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Slowly, silently, its lights a faint glitter of life amid the darkness, the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaeraglided through space.
Empty space. Oppressively dark space. Long, lonely light-years from the nearest of the tiny islands that were the star systems of the galaxy, drifting at the edge of the boundary between the Outer Rim worlds and the vast regions of territory known as Unknown Space. At the very edge of the Empire.
Or rather, at the edge of the pitiful scraps of what had once been the Empire.
Standing beside one of the Chimaera's side viewports, Admiral Pellaeon, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet, gazed out at the emptiness, the weight of all too many years pressing heavily across his shoulders. Too many years, too many battles, too many defeats.
Perhaps the Chimaera's bridge crew was feeling the weight, too. Certainly the sounds of activity going on behind him seemed more muted than usual today. But perhaps it was merely the effect of being out here, so far from anywhere at all.
No, of course that had to be it. The men of the Chimaerawere the finest the Fleet had to offer. They were Imperial officers and crewers, and Imperials didn't give up. Ever.
There was a tentative footstep at his side. "Admiral?" Captain Ardiff said quietly. "We're ready to begin, sir."
For a moment Pellaeon's mind flashed back ten years, to another very similar moment. Then, it had been Pellaeon and Grand Admiral Thrawn who'd been here on the Chimaera's bridge, watching the final test of the prototype cloaking shield Thrawn had recovered from among the Emperor's trophies inside Mount Tantiss. Pellaeon could remember the excitement he'd felt then, despite his misgivings about the insane Jedi clone Joruus C'baoth, as he watched Thrawn single-handedly breathing new life and vigor back into the Empire.
But Mount Tantiss was gone, destroyed by agents of the New Republic and C'baoth's own madness and treason. And Grand Admiral Thrawn was dead.
And the Empire was dying.
With an effort, Pellaeon shook the shadows of the past away. He was an Imperial officer, and Imperials didn't give up. "Thank you," he said to Ardiff. "At your convenience, Captain."
"Yes, sir." Ardiff half turned, gestured to the fighter coordinator in the portside crew pit. "Signal the attack," he ordered.
The officer acknowledged and gestured in turn to one of his crewers. Pellaeon turned his attention back to the viewport--
Just in time to see eight SoroSuub Preybird-class starfighters in tight formation roar in from behind them. Cutting tight to the Chimaera's command superstructure, they passed over the forward ridgeline, raking it with low-power blaster fire, then split smoothly out in eight different directions. Corkscrewing out and forward, they kept up their fire until they were out of the Star Destroyer's primary attack zone. Then, curving smoothly around, they swung around and regrouped.
"Admiral?" Ardiff prompted.
"Let's give them one more pass, Captain," Pellaeon said. "The more flight data the Predictor has to work with, the better it should function." He caught the eye of one of the crew pit officers. "Damage report?"
"Minor damage to the forward ridgeline, sir," the officer reported. "One sensor array knocked out, leaving five turbolasers without ranging data."
"Acknowledged." All theoretical damage, of course, calculated under the assumption that the Preybirds were using full-power capital-ship turbolasers. Pellaeon had always loved war games when he was younger; had relished the chance to play with technique and tactics without the risks of true combat. Somewhere in all those years, the excitement had faded away. "Helm, bring us around twenty degrees to starboard," he ordered. "Starboard turbolasers will lay down dispersion fire as they make their next pass."
The Preybirds were back in tight formation now, once again approaching their target. The Chimaera's turbolasers opened up as they came, their low-level fire splattering across the Preybirds' overlapping deflector shields. For a few seconds the opponents traded fire; then, the Preybirds broke formation again, splitting apart like the fingertips of an opening hand. Twisting over and under the Chimaera, they shot past, scrambling for the safety of distance.
"Damage report?" Pellaeon called.
"Three starboard turbolaser batteries knocked out," the officer called back. "We've also lost one tractor beam projector and two ion cannon."
"One attacker appears to have lost its deflector shields, and two others are reading diminished turbolaser capability."
"Hardly counts as damage," Ardiff murmured. "Of course, the situation here isn't exactly fair. Ships that small and maneuverable would never have the kind of shields or firepower we're crediting them with."
"If you want fairness, organize a shockball tournament," Pellaeon said acidly. "Don't look for it in warfare."
Ardiff's cheek twitched. "I'm sorry, sir."
Pellaeon sighed. The finest the Imperial Fleet had to offer..." Stand by the cloaking shield, Captain," he ordered, watching the faint drive glows as the Preybirds regrouped again in the distance. "Activate on my command."
There was a sudden flare of drive glow, partially eclipsed by the Preybirds themselves, as the enemy kicked into high acceleration. "Here they come," Pellaeon said, watching as the single glowing dot rapidly resolved itself into eight close-formation ships. "Lock Predictor into fire control. Stand by cloaking shield."
"Predictor and cloaking shield standing by," Ardiff confirmed.
Pellaeon nodded, his full attention on the Preybirds. Nearly to the point where they'd broken formation last time... "Cloaking shield: now."
And with a brief flicker of bridge lighting, the stars and incoming Preybirds vanished as the cloaking shield plunged the Chimaerainto total darkness.
"Cloaking shield activated and stabilized," Ardiff said.
"Helm, come around portside: thirty degrees by eight," Pellaeon ordered. "Ahead acceleration point one. Turbolasers: fire."
"Acknowledged," an officer called. "Turbolasers are firing."
Pellaeon took a step closer to the viewport and looked down along the Chimaera's sides. The faint blasts of low-level fire were visible, lancing a short distance out from the Star Destroyer and then disappearing as they penetrated the spherical edge of the Star Destroyer's cloaking shield. Blinded by the very device that was now shielding it from its opponents' view, the Chimaerawas firing wildly in an attempt to destroy those opponents.
Or perhaps not quite so wildly. If the Predictor worked as well as its designers hoped, perhaps the Empire still had a chance in this war.
It was a long time before the Chimaera's turbolasers finally ceased fire. Far too long. "Is that it?" he asked Ardiff.
"Yes, sir," the other said. "Five hundred shots, as preprogrammed."
Pellaeon nodded. "Deactivate cloaking shield. Let's see how well we did."
There was another flicker from the lights, and the stars were back. Mentally crossing his fingers, Pellaeon peered out the viewport.
For a moment there was nothing. Then, from starboard, he spotted the approaching drive glows. Seven of them.
"Signal from Adversary Commander, Admiral," the comm officer called. "Target Three reports receiving a disabling hit and has gone dormant; all other targets have sustained only minimal damage. Requesting orders."
Pellaeon grimaced. One. Out of eight targets, the Chimaerahad been able to hit exactly one. And that great feat had required five hundred shots to achieve.
So that was that. The wonderful Computerized Combat Predictor, touted by its creators and sponsors as the best approach to practical use of the cloaking shield, had been put to the test. And to be fair, it had probably done better than simple random shooting.
But it hadn't done enough better. Not nearly enough.
"Inform Adversary Commander that the exercise is over," Pellaeon told the comm officer. "Target Three may reactivate its systems; all ships are to return to the Chimaera. I want their reports filed within the next two hours."
"I'm sure they'll be able to improve it, Admiral," Ardiff said at Pellaeon's side. "This was just the first field test. Surely they'll be able to improve it."
"How?" Pellaeon retorted. "Train the Predictor to be omniscient? Or simply teach it how to read our enemies' minds?"
"You only gave it two passes to study the targets' flight patterns," Ardiff reminded him. "With more data, it could have better anticipated their movements."
Pellaeon snorted gently. "It's a nice theory, Captain, and under certain controlled situations it might even work. But combat is hardly a controlled situation. There are far too many variables and unknowns, especially considering the hundreds of alien species and combat styles we have to contend with. I knew from the beginning that this Predictor idea was probably futile. But it had to be tried."
"Well, then, we just have to go back to mark zero," Ardiff said. "Come up with something else. There have to be practical uses for this cloaking shield device."
"Of course there are," Pellaeon agreed heavily. "Grand Admiral Thrawn devised three of them himself. But there's no one left in the Empire with his military genius."
He sighed. "No, Captain. It's over. It's all over. And we've lost."
For a long moment the low murmur of background conversation was the only sound on the bridge. "You can't mean that, Admiral," Ardiff said at last. "And if I may say so, sir, this is not the sort of thing the Supreme Commander of Imperial forces should be talking about."
"Why not?" Pellaeon countered. "It's obvious to everyone else."
"It most certainly is not, sir," Ardiff said stiffly. "We still hold eight sectors--over a thousand inhabited systems. We have the Fleet, nearly two hundred Star Destroyers strong. We're still very much a force to be reckoned with."