When Talon awoke to the sound of his alarm buzzing, he wondered if this was how it felt to be old. Every part of him ached just a little as his body demanded more rest, his eyes felt somehow heavy and everything was just a little slower than it should have been. Even he, as young as he was and with a body in military condition, was not immune to the stress and lack of sleep of the past few days. The medical treatment he had received for the wounds to his arm and face only further fatigued him. After a groggy session in his refresher, in which he winced through the application of medicinal cream that stung Talon far more than the wound itself did, he lurched out into his quarters and donned his uniform. By now perfectly wearing his uniform was automatic, it would have taken him effort to put it on scruffily and overcome the muscle memory that guided his fingers.

Not long after he heard his door alarm chirrup.
"Enter!" He called, a reflexive twitch of a grin flashing across his face as he smelled his breakfast being brought in. His attention was already buried in reports from the previous shift, before looking up he said automatically. "Thank you crewman Jorp." Only to raise his head to see Lani standing in front of him, holding a tray with a bowl of steaming hot kangeree, a personal favourite breakfast of the Commander's, a mix of egg, onion, fish, rice and spices to delight the senses.
"Honestly Talon, I know all troopers look the same to you, but Jorp's a navy man." Talon did what he could to supress a smile as he replied dryly.
"Is he dead? Or did you only tie him up in a corridor? I ask simply for the records."
"He was glad to be relieved of the burden." Insisted Lani. "Confused, but glad."
"Clearly Jan is not giving you enough work. I'll have to have a word about increasing your duties." Teased Talon, with the dry, offhand tone of a man doing routine paper work.
"I will have you know I just got off managing the watch on the high value prisoners." She replied with mock pride.
"Then shouldn't you be in the mess hall?"
"Shouldn't you?"
"Privileges of rank." He said, turning to smile at her with a look that was as full of affection as it was mockery.
"Laziness, or are you too good for us?" She chided, only to immediately regret it.
"Oh, the latter. Definitely the latter." Lani just looked at him, eye brow raised, as if deciding whether to strike him or laugh, though the turn at the edge of her mouth gave the game away. "Besides, fraternizing with the crew tends to be bad for morale, bad for discipline."
"Yet you fraternize with me." She teased with a triumphal twist.
"Which is certainly bad for my discipline." Lani chuckled at that as she settled in next to him, laying down his food.
"Good, you could stand to be a little less disciplined." Causing Talon to look about him comedically, before exaggeratedly checking his uniform.
"I think this is still an Imperial ship. Discipline should be as second nature to us."
"Tell me sir, how long does it take to become comfortable with a stick up your arse?" Talon almost spit out his kangeree at the image as Lani chuckled. "Cook will be hurt when I tell him you hated his food so much you spat it out!" By now Talon was coughing as he tried to laugh, breathe, swallow, and protest all at the same time. Lani took mercy, rubbing and patting his back as he regained his composure. "We can't have you dying just yet. You need to get us home first."
"Oh, then I can pass away?" He replied, finally getting a hold of himself.
"Yes." She said with a smile.
"Charming." He replied, with equally fond natured sarcasm. "Fortunately for you, you won't have long to wait."
"Talon?" She asked with a mixture of concern and optimism.
"It's a straight shot home, even at our reduced speeds it will not take long by the most direct route and unless our droids missed something they don't have any ship that will be able to catch us on sensors and be close enough to intercept."
"Then we are home free?" She asked hopefully.
"I will not relax entirely until I lay eyes on the Lusankya. We could have missed something, there could be an accident." He insisted with a degree of caution that made it seem like he was expecting something to go wrong. "But this is as good as it's going to get."
"We're home free." She reassured him, with an encouraging smile. "You did it."
"It's not done yet." He half whispered with a shake of his head.
"You did it." She said slowly, emphasising each word as if to drum something into the mind of a stubborn child. "And you did it well."

Talon seldom took such unreserved positivity easily, not out of ingratitude or unpleasantness, but more out of doubt.
"We still lost an entire ship Lani, the only survivors were the fighter pilots. Most of the rest of the flotilla is going to be out of action for some time and the original mission is not complete."
"We're alive." She reminded him." And there are times when being alive is all you can ask for." A look of discomfort and scepticism flashed briefly across him. Lani's eyes locked with his as she leant around, examining his face, almost trying to read his soul. "You've never failed, have you?" Said Lani softly after a few moments. Talon was taken aback by her comment, it seemed to come so utterly out of the blue.
"Of course I have." She on the other hand, remained entirely calm and oddly soothing in what felt to Talon almost like an attack.
"No you haven't. Not really."
"You what, placed second or even third in a few competitions as a kid? Didn't quite set the academy record in the 100 meter sprint?" Then in a merciful attempt to add some degree of levity to things leaned in with a wry smile and added. "Get turned down to the big dance?" Even Talon could not help but crack a smile at that.
"A little more than that Lani."
"Only a little?" She pressed with a smile. "Go on then, what's the worst?"
"The worst?" He queried, seemingly genuinely confused.
"Yes, the worst! The worst you ever failed." Talon searched his thoughts for a few moments, dragging up what he could until eventually he looked Lani in the eye, and began with a sigh.
"Well at first, in the academy."
"Doesn't count." She interrupted.
"What?" He asked, startled.
"We both know they make it impossible early in training. To break you down before building you up. You could have the tidiest bunk, record setting times and testing through the roof and they would still give you a few punishment duties. Doesn't count." She said dismissively, and perhaps with a hint of smugness.
"Well, in SAG COMPNOR." But again he was interrupted as Lani muttered to herself with a sigh and a dryly amused smile.
"Of course you were in the Imperial youth movement."
"And you weren't?" He seemed genuinely surprised at the idea.
"Talon. I used to laugh at those kids. I would have robbed them time and time again if I didn't think it would bring unwelcome attention from actually dangerous people when they ran off to their instructors."
"Some times Lani, I wonder why I like you so much."
"So you do like me!" She announced with a smile as broad as her face, equal parts warm and mocking. Talon could only muster a feeble.
"Shut up." In response, but his mock tiredness at her jabs did little to conceal his own grin. But Lani was not about to let him distract her.
"Besides, you're deflecting."
"Oh, me being fond of you is deflecting now is it?" He replied through a chuckle.
"Stop it!" She warned. "At this rate it might just work Talon and we can't have that. Get back to the sub adult group failure."
"I was the local group youth leader."
"Of course you were." She muttered again.
"Nothing, nothing. Keep going."
"Well, it was the sector wide exercises, the highlight of which was the big combat between the SAG groups. It was more than just sport. Adult leaders were watching for awards, commendations and punishment. COMPNOR recruiters were keeping an eye on us for recruitment into any of the adult branches when we came of age. Navy, army, intelligence observers, trooper corps the lot. I did things by the book, and led my team right into an ambush, rallied what was left, took up defensive positions in the wrong place, got wiped out. Our loss left the flank wide open and several allied teams got knocked out to. Placed dead last. Emphasis on the dead. I thought my career had ended right there."
"Yet here you are." She said with a smile
"Here I am. Though it was a black mark on my record for a while."
"For a while. Is that it, the worst you ever failed?" She asked with a raised brow. Talon gave a little nod as he replied.
"A few bad showings in a couple of fencing tournaments."
"I thought you were supposed to be good at that."
"I learned… A few times I didn't get top marks as a child that sort of a thing. But yes, that debacle of an exercise was probably the worst."

"Oh." Talon added almost as an after thought. "And you were right about the dance, it takes more than good marks, commendations and a smart uniform to intrigue a lady it seems."
"I'm surprised!" She joked. "Especially since you seem to only have your stick three quarters of the way up your arse."
"Oh that might have been part of the problem." Replied Talon with a smile through mouthfuls of kangeree. "I'm common you see." At which point Lani immediately burst out laughing.
"You? Common? You are a posh, upper class twit if ever I have seen one."
"But my family is based on Belderone. Way out on the outer rim. We are Belderone nobility. Very important on that planet and in near by worlds. But all an elegant lady from the core hears is, outer rim. I might as well be a dust farmer." But Lani just continued to laugh.
"The idea someone thinks your common!" She just shook her head in confusion. It pleased her to see Talon's mood lifted by this exchange and she found herself fondly smiling at this curious Commander that fortune had lumped her with. But, she knew she had to return to the point. "Well, this mission might have been a failure Talon. But it could have been a whole lot worse, and you are going to see a whole lot more of it." Talon looked almost confused for a moment. "I might not be highly ranked, and they might not tell me much. But I'm not stupid and nor is the corps. The Emperor is dead, no replacement seems able to keep things together, losing territory, the loss of Coruscant. We're losing the war Talon. Losing the war means losing battles and losing men." She looked into his eyes, demanding his attention, holding his focus. "You are going to be sent into losing battles and sometimes, the best you can do is save what you can and withdraw."

Nodding to his cap she asked with an empty but sympathetic smile.
"The hat's heavy isn't it?" Taking it off for a few moments, he held it in his hands, stared at the unassuming badge at its centre.
"Yes it is." He mused before fixing her with a sombre look, which gradually spread into a subdued smile. "But someone has to wear it." Placing it back on his head with a smart tug he concluded with a little brightness returning to his voice. "And if I can't even wear a hat properly, what use am I?"
"A hair model?" Responded Lani with a shrug and an amused grin.
"With a navy issued haircut? Be serious Lani!"

Wolfing down the last of the kangeree, Talon made ready to go, it would not be long now until the flotilla reached home fleet's perimeter, and there was no way he was not going to be on the bridge for that moment. But he paused for a while as he headed towards the door, turning to look at Lani.
"I'm lucky to have you aboard Lani."
"You're only just working that out?" She cracked with a wry grin and supressed chuckle.
"I'm being serious. You're a good woman. Sadly, I cannot make recommendations for medals based on being a good woman."
"I'm not after medals Talon." She said with warmth and authenticity, the veil of humour dropped for a moment. The sharp gleam of a killer fading from her eyes, leaving behind a gentler look. Talon for his part could only smile in return, not letting the discomfort of his wounds stop him, he felt a touch of heat flush in his cheeks. From the look on Lani's face she was content enough with that wordless response. Talon seemed to give the door frame a reassuring pat as he left, casting another look over his shoulder toward the scout trooper, reluctant to leave, before stepping out and making his way to the bridge.

It was not a long journey, and by the time his boots crossed the threshold Talon had forced his sentimental thoughts from his quarters to the back of his mind, replaced by pragmatism and professionalism. He still found it strange, and a little unsettling, that he could not stare out of the ship's main window, his view cut off by emergency blast shielding. The ship's instruments and camera feeds were more than good enough. But Talon far preferred being able to see it with his own eyes.

He spent the next few hours doing what he could to project an aura of confidence and calm. In his gut a twist of anxiety still ate at him but he knew it's pangs were dulled after Lani's words. They were flying blind now, well beyond the update range of his probe droids and with only standard navigation charts to guide them. If he had missed something, made even the slightest of errors, they would only find out about it when it was on top of them. But there he stood, as the hours passed, hands clasped behind his back, as firm and motionless as a statue.
"Time until communications perimeter?" Asked Talon.
"Three minutes sir." Three minutes, three minutes until they were close enough for their communications black out orders to no longer apply and they could make contact with the main fleet for clearance. Three minutes until they were home. Talon's imagination was already filled with fantastic images of the Lusankya. Safe under her guns Talon's flotilla would be able to repair, perhaps not as rapidly as they could at port. But with the fleet's vast supply and plenty of tender ships, it could be done.

"Contact with the fleet. The Lusankya is requesting authentication codes." It did not take long for Talon to transmit his code clearance. But the message he got in return surprised him. Entry coordinates, and more importantly a holding pattern, outside the perimeter of the fleet. This was a precaution reserved for unexpected or third-party ships. Striding toward the back of the bridge, Talon tapped away at a nearby command unit and took over communication with the Lusankya.
"This is Commander Rake of the Prosecutor, officer commanding the Harrier flotilla after battle. Please confirm approach instructions Lusankya." The voice that answered him had the matter of fact tone of a fleet traffic control officer.
"Instructions confirmed, approach the given coordinates." Talon did his best to answer in the same, professional tones. But he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck slowly begin to stand. Something was wrong.
"Lusankya, the flotilla requires the immediate evacuation of critical complex care casualties. Critical system repairs are also required. In addition, we have a large number of prisoners that need securing. Transmitting data now. We request reconsideration of instructions and urgent transport shuttle dispatch."
"Await instructions Prosecutor." There was a pause, presumably whilst the information was considered, but the wait was too long for Talon's comfort. He knew the training of these officers, he knew how they were supposed to behave, and this was taking too long, far too long. It could only mean one of two things, there was a debate, or a referral to a significantly senior officer. But why? Fleet traffic control was more than capable of dealing with this.

When Talon got his answer, it only deepened his discomfort.
"Instructions stand, translate out of hyperspace at the given coordinates and maintain a holding pattern. You are then to board a shuttle with no support staff and come aboard the Lusankya, Director Isard requires your immediate presence." Talon knew better than to protest further, he wanted to put his foot down about the medivacs at least. But for the most part, those who could be stabilised already were, and those that could not were dead. More importantly, fighting would only cause delay and if he wanted to do what was best for his wounded, he knew making a fuss would only make things worse. Better to go along and get it resolved swiftly.

To that end, he was making for the hanger before they had even left hyperspace, hearing the familiar shift in the hum of the ship as they translated back into reality, this time accompanied by an ominous judder as the damaged core strained under the effort. The director was not someone you kept waiting. Even the pilots seemed a little anxious as they ran through the pre-flight checks and hastily took off toward the Lusankya, a discomfort that did not ease as two TIE interceptors peeled off from their picket duty to escort the shuttle in, primitive sensors sweeping the shuttle. The Commander had not been expecting the warmest of welcomes, but this bordered on hostility.

Talon cast an anxious glance at the reflection of himself in the well-polished interior of the shuttle. His fresh uniform was as immaculate as ever, the wounds in his face were healing well, and what marks remained would soon fade, even if it still ached. His skin was grey, his eyes sunken pits, all the adrenaline that had carried him through the last few days had washed out of him. But there was nothing he could do about that now, at least he could still stand up straight, and give a proper debriefing. But there were few things he would have liked more in that moment than for Lani to bring him a cup of terribly prepared caffa, just like the one she had first brought him in the hulk of the Resolve.

It was not long before the lambda shuttle touched down in one of the Lusankya's myriad hangers, and Talon was being escorted down the colossal ship's pristine halls. Even now such a triumph of Imperial engineering could not help but fill his chest with a hint of pride. Here at least, there was still an Empire. But that sensation was battling against a nervous twist in his stomach, being summoned unceremoniously by a vastly superior officer was rarely a good sign, doubly so when that officer was Director Isard. And though Talon was convinced he had acquitted himself to the best of his ability, was his best good enough? He had been sent out as part of a full battle group to disrupt enemy shipping. He was returning with one ship lost, the rest damaged, the majority of the flotilla's crew dead or imprisoned and not a single enemy supply ship destroyed.

The air took on a dangerous charge as he was led closer to the Director's personal office, the hairs on the back of his neck now standing at rigid attention, his senses sharpened into a state of heightened alertness, as if a predator was lurking in the long grass. But he would not run or tremble, he was an Imperial officer! He had more spine than that. Her guards let him pass with little difficulty, but Talon could not help but notice that the aid that had led him this far, allowed him to walk into the nexu's den alone.

Even in her great office, larger than many Captain's quarters, her commanding presence seemed to fill the room. To Talon's mind her mismatched eyes shone like binary stars, with a depth of colour and focus not found anywhere else in nature. And just like the stars, Talon knew they were as dangerous as they were beautiful. Grabbing a hold of himself he marched smartly to her desk and came to attention with a parade ground snap. Isard wordlessly held his gaze for several long seconds before deliberately turning her attention to the Prosecutor's ship's logs that had been transmitted to her terminal.
"Your reports make for concerning reading Commander. Traitors, the loss of a ship, heavy damage to others and not a single enemy convoy intercepted. How did this happen Commander?" Her voice put ice in his veins. It was an effort to remind himself that he had not flinched in the face of turbolasers, what was he doing being unsettled by a mere tone of voice and piercing glare?
"Madam Director, the mission was doomed from the start. As you will see from my note of the interrogation of Captain Greggor there were an alarmingly large number of traitors on the mission from the outset, including half of the crew of the Intrepid and almost the entire crew of the Harrier. What is more they had clearly communicated with New Republic contacts well in advance. The enemy knew we were coming and had ships waiting. Under those circumstances the best that could be managed was the preservation of as many war assets as was possible."
"The best that could be managed, or the best that you could manage Commander?" Despite being said with an almost clinical dispassion those words clutched at Talon's heart, as again her eyes burrowed into his as though scrutinising his soul. Part of him wanted to flinch, to look away. But he forced himself to stare right back.

He did not answer her question, he did not need to and nor did she really seem to expect one as she moved on.
"And what of your own ship, bomb plots, some traitorous crew including Lieutenant Vervain, who I am led to believe you chose to hold rather close prior to her treachery. You even had dinner with a traitor who attempted to recruit you. How did you allow all of this to grow beneath your very nose Commander? Why did you do nothing?" Without even raising her voice she was more intimidating than every muscle bound bully or barking instructor that Talon had ever known. But it was not just her tone, her implication was clear. Was he a traitor? Or at the very least a sympathiser? Returned to her to wheedle out information from what the New Republic might now think was a position of trust? Captain Aeron's cautions about her again rang loud in his mind. Perhaps she truly was paranoid, far in excess of what her position could reasonably allow. But that would only make him cautious, not deter him. For good or ill she was the leader they had, and he would continue to serve.

Taking a moment to choose his words he replied with quiet firmness.
"Madam Director. I am a warfare officer, I am accustomed to looking for enemies to my front, not my rear. I deal with my fellow officers in good faith, I trust in the uniform and in the character of the men and women who wear it. You may consider this to be naivety, and a failing. But at its worst, that is all it is. Were I a traitor I would not have caused so much damage to the New Republic, I would not have clung on to our ships so tightly, nor would I have imprisoned or killed every traitor I could lay my hands on. Rest assured madam director, I am more alive to the risk of duplicity than ever."
"So, you would have me blame incompetence rather than treason. I do not find either excuse particularly satisfying Commander." The slightest hint of her fire was beginning to emerge in her words. She did not erupt like a volcano, instead it was as if the earth were rumbling ominously. But Talon would answer it with the cold steel of Imperial pedigree.
"Not incompetence, inexperience. And despite the failure of the initial mission we have still won a notable victory of another kind. The loss of a cruiser battle group will not go unnoticed by the New Republic, and hurts them far more than any benefit they may enjoy from the limited officers that were able to defect." Silence hung in the air, like a knife dangled above Talon's head, whilst he stood there, determined not to blink first.

All of a sudden a smile graced the Director's stern features. One that seemed to hold actual warmth, rather than a cruel delight.
"Sit down Commander." She said, gesturing to a nearby seat. It was as if the air had grown lighter in a single sentence, the lights a little brighter. He felt dazed by the sudden transition as he half sat, half collapsed into the nearby chair. "You may relax a little Commander, I had to settle the last of the doubts about your loyalty. But rest assured any suspicions are thoroughly assuaged." Reaching under her desk she produced a bottle of cognac, a particularly fine one if Talon's discerning eye read the label correctly, his lips moistened at the prospect. But part of Talon's mind was still alert enough to read between the lines. As she poured them each a generous glass he knew that this was more than just a gesture to put him at ease and create a bond over a shared preference. It was also a message, that she knew everything about him. Right down to his favourite drinks. Even when she seemed to be in a good mood she could not help but let him know just who was in charge, as if her rank badges were not enough.

Reaching out Talon took a glass and commented.
"You have been paying attention I see." The Director shot him a thin smile, though he was unsure if she was pleased at the fact that he had noticed, or if there was something colder behind it.
"It is my job to pay attention Commander." Looking over him she continued. "Would it surprise you to learn, that operation Stillwater was a complete success?" Talon raised a surprised brow.
"It would indeed Director. How could that amount of loss and damage be described as a success?"
"You really are a warfare officer through and through aren't you? You still have not put all of the pieces together?"
"No ma'am, I must confess you have the advantage of me." She just smiled at that, as if to tell him that she was accustomed to having the advantage.
"Operation Stillwater had a number of purposes, the foremost of which was not to disrupt shipping. But as a sting operation to root out treason."
"By allowing the traitors to defect, complete with ships? That seems more like a gift." Questioned Talon with a note of scepticism.
"Because you are not seeing the wider picture Commander, though it is not particularly yours to see. When those officers defected they confirmed to me far more than just their own disloyalty. It was the final proof that I needed of a wider conspiracy. At this very moment a number of traitorous senior officers are being rounded up for interrogation, and eventual execution. These men would have caused far more damage to the Empire than a few ships had they been allowed to operate unchecked."
"And yet I was placed in the trap. What reason have I ever given to cause anyone to question my loyalty?"
"It is not what you have done Commander, it is who you know." Talon's confused expression provoked a single amused laugh from Isard, it was cold and dry, as if her throat were unused to the exercise. "Your mentor, Captain Aeron. We have had our doubts about him for some time. Your loyalty not only saved your own life Commander, but his as well." Those words sent a shiver down Talon's spine, and he was forced to leap to the defence of his old friend.
"What possible cause has he given to justify such suspicion?"
"It always pays to be a little suspicious Commander." She said with a warm smile, as if dispensing friendly advice, but that could not entirely conceal the chilling implication of her words. "But with him it was more than mere professional caution. His disapproval of certain elements of the Empire, and of Imperial Intelligence in particular, is well known to us. Furthermore, his family connections are a cause of grave concern."
"Family?" Asked Talon.
"Did he never tell you? Well, I suppose he would not. His brother is a well known Rebel officer. Were it not for his record I would have thrown him out of the service immediately for posing such a risk." In an instant it suddenly made sense to Talon why such a capable officer had languished as a Commander for so long, on an unimportant command, carrying out unremarkable missions. It was not that command had not noticed him, but that he had been noticed for all the wrong reasons.
"I hope his loyalty has been proven beyond all doubt now."
"There are some shadows a man can never come out from under, unless he kills his own brother of course. But that opportunity is unlikely to present itself."

Her words provoked in him a paradoxical reaction. On the one hand his heart could not help but churn at the idea that he might one day be asked to kill his own brother, the mild mannered engineer who would not hurt a fly. He prayed he would never have to endure that to prove his own loyalty, and he felt an almost sympathetic pain that it had come to that for Aeron. But on the other hand, something deep and primal, almost reptilian, in him could not help but admire the Director's unwavering, uncompromising approach. He was uncomfortable with the dissonance, and forced himself to move on.
"I have a request Director."
"Which is?" She asked with a note of caution.
"You will undoubtedly read in the report the deal I made with Captain Greggor. I promised him only that I would do what I could, but I ask you to give him and his family the indulgence I put on the table."
"You would ask me to indulge a traitor Commander?" She said with a raised brow and a scornful hint to her tone.
"Not out of sympathy, but of prudence. If we give him the appearance of an honourable death, other turncoats who know the truth may be more willing to deal with us. And there is the issue of his family, they will suffer if he dies a traitor, and the fault is not theirs." But the Director was clearly unimpressed with his approach. Her response was firm, and she did little to conceal the hatred that lay beneath her words.
"Commander, the appropriate course of action when dealing with the families of traitors is to shoot them right alongside the traitor themselves. A clear, unambiguous deterrent."
"Where the family is complicit in the treason, perhaps." But the Director's response was swift, her ice and fire both on obvious display.
"We must send a clear message to these traitors Commander. Often they have accepted the risk of their own death, they no longer fear it. But they are less willing to risk the lives of their loved ones. Duty and loyalty have already left them by the time they are thinking of defection. Only fear remains." Talon began to formulate a response in his mind, trying to weigh respect and caution on one hand, and his desire to avoid punishing the innocent on the other. Not only that, but he feared such a brutal policy would create more problems than it solved. This was the legitimate ruler of the Empire, he would follow her wherever she led him, but that did not mean he could not advise her to take a different path.

But before he could settle on his words, something in the Director seemed to cease upon his momentary discomfort.
"But, Commander. You have done good work these past few days. I will indulge you. My men will debrief Greggor, if he told you everything, the deal stands. But, if he withheld information from you, even after your generosity, there will be no mercy." A knot unclenched in Talon's chest, grateful for her offer. Both in potentially sparing innocents and in neatly avoiding any tension between them. He smiled, and nodded his understanding to the Director, before she swiftly moved the conversation on.
"Of course Commander, there is one other figure of note. Lieutenant Vervain" Talon deflated at the thought of that woman, taking a long sip of cognac.
"A bad business. Of all the people I would have expected to turn, she would have been one of the last."
"And what makes you say that Commander?" Asked Ysanne with a thin smile.
"Because she was every inch what an Imperial officer was supposed to be. I struggle to imagine a better product of the academy. I would have pointed other officers at her and told them to aim to become what she was."
"Perhaps she should be in a different line of work." Mused the Director, but she appeared serious. Whilst Talon only replied with a heavy sigh.
"Yes. An actress." When all of a sudden the Director let out a brief laugh that sounded to Talon like ancient frozen lakes growing in the night. The sound caught him off guard and he could have sworn that he saw her blue eye gleam a little in the sterile light of the office.

"You are closer to the truth than you realise Commander." But Talon could only answer her with an expression of mild confusion. "There is no Lieutenant Vervain. She is one of my intelligence officers. She studied you, and created a persona that she believed you would trust, that could get close. If your logs are to be believed, it seems as if you were already looking at her as a potential protégée, someone to take under your wing. That part of her task she at least performed competently."

Talon furrowed his brow as his mind tried to join together dots that seemed entirely unrelated. After a few seconds of struggling he had to admit defeat and ask.
"Then why did she pull a gun on me?"
"Can you not see Commander? I was willing to lose the task force, but I am not wasteful." She waited a while to see if Talon could put things together, but after a few moments she took mercy on him and explained. "Similar officers were aboard every ship. In the event that the ship was entirely loyal they would never reveal their presence. And in the event that the ship seemed certain to fall to the Republic they would play along as just another defector, and become one of my assets in the Republic. But in those ships which seemed to waver, my agents were to help tip the balance in our favour, exposing the traitors and saving the ship. She must have believed your crew to be largely loyal, but not yourself."
"What could have led her to such a conclusion?" Talon asked in both genuine concern and astonishment.
"I will ask her that myself Commander, she will tell you nothing. But it seems she made an error."
"I will arrange to have her released."
"No Commander, let her sit in your brig whilst I think on what to do with her. I do not ignore such mistakes Commander." She let those words hang in the air, heavy with menace. The Director was the sort of woman who had long since stopped needing to make threats or chilling insinuations, her reputation was enough. But it seemed to Talon like she enjoyed it. The cold shard that ran through the air as her eyes held his like a vice, made his stomach leap. She was not even threatening him, yet he could feel his skin shiver. His discipline, may have meant that his hand did not quiver, or his face twitch. But he felt it, deep down.

"However, Commander, I also do not ignore success." In an instant the mood changed, the menace gone as quickly as it had arrived. Her ability to so utterly control the tone of the conversation, intimidating with one hand, praising with the other, again pushed Talon off of his mental balance. "You showed initiative and aggression Commander. Your efforts have handicapped Rebel operations in this region and put them on a defensive footing. If my reports are to be believed, and they are, the Rebels have even pulled away forces meant for an assault against High Admiral Zsinj." Her expression seemed to briefly sour as she mentioned that porcine pretender. "Whilst I look forward to the day I can pluck out that man's heart for his defiance, he is still fighting against the traitors, and still flies an Imperial banner. You have made life harder for the Republic than you might realise. Congratulations."

Talon's mind went back to his first encounter with the Director, how she had scolded him, held his future in the palm of her hand and begun to squeeze. Yet now, she was smiling, praising him and pouring him a drink. The effect on him was profound, her words made him feel as if he were glowing inside. It took him a few moments to realise that her initial hostility in that corridor was more than just her temperament or a display of authority, though both doubtless played a part. His doubts about the operation were beginning to fumble towards the truth and had he continued to air them, others may have seen through the ruse. In a single masterful stroke, she had shut his mouth and put his tale between his legs. The contrast put him off balance, and in an unguarded moment he allowed himself a slight smile as he simply replied.
"Thank you Director." Slightly raising his glass to her before his mind caught up to the familiarity he had allowed to slip through. From the slightly pleased twist in the Director's own mouth, she had seen it to. As naïve as Talon was to the Director's world of duplicity even, he knew that her smile was seldom all that it seemed.

"But congratulations is all I can offer you." She said as if the Director were mildly frustrated about the whole thing, before bluntly stating her reasons. "You have been in your current post for far too little time for me to promote you further. A legion of mediocre old men, the kind of men who allowed our Emperor to die, would have one more reason to desert. Nor can I offer you publicity, I need the eye of our enemies off of us for the time being. You will receive the Imperial medal of valour, but officially, that is where the recognition will end."

Though the Director may have mentioned it in passing, like a mere trinket, the Imperial medal of valour was not something Talon could just casually dismiss. Not once during the maelstrom or the time of quiet tension between battles, had Talon even considered being decorated. Indeed, any thought other than getting the flotilla home had been banished from his mind. But now that the Director had invoked that award, his mind could not help but drift back to the child like awe and deep reverence for such medals that had been instilled in him by his father. From the plainest trooper to the highest admiral, he had been taught to see such things as the mark of a man who was a cut above the rest. Though the Imperial medal of valour was not the highest award the Empire had to offer, it was far from the lowest, and the idea of it being on his chest made Talon light headed for a brief moment, before swelling slightly inside.

"You honour me Director." Stated Talon, plainly, before adding. "However, there are other crewmen who deserve recognition.
"Mention them in your full report Commander, they will be considered." Whilst the Director was not wholly dismissive in her tone, it was clear she wanted to move on to other things. It seemed to Talon, that whilst she might have recognised the value such awards held to other people, to her they were nothing more than shiny bits of metal. It was an attitude Talon could understand. It had not really occurred to him before, but perhaps it was not an accident that such medals and awards were also known as decorations. Decoration never mattered as much as substance, as much as capability and getting the job done. But if the Director continued to show such a casual attitude towards those little pieces of metal and ribbon, Talon feared it could strike a serious blow to morale.

But, whilst Talon was thinking on this, the Director moved on.
"But despite the formal lack of recognition Commander, you have earned my attention. Much of the fleet will shortly be sent toward the southern expansion region and mid rim to achieve secondary objectives. You however, will join me to personally complete the primary objective. We will take and hold Thyferra Commander." There were traces of both pride and spite in her tone. Talon understood the implications instantly. With the majority of the galaxy's bacta under Imperial control it could serve as a source of tremendous profit with which to fuel the military. Or the Director could hold the reigns of supply tight, depriving the enemy and civilian populations of the most potent medicine the galaxy had to offer. But the opportunity would have a countervailing risk.
"Madam Director, to seize such a vital asset would be a coup indeed. But it would draw the attention of our foes. The Republic is sure to send a task force to relieve the planet, would it not be wise to concentrate our forces for the inevitable battle?" An amused grin slowly spread across the Directors face, a look that was accented by a dangerous touch of hunger.
"They will not come for us Commander, not at first. For I will not take the planet by force of arms. The planet will fall without a shot. Instead they will open their arms to us, and to me as their democratically appointed leader." Whilst the Director seemed almost smug, Talon was only confused, and though he did his best to hide it a little gleam in the Director's red eye told him she had caught it. He could not comprehend the steps necessary to take the planet by peaceful means. But perhaps that was why he was not in the intelligence branch. He was however, still sceptical.
"That will delay them perhaps. But I fear the foe will hold their principals in little regard when they come up against need or even just discomfort." To his surprise the Director laughed at his words, the note of her joy was both amused and cruel.
"I most certainly hope so Commander. Again, you see the pieces of the puzzle but are unable to put them together. We will make a substantial profit whilst the Republic bleeds and the Krytos virus ravages their non human population. Without Bacta it cannot be kept in check and it will only be a matter of time until it spreads through transport shuttles to other worlds. If the Rebels do not come for Thyferra their alliance will crumble from the inside, unable to meet the needs of their people and riven by racial suspicions. If they do come for Thyferra, they will show the whole galaxy that their cries of democracy and liberty are only window dressing. That they are thieves and tyrants who will take what they want, and pretend that their victims desired it. If they wait and wait, but then break and come for this planet only once the virus has truly taken hold. We will have the best of both scenarios Commander." They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but Talon had never seen such a clear example of it as this moment. Her plan was as cold, calm and calculating as her right eye, but as vicious and hateful as her left. The alien populations of the galaxy may have been unusually sympathetic to the Rebellion, but they were still civilians and citizens of the Empire. Civilians would always be casualties in war of course, but there was a distinction between civilians just so happening to be near legitimate war targets or living in the cities over which the combatants were fighting, and deliberately targeting them. But his discomfort with the idea was outweighed by its potential efficacy. Lives would be lost, yes, but not as many as would die in a protracted war. If this could cause the Republic to crumble, and allow the Empire to restore law and order, perhaps it was worth the cost. But above even his reluctance acceptance of her plan, that he conceded was inspired, was duty. She was his Commander, the legitimate ruler of the Empire. Her orders were to be followed, not disobeyed. At the strongest he might voice an objection and suggest an alternative, and then follow his orders. But the deed was already done, dissent after the fact would only cause harm and the Empire could ill afford further division.

Instead, with the Director's vision firmly laid out, he turned his mind to how best to transform her will into reality.
"Then we had best turn our attention to how to defend Thyferra and the bacta shipments. They will make tempting targets for pirates in the Rebellion's pay. By your leave madam Director I will begin liaising with the other officers who will be joining us in this mission."
"I would expect no less from you Commander, and it will be made known to the Captains that they are to grant your words weight despite your rank. But there is no immediate hurry Commander, the plans have already been made and it will be a little while before the Prosecutor is made ready to join us. By the time you arrive, the planet will already be under our control. You and your men may take a few days of light duties." A slow smile spread across her features, which were as harsh as they were fine. Involuntarily Talon felt the corners of his mouth tug into a grin as the Director continued. "This is just the beginning Commander. We will restore the Empire. We will rebuild our Emperor's vision. Soon we will be welcomed back to Coruscant with open arms. Soon, I will look out from the heights of the Imperial palace once more." The pace of her words slowed as she locked her eyes with Talon's, the inhuman drive behind them shining through, but not beating Talon down as they had before. Instead it served only to stoke Talon's own fire, and steel him toward the tasks ahead. "And should you hand me the victories that I believe you will. You will be standing there as well."

Raising her glass slowly she simply said.
"To Thyferra." And despite the hair rising on the back of his neck and the cold rush that ran though his veins, Talon's initially hesitant smile became confident as his mind turned to the future and filled with thoughts of a triumphant and restored Empire. Locking eyes with her's any hesitation was momentarily washed away, replaced with anticipation, excitement and even hope for what they might do together for the Empire. In this moment the impossible odds were washed away, it was as if their inhuman drives, their sheer will could bend the stars themselves and knock the Republic fleets from the heavens. With relish he brought his glass up to her's in a toast.
"To Thyferra."

((Author Note: To all those who have read and enjoyed this story, particularly those that have left reviews or sent PM's, thank you. The story will end here. I do have plans for more Talon stories, but they will be put up as sequels when the time comes. This is a good point to close this tale however. I hope you have enjoyed it and thank you again. ))