The siege of the planet Kessel began with no warning. Defense installations were annihilated within minutes, and the planet's oxygen producing facilities were quickly disabled by the scrambling effects of the orbiting Star Destroyers' ion cannons. The planet's starfighter-base moon was subjected to a similar treatment. The few fighters and light freighters that managed to lift off before the hangar was destroyed were quickly disposed of by the ready-and-waiting TIE fighters. Interdictor Cruisers positioned at strategic points ensured that none of the fleeing ships got into hyperspace before they could be destroyed. But their presence proved unnecessary. Nothing ever reached their projected gravity wells.
On the planet, Moruth Doole, gangster and for all practical purposes ruler of Kessel, quickly realized that all was lost. No ships had gotten through, and the Imperial jamming had prevented any calls for help. He was in the process of grabbing a few important things, including his own small stash of Kessel's Glitterstim spice, before heading for his secret tunnels when the monitor in his office suddenly came on. On the screen he saw a human female with short copper-colored hair, wearing the uniform of an Imperial admiral.
"This is Admiral Daala," the image said. "The planet Kessel is hereby back under Imperial control. Anyone opposing the occupation force will be eliminated. All ships attempting to leave the planet will be destroyed. Your air processors will be repaired once the ground commander feels the planet is secure. I recommend you cooperate, if you enjoy breathing. That is all."
Doole stared at the screen for a while after the image had vanished. He had heard about this Admiral Daala. Just rumors, really, but he had already formed the opinion that she was something of a loose cannon. What he had heard indicated that she was only interested in the New Republic, not smugglers. But on that note, he had also heard that she only had two Star Destroyers, having lost one in the Maw and one at Mon Calamari. He knew for a fact that there were more than two Star Destroyers orbiting Kessel. And now, she was invading his planet. He looked out the window and saw the approaching assault shuttles. Quickly, he headed for his escape tunnel.
With Kessel isolated, the Imperial fleet turned to head for the Maw, leaving the Star Destroyers Bellicose and Stormhawk and the Interdictors behind. A dozen Dreadnaughts and several bulk freighters awaited them near the cluster of black holes called the Maw.
On the bridge of the Chimaera, Captain Pellaeon walked over to the command communications post and Daala.
"You may change back into your proper uniform now. The performance is over."
For a moment, Daala just stood there. She was in no hurry.
"Do you have a problem, Lieutenant Commander?"
"No, sir," she replied bitterly, then strode away.
As she left the bridge, Grand Admiral Thrawn approached Pellaeon.
"So, Captain, what is your opinion of the lieutenant commander's acting abilities?"
"It seems that pretending to be a senior officer is one thing she may be good at. As long as she doesn't give any orders. I've made sure that the crew understands that when she's posing as their leader, they should play along. They don't like it though."
"That's understandable. But they will obey. It was an excellent idea, Captain. My return must remain secret. We must not overuse this deception, though. Convincing the Rebellion that she is in command will not be as easy as it was with the criminals operating Kessel. No, the masquerade will end when we begin our renewed assault on the Rebels. The change in tactics alone will prove she is not in command."
"You are quite right, sir," Pellaeon said. "It can only go on for a short time. But in that time, we can vastly improve our position."
"Be sure to keep the lieutenant commander in line, Captain. Allowing her to wear an admiral's uniform, no matter what the reason, will increase her overestimation of her own value. I didn't want her even wearing the uniform, but you convinced me to try this. However, if she gets too far out of line, I will have her executed for impersonating an Imperial Admiral."
"I certainly won't complain, sir."
"I know. But that will have to wait, at least until all the Maw technology is in our hands and all code locks opened. It would be best to keep her until then."
"Sir, if we could get a slicer- a good one- maybe we wouldn't even need her for that."
Thrawn thought for a moment.
"Another good suggestion. I may follow up on that. But now to the task at hand. Is the Vengeance in position?"
"Yes, sir. Captain Grakkis reports that all is ready."
"Then we shall proceed as soon as the Lieutenant Commander returns. And she had better not keep us waiting long."
In another part of the galaxy, at the Imperial Military Academy on the planet Carida, a different campaign for the Empire's future was being put into motion.
Ambassador Furgan had personally overseen the loading of his finest stormtroopers and the new MT-AT assault walkers into the troop bays of two Strike cruisers he had managed to procure. It hadn't been easy. The ships had been hijacked, although Furgan referred to it as reclaiming the Emperor's property. Not that it mattered to the stormtroopers. They would do what they were told. The intense stormtrooper training program saw to that.
Furgan smiled, thinking of how pleased the Emperor would be with his management of the training base. And how much more pleased he would be when the third child of Leia Organa Solo was captured. Once the spirit of Palpatine took the body of the Jedi child, he would rule the galaxy again. And he, Furgan, would be the one who brought it about. Of course, he wanted to be there when it happened, to make sure the Emperor could see him first.
Furgan gave a long winded speech to the troops aboard both ships about courage and loyalty to the Empire, drawing quite a bit of attention to his own loyalty and courage in personally leading the attack. With everything said, he ordered the ships into hyperspace toward the formerly secret world of Anoth where the baby Anakin Solo was hidden.
As the ships began the jump to hyperspace, Furgan thought he saw some space debris actually move out of the way of his cruiser, but decided it was nothing and went to his quarters.
Lieutenant Commander Daala entered the bridge of the Chimaera and quickly walked over to Grand Admiral Thrawn.
"Thank you for joining us, Lieutenant Commander," Thrawn said, with more than a touch of sarcasm. "We have been waiting for you. I want you to be present when we enter the Maw, since you provided the navigational information for a safe entry."
"Sir, I feel it is my duty to warn you that even along those coordinates, it is a very dangerous journey."
"Helm: prepare to take us in."
Thrawn saw Daala subtly bracing herself.
"Are you ready, Lieutenant Commander?"
"Yes, sir," Daala replied, with her tone of voice implying that she had accepted something difficult, but inevitable.
"Well, Lieutenant Commander, in that case," Thrawn said, turning abruptly to the comm, "it's time to start the operation. Vengeance: fire the probes."
Daala's face flashed surprise, which she quickly suppressed. But not quickly enough.
"Is there something wrong with that, Lieutenant Commander?"
"No, sir," she said softly.
A spread of probes emerged from the Vengeance and sped toward the maw, two following the course given by Daala and the rest spread out around them. Entering the Maw, the two center probes continued straight into the cluster of black holes, as did all the probes on one side. Those on the other side, some no farther off from center than 100 meters, were drawn in by the intense gravitational pull.
Thrawn looked at the results, and ordered a course correction to be plotted. He then turned to Daala.
"It would seem that the course you were using is indeed very dangerous. One wonders how you managed to get all four of your Star Destroyers out. But I think we can find a safer route."
Daala stood silently.
When the corrected course came in, Thrawn ordered a remote controlled slave-rigged Dreadnaught in. After it had entered the other ships followed, one by one, until the Chimaera itself went in. The Vengeance would remain outside to stand guard.
Pellaeon gazed in awe at the immense Death Star prototype that occupied much of the space near the group of asteroids housing the secret Maw Installation research facility. He quietly wondered what Thrawn was going to do with it. Turning his head, he saw that Thrawn appeared to be thinking the same thing. Thrawn's disapproving gaze abruptly vanished as if he had suddenly had an idea. He reached for the comm button.
"Landing parties: I want complete holo recordings of everything... and I mean everything... before it is removed. Weapons set for stun. If any resistance is met, try not to damage anything. I want a complete computer dump as soon as possible. If a code is required, contact me." He glanced at Daala. "All spacetroopers and zero-gravity tech crews, report to the freighter Langall and await orders."
The Grand Admiral turned to go to the turbo lift. "Lieutenant Commander Daala, come with me."
A Lambda-class shuttle from the Vengeance entered the space around the Maw installation a few hours after the main force had moved in. It transmitted its clearance code to the Chimaera, a code revealing it had priority information for the Grand Admiral. Pellaeon gave the shuttle clearance, then quickly contacted Thrawn, who was still aboard the Langall near the Death Star. Thrawn instructed Pellaeon to have the courier wait in his command chamber.
"Sir, Captain Grakkis has received a transmission and told me to relay it to you personally," the commander said uneasily.
"Then proceed. I want Captain Pellaeon to hear this as well."
"Very well, sir. The transmission came from the spyship Wraith in the Caridian system. It reports that Ambassador Furgan has left the planet with two Strike cruisers. The Wraith also reports that the homing devices are in place and functioning."
"Well, it appears that my schedule will have to be moved up. Commander, tell Grakkis to relay my orders. Death's Head and Constrainer are to follow Furgan. They already know their orders. Judicator and Bellicose are to go to Carida and wait for me to arrive. I should be finished here in a few days. Tell the Wraith to hold its position as well. Do you have all that?"
"Yes, sir," the commander replied.
"Good. Now return to the Vengeance."
As he left, Pellaeon turned to face Thrawn.
"I'm sure you are wondering what I am planning for Furgan and Carida."
"Yes, sir, I am."
"It's very simple, actually. We need more stormtroopers. With Furgan gone, we can take some. I know the officer he usually leaves in command when he is away. He will cooperate with us."
"But what happens to him when Furgan returns?"
"Furgan won't return. His pathetic little quest to resurrect the Emperor will be the end of him. I've seen to that."
The long sensor antennas of the cloaked Dreadnaught Wraith passively scanned for the arrival of the two Star Destroyers that were supposed to be on their way. Besides this, the ship was still monitoring the planet Carida itself, picking up both intra- and interplanetary communications. Something the ship had been doing for much longer than the crew would have preferred. When sensors picked up the signals of a ship coming out of hyperspace, the monitoring crew sprang into action trying to confirm the arrival of the Star Destroyers. But they were soon disappointed: there was only one ship, and it was much smaller than a Star Destroyer. They set about identifying it, but without much enthusiasm.
Kyp Durron brought the Sun Crusher out of hyperspace and quickly made for the planet Carida. The comm relayed the demand that he identify himself. Let them wait, he thought. I'll answer them when I feel like it.
The demand for identification quickly turned into the threat of force. Let them come, Kyp thought. Before the fighters were anywhere near visual range, Kyp sensed them through the Force.
So the fools dare to challenge me. But why shouldn't they? They belong to the great Galactic Empire! They are invincible! Kyp chuckled to himself. No, they're not. But I am! And soon, they'll know it!
Six TIE Interceptors attacked the Sun Crusher as one. Kyp didn't even bother evading. The combined firepower of the interceptors would have vaporized any normal vessel, but the Sun Crusher was far from normal.
Kyp pulled the Sun Crusher around to face the TIEs. Apparently still bewildered by the fact that the unshielded, unidentified craft wasn't even scorched by their laser fire, they delayed too long in taking evasive action. Kyp rammed three on his first pass. The other three he played with, skillfully maneuvering his ship to knock choice parts off, much like the way one might tear legs off of insects.
As he was finishing the last of the Interceptors, a sudden explosion threw him against his restraints. Half with the Force and half with his eyes, he looked around and found the TIE Bombers that had targeted him with proton torpedoes.
The four Bombers were quickly dispatched as well. Kyp saw that more fighters were approaching, but he had tired of fighting them. He brought the Sun Crusher into orbit around Carida and let them come, futily wasting their firepower.
"Attention, Carida. I demand to speak to Ambassador Furgan. As you can see, I'm not afraid of your defenses. Now let me speak to him."
The crew of the Wraith anxiously watcher their scopes as the battle progressed. It was the most excitement they had had during their time at this position. At first, they just enjoyed the spectacular break from monotony. But when it became obvious that the unknown ship was actually immune to all attacks, the mood became much more serious. When the unidentified ship finally began transmitting, the crew listened intently.
"And why should the Ambassador talk to you, unidentified ship?" Caridian control replied savagely.
"Because I hold this entire system in my hands, and I will not hesitate to destroy it if my demands are not met."
"Do you really expect us to believe you?"
"You had better. Perhaps you've never heard of the Sun Crusher?"
The crew of the Wraith went from serious concentration to near panic when the identity of the ship came through the comm. The captain quickly ordered a hyperspace jump to Kessel to be calculated. But just before ordering the jump, he remembered the two Star Destroyers en route. He knew he was risking a mutiny, but he ordered the ship to hold position until the last possible moment.
"We're telling the truth! The Ambassador is not here!" control pleaded.
"Fine. Then get me whoever is in command down there."
"Of course. I'll get him."
"What do you want?" said the new voice.
"I want to know one thing. Where is my brother?"
The Caridian commander was speechless for a moment. "Your brother?"
"You Imperial butchers killed my parents and conscripted my brother. I think you know where he is."
"Well, we can check... do you know his operating number?"
"No. I only know his real name: Zeth Durron."
"It's going to take a while."
"Make it quick. I'm getting impatient."
During the lull, Kyp idly looked around. For the first time, he realized that the fighters had vanished. They probably took off when they found out who I was, Kyp thought.
The commander's voice came back on the comm.
"We have no records of anyone by that name. Do you have any idea of when he was conscripted?"
Kyp angrily retorted, "Why should that matter? You can't tell me your records don't go back far enough!"
"But they might not!"
"You're just stalling for time. Listen: I have all the time I want. It's you who are almost out."
"Please, wait! Your brother may not have ever even been here! In which case, we wouldn't have any records of him."
"He must have been here! You made a stormtrooper out of him!"
"Do you think this is the only stormtrooper training facility in the galaxy? I tell you, he wasn't here!"
Kyp was silent for a moment. His hope of finding his brother on Carida gone, the Dark Side of the Force took its place in his emotions.
"Well, then, it appears that there's nothing on Carida to keep me here. Thank you for your cooperation, commander. And now, since I have no further use for this system..."
"But we did as you asked!"
"Oh? And since when did the Empire care about that?"
Kyp shot off the comm and pulled the Sun Crusher out of orbit, aiming it toward the Caridian system's sun. He armed the solar resonance torpedoes within his ship's hull, and prepared to fire.
Aboard the Wraith, the captain ordered the ship to head for the hyperspace jump point. The ship's stormtrooper presence had managed to keep the crew in line, but to wait any longer before taking action was pushing things. And if those Star Destroyers didn't arrive soon, well, he hoped the Grand Admiral would understand.
Kyp launched three torpedoes, and was about to sit back and watch the futile attempt to evacuate Carida in the few minutes it had left when the Sun Crusher picked up something big coming out of hyperspace. That something was joined by another, and a quick scan revealed two Imperial Star Destroyers approaching Carida.
"Impossible! I destroyed her! She couldn't have escaped!" he shouted aloud. The thought of Admiral Daala escaping the Cauldron Nebula's destruction, and with both ships intact, set him into a rage. "She won't get away this time!"
The captain of the Wraith was at the comm a fraction of a second after the arrival of the Star Destroyers was reported. He ordered the navigation officer to prepare to transmit the jump calculations, then hailed the Destroyers.
"Attention Star Destroyers Judicator and Bellicose. This is the Wraith. You must leave this system immediately. We will send the hyperspace coordinates to you."
"This is Captain Brandei. What is happening?"
"It's the Sun Crusher."
Kyp saw the two massive vessels turn and start heading away from Carida. He knew that if he did not stop them, they might escape again. He was still too far away to get in their way, but there were other ways of getting their attention. He keyed the comm. "You're not leaving already, are you, Admiral Daala?"
Captain Brandei looked at the image of the young man on the comm screen. A kid, really. His fear eased somewhat. But if this was the person who controlled the Sun Crusher...
"Who are you, and what do you want?"
"I just want to talk to Admiral Daala. Put her on."
"I don't know who you think you are, or who you think we are, but there is no 'Admiral Daala' here."
"Don't lie to me, Captain! I know she's there. You tell her that the Dark Lord of the Sith wants to talk to her."
"The Dark Lord of the Sith?"
"That's right. She ordered my execution back at the Maw. She knows who I am. I suppose she must be too scared to face me now, when her demise is imminent."
"I told you, there is no 'Admiral Daala' here. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a hyperspace jump to make."
Brandei turned off the comm. His fear abruptly returning, he headed for the navigation officer.
"How much longer until the jump?"
"How dare you defy me!" Kyp shouted into the comm. In his rage, he hadn't noticed it had been cut off. "I suppose Admiral Daala has gotten a little more intelligent since the Cauldron. But it will do her no good!"
With that, he flew the Sun Crusher across the bridge of the Judicator, coming close enough to cause involuntary reactions from those who could see it.
"Sir, should we raise shields?"
"No," Brandei said. "Keep maximum power to the engines. We've got to get out of here."
When Kyp saw that the Star Destroyers hadn't even flinched, he decided that more drastic measures were appropriate. He positioned the Sun Crusher for a head on collision course with the Bellicose, using the same tactic Han Solo had used when they had escaped from the Maw.
A brilliant flare erupted where the Sun Crusher emerged from the Bellicose's conning tower. The Bellicose started turning away from its course.
"Come in, Bellicose! How bad is your damage? Can you still make the jump?" Captain Brandei said frantically into the comm.
"I think we can still make it," the very staticy voice of Captain Aban replied. "He missed the bridge. Barely. We should be righted soon."
Kyp stared in disbelief as the damaged Star Destroyer straightened out and got back on course. It had only lost about half a minute. The other Destroyer hadn't even slowed down. He was turning to make another pass when he saw something that looked like space debris accelerate into infinity. Distracted by this, he overshot the Destroyer by enough to allow its escape.
"NO! They can't! Not now!" Kyp fumed. His only chance at catching the remaining Destroyer was a side/rear attack. He braced for an impact that never came, as the last Star Destroyer went into hyperspace right in front of him.
Kyp was violently cursing everything he could think of to curse for the escape of the Star Destroyers when his ship was hit by the shock wave of the exploding star.
Outside the Maw, the Star Destroyer Chimaera stood guard over the departure of the freighters and Dreadnaughts carrying the contents of the Maw Installation. Though it had taken longer than anticipated to finish the job, Grand Admiral Thrawn felt that the payoff had indeed been worthwhile. The secret technologies, scientists, stormtroopers, and Wookie slaves, among other things, would prove useful in the future. The last of the freighters were preparing for their hyperspace jumps.
"Captain Pellaeon, have navigation set a course for Carida. Send a message to the Stormhawk. Tell them to remain here for three days after we leave before returning to our base."
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon replied.
The comm suddenly lit up with an incoming message from the Vengeance. Thrawn pressed the comm button. "What is it, Captain Grakkis?"
"Sir, our scanners show two ships exiting hyperspace near Kessel. They appear to be Star Destroyers."
"Are you sure?"
"We've just picked up a transmission from the Stormhawk in Kessel orbit. They've got a visual sighting. They're definitely Star Destroyers sir. Just a moment..."
Grakkis was silent for a moment, then returned.
"Correction, sir. Two Destroyers and a spy ship."
"Thank you, Captain," Thrawn said, and ended the transmission. He keyed to transmit to the new arrivals. Soon, quarter-sized holograms of two Imperial captains appeared. A third hologram was present, but so badly distorted it was unrecognizable.
"What are you doing here? I ordered you to hold position at Carida. Explain."
The captain of the Wraith responded first.
"Sir, the Caridian system was attacked by the Sun Crusher. I felt that it would be best to leave the system."
"When did this happen?"
"Two days ago, sir. We came straight here."
"How long had the Star Destroyers been there before the Sun Crusher arrived? Did they try to stop it?"
"Sir, the Star Destroyers arrived just as the Sun Crusher fired at the star."
"You didn't leave as soon as the Sun Crusher arrived, then? Those are my current standing orders for that scenario, are they not?"
"Yes, sir. But I felt it would be better to stay in case the Star Destroyers arrived so we could give them the jump coordinates."
"I see. Good work, Captain. Was there any damage?"
"No damage to the Wraith, sir, but the Bellicose was hit. We couldn't see it, though."
The static blob that was Captain Aban apparently tried to say something, but nothing could be made of it.
"Captain Brandei, did you see the Bellicose's damage?"
"Yes, sir. The Sun Crusher rammed its tower. It missed the bridge, though. Beyond that, I don't know how extensive their damage is."
"Did you, by any chance, contact the Sun Crusher?"
"Sir, the pilot of the Sun Crusher hailed us. Some kid calling himself the 'Dark Lord of the Sith' was flying it. And he demanded to speak to 'Admiral Daala'."
"I might have known. Captain Brandei, contact the Bellicose, by shuttle if you have to, and tell them to return to base. And I want a complete report from all of you."
The images saluted, and vanished.
It was quiet for a while before Thrawn finally spoke. "It looks like we have another problem on our hands, thanks to Lieutenant Commander Daala's incompetence. The Sun Crusher must be eliminated, and soon. Captain, I wish to be alone. I need to study the art of the scientists who built the abomination. Take us back to base. And Captain: look into that slicer."