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Cloak of Deception
James Luceno

Plot Info

Mired in scandal and baseless accusations, Chancellor Valorum is a well-meaning politician saddled with the hardships of public office. Fortunately, Valorum has a trusted friend and colleague in the form of Senator Palpatine, who helps him maneuver past these political hurdles that continue to plunge the Republic into turmoil. It is a time directly before The Phantom Menace. Hoping to bring stability back to the government, Valorum has called for an emergency trade summit on the planet Eriadu. At his behest, the Jedi Knights are tasked to protect the delegates from possible terrorist threats.

But something shadowy lurks beneath the surface, moving politicians as pawns in an unfathomable game. A simple peace-keeping assignment can turn into a political firestorm, and set into a motion a chain of events that will forever change the galaxy.

Star Wars: Cloak of Deception, a hardcover novel by James Luceno, is scheduled for publication in June, 2001 from Del Rey Books.

Chapter Six

The four walls of Finis Valorum's office, at the summit of the governmental district's stateliest if not most statuesque edifice, were made of transparisteel, paneled by structural members into a continuous band of regular and inverted triangles.

The city-planet that was Coruscant -- "Scintillant Orb," "Jewel of the Core," choked heart of the Galactic Republic -- spread to all sides in a welter of lustrous domes, knife-edged spires, and terraced superstructures that climbed to the sky. The taller buil-ings resembled outsize rocketships that had never left their launch pads, or the wind-eroded lava tors of long-dead volcanoes. Some of the domes were flattened hemispheres perched on cylindrical bases, while others had the look of shallow, hand-thrown ceramic bowls with finialed lids.

Striations of magnetically guided sky traffic moved swiftly above the cityscape --streams of transports, air buses, taxis, and limousines, coursing between the tall spires and over the measureless chasms like schools of exotic fish. Instead of feeding, however, they were the feeders, distributing the galaxy's wealth among the greedy trillion to whom Coruscant was home.

As often as Valorum had beheld the view -- which was to say, nearly every day of his now seven years as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic -- he had yet to grow indifferent to the spectacle of Coruscant. As worlds went, it was neither large nor especially rugged, but history had transformed it into a uniquely vertical place, a vertical experience more common to ocean than atmospheric life.

Valorum's principal office was located in the lower level of the Galactic Senate dome, but he was generally so swamped by requests and business there that he reserved this lofty perch for meetings of a more private nature.

Pale hands clasped at his back, he stood at the bank of transparisteel windows that faced the dawn, though daybreak was hours behind him. He wore a magenta tunic that was high-collared and double-breasted, with matching trousers and a wide cummerbund. Southern light, polarized by the transparisteel panels, flooded the room. But Valorum's sole guest had taken a seat well out of the light's reach.

"I fear, Supreme Chancellor, that we face a monumental challenge," Senator Palpatine was saying from the shadows. "Frayed at its far-flung borders and hollowed at its very heart by corruption, the Republic is in grave danger of unraveling. Order is needed, directives that will restore balance. Even the most desperate remedies should not be overlooked."

Although such opinions had become the common sentiment, Palpatine's words pierced Valorum like a sword. The fact that he knew them to be true made them all the more difficult to hear. He turned his back to the view and returned to his desk, where he sat heavily into his padded chair.

Aging with distinction, Valorum had a receding cap of shorn silver hair, pouches under piercing blue eyes, and dark, bushy brows. His stern features and deep voice belied a compassionate spirit and questing intellect. But as the latest in the line of a political dynasty that stretched back thousands of years -- a dynasty many thought weakened by its uncommon longevity -- he had never been fully successful at overcoming an innate patrician aloofness.

"Where have we gone wrong?" he asked in a firm but sad voice. "How did we manage to miss the portents along the way?"

Palpatine showed him an understanding look. "The fault is not in ourselves, Supreme Chancellor. The fault lies in the outlying star systems, and the civil strife iniquity has engendered there." His voice was carefully modulated, occasionally world-weary, seemingly immune to anger or alarm. "This most recent situation at Dorvalla, for example."

Valorum nodded soberly. "The Judicial Department has requested that I meet with them later today, so they can brief me on the latest developments."

"Perhaps I could save you the trouble, Supreme Chancellor. As least in terms of what I've been hearing in the senate."

"Rumor or facts?"

"A bit of both, I suspect. The senate is filled with delegates who interpret matters as they will, regardless of facts." Palpatine paused, as if to gather his thoughts.

Prominent in a kind if somewhat doughy face were his heavy-lidded, watery blue eyes and rudder of a nose. Red hair that had lost its youth he wore in the provincial style of the outlying systems: combed back from his high forehead but left thick and long behind his low-set ears. In dress, too, he demonstrated singular allegiance to his home system, favoring embroidered tunics with V-shaped double collars and outmoded cloaks of quilted fabric.

A sectorial senator representing the outlying world of Naboo, along with thirty-six other inhabited planets, Palpatine had earned a reputation for integrity and frankness that had set him high in the hearts of many of his senatorial peers. As he had made clear to Valorum in numerous meetings, both public and private, he was more interested in doing whatever needed to be done than in blind obedience to the rules and regulations that had made the senate such a tangle of procedures.

"As the Judicial Department is certain to tell you," he began at last, "the mercenaries who assaulted and destroyed the Trade Federation vessel Revenue were in the employ of the Nebula Front terrorist group. It seems likely that they gained access to the freighter with the complicity of dockworkers at Dorvalla. How the Nebula Front learned that the freighter was carrying a fortune in aurodium ingots has yet to be established. But clearly the Nebula Front planned to use the aurodium to finance additional acts of terrorism directed against the Trade Federation, and perhaps against Republic colonies in the Outer Rim."

"Planned?" Valorum said.

"All indications are that Captain Cohl and his team of assassins perished in the explosion that destroyed the Revenue. But the incident has had wide-ranging repercussions, nevertheless."

"I'm well aware of some of those," Valorum said, with a note of disgust. "As a result of continuing raids and harassment, the Trade Federation plans to demand Republic intervention, or, failing that, senate approval to further augment their droid contingent."

Palpatine made his lips a thin line and nodded. "I must confess, Supreme Chancellor, that my first instinct was to refuse their requests out of hand. The Trade Federation is already too powerful -- in wealth and in military might. However, I've since reassessed my position."

Valorum regarded him with interest. "I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts."

"Well, to begin with, the Trade Federation is made up of entrepreneurs, not warriors. The Neimoidians, especially, are cowards in any theater other than commerce. So granting them permission to enlarge their droid defenses -- slightly, at any rate -- doesn't concern me unduly. More important, there may be some advantage to doing so."

Valorum interlocked his fingers and leaned forward. "What possible advantage?"

Palpatine took a breath. "In exchange for honoring their re-quests for intervention and additional defenses, the senate would be in a position to demand that all trade in the outlying systems would henceforth be subject to Republic taxation." Valorum sat back in his chair, clearly disappointed. "We've been through all this before, Senator. You and I both know that a majority of the senate has no interest in what happens in the outer systems, much less in the free trade zones. But they do care about what happens to the Trade Federation."

"Yes, because the shimmersilk pockets of many a senatorial robe are being lined with graft from the Neimoidians." Valorum snorted. "Self-indulgence is the order of the day."

"Undeniably so, Supreme Chancellor," Palpatine said tolerantly. "But that, in itself, is no reason to allow the practice to continue."

"Of course not," Valorum said. "For both my terms of office I have sought to end the corruption that plagues the senate, and to unravel the knot of policies and procedures that thwart us. We enact legislation, only to find that we cannot implement it. The committees proliferate like viruses, without leadership. No fewer than twenty committees are needed just to determine the décor of the senate corridors.

"The Trade Federation has prospered by taking advantage of the very bureaucracy we've created. Grievances brought against the Federation languish in the courts, while commissions belabor each and every aspect. It's little wonder that Dorvalla and many of the worlds along the Rimma Trade Route support terrorist groups like the Nebula Front.

"But taxation isn't likely to solve anything. In fact, such a move could prompt the Trade Federation to abandon the outlying systems entirely, in favor of more lucrative markets closer to the Core."

"Thus depriving Coruscant and its neighbors of important outer system resources and luxury goods," Palpatine interjected, seemingly by rote. "Certainly the Neimoidians will see taxation as a betrayal, if for no other reason than the Trade Federation blazed many of the hyperspace routes that link the Core to the outlying systems. Regardless, this could be the opportunity many of us have waited for -- the chance to exercise senate control over those very trade routes."

Valorum mulled it over briefly. "It could be political suicide."

"Oh, I'm well aware of that, Supreme Chancellor. Proponents of taxation would suffer merciless attacks from the Commerce Guild, the Techno Union, and the rest of the shipping conglomerates awarded franchises to operate in the free trade zones. But it is the appropriate measure."

Valorum shook his head slowly, then got to his feet and moved to the windows. "Nothing would cheer me more than getting the upper hand on the Trade Federation."

"Then now is the time to act," Palpatine said.

Valorum kept his gaze fixed on the distant towers. "I could count on your support?"

Palpatine rose and joined him at the view.

"Let me be frank about that. My position as representative of an outlying sector places me in an awkward situation. Make no mistake about it, Supreme Chancellor, I stand with you in advocating central control and taxation. But Naboo and other outlying systems will undoubtedly be forced to assume the bur-den of taxation by paying more for Trade Federation services."

He paused briefly. "I would be compelled to act with utmost circumspection."

Valorum merely nodded.

"That much said," Palpatine was quick to add, "rest assured that I would do all in my power to rally senate support for taxation."

Valorum turned slightly in Palpatine's direction and smiled lightly. "As always, I'm grateful for your counsel, Senator. Particularly now, what with troubles erupting in your home system."

Palpatine sighed with purpose. "Sadly, King Veruna finds himself enmeshed in a scandal. While he and I have never seen eye to eye with regard to expanding Naboo's influence in the Republic, I am concerned for him, for his predicament has not only cast a pall over Naboo, but also over many neighboring worlds."

Valorum clasped his hands behind his back and paced to the center of the spacious room. When he swung to face Palpatine, his expression made clear that his thoughts had returned to issues of wider concern.

"Is it conceivable that the Trade Federation would accept taxation in exchange for a loosening of the defense restraints we have placed them under?"

Palpatine steepled his long fingers and brought them to his chin. "Merchandise --of whatever nature -- is precious to the Neimoidians. The continuing assaults on their vessels by pirates and terrorists have made them desperate. They will rail against taxation, but in the end they will tolerate it. Our only other option would be to take direct action against the groups that are harassing them, and I know that you're opposed to doing that."

Valorum confirmed it with a determined nod. "The Republic hasn't had a standing military in generations, and I certainly won't be the person to reinstate one. Coruscant must remain a place where groups can come together to find peaceful solutions to conflicts."

He took a breath. "A better course would be to allow the Trade Federation adequate protection to defend itself against acts of terrorism. After all, the Judicial Department can't very well suggest the Jedi dedicate themselves to solving the Neimoidians' problems."

"No," Palpatine said. "The judicials and the Jedi Knights have more important matters to attend to than keeping the space lanes safe for commerce."

"At least some constants remain," Valorum mused. "Just think where we might be without the Jedi."

"I can only imagine."

Valorum advanced a few steps and laid his hands on Palpatine's shoulders. "You're a good friend, Senator."

Palpatine returned the gesture. "My interests are the interests of the Republic, Supreme Chancellor."