Isde Naha, Isde Naha System
Virax Sahnah, director of Capital Enterprises’ operations in the Javin Oversector, sighed and tossed her datapad on to her desk. A month ago, she’d had twenty-five covert cells operating in the Caelus System, monitoring Clan Taldryan’s activities and expanding the Collective’s influence among the upper echelons of Caelus society. Now, somehow, Taldryan had uncovered over half of those cells, capturing and slaughtering them in nearly equal measure. Some of the Collective agents had managed to get away before the Dark Jedi tightened the net—Sahnah would always think of Taldryan as “Dark Jedi”, no matter what they called themselves nowadays—but with even the survivors being forced to flee the system, her operations on Chyron were in shambles.
After a moment’s pause, Sahnah retrieved the datapad and scrolled back through the report—one she’d written herself, earlier that day—until she found the paragraph she was looking for. The whereabouts of all known Taldryan field operatives were accounted for during Taldryan’s counter-intelligence operations, raising the possibility of involvement from previously unknown assets, or increased cooperation between the Brotherhood’s factions in disrupting our operations, independent of orders from the Dark Council. Further investigation is required to assess the extent of the threat.
Sahnah’s desk terminal bleated to notify her of an incoming transmission. When she answered it, a late-middle-aged Duros appeared on the screen: Vice Admiral Jad Kressim, commander of Battle Group Scargill, and Sahnah’s Liberation Front counterpart. “Virax.” Kressim nodded, and Sahnah thought she detected a hint of a smile on his features, but the expression faded before she could be sure. “I just read the report about what happened on Chyron. How did they compromise our network?”
“We’re working on finding that out. For now, we have to assume the Tallies know everything our personnel on Chyron knew about our operations. They sure didn’t hesitate to peel heads open back in the old days.” Sahnah suppressed a shudder at the memory of her time in the Taldryan Intelligence Division. She still occasionally had nightmares about the “interrogation” sessions she witnessed. “We’re going to have to move the timetable up, or all of our work is going to go to waste. I assume you’re calling because you’ve been tasked to help,” she said.
“We’re moving in your direction.” Kressim frowned. “You’re not launching a full-scale invasion of Caelus, are you?”
“You say that like you haven’t already planned it.” Sahnah smiled thinly. “But no. If we bring the fleet in, Taldryan’s puppet government will claim that the move is ‘unprovoked aggression’ and kill any support we would’ve had among the population.”
“But you have a plan.” The Duros raised a brow-ridge.
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Sahnah’s smile broadened. “When the Tallies overthrew the syndicate that used to control Caelus, they installed an elected government in its place. Some members of the Caelus Council aren’t as friendly with Taldryan as Chancellor Ky’Lian is, though. They’ve been pushing the view that Taldryan’s presence makes the Caelus System a target for the Collective.”
Kressim nodded slowly. “With how Taldryan performed at Lyra Colony, the Caelus Council must have doubts about whether Taldryan’s navy can protect them from a Collective attack. Knowing Taldryan’s fleet composition, I wouldn’t be confident if I were them, either.”
“By putting your battle group in Isde Naha, we’ll give Taldryan’s enemies a reason to step up their pressure against Chancellor Ky’Lian. If she stays loyal to Taldryan, the Caelus Council can say she’s placing their citizens in danger and vote to remove her from office.” Sahnah’s smile turned smug.
“I see. Scargill’s presence will also prevent any allies Taldryan might have from reaching Caelus in time to assist them in an engagement,” Kressim said, then frowned at something off-screen. “I’ve got another call I have to take. I’ll let you know when we’re on station in Isde Naha.”
“Talk again soon.” Sahnah killed the transmission and got back to work.
Consul’s Office, Taldryan Clan Headquarters
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
“Are you sure you got them all?” Rian arched a brow at the heads of Taldryan’s intelligence networks.
Justinios, still visibly wearied after his recent kidnapping, shrugged in response. “You can never really be sure about that kind of thing. My techs know how to spot hidden transmissions, and the electronic warfare suite on that freighter Nihlus requisitioned has cracked every cipher they’ve used so far, but they’re bound to have backup channels. It wouldn’t really be a covert network if finding one cell led to finding every other cell, would it?”
“For that matter, how did they infiltrate Caelus so thoroughly in the first place?” Rian said, eyeing the Twi’lek in the other chair across from him.
Vodo shrugged. “I don’t have any sources inside the Collective, and neither did the SRI field operatives I got when you and Erinyes reorganised everything. Either way, the important part right now is figuring out what the Collective’s up to. We took the messages Justinios decrypted and asked Quejo and Arvalis to interrogate the prisoners about them. They’re still working, but we found out that the Collective’s been getting their hooks into top political and military leaders—including the Caelus Council.”
Rian frowned. “And Ceyra’s– er, Chancellor Ky’Lian’s head of security. It sounds like the Collective is trying to stage a coup.”
“A coup would make it far too easy to portray the Collective and their sympathisers in the Caelus Council as tyrants seizing power against the people’s will,” Justinios pointed out. “On the other hand, a no-confidence vote that resulted in the election of a new, pro-Collective Chancellor would shift the balance of power against Taldryan while maintaining the appearance of independence. All it would take is convincing the citizens of Caelus that Chancellor Ky’Lian’s close association with Taldryan will ultimately be to their detriment,” the Aleena mused.
“That fits,” Vodo said, picking up Justinios’ train of thought without missing a beat. “If the Collective gets their own lackey into the Chancellor’s seat, the only way we could stop them from switching sides is by staging our own coup.”
“Except then we’d look like the tyrants the Collective keeps saying we are,” Rian said, brow furrowing deeper.
“Exactly! So much for letting the Caelus government stay independent saving us trouble.” Justinios cackled, but glares from the other two men made him cut the display off with a cough.
Rian shook his head at his former deputy. “How are we going to handle this? Could we stage a pre-emptive strike against the Collective to cut off support to their sympathisers?”
Vodo shrugged again. “You’d have to ask the military. It’s probably not a good idea in a broader sense, though. If we leave any evidence that it was us behind the attack, they could use that to turn the Caelus government against us.”
“Yes, yes! If they say, ‘we have no quarrel with the people of Caelus, but we have to defend ourselves against Taldryan,’ they could easily make it seem as though the only reason Caelan citizens are in danger is because of our presence. Which, of course, would be completely accurate.” Justinios paused for a beat and frowned as realisation dawned. “I can’t condone potentially putting innocent people in harm’s way just to attack the Collective, even if it were guaranteed to succeed. I’d rather pack up and move to draw the threat away.”
“Easy for you to say. You live on a ship,” Vodo snorted.
The Aleena puffed his chest out triumphantly. “And situations like this are perfect demonstrations of the benefits of mobile lodging!”
“Alright, you’ve made your point.” Rian rubbed the bridge of his nose. “So, we need a way to disrupt the Collective’s operations without them thinking that it was us who did it.”
“Ideally, not only that it wasn’t us, but that it was someone else. Otherwise they’ll assume that any inconvenient mishap was somehow our responsibility,” Justinios said.
The room fell silent for a moment as the three men considered their options. Eventually, Rian was the first to speak. “What about going to the other Clans?”
Vodo straightened in his chair, scowling. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not?” Justinios tapped his chin as he mused aloud. “Our military situation becomes increasingly untenable as time progresses, and as you yourself pointed out, the political ramifications of seizing the only tactical option available to us would undermine Taldryan’s relationship with Chancellor Ky’Lian, perhaps even convincing the Caelus Council to side with the Collective. Our current circumstances are substantially similar to those which led us to cooperate with Odan-Urr during the evacuation of our former home systems.”
“Asking them for help a second time is just going to give Odan-Urr more leverage over us,” Vodo said. “We’re better off going to Vizsla if we need outside help. At least we know they’ll treat it like any other business arrangement.”
“If it’s a business deal you want, tell them we can arrange a discount on Clouzon-36 in exchange for their help,” Rian said. “Any Clan, not just those two. If the Collective is willing to turn its full strength on us, we need all the allies we can get. Vodo, make the arrangements. Justinios, keep working on those transmiss–”
A warble from the Consul’s desk terminal—and another from Justinios’ commlink, to Rian’s surprise—cut off the rest of the sentence. Rian quirked an eyebrow when he saw the Dark Council encryption on the message, and smiled as he scanned its contents. “I take that back. Congratulations on your new job, Justinios.”
“Aw, thanks, boss. Guess that’ll be Nihlus’ problem now!” the Aleena cackled. Beside him, even the normally-impassive Vodo offered something like a smile, both in congratulations and at the thought of Nihlus’ reaction to being saddled with extra work.