Power Behind the Throne
Against the hazy sunrise, the dark shapes of thousands of starscraper spires lurching above the fog-swollen underbelly of Coruscant appeared like the wave of a patient's palpitating heartbeat under the knife of a surgeon. Hundreds of traffic lanes, moving between the erratic spikes, were already clogged despite the early hours, funneling criminals, workers, soldiers, smugglers, and high-ranking senators to their respective locations. And in the center, disrupting the angular, spiking lines of the prosperous city, sat the bulbous mass of the Senate Rotunda.
"That building is a cancer," Ysanne Isard stated as she stared out at the domed structure. She wished, as she did every morning when her shuttle carried her to the Imperial Intelligence Headquarters, that Vader would destroy the Senate Rotunda, as well as the pungent ideologies of the withered old politicians inside. Her knowledge of how resistant individuals could be to change was the only reason she had accepted Emperor Palpatine's decision to keep the practice in place when he had transformed the Galactic Republic into the Galactic Empire. But over twenty years had passed since that act. Twenty years of laws, ignorance, and treaties that had left the Senate practically powerless in light of the Emperor's authority. And yet, despite the fact that few would question his motives for doing so, Vader proved too cowardly to abolish the final principles of the Republic and transform their government into a true Empire.
She scowled. A true emperor, like her Palpatine, had to be cunning, ruthless, and absolutely devoted to the control of power. He should be ruling his people with an iron fist, not fuddling his way across the galaxy in a halfhearted attempt to subdue a band of renegades.
Perhaps if he hadn't destroyed the weapons at the secret Maw Installation, this war would be over by now, Ysanne fumed. Through her numerous connections as Director of Imperial Intelligence, she had secretly retrieved some of the information on Vader's destruction of Palpatine and Tarkin's hidden base. Most of the weapon schematics had been lost, but she held the fragments of a few, including the Ionic Ring, the Sun Crusher, and the Death Star. She fingered the datapad on her lap, where she had pulled up the image of the moon-sized space station capable of destroying an entire planet.
If only her Emperor Palpatine hadn't perished on Mustafar! What great things he would have accomplished! Her frustration at her true Emperor's death had led Ysanne to spend every free moment for the past twenty years searching for his killer, the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi. Upon hearing of his death at the hands of Darth Vader, she had only felt a morsel of satisfaction. Jedi powers be damned – she had wanted to torture the man herself.
Isard shifted her focus to her own reflection, staring back at her from the curve of the shuttle window with mismatched eyes, one ice-blue and the other a fiery red through some fluke of genetics. 'Iceheart', some called her, for her infamous coldly furious temper. But sometimes, her ire flared red-hot, capricious and unpredictable as flame. The two different colors of her eyes reflected the extremes in her personality, it was said, an assessment Ysanne herself agreed with. Beyond that, she secretly enjoyed the unsettling effect her mismatched eyes had on others, putting them off-balance from the first moment they met her. Most sentients inadvertently blurted out things they ordinarily would not have when confronted with her intimidating glare, a most useful trait for an Intelligence operative.
The shuttle curved on its path to the right, hiding the Senate Rotunda behind scores of starscrapers. To be honest, Ysanne felt somewhat relieved not to be able see the obtrusive mass anymore, but scowled for good measure and turned back to her datapads, scrolling through the cases she was monitoring.
In fifteen minutes, the shuttle touched down at the Imperial Intelligence Headquarters. The looming black building glistened like obsidian in the early light, with sharp lines shooting up the sides like the ribs on the primordial ancestor of man. It was sometimes remarked upon as one of the most noticeable buildings on Coruscant, both for its size and design, with its ribbed walls that revealed few windows, and the sparse landing pads for ships, painted dark to blend in with the rest of the structure. A few of the braver pundits had compared Intelligence Headquarters to a massive loaded weapon aimed at all passersby. Ysanne had found the comments amusing rather than offensive, for that actually was the desired effect.
When Ysanne stepped off the shuttle, she was met with six aides standing at perfect attention in two lines. Six crisp uniforms, immaculate stances, and perfect silence. Ysanne didn't nod to acknowledge them when she passed between the two rows; they didn't expect her to, and simply fell in line behind her as she strode towards the imposing form of the Imperial Intelligence Headquarters.
As soon as she entered the gray-slab doors, two aides handed her several datapads and gave a quick synopsis of the main issues they were investigating. One involved a smuggling ring that they had pinpointed to the Sargesso asteroids. Another involved a small group demanding to speak to the Emperor on account of a political injustice, though Ysanne knew it was a front for an assassination attempt.
A third aide handed Ysanne the latest reports regarding their investigation of the potential Beta Source candidates. So far, no one had been proven to be the elusive double-agent, but no one had been counted out either. Ysanne scrolled through the information gathered since the previous night and scowled. It was a pitiful amount, though she was glad the agents had not inflated the reports with repetitive information to make themselves look like they had done more work. She knew from her own research that there was little to be found.
She stopped on a catwalk three stories above the central investigation room, a large, circular area filled with screens, computer stations, and holo-tables. The insignia of the Imperial Intelligence Division was engraved on the floor in the center of the room, with the machines purposefully placed near the edges. It was inconvenient at times, and there had been comments about the waste of space, but it was important, Ysanne felt, to have their symbol constantly present.
Most of it, she knew, was for her own benefit. She had poured more hours and blood into that symbol and the power it represented than even she knew. It had started before she had become the Director of Imperial Intelligence, before she had framed her father and had him killed, back even before she had been a pre-teen meeting with high-ranking officers who had sloppily given her top-secret information because they underestimated her.
No, Ysanne determined. This was part of her, as much as her father was a part of her; it was a bloodline of sorts that had claimed her at birth to rule. Despite the misgivings of some of the other high-ranking members of the Imperial hierarchy, she had prevailed and become one of the most important members of the Empire. Arguably, only a handful of sentients in the entire galaxy could lay claim to more power or influence than Ysanne Isard.
She felt the datapads between her fingers. Those lives were in her hands. When she decided, they would either be destroyed or spared. All she had to do was speak.
The agents, moving from station to station or delivering information to others, paced over the angular shape of the insignia. As their black boot-heels brushed the glossy material, the details vanished, and, for a moment, they seemed to become an extension of the institution they served. Ysanne smiled, and leaned against the railing for a second to watch the motions of the busy hive while the aides continued to update her on known issues.
One aide mentioned the Beta Source again, and Ysanne drew herself further back to the conversation in hopes that they had learned something new. But, as she had suspected, the information was inconclusive; the Admiral in question had merely made a purchase from a merchant suspected of selling also to the Rebels.
"That data is useless," Ysanne said, casting an annoyed glance at the young man. He was a Kiffar, with unremarkable features, dark hair and three red clan markings below his right eye. He's new, Ysanne remembered when she recalled his face, and sensed he was trying to make a good impression. But being new did not entitle him to stupidity.
"Every man, woman, and child in the vicinity uses that old merchant," Ysanne continued. "Even Lord Vader has been known to purchase from him, though indirectly." She lifted an eyebrow and smiled leeringly. "And are you saying that Lord Vader is a traitor?"
The aide immediately flushed with embarrassment. "No, Madam Director," he stammered. "Certainly not!"
"What, didn't think of that?" Ysanne shoved the datapad back into the man's hands and turned to look over the central room. "Interrupt me only if you find something useful."
The man's heels clicked together and he offered a tight salute before scurrying away to accomplish his task. Ysanne smiled, pleased with the knowledge that the man would work twice as hard now as he had ever worked before. Those who wished to keep their jobs and their lives did not disappoint Ysanne Isard more than once, if even that.
Still, her smile faded when she thought about the Beta Source dilemma. The presence of certain factors in the individuals' backgrounds, such as smuggling, familial ties to the Rebellion, and so on, categorized each of the names as potentials for the Beta Source. But so far, all roads had led to dead ends so generalized that she may as well accuse half the galaxy of treason. She scowled. Was the Beta Source even one of the names on the list?
Another aide approached her and held out a datapad to the Director. Ysanne's eyebrows rose when she read the message. "Well, isn't this interesting? I'll take this in my office," she said. The aides nodded, and scurried away to their stations.
Ysanne's office was a smaller room than most of the officers of her rank, and made smaller by the large amounts of information and weapons Ysanne stored in the bookcases. Some things were legal; most were not. But no one dared question her about them. Over one wall hung a flag with the insignia of the Imperial Intelligence Division. It was the first flag ever made for the division, one that Palpatine had given to her himself during his far-too-brief reign as Emperor.
The screen on her desk clicked harshly, letting her know that the files had finished transferring to her machine. A level five encryption, it said, and Ysanne set her computer about to translating the message. It had come from one of her spies, specifically one stationed on the Executor.
Ysanne's spies were well organized and experts in subterfuge, especially those working behind the backs of Thrawn and Vader. She felt little remorse for resorting to trickery to retrieve sensitive information from the Emperor and his pet. After all, they felt little need to inform her about critical facts.
Such as Mara Jade. The only reason Ysanne knew about the former 'Emperor's Hand' was because of her spies, and her information regarding this strange position was unacceptably small. This was especially true considering Ysanne was in charge of monitoring the flow of information, and considering that this Mara Jade was supposedly privy to the most sensitive information in the galaxy. How was she supposed to work against a force she knew nothing about? Yet she knew that, in order to hide their blunder in letting this woman defect, Vader and Thrawn would place the blame on Imperial Intelligence Division for any information that Mara Jade revealed.
Thankfully, she had found out quickly – already, Ysanne's agents had caught more than a dozen attempts by outside forces to infiltrate their systems. Though the information about the perpetrators was inconclusive, none of the attempts had succeeded, which to Ysanne was a form of success.
Ysanne's fingers drummed a tuneless melody on the wood tabletop. She had put finding Mara Jade near the top of her priorities, though she made sure that word of it didn't reach Vader or Thrawn, since the two still believed that Ysanne knew nothing about her or any of the other Hands.
The progress bar finished, and Ysanne opened the decrypted folder. Inside was a single document, and from the size, couldn't be more than a few lines. The fact surprised Ysanne. She had expected a more substantial message, even if it was just information about the Beta Source that she already possessed. Besides the Beta Source, she had informed her spies to investigate more about Mara Jade, as well as figure out what Vader and Thrawn were up to in their free time that was consuming an alarming amount of the military budget.
The file opened.
Ysanne read it, and then read it again. The document was the list of people suspected of being the Beta Source. Ysanne had all of the names memorized, but the spy had added one final name to the list; the name, and nothing else, as if the spy understood that the addition was so virulent that any other information would be completely forgotten.
Director Ysanne Isard.
When Isard burst from her office ten minutes later, the agents, aides, and security personnel nearby took an involuntary motion away from the Director. Her hair was a mess, her jacket half-undone, and she had fragments of plastic multicolored chips resting in her hair. She was panting heavily, and those that were close enough to see into the woman's office saw that every item had been overturned or destroyed.
They quickly offered her a stiff salute; to their relief, the Director briskly stomped past them and towards the central room, fragments of wreckage flying from her hair to land like plastic rain in her wake. As she went, she buttoned up her jacket and straightened her hair, regaining most appearances of sanity by the time she reached the main floor of the Central Room.
"Give me an update," she said to a group of distracted aides crowing around a computer screen.
"We have evidence for, I mean we've-" one of the technicians started to say, but lost his train of thought when he saw the fury still burning in the Director's mismatched eyes.
"We have detected secret communications between Senators Viru Samposith and Baodoo Vorbe's concerning a coup against the Emperor," the red-marked Kiffar agent said. He pointed to the screen. "Our spies have confirmed audio and written messages between the two."
Ysanne nodded. "Bomb Samposith and Vorbe's' estates. I don't want any survivors."
"Madam Director?" the Kiffar man asked, surprised. "But won't that kill their families? Wouldn't it be best to arr-"
Ysanne's balled fist leaped out like a striking serpent, backhanding the Kiffar with such force that his feet left the ground as he flew backwards. His head slammed into the hard black floor with an audible crack as he landed, seeming even louder through the shocked silence of those standing around them.
Blood slowly leaked from the unconscious Kiffar's nose, dripping to land in scarlet puddles on the glossy black floor. For a long moment, no one moved.
Ysanne took a slow step over to the Kiffar, prodded his leg with her boot, and with another blur of unexpected motion, leaned down and smashed her fist into his face again.
"Are there any other objections to my orders?" Isard inquired with deadly calm as she straightened, blood dripping from her knuckles.
With alacrity born from fear, the rest of the technicians hurried to their tasks.
"I'm ordering the strike now!" a technician blurted as he shoved an officer away from his computer, typed in a series of commands, and pointed to the screen, which showed the redirection of four cruisers to the planets of the two senators. "They'll arrive in two hours and bomb their estates as ordered."
Ysanne's lips stretched into a smile as she stepped over to the computer. The technician scooted out of the way, allowing Ysanne the opportunity to check the machine to ensure that what he said was accurate.
"Very good, Ensign," Ysanne said, placing her bloodied hand on the boy's shoulder. He flinched, which caused her to smirk. She motioned with her head to the Kiffar boy bleeding on the obsidian insignia and said, "I only punish those who disobey me, Ensign. But you were very good to do what I asked. What's your name?"
"Oren Tantell, sir," the pale-haired man said, quickly regaining his courage. "From Ghorman."
"You did well, Oren," Ysanne said and turned to address the rest of the quiet inhabitants of the room. "Learn from him, all of you." She clapped Oren on the shoulder. "His behavior is what I expect from every member of Imperial Intelligence."
The wide-eyed agents nodded weakly and murmured compliments. A few managed to clap.
"If there's one thing we cannot let ourselves do, it is be unfaithful to the Empire," Ysanne said to Oren. "It is what separates us from the scum who plague this galaxy."
The ensign nodded stiffly. "I understand, Madam Director."
"I know you do, Oren. Otherwise you wouldn't have done what you did."
Ysanne glanced over at the sprawled body a few meters away. He had been left alone, as the remaining agents had kept to their quiet positions out of the way. The Director clicked her tongue. "Good agents are hard to find, Oren." She motioned to the unconscious Kiffar with a dismissive wave of her hand. "That man held the rank of Lieutenant. It's your position now."
Oren's face paled. "Thank you, Madam Director," he said, then suddenly remembered to stand and give her a salute.
Ysanne saluted back and placed her hand one more time on his shoulder. "You won't betray me too, will you, Oren?"
"No, Madam Director," Oren shook his head, and quickly added, "Long live the Empire."
Ysanne cast a disdainful glance back at the prone form of the Kiffar. "Remove that," she snapped, then turned and headed up the stairs to her office.
Just before entering the doorway, she glanced out from the catwalk. The shell-shock had worn off of the agents by now. A handful of men tended to the Kiffar who had disobeyed, using a hastily fetched stretcher to take him down to the infirmary. The rest resumed their positions at their stations. She made a silent note of the agents that remained diligent about their work, and the slight few that stumbled about in a state of delirium.
If there was one thing she was not about to tolerate, it was weakness, and those displaying it would be expunged from the agency.
But for the most part, the agents performed as they needed to. The one that had rebelled had been weak, too focused on moral standards to understand the severity of their work. The rest, those that continued in their work without delay, understood that weakness and disobedience could not be tolerated.
Or were they obeying me? Ysanne thought. They weren't obeying the Empire, or even Vader. They were obeying her, her rules, her governance, even when the legalities demanded less stringent repercussions for wrongs. They obeyed her even when everyone else said not to, because they knew she wasn't weak.
She entered her office, making her way gingerly over the fallen furniture, twisted metal, and broken glass to her chair and sat down to think. Her computer was completely demolished, but the message from her agent continued to pour fire into her ears.
What had she ever done to make Vader think she would betray him? Despite her opinion that the 'Invisible Emperor' was being a poor leader, she had stood by Vader's side, and taken more abuse from him and his lackeys than she had tolerated from anyone else. What evidence did he have to even think she was aiding the Rebels besides a list from a supposedly trustworthy source?
By now she was convinced that the list of Beta Source candidates was a fabrication. Whatever person Vader had trusted to deliver the information was captured or dead. If Vader couldn't see that, he was weak.
And weakness needed to be expunged at all costs.
Ysanne smiled as she glanced over at the flag hanging on the wall, the only item in the office that had remained untouched in her rampage. If Vader was too weak to do the things necessary, then she would remove him and take over herself. It was just what her Palpatine would have done, what he had done with the bloated, corrupted old Republic.
There was no reason she couldn't take over, Ysanne realized. She had an extensive spy network, one capable of piercing even Thrawn's supposedly impenetrable shroud of secrecy. The majority of the military officers respected (or at least feared) her more than Vader, or could be bribed onto her side. The rest could be easily taken care of, and replaced with others.
Ysanne's mind raced as she began to pace around the room. She could count on at least four Grand Admirals to side with her. She could also count on two Moffs, and she knew that a third Moff held a personal distaste for Vader that could be used for her advantage. More than a third of the military officers would side with her immediately, and the Senate-
She froze in her tracks. She had forgotten about the Senate and their rules. As much as it pained her, she knew she needed them if she was going to succeed in her plan.
But she also knew that, if she went to the Senate Rotunda and demanded allegiance, they would have no qualms about turning her over to Vader or shooting her right then and there. And even if she did take the time to speak to each representative and convince them to her cause, it would be a waste of time, especially considering her lack of patience with the science of politics. She would need help with them.
Ysanne scowled. She hated where her mind was going.
But if she was going to get anywhere with her plan, she would need to ask him for his help.
The office of Sate Pestage, Grand Vizier of the Empire, was lushly furnished, extravagantly displaying his vast wealth. It held a menagerie of unusual artifacts gathered from across the Empire, such as statues, paintings, vases, and ornate furniture to hold the Vizier's books, papers, and treaties. Some of the items, Ysanne knew, were gifts from the more prestigious of Sate's contacts; others were acquired illegally by blood or bribe; they all suited Pestage's flair for the unusual. Despite their differences, all the pieces somehow fit together, as if the sheer unbalanced nature of the items was enough to weigh out any unpleasant aspects of the arrangement.
The chairs furnishing the room were likewise luxurious. Sate's table and chair faced away from the window, giving the visitors to the Grand Vizier's office the constant view of the Senate Rotunda through the glass-window wall. A single chair had been brought out for Ysanne's arrival, though Ysanne knew that more of the chairs could be added if the number of visitors increased.
The chair was overly comfortable, conforming to her body to she settled her weight into it. The fabric itself was soft to the touch; as she waited, sorting out the mixed bag of emotions and technicalities of the plan in her mind, she found herself rubbing her fingertips over the armrest.
The doors swished open behind her; she moved her hands to her lap, but stayed seated, staring firmly at Sate's empty chair while the Grand Vizier and his entourage strode boisterously into the room.
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long," Sate, dressed in an elegant outfit befitting his title, said as he entered, grinning with geniality comparable of arsenic. He was more than twenty minutes late, but Ysanne smiled back as pleasantly as custom demanded. She'd allow him his little act of defiance. The upper hand would return to her in no time.
"What can I do for you, Miss Director of Imperial Intelligence?" Sate asked as he settled himself into his overstuffed chair. The head of the ornately carved throne loomed more than three feet over his head, giving Ysanne the amusing impression of an infant child lost in his father's chair.
Still, Ysanne presumed that the dozens of protrusions and knobs riddling the side of Sate's throne were merely facades over a plethora of weapons. Conflict could not always be resolved with fancy words or false promises; sometimes, as it was for Ysanne, hands had to be bloodied for results to be seen.
"You sound unhappy to see me," she replied.
Sate's face was darkened in the shadow of the chair, but his dark brown irises against the pale skin pierced her like the recesses of space. "I had to cancel my meetings with several perturbed politicians to arrange this 'emergency' meeting with you, Miss Director. I hope it is worth it."
"You'd miss out on an opportunity to talk to me?" Ysanne said with a fierce ironic grin.
"I'd imagine a Rancor holding a more pleasant conversation than you, Miss Director." Sate motioned to an aide; the girl, a fair-skinned beauty in her late teens, scurried over and handed the Grand Vizier several forms.
Ysanne raised an eyebrow.
"If you are going to interrupt my busy schedule, the least you can do is allow me to handle several simple items," Sate insisted. He glanced between the two pieces of paper, then scribbled a malformed line across the bottom and handed it to a second aide before taking another form from the girl. "I assure you, it will not disturb my attention to you in the least."
"Let's hope so," Ysanne said, more irritably than she would have liked.
Sate's hands paused, only for a fraction of a second, an indistinguishable motion for most people. But Ysanne knew how to pick up on the nuances of human behavior. He had been offset by her remark, she realized. But he left her no time to evaluate further.
"Why have you demanded my attention, Miss Director? I can only hope that I am not going to be interrogated for any of your investigations."
"As if you could produce enough of a disturbance to interest me," Ysanne replied.
"For which I should be eternally grateful. Or perhaps, disappointed? After all, I hear those who feel the touch of your interrogators feel pleasure in nothing else. Those who feel your hand most of all."
Ysanne smiled and picked at the dark, dried blood caked under her fingernails.
Sate glanced over another form and scrawled his name illegibly at the bottom before exchanging it for another. "But surely, you've come for a purpose other than to have us shoot spears at one another. For that, we could adjourn to the Grand Convocation Chamber. There you'd have the company of hundreds rather than a single old man."
Ysanne smirked. "Yes of course. But such a conversation would be best kept between your ears and mine."
"Hm, is this missing a page?" Sate motioned to his aide for her to check. The girl zipped eagerly to the Vizier's side, and glanced between the pages on his desk and in her hand, and then pulled a page that had gotten lost in the bottom of the stack. "Oh, you are a dear," Sate smiled and stroked her pale, flawless cheek with his finger. She blushed and smiled, then stepped back to the other aides.
"Grand Vizier Pestage," Ysanne snapped.
"Hm? Oh yes, I apologize," Sate said and snapped his gaze back to Ysanne. "What were we talking about?"
Ysanne's hands clenched into fists, and she scowled darkly at the Vizier. "I'd like to speak to you alone," she said bluntly and motioned with her head to the aides. "Tell them to leave."
"Don't you trust my advisors?"
Ysanne clenched her teeth. "Of course," she replied stiffly. "But loyal men are hard to find nowadays, and those who hear things unwittingly often find themselves vanishing in the middle of the night."
Sate shrugged. "Men are a decicred a dozen. One just has to know the right pressure points to make them into loyal men."
"Perhaps," Ysanne replied. "But even you must realize that time is not so easy to come by; even your aides must learn how to hand you a paper to your satisfaction."
Sate smirked and gave a faint wave to the white-faced aides shrinking away from the conversation. They nodded in relief and hurriedly left.
"I presume that my staff is considerably safer now," Sate said as soon as the doors had sealed the two alone. "Perhaps now we can resolve the little differences we seem to be having."
Ysanne smiled and, after quietly folding her hands in her lap, said plainly, "I am going to kill Darth Vader."
Ysanne knew she had nothing to fear in telling Sate this. He had more blood on his hands than hers, and he knew she knew this. They had held this stalemate since each of them had risen to power; it had developed, in its own way, into a kind of twisted alliance, in that Sate was one of the few Ysanne could count on not to betray her.
Still, she was somewhat unsettled by his mask, which remained unshaken by her statement.
Sate chuckled lightly and leaned back into his throne. "Your bluntness is a welcome change around here," he said. "As piercing as a dagger to the heart."
Ysanne scowled and waited for Sate to continue.
He stared at her a moment. "My my, aren't we ambitious? Kill Vader?" The Vizier's lips pulled back into a wide smile, stretching the weathered skin so far she thought it would tear.
"And yet not surprised?"
"My dear," Sate leaned his chin onto his hand, "you had your own father murdered. And it's common knowledge that you hold Lord Vader with less respect than him. To be honest, I'm surprised that you haven't attempted it earlier."
Ysanne held her head up proudly. "Disobeying my master was not my desire."
"Though you'd dare dethrone his successor now."
"Vader has grown weak," Ysanne snapped. "He lets the Rebels roam free, he never deals with those who betray him, he adheres to a weak order, and he is obsessed with recovering that bastard child of his. He doesn't deserve the honor of being Palpatine's heir, not anymore. Surely, in having to deal with the 'Invisible Emperor,' you've thought as such."
Sate leaned back in his chair. Hidden in the shadow of the sunlight, the man's face quickly lost most of its distinguishable details.
"And I take it you believe you have what it takes to rule this Empire," the shadowy form asked. "As Supreme Empress, I presume?"
Ysanne grinned. "Sate, do you doubt my ability to rule?"
"Your ability to cow the idiot masses into subservient obedience is unmatched in any quadrant of the galaxy. I only doubt your ability to deal with the more respectable rabble in the Senate."
"Is a necessity, even for an Empress," Sate interrupted.
"Palpatine would never have let the Senate last as long as it has."
"But Palpatine is not here, and Vader has made the mistake of leaving the Senate in place, and so we will have to move that much more carefully when we take over."
Ysanne raised an eyebrow, but she revealed her canines when she spoke next. "'We', my dear Sate?"
"I assume you have some place for me in this new world of yours, if only because you deemed fit to warn me of your future plans. And I believe my position would be exceedingly higher than this current one, if only because of my necessary talents."
"I could assign you to cleaning the refuse from the ground levels of Coruscant and no one would care."
Sate Pestage grinned. "But you would." Before Ysanne could object, Sate lifted a slender hand to her. "A lifetime in politics has made me a master of reading others, dear Director. You've maintained your fierce countenance, but the fact of the matter is that you are still sitting here, despite all I've done to aggravate you." When Ysanne scowled, Sate's own smile widened. "Which indicates to me that you are willing to suffer almost anything to win my support."
The chair flew out from behind Ysanne as she bolted to her feet. "I don't need you," she snarled. "An uncultured, scaly Gamorrean scum who rolls in his own-"
"Careful how you use that tongue of yours," Sate interjected. "One day you might find yourself choking on it."
Ysanne slammed her fists down on Sate's table and leaned over the wide wooden top until she was nearly nose-to-nose with the Grand Vizier. "My tongue is the least of your worries, Vizier," she said through gritted teeth. "Instead you might want to consider the barrel of a silencer while you sleep in your bed."
To her infinite annoyance, Sate's countenance remained utterly placid, and for a long minute, the two of them locked stares, raging in a silent, delicate war of wills.
"If you are going to be Empress, you'll have to learn to manage your temper," Sate said finally. His words came out barely as a whisper, but in the dark silence sweltering the office, it resounded like a choir of drums. "Even Palpatine learned to show restraint."
Ysanne nodded slowly.
"I expect to maintain my position as Grand Vizier. Of course, I'll let the public face of power be yours," Sate said. "As delightful as it would be to clash heads with one equally as black-hearted as me, I fear such a struggle would leave us both with nothing but an empire of ash-covered worlds to rule."
Sate motioned to the overturned chair. After a second's hesitation, Ysanne backed away and resumed her seat. While she did so, the Grand Vizier tapped a long finger against the wooden tabletop. "I believe Ars Dangor would side with us," he said after a moment of deliberation. "He will require more surveillance than most, but he will still prove a valuable ally. Sly Moore perhaps, but she is so entrenched with monitoring Vader's young Sith that she might be too distracted to be of any use."
"I never liked that Umbaran," Ysanne remarked. "It'll be good to finally get rid of that old hag. As far as the military goes, I've estimated the rough number of Grand Admirals and Moffs that would side with me. It is more than a fair percentage."
"As is the general consensus in the Senate." The Grand Vizier's dark eyes focused on the table and his fingers tapped the table. "Few of the politicians hold any love for Vader. Most of the rest will simply balk if we apply the right pressure. Something I'm sure you could assist with, my dear."
Ysanne smirked. "I doubt you need my help in getting your hands dirty, Sate. But I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to show an Emperor's true strength."
Sate grinned. "Of course. Now if you excuse me," he motioned for the door, "I must request that I be allowed to adjourn our meeting until another time. I have a meeting with several senators regarding their questionable loyalty to Vader."
Ysanne chuckled. "Vader may be Emperor, but the Empire is not his to command. Not anymore." She stood and straightened her jacket. "I will inform you when I need you next. Until then, it would be best to know exactly how many of the senators and planets could be swayed. I will monitor the military."
"Very well," Sate said. "Wait!" he called just before Ysanne made it to the door. "If we are going to be allies, I would like to know one thing."
Ysanne cocked an inquiring eyebrow.
"Knowing you as I do, I have no doubt that you would have attempted to overthrow the Emperor eventually. But I get the feeling that your current motion towards anarchy was not spurred on by your lust for power, but rather, by a personal wrong. So my question is this: what was it exactly that Vader did that could affront the ice-hearted Director of Imperial Intelligence into mutiny?"
Ysanne scowled. "He suspects me of being a spy for the Rebellion."
Sate's countenance finally cracked, and he stared at her for a minute in disbelief at what he had just heard. Then he threw back his bald head and laughed, louder than she had ever heard him laugh before, a chilling sound that haunted her down the hall, past the legions of dull-faced aides and politicians, and into the cockpit of her shuttle.
Three full weeks passed before the small group of a dozen men and women of various races met in the seclusion of a meeting room deep within the bowels of the Imperial Intelligence Headquarters. The room was untapped and unmonitored, and the members had all arrived without any trace, having made up viable pretenses for their simultaneous absences.
It was a plain room of white walls, empty except for a long metal table covered with datapads, papers, holograms, and photographs.
"How many of the Grand Admirals have we confirmed?" Ysanne asked.
"Five of the twelve so far. We're not counting Thrawn, of course," Yekkr Em'Orth, a Zabrak Grand Admiral said, and circled several names on a list. "At least four more are likely candidates."
"At least Echir Blanche as well," Natasia Vorlcan added. She brushed some graying hair behind her ear, then flicked a minute spot of dust from the shoulder of her white uniform. "Vader nearly killed him after Blanche was defeated by the Rebels a few months back. He's been trying to find a way to get revenge ever since."
"He's a wild card, but he'll serve his purpose," said Ysanne. "Afterward, we'll see how loyal he is."
The two Moffs present nodded in agreement. "Most of us are with you. And we've started stockpiling additional weapons, as well as more advanced weaponry that we've been developing."
"I'd advise against it," Tu'Hroshk, a Cerean Grand Admiral advised. "Should Vader find these stockpiles, he will ultimately discover us, and force us to move our plan into action before it is ready."
"We'll need the extra firepower," Gier Kus, one of the Moffs, objected.
Ars Daganor shook his head. "Our plan relies on manpower and timing, not firepower."
"Agreed," Ysanne said. "We cannot run the risk of Vader discovering stockpiles. Not yet, at least. And if we have the manpower, we have the weapons."
The two Moffs, known for dabbling in superweapons, looked disappointed, but nodded in agreement.
"Be sure to gain the support from the corporations in your sectors as well, especially those in the Azubani system. We need control of those shipyards."
"Youan Turi was just placed in charge of that sector by Vader," Gier said. "She's from Kiffu, and is concerned only about keeping the planets safe. If we convince her that we're the stronger force, she'll follow us."
"Some of the planets will be willing to send ships when the time comes, as well as deny Vader's forces access to resupply," said Sate Pestage. "Even if he escapes, Vader cannot hope to conquer every planet in the galaxy."
"Then the meetings with the senators have gone well?" Ysanne asked.
Sate nodded. "Ars Daganor and I have confirmed allegiances with several of the more vocal dissenters. We will continue to rally your supporters, though it will take time to do so without drawing attention."
"Agreed," Ysanne said. She drummed her fingers on the tabletop and brushed her other hand over the list of senators. "It may take over a year before we will be in a position to move. But we will move, and we will remove Vader. And when that happens, I will carry this galaxy into a golden age that hasn't been seen since the height of Palpatine's glory. No," Ysanne said, "even Palpatine's legacy will not be able to cast a glimmer of comparison on this new Empire. We will rule even beyond the Unknown Regions and become the single most powerful entity in the universe."
The members grinned in agreement and offered murmurs of agreement.
"Long live the Empire," Yekkr said, then smiled fiercely. "Or should I say, long live the Empress?"
Ysanne smiled. "In time, my friends, it will be one and the same. And we will be unstoppable."
Coruscant never slept, was the saying. When the sun died at night, the lights of offices, aircraft, and nightlife rose to supplant the void of darkness and spur life on until the cycle could be repeated.
The Imperial Intelligence Headquarters was one of the few buildings that didn't offer beacons to the night-dwellers of Coruscant. There were only a few stripes of red flashing lights running up the sides, and these were only to ward off unmindful pilots. It was difficult to see any details of the building, and thus virtually impossible to see a dark, unmarked one-man vessel latched between the building's jagged contours.
That, of course, was why Darth Nova chose that spot to spy on Ysanne Isard.
Bathed in the cockpit's scarlet instrument lights, Nova listened intently to the conversation unfolding in the heart of the Intelligence Headquarters Building. The Starkiller had done extensive research on the Director of Imperial Intelligence over the past few weeks, mostly by analyzing her work, since placing monitoring devices inside of the Headquarters Building was difficult, even for him, due to the Director's obsession with perfect security. He had only barely managed to place a listening device on Grand Admiral Vorlcan before she had entered the dark walls of the Imperial Intelligence Headquarters a few hours previous. Even then, the link between the listener and his ship was incredibly weak and threatened to cut out if he moved too much.
But it was enough. By the Force, it was enough for him. Nova's blood surged, and his mind raced with the now attainable vision of becoming Emperor. He had always intended to overthrow Vader; it was the way of the Sith - the true Sith, not the self-denying path of Vader - for an apprentice to destroy his master. His only unresolved issue had been how to maintain control over the Empire when Vader's influence ended. But now, with Isard already planning her own coup, Nova knew that his only requirement to become Emperor would be to step in and take that control from her. The rest would fall into place on its own. He was, after all, the most powerful being in the galaxy. Who could stand against the man who had murdered a pair of suns with only his own mastery of the Force?
The members of Isard's conspiracy offered a few last comments and began to disperse. Nova pressed a control and the transmission cut off; the device he had dropped in the Grand Admiral's hair, no bigger than a water droplet, disintegrated into a whiff of ash that could never be traced back to him.
With a final triumphant laugh, Nova detached his craft from the side of the building and began his ascent back to the black recesses of space.
When he entered hyperspace, Nova sorted through the files gathered on Ysanne and deleted or altered any information that would indicate her as being a traitor. He would send his report to Thrawn, of course, though it would say that Ysanne Isard should be discounted as a potential Beta Source candidate. In fact, he might even make a comment about her diligent service; with such praise coming from his trusted apprentice, Vader might give her additional power, and thus speed up her plans to become Empress.
Well, so that he could become Emperor, Nova corrected. Isard would submit or be destroyed, but he, the Starkiller, Darth Nova, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor, would be the one to rule the galaxy into a golden age more spectacular than any it had ever seen.
Editor's Note: As I said last chapter, this oneshot was written by Silverwolf05, and I acted as beta reader/editor, in a bit of a reverse of how it usually goes. I think she did an awesome job, don't you? Well worth the long wait, which was completely my fault, since my laptop finally died for good on me and I had to wait to get a new one.
That's it for this collection; all that's left now is for me to finish 'One Missed Strike, Part III' and post it. If not for an interminably long period of me being without reliable computer access, it would be done already, but as it is, I expect to finish before long. Till then, thanks to all for reading!