been regrettably amiss in dealing with other calamities faced by the galaxy’s citizens. The Emperor believes that it is time for him to face these calamities . . . starting with Volmtrak. He would appreciate it if the five of you would form a committee, visit the disaster area and organize relief for Volmtrak’s citizens.”

“I would be more than happy to accommodate the Emperor’s wishes,” Senator Coorr said. Pestage smiled at the tall and very pale human. Coorr had been a loyal supporter of Palpatine since joining the Senate before the start of the Clone Wars.

Pestage smiled at his eager colleague. “Thank you, Senator Coorr.” He faced the other four senators. “And the rest of you?”

One by one, Paddie and two other senators followed Coorr’s example. Only one abstained – Senator Dahlma of Maldare. “When does the Emperor want us to visit Volmtrak?” she demanded.

Slowly, Pestage turned his head to stare at Maldare’s premier senator. “In two days. Is there a problem?”

“I’m afraid so,” Dahlma replied. “My cousin has recently passed away. And I plan to attend the funeral.”

Typical, Pestage thought. Zoebeida Dahlma had never been a fervent supporter of the Emperor. Her name had even been on that treacherous Petition of 2000 for a brief period around the end of the Clone Wars. Why the Emperor had not driven her from the Senate or eliminate her, Pestage did not know. “I don’t understand,” the Grand Vizer said with a frown. “You would choose to attend some distant relative’s funeral over service for the Emperor?”

Senator Dahlma stiffened slightly. “My cousin and I had been very close,” she coolly retorted. “It would be a disservice to her memory for me to choose politics over a beloved relative.”

Pestage became immediately contrite. “Pardon me, Senator Dahlma. I did not mean to be insensitive.”

“And pardon me for my . . . flash of temper,” the Maldarian senator responded in a gracious tone. “But you must understand that I come from a close knit family. However, I will be more than happy to visit Volmstak upon my return. While I’m home, I might be able to convince the Lalji Corporation to donate aid to the Volmstak victims.”

Senator Paddie commented, “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

But Pestage did not hear the Semerian senator. He felt disturbed by Senator Dahlma’s refusal of the Emperor’s request. But since the Maldarian senator had offered to join the committee at a later time and raise funds, he decided that he could be magnanimous. “I suppose that will do,” he coolly replied. Then he gave Dahlma a wide smile. “Welcome to the Volmstak Relief Committee, Senator!”

Dahlma returned the Nabooan’s smile. While the Grand Vizer continued to discuss the disaster with the five senators, he wondered how the Emperor would respond.

-------- 


IMPERIAL PALACE, CORUSCANT

“How interesting,” the Emperor Palpatine coolly remarked. “I have never known for Senator Dahlma to ignore offering aid to disaster victims. You say that there has been a death in her family?”

Pestage shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “According to Senator Dahlma, a favorite cousin. They were very close.”

“Really?” Palpatine turned his chair away from the Senate’s leader. His gaze focused upon a Sith artifact situated on a small pedestal, behind his desk. “I do not recall Senator Dahlma being close to any particular member of her family. In fact, I could have sworn that she was estranged from her family, due to a political conflict. So . . . she has refused to serve on the committee?”

After a brief interruption, Pestage replied, “No, she did not, Your Highness. Instead, she has volunteered to visit Volmtak . . . after attending her cousin’s funeral. And she plans to request aid from the Lalji Corporation.”

“How generous of her,” Palpatine murmured. “Well . . . thank you for your report, Pestage.” The Grand Vizer bowed and left the Imperial office.

Palpatine’s gaze returned to the Sith artifact, when another figure entered. “Have a seat, Lord Rasche.”

The Emperor swerved his chair around for the second time to see his apprentice sit down in the chair previously occupied by Sate Pestage. “Master,” the Sith apprentice greeted. “How may I help you?”

“I would like you to arrange for an inquisitor to accompany a group of senators to the Volmtagge System.” Palpatine hesitated. “There are a few . . . objects that I want him to find. I will provide all the information he needs to know.”

Rasche nodded. “Yes, my Master.”

How very polite, Palpatine thought. And very distant. The Sith Lord knew that his young apprentice did not harbor an ounce of regard for him – as it should be. But during their eleven year association, Darth Rasche has yet to make a move to become the new Sith Master. Lack of ambition? Or simply patient? Palpatine immediately dismissed both suggestions. Before becoming his apprentice, Rasche – formerly Romulus Wort – had been an ambitious, yet slightly impatient Jedi Knight. At least, according to Anakin Skywalker.

“By the way, did you overhear my conversation with the Grand Vizer Pestage?”

A slight, bored expression flitted across Rasche’s face. “Yes, I did. Why is the Volmstak flood so important to you?”

Palpatine leaned back into his chair. “There is a cache of Sith artifacts that had been stored on the Vomstak moon. Placed there by Darth Bane over a thousand years ago, when the Jedi were hunting down the Sith after the Great Sith War. I had just learned of their location not long ago. However, the agent who reported the discovery has disappeared. Possibly a victim of the flood. I want to ensure that the artifacts can be saved.” He paused dramatically. “And sent to me.”

Rasche rolled his eyes. “And you had summoned me to your office to discuss sending an inquisitor to recover this cache? Why not just send me?”

There were times when Palpatine wondered why he has put up with Rasche’s insolence. Vader had never been the insolent type, although Palpatine had sensed mild disapproval and dislike from his former apprentice. He never knew if he could trust Tyrannus – despite their thirteen year association. Only Maul had been eager to obey him. Which probably would have made the Zabrak a poor Sith Master.

“No,” the Emperor barked. “I have already created a committee to oversee the flood victims. I want an inquisitor to accompany them and ensure the discovery of that cache. No, I now have something else to discuss with you. I have recently sensed something afoot regarding Senator Dahlma of Maldare. Which is why I had requested that she serve on the Volmstak Relief Committee. She has rejected my request, claiming that she has a family funeral to attend. The funeral of a close cousin.”

Rasche’s dark eyes narrowed dangerously. “And you believe that she is lying?”

“I happen to know that Zoebeida Dahlma has been estranged from her entire family for years,” Palpatine explained. “Ever since her initial support of the Petition of 2000, during the last days of the Clone Wars. Her family has been ardent supporters of my chancellorship and of the Empire. I am curious about this cousin of hers. I would like you to send an inquisitor to investigate. Find out if this cousin of hers exists.”

After a long pause, Rasche asked, “And if this cousin does not exist?”

“Learn what the good senator is really up to. And deal with the matter.” A cruel smile touched Palpatine’s thin lips. “With your usual efficiency.”

Lord Rasche bowed deeply. "Yes, my master."


END OF CHAPTER TWO

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