Captain Grakkis had relished getting the order to stop probing the Maw Cluster. But when the orders turned out to be more recon work, his initial joy ceased. His ship, the Vengeance, had the newest and best computers and sensors in the fleet, short of the Admiral's flagship, and even that was arguable. But, ironically, the result was that his ship became the primary recon ship of the fleet, always probing, and never seeing much action. Grakkis eagerly awaited the chance to try out his systems in combat. At least scanning for a ship in hyperspace was a change from probing that blasted Maw Cluster, though it was a lot more boring.
However, it had at least paid off. As for the Maw, well, they had succeeded in tracing hundreds of wrong ways in. Grakkis made his report on the apparent direction and speed of the ship, which he knew to be far from precise. If only the homing device was still functioning. Scanning hyperspace is very hard to do, and is very inaccurate. For older systems, impossible. His best projections had shown, much to his dismay, that it was headed for the Maw. Which meant...
"Sir, the Admiral orders us to rendezvous with his task force near the Maw Cluster. The coordinates have been received, and we're ready to go on your command."
"Proceed," said Grakkis, not at all looking forward to seeing the Maw again. The Vengeance also had a new hyperdrive system installed, which would allow it to get there ahead of the ship that had just passed, even if it didn't have twelve year old equipment. Just before going to hyperspace, he glanced in the direction that the ship had come from. The cauldron nebula shined in the distance with light that had started its journey many years ago. Light from stars that no longer existed.
The Vengeance arrived to a scene of Imperial glory. Five Imperial Star Destroyers, fourteen interdictor cruisers, and various other smaller ships in an entrapment formation. Grakkis followed the orders he received upon arrival, taking position next to the Death's Head as the interdictors began charging up their gravity well projectors.
In hyperspace, aboard the Star Destroyer Gorgon, Admiral Daala was fuming. Her ship had been nearly incinerated by the explosion of the stars in the Cauldron Nebula. Her crew had been working on internal repairs, but the worst damage was external, and would have to be seen to at a repair facility. The only place she knew of that she could go was the Maw Installation. The research facility was not actually a repair yard, but it could handle the task relatively well, and would be the safest place for the work to be done. Besides, she needed to check the condition of her post. She had been entrusted to guard Maw Installation, and if anything had gotten through in her absence...
"Yes, Commander Kratas, what is it?"
"We should be arriving at the Maw Cluster in one half hour."
"Thank you, Commander. Proceed."
At least it wasn't the bad news she'd expected. The way things had been going, she would not have been surprised if the acceleration compensators had failed, making exit from hyperspace fatal. She went to the intercom station to check on the repairs to the maneuvering systems. Without them in proper working order, they would never make it through the black holes in the Maw Cluster to the installation. As she reached for the comm key, her ship suddenly fell out of hyperspace.
"What's happening? Why did we drop out of hyperspace? Commander Kratas, explain," she demanded, rushing over to Kratas at the helm station.
"Admiral, the navicomputer detected a planet-sized mass, and pulled us out of hyperspace," said the helmsman.
"He's right," said Kratas, checking the screen. "But there aren't any planets in this area. Kessel is too far from here to pull us out."
"Then let's go see what it is," Daala replied.
Admiral Daala and Commander Kratas couldn't believe their eyes. They had been pulled out of hyperspace into the middle of an Imperial Armada.
"Admiral, we're being hailed," the communications officer said.
"Commander Mithel, have you made contact?"
"Yes sir. Admiral Daala is on her way."
"Good. Remember, don't let her know who we are. The Admiral wants her to worry. Just carry out his orders."
"Yes, sir. Here she is now."
"Admiral Daala, you are hereby ordered to transfer to this ship. We are sending a shuttle."
"On whose authority do you order me to leave my ship, Commander?" Daala replied to the image of Mithel.
"The shuttle is on its way. It will be arriving shortly. I suggest you prepare to board it," said Mithel, ignoring her protest.
"I most certainly will not. Tell whoever is in charge that I will take orders only from a superior officer."
"I suggest you do as you're told, Admiral. Your ship is in no condition to fight us, and you're not going anywhere."
"We'll just see about that."
"Admiral, I advise that you act in the best interest of your crew. You are surrounded by a vastly superior force, and you can't go to lightspeed. Comply, or you will be fired upon."
"Never. Helm: get us out of here. Gunners: prepare to fire."
"Bad move, Admiral," said Mithel.
"Captain, she's playing hard to get."
"All right. Now we do things the easy way. Send a message to Judicator and Stormhawk: ion cannons only. Aim for the engines, then the batteries. Those that haven't been incinerated already, that is."
*** The Star Destroyers Judicator and Stormhawk instantly opened up with their ion cannons. After a very brief bombardment, the Gorgon's engines were disabled. The ion bursts then shifted, scrambling the systems of the Gorgon's remaining weapon emplacements as they swept over its hull.
"Admiral, we're dead in space, and our weapons are worthless. They've got us," came the grim voice of Commander Kratas.
"Admiral Daala, are you ready to surrender, or do we have to use turbolasers?" said the image of Commander Mithel.
"All right! I... I surrender. I will do as you say."
"Excellent. Our shuttle will arrive soon. You and your top officers are to board it. And no tricks. We'll fire at the first sign of a double-cross, and your hull doesn't look like it could take much more damage."
"We'll be there. No tricks. My security team will accompany us to your ship."
"Very funny. Your security team will stay aboard your ship. Our security team will escort you. Or hold you prisoner, whichever you prefer."
Rather than make an angry reply, Daala grudgingly mumbled, "Understood."
The Lambda-class shuttle that carried Daala was pulled surprisingly rapidly and smoothly into the hangar bay of the Star Destroyer Chimaera by its improved tractor beams. A squad of stormtroopers awaited the arrival of the "guests." The entourage marched to a nearby turbolift, which they took to an officers' briefing room somewhere in the conning tower of the massive warship. As they entered the room, they were "greeted" by an elderly Imperial captain.
"Welcome aboard the flagship," Captain Pellaeon said in a voice that implied anything but welcome. "Please, be seated."
Daala's officers each took a seat around the table. She did not.
"Admiral Daala, sit down."
"No. I don't take orders from captains."
"Very well, then."
Pellaeon motioned to the stormtroopers standing behind her, who promptly stepped forward and pushed her down into the seat, then held her there.
"You can't do this to me. I'm an Imperial admiral."
"I don't care if you think you're the Emperor, himself," said Pellaeon. "And neither does our commander."
"You mean you're not the commander of this group? Then I demand to see this commander as soon as possible."
"He will see you as soon as he sees fit. In the mean time, you will all stay here."
"Who are you? What ship is this?" asked Daala, getting a strange feeling about the whole situation.
"You'll find out if and when the commander decides to let you."
Fifteen minutes went by before the man Daala recognized from the comm screen entered the room. He walked over to the Captain and handed him a data pad.
"Admiral Daala, the commander is ready to see you now. Guards: take her to the command center."
Two stormtroopers marched Daala through the halls of the ship. Crewers that they passed looked at her with confusion. They probably have never seen a female admiral, she thought. A pity. So many good female officers had missed promotion to the flag ranks merely because they were female. Her own promotion to the rank of Admiral had been helped along by her lover, Grand Moff Tarkin. But she deserved that promotion on her own merit. She was a top graduate of the academy. She had kept her men on alert for twelve years in the Maw Installation. The only thing that she deliberately did against regulations was having her hair long. It was her protest against the humiliation she had received in the lower ranks.
As she walked, she noticed that the whole ship smelled strange. Not at all like the heavily processed air typical of a Star Destroyer. While she was wondering, she casually looked up and discovered why. At regular intervals along the ceiling were strange, furry animals. She realized that she had also seen them in the officers' briefing room, but had dismissed them as decoration. What are they? she wondered. Oh well, just another thing to ask this mysterious commander about.
The stormtroopers pushed her through the doors of the command center, which quickly closed, leaving her in total darkness. But she had the feeling she was not alone.
"Who are you, and why have you brought me here?" she shouted into the darkness. "Your officers have a lot to learn about military protocol. I am an Imperial admiral, and I demand some answers."
"You may demand nothing!" came a smooth, commanding voice from behind her.
Daala turned around quickly to face the person who had just spoken to her. She still couldn't see anything.
"I have been an Imperial admiral for more than twelve years. I certainly can demand an explanation! And I want it now!"
"I will explain when and if I choose to, admiral. And don't assume you can dictate to me merely because you've been an 'admiral' for twelve years. I vastly outrank you."
As he said this, Daala's blood froze in fear. Not because of his words, but because of the two glowing red eyes that now peered at her in the darkness from the direction of the voice.
"No! That's impossible! You're dead!"
"Oh? And who told you that?"
"Some Rebel named Solo told me when I interrogated him."
"It would appear that news of my death has been somewhat exaggerated."
"I don't believe you. You're probably just that captain, with a voice modulator and a pair of lights."
Daala turned around to try to find the door. As she bumped into an unknown object, the voice spoke again.
"No, I'm not a hoax. See for yourself."
As the lights came on, Daala got a good look at what she had bumped into. It was a steely-gray skinned alien with a nightmarish face and a long, slender knife in its hand. She let out a scream. The alien didn't move. In fact, it had never moved...
"I see you have met my bodyguard. Or, should I say, my former bodyguard."
Daala was still in shock as she turned away from the stuffed alien to look at the person who had brought her here. With a gasp, she beheld a man with pale blue skin, with growing red eyes, and blue-black hair... and wearing the white uniform of an Imperial Grand Admiral.
"You see, I am who you think I am. And I have some business to discuss with you, admiral."
Daala was speechless. Eventually, she managed, "Yes, sir."
"First of all, I understand that that Star Destroyer you arrived in is the only one left out of your original force. Is that correct?"
"Does it still have a full crew?"
"Good. Commander Mithel," Thrawn said into the comlink in the armrest of his chair.
"Yes, Admiral Thrawn."
"Do you feel ready to command a Star Destroyer?"
"Yes, sir," said Mithel, confidently.
"Then take the team I've prepared to Daala's ship. They know what to do. Take the ship to our rendezvous point."
"You can't do that! The Gorgon is MY ship!" Daala said frantically.
"Not any more. Now, I know that Solo escaped from you and has since let the Rebellion know of the location of the Maw Installation. Yet you deserted your post to go on a futile, self-destructive temper tantrum, and have lost three of your four Star Destroyers," Thrawn said. He paused, then added, "No, I think three and a half is more accurate."
"I couldn't help it! The rebels took me by surprise!"
"Admiral Daala, you have displayed nothing but incompetence since you abandoned your post! A good commander can adapt to unexpected situations. It would seem that you can not."
"I happen to be a top graduate of the Imperial naval academy! I am an expert on tactics."
"Yes, I have seen your file. But knowing tactics and using them are different things. Take your assault on Mon Calamari, for example. You used a tactic created by Grand Moff Tarkin over twelve years ago. There's nothing wrong with using old tactics, as some are still very useful. Your failure was in not recognizing when to stop using it and change your strategy. Then, when the Sun Crusher attacked you near the Cauldron Nebula, you certainly took your time in figuring out what it was really up to."
"How did you know where I was?"
"A simple homing beacon. I have also had a ship tailing you ever since you left the Maw"
"That's impossible! We would have detected it!"
"But would you have paid any attention to a random bit of space debris? Observe."
With this, Thrawn turned on one of the screens in his command center. Daala could see the Gorgon, several ships in the background, and a strange piece of space debris.
"That is what's been tailing me?"
"Oh, it's more than what it appears to be, admiral," he said to her, pausing briefly as she pondered what it was. Then he turned to his comm and ordered, "Shadow Weaver, de-cloak!"
Daala looked at the monitor with surprise and shock as the space in the middle of the debris was filled in by a Dreadnaught-class Heavy Cruiser with the debris revealed as sensor antennas.
"Passive sensors, of course. They can also be cloaked, allowing the ship to stop moving before de-cloaking them. Moving debris tends to attract attention. We were actually testing it out monitoring the situation involving Solo on Kessel, but when you showed up, well, you get the idea. I would say the test was successful."
It certainly was. Daala had had no idea it was there.
"What are you going to do with me?"
"I should have you executed for your failures. However, I do have a use for you."
"Sir, by rank I would be your second-in-command. As such ... I will perform my duty to the best of my abilities."
"The best of your abilities do not seem worth having. This is what I propose: If you tell me the way to get into the Maw Installation, I will merely demote you and assign you to a subordinate position where you will have an opportunity to prove your worth. If you can't, you will be court-martialed and executed. If you succeed, you might eventually obtain command of a ship."
"What if I refuse to tell you?"
"Then you will be subjected to a complete interrogation and executed after I have the information I want. I suggest you tell me now."
Daala could see no way out of this. She knew how horrible Imperial interrogation techniques were. After all, she had recently overseen the interrogation of Han Solo.
"All right. I'll tell you."
"Excellent. You are hereby demoted to the rank of Commander..."
"Commander?! From Admiral to Commander? Sir..."
"You're right. Lieutenant Commander is more appropriate. Perform well, and you may eventually climb to the rank of Captain. It will be logged in your file that you are never again to hold the rank of Admiral in the Imperial navy. Oh, and I must warn you now: while Grand Moff Tarkin may have considered qualities other than military competence in granting promotion, in my fleet, military competence is the only way to rise in rank. Any attempt on your part to get around this the same way as with Tarkin, you will be court-martialed and executed for behavior unbecoming an Imperial officer. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant Commander Daala?"
"Y-Yes, sir," Daala said weakly. She had not felt this insulted and humiliated in a long time. Not since she had gotten her command. And now she had lost it. Does Grand Admiral Thrawn know what he's doing to me? she wondered. Obviously he did. She consoled herself with the thought that it couldn't get much worse, immediately reminding herself that that thought usually turns out to be proven false very quickly.
"After we talk, you will be assigned to a Dreadnaught with a crew made up entirely of clones, where you will be third in command."
"A Dreadnaught? Clones? But Sir..."
"Silence, Lieutenant Commander. Do not question my orders, or you can forget remaining in Imperial service and go straight to Interrogation. Now, you are to be fitted for your new uniform and have a physical examination, as per regulation. And your hair is not regulation. It will have to be cut. After that, we will discuss the way into the Maw Installation. My guards will escort you."
"Not my hair! Admiral, I've already said I'll tell you how to get in!"
"Evidently, you misunderstood me. That was not a threat. You will meet all regulations, regardless. I still intend to get the information from you, one way or another."
The stormtroopers Thrawn had summoned escorted the humiliated Daala out of the Command Center. The Grand Admiral leaned back into his chair, considering his next move. Of course, they would take all the research data, equipment, and scientists from the Maw Installation and set a booby trap for the rebellion to spring. He would study the scientists and their art to find the Sun Crusher's weaknesses. It must have weaknesses. Nothing is invincible. But as for the Rebellion ... was it time for him to move in again, to start the final battle for the galaxy? Well, he thought, it all depends on what we find in the Maw.