The transfer system was a breathtaking beehive of activity, with hundreds of ships of various sizes floating in clumps and queues, or jumping in and out of hyperspace near the edges. The focal points for most of the activity seemed to be a dozen large bulk freighters, spread out through the area, each running an innocuous civilian ID mark. Groups of smaller ships clustered around each of the freighters, waiting their turn to dock and transfer their cargoes. A handful of midsized warships patrolled the perimeter while sentry patterns of TIE fighters swept around and past them.

Faro had seen a similar scene once when she visited a system where a newly commissioned Star Destroyer was being provisioned and crewed. But never had she witnessed anything this elaborate.

The system, she also noted with a small sense of gloating, was also exactly an hour and thirty-two minutes from the Firedrake meeting point, putting it well within Thrawn’s estimate of two hours or less. She wondered if Ronan would be impressed by the grand admiral’s accuracy.

From the stony look on his face as he arrived on the Chimaera’s bridge, apparently not.

“Assistant Director Ronan,” Thrawn said in greeting as he approached along the command walkway. “Or do you prefer to be addressed as Colonel?”

“Either is acceptable,” Ronan said.

“But which do you prefer?” Thrawn asked again. “I assume the military rank is largely honorary.”

A muscle in Ronan’s cheek twitched. “Honorary, perhaps, but quite necessary to my work. You’d be surprised how many in the Imperial military refuse to take civilians and civilian orders seriously.”

“I doubt I would be surprised at all,” Thrawn said. He gestured toward the forward viewport. “Explain this to me.”

Ronan’s lip twitched disdainfully. “It’s really not that difficult,” he said, and Faro could hear a hint of condescension creeping into the arrogance. “Shipments of supplies come in from all over the local sectors. They’re transferred to larger freighters, which will fly them to Stardust’s location. That way, only carefully selected and screened pilots need to know the final destination.”

“That much is of course obvious,” Thrawn said mildly. “I was asking that you supply the details.”

“What details?”

“I wish to know which ships are arriving from which systems in which sectors,” Thrawn said. “I wish a list of the captains and crews, the individual cargo manifests, and which companies supplied those cargoes.”

“What does any of that have to do with anything?” Ronan asked, frowning. “You’re here to get rid of the grallocs.”

“We are here to solve the problem,” Thrawn corrected. “To that end, I need to know everything related to it.”

“It’s a question of security,” Ronan said. “If it were relevant to your task, maybe. But it’s not.”

“I disagree,” Thrawn said. “Shall we ask Director Krennic for his opinion? Or perhaps we should request a ruling from the Emperor.”

Ronan’s lips compressed, and he turned his head to glare out the viewport. He held that pose a moment, then gave a small sniff. “There’ll be a harbormaster aboard one of the ships,” he said reluctantly. “I can probably get him to release the listings to me.”

“Senior Lieutenant Lomar is our chief communications officer,” Thrawn said, gesturing to the crew pit comm station. “He can assist you in sending your message.” He shifted the pointing finger toward the viewport. “In the meantime, is that one of the grallocs?”

Ronan gave a little snort. “Yes.”

Faro leaned a little farther forward. Barely visible against the lights of all those drifting ships, something dark was gliding or fluttering or flapping—it was hard to tell which—past one of the nearest of the maneuvering ships. Its batlike wings, slender body, and large, tendriled suckermouth branded it instantly as a mynock relative.

A big relative. Whereas mynocks seldom grew larger than a couple of meters, the creature moving around out there was at least five meters long and had a wingspan to match. That alone was probably enough to raise it from nuisance to serious threat. “Pretty fast,” she commented. “I didn’t think mynocks could maneuver that well, either.”

“As Director Krennic said, they’re a serious problem,” Ronan said. “Did it land? I’ve lost it.”

“I believe it attached itself to that VCX-200 freighter,” Thrawn said, pointing at the ship the gralloc had been sweeping toward. “Lieutenant Pyrondi?”

“Sir?” the chief weapons officer replied.

“Opinion, Lieutenant,” Thrawn said. “If we wish to take that creature, how do you recommend we do it?”

“Turbolasers would be quickest,” Pyrondi said. “But with all these ships around, a miss could cause serious collateral damage.”

“As well as a direct hit leaving little for us to study,” Thrawn said.

“Yes, sir, that’s the other problem with it,” Pyrondi agreed. “If we instead used one of the laser cannons—”

“What do you need to study it for?” Ronan interrupted. “I thought Savit already gave you all of Governor Haveland’s information.”

“He did,” Thrawn confirmed. “I find it useful to collect my own data.”

Ronan started to say something else, seemed to think better of it, and waved a hand as if in apology. “Of course. Carry on.”

“Thank you,” Thrawn said. “You were saying, Lieutenant?”

“Laser cannons would be safer for bystanders,” Pyrondi said. “But we’d have to get in closer to use them. Tractor beams are another possibility, and they’ve got more range than the laser cannons. But I’m not sure we can focus them tightly enough to grab something that small, especially something flitting around as much as these things are.”

“What about the ion cannons?” Faro asked.

“I doubt they’d be effective, Commodore,” Pyrondi said. “Given the grallocs’ environment, they likely have a high resistance to ionic bursts of every sort.”

“They seem also able to tack against solar wind,” Thrawn said. “Your overall assessment seems valid, Lieutenant. But the first step in assessing any theory is to compare it with reality. We will begin with the ion cannons, and see what happens.”

Thrawn: Treason (Star Wars)