"Grand Admiral Thrawn, sir!" Lieutenant Karns saluted. "Allow me to express my great relief in seeing you well again."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Thrawn returned the salute. "But how do you mean, well?"
"Your injury, of course. From two years ago at Bilbringi," Karns answered with some confusion.
"Bilbringi... yes, of course," Thrawn replied with slight hesitation. He stared out the office's window briefly, lost in thought. "Ah, that's right," he resumed, his voice suddenly more confident. "I was last on Boelis before my injury. All our communication since then has been voice-only. My apologies, Lieutenant."
"It's quite all right, Admiral," Karns assured him, though it wasn't really the truth. "By the way, sir, wasn't Captain Pellaeon accompanying you?"
"Captain Pellaeon is on shore leave, so our ways parted once we got to the planet's surface," Thrawn explained. "He's an admirable officer, you know. In fact, he was willing to put off his leave time until he had assisted me in my official business here. I had to order him to relax."
"I see," Karns answered. "Then shall we begin?"
Thrawn answered with a nod and hand gesture.
"Very well, sir," Karns confirmed. He stepped to the head seat of the desk and stood beside the imposing seat. "If you'll take your seat, Admiral," he said, motioning for Thrawn to accept the chair.
Once Thrawn was seated, Lieutenant Karns began by pressing the button that raised the desk's concealed monitor into ready position. When it turned on, the first image was a schematic of some sort of electronic device.
"This, sir, is the tracking device I planted on the Sun Crusher while the pilot was distracted with the Governor. The device transmits an intermittent signal on a hyperspace channel, allowing for tracking the vessel even during lightspeed travel and with a range of about 30 light-years. It also provides information on its heading and speed in addition to position. Very useful if a signal is received only once while he hypers past."
"Have you been monitoring him, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir, whenever he's been in range. The device is working very well. With more receiving stations, you could easily cover large sectors of space. The problem, of course, is that the receiver is a special device in and of itself, and will need to have duplicates made for every station or ship you want to equip."
"And you have the receiver ready, correct?"
"Yes, sir!" Karns declared eagerly. "Per your order, it is ready for transfer to your ship. Only a few cables need to be disconnected from my personal computer system here."
"Excellent, Lieutenant Karns," Thrawn congratulated, then his tone turned sinister. "By the way, did you happen to obtain any holos of this mysterious pilot? I want to know who we are dealing with."
"Yes, in fact," Karns replied, then pressed one of the controls at the edge of the desk, bringing the office lights down and turning on the desktop holo projector.
A 30 centimeter high figure instantly appeared in the center of the desk. Thrawn studied his fierce, yet clearly juvenile, appearance for only a few seconds before grunting his disapproval.
"I may have never met a teenage Sith Lord, but this certainly looks like one to me. What was your impression of his powers, Lieutenant? Is he as formidable as his vessel?"
"Formidable is an understatement. His power is immense." Karns shook his head. "I've heard tales of Lord Vader's temper, but I've never heard of Vader burning anyone to a pile of ash in an instant."
"Indeed," Thrawn agreed. "Though no one can say just how much power Vader might have displayed had Palpatine not been there to hold his leash."
"A few of those ysalamiri would have been useful," Karns practically muttered.
"We have been successful cloning them, Lieutenant," Thrawn replied with a slight sharpness in his tone. "But it is simply not practical to fill every planet in the Empire with them."
"Of course, sir," Karns said in mild embarrassment.
A muffled, beeping alarm of some sort precluded further discussion on that topic.
"What is it, Lieutenant?"
"It's the tracking device receiver," Karns answered, rushing to the desk's control panel and punching up the sector map and accessing the receiver. "Looks like we're in luck. Luck being a relative term in this case, of course. Yes," he said triumphantly, pointing to a red dot on the very fringe of the holographically projected three-dimensional map, a few dozen lightyears away. "There's the Sun Crusher."
"Where is he headed?"
"Lets see..." Karns typed in the appropriate commands. "I'll project his path on the map."
With that, a dashed blue line appeared, extending from the red dot to the opposite end of the map. Three systems were highlighted by yellow brackets, indicating them to be extremely close to the flight path.
"Let's start with this one," Thrawn said, pointing to the closest one to the Sun Crusher.
"Yes, sir. That one," Karns narrated as he brought up information on the system, "is Trithen. Two gas giants, three terrestrial planets, and an asteroid belt orbiting a smaller-than-average yellow star. No settlements or outposts, and the terrestrial planets are all uninhabitable."
"No, not that one. All it could do for him is serve as a demonstration, and he has no need for that now."
"Very well, sir. The next one is..." Karns stopped with a surprised gasp. "Rather," he recovered, "the next one was the Caridian system. We haven't updated this map yet, I'm afraid."
"Understandable," Thrawn granted.
"The third one," the Lieutenant continued," is Umwel. Small blue star with nothing but comets. Looks to me like he's just passing through. I'll expand the search along his projected flight path."
Karns was about to zoom out the map, but Thrawn stopped him.
"Wait, Lieutenant. I believe I know where he is going."
"Sir?" the baffled officer queried.
"But sir, that makes no sense. There's nothing there. And I do mean nothing."
"That's not precisely true, Lieutenant," Thrawn corrected. "To you or I, certainly. However, as you yourself have noted, this man is extremely strong in the Force. To such a person, an emotional stain might remain to mark the deaths of the system's inhabitants."
"An emotional stain?" Karns repeated skeptically.
"The final cry of terror from millions of people. It is said that Jedi can feel such great disturbances as they happen, but whether the effects linger in the vicinity is only a theory of mine."
"It seems you are very confident in this theory, sir."
"It is not without evidence," Thrawn assured. "Some time ago, through pure coincidence, I happened to be in the presence of a Jedi while passing through the space above Endor where the Emperor perished. It had a profoundly unpleasant effect on her, to say the least."
"But if it was so unpleasant, why would this... Sith Lord go back there?"
"Because unlike my previous 'guest,' he is truly and thoroughly of the Dark Side of the Force. The Dark Side thrives on hatred and aggression, or so I am told."
"I'm sorry, sir, but that's just sickening."
Thrawn nodded in return. "I quite agree, Lieutenant. But I am certain nevertheless that his destination is Carida. I see the distance displayed," Thrawn pointed at the projection, "but not the velocity. What is his estimated time of arrival?"
"Let me check," Karns said while punching up the projection. "At current speed, about 10 hours."
Thrawn ran the numbers quickly in his head. Based on distance, hyperspace routing, and time needed to get back aboard the Inexorable with the tracking equipment, he would be hard pressed to catch the Sun Crusher if the Sith Lord did not intend on staying long. But it was enough of a window of opportunity to justify the expenditure.
"Lieutenant, I want you to come with me. Get the receiver transferred to my flagship immediately, and install it on the way. Now, get me a connection with the Inexorable."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Karns replied frantically. The connection made, the captain of the Inexorable was soon visible on the office's wall mounted comm screen.
"Grand Admiral Thrawn, sir!" he saluted.
"Captain Ardes, prepare my flagship for immediate departure at flank speed. Also, have your tractor beam operators warm up the special-duty systems on all projectors and run the appropriate test sequences. We will need ysalamiri-equipped troops and a shuttle, but that can be readied underway. I shall be returning presently. Thrawn out."
With that communication line terminated, Thrawn signaled his shuttle to prepare for departure.
With only an electronic squawk of warning, Wedge's X-Wing dropped out of hyperspace. The former Rogue Leader frantically searched for the cause of the premature reversion to realspace. No known bodies lay in his direct path, his astromech droid's calculations saw to that. Perhaps he had run into one of those rare deep space asteroids, or a rogue planetoid.
Or, he thought with a hard swallow, an Interdictor Cruiser simulating one.
However, his sensors would neither deny nor confirm the presence of a piece of space debris large enough to activate the hyperdrive's safety dropout. Instead, they were streaked with static and provided numbers that kept changing at random.
He queried his droid, who knew only slightly more than he could already deduce. There was some sort of massive interference on almost every type of sensor the snubfighter was equipped with, and the computer had decided to cease traveling at lightspeed. As the computer had not sounded its enemy alert signal, it clearly considered the problem to be a natural phenomenon rather than malicious jamming.
Wedge stared at the hash of numbers again, in search of any telltale signs of jamming. Suddenly realization struck. It was "natural," of course.
Satisfied that there was nothing in the way, and noticing just how short the remaining distance to his destination, he overrode the hyperdrive safeties and the sensor warnings, then had his astromech calculate a resumption of their former course.
As he popped back into hyperspace, he took comfort in knowing that the Corvette carrying Bel Iblis's "official" delegation would probably be slightly delayed by the interference. His chance of confronting Kyp before the delegation showed up had been increased. Not by much, but every little bit helped.
"I'm not sure, Captain," Lieutenant Karns replied as he frantically checked the controls of the receiver that had seemed, until just now, successfully integrated into the Inexorable's sensor system.
"Captain Ardes, is there a problem?" a smooth, but stern voice approached.
"We've lost him, sir. The Sun Crusher just vanished."
"Lieutenant Karns, explain," Thrawn ordered bluntly.
Karns scratched his head as he took a step back from the receiver. All the stars were still in the right places on the holodisplay, and everything seemed to be in order, but where the Sun Crusher's homing device had just been giving a strong signal from hyperspace there was nothing whatsoever.
"I'm not sure, sir. The system is working, at least on this end. This end..." he trailed off contemplatively. "He might have found the homing device and disabled it."
"In hyperspace?" Ardes replied indignantly. "If that thing is on the outside of the ship, as you say..."
"But Captain, you are forgetting that our quarry is a Dark Jedi." Thrawn cupped his chin in his left hand and began to pace slowly about the Inexorable's bridge, gazing out into hyperspace. He didn't pace for long. "No, I believe you're right, Captain. If he hasn't found it before, why would he find it now, in hyperspace? Lieutenant, could the device have fallen off?"
"I... suppose, sir," Karns admitted reluctantly. "Anything's possible. But I attached it properly. There's no reason it should have failed."
"Hmm..." Thrawn muttered as he returned to his pacing. "Then something must be blocking the signal... or jamming it."
"Not likely, sir," Karns replied. "That signal should be coming through loud and clear. Only a black hole or a..." he stopped, his eyes suddenly widened in realization.
"Or a supernova," Thrawn and Ardes said in one voice.
"Can you show the shockwave front on this display?" Thrawn asked either man.
"My receiver only shows a set star chart," Karns answered. "But with it connected to the ship's sensors..."
"I'm on it, sir," Captain Ardes assured Thrawn. He quickly made his way toward the Inexorable's regular sensor station.
It was like a dip in a hot bath. Or even a cold one. There was a definite "bite" to be felt, but with it came a refreshing feeling that was so soothing that Kyp could not help but sigh in pleasure. The aftermath of destruction and death left the Force in turmoil here, a turmoil that massaged the Sith Lord's tired and injured body. Of course, someone like Luke Skywalker couldn't appreciate that. In fact, he'd be rendered so ill that defeating him would be even simpler than it had been on Yavin, even without Exar Kun's help this time.
As Kyp Durron brought the Sun Crusher out of hyperspace at the designated location - the exact spot the planet Carida's core would have been - he wondered if the space around Alderaan still felt like this. Right then and there he promised himself to visit that space after this matter was settled. As much as the echoes of pain and fear from the death of an Imperial military world thrilled him, how much more so than the death pains of an inoffensive and pacifistic world unfairly obliterated?
Starlines became stars, and Kyp found himself in space almost as strange as the Maw. Wisps of gas and dust clouds formed a patchwork of bizarre colors in every direction. Parts of them sparkled with electrical discharge, sending bolts of lightning skittering across their expanses. The occasional asteroid could be seen, remnants of the system's inner planets or moons perhaps, or possibly even chunks of heavy elements formed from the star itself during its cataclysmic finale.
Seeing all of this, and the total hash that were most of his sensor readouts, it was no wonder he'd had to override the Sun Crusher's hyperdrive safeties.
Now, to wait for Skywalker. If he had the courage to even show up.
No, Kyp scolded himself. Skywalker was no coward. Of course he could be made to feel fear, but he knew what was at stake here, and would not back down from a challenge like this.
Kyp took a deep breath and leaned back, closing his eyes to concentrate. He took in the glorious feelings of death and terror again, then turned his focus toward finding anyone alive amid this stellar graveyard. But even the Force was unreliable in this catastrophically twisted place, and this search might take some time...
He only got a flicker of warning before the Sun Crusher was rocked by a fierce volley of sizzling red laser blasts.
"Admiral, we're getting some readings again," Karns announced. "They are fleeting, and difficult to pin down, however. But it does seem that he's no longer in hyperspace."
"In the general vicinity of Carida, is he not?" Thrawn asked pointedly.
"Yes, sir," Karns confirmed. "It is just as you said."
Thrawn nodded once in acknowledgment, but did not gloat about it. Instead, he turned to glance into the crew pit, where Captain Ardes was keeping track, as best he could, on the status of his ship now that it had emerged from hyperspace on the other side of the electromagnetic shock wave. "Captain, report."
"We seem to have taken some minor hull damage from hyperspace shadow collisions, but nothing more than scratches and dents, really," Ardes assured. "Communications might as well be down, for all the interference we're going through. Sensors, too, for that matter."
"What of weapons and tractor beams?"
"No problem with the turbolasers, except that they'll all have to be targeted manually. Can't guarantee that the ion cannons will work properly in this mess. And the tractor beams..." he took a few steps over to the tractor beam station and exchanged a few words with the operator, "they'll work, but it will be difficult to get a lock of any sort, or even to accurately assess their effectiveness."
"I see," Thrawn replied. "Is the Special-Duty system still operable?"
Another quick exchange with the tractor beam operator. "Yes, sir. But again, we've never tested even that system under these conditions."
"It is for just these types of unpredictable circumstances that I had the Special-Duty system developed. Set it for hair-trigger lock sensitivity and maximum power, and instruct the operator to stay alert. If the lock has to be obtained manually, I'm holding him responsible for doing it right."
The tractor beam operator, though he never turned away from his terminal, stiffened notably. Captain Ardes noted it nervously, then turned back toward Thrawn.
"Admiral, the maximum stopping power of this system is enough to overcome most inertial compensators. It will kill whoever is on board."
"In that case," Thrawn said coldly, "we won't need the ysalamiri and stormtroopers, will we?"
For a few moments, Kyp was actually afraid. The lone X-Wing attacked him over and over with a ferocity he had never seen in anyone but himself.
Once again, the X-Wing screamed past him, hammering away at the Sun Crusher's hull with its four laser cannons. Once past, it reversed and delivered a stunningly accurate quad-linked burst to the opposite side of the hull. Then, it took up position to repeat the whole procedure again.
Each time, Kyp felt the attack getting stronger, more effective... well, it would have been more effective, were the Sun Crusher not totally invulnerable to that pathetic level of firepower. Kyp tried to calm himself by focusing on that point. Indeed, nothing that ship could do could possibly damage the Sun Crusher.
The lurching of the ship, and its result of nearly slamming Kyp's face into the control panel snapped him out of his concentration. Through the cockpit window, he saw the X-Wing prepare for another pass. Fool, he thought. Why won't he give up? And who is he, anyway?
Kyp closed his eyes to stretch out with the force, to get inside that pilot's head, to find out...
It was difficult. The Force itself was torn asunder in this region of space. It was there, but scrambled up into a color storm of strong and weak concentrations. Unlike the Maw, where the black hole cluster had over the ages become basically a stabilized system, there was nothing but chaos here. Perhaps in a decade, a century, maybe even a millennium it would itself stabilize, that was no use to Kyp now. He could feel the Dark Side, draw power from it... but had great difficulty focusing enough to make use of it.
A fleeting Force glimpse of the pilot told Kyp immediately that it was not Skywalker. Too much anger and hatred. From the fighting style he had been seeing, he never really thought it was Skywalker anyway. But then who...?
The next strike shook him even harder. Suddenly it dawned on him just what the X-Wing was trying to accomplish. The attacks really were getting fiercer, and for the first time, Kyp noticed that all the attacks had been concentrating on the Sun Crusher's bottom spire, where the resulting impacts could impart the greatest leverage to the cockpit above.
So, this pilot knew full well that the Sun Crusher itself was invulnerable, but had realized that the person inside was not. With each strike he reduced the turnaround time, making the jolt more and more abrupt in hopes of tripping up the inertial compensator enough to allow neck-breaking whiplash, if not actual impact against the cockpit interior.
Kyp idly rubbed the scar on his temple, where he had hit the canopy framing after the Caridian explosion. The threat was very real. However, now he knew exactly what to brace for. This tactic might have already worked with an ordinary pilot, but Kyp was a Sith Lord.
With a newfound clarity of his tactical situation, Kyp grabbed the controls and began an evasive, and soon to be aggressive, flight pattern.
"Admiral Thrawn, sir!"
"Yes, Ensign," Thrawn replied to the young officer now standing at attention behind him. He turned away from the Inexorable's forewardmost bridge viewport.
"Sir, bow observation post 3-B reports sighting at least two spacecraft, which appear to be fighting."
"Interesting." Thrawn stared deeply into space in the approximate area that post 3-B would be looking. Though here on the bridge he wouldn't have the optical lens array of the observation post, he just might be able to spot the flashes of... there. A tiny red flicker that could very well be a laser bolt. Or it could be just another trick of the gas clouds and debris. Only one way to find out. "Where is Captain Ardes?"
"I'm here, sir," Ardes answered from the back of the bridge. He quickly made his way forward.
"Captain, are we still headed in the same direction Lieutenant Karns' receiver indicated?"
"As much as we can tell, sir. Even navigation sensors are having trouble. There could be some drift, but we can't really detect anything."
Thrawn grunted in displeasure, but the concession of inevitability was clear. "Very well, then, bring the engines up to full sublight, and maintain our course. Also, have the tractor beams and the shuttles prepared for use at a moment's notice."
So, he's finally figured it out.
Wedge pulled his X-Wing's nose into the tightest turn yet as he snapped it around to hit the Sun Crusher again. Sure enough, the superweapon was indeed maneuvering.
He released another volley of laser fire, scoring yet more direct hits on the bottom of the odd upright crystalline shard shape that was the Sun Crusher. It lurched as before, but not with nearly the violence.
Blast. Looked like scrambling him up inside his own cockpit wasn't going to work after all. But the attempt had definitely had an impact on his opponent, evidenced by the Sun Crusher's change in course on his next run to at least partially dodge the laser bolts. Which in turn implied that his attacks actually were considered as a threat by the Sith.
It also implied that it was time to change tactics. As Wedge turned the X-Wing again, his astromech kept a close eye on the Sun Crusher with whatever short-range sensors it could get to work. Once the Sun Crusher could be seen through the right panel of the canopy, Wedge himself took over that task. Yes, definitely time to change. The Sun Crusher was accelerating, and looked to be headed toward a particularly dense and electrically charged dust and gas cloud.
In fact, the Sun Crusher was getting up to speed faster than Wedge had anticipated. Already it had accelerated to about 70% of an X-Wing's top sublight speed. And from that guy's past exploits, most recently the killing of one of his old Rogue Squadron associates, Wedge knew that if he got far enough ahead to set up for an attack, the Sun Crusher would be attempting to ram. Or, he gulped, in the worst case, it would give him time to hyperjump out of the area. Had to keep him too busy to do it.
Wedge switched over to proton torpedoes and brought the fleeing craft into his target brackets. He knew something was wrong when the targeting system registered a lock the moment the torpedo control system was accessed. He quickly reached for the manual override, then drew a careful bead on the Sun Crusher, and let fly a torpedo as if it were just an ordinary, dumb, unguided rocket.
General Antilles' heart sank as the flaming blue projectile slipped past its intended target and streaked into the dust cloud. The slightly bluish cloud took on a sudden red hue in a roughly spherical section where the torpedo had at last collided with a dust particle large enough to detonate it.
The Sun Crusher, rather than flinching from this near-miss, continued straight ahead, going straight through the rapidly fading fireball and into the dust cloud.
With no choice but to follow, Wedge reluctantly pointed his X-Wing toward that very spot and doubled the forward shields.
The odd mixture of free-floating gasses posed no physical threat to the X-Wing, though they definitely slowed it down by a noticeable amount. Of greater concern were the 30 centimeter to 10 meter wide chunks of rock that served as "dust" in space.
He concentrated heavily on keeping track of the Sun Crusher, a difficult task in the stellar pollution he found himself in. From time to time, the lights on his instrument panel would flicker and he could feel his engines sputter with the effects of the electrical discharge all around him. His forward shields were as often as not actually visible as a ghostly blue haze, complicating his task all the more.
Then, suddenly the cloud thinned and was gone. There, dead ahead of him and still within firing range, was his prey. And looming like a mountain of steel ahead of him was an Imperial Star Destroyer.
"Admiral, post 4-T. We have contact!" Thrawn's comlink crackled. "Confirmed. It's the Sun Crusher!"
As if he couldn't see that himself from his vantage point on the Inexorable's bridge. But he had ordered a direct report. "Thank you," he responded to the observation post crewmen. "Keep track of it."
"Yes sir!" came the enthusiastic reply.
He stared intently through the viewport at the tiny speck of light that was the Sun Crusher, though what was more visible was the trail of gasses and space dust that trailed behind it as he emerged from the cloud of debris. It had flinched, that he was sure of. The sight of a Star Destroyer was nothing to take lightly. But as he had anticipated, the Sun Crusher adjusted its course for a direct impact, as it had done to the Bellicose, and Daala's Hydra.
A rapidly moving dark streak in the micro-nebula caught his attention, giving him just enough warning to spot what could only have been a rebel X-Wing fighter shoot from the dust, trailing it from the tips of its four wings.
Thrawn has suspected as much. But an X-Wing or two were inconsequential at the moment. The Sun Crusher was getting awfully close.
"Tractor beam, ready to repel!" he barked out.
Kyp set his jaw in a fierce scowl as he bore his craft down on the Star Destroyer that had dared to show itself in his presence. His pursuer forgotten, he concentrated only on this new, more powerful foe. She had come for him. She had finally come back to finish the job she had started at the Maw.
The specks of light that were the Star Destroyer's bridge viewports were just now visible. With the Sun Crusher's engines cranked to maximum, the closing rate was far too high for Daala to possibly get off the bridge in time.
Who's going to execute who? Kyp thought with a smug grin creeping over his face.
Kyp's countenance slipped as he felt an unexpected push against the Sun Crusher. Nothing hard, but definitely there; a push upward, away from the hull of the Star Destroyer. And it was getting stronger the closer he got to it.
He pointed the craft downward slightly to compensate, but it only worked for a fraction of a second as the invisible hand resumed its push.
He looked up from the control panel to see that he was no longer aimed directly at the Star Destroyer's bridge, but as some point halfway up the conning tower from it, and rising. Now, with the hull of the ship actually underneath him, the push became ever stronger, and even began accelerating his forward propulsion at some point, even as it forced him further off-course. Kyp watched in utter dismay as the upper sensor array passed unharmed beneath the Sun Crusher, missing by less than a meter.
"That was a little too close," Thrawn advised the tractor beam operator, "but effective nonetheless. Are you tracking him?"
"Yes sir," the operator replied. "He's coming around for another pass, but looks like he's taking his time about it."
"Attempting to figure out what happened, no doubt," Captain Ardes commented. "Admiral, you were absolutely right about moving those tractor beams topside. Brilliant."
"Not really," Thrawn dismissed. "With no stars to detonate, his only recourse is to ram or run."
"Sir, we may have a problem here," the operator said, his voice betraying genuine concern. "One of the four tractor beams on the top hull is now inoperable. The emitter matrix has cracked."
"How?" Thrawn demanded.
"Overstressed, sir. With the safeties off, it happens."
"But not against something no bigger than a starfighter!" Ardes insisted.
"From the readings here," the operator defended, "that thing is a lot more massive than it looks."
"Of course!" Thrawn declared. "To be that invulnerable, the Sun Crusher's hull must be in the ultra-dense range. The repulsor and engine power of that vessel must be incredible." Of all the pieces of Maw research data to not be accessed yet...
"Sir," the tractor beam operator said urgently. "Looks like he's made up his mind."
"Helm!" Thrawn commanded, stepping swiftly toward that station. "Rotate the ship to bring the lower hull against the Sun Crusher. We're trying to catch him this time."
Wedge pulled his X-Wing back into attack position after recovering from his initial shock at seeing the Star Destroyer. As it seemed to be completely ignoring him, he stopped his evasive maneuvering quickly and got ready to take advantage of the confusion this was surely causing the Dark Jedi.
As far as he could see from his position, the Sun Crusher was now behind the Star Destroyer and slowly turning for another run on the massive warship. Meanwhile, the Star Destroyer began to maneuver to avoid... no, not just to avoid, but to attempt to capture it. But at the rate he was going and the close proximities, that would be a truly difficult task. No, there was no way he would be snagged on this run.
Which meant that when he ends up speeding past the ship, he'd be slower and totally vulnerable to another attempt at snapping his neck.
Wedge selected proton torpedoes and took up a good attack position.
Once again the Sun Crusher was at full sublight speed, bearing down on the Star Destroyer with a suicidal intensity. This time, Kyp's target was the ship's engines, a far easier target to hit, and an area far more difficult for the Imperials to defend. Usually, the engine wash itself was enough to ward off attacks from behind, but that kind of thing was of no concern for a vessel capable of surviving a supernova.
As with the last time, Kyp began to feel a deceleration as the warship's tractor beams pushed against him, trying to sway him off course. But as he suspected, the push was not nearly as hard as before. The closer he got, he was more and more certain that it would not be enough to prevent impact. They must know it, too. Oh, to sense their terror at that realization. A gleeful smile spread across his face...
...a smile that began fading when he noticed that the Star Destroyer was beginning to maneuver out of the way of his charge. He tried to adjust course, but the Sun Crusher's controls were too sluggish to keep up with it. So they did know what they were doing with the tractor beams!
Realizing it was a lost cause again, Kyp eased off the controls and let the tractor beam push him away from his collision course. He looked up to study the ship's lower hull, now passing comfortably overhead, and tried to contemplate a new attack plan. All he could come up with was to keep probing for a blank spot in the ship's coverage...
Suddenly, his insides felt a tinge of queasiness, and a bad feeling came over him. Even before he realized that it was the changeover of the tractor beams from push to pull, the beam grabbed hold of the Sun Crusher with such force that he may as well have crashed into a large, solid rock asteroid.
"Sir!" the tractor beam operator announced eagerly. "We have..."
He was cut short by a burst of static on his monitor, immediately followed by a muffled "whump" and a slight tremor. Crewmen in several other stations around the Inexorable's bridge looked up in curiosity or alarm, having noticed the noise and/or tremor themselves.
"Ensign, what happened," Thrawn demanded.
"I... I don't know," he stuttered. "I had him. Positive lock, and then..." A flashing red button on his terminal caught his attention. He pressed it, and read the readout it provided.
He grew ghostly white. "I don't believe this..." he almost whispered. "The beam projector... It's been torn off it's frame!"
"Impossible!" Captain Ardes gasped.
"Perhaps," Thrawn observed, "the Special Duty system, minus its safeties, is too much for hardware itself to handle. Interesting... but that can wait. Where is the Sun Crusher now?"
"I'm afraid I've lost track of him, sir," the Ensign replied nervously. "With the tractor beam..."
"It's all right, Ensign," Thrawn reassured. "I don't hold you responsible for this failure."
"Thank you, sir," he replied with slight relief. "Wait... I think I've spotted him again! Yes, there he is." The operator leaned closed to his monitor to study the image. "He's been slowed down considerably, but he's definitely still alive."
Thrawn replied merely with a disappointed grunt.
"I might be able to... what the?!"
Thrawn answered his comlink. "Observation post, this is Thrawn. Proceed."
"Sir, the X-Wing we spotted earlier has just attacked the Sun Crusher. Hit it with a proton torpedo. Doesn't look like it did any damage, though."
"No, it wouldn't," Thrawn agreed. "Keep an eye on them. Captain!"
"Yes sir?" Ardes replied promptly.
"That X-Wing is becoming a nuisance. Have your men silence it."
For the first time on this voyage, Ardes smiled. "It would be my pleasure, sir."
As he turned to relay the order to his gunners, Thrawn added, "Ion cannons only, Captain. I want him alive."
With his eyes clenched shut, Kyp held his hands tight against the back of his neck, in a mostly vain attempt to massage out the pain. Were he not properly strapped in, he would surely have been splattered across the inside of the Sun Crusher's canopy. As it was, his neck throbbed in the aftermath of a tractor beam induced whiplash, from the most powerful tractor beam he had ever encountered. Following that ordeal, the impact of another proton torpedo or two was a mere bump.
Barely gathering his senses, Kyp concentrated inwardly, drawing on the Force to ease his pain, to convert it to something useful. As it happened, though the Force here was too convoluted to focus on affecting what was outside, it was perfectly suited for focusing darkness inside.
From the pain flowed fear. A reminder of his own mortality. More importantly, a desire to keep on living, no matter what.
And for Kyp, the desire to keep on living constituted destroying those who were trying to kill him with a hatred as red as blood, and an anger burning brighter than an exploding star.
Kyp, now ignoring the pain, quickly searched the sky for the first enemy to destroy. With Daala well behind him and the X-Wing turning to attack him head-on, it was an obvious choice.
Wedge banked his X-Wing hard to port, barely evading the barrage of blue ion cannon fire. He knew full well that he had no chance taking on a Star Destroyer by himself, especially in this condition. But his focus was set on the Sun Crusher. If he could dodge just long enough to kill the maniac piloting that doomsday device, he could die satisfied.
He bore down on the Sun Crusher, set to loose a laser volley at it head-on, then snap-invert and hit him from behind with a torpedo. He had instructed his R2 unit to allow the fighter to go into the hazardous G-force range to permit a tighter than ever turn. Hopefully, it would be enough.
The cockpit flashed red momentarily with the simultaneous firing of the X-Wing's four laser cannons. Wedge switched over to proton torpedoes and rolled his fighter to starboard to avoid hitting the Sun Crusher as he had so many times before. But this time, he wasn't so fortunate.
The Sun Crusher's bottom spire swung to the side at the last instant, clipping the X-Wing's upper left wing, snapping the laser cannon and half the wing off and sending the rest of the fighter spinning. For its part, the Sun Crusher wobbled slightly but mostly maintained its course, though it's speed had been reduced slightly.
On the third spin, with his X-Wing's computer still struggling to stop the motion, Wedge snapped off a pair of torpedoes at the Sun Crusher's backside. Almost instantaneously, the canopy flashed bright blue-white, and electrical discharge darted across his control panel before it all went dark.
The Sun Crusher, slowed down from impacting the X-Wing and still not quite back up to speed from the latest tractor beam incident, received direct hits from both proton torpedoes. The first to impact exploded "harmlessly" against the quantum armor of the lower spire. But the second...
It was said to be completely invulnerable. Nothing could penetrate the armor. Nothing could harm the Sun Crusher. It was perfect. It was "unsinkable."
And as with everything that was ever called "unsinkable," there was a weak spot, just waiting to be hit.
Over the course of its service life under Kyp Durron's control, the Sun Crusher had rammed numerous ships, been struck by countless laser blasts and missiles, and even survived the nova that destroyed the very "system" it had now returned to. Through all that time, the only damage it had suffered was the loss of its token defensive laser cannons, which were essentially pointless tack-on items to begin with. The ship's surface wasn't even scorched.
However, with all the hard use, the flaws were sure to come out eventually. The flaw that now proved fatal was in the Sun Crusher's engine screen. Vanes made of the same quantum armor that made up the rest of the ship were formed in curved shapes, which routed the engines' exhaust through a roughly "S" shaped pattern, guaranteeing that if anything was ever fired at the engines, it would hit quantum armor and not penetrate into the relatively-speaking "soft" engines inside the impregnable shell. After all it had been through, several of those "S" slats, by necessity thinner than the hull armor, had developed small cracks. Wedge's torpedo happened to find a couple of them.
First, the torpedo exploded, followed immediately by the detonation of the engines inside the Sun Crusher, resulting in a sudden and final burst of acceleration and the shedding of a dozen more slats. Everything inside the lower hull was instantly pulverized, leaving the scourge of the galaxy nothing more than a floating hulk.
"Admiral, the X-Wing's out of action," observation post 2-B reported. "He got two torpedoes off, but... Whoa, what the...?"
"Post 2-B, what is it?"
"That wasn't just a torpedo detonation!" the crewman said, though whether it was to Thrawn or his assistant up in post 2-B was not readily discernible. I don't believe... Damn Rebel, he did it!"
"What happened?" Thrawn barked out.
"The Sun Crusher - it's down! Engines' out, lights out... Blasted thing's still in one piece, but it won't be making lightspeed again!"
"Hmm... Not what I had hoped," Thrawn thought aloud. Captain Ardes was about to say something, but Thrawn spoke into the comlink again first. "Post, are there any signs of life?"
"It's impossible to tell from here, sir. He's drifting back into that gas cloud. He'll be out of visual range soon."
"Understood. Keep watch as long as you can. Thrawn out." Thrawn put away his comlink and turned to Ardes. "Captain, is the shuttle still ready?"
"Yes, of course, sir," Ardes replied hesitantly. "But sir... he's helpless. There should be no problem tractoring him in now."
"His ship may be incapacitated, but as long as he's still alive, he's far from helpless, as I'm sure Lieutenant Karns can tell you. Also, wouldn't you agree, Captain, that taking the Inexorable after him into the gas cloud would be unwise?"
"I... certainly, sir," the flustered Captain answered. "I just... sorry, sir. Old habit, I guess, from Vader's day."
"I see," Thrawn replied, though he didn't sound entirely pleased with the answer. "At any rate, we shall move in to pick up the X-Wing with the tractor beam, but the shuttle shall seek out and capture the Sun Crusher. Captain, you have your orders."
Kyp pressed the manual override key repeatedly, then switched to a nearby reset.
He took to flipping any switch he could find, not caring what it might do. There was not so much as a beep or spark in reply.
With an impact that left several controls shattered and his hand slightly bleeding, Kyp slammed his fist down.
He unstrapped and stood, frantically searching around the Sun Crusher's cockpit for anything that still worked. He tried every lever, every switch, every button...
Kyp swooned back to the pilot's seat, catching it just before he fell to the floor and leaning on it heavily. His head was spinning.
After more than a few deep, long breaths, he was sturdy enough to try standing again. Hands clenched into fists, he took a slightly calmer look around.
No power whatsoever. Both generator and battery had been wrecked. Air... another deep breath with appropriate attention told him that it wouldn't hold up for long.
Kyp cringed in pain as his neck began throbbing again. And again he focused inward, turning the pain...
A flicker of disturbance crossed his consciousness. Something was amiss. Kyp took a deep breath and tried stretching his senses outward. Yes, there it was. Or, rather, wasn't.
A blank spot in the Force. Even amid the chaos around him, the total absence of the Force in a contained region shone like a candle in the darkness. Unfortunately, it was all he could manage just to tell that it was merely there.
He opened his eyes and gazed in the direction he sensed it in. A pair of lights were visible, but they could just be bright stars beyond the gas cloud. However, a sudden crackle of static electricity shed enough light for Kyp to positively identify a Lambda-class Imperial shuttle heading straight at him.
That was it. It had to be. She was coming for him. And she had the means to steal his power.
Kyp began breathing heavily again, glancing around in a near panic. No... not like this...
He spotted and picked up his lightsaber, vowing not to go down without a fight. He was about to activate it when he noticed a space suit that had been tossed out of its closet during one of his earlier panic attacks. An idea began to take shape...
A quick inspection revealed the space suit to be damaged and unusable. Kyp angrily threw it aside, and reached for the next one. Also damaged. He swore as he grabbed the third and last suit.
The Dark Side must have been with him, as it was perfectly intact.
He watched the shuttle get ever closer as he pulled the suit on. Even the Dark Lord of the Sith needed air to live, after all.
With everything but the helmet in place, Kyp afforded full attention to the shuttle. No doubt now, it was definitely the source of the disturbance. But how to deal with it?
Out of the corner of his eye, Kyp caught sight of a piece of floating debris. A long piece of metal of some kind. And big enough to...
He didn't care what it was. Kyp concentrated on the object, drawing on the Dark Side, focusing with all his might. The Force-static was still there, making it incredibly difficult. A fleeting grip, then gone. Another fleeting grip.
But it had been a grip, fleeting or not. The object was moving. Encouraged by this minor achievement, Kyp kept at it. Finally he managed a strong grasp...
A grasp that was soon cut off, as the Force-hole overtook him.
The stormtroopers aboard the shuttle had just unstrapped themselves and were standing ready to board the Sun Crusher when it happened. No one realized it, but in the brief instant before they arrived above the Sun Crusher, their enemy had started a broken-off X-Wing laser cannon on a collision course with them.
The copilot yelped a warning when he caught some motion in his peripheral vision, but it was too little, too late.
Cosmic debris and electromagnetic anomalies would have made shields nearly useless, even if they weren't turned off for boarding. The laser cannon pierced the shuttle's hull nearest the stormtroopers like a needle. In an instant, a good chunk of the hull was blown out into space, along with the stormtroopers and all the air.
As soon as he felt the return of the Force, Kyp pulled his helmet into place and pulled the manual release for the Sun Crusher's hatch. With a solid push-off, he propelled himself to the shuttle slowly spiraling 50 meters away, the pilots trying to regain control of the craft after the unexpected release of the passenger compartment's atmosphere.
His timing was impeccable, and he managed to grab hold of the shuttle right next to the crude tear, which still held the body of one stormtrooper jammed between ripped hull plates. Kyp ignited his lightsaber on standard mode and cut away just enough of the jagged surface to allow for safe entry. Within mere seconds, he was inside and on his way to introduce himself to the pilots.
After what seemed an eternity of sitting cross-legged with his hands on his head while surrounded by stormtroopers, Wedge Antilles was finally motioned to stand. Once on his feet, the circle of white armor parted. But what he saw approaching nearly caused him to stumble back to the Inexorable's hangar deck again.
"General Wedge Antilles, I presume," Thrawn said pleasantly, holding a hand out in invitation. "A pleasure to finally meet you."
Shocked senseless, Wedge reflexively extended a horribly jittering hand, which Thrawn grabbed firmly in a handshake. When a particle of sense returned, Wedge jerked his hand back down to his side.
"I can see you were not expecting me, General," he observed. "Not many do," he added with a grin.
"Yes, yes, so I've been told. Apparently this tale of my assassination at the hands of a treacherous Noghri bodyguard has been making the rounds across the galaxy. But then, you know how rumors can spread." Thrawn gestured for Wedge to follow. With a squad of stormtroopers behind him, he had little choice but to oblige.
"In fact," Thrawn continued as he led the way, another officer at his side, "of all people, even Skywalker believed that hoax." He chuckled in a disturbingly friendly manner. "But it didn't take long to clear the matter up."
Wedge stopped dead in his tracks, stunned in confusion, anger... a lot of things.
Noticing his companion had stopped, Thrawn turned around. "Is there something wrong, General? Beyond the obvious, of course."
A stormtrooper moved to give Wedge a jab in the shoulder to move him along, but Thrawn motioned him off.
"So Luke was here," Wedge finally muttered. "He came to meet with you."
"What?" Thrawn asked quizzically, before nodding to signify he had just answered his own question. "Oh, that's right, you don't know about that, do you? No, I'm afraid I have no idea where the illustrious Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is at the moment. Of course, I'd like to know," he asked leadingly. When Wedge didn't respond, he continued. "Regardless, the one I was speaking of is Mara Skywalker, his wife."
"His... his what?" Wedge gasped.
Even the officer standing next to Thrawn seemed surprised by that.
"Perhaps," Thrawn contemplated aloud, "I've said too much for now. Never mind, General, we have other matters that demand our attention," he concluded as he began to move again. "By the way," he casually added, "congratulations on your promotion. Long overdue."
Wedge was too perplexed to reply.
Before long, they arrived at a turbolift, which raised them to a platform overlooking an exceptionally large winch at the top of the Inexorable's hangar bay. With a constant grinding and the occasional squeal, it worked to pull in its cable, which extended far out into space beyond the hangar's spacious opening. If he squinted, he could see something at the end of the cable, silhouetted against a luminous gas cloud.
"General Antilles," Thrawn resumed, "I don't make my reappearance lightly. Nor am I unaware of the situation that has gripped the galaxy in my absence."
"Why don't you just lock me away and be done with it, Thrawn?" Wedge mumbled.
"Now, now, calm yourself," Thrawn urged. "I have no intention of imprisoning you. In fact, you are here as my guest, as the official observer for the New Republic."
"Observer?" Wedge asked incredulously. "Of what?"
"Of this," Thrawn said gesturing to the object that was being towed in. During their conversation, it had made it to the hangar's magnetic field, and was just now poking through. Now so close, it was unmistakable: the Sun Crusher.
"So, tell me," Wedge said after a few minutes of silence, during which the Sun Crusher was hoisted into the bay, "what's with the fishing gear? Taking a swing by Mon Calamari? I'm afraid they're not going to be the greatest hosts at the moment."
"You are almost as insolent as Skywalker, but not nearly as charming," Thrawn scolded. "The person who controlled the Sun Crusher was indeed formidable in his own right," he explained, his tone turning dark and foreboding. "I had not intended to keep you waiting so long, General. Unfortunately, the shuttle I sent to retrieve the Sun Crusher was late in returning. Since communications and sensors are basically useless here, as I'm sure you noticed, we dispatched a tethered probe to investigate and retrieve."
As if on cue, two spacetroopers emerged from a hatch on the probe, a small and easily missed lump of gray metal attached to the side of the Sun Crusher with cables. The Sun Crusher itself was now latched in place beside the platform. A team of analysts rushed to its side to check it over.
"As you could doubtless tell, I was trying to ensnare this abomination as well. We ran through several tractor beam projectors in the process. But the congratulations belong to you, General Antilles. It was you who succeeded in stopping the Sun Crusher. And I must admit," Thrawn noted as he stared up into the vacant crater that once housed the superweapon's engines, "I am impressed."
"Thanks, I guess, but back to the pilot," Wedge pressed, "where is he? Is he dead?"
"The answer to that is almost certainly no," the Grand Admiral replied, sounding more than a little disappointed himself. "The shuttle I sent was long gone, though the bodies of the stormtroopers it carried remain. And my men aboard the tethered probe reported that the Sun Crusher's cockpit is empty."
So he's still alive. That maniac is still on the loose!
"I wish as much as you do that it was otherwise," Thrawn assured him.
You have no idea how much I wanted it, Thrawn...
"Frankly, it is amazing that he survived your torpedo," Thrawn noted as he stuck his head inside one of the holes in the Sun Crusher's engine screen. After a brief look around - did those eyes of his provide enough light of their own for him to see in there? - he pulled his head out. "You've thoroughly gutted this ship! There's nothing but a pile of rubbish in here."
"I like to be thorough," Wedge explained sarcastically.
"There must be an armor plate directly under the cockpit. Lieutenant Karns?"
"Yes sir," the officer that had been attending him spoke up.
"Your tracking device?"
"Right here," he pointed to a lump in a crevice behind the Sun Crusher's torpedo launch fixture. "Or at least, that's where I put it. Looks like the General here blew it away, too."
Wedge gave a self-satisfied smirk.
"There is, unfortunately, nothing I can do about the pilot at the moment," Thrawn said, changing the subject. "Oh, you may want this," he said, handing Wedge a holocam from his own X-Wing.
"What is this for?"
"For your role as observer, of course. A fine observer you would be without any holographic evidence."
Wedge stared at the holocam for a while before opening it up and checking it for power, broken parts, traps, and spy devices.
"It's in perfect working order, General. And you are to observe and record the entire process as we dispose of the Sun Crusher once and for all."
Wedge stared, open-mouthed, at the derelict Sun Crusher, its quantum armor still shimmering like oil on water, as it hung from the top of the Inexorable's hangar bay. "You... you're going to dispose of it?" No, Thrawn couldn't possibly be serious.
"Though we may be enemies, there are still matters on which we see eye-to-eye, General. This is one of them. Now, you are hereby granted unlimited access to the Sun Crusher and are encouraged to record any detail that suits you. You are also granted access to certain amenities to make your stay comfortable. I'm afraid I can't allow you free run of the ship, but I'm sure you understand."
"Not like I have a choice," Wedge muttered, even as he took another side glance at the Sun Crusher. No, this was too important to miss by getting thrown into the brig. "Very well, Grand Admiral Thrawn, I accept your hospitality."
He knew it would happen eventually. No matter how hard he tried, it just had to happen. And what made it even worse, it had happened two days before he knew it.
Captain Pellaeon entered his code clearance again, hoping the base computer would finally allow him to access the Inexorable's current orders. No such luck.
Where could he have gone? Pellaeon wondered silently. He tried another approach to ascertain the ship's whereabouts by checking the records for what other ships might have been ordered to rendezvous with the Inexorable. This time he was able to access the data, but still achieved no breakthrough.
He sighed heavily and leaned back for a moment in his chair. Staring at the Boelis headquarters computer station ceiling, he scolded himself once again for allowing Thrawn out of his sight.
It's not like I'm his father, a small voice reminded him.
Well, from a certain point of view, another small voice rebutted.
Pellaeon leaned forward again, shaking his head clear before trying the computer again. And once again, the computer told him he did not have sufficient security clearance to access the data he requested.
He pulled away from the terminal and started pacing the floor. Unfortunately, the drab gray floor offered him no inspiration.
Slowly, Pellaeon came to a halt. He took a deep breath as he came to a decision, and a difficult one at that. It was time to initiate a move. A move he had never wanted to make.
Pellaeon returned to the computer and entered a different access code. Once it had been accepted, he wrote out orders and recall notice for one of his most important agents.
Incredibly, Thrawn was good to his word. During a three day trek through hyperspace, Wedge had been allowed to record holos of every square millimeter of the Sun Crusher, make copies of all the computer data contained in it, and even take a broken-off piece of engine vent that had come to rest inside the ship's hull. And though he wasn't exactly welcome at the TIE Fighter racks, he did have relatively free run of a good portion of the hangar and the nearby rec facilities.
Of course, this also meant that the Imperial technicians were doing exactly the same thing.
Something that had come as a bit of a surprise was that Bel Iblis seemed to have been right. There was no sign of any torpedoes in the Sun Crusher. Either there weren't any left to begin with or his projectile had destroyed them, though he found the latter unlikely. Of course, a third option existed: that the troopers aboard Thrawn's missing shuttle had succeeded in killing Kyp and returned to a secret base with however many solar resonance torpedoes remained.
Given the extent to which Thrawn was allowing him to observe, that possibility seemed by far the most likely.
The reversion to realspace and nearly simultaneous appearance of the Grand Admiral from the nearest turbolift signaled that something important was about to begin. Wedge had little else to do but advance toward the blue skinned alien to find out what was to happen.
"Greetings, General Antilles," Thrawn said in that same friendly manner he had welcomed Wedge with days before. "The time has come to send this monstrosity to its final resting place."
"So you've figured out a way to destroy it?" Wedge asked suspiciously. "Would you mind telling me how, or is that one of those things that you're keeping off-limits?"
"No, not at all," Thrawn assured. "Though truthfully, it won't exactly be destroyed."
With that, he gestured toward the railing at the edge of the platform they stood on. Following his lead, Wedge walked up to the railing and looked down.
"By the way," Thrawn noted, handing something to Wedge, "you might want to put these on."
Wedge held the darkened goggles with a bit of confusion, for outside the hangar there lay only the speckled blackness of space.
Wedge was about to ask what was so special about the scenery when a glow started growing on the forward edge of the hangar mouth. Realizing what was about to happen, Wedge donned the goggles, and noted that Thrawn and the rest of the Imperials present had done likewise.
Shadows retreated up the aft hangar wall, as a ray of light worked its way up to the catwalk and docking clamp coated ceiling, then across it. Eventually, the edge of the star came into view, looming closer than Wedge would have preferred. It may not have been as close as, say Nkllon was to its sun, but it nevertheless was close enough to cause some alarm to the veteran ace pilot.
"Now you see, General."
"Yes, I understand, Admiral," Wedge replied.
"Do you have a filter for your holocam? If not, I can provide one."
"Yes, I have one," Wedge answered, activating the switch on his holocam that darkened the lens.
With a nod of acknowledgment, Thrawn turned toward the winch operator and made a hand gesture. He replied promptly, starting the reel turning. Slowly the Sun Crusher descended toward the bottom of the hangar. After five minutes of careful lowering, the bottom spire touched the magnetic field and entered the vacuum of space, where the Inexorable's tractor beams took over. The cable disengaged and began its retraction cycle.
Wedge brought up his holocam to record the event, though at this angle the Sun Crusher was little more than a crystalline-shaped black silhouette against the star - whatever star it was.
As it was held in the Star Destroyer's tractor beams, three spacetroopers emerged from a hatch somewhere and made their way to the Sun Crusher, carrying along packages of some sort. As they worked, Wedge realized that the packages were booster rockets. In fact, only two of them were arranging the boosters. The third was busily opening every access panel and boarding hatch, leaving the remaining "soft" innards of the Sun Crusher exposed to space. After another ten minutes, the spacetroopers were done and returned to wherever they had come from.
At that point, Thrawn turned to Wedge and held out a control device of some sort, inviting him to take it. "Please, be my guest."
"Yes, this button will send the Sun Crusher on its way to oblivion."
Wedge reached out, hesitated for a moment, then dropped his hand.
"There's no need to fear, General Antilles," Thrawn said when he detected Wedge's misgivings. "You yourself saw that the Sun Crusher had exhausted its supply of torpedoes even before you fought it. On top of that, I have absolutely no interest in committing suicide. And even if something did happen, this star is listed only as MH-3299. It has no planets or stations, and is far from even lightly traveled hyperspace routes."
Wedge brought his hand up again, this time taking the control. Of course a Star Destroyer this close to a star couldn't hope to make a hyperspace jump in time to escape an induced nova. But that wasn't what held him back.
He held in his hand the power to destroy Qwi Xux's last masterpiece. The final fruit of her genius.
But at the same time, it was her greatest folly, the culmination of more than a decade of creating ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, all the while thinking it was for benevolent purposes.
How she could have been so naive as to the intent of her creations, especially when she knew their actual names, he couldn't fathom. Even so, she had come around at last, ultimately paying for it with her mind, then her very life.
The Qwi he had come to know and love would have wanted this.
The boosters on the Sun Crusher flared to life, rapidly accelerating the derelict weapon on its final trajectory. It took several minutes to actually reach star MH-3299, but the interior had burned away well before that. By the time it dove into the flaming cauldron, the Sun Crusher was truly nothing more than an empty shell, useless even if someone could pull it out, as Kyp had done when it was embedded into the gas giant Yavin.
At long last, Wedge brought down his holocam. When exactly the Sun Crusher made its last disappearance, he couldn't really tell. But it really didn't matter. It was definitely gone for good.
As he sighed in relief, a hand dropped over his left shoulder. A blue hand.
"General Antilles," Thrawn began, "I assume you will want to be on your way."
"Well, yes," he answered cautiously, pulling his goggles off. The hangar was already notably darker, the ship having already begun moving away from the star.
"We will need to clear the star's gravity well first, of course."
"Of course," Wedge agreed sarcastically.
"We have finished repairs on your X-Wing. It is fully functional, minus the weapons systems."
"You..." Wedge said in startled surprise. "You did what?"
"Repaired your fighter. It's ready to go, as soon as we're clear. As I told you, you are the official New Republic observer of this event. What good is that if I don't allow you to return?"
"And the holos?" Wedge asked, not believing any of this.
"All yours," Thrawn assured him. "I have no need to review them."
"What about my astromech?"
"In perfect working order. We had to give him a restraining bolt for the duration of your stay. You understand, I trust. I will have it removed as soon as you are ready to depart."
"In that case," Wedge started, then paused, trying to decide what to say next. It was all just too strange. Obviously, the Grand Admiral could have a bomb hidden aboard the X-Wing, but then he could have carried out an execution at any time. There was certainly something Thrawn wanted in all of this, but Wedge couldn't even begin to fathom what it could be. Kissing up to the Republic, perhaps... but he seemed to have no intention of joining it. Better to let someone more qualified to decipher all this. If there really was someone even partially qualified to decipher Grand Admiral Thrawn's intentions.
Then there was this intriguing thing about Mara and Luke that Thrawn had left hanging...
"In that case," he repeated, "I suppose I must thank you for your hospitality." Wedge brought his hand up in proper decorum. Thrawn gripped it firmly.
"It is a pity we fight on opposite sides," Thrawn observed. "But it is good to see that those differences can be set aside, at least temporarily, for the greater good. It was a pleasure finally meeting you, General Antilles."
"Well, I hope you're proud of yourself."
Kyp's head jerked up from the shuttle's control panel at the sound. He jerked his head around to try to spot where it was coming from, only to have his neck seem to explode in pain. He returned to his straight-ahead position, deciding he was just hearing things.
It was all hopeless now. The Sun Crusher not just disarmed, but completely gone. It was inconceivable, the Dark Lord of the Sith being defeated in such a manner!
And yet, despite all the anger welling up within him, Kyp could not ferment it into the spirit which had sustained him since the complication at Ithor.
Probably because no matter how hard he tried, the finger of blame always ended up turning right back toward himself.
No doubt about it, he definitely heard that. He turned around bodily to look for the source, but again saw nothing.
"All right, who are you?" he demanded.
After a few moments of silence, the voice finally spoke again.
"Who am I? Don't tell me you've forgotten already. Then again, given your mental state, maybe you have."
"Exar Kun," Kyp practically hissed.
"Ah, so you do remember," the long-dead Sith Lord sarcastically noted as he materialized before Kyp. His shimmering image cast a soft red glow on the shuttle's cockpit.
"Where have you been?"
"I've been here the whole time," Kun answered curtly. "Where have you been?"
"Stop playing games with me, Kun," Kyp ordered. "You are the one who abandoned me. You cost me the power of the Sun Crusher!"
"I did no such thing," the image retorted.
"Does Qwi Xux sound familiar? Or Ithor? I had her. I had almost recovered the secrets from her head. Then you left me."
"And you killed her."
"I couldn't help it!" Kyp shouted. "You knew good and well I don't have that kind of control yet! You set me up to fail, Kun."
"What happened was out of my control."
"So," Kyp said with a sneer, "you expect me to believe that the all-powerful Exar Kun could..." Kyp stopped, an odd feeling coming over him. He turned to study the spirit before him, an odd smirk spreading across his face. "You've lost your power, haven't you?"
"No," Kun denied hastily, then hesitantly admitted, "well, partially. All right, mostly."
A strangely satisfied look appeared on Kyp's countenance.
"Might I remind you," the ghost of the Sith Lord sternly explained, "that without me, you'd be nothing?"
"And might I remind you," Kyp retorted, "that though you gave me a start, I am now far more powerful than you are."
"Perhaps you are, and perhaps you are not, but it remains that you are the one who lost the Sun Crusher. How could you do something that stupid?"
"Back to that, are we?" If you had something to say, why didn't you say it... Master?" Kyp said in a more than slightly disrespectful tone.
"Because," Kun explained, his anger clearly evident, "a certain fool was too consumed in his own petty pursuit for pointless revenge to pay any attention to anyone trying to talk to him."
Kyp huffed, crossing his arms. "All right Kun," he growled, "let me see if I get this right. You lost your power, and can now only appear like this before me, but only if I'm open to it. That about sum it up?"
"Oh, I can do more than that," he boasted, "but as far as you are concerned, yes."
"I don't like that tone," Kyp warned, but let it go for now. "So, what is it you want now?"
Exar Kun spread his hands to the sides, palm up, as if presenting a peace offering. "I merely want to ask what you are going to do now."
"Don't mock me, Kun."
"I've done that already. But now, it is a serious question: what will you do?"
"I..." Kyp started, then paused to consider his words. "I will go back to one of my worlds. I will force them to..."
"Force them to what?" Kun interrupted. "Do your bidding? I'm sure you could do that easily, provided you even make it to the planet's surface. This shuttle is a far cry from the Sun Crusher."
"You doubt my abilities? I can strangle the pilots in their cockpits, I can cast their torpedoes aside, I can..."
"If Darth Vader couldn't do that, what makes you think you can?"
"Vader was weak!" Kyp replied defiantly. "You told me so yourself!"
"Vader was weak in the mind, in his commitment to the Dark Side. In the end, that is what caused his fall back to the Light Side. However, Vader's strength in the Force was exceptional, as it is with his descendants."
There was something in the way Kun said that that sent a chill down Kyp's spine and caused a burning dread in his mind.
"Master Kun," he started in a strangely timid voice, "you defeated Master Skywalker easily. And his sister is hardly worthy of the name Jedi. Her children are, well, children. They pose no threat."
"Only a fool would underestimate the threat they present until they are dead," Kun scolded. He continued with his tone growing ever darker, "Regardless, I speak not of the threat they present, but rather the opportunity."
"Opportunity?" Kyp repeated, then it struck him. A grin grew from cheek to cheek. "The children... We could turn them to the Dark Side, make them our servants..."
"Of course, along with the rest of Skywalker's Jedi," Kun said flippantly. "No, Kyp, there is a far greater opportunity here. The chance for me to live again."
That feeling of dread washed over Kyp anew, bringing with it a tint of absolute terror. Kun... alive? If he could be that powerful as a ghost, what could he do with a body?
"But Master, how is this possible?"
"Though you may not know it, Palpatine transferred his spirit into the bodies of clones of himself, allowing him to take a fresh new body once his old one wore out or was destroyed. With his supply of clones annihilated, he attempted to take the body of the youngest and most Force-powerful of the Solo children, but was killed in the process. Permanently, I might add."
"How do you know this?" Kyp asked in fearful amazement.
"The Great Temple - indeed, all the temples of Yavin IV were my eyes and ears. Nothing that happened on that world escaped my notice. Even the most private of conversations, any careless word, the murmuring of a sleep-talker... I knew everything."
"But you have lost your connection to those temples, haven't you?" Kyp observed.
"That is why I am now connected with you, Kyp. You are the only thing that keeps me anchored to this world."
"If that is true, how can you have the power to accomplish what Palpatine could not?"
"By using your power, of course, magnified by my temples. My link may be broken, but they are still focus points of the Dark Side. That is why I built them, thousands of years ago."
"I see," Kyp commented cautiously. "But if you take the body of a child, it will take you years before the body is mature enough for you to really do anything for yourself, Master."
"This is physically true," the visage of the Sith Lord nodded in agreement. "But not in the Force. My mind will still be there, as will my power, coupled with the body's own Force sensitivity. Though the body may not be capable of motion or speech for some time, my power will remain available to you. You shall arrange for my raising. And in return, you shall have dominion over the Empire you so hate."
Then, when the body is old enough, you will challenge me for control, Kyp thought. But in the fifteen to twenty years that will take, my power might well exceed his. And if I kill this child before it matures...
"Very well, Kun. Which of the Solo children do you want?"
"Solo children? Please!" Exar Kun practically spat out. "Bring me the child of Skywalker."
"M... Master?" Kyp stuttered. "Skywalker? But... Skywalker has no child."
"You are short sighted, Kyp. Palpatine himself failed to realize this. To truly take control of another's body, to truly displace the mind already there, the transfer must be made very early in that mind's formation."
"His child is not born yet," Kyp concluded. "But then... how can I bring the child to you?" Slowly, his mouth fell open as the realization hit him. "If the child is already growing... who is the mother? Master Skywalker never told us he had a wife!"
"No, they thought they could keep it secret. Surprisingly successful, especially with so many Jedi students around, but no secret on Yavin was safe from me."
"Who?" Kyp repeated.
"Of the students at Skywalker's pathetic excuse for a Jedi Academy, who would be the last one you'd suspect? Ruling out the obvious, of course."
Kyp thought for a long moment. Tionne was a logical choice, with her reverence for the Jedi ways and Skywalker's near-fawning over every little thing she discovered. Then there was Kirana Ti of Dathomir, who was certainly on good terms with Luke. But what about that latecomer, that come-and-go-as-she-pleased redhead with the bad attitude, the blue lightsaber, and the Z-95 Headhunter...
"No, you don't mean... Mara Jade?" Kyp gasped in disbelief. "It can't be!"
"It can, and it is. With Skywalker and Jade as parents, this child's power will be immense! I have already sensed it!"
"Skywalker... and Jade?" Kyp repeated, still having a hard time believing it. And what Kun was asking him to do... Getting through Skywalker would be a pleasant challenge without Kun's power, but from what little he'd seen of Jade during her brief stay on Yavin IV...
"You must go to Coruscant, Kyp. You must capture Skywalker's wife and bring her to Yavin. There I will enter the child she carries."
"Master... what if the child is a daughter?"
"Let me worry about that," Kun retorted, though he really didn't seem concerned at all about it. "You just do as I've told you."
Easier said than done, Kyp knew. It would certainly attract Skywalker's attention and instigate that duel he had treacherously avoided by sending that X-Wing to Carida in his place. He smiled at that prospect, but the smile faded when he realized that he would have to keep Jade alive and captive for at least several more months after that. Then after...
"Master..." Kyp asked carefully, "after you are reborn, what is to become of Jade?"
"My surrogate second mother?" Kun snorted. "Do whatever you like with her. Once her purpose is served, she matters nothing to me."