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The Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera slid through the black of space, its only companion the silent gas giant world of Pesitiin far below.
Admiral Pellaeon was standing at the forward viewport, gazing out at the dead planet, when Captain Ardiff arrived on the bridge. "Report from Major Harch, Admiral," he said briskly. "All damage from that pirate attack has been repaired. Your ship is back to full fighting readiness."
"Thank you, Captain," Pellaeon said, carefully hiding a smile. In the thirty hours since the failed attack on the Chimaera, Ardiff had gone from believing it to be a raid by New Republic General Garm Bel Iblis, to suspicions that it had been engineered by dissident Imperial elements, to similar suspicions involving similarly dissident Rebels, and was now apparently convinced that a pirate gang was responsible.
Of course, in all fairness, Ardiff had had the past thirty hours to cogitate on his theories. The techs' preliminary report on the debris from that destroyed Kaloth battlecruiser had certainly influenced his thinking, too. "Anything new from the patrols?" Pellaeon asked.
"Just more negatives, sir," Ardiff said. "Still no indications of activity anywhere in the system. Oh, and the sensor-stealthed assault shuttle you sent on the attackers' escape vector also just checked in. Still no trace."
Pellaeon nodded. As expected, reallyanyone who could afford to buy and fly a battlecruiser usually knew a few tricks about hiding it. "It was worth a try," he told Ardiff. "Have them try one more system; we can transmit that far without relays. If they haven't picked up the trail by then, order them back."
"Yes, sir," Ardiff murmured.
Even without looking, Pellaeon could sense Ardiff's hesitation. "A question, Captain?" he prompted.
"It's this communications blackout, sir," Ardiff said. "I don't like being so completely out of contact this way. It's like being blind and deaf; and frankly, it makes me nervous."
"I don't much like it myself," Pellaeon conceded. "But the only ways to make contact with the outside universe are to either transmit to an Imperial relay station or punch our way onto the HoloNet; and the minute we do either, everyone from Coruscant to Bastion will know we're here. If that happens, we'll have more than the occasional pirate gang lining up to take potshots at us."
And, he added silently, it would be the end of any chance for a quiet meeting between him and Bel Iblis. Assuming the general was indeed willing to talk.
"I understand all that, Admiral," Ardiff said. "But has it occurred to you that yesterday's attack might not have been an isolated incident against an isolated Imperial ship?"
Pellaeon cocked an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting it might have been part of a coordinated attack against the Empire?"
"Why not?" Ardiff said. "I'm willing to concede at this point that it probably wasn't the New Republic who hired them. But why couldn't the pirates have set it up on their own? The Empire has always come down hard on pirate gangs. Maybe a group of them got together and decided the time was right for revenge."
Pellaeon stroked his lip thoughtfully. On the surface, it was a ridiculous suggestioneven on its deathbed the Empire was far stronger than any possible aggregate of pirate gangs could hope to defeat. But that didn't mean they wouldn't be foolish enough to try. "That still leaves the question of how they knew we were here," he pointed out.
"We still don't know what happened to Colonel Vermel," Ardiff reminded him. "Maybe it was this pirate coalition who snatched him. He could have told them about Pesitiin."
"Not willingly," Pellaeon said darkly. "If they did what it would take to make him talk, I'll decorate Bastion's moon with their hides."
"Yes, sir," Ardiff said. "But that brings us back to the question of how long we're going to stay here."
Pellaeon looked out the viewport at the stars. Yes, that was indeed the question. How long should they wait here in the middle of nowhere in the hope that this slow attrition of the Empire could be stopped? That they could end this war with the New Republic with a shred of territory and dignity still intact?
That they could finally have peace?
"Two weeks," he said. "We'll give Bel Iblis another two weeks to respond to our offer."
"Even though the message may not have reached him?"
"The message reached him," Pellaeon said firmly. "Vermel is a highly resourceful, highly competent officer. Whatever happened to him, I have no doubt he completed his mission first."
"Yes, sir," Ardiff said, his tone making it clear that he didn't share Pellaeon's confidence. "And if Bel Iblis doesn't come within that time frame?"
Pellaeon pursed his lips. "We'll decide then."
Ardiff hesitated, then took half a step closer to his superior. "You really believe this is our best hope, sir, don't you," he said quietly.
Pellaeon shook his head. "No, Captain," he murmured. "I believe it's our only hope."
The wedge of approaching Sienar IPV/4 patrol ships broke in perfect formation to both sides, and the Imperial Star Destroyer Relentless glided smoothly between the re-forming clusters toward its designated orbital position. "Very impressive," Moff Disra growled to the slim man beside him, hearing his heart pounding in his ears as he gazed across the bridge at the green-blue world framed in the forward viewport. "I trust you didn't haul me all the way out here just to watch the Kroctarian home defense force's maneuvers."
"Patience, Your Excellency," Major Grodin Tierce said quietly at his side. "I told you we had a surprise for you."
Disra felt his lip twist. Yes, that's what Tierce had said. And that was all Tierce had said. And as for Flim
Disra shifted his gaze to the Admiral's chair, feeling his lip twist a little more. Their tame con man was sitting there, bold as bricbrass in his blue-skin makeup and glowing red eye surface inserts and his white Grand Admiral's uniform. The absolute laser-trimmed image of Grand Admiral Thrawn, a masquerade solidly believed by every Imperial aboard the Relentless from Captain Dorja on down.
Trouble was, there weren't any Imperials on the planet below them. Far from it. Kroctar, merchant center and capital of Shataum sector, was deep in New Republic territory, with every bit as much military firepower as one would expect such a world to have. There was no guarantee that any of them would be impressed by Flim's eyes and uniform and acting ability.
And if they weren't, this cozy little triumvirate Disra had formed was about to blow up in their faces. Flim might look like Thrawn, but he had all the tactical genius of a garbage-pit parasite. Tierce, a former stormtrooper and Royal Guardsman under Emperor Palpatine, was the military brains of their little group; and if Captain Dorja saw an allegedly lowly major rush over to the allegedly brilliant Grand Admiral to give him advice, this whole illusion would explode into soap scum. Whatever bluff Tierce was running here, it had better work.
"Transmission from the surface, Admiral," the comm officer called from the portside crew pit. "It's Lord Superior Bosmihi, chief of the Unified Factions."
"On speaker, Lieutenant," Thrawn said. "Lord Superior Bosmihi, this is Grand Admiral Thrawn. I received your message. What may I do for you?"
Disra frowned at Tierce. "They called us?" he muttered.
Tierce nodded, a small but satisfied smile playing around his lips. "Shh," he said. "Listen."
"We offer you greeting, Grand Admiral Thrawn," a nasally alien voice boomed over the comm, "and we congratulate you most heartily on your triumphal return."
"Thank you," Thrawn said smoothly. "As I recall, you were somewhat less enthusiastic at our last meeting."
Disra threw Tierce a sharp look. "During his sweep through this sector ten years ago," Tierce murmured. "Don't worry, he knows all about it."
The alien gave a blubbering laugh. "Ah, yesyou remember most clearly," he admitted cheerfully. "At that time the fear of Imperial power and the lure of promised freedoms still held sway over us."
"Such lies held sway over many," Thrawn agreed. "Does your choice of words imply the Kroctari have come to a new understanding?"
There was a disgusting, wheezy-sounding noise from the comm. "We have seen the crumbling of the promise," the Lord Superior said regretfully. "There is no longer any order emanating from Coruscant; no focused goals, no clear structures, no discipline. A thousand different alien species tug the galaxy in a thousand different directions."
"Inevitably," Thrawn said. "That was why Emperor Palpatine first inaugurated the New Order. It was an attempt to reverse the collapse you now see coming."
"Yet we were also warned not to trust Imperial promises," Bosmihi hedged. "The history of the Empire is one of brutal subjugation of nonhuman species."
"You speak of the rule of Palpatine," Thrawn said. "The Empire has freed itself from his self-destructive anti-alien bias."
"Your presence in a place of command is some evidence of that," Bosmihi said cautiously. "Still, others still say the bias exists."
"Others still lie about the Empire in many ways," Thrawn countered. "But there's no need for you to take my word for it. Speak to any of the fifteen alien species currently living under Imperial rule, beings who cherish the protection and stability we offer."
"Yesprotection." The Lord Superior seemed to pounce on the word. "The Empire is said to be weak; yet I perceive that you still have great strength. What guarantee of safety do you offer your member systems?"
"The best guarantee in the galaxy," Thrawn said; and even Disra felt a shiver run through him at the veiled power and menace that was suddenly in the con man's voice. "My personal promise of vengeance should anyone dare attack you."
There was a noise that sounded midway between a swallow and a burp. "I see," Bosmihi said soberly. "I understand that this is rather sudden, and for this I apologize; but on behalf of the Unified Factions of the Kroctari people, I would like to petition you for readmission into the Empire."
Disra looked at Tierce, feeling his jaw drop a few millimeters. "Readmission?" he hissed.
Tierce smiled back. "Surprise, Your Excellency."
"On behalf of the Empire, I accept your petition," Thrawn said. "You no doubt have a delegation standing ready to discuss the details?"
"You understand my people well, Grand Admiral Thrawn," the Lord Superior said wryly. "Yes, my delegation does indeed await your pleasure."
"Then you may signal them to approach," Thrawn told him. "As it happens, Imperial Moff Disra is currently aboard the Relentless. As he is a specialist in political matters, he will handle the negotiations."
"We will be honored to meet with him," Bosmihi said. "Though I doubt his presence there is in any way the coincidence you imply. Thank you, Grand Admiral Thrawn; and until the meeting."
"Until the meeting, Lord Superior Bosmihi," Thrawn said.
He gestured to the crew pit. "Transmission ended, Admiral," the comm officer confirmed.
"Thank you," Thrawn said, rising almost leisurely from his command chair. "Signal TIE interceptors to stand ready for escort duty. They're to meet the Lord Superior's shuttle as soon as it clears atmosphere, flying in full honor formation. Captain Dorja, I'd like you to meet the shuttle personally and escort the delegation to Conference Room 68. Moff Disra will await you there."
"Understood, Admiral," Dorja said. He strode from the bridge, throwing Disra a tightly satisfied smile as he passed, and stepped into a waiting turbolift in the aft bridge. "You might have said something," Disra muttered to Tierce as the turbolift door closed behind the captain.
The Guardsman shrugged, a microscopic movement of the shoulders. "I wasn't absolutely sure this was what they wanted when they called," he said, gesturing Disra through the aft doors toward another turbolift. "But it seemed like a good guess. Kroctar has several potentially dangerous neighbors, and Intelligence reports the Unified Factions have become extremely disillusioned by Coruscant's inability to decide how tight a restraining bolt they want to keep on intersystem fighting."
They reached the turbolift and stepped into a waiting car. "Kroctar's the first," Tierce continued as the doors closed and they began to move. "But it won't be the last. We already have transmissions from twenty other systems whose governments would like Grand Admiral Thrawn to drop in for a chat."
Disra snorted. "All they're trying to do is shake up their enemies."
"Probably," Tierce agreed. "But what do we care why they want to rejoin? The point is that they do, and it's going to send shock waves from here to Coruscant."
"Until Coruscant decides to take action."
"What action can they take?" Tierce countered. "Their own charter specifically allows member systems to withdraw anytime they choose."
There was a beep from the turbolift comlink. "Moff Disra?"
"There's a transmission coming in for you, Your Excellency, under a private encryption designated Usk-51."
Disra felt his stomach try to cramp. Of all the stupid, brainless"Thank you," he said as calmly as he could manage. "Have it transferred to Conference Room 68, and make sure it's not monitored."
"Yes, Your Excellency."
Tierce was frowning at him. "That's not?"
"It certainly is," Disra bit out. The turbolift doors opened"Come on. And stay out of sight."
Two minutes later they were in the conference room with the door privacy-sealed behind them. Activating the comm display set into the center of the table, Disra pulled the proper encryption datacard from his collection and slid it into the slot. He keyed for reception
"It's about time," Captain Zothip spat, his eyes flashing, his bushy blond beard bristling with anger. "Don't you think I've got better things to do than?"
"What!" Disra barked. Zothip's head jerked back, his own tirade breaking off midway in sudden confusion. "Do . . . you . . . think . . . you're . . . doing?" Disra continued into the silence, biting out each word like the crack of a rotten snapstick. "How dare you take such an insane risk?"
"Never mind your precious image," Zothip growled, some of his insolence starting to come back. "If consorting with pirates is suddenly an embarrassment for you"
"Embarrassment is not the issue here," Disra said icily. "I'm thinking about our two necks, and whether we get to keep them. Or hadn't you noticed how many relays there are in this transmission?"
"No kidding," Zothip said with a sniff. "And here I thought it was just your wonderful Imperial comm equipment kicking ions again. So where are you, out at your vacation home counting your money?"
"Hardly," Disra said. "I'm aboard an Imperial Star Destroyer."