CHAPTER 2: BELLY OF THE BEAST
Anakin and Obi-wan waited as the Imperial Transport sluggishly dropped its loading ramp with a chorus of loud hisses. Obi-wan was fully robed, his hood obscuring his face, while Anakin was simply dressed in a plain tunic, his apprentice braid dangling from his cropped head.
"Anakin." Obi-wan said without looking at him.
"Yes, Master?" Anakin asked, now walking down the loading ramp.
"Think before your act. I don't want a repeat of what happened on Taris".
Obi-wan began his descent down the ramp, Anakin's laughter bringing his mind at ease. But there was something here. Lurking... And what's worse, he could tell it was hiding from him. But the subtle ripples it made in the force stood out to Obi-wan like lighting in the sky.
It reminded him of the war.
The Jedi who killed without mercy. Without regard for life.
It reminded him of the dark side.
"Master..." Anakin called, and Obi-wan awoke to his immediate surroundings. And once he looked around, he could see why Anakin was uneasy. They were greeted by an armada. Hundreds of sentient soldiers and even more war droids marched themselves into line and were taxied off the capital ship, and to Naboo below.
"What does this mean, Obi-wan?" Anakin said anxiously. Obi-wan could only shake his head, his eyes not believing what they saw. Naboo was Imperial territory. And sending a force like this- was an act of war.
They stood infront of their transport while the Azure's forces marched by them. Anakin looked to Obi-wan and smiled glumly.
"When the council asks, I'm telling them you did it." He joked. Obi-wan frowned, and pulled his hood down from his head.
"Now isn't the time, Anakin." He said quietly.
"Sorry Master. But, I must say your skin is flawless in this Trade Federation docking bay/invasion launchpad light." Obi-wan shook his head, nodding towards the silver protocol droid that was shuffling towards them.
"Hello Master Jedi, Tarkin sends his regards." The feminine metallic voice greeted.
"Pft. He couldn't send himself?" Anakin quipped. The droid paused- this kind of response not answerable with her limited programming.
"I-sorry-I- Come this way please." The droid said politely. Obi-wan and Anakin turned to each other, each one with question written on his respective face, and then followed the droid to wherever it was taking them.
"Why do they design them like this? They move so slow." Anakin muttered underneath his breath. Obi-wan didn't respond to him. He didn't even hear him. He was was back on Concord Dawn, surrounded by fields of burning crops and bodies. Behind him, the army of the Empire- Clone troopers clad in white armor, pushed the offensive, led by Jedi. He remembered the sight of his former masters cutting down innocents and combatant alike. He remembered how the force screamed in his mind. He wasn't ready for another war. Not yet.
And then suddenly, he recognized the feeling he had felt when he first landed on the ship, the presence that had tried to escape his notice.
It was Dooku.
Wilhuff Tarkin was a respected man. From one of the noblest families in Imperial space, he had taken his clan from Eriadu and into Federation territory. He was one of the first defectors from the Empire. He had risen in the ranks quickly, the non-military minded Federation merchants practically begging him to become their military commander. As such, he was behind the quick reconstruction of the once peaceful merchant ships, turning them into weapons.
And he had never felt better. Ale from Cato swam in his belly and rolled in his wine glass as he watched the Federation ships- His ships fly to Naboo. Everything was going as was planned. He turned from his view screen and looked at the diverse crew of alien and human workers studiously clicking away at nav-computers and weapon systems. He walked through their rows, sometimes pausing behind one worker, chuckling as they would begin to work faster than what was necessary.
This, This was progress. This was industry. And most importantly, this was money. What the Emperor and the high senate didn't understand is that war was necessary for the survival of the Empire-It was needed. Without War, the Empire would crumble apart and fall. The old founders and the Jedi understood this after Ruusan; turning the Republic into an Empire- Creating a government system that prospered, and has stood for over a thousand years.
But the golden days of the empire were over. And the Empire was dying. Tarkin was a visionary, and he saw what was happening. He knew what had to be done. History was made by the victor, and he refused to be on the losing side. The Federation as a military power was young now- But under his direction, in a mere six years they would be able to challenge the waning empire.
It was his destiny to destroy it. And from the ashes of Coruscant, he would create a new dynasty, and his sons and grandsons would rule the galaxy, fighting in wars, ending lives and gaining honor.
A smile touched his lips. He was writing history.
Wilhuff''s dreams were shattered at the sound of that cold, calculating voice. He noticed that even the methodical clicking noises from the crew had ceased. It was quiet on the bridge.
"Tar-kin." The voice called again. Wilhuff blinked quickly and walked down the bridge to meet Dooku, who was waiting for him at the Bridge-doors. The former Jedi was dressed entirely in black, a great contrast when compared to his pale skin. Dooku was old, but he didn't look a day past forty, with jet-black hair and complexion unaffected by time. Wilhuff didn't look bad for his age, but when compared to Dooku, he looked almost insignificant.
"Master Dooku, I had almost forgotten you were on board." Wilhuff said, grinding his teeth. Wilhuff's eyes then noticed Dooku's companion, and his heart shrank even further. The man, if it was a man, had a face entirely covered by artistic red and black tattoos. Stitched with an almost savage grace, the tattoos were jagged and sharp- bright and violent. A hood covered this beings face, resulting in the red color of the tattoos seeming to almost jump out from the darkness.
Dooku noticed Wilhuff's gaze.
"This is my...associate, Maul." Dooku said. Wilhuff gulped deeply and bowed to this new enigma.
"Greetings, Master Maul."
Once the word Master left Tarkin's lips, Maul's eyes had turned on the old commander instantly, his expression going from general disinterest to deep anger. Tarkin's heart sank as Maul suddenly reached for him with intense trained speed. The old man gasped, narrowly jumping away. But Maul was faster, already closing the distance between them and preparing another move. He caught Tarkin by the cuff of his collar and pulled him in close, so that he was inches away from Maul's face.
"I am no Master. I am no Jedi." Maul snarled. Tarkin nodded emphatically, too gripped by fear to respond.
Maul, satisfied, allowed his expression to soften, and he almost delicately returned Tarkin to a respectable standing position. Maul gracefully moved to his position by Dooku's side. Dooku, who was chuckling during the entire ordeal, clapped.
"Bravo, Tarkin. Bravo. I haven't been able to get that much emotion out of him since we met." Dooku began walked down the bridge, Tarkin and Maul taking up step to his left and right.
"Now, On to business. Tarkin, I see you have carried out my altered instructions-Which is good. The invasion needed to be sped up." He said simply. Tarkin nodded gratefully.
"It was hard convincing the Gunray and his associates to-" Tarkin began, before he was cut off by Dooku.
"Tarkin.. I have need to alter the deal. Again." He sighed. Tarkin stopped walking, watching as Dooku and Maul walked to the end of the bridge, looking out the view-screen at the swarming ships.
"What is it..Master Dooku?" Tarkin asked hesitantly.
Dooku sighed deeply. "We must immediately take military action on Naboo."
Tarkin reached for his collar, suddenly feeling like he wasn't getting enough air.
"Convincing Gunray to allow me to begin the invasion was hard enough as it is...and the Jedi..." Dooku and Maul both turned around at this.
"Jedi?" Dooku asked.
"Yes they have been sent by the empire to negotiate-" Tarkin trailed off as Maul stared at him with violent, yellow eyes.
"You know there can be no negotiations. Why am I just being told of this now?" Dooku asked.
"Gunray thought it was an internal affair..." Tarkin began.
Dooku swooped over to Tarkin with impossible speed. He brought up a pointed finger to Tarkin's chest, and placed it firmly by the old man's heart.
"There are no internal affairs. Deal with gunray, deal with the Jedi, and carry out my master's orders as they are given to you." Dooku said.
Tarkin nodded, and Dooku, with Maul, left silently and wordlessly, like ghosts, leaving the bridge and Tarkin in shocked fear and rage.
Tarkin noticed the silence and looked around to see his crew was not working, but in the same state of shock as he.
"What are you fools doing? Get back to your duties!" he screamed, and almost instantly the sound of industry resumed. But Tarkin couldn't help but feel that he had been undermined. No, he knew he had been.
Well played, Dooku. He thought to himself.
But there are many roads on the path to power..
Tarkin almost forgot he had been holding a glass of wine. He finished it with a swig, and threw it on the ground, closing his eyes as the sound of even that simple destructive act eased his thoughts.