Chapter Five - The Tangled Web

"Open your eyes, Cipher."

Cipher Nine obeyed the Minister's soft command. Her eyes slowly fluttered open. The Minister leaned in with a small pen light and shined it in her eyes. Her pupils remained dilated.

Nodding as he placed the pen light back on the desk, he murmured, "She is ready for the programming."

"Finally," sighed to Kara to herself as she sauntered over to where Cipher Nine sat like an inactive droid to get a closer look at this "dangerous" agent. Cipher Nine's eyes stared blankly ahead and Kara could not see a single thing about her that was above average let alone remarkable. This thing confronted Darth Jadus, Kara questioned herself with a sneer. As far as she was concerned, Darth Ravage was right when it came to Cipher Nine. Put the wretched creature down and be done with it. All this fuss over this agent was borderline comical.

Kara looked at the Minister. His face was cold and impassive as he continued in his ministrations of Cipher Nine before the programming. What's his game, she wondered. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, but the Minister was either unaware of her scrutiny or he simply ignored it. She had to admit, he was a worthy opponent. But he had to have a weakness to exploit somewhere, everyone did. What was it? There was more than one way to remove this irksome thorn from her side. She just had to find it.

The Minister stood back and crossed his arms, never taking his eyes off his agent.

"Designate Cipher Nine, can you hear and understand me? Permission granted to answer."

"Yes." Her eyes remained empty and still as she answered.

"Good." The Minister nodded. "Cipher Nine, you will be given a keyword. Upon hearing this keyword you will cease all and any current actions. You will then wait for new orders designated by the person who uttered that keyword. Do you understand? You may answer."

"Yes." Cipher Nine murmured.

"You will be unable to do anything else until you have completed your new orders. If you attempt to disobey the orders your body will shut down and you will be incapacitated until your keyword holder releases you. Understood? You may answer."

"Yes." replied Cipher Nine.

Kara watched all this with great interest. Her mind working behind her beautiful features. Just then her eyebrows raised slightly as an idea crossed her mind. Smiling wickedly she walked over to where the Minister stood by him. Making sure she stood in his personal space she leaned into him seductively and whispered in his ear. "By the way, I forgot to mention earlier. Darth Ravage has requested that you also make it so that she will be unable to harm any of the Dark Council Members. Keyword or not. He wants it so that she will not be able to function if she dares to confront one of the Lords again. In case you have some reservations about this new order, he wanted me to assure you that this new request is not open for debate." Kara smiled triumphantly, daring him to argue.

The Minister didn't look in her direction. He just stood silently and ridged as if he were a statue. Finally, he blinked once and murmured icily, "Very well."

Kara's eyebrows shot up in surprise. What? No argument? She was sure the Minister would have given her more of a fight than that. She was actually hoping for it. Any excuse to kill this man would have been most welcome. But instead she got a relatively quick acquiescence. Interesting, she thought as she searched his face suspiciously. The Minister showed no signs of it, but she was beginning to think that perhaps her close proximity and intimate whisper had affected him a little. She smiled to herself. She should have tried seduction earlier. He was a man after all, and every man has one weakness common among them that has plagued their existence since the day they crawled out of the primordial goo. Lust. And though she was bright and a fierce fighter she prided herself on the fact that she could get virtually anything she wanted by sheer seduction. That was where her true strength lay. The Minister would be a challenge, but she reveled in that fact.

"Thank you, Minister," she whispered in his ear. "See? I can be civil when I want to be. And I think you'll find that I can be very...accommodating, to those who return the favor," Kara continued to whisper. She was enjoying her game. If she could gain the Minister of Intelligence's favor, her power would increase tenfold. She'd have a Sith Lord and the Minister of Intelligence wrapped around her little finger. Power & Information at her beck and call. The thought practically made her giddy. This might be fun!

She looked the Minister up and down with an appraising eye. Despite his age, he was not unattractive. It wouldn't be much of a chore. He was in physically fit, and he had an air of confidence and intelligence about him that she found attractive. Yes. This could work out nicely for her. The worst case scenario would be Ravage getting jealous and killing the Minister in a rage. It had happened before. In which case, she'd finally be rid of this particular "thorn" and move on with her life. It was a win, win situation for her. Besides, she liked nothing more than building men up to dizzying heights, then letting them drop and shatter to pieces before her. It was a little hobby of hers. And watching the Minister shatter would be a particularly exquisite delight.

Turning her head she nodded in Cipher Nine's direction. "Go ahead. Give her the order. Get this silly brainwashing over with so we can both get on with more important matters."

The Minister's jaw tightened slightly and then relaxed with what seemed like a little effort. His eyes lowered back to his agent.

"Cipher Nine, in addendum to your previous orders you are forbidden to harm any of the current Dark Council Members. You will not ever attack one of them even if ordered to do so by your keyword holder. Any attempt to do so will result in a shutdown of your system. Is that understood?"

Cipher Nine continued to stare blankly ahead as she said "Yes."

The Minister nodded. "There. That should satisfy your master. All that is left is the keyword programming. I'm sure that I don't have to remind you that you will have to leave before I administer it." Turning his face to Kara who was literally inches from him.

"Of course." Kara smiled and leaned into the Minister, her lashes low and her cheeks flushed. Few men could resist her bashful blush. "You have been very accommodating, Minister, and I feel that I must apologize to you. I have underestimated you. A mistake I will not make again. I also have been unforgivably rude in my behavior. I broke into your office, I've threatened you, I've ordered you about as if you were my servant and you didn't deserve that. You have been very patient with me. A lesser man would have reacted harshly to my behavior." Kara lowered her gaze in what appeared to be shame and embarrassment. "But you are not a lesser man, are you, Minister? You have proven that to me. And if you'll let me, I promise to make my past transgressions up to you."

The Minister simply stood still, staring down at the beautiful woman who looked up at him with longing etched into her features. His face impassive and unreadable.

Reaching up Kara traced his high cheekbones and sharp jaw line. "I never noticed what a handsome man you are, Minister. Such defined features. A face that is the definition of authority. I like it very much. It is such a shame you weren't born a Sith. You would have been great. You have such...raw potential." She moved her hand to his lips and started to trace them. "I think, I'd like to explore that rawness sometime."

The Minister reached up a gloved hand and clamped it around the wrist of her caressing hand and pulled it away from his face. Taking a small step back he looked at her and took a long breath. "Forgive me, but I think we are through here, Acolyte."

"Of course." Kara smiled and then curtseyed demurely before him. "For now, Minister." She began to walk away slowly and seductively as she felt those piercing eyes on her. Pausing before she got to the door she looked over her shoulder. "But I do hope to continue our conversation about your hidden potential soon. Good evening, Minister. I will be sure to report your success to Darth Ravage. He will be very pleased with your work." She gave the Minister one more smile and then closed the door behind her.

The Minister frowned when he heard the door finally shut. "I'm sure he will be," he muttered under his breath bitterly. Looking back at Cipher Nine his gaze softened a little but the frown remained. Taking a deep breath he abruptly turned on his heel and addressed the computer.

"Computer, are there any other life forms in this room other than Cipher Nine and myself?"

"Negative, Minister."

"And what of Kara Xylax. Has she left this floor?"

"Affirmative, Minister. Kara Xylax has just left the lift on the lower levels and is continuing on her current course toward the exit of Intelligence."

"Good. Please inform me immediately if she or anyone approaches this room."

"Affirmative, Minister."

"I'd also like you to send out a scrambling emitter for the next ten minutes." The Minister was pretty sure his office wasn't bugged but he didn't want to take the chance.

"Affirmative, Minister. Scrambling emitter will begin in one minute and continue for a full the full requested ten minutes."

Nodding in satisfaction, the Minister walked over to where Cipher Nine still sat looking as lifeless as a large doll. He leaned up against his desk and crossed his arm and stared down at her long and hard. The frown lines deepened around his mouth as he continued his train of thought. The computer beeped announcing it was now safe to talk freely.

The Minister took a slow deep breath. "For what it is worth, Agent, I tried to protect you from this. Sadly, I was left with little choice. This was the lesser of two evils, not that it will make any difference to you one way or another should you ever discover what has been done to you. But, make no mistake, I have no regrets in brainwashing you. I'd do it again if I had to."

The Minister's jaw tightened in anger. "Do you have any idea what I've had to do to keep the Dark Council from executing you? Did you truly have any idea what you were doing when you confronted Darth Jadus? No. I'll wager you didn't. Well, allow me to fill you in on the details...You not only endangered your life but every single life in Intelligence, Cipher!" The Minister was angry. For the first time in a while he let the cool facade fall and reveal the fires of rage that he buried beneath the mask.

"You have no idea what I've been fighting against the past few years! The Sith are not against the idea of 'cleaning' out Intelligence and starting over. In fact, I've been hearing a disturbing amount of whispers coming from them suggesting that they are going to do just that very soon. Your little stunt has just added fuel to their fire which is forcing me to play my hand far sooner than I'd like!" The Minister picked up a small data pad that had been sitting on his desk and hurled it across the room in a rage. "Dammit, Cipher!" he yelled as the pad shattered into bits and pieces on the far side of the wall. "It's too soon!"

Rounding on his agent again the Minister's face darkened. "A piece of me flirted with the idea of letting them have you. After all, what is one life to save many?" He began to pace in front of her. Cipher's face remained lifeless and impassive. "I am responsible for all of the lives of Intelligence, Cipher. More so now since I am Minister. And I take my job and my responsibilities very seriously. Do you understand that? If one of my people fail, then I fail." The Minister shook his head. "It would have been so much easier to give you to them. Their appetite for blood would have been sated and it would have bought me a little more time to finish what I need to do."

The Minister turned his back to her and leaned both hands against the surface of his desk. There he stood for a few moments seeking to compose himself. His form relaxed a little. After a moment he continued. "But I couldn't bring myself to accept their demands. You, like me, had no choice. You found yourself in an awful situation that required quick thinking and improvisation. I understand that. You did your best." He turned around once more and looked down at his agent. "And you showed me that you are truly loyal to the Empire and its people. Not just to the Sith. It is for that reason, that I can't afford to lose you, Cipher. I need you. Now, more than ever. Your role will become even more important in the coming days." He walked over to Cipher Nine and gently brushed a stray hair that had come loose behind her ear with a gloved hand. His hand then softly moved down her cheek and rested under her chin. He tilted her face up to meet his. "I hope you are up for the challenge. I'm taking a rather uncomfortable gamble on you."

The computer beeped a warning. The Minister glanced over to it. The ten minutes were almost up. He released his agent's face and it rested comfortably back to where it was.

The Minister sighed. "Cipher, after I give you your keyword you are to go back to sleep. When you wake you will have no recollection of having even met me here. As far as your waking mind is concerned, this conversation never happened and you were never here. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Cipher Nine said in her usual monotone.

"Very well." The Minister took a moment to make sure he was happy with the keyword he chose. Yes, he was. It was a word that was not used in everyday conversation so there was little danger of someone accidentally uttering the word in passing. And the word was ironically perfect for the programming. "Cipher, your keyword is Onomatophobia. Upon hearing this word you are to cease any and all current actions. Is that understood?"

"Yes," Cipher Nine replied.

"Repeat the keyword back to me," The Minister said.

"Onomatophobia," Cipher Nine said.

"Very good." The Minister nodded. "Close your eyes Cipher. Your programming is complete. You may go back to sleep."

Cipher Nine's eyes slammed shut and her body immediately slumped in the chair. The Minister simply stood for a moment in the silence of his office listening to his agents soft and even breathing. Finally he walked over to the com in his desk and pushed the button.

"Minister to Keeper." He waited for a moment.

"Keeper here, sir. Go ahead."

"Cipher Nine's programming has been completed. I need a med team up here to take her down to the medical ward so that she may rest for a bit. I also want her vitals monitored in case there are any unexpected side effects of the serum."

"Of course, sir. I'll send one up now," Keeper replied.

"Keeper, I'll need you up here too at your earliest convenience. We have a few things we need to discuss."

"Of course, sir. I'll accompany the medical team. We will be there shortly. Keeper, out."

The Minister walked back over to the window. Frustration etched into his features once again. What was he going to do? He needed more time. It wasn't near being finished yet but events were proceeding faster than he anticipated. According to one of his contacts in the Sith side of the Citadel, the Sith were close to executing their plan. He had to stall them somehow and work faster. Shaking his head the Minister thought, time to call in even more favors.

The computer chirped a warning. "Three life forms are approaching the office. Identities, designates Keeper, Fixer 15 and Fixer 19. Orders, sir?"

"Grant them access." The Minister replied without moving.

"Affirmative, sir. Access granted" He heard the computer release the locks on the office door. Moments afterward the door was opened by Keeper followed by the two Fixer's who had a hover stretcher in tow.

Keeper's eyes darted from the lifeless form of the agent in the chair to the Minister's rigid form gazing out the window. Concern flashed across her features, but duty took over. She glanced over to the two Fixers who were awaiting orders. Jerking her head toward the direction of Cipher Nine she silently ordered them to take care of her. The Fixers nodded in understanding and then moved to the chair where Cipher Nine rested. They quickly lifted her and placed her on the stretcher.

Keeper walked over to inspect the agent. She was asleep and breathing evenly. "Take her to the medical ward and inform the droids they are to monitor her vitals. I am to be notified of any changes."

"Yes, sir." Fixer Fifteen said.

"You are not to speak a word of this to anyone. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir." both Fixers said simultaneously

Keeper nodded in approval. "Dismissed."

With that the Fixers removed themselves and Cipher Nine from the office and the doors shut behind them.

Keeper stood quietly waiting for the Minister to speak. Something was wrong. She hadn't seen him lately and when she did she could tell he had something heavy weighing on him. She was beginning to think it was more on his mind than just the incident with Darth Jadus. She craved to know what was going on, but she knew better than to pry. He'll talk to her when he wants to.

"I found Kara Xylax in my office when I walked in earlier." The Minister said finally breaking the silence. His voice even and cold.

Keeper blinked, unsure of what she just heard. "Sorry?"

"Kara Xylax bypassed security and was in my office earlier this evening," he repeated still looking out the window.

"That's not possible, sir. Our security systems would have alerted me to her presence." Keeper was flustered. It was simply not possible.

"She's learned a few new tricks from her masters, Keeper." The Minister said turning to regard his subordinate. "She has learned how to use the Force to conceal herself essentially making her invisible. And I imagine she gained my security pass codes from Darth Baras. His slicer's are good but sloppy. They left their 'finger prints' all over the database."

Keeper wasn't sure what to make of all this new information and she seemed a bit disturbed that the Minister seemed so calm about the whole thing.

"Sir, even if she was invisible our computers use infrared. Her heat signature should have picked her up even if the cameras didn't."

The Minister shook his head. "The Force works differently, Keeper. It can do 'impossible' things by technological standards."

"Yes sir. I will discuss the matter over with some of the Fixers and see if we can upgrade our security to include Force stealth somehow." The Minister simply nodded his approval. "Was anything of your compromised?"

"No." The Minister said as he walked back over to his desk and sat. "I keep nothing of real importance in here. This new office is a little too obvious a place to keep truly classified information. It would be like keeping your most precious jewels in a jewelry box. The first place a thief will go to is a jewelry box. Even if Kara had time to snoop she would have found fake reports and falsified data in my desk and terminal."

Keeper smiled. She marveled how he always managed to be one step ahead. She moved and sat in the chair in front of his desk. "How did you discover Kara was in your office? Was she still invisible when you came in?"

"She was. Visually, at least." The Minister smirked. Keeper's brow furrowed in confusion. Seeing the confusion flash across her face The Minister added, "I have many handicaps, Keeper, but being deaf is not one of them. Nor do I have a weak sense of smell."

Keeper's face registered pure confusion. The Minister smirked a little and continued, " That child practically bathes in perfume, Keeper. No doubt in a futile attempt to cover up the stench of her many lovers. I recognized her obnoxious perfume in the hallway even before set foot in my office. But, it wasn't until I heard the slight jingle of her overly elaborate robes coming from that corner over there that I was sure she was still here." Keeper looked over to the corner where the Minister had indicated Kara's hiding place.

The Minister continued, "Darth Ravage loves to spoil her with expensive gifts and she is too vain to change out of them and into something a little more practical and silent. As far as I am concerned, she might as well have been wearing a bell around her neck."

Keeper smirked. She had only met Kara once and she found it very difficult to treat her with anything but cold indifference. And it was no surprise to her that Kara failed even the most simple covert rules, 'Don't stand out.' She was no Imperial agent.

"I'll need you to keep an eye on her, Keeper. I don't think we've seen the last of her. She tried to seduce me while she was here."

Keeper had to stifle a laugh. The idea of anyone trying to seduce the Minister seemed ludicrous to her. Not because she found him unattractive. Quite the opposite. But because the Minister was once an agent himself. In fact, he was the best agent the Empire had seen. He has played the seduction game, the espionage game, and the assassin game. The idea that Kara has done nothing but tried to beat a master at his own game was both sad and comical to her.

Smirking she looked to the Minister, "And? Were you not tempted? She is quite lovely."

The Minister raised a disapproving eyebrow, "That is not amusing, Keeper. I would sooner bed a Rakghoul. In fact, my chances of surviving an intimate encounter with a Rakghoul are considerably higher than a Sith."

Keeper smiled and chuckled a bit and the Minister returned her amusement with a mild smile of his own.

"Which reminds me," the Minister continued once again serious "I want you to send Cipher Nine to Taris. I have a contact there I'd like her to meet up with."

"Of course, sir." Keeper nodded. "Who may I ask?"

The Minister smiled to himself. "An old friend and retired Fixer," the Minister replied. "He owes me a favor and besides, Cipher Nine is going to need all the help she can get. Things are going to get tough in the coming weeks. For all of us."

Keeper nodded, "Understood, sir."

"I'll fill you in on the details shortly. I need to contact him first and let him know what is required of him. Once I get his agreement I'll fill you on the rest."

"Of course, sir."

"Very well, Keeper. You are dismissed. Keep me updated on any changes with Cipher Nine and any other issues that you think require my attention."

"Yes, sir." Keeper stood up and nodded her respect to the Minister and walked out.

The Minister watched her go and then waited a few moments before typing a code into the holoterminal on his desk. After a moment a familiar face flickered up on the display.

"Well, well, well..." said the bluish image as it greeted the Minister. "Now there's a face I haven't seen in a long time. You haven't changed a bit. Well, except for the fact that you have less hair than when I saw you last. But that is what you get working with the Sith." The image grinned a wide toothy grin at the Minister.

The Minister responded by raising an imperious eyebrow. "You are one to talk, old friend. I see time has had the same effect on you."

"Ha!" The image smiled. "That among other things." The humor in the face faded slightly. "To what do I owe this honor,...Minister. I mean, I am assuming this is not a courtesy call considering I haven't even received so much as a birthday greeting from you in a long time."

The Minister frowned, "Don't be foolish. I've never given you a birthday greeting. Why start now? But, in all fairness I have saved your skin more times than I care to count. That should mean something more than a silly birthday greeting."

The image ginned another toothy grin. "Yes...yes, you have, my friend. And it does. So? Aren't you going to tell me what this is all about? Don't keep me in suspense. Out with it!"

"How would you like to leave Taris and stretch your legs for a bit?"

The image started back at the Minister unsure if he was serious. "If I wasn't already sure you had absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever to speak of, I'd say you were teasing me."

"You know me, old friend. I am being very serious. I meant every word." The Minister took a deep breath before continuing, "Something has come up, and I need your skills right now. I can't trust anyone else with this task but you. With your blessing I'm calling in a favor."

The image blinked in surprise. "Minister, getting me off Taris would be doing me a favor. Not you. Whatever it is you need me to do, consider me on board."

The Minister nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Then I hereby re-commission you. Welcome back to Intelligence, Doctor."