Sirens blared throughout New Nystao, sending Noghri civilians dashing for cover in hastily-dug shelters. Over- and under-aged reserve warriors accompanied them, at least one to each of the barely adequate holes that would hopefully protect the 6 or more individuals. Front line warriors and pilots had long since moved out to their bases and rallying points in preparation for this day. By high noon the sirens had stopped, and the entire city was nearly deserted.
For the few stragglers and still-roving city guards, the city was deathly silent. The occasional bird could be heard chirping, and wind whistled through the trees and buildings from time to time, but aside from that, nothing.
Warning had come four days earlier, a priority message from General Garm Bel Iblis himself. It was all the Noghri could do to dig these holes, rally the troops, and brace for impact. The Noghri, however, were a people used to conflict; hence, the preparations and evacuations went far smoother than most other species could have managed. That is to say nothing of actual military preparations. But without their own starfleet to bring to bear, that preparation consisted of only ground, air, and limited air-to-space forces.
Almost all of Couragahr's satellites and space platforms had been wiped out in the blink of an eye by cloaked ships, and the subsequent jamming prevented all communications with anyone who might be out there to help. Bel Iblis had promised a fleet, but it was as of yet nowhere to be seen. In the meantime, Couragahr could only hope to hold its own against the concentrated wrath of Grand Admiral Thrawn.
The size of the attack force stunned Pellaeon. He had expected a couple Star Destroyers, a handful of spyships and Interdictor Cruisers, and even the Corsair and Intruder. Instead, there were no less than seven Imperial Star Destroyers, an even dozen escort carriers, two triads of Victory Star Destroyers, and at least 15 Dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers (not counting the Dreadnaught spyships). TIE Fighters and Interceptors flitted about in huge quantities, patrolling around the fleet while it formed up.
It was clear that the Inexorable was the last ship to arrive, as the rest of the fleet had already taken up their positions but had not yet begun to attack. The spyships had already made short work of the Noghri space assets just like they had on Honoghr the moment the first ship arrived in-system, but then promptly held their fire and their stations until the Grand Admiral arrived to order the next phase to begin... a phase which consisted of one thousand Scimitar bombers, plus an additional five hundred or more standard TIE Bombers, currently holding perfectly still in a vast array, powered up and ready to move the moment Thrawn gave the go-ahead.
When Thrawn had informed him of the plan to attack Couragahr, Pellaeon was anything but surprised. Yet now, seeing the full scale of what Thrawn had orchestrated, he was speechless. All the more so given that it had all been accomplished without his knowing anything at all about it.
Rear Admiral Pellaeon was still staring in awe out the Inexorable's port-side bridge viewport when the order was given. From the top of the array, a pair of Scimitar IIs pulled out, followed by another pair, then another. A double line of them, six pairs long, plunged toward the planet, tasked with performing precision strikes to pave the way for the massive formation to follow. Three more squadrons followed. At 10 kilometers from the main force, two squadrons of TIE Fighters joined each formation as escort. These would be the elite pilots, the very best from Thrawn's combined fleets.
Once they had entered the planet's upper atmosphere, the bulk of the attackers began to move. This time, rather than squadrons of twelve pulling out in two columns of six each, they moved in six columns of two each which, when they had gained at least five kilometers of distance from the holding group, folded back into four Vs of three staggered into a roughly rhomboid pattern when seen from above or below. Squadrons moved out at seemingly random intervals; sometimes one moved, sometimes five at once. Over the following hour, the initially precise box stretched out into a chain of varying width and concentration, with Scimitar I, Scimitar II, and TIE Bomber squadrons jumbled together in a confusing mishmash.
Confusing, that is, for Pellaeon. Thrawn seemed to be rather pleased with it.
"So, Admiral," Thrawn said proudly as he walked up to the viewport, "an impressive sight, is it not?"
"Impressive, yes," Pellaeon absently agreed, still staring at the formations in space. "But only in size. These pilots seem to be terribly undisciplined,"
"I see the attack pattern is unfamiliar to you."
"There's a pattern?" Pellaeon said sarcastically, then scolded himself. "I'm sorry, Admiral. I didn't mean..."
"It's all right, Admiral Pellaeon. I didn't expect you to recognize it. It's an archaic pattern, but especially apt for the duty at hand. Particularly given the defense the Noghri are capable of mounting."
"Forgive me, sir, but I still don't see why we can't just bombard them from orbit."
"You are aware of the planet's shield, are you not?"
"Of course, sir," Pellaeon replied, trying hard not to let his frustration seep into his tone of voice. "I have been monitoring the settlement of Couragahr ever since the Rebellion first selected it, and especially since they started arming it during the Core Resurgences last year. However, a compliment of walkers could easily put down the shield generators, or perhaps only two squadrons worth of Scimitars with heavy escort. This," he waved his hand at the string of drive lights, "is a bit much to knock out the shields."
"That's where you are mistaken, Admiral Pellaeon. The bombers are not going to knock out the shields. I want their defenses against space attack undamaged, to show the Noghri how futile it is to defy me."
"So, then," Pellaeon voiced, his patience with Thrawn's dramatic posturing growing perilously thin, "is that why you are using these 'archaic tactics'? To prove how you can beat them in the 'old fashioned way'?"
"Not exactly," Thrawn said, the inflection of his voice making it clear that he was slightly perturbed at Pellaeon's attitude. "It's more of a gift to them. You are well aware of how they went from, essentially, a pre-technological to full Imperial grade civilization virtually overnight. Because of that, they have missed out on so many developmental phases. I am providing them with a piece of military history they missed out on."
"So I assume the next wave will be a few legions of unsupported stormtroopers armed with vibro-bayonettes?"
"A vibro-bayonette charge against Noghri?" Thrawn repeated in a stunned voice. "Are you mad?"
Mad, yes, Pellaeon thought to himself. But not in the sense that you are.
"Now, a charge against Rodians is another matter entirely," Thrawn continued nostalgically. "In fact, Grand Admirals Radir and Donents both called me mad for even suggesting it. They were quite humiliated when the revolt on Akitan panicked and broke." Thrawn turned to look Pellaeon in the eye, then explained, "You see, Rodians have a subconscious racial fear of bladed implements, dating back to a certain tyrant's reign of terror and the tools he favored. It's very obvious from the drastic change in symbolism used in Rodian flatsculpts about 700 years ago."
Pellaeon pondered that piece of trivia while he turned to look at the planet below. The first bomb strikes had just begun, as evidenced by the plumes of smoke rising from several locations on the surface of the lush, green world. Pellaeon found it difficult to picture the Noghri living on a planet like this, having always associated them with the dry brown plains of Honoghr. For the first time, he realized that he had never even thought about what Honoghr might have looked like before the disaster that had irreversibly changed it.
Not that he had any love for the Noghri, but it seemed almost a shame to incinerate this planet in the same manner as they had recently done to Honoghr.
"Admiral, if I recall correctly," Pellaeon asked uncertainly, not in his own memory but in Thrawn's, "you told me once that there was only one time that you could not understand a species from its art."
"That is correct, Admiral Pellaeon. I destroyed them with admittedly clumsy but overpowering force. Their underwater cities did provide an interesting challenge, but no more than that." Thrawn studied Pellaeon's expressions for a moment. "Are you wondering if my methods against the Noghri are for the same reason? I assure you, they are not."
Of course not, Pellaeon thought as he turned away from Thrawn to continue his observation of the wasteful slaughter below. You're wiping out the Noghri because you're angry about what happened on the Chimaera.
"Unidentified craft, transmit clearance code or be fired upon."
The impressive expanse of Enigma Base stretched to fill the entire front viewport of the light freighter Mynock Bait. Out the side ports could be seen several Interdictor and Carrack class cruisers, plus the usual TIE patrols. Knowing full well that the Imperial base had both the means and the intention of enforcing their threat, Haygn transmitted his least frequently used clearance code.
While transmitting the general clearance code, he used the signal to mask the transmission of a second code, one he used far more frequently.
Few people knew that the modestly successful smuggler named Vanse Haygn was, in fact, a spy for the Empire.
A flight of TIE fighters pulled up behind him, no doubt the pilots had their fingers on their triggers, itching for word that he had failed to provide the correct code. They were probably disappointed that he ended up satisfying the test.
"Freighter Mynock Bait, you have been cleared for docking at bay 17-B," the voice of flight control informed him. "Your escorts will guide you in."
The two TIEs revised their formation so promptly that Haygn was sure that they must be hearing the same message. One TIE moved ahead of the Mynock Bait, then slowed back down to match the freighter's speed. The other TIE took up a position above and behind, still in a good position to attack should anything unexpected happen.
With the transmission from flight control terminated, Haygn keyed his hidden decoder controls and viewed the message that had been carefully hidden therein. It was only a simple text-only message, informing him that Rear Admiral Pellaeon had gone on an unexpected mission, and would be returning shortly. Haygn, in turn, was to wait at Enigma for Pellaeon.
Enigma base loomed ever closer, though still not quite close enough to make out the individual docking bays for ships like his. He could clearly see the space drydocks on this side of the facility and their current occupants. One held an Imperial Star Destroyer that was undergoing repair work on its conning tower, or at least it was until recently. That dock was totally vacant of workers. The answer to that question apparently lay three slips away, where another Imperial Star Destroyer was being thoroughly mobbed by technicians and repair laborers, almost entirely concentrating on the lower hull.
Well, Admiral Pellaeon would tell him if he thought it was important. Besides, there must be something very important for him to have issued that recall notice. On top of that, ever since his conversation with Torve back on Coruscant, Haygn had been seriously pondering getting out of the smuggling business anyway.
The lead TIE veered off to starboard as docking bay 17-B came into full, too-close-to-miss view, leaving Haygn to go the rest of the way himself. He could clearly see gun emplacements on the station tracking him, probably itching for a fight as much as the TIE pilots were. The only way anyone in a ship like the Mynock Bait could have the access codes was if there were a V.I.P. aboard, if the pilot himself was in Intelligence, if he had heard it from some particularly good slicer, or if he was a spy for someone else. In those last two cases, the ship and its pilot would be swiftly and eagerly dealt with, and the bored soldiers and pilots on guard duty would be quite happy with the opportunity to "earn their pay."
The shadows cast by the mostly prefabricated buildings of New Nystao were growing longer as the day moved inevitably toward evening, but silence still reigned supreme over the city. Even the twittering of birds had died down. Down in their shelters, some of the residents were just about ready to return to their homes, considering the whole exercise to have been merely a false alarm. However, the Noghri who remained on-station patrolling the city knew better.
Four hours after the sirens had first blared across New Nystao, something finally happened.
Far in the distance, in almost every direction, plumes of smoke rose. Some time after the mushrooming plumes had risen high enough to be visible, the sound of the blasts that had caused them arrived. It was almost like a distant drumming, coming in both rapid and staggered beats, some sets long, others brief.
An occasional squawk on their comlinks informed the guards that attack craft were, in fact, striking the outlying towns, farms, and bases, but not much else. Theoretically, the Noghri defense network should be able to send messages through their own ground-level jamming net, but in practice it didn't work nearly so well. The jury was still out as to whether it could effectively throw off the Imperial targeting computers and keep Noghri ground-to-air defenses hidden from sensor sweeps. If the attack had come in the conventional way, with AT-ATs walking in from beyond the edge of the partial planetary shield over the settled continent, there was little doubt it would work. But far be it for Thrawn to attack in the conventional way.
An urgent message from a Noghri pilot stated that the main body of attackers appeared to be headed toward the capitol, but the message went to static before he could give further details. Not long after that, the Noghri on the ground began to notice the strange humming. It gradually grew ever louder, developing into a medium-pitched drone that set to vibrating anything that ended up in resonance at that frequency range.
About 15 minutes after first hearing the sound, the black specks began to appear in the eastern sky. It started with a few, but soon it grew into an entire swarm of gnats, the droning of their engines continuing to intensify.
Though the sound and appearance of the Imperial strike force had come slowly and gradually, the inbound Noghri interceptors appeared suddenly and with only the slightest of warning: a traditional Noghri hunting cry over the defense forces' comm channel. Within a minute after the cry, the leading elements screamed over the city, intent on attacking the bombers head-on.
It had been hard on the Noghri pilots to allow the Imperials to attack the farms and bases essentially unopposed, but now was when their unhappy compromise paid off. As they had already deduced, by New Republic warning as well as by pure logic, that the main strike was to hit New Nystao, the vast majority of the Couragahr air force had left their regular patrol sectors and gathered behind the hills and mountains near the capitol city, lying in wait for the right moment to pounce. The time had finally come.
Their combat cloud cars pulled up as they passed the Grand Dukha building, the largest and most impressive structure on the planet. Squadron after squadron began climbing to meet the attackers, amounting to at least two full six-squadron wings of fighters.
With the southwest/northeast-running coastline to starboard and one of the rivers through the target now in visual range dead ahead, the bombardier in the leading Scimitar II of the Intruder's wing - also known as Blue Alpha 1 - was satisfied that the targeting computer was, in fact, providing him with a correct reading of the upcoming landscape. It had been remarkable how much the smoke and heat on Honoghr had fouled up the sensors, and even though there wasn't any smoke over the target yet, the ground-level jamming was more than enough to cause concern over the accuracy of the readings.
He squinted behind the lenses of his helmet, trying to determine if he had seen a glint of water further away, to the north. Yes, he had. The second river was in sight. Following them out toward the ocean, he noted where they met. He checked against his mission map, then checked the intersection again. Yes, there was a break in the surrounding greenery, and the light grayish discoloration plus the irregular shape made it clear that it was not just another plot of farmland but was, in fact, the city of New Nystao itself. Here and there a road poked through the foliage, and winding though they were, they were definitely pointing in the same direction. Sighting in with his visual equipment, then checking against wind speed and altitude, he made some slight adjustments to the flight plan.
"Bombardier to pilot," he said, not even looking over his shoulder at the pilot sitting above and behind him, "target is now in sight. Adjust heading by 0.43 degrees to port."
The pilot acknowledged, nudging the nose of Blue Alpha 1 the specified angle. A quick glance out the port and starboard side windows told him that Blue Alpha 2 and 3 were adjusting their courses likewise. Afternoon sunlight reflected brightly off the freshly painted blue bands and large white alphanumerics on his wingmen's solar panels.
"Blue Alpha leader to Blue Wing," the pilot began, using the general frequency for the entire Scimitar II bomb wing that had left the escort carrier Intruder several hours previously, "target is in sight. Wingmen stay close to your flight leaders, flight leaders maintain formation with squadron leaders. Remain at current velocity and altitude, and set for full release, medium-tight grouping. Let's show those guys from the Corsair a thing or two about bombing."
"Copy that, Blue Alpha Leader," came the voices, not quite in unison, from the rest of Blue Alpha squadron. The rest of Blue Wing would confirm the receipt of his orders with their own squadron heads.
"Pilot to bombardier," the pilot said, switching over to autopilot to give the bombardier with his targeting computer full control of the craft during the final approach, "it's all yours."
Though this was exactly according to mission, the pilot couldn't help but feel uneasy at the prospect of flying straight and level while still so far away from the release point. They were already flying at not even half of the Scimitar's rated atmospheric maximum speed, for the purpose of holding the massive formation. Uneasy though he was, he had to admit that the bomb hit pattern that would result was nothing short of impressive, if the results from Honoghr were anything to go by.
His thoughts were interrupted by the comm.
"Blue Alpha 5 to Blue Alpha squadron. Interceptors coming in from ahead and below!"
Almost simultaneously, his craft was rocked by multiple impacts against the lower shields. "Pilot to gunners, what..." was all he got out before the shields failed and Blue Alpha 1 was perforated by red laser fire.
A victorious whoop could be heard over the Noghri comm channel from the three fighters that had sent the lead bomber down in flames, but it was short lived. As they shot up past the now disorganized lead squadron, one of the cloud cars cut across the stream of green laser fire spewing from the top of a nearby bomber and exploded. The other two continued their climb, without time to mourn the loss of their comrade.
Though the lead Scimitar had been taken unaware, and the foremost squadrons were frantically trying to reorganize themselves, the rest of the bomber formation held tight and responded fiercely. The dull green paint hastily applied to the upper surfaces of the Noghri fighters, coupled with their low-level approach through the jamming blanket had been reasonably effective, especially given the fact that they were attacking more-or-less into the sun. Now, lacking the element of surprise, the Noghri faced a virtual gauntlet of laser fire.
Cloud cars weaved in and out, trying to throw off the aim of the Imperial gunners, all the while taking potshots of their own in hope of actually hitting something. They actually hit fairly often, but with so many bombers, all with shields, it did little to sway the tide.
After the first two minutes of the encounter, five Scimitars and at least double that many cloud cars had already fallen from the sky. Nevertheless, the Noghri continued to attack relentlessly.
"Blue Wing, this is Blue Alpha 2. We are taking lead."
While the confirmations came in, the bombardier sighted in and ran his calculations, reestablishing the required course, which he then relayed to his pilot. As the pilot in turn relayed this to the squadron, the cockpit was illuminated with a bright flash from behind.
"Pilot to tail gunner, what's happening back there?"
"Tail gunner to pilot," the jittery voice of the gunner came back, "looks like Blue Delta's getting hammered. Two of them collided and another... he's veering off and jettisoning bombs."
Just then a stray shot sizzled across the bow shield, much too close for comfort. The pilot, in response, re-balanced shield strength. "Pilot to bombardier, how soon till target?"
"About ten minutes," the bombardier replied, though it was obvious from his tone that ten minutes was far longer than he would have liked.
With Couragahr's sun at their backs and a Noghri war whoop in their throats, an even larger interceptor force dove on the Scimitar wing that made up the tail end of the bomber procession. With the head on attack from Nystao keeping the lead bombers distracted, and through them the rest of the Imperial attackers looking for fighters to the front, three fighter wings had been given the chance to sneak around and position themselves between the sun and the bombers.
One or more of the Imperial gunners must have spotted them, as green laser fire soon came streaming their way from tail and dorsal gun turrets on the Scimitar IIs. However, it was wild, lacking any sort of coherence or coordination. But there was still an awful lot of it, and a few Noghri craft were unlucky enough to get tagged. By and large, though, it was the Noghri who were doing the tagging.
With three cloud cars ganging up on each Scimitar, the far weaker fighter craft were still able to wrangle the hefty Imperials into submission. By the time the defenders broke from their dives to swing around for another pass, the landscape was already being littered with jettisoned bombs and pieces of yellow-winged Scimitars.
"Blue Wing Leader, this is White Wing Leader, do you copy?"
"White Wing Leader," the pilot of Blue Alpha 2 responded, "this is acting Blue Wing Leader, what is your status?"
"We are under massed fighter attack from behind."
"What happened to Yellow Wing?" Blue Alpha 2 asked.
"Those boys from the Charger didn't stand a chance against them. There are only..." he trailed off to get a count from the White squadron farthest back and closest to Yellow Wing. "...looks like two partial Yellow squadrons left. They're making their way to join up with us. Where did all these guys come from? I thought the advance Red squadrons took out the airbases?"
"They obviously didn't do a very good job of it," Blue Alpha 2 agreed.
"Belly turret to pilot," a gunner interrupted, "there's a green squadron below that's making for the deck at high speed," he said amongst the sound of his own blaster fire.
"Thanks for the update, White Leader. Just hold formation and concentrate fire," he signed off from the inter-wing comm channel. "What do those idiots think they're doing? Pilot to bombardier, can you make out who they are?"
Blue Alpha 2's bombardier instinctively checked his targeting computer for an I.D., but the sheer number of air and space craft in the vicinity was overwhelming the system. He turned to his trusty optical gear and focussed as best as he could on the rapidly moving Scimitars.
"Looks like Green Gamma squadron, and... they've got to be crazy! Those are only Scimitar Mark Is!"
"Green Gamma!" the pilot barked into the comm. "This is Blue Wing Leader. Get back into formation immediately! You are no match for these fighters on your own!"
He got no response. Apparently, the Green Gamma squadron leader had decided that the speed advantage the Mark I had over the Mark II would be sufficient to protect his bombers when they broke away from the main body. That decision was to prove fatal.
"Bombardier to pilot, save your breath. It's too late." Far below and ahead, the last of Green Gamma plowed into the Couragahr landscape, leaving a streak of flame, then black char against the vegetation. A squadron of airspeeders pulled away from the area, having claimed 5 of the 12 bombers. Hidden concussion missile batteries had taken down the other 7. "Looks like they have some airspeeders flitting around down there, plus some missile batteries."
"Hard to tell. They've got the airspeeders painted green, too. I wouldn't have noticed them if I hadn't seen them firing. As for the missiles, that's anybody's guess."
"Last thing we need is to drop down and let them increase their numbers. Blue Wing Leader to all wings," he said, keying the comm again. "Airspeeders and missile launches sighted at low altitude. Quantity unknown."
The pilot reflexively ducked down as a burning cloud car flashed over and ahead of the bomber on its way to a close encounter with the surface of the new Noghri homeworld. Behind him, the dorsal turret gunner enthusiastically shouted, "I got one! I got one!"
"Pilot to top gunner, congratulations. Now shut up and get us another one. Preferably not so close to the ship next time. Bombardier, how long till target?"
"Bombardier to pilot, time to target is ninety seconds starting... now. Opening bomb bay doors," he replied, simultaneously pulling the lever that opened the doors along the Scimitar's underside with the soft whir of servo motors.
Noting that Blue Alpha 2, their acting wing leader, had opened bomb bay doors, the rest of blue wing followed suit. Behind them, Green and Black waited until 10 seconds later, then opened theirs. The same procedure was repeated again and again by the rest of the bomber wings, whether they were flying Scimitar Is, Scimitar IIs, or TIE Bombers.
"Any second now, Admiral Pellaeon," Thrawn said smugly.
"Yes sir," came his noncommittal reply.
"You still do not see," Thrawn sighed. "This is only the opening stage of the battle. There is more, far more, to come."
Pellaeon couldn't help but snort. "Another dozen waves, right, sir?"
"Not even close," the Grand Admiral replied, ignoring Pellaeon's tone of insubordination. "Do you think merely bombing the Noghri out of existence is a fitting punishment for their betrayal? No, there is a much deeper level of retribution that I have yet to show them."
Isn't that nice, Pellaeon thought as he continued to survey the destruction below. "Grand Admiral Thrawn," he decided to point out, "from the amount of resistance being reported, it would seem that the Noghri were expecting us."
"It certainly does seem that way, doesn't it?" Thrawn readily agreed.
"Given that," Pellaeon continued, "isn't there a good chance that they may have help on the way?"
"Yes there is," Thrawn agreed again. "In fact, I expect them to arrive at any moment. I don't suppose you've noted the formation of the fleet since the bombing attack began?"
Pellaeon flushed slightly. In all his frustration, he actually hadn't checked that. Looking out the Inexorable's bridge viewports, his eyes settled first on the Star Destroyers, then on the smaller vessels. The Interdictor Cruisers...
"It's a trap?" Pellaeon asked in surprise. "You actually meant to draw out a New Republic fleet here?"
"Given the involvement of Noghri in the rescue of Skywalker, I have no doubt she warned them, based on her knowledge of the Honoghr raid. Since I allowed this information to be passed on to her, I know exactly what the Rebel leadership knows."
The old Thrawn might have been that clever, but Pellaeon was positive this one was only covering his own mistakes. Regardless, he had to admit it was a compelling argument.
"Furthermore, with the word of my return out, they will be frightened and off guard."
"But sir," Pellaeon asked, "doesn't that just mean they will send in overwhelming force?"
"Not at all, Admiral. Correction, they would, but they can't. There is a severely limited number of vessels that could possibly make it here since warning got to the Noghri; based on the time our spyship intercepted the first heavily coded messages. Our fleet is more than enough for what the Rebels have available, plus the Rebel fleet's arrival is necessary for the next phase in my reprisal against the Noghri. Looks like it's starting, Admiral Pellaeon."
The sudden change in topic rattled Pellaeon, but Thrawn's finger pointing out the viewport instantly informed him of what Thrawn meant.
Haygn stepped through the hatch only after Enigma Base security gave him permission over his comm channel. In the meantime, he had gotten his clearance documentation files neatly in order, hopefully ensuring there would be no cause for security to hassle him.
Outside stood a row of stormtroopers, blasters aimed at him. A black-clad Imperial officer with a stern scowl stepped toward him, sidearm held in one hand, the other outstretched to receive Haygn's documentation, which he eagerly handed over.
The officer stepped back and holstered his sidearm, then turned toward a computer console in the back of the room. While his clearance was being checked, Haygn looked around as much as he dared with all those blasters pointed at him. Immediately he noted three ysalamiri hanging on nutrient pipes on the walls.
Good, he thought with a subtle sigh of relief. At least they're taking the proper precautions against Jedi...
The officer returned and handed back the documentation. "Your authorization clears," he said, his voice no friendlier than his expression, "however, there is one problem."
"What kind of problem?"
"We have detected high powered signal pulses originating from your vessel at irregular intervals. Would you care to explain?"
"What?" Haygn asked in shock. "I didn't send any signals!"
"I'm afraid," the officer said, motioning to the stormtroopers, who moved in to surround him, "we're going to have to impound your ship and keep you in the brig until we straighten this out, unless you want to enlighten us right now."
"Now wait a minute!"
Before he could protest any further, alarms began sounding all across the base. The docking bay itself was bathed in red light, indicating highest alert status. The security officer immediately pulled out his comlink to find out what had happened.
Haygn, meanwhile, had turned very pale. What was happening here?
"Lock him up, maximum security! We'll need him for interrogation!" the officer ordered gruffly. "And then return to your stations, the base is under attack!"
"And... bombs away!" With the flip of a tiny toggle switch, Blue Alpha 2's load of heavy concussion bombs were released from the Scimitar's racks. The ship bobbed slightly from the sudden loss of several tons of weight.
Looking out the cockpit windows, the pilot could see the streams of explosives dropping from the rest of Blue Wing. Most of the Blue Scimitars were loaded with heavy bombs, destined to strike at large or particularly important targets. Green would be carrying loads of thermal detonator-type munitions, which would disperse as they fell to spread light damage across a wide area. Black was mostly heavy bombs again. The next three wings after that were full of nothing but incendiaries, designed to turn the rubble left from the first strikes into a blazing inferno. After that, the last wings were essentially mixed and given some latitude in selecting their targets. Squadrons with bombs were to hit discrete targets that Blue and Black missed, incendiary-equipped squadrons would focus on city districts not yet ablaze, and the ones with thermal detonators would attempt to drop their loads in areas that showed signs of life, be it refugees, firefighters, or anything.
Blue Alpha squadron's target was New Nystao's sprawling starport, which even now had a good dozen large supply ships parked at various landing pads. Located near the center of the city, surrounded by industrial and storage buildings, it was slated to take the majority of the concussion bombs allotted to the strike. The Noghri capitol building was next, with several civil defense stations third.
Blue Alpha 2's bombardier kept his eye to the bombsight, watching as the eight bombs grew smaller and smaller, plummeting toward their inevitable impact with Couragahr's surface. Off to the sides, he could see the streams of bombs from other Alpha squadron Scimitars. With an orange flash and a fast expanding, but short-lived, white concussion ring emanating radially from the detonation, the first bomb hit. The other seven followed, spaced at approximately half a second apart. Before the last one hit, the other bombers' loads had started to impact.
The bombardier noted with satisfaction that his load had scored a string of hits right across the starport's central hub structure. Bombs from other ships had been a bit less efficiently dispersed, but he saw a few other solid hits here and there, including one that hit a freighter, setting off something aboard the ship and resulting in a stunning secondary explosion.
With their own hits now a series of dark, 50-meter high mushroom clouds, he closed the bomb bay doors, then turned and made a hand signal to the pilot.
Taking the Scimitar II off of autopilot, he checked on the rest of the Blue bombers, both with the comm and by sight. As he did the continued, but weakening, Noghri fighter attack managed to break through Blue Alpha 7's forward shields in a daring head-on strike. The small but rapid-fire red laser blasts from a cloudcar flashed across the Scimitar's canopy, then throughout the cockpit once the transparisteel was punctured. Oddly enough, the Scimitar didn't explode from the barrage. By the time the cloud car broke off (under intense fire from about two dozen other Blue Wing craft), Blue Alpha 7 was still holding its position and speed, though trailing a thin line of smoke. Another 5 seconds later, however, the lack of pilot and damage to the control system began to show, as the bomber slowly veered to starboard, then banked slightly and angled downward. The smoke got a little thicker as time went on, leaving a clear trail from where it had once held a position in the formation to the ditch it eventually dug in the vegetation below.
"Keep up the fire," the pilot urged his gunners. "We're not out of it yet."
"Top turret to pilot," the dorsal gunner reported, "I see a new squadron incoming fast."
"I.D.?" the pilot requested, even as he checked his own sensor readings on the new arrivals. No good, there were still too many targets for the computer to keep track of, and that jamming still hadn't gone away. The Noghri must have transmitters scattered everywhere...
"Coming into shape now, sir..." the gunner replied. "They're... they're ours, sir! TIE Interceptors inbound!"
"Blue Alpha Lead to Blue Wing," the pilot said over the Bomb Wing's comm channel, "we have friendlies coming in to help, so stay sharp, and don't shoot at our own guys."
The squadron of TIE Interceptors zipped in at breakneck speed, then peeled off in a bloom maneuver to hunt Noghri cloud cars individually. Before long, two more squadrons joined it, freed-up from escorting the advanced strike. Soon, many of Couragahr's remaining defense craft were engaged in a series of dogfights against the Imperial starfighters, with little time to pay attention to the departing bombers.
The space around Enigma base was soon scattered with an assortment of Z-95 Headhunters, Y-Wings, and Skiprays. At the very moment the three pirate cruisers dropped out of hyperspace they unloaded their entire compliments of fighter craft, ready to take on all comers. Their task force should have been more than enough to scare any sort of port authority into submission. However, they never suspected anything like what they found. Before they had even the slightest chance to plot a retreat, the Imperial gravity well projectors and jammers were on-line, preventing both retreat and calls for assistance.
For their part, the Imperial patrol craft were taken by surprise as well. This had been the plan all along, to trap and destroy anyone who stumbled across Enigma. However, for the two years of the base's operation under Pellaeon, then Thrawn, no unauthorized visitors had ever appeared.
Training and thirst for action quickly replaced surprise, though. TIEs were soon bearing down on the pirates, who scattered in panic in the face of much stronger than anticipated opposition. While partially playing into the Imperials' hands by virtually eliminating their ability to effectively fight, it also meant that pirate craft were now heading in basically random directions, making the task of keeping track of and destroying every last one of them that much more difficult.
For the pirates, what should have been an easy mark on a nice, fat freighter carrying a homing beacon became a fight for their very lives.
Right on Thrawn's schedule, a New Republic task force dropped out of hyperspace. Two assault frigates, two escort frigates, and a half dozen Corellian gunships flashed into existence in rapid succession and immediately took up defensive positions. About one minute later, a pair of Mon Calamari Star Cruisers showed up and began launching fighters.
Thrawn grinned broadly. The Rebels had reacted exactly as anticipated. With a few words into the command intercom, the second phase of the Battle of Couragahr commenced.
TIE fighter squadrons, held back from the attack on the planet itself, swarmed to intercept the Rebel starfighters. As the first flashes of crossfire appeared, the Interdictor Cruisers powered up their gravity well projectors, ensuring that the Rebels would not be able to make the jump to lightspeed until they were much further from Couragahr than what would otherwise be necessary.
Thrawn's Dreadnaughts and Victory Star Destroyers moved forward to engage the frigates, while the Imperial-class Star Destroyers held in a double battle-line, with a row of four directly above another row of four, bringing their starboard sides to face the enemy in a virtual wall of armor, shields, and heavy firepower.
One of the pirate cruisers, a heavily patched and mended Dreadnaught, erupted in flame under fire from a quartet of Strike cruisers. After a futile, final sputter of turbolaser fire, the Dreadnaught broke into five large chunks and hundreds of small ones. Meanwhile, a pair of Imperial Carrack-class cruisers were beating a quick retreat in the face of an unexpected missile barrage coming from a modified heavy bulk freighter. The third pirate vessel, an especially antiquated looking heavy combatant from at least two generations past, was holding its own against a Victory Star Destroyer and a pair of former Katana fleet Dreadnaughts.
Enigma base itself flashed with laser fire, with gunners firing madly at the pirate fighters that were flitting about, mostly in the process of fleeing TIE pursuit. However, few could resist popping off shots at the massive station here and there, especially when there was an opportunity to knock out a gun emplacement or damage a ship in drydock.
Realizing they were trapped here, the pirate pilots had few choices. Some opted to attempt to knock out the gravity well generators on Enigma, a task which had little chance of success in the current circumstances. Many more decided to make a run for it, hoping to get outside the gravity well before the Imperials could catch them. However, the Imperial defenses had been set up for just such an event, with high speed TIE Interceptors at the outermost patrol rings. A few pilots chose to press on past Enigma toward the planet Trynll, to either land there or hide behind it, then escape the system. Their attempts were just as futile.
A bright yellow flash drew Pellaeon's attention to a Gunship that had just detonated. The Rebels were faring very poorly indeed. Even the arrival of four more Escort Frigates was no surprise to Thrawn, who promptly ordered one Dreadnaught per frigate to break off its current opponent and switch to a newcomer. Rebel fighter squadrons dropped out of lightspeed here and there, joining in the fray. Though obviously less predictable than the capital ships were, Thrawn nevertheless had little trouble dealing with them.
He seemed to have the whole thing calculated down to the second. From time to time, Thrawn would suddenly point to a nondescript point in space, and a Rebel ship would appear. It was almost like he himself was willing them into existence.
"It's very simple, really, Admiral Pellaeon," he explained. "By knowing the position and composition of the Rebel ships in the sector, it is an easy matter to calculate when and where they will appear. Star Cruiser," he broke off abruptly, pointing toward the center of the enemy formation. Sure enough, two seconds later another Mon Cal cruiser appeared.
"So, this is why you didn't have the spyships destroy all the communication satellites?" Pellaeon asked.
"Precisely. The Rebels have too much honor tied up in the Noghri to just let them be destroyed, so they are bound to respond as quickly as possible. As soon as the distress call was received, they moved. Much larger forces are approaching from further away, but they won't make it here in time to stop what I have in mind."
It was incredible, Pellaeon had to admit. Even more so than the original Thrawn's talent with artwork. To predict the enemy so accurately...
"Sir, what of our bombers?"
"They will be returning as we complete the destruction of the Rebel fleet. You will note that the escort carriers have taken up a holding position behind us and closer to the planet?"
"Yes, sir, I did notice that..." Pellaeon trailed off as he noticed for the first time that there were a pair of Victory-class Star Destroyers among the escort carriers. Wait... no, not exactly Victories... "Admiral, are those the light carriers?"
"Yes indeed, Admiral," Thrawn replied.
"But the modifications aren't supposed to be finished for another month at least! They haven't even had their trials yet!"
"They aren't quite fully operational yet, but they can make lightspeed and carry at least half their design compliment of starfighters. They are serving their purpose. A pity the Hoth won't be ready for at least another two years."
"The Hoth?" Pellaeon repeated.
"Our new fleet carrier. Construction began just a week ago. But no time for that now, Admiral Pellaeon. Phase three is about to commence."
Though the bombers at the formation's edges were heavily engaged by the Noghri fighters, the bulk of the force near the center had gone relatively unscathed. Despite the losses, the raid had successfully turned New Nystao into a blazing inferno, sending a column of thick, black smoke high into Couragahr's atmosphere. Unlike Honoghr, however, the lush forests and jungles of this world proved resistant to the spread of the flames, so the destruction stayed basically just where it was.
After about an hour of action, the Noghri fighter attacks tapered off, then stopped entirely. Scimitars and TIE Bombers were scarred and punctured, some trailing smoke and some missing significant chunks of wing or fuselage. The Noghri had fared even worse, with the vast majority of their defense craft now piles of smoldering scrap on the forest floor.
The danger for the most part past, the formation accelerated toward maximum atmospheric speed, bombers stretching further apart as they did so. Concentrated defensive gunfire would be less effective like this, but with no more anticipated opposition there wasn't so much of a need for the precaution.
Thrawn's eight Imperial Star Destroyers turned simultaneously, bringing their bows to face the Rebel cruisers in a perfectly choreographed maneuver. Judging by the brief stutter in Rebel turbolaser fire, they had obviously been impressed and surprised. All eight ships then initiated maximum acceleration, sending a bright blue flash of flame from their sterns.
A Star Destroyer at flank sublight speed was still incredibly slow by starfighter standards, but plenty fast enough to pounce upon three damaged and unprepared Mon Cal cruisers. Maintaining their fire at all times, the Star Destroyers advanced quickly while the Rebels attempted to turn and run. Even without the Interdictors, it was a useless move.
"Hmm... yes, I suspected as much," Thrawn muttered as he gazed out the Inexorable's viewport at the Rebels.
"Suspected what?" Pellaeon almost shouted over the loud rumble coming through the Inexorable's deck.
"From the caution of his movements, especially given his present situation, I had a hunch our old Mon Calamari adversary was in charge here. Now I'm sure of it."
"Precisely. Obviously he's pulled himself out of retirement to protect the Noghri. A useless gesture for the sake of a useless species. But how very much like him."
"If you say so, sir," Pellaeon replied, though he deliberately kept his voice low so as to be drowned out by the considerable background noise. What was the Grand Admiral up to?
"Admiral Thrawn!" came the voice of Captain Ardes, walking down the central catwalk over the crew pit to join his seniors. "We are at flank speed, and will reach the designated point in approximately two minutes."
Thrawn nodded his approval.
"Captain," Pellaeon asked, "what is that vibration? Has the ship been damaged?"
"You could say that, sir," Ardes informed him. "The Inexorable has been like that since the last trip to the drydock after the towing mishap. There's a kink in the engine support structure somewhere, but no one's been able to find it yet. Should be settling down about now."
True to the captain's word, the reverberations began to subside.
"It only does that while accelerating," he explained.
Oh, wonderful, Pellaeon thought. And this is Thrawn's new flagship? Still, a flagship alone does not a Grand Admiral make...
"Admiral," Pellaeon asked, "what happens now?"
"Now, we give the Noghri back their homeworld," was the cryptic response. "We are almost in position... there," Thrawn broke off suddenly, pointing again. "One escort carrier and two... no, three corvettes."
Pellaeon knew what to expect. Captain Ardes, however, hadn't seen this new talent of Thrawn's. As it turned out, it was a poor introduction.
Thrawn's scowl grew rapidly heavier with every second that passed. Finally, nearly a full minute later, the four ships appeared, slightly off from Thrawn's predicted position.
"Leave it to an Arconan to procrastinate," Thrawn grumbled. He brought up his comlink, setting in motion a chain of signals that resulted in the four standard Victory-class Star Destroyers switching over to attack the tardy task force.
"Now Captain, Admiral," Thrawn said, "let's see how well the Special Duty tractor beam system works on targets larger than the Sun Crusher."
It was the last thing anyone had expected. As if the Star Destroyer charge hadn't been unusual enough, now six of them had activated tractor beams to grab the flagship cruiser Liberation. The other two stood by, continuing to pummel the ship with ion cannons. As for the Liberation's pair of sisters, they could do little to impede the free reign of a superior number of more powerful ships.
But try they did. Already heavily damaged, they pumped out turbolaser and ion cannon fire at the Star Destroyers as best they could. At such close range, it was nearly impossible to miss the target, and the shields of two Destroyers were on their way down fast.
However, the cruisers' shields were dropping even faster. The advantages of close range worked for the Empire just as well as for the New Republic. Combined with their heavier broadsides, it was as lopsided as it could be. Within minutes, both cruisers had been neutralized, with large portions burned out from turbolaser fire, and the remaining parts thoroughly ionized.
In fact, little of the New Republic fleet was still in action. Starfighters continued to roam about, tangling with TIEs and strafing Imperial capital ships. A handful of gunships and corvettes remained active. Everything else had been either ionized into uselessness or destroyed outright.
"A tractor beam lock?" the astonished Pellaeon gasped. "We're capturing them?"
Thrawn uttered a soft chuckle. "Certainly not. Observe."
Though individually a Star Destroyer's tractor beams would have little significant effect on a Mon Calamari Cruiser two thirds its size, a group of them could accomplish a certain degree of success in rerouting their opponent. Six of them, equipped with Thrawn's enhanced tractor beam systems, could handle the cruiser like it was only a light freighter.
Working together, with targeting and navigation systems electronically linked, the Star Destroyers wrestled the Rebel flagship into the center of their formation. The power draw required plus the difficulty in dragging the vessel made for slow going, but the Imperials nevertheless began the process of towing their captive in the direction of the planet.
"Captain Ardes," Thrawn commanded, "order your gunners to continue with the ion bombardment. I don't want the Rebels to have enough control to escape or set off scuttling charges. Relay that to the other ships."
"Yes, Admiral Thrawn," Ardes said with an evil grin, then promptly left to carry out the order. Obviously, he knew what Thrawn was up to.
"Admiral, if you're not capturing them, then what are you doing?" Pellaeon asked again.
"Do you not see it yet?" Thrawn replied, his hands spread to encompass the sight outside. His voice implied mild frustration. "It is my ultimate revenge against the Noghri, as well as the Rebels who turned them against me!"
Slowly, a sinking feeling came over Pellaeon. It was like his heavily beating heart had decided to migrate to his feet. "Sir, you're not serious!"
Thrawn didn't reply. He just stood there, watching and smiling.
At long last, the carriers were in sight. The box-like escort carriers and two light carriers, clustered together under the watchful eyes of several Lancer-class Frigates, flashed signal lights in the direction of the returning bombers. Blue Alpha 2, still in its position as acting strike leader, flashed a return signal. Almost at once, the carriers lit up their recovery guidance lights. Clustered as close as they were, the lights meshed together into a glow impossible to miss.
Following visual confirmation came vocal communication. "Intruder to Blue Wing Leader, over."
"Blue Wing Leader here," Blue Alpha 2's pilot replied. The other wings would be receiving similar messages from their respective motherships. "We've taken some losses, and have some heavily damaged ships. Advise you have the crash crews ready."
"Understood," Intruder's flight control officer replied. "Attention all Blue Wing craft: landing information will be relayed to your bombers individually. Maintain an appropriate holding pattern until called for. Also, be aware that Rebel starfighters are in the area, so keep an eye on your scopes and a finger on your triggers. Over."
A soft groan could be heard from Blue Alpha 2's crew.
"Admiral, if we do this, the surviving Noghri are going to hunt you to the ends of the galaxy! Please reconsider!" Pellaeon urged.
"As if they wouldn't do so regardless?" Thrawn retorted.
He had a point, of course. "Sir, killing them off is one thing. But to mock them like this..."
"You're definitely getting soft in your old age, Admiral Pellaeon," Thrawn warned. "Perhaps we should look into a less stressful duty for you, once this battle is finished."
In other words, an office back at Enigma.
"Sir, I... I don't mean to sound insubordinate," Pellaeon stuttered. Could it be true? Am I getting soft? "Of course the Noghri need to be punished. I'm just suggesting..."
"That you are afraid of them," Thrawn concluded. "Is that not correct?"
"Well... yes, sir, there is that," Pellaeon admitted. Better to lose a little face now than to let the truth out at such an inappropriate moment.
"I understand, Admiral. More than anyone, I expect," he replied, tapping his scarred chest in the spot where Rukh's knife had been embedded two years before. "And I do value your advice. At times like this, however, I need you to not only obey my orders, but to trust my judgment."
But I can't, Pellaeon thought. For now, though, he just answered with a weak, "Yes, sir."
"Good. Now, we are almost in position to release the cruiser," he declared, looking out at the helpless Rebel starship. "Captain Ardes," he said loudly, turning toward the crew pit behind him, "hold here. Instruct the Nemesis to do likewise."
On the Grand Admiral's orders, the Star Destroyers Inexorable and Nemesis fell behind the other six destroyers and the Rebel cruiser. With the Inexorable's tractor beams still damaged from the Sun Crusher encounter and the Nemesis having not yet received a system upgrade, the two had been doing nothing more than escorting anyway.
"No second wave this time?"
"That is correct," the Intruder's captain informed Blue Gamma 1's pilot, who was currently standing in the officer's wardroom along with the rest of Blue Wing's squadron leaders. "In fact, as soon as the light carriers finish recovery, we are to withdraw back to base."
A mild snicker came from the assembled pilots. Blue-Green and Blue-Black Wings, signified with two narrow color bars where other bomber wings' craft bore only a single wide one, were among the newest and least experienced of the entire fleet. Their position near the dead center of the attack formation meant that they would be the least likely to face fighter opposition and therefore more likely to complete their mission without panicking. However, they had taken the longest to launch, and were now taking the longest to recover. The fact that their motherships weren't even completed yet only aggravated matters, despite the rapid recovery systems they were supposedly equipped with.
"All right, enough of that," the captain urged them, even though he, too, bore an amused smirk. "Are there any further questions?"
"Yes, sir," Blue Beta 6 asked, his hand raised. "Did we accomplish our mission?"
The other pilots groaned at the naivety of the question. Blue Beta 6, only here because his five superiors had been shot down, blushed with embarrassment and pulled his hand down.
"It's all right, Beta Leader," the captain assured him. "This meeting is only to establish preliminary casualty and damage estimates. We won't have the analysis of the attack, nor the Grand Admiral's verdict, for a while now. But if it's any consolation, the city is still burning nicely. Have a look at it, when you get the chance. If there's nothing else, you're all dismissed for now."
The pilots filed out, heading back to their squadron waiting rooms to check on their remaining crews. Blue Beta 6 lagged behind.
"A question?" the captain asked.
"Sir?" he asked timidly. "If I may ask, why did we burn down the city? I know Blue Wing only struck militarily significant targets, but the others..."
"Don't question the Grand Admiral's orders, Beta Leader. He knows what he's doing."
"I... I'm sorry, sir."
"It's all right," the Intruder's captain replied, a bit warmer this time. He walked up to Blue Beta 6 and patted him on the shoulder as he passed. "I know this is a bit difficult on you, being thrust up to this level of responsibility so suddenly, and especially because your squadron was hit the hardest in the entire Wing. But let me ask you this question: have you ever met a Noghri?"
"No, sir," the young pilot answered cautiously. "I don't believe so."
"Well, I have. Trust me, we did the right thing."
"All right, now get back to your squadron. I've got to talk with the Wing Leader now."
With that, Blue Beta 6's pilot left the room and Blue Alpha 2's pilot, who had been waiting outside the door, entered. He looked after the younger officer as he walked away.
"He asks a hard question, doesn't he?" Alpha 2 asked as he turned to face the captain.
"Sure does," he nodded, "and even though I know the answer and agree with it, it still makes me wonder..."
"Report from the carriers, sir," Ardes said, handing a datapad to Thrawn.
"Thank you, Captain," Thrawn replied, sending Ardes on his way. "Here, Admiral Pellaeon, read it to me."
Pellaeon took the datapad and began reading the report. His gasp caught Thrawn's attention.
"What is it, Admiral? Did the attack fail? It certainly doesn't look that way from here."
"No sir, it's just... sir, we took some serious losses."
"Well, of the advance force from Corsair, only two. But the main strike on the city was heavily engaged by Noghri fighters, almost exclusively atmospheric craft. Losses total approximately fifteen percent shot down, and at least thirty percent damaged to some degree."
"But the mission was accomplished," Thrawn pointed out, looking at the patch of smoke on the planet below. A huge black plume still boiled up from the city of New Nystao, and the fires themselves were partially visible as the planet's rotation brought the city into night time.
"Yes, but we lost over one hundred fifty bombers. That's more than two full wings!"
"Higher than expected, I admit. The Noghri must have improved their aerial combat tactics considerably since leaving my service. Any estimate on how many of them were shot down?"
Pellaeon scanned down the datapage. "The initial claim is about four hundred, but I wouldn't rely on that too much. Exaggerations and multiple claims, you know."
"Obviously," Thrawn agreed. "At any rate, I am pleased with the results I see. Some tactical revisions are in order for future operations, to be sure. But for now, Admiral, transmit a 'Job Well Done' message to the bomber wings for me. No," he suddenly changed his mind, "let it wait until we return to base. We only have five minutes until Couragahr suffers the same fate as Honoghr, and I want you here to see it."
Pellaeon didn't get a chance to respond.
"Admiral Thrawn," Captain Ardes shouted from the crew pit, "we have Rebel ships dropping out of lightspeed. Big ones, and lots of them."
"What?" Thrawn shouted back.
"Starfighters, too. They're already moving to engage the Interdictors."
"Too soon..." Thrawn muttered. "It's too soon. They shouldn't be here yet."
"Captain!" Pellaeon broke in. "I see them. Type and number?"
"Yes sir," Ardes said. "Still identifying, but it look like we still outnumber them two to one."
But with three quarters of the battle line tied up with that cruiser it wouldn't matter, Pellaeon knew. "What are they doing?"
"The capital ships appear to be coming straight for us at flank speed, sir."
"Grand Admiral Thrawn," Pellaeon said to the man at his side, "we need to..."
"Captain Ardes," Thrawn announced, cutting off Pellaeon like he hadn't even heard him, "Order the special task force to release the cruiser and join us. Once we've defeated these Rebels, we'll drop them all on the Noghri!"
The tractor beams were shut off, leaving the Mon Calamari Cruiser floating helplessly, still drifting in the direction of Couragahr. It's captors came about and went to maximum acceleration, moving as quickly as they could to resume their positions in the battle line.
Once even with the Inexorable and Nemesis, all eight ships drove at flank speed to engage the five Star Cruisers headed their way.
Trying as hard as he could to ignore the Inexorable's rumbling, Pellaeon focussed on the scene outside. An Interdictor had just exploded under intense starfighter attack. One of the Victory-class ships was mixing it up with a pair of Assault Frigates. The crisscrossed laser bursts of dogfights and capital ship exchanges decorated space with color.
The Rebels fought fiercely, but numbers were on the Imperial side. Victory was almost certain, Pellaeon knew. However, losses were sure to be high this time. And with the bombers so badly bloodied, they wouldn't be of any help. In fact, the carriers...
"Sir, what about the carriers?" Pellaeon asked of Thrawn.
"They should be withdrawing," Thrawn replied. "Captain?"
"The last of them just made the jump to lightspeed about fifteen seconds ago," Ardes replied, frantic in his attempt to stay on top of matters.
Thrawn and Pellaeon's attention was drawn forward again by the intense flashes of turbolaser fire indicating that the Inexorable had just come into gun range of the Rebel fleet.
For the first time during this battle, Thrawn's expression was actually grim. A drop of sweat fell from Pellaeon's temple as he wondered just what he was going to do now that things had gone against his plans. If Thrawn's instability flared up now...
"Admirals!" Ardes shouted, "Urgent transmission from Enigma!"
"What?" they said simultaneously, rushing to the command communications position at the back of the Inexorable's bridge. Captain Ardes came up from the crew pit to join them.
"Grand Admiral Thrawn," the holographic image of Enigma base's commander reported. We have come under attack by pirates, but have successfully defeated them."
"How did they find you?" Thrawn asked, his eyes now red slits.
"A smuggler by the name of Vanse Haygn showed up, transmitting proper clearance codes. The surviving pirates claim that they were following a homing beacon on his ship. He claims he had no idea he was being tracked. The pirates seem to confirm his story, saying they were given the tracking information from another smuggler named Raylic. We're holding all of them for full interrogation. We'll get to the bottom of this."
"Disturbing indeed," Thrawn practically hissed while Pellaeon remained nervously quiet. "Damage to the base?"
"Starfighter collisions and numerous light laser and projectile impacts to the base itself. We lost a couple of patrol craft and several TIEs."
"Did any of the pirates escape?"
"No, sir!" the base commander reported proudly. "We took down two of their ships and beat up the third, then they surrendered. Furthermore, no starfighters broke through the interdiction boundaries."
"I see," Thrawn said, his eyes closed in thought. "Carry on, commander."
With that, the base commander's hologram saluted and faded away. Thrawn turned and headed back toward the front of the bridge with Pellaeon and Ardes behind him. When they were halfway across the center catwalk, the Inexorable's communications officer strode up from behind them and handed a datapad to Pellaeon.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon, sir, I have a private message for you from a Lieutenant Thams."
"For me?" Pellaeon asked. What are they doing? he asked himself. They're only supposed to contact me through my private station...
...back on the Chimaera. And if they were breaking that rule, it must be urgent indeed. Pellaeon mentally swore. "Here, I'll take it."
The communications Lieutenant saluted and returned to his station. Pellaeon looked to Thrawn, who merely nodded, and then headed toward the back of the bridge again to read his message. Unfortunately, he didn't catch the flash of recognition that crossed Thrawn's face a few seconds later.
What he saw disturbed and distressed him. What came next, he would never forget.
"What is it, Admiral Pellaeon?"
"S-sir!" Pellaeon yelped, turning to face Thrawn. The datapad was held tightly to his chest.
"What is it?" Thrawn repeated.
"Private message, sir," he explained.
"A private message from an officer I ordered terminated?" Thrawn said. "Let me see it!"
"But sir, it's..."
"Let me see it!" Thrawn demanded once again.
Pellaeon swallowed hard. This was it. If Thrawn saw it now, all was lost. All that he had worked for. Possibly even the true and final end of the Empire itself. To refuse the Grand Admiral would cost him his career, if not his life. But between the Empire, and his own life...
"No, sir," he replied weakly.
"What did you say?"
"No, sir!" he replied, much stronger this time.
Strangely, Thrawn didn't get angry. At least not right away. He stood for a moment, staring at Pellaeon in confusion.
"Why not, Rear Admiral Pellaeon?"
"It is a private message, sir. I will say no more than that."
"Yes, you will, Rear Admiral. Why is Lieutenant Thams still alive?"
Pellaeon kept his mouth tightly shut.
"I..." Thrawn started, then trailed off, looking for words. "I would never have suspected that you were plotting against me, Admiral Pellaeon. You never gave me any reason to doubt your loyalty, until now. In fact," he continued, his voice taking on an almost remorseful tone, "I even considered you my friend. But now... Guards," he ordered. The two stormtroopers who usually just stood like statues beside the entrance to the bridge stepped forward immediately. "Restrain Rear Admiral Pellaeon, and give me the datapad he holds."
"No, sir," Pellaeon pleaded as one stormtrooper yanked the datapad away from him and the other pulled his hands behind his back. Binders were snapped in place over his wrists. "Please don't. Trust me, sir, it's for the best if you don't..."
"I will be the judge of that," Thrawn said, taking the datapad.
Pellaeon hung his head as Thrawn read it. He had no desire to see this.
Silence remained for a few seconds, or as close as it could get to silence with the battle raging outside. At last, Thrawn lowered the datapad away from his face.
"What does this mean?" he asked, his voice hollow.
Pellaeon inhaled deeply and held it for a moment before lifting his head up. "Sir, I'll explain everything, but please let it wait until after the battle."
"No," Thrawn said sternly. "I want an explanation now."
"As you wish, sir," Pellaeon conceded. "But could we..."
"Yes, of course," Thrawn replied, catching Pellaeon's drift. "Captain Ardes, carry on without us for a while. Continue with the current battle plan. Don't interrupt us unless something goes seriously wrong. Guards, follow me."
Thrawn led the guards to an officers meeting room just past the turbolift behind the bridge. Going inside, he motioned for the guards to place Pellaeon in a chair, then ordered them to stand guard outside. Once the door closed, he began.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon," he asked, reading the datapad for reference, "according to this report, a pirate Skipray crashed into a section of Enigma base and destroyed some equipment and specimens that I have never heard of. Furthermore, it was filed by an officer who should be dead. You have a lot of explaining to do, but let's start with this: what are these 'Samples F-2209 through 2212' and 'Subjects XG-00 through 05' that have been destroyed? Obviously they must be important."
"Sir," Pellaeon started, trembling with both shame and fear, "Samples F-2209 though 2212 are portions of the original Grand Admiral Thrawn. Subjects XG-00 through 05 are the first six clones of him."
"The original and first six clones?" he repeated, a horrified look coming over his face. "Then who am I?"
"You, sir, are the seventh clone of Grand Admiral Thrawn."
The Grand Admiral sat quietly for a while, lost in thought. Finally, he spoke up again. "So I am six cloning generations separate from the real Thrawn, is that what you're saying?"
"No, sir," Pellaeon replied. "No, you are a first generation clone, but the seventh attempt."
"What happened to the other six?"
"Failed experiments, all of them."
"I don't know the deep technical aspects of it," Pellaeon explained, "but it had something to do with trying to restore your mind."
"What do you mean?"
"Cloning your body was a simple matter," Pellaeon said. "We had three Spaarti cylinders from Mount Tantiss installed at Enigma already. The original Thrawn had that done before he died. In my impatience, I had the first one grown at the maximum accelerated rate. It worked, but of course the clone had no memory whatsoever. We tried to educate it and bring it up to your level, but it was hopeless. He cracked under the pressure."
"So he was killed and put into storage, is that it?"
"Yes, sir, that's what happened," Pellaeon said remorsefully. "The next three were grown simultaneously, with a longer incubation. Since we still had the original brain of Thrawn, we tried to duplicate it through neurosurgery rather than just standard education and training. They failed even worse than the first. We tried something entirely different with the next ones, giving them six months to develop more fully before taking them out and trying to restore their minds. Clone five became a babbling idiot, and clone six ended up a brain dead vegetable."
"Then comes me."
"Yes, sir. The neurosurgeons informed me that the procedures they had been using up until that point almost always worked on human cloning. However, they had no frame of reference whatsoever concerning your species. In fact, I didn't find any reference whatsoever to them or your homeworld in the secret files on the Unknown Region. Anyway, the type of neural mapping they were using wasn't adequate to copy the memories, and to make it worse the nerves had started to decay more rapidly. So for the seventh clone, we actually dissected Thrawn's brain and replaced portions of the clone brain with original material wherever we could. And it seemed to have worked."
"You mean to tell me that I have the brain of the original Thrawn, but the body of a clone?" Thraawn asked, his tone implying a lot of confusion.
"Part of it, yes," Pellaeon answered. "After Rukh attacked him, I had his body preserved as quickly as possible. I hoped he could be revived, but if not I intended to clone him. Parts of the brain were damaged beyond recovery from blood loss before it could be protected. That is why your memory is so full of holes."
"You spent a year and a half helping me recover from Rukh's attack. That much is true. I have the scar to prove it!"
"It's fake. All the clones were given a scar like that, to make it easier to pass them off as the real Thrawn."
"I... I don't believe it," Thraawn said. "I can't believe it. Why would you do this?"
Pellaeon sighed. "I knew that the fleet needed a strong leader to keep it together. I am not a strong leader. You know that. I decided that the only way to prevent desertion was to let the story out that Thrawn was seriously injured, but still alive. I appealed to the other high ranking officers to wait until you returned to duty. As you can see, it worked."
"How many know the truth about me?"
"Only about two dozen. Myself, a team of neuroscientists, and a few carefully selected junior officers."
"Of which Lieutenant Thams is now one."
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon confirmed, hanging his head again.
"So you take it upon yourself to keep your creation in check by obeying his commands when it suits you, but ignoring them when you disagree."
"That was not my intention, but..." Pellaeon paused as he considered what he should say. "Yes, I suppose that's how it turned out. I tried to help you regain the missing memories, but also though I could implant a bit more caution that the original Thrawn had."
"You mean the Noghri, don't you?"
"Yes," Pellaeon said, surprised he had made that connection so quickly. The genius of Thrawn definitely lived on. "Only now, I'm afraid I did too good a job teaching you to distrust them."
"You understand that this is all very hard for me to believe; that you are the one who ordered me created, and then programmed me to act as your puppet leader."
"I never meant for you to be a puppet. I wanted to bring back the real Thrawn. I never wanted to lead, I just wanted to continue serving under the best leader the Empire has ever had."
"Obviously, I'm not him. Am I? Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Not... quite," Pellaeon said uneasily.
"So, then, who am I?"
"I told you."
"Who am I?" Thrawn shouted angrily enough to make Pellaeon cringe.
"I've already told you everything!" he insisted.
"You've told me I'm a clone, but you also told me I have most of the mind of the original Thrawn. Taken together... who am I?"
"I... I don't know," Pellaeon admitted, now that he phrased it like that. "Your actions and attitudes are not those of the original, but your genius and skill is far more than just a clone. You figured out the Skywalker situation, which I never would have. You captured Daala and plundered the Maw. You can just continue to be Grand Admiral Thrawn, you know."
"If I heed your advice, is that it?"
"I... well..." Pellaeon stuttered.
"Rear Admiral Pellaeon, either I am Grand Admiral Thrawn, or I am not. Which is it?"
Pellaeon stared at him for a moment, trying to say something. Words, however, refused to form.
"In that case, answer this: How do I know you haven't been lying to me the whole time we've been in this room?"
With a very hard swallow, Pellaeon opened his dry mouth. "You just have to trust me," he said, slowly and sadly.
Thraawn stared deeply into Pellaeon's eyes, studying his emotions. "Trust is in short supply these days, you know."
"Yes, sir. I know."
"All this, and you continue to call me 'sir.'" The clone Grand Admiral sighed heavily, resting his chin on his hands. After a few tense moments, he sighed again and moved his hand to the intercom button. "Guards, join us."
This was it, Pellaeon knew. The clone would displace him, brand him a traitor, and probably execute him. And then, in his increasingly unstable way, proceed to doom the Empire. It was the only logical course of action. The other commanders would certainly not follow a clone. Only in secrecy could he stay in power.
The stormtroopers came in and quickly moved to Pellaeon's sides. Thraawn motioned him to rise, which he did. Thraawn stood as well, then moved around the table.
To Pellaeon's great surprise, Thraawn said, "Release Rear Admiral Pellaeon at once."
The stormtroopers apparently didn't expect that either, as it took them a bit longer than it should to get the binders off.
"Come along, Admiral," Thraawn said, beckoning with a wave of his finger for Pellaeon to follow him.
The two walked back out onto the bridge, where Captain Ardes was doing a decent job keeping his ship in the battle. Noticing the flag officers back on deck, he climbed out of the crew pit to meet them.
"Captain Ardes," Thraawn said as soon as he had arrived, "there has been a misunderstanding. I wish to be left alone to meditate."
"Admiral Thrawn!" Ardes gasped. "Sir, we're in the middle of a battle! We held well for a while, but they've just started gaining on us. We need you here!"
"Captain Ardes, I am giving Rear Admiral Pellaeon full command of this operation. You will obey his commands as you would my own. Is that understood?"
"Sir?" the befuddled captain asked. "Y-yes, sir, if you say so."
"Good. Inform the rest of the fleet. Rear Admiral Pellaeon?"
"Yes?" he asked, thoroughly stunned by this unexpected turn of events.
"I do not wish to be disturbed. Is that understood?"
Pellaeon mulled over it for a moment before responding. The Grand Admiral didn't seem unstable at the moment, but what might be simmering just below the surface? What would he do if left alone? What could he, Pellaeon, actually do about it now, anyway?
"Understood," he finally replied.
Thraawn turned away and headed back to the meeting room. Pellaeon noticed that his stride was somehow different, with a hint of... weakness?
"Sir," Ardes said to Pellaeon, "I don't know what's going on here, but I will abide by Grand Admiral Thrawn's instructions. What are your orders?"
"Status report," Pellaeon said absently, his mind still distracted. Just then a sudden flash of turbolaser fire illuminated the Inexorable's bridge, immediately snapping him out of it. "Quickly, Captain!" he barked out.
As Captain Ardes had said, the battle was now leaning in the New Republic's favor. Four Interdictor Cruisers were now burned out hulks, with the rest falling back behind the Star Destroyers while pursued by escort frigates and hounded by starfighters. The Imperial Dreadnaughts and Victory Star Destroyers had successfully beaten the New Republic's Assault Frigates into submission, but were having a difficult time engaging the cruisers, which had dispatched a minefield to discourage attacks from behind.
The eight Imperial Star Destroyers held their formation, pouring out fire in a constant stream. However, sections of several ships were now scorched and dark from loss of power, and flames could be seen amongst the holes in the Death's Head's bow. New Republic and Imperial fighters weaved amongst the capital ships, fighting each other and attacking targets of opportunity on the warships.
The New Republic battle line wasn't really faring all that much better. One Mon Calamari Cruiser was pointed in an awkward direction relative to the other four, having lost steering control under the Imperial barrage. Another was firing almost wildly, its coordination lost when a direct hit blew its bridge clear off.
"How did this happen?" Pellaeon demanded.
"The other captains claim that the energy output from towing that Rebel Cruiser left their shields and weaponry underpowered," Ardes explained, clearly not pleased about it himself. "Apparently a side effect of the Special Duty system. We didn't notice any excessive power drains when we used it on the Sun Crusher, but we didn't use it nearly as much as they did towing that Cruiser."
"All six of them?" Pellaeon gasped.
"I'm afraid so, sir. That leaves only us and the Nemesis operating at full capacity. The bigger problem is that the Rebels seem to have noticed."
Another glance out the viewport confirmed it. The Rebel Cruisers were essentially ignoring Inexorable and Nemesis, concentrating on the weakened ships.
"We can't win like this," Pellaeon whispered. "Can we?"
"Sir?" Ardes asked, not sure if he heard what he thought he heard.
"Ask them," Pellaeon said gravely, "if they have enough power for hyperdrive."