A small convoy of four Chiss freighters bearing supplies from the outer systems of Chiss space had passed through the planetary shield directly before the worldship's incursion in the system. While the defending ships stationed around Homeworld hurried to engage the threat, ground control directed the freighters to an unloading berth planetside.
Considering the excitement and surprise of having a battle occur in their sacrosanct Home system, it was no wonder ground control failed to notice the freighters weren't complying with their orders.
While the ground officials first sent alerts, then warnings, the convoy divided and the four individual ships each made for a different hemisphere. Atmosphere fighters were sent after them.
"Closing in," a pilot reported, he checked the I.D. code the freighter had given before passing through the planetary shield. "Freighter Re'von'dak,&rgt; you are ordered to divert course to your assigned landing berth." The cargo vessel gave no response. "Re'von'dak, comply with these orders or you will be shot down," the pilot warned. "Re'von'dak, respond." Still no answer. "Blade Six," he communicated to one of his squadron mates, "fire a warning shot."
Before the fighter could carry out the order, however, the freighter self-destructed.
"Kinless!" The pilot cursed as he angled his fighter away from the explosion. "What in all the hells was that about?" He muttered, then switched comm frequencies. "Ground control, the freighter has self-destructed. Repeat, the freighter-"
"Acknowledged, Blade Lead," came the stunned voice from the comm, "the other three have just done likewise. Return to base."
"Yes, sir." The pilot turned his fighter back in the direction of the shipyard. Glancing out the cockpit, he noticed something odd, though: a dark, purple mist, was quickly spreading from the freighter's explosion.
The destroyed vessel, like its three comrades, had been pulled out of hyperspace by the Yuuzhan Vong before reaching the Home system. In the place of its cargo of minerals and other goods was a substance that, when ignited by the fire of the explosion and exposed to the planet's atmosphere, would have a dramatic effect on Homeworld indeed.
Raine glanced out the viewport and saw the ugly, blue- black color spreading like a bruise over Homeworld's beautiful sky and ordered the remainder of Vraet's phalanx to remain in orbit when the other warships flew out to meet the attacker. The three capital ships, five gunboats and assorted fighters would make little difference in the battle, and the disturbance in the atmosphere tugged at her suspicions. The planet seemed vulnerable with all the other ships engaged, and the thought of Homeworld violated was enough to make her shudder.
It was probably nothing serious: whatever was happening would be explained and repaired after the attackers were repulsed. The notion of Homeworld's vulnerability was an illusion: the planetary shield was at full strength and-
"Commander, unidentified bodies approaching Homeworld." The comm officer broke into her thoughts.
"Ships?" She asked.
"Doubtful, no metal content or electrical signature. I'd say they were asteroids, but they're moving too fast."
"Eight. Big ones."
By now, Raine could see them herself. Eight objects, each roughly the size of one of the Empire's Star Destroyers, moving over the sky. As the officer said, they resembled asteroids. Porous asteroids: they were dotted with holes each the size of a fighter, so that they resembled vastly overgrown sponges.
"Move in, target and attack."
The desk hai had indeed begun as asteroids, drifting in the Sevac system's belt before the Yuuzhan Vong began shaping them. Their creatures hollowed out the rocks and filled them with internal organs, nervous systems, brains and dovin basals for propulsion and to act in concert with their weapons to fulfil the purpose they were shaped for.
They were almost in position when one detected the machines advancing on them. The desk hai reported this to the yammosk, an instant later it received instructions.
The desk hai focused attention on the capital ship and the gunship behind it and launched a projectile from one of its multitude of pores. Driven by a dovin basal designed to poses incredible strength and tasked to expend all that energy in a single effort, a long spike of coral shot toward the Chiss ship.
Raine's eyes widened as a capital ship and the gunboat behind it exploded.
"Pull back!" She spun to a sensor station. The officer was bent over a console, replaying sensor readings.
"It shot a projectile at us, commander, at incredible velocity."
Raine looked out the viewport. "A projectile? Where is it?"
"Probably halfway across the system by now."
"But how could it get through the shields?"
"The same way a hurricane can drive a stalk of hay through a tree trunk. With enough speed behind it, an object can tear through anything."
Raine felt her skin turn clammy. Her whole body went numb. "If a missile got through our energy barriers," she murmured, "then the planetary shield-" she turned to stare out the viewport as the desk hai loosed their first volley.
Eight missiles streaked through the shield and the discolored sky like a diver breaking the surface of a lake. Raine and her crew felt the impact like a blow to their own flesh as, for the first time in the history of the Chiss, alien weapons touched Homeworld.
The missiles struck the planet's crust and dug deep. Information obtained from Wrass and Yuuzhan Vong spies had allowed the yammosk to map the fault lines of the planet, where the projectiles were directed.
At the proper time the material in the missiles activated, and the ground rose and sank beneath Chiss buildings. Some missiles struck in the oceans, sending kilometer-high waves to annihilate the coastal cities.
And more missiles were on their way.
The aliens sent a third volley, then a fourth, while the crew watched in horrified silence. Raine had to struggle to speak, and when she did her voice was a loud croak, but in got attention.
"Order fighters to attack." An officer looked at her, scarlet eyes blinking in confusion.
"The fighters are too small to target, they might be able to get close."
"What good can fighters do-?"
"They can distract the kinless things!" Emotion colored her voice, but for once she didn't care. "Interfere with them, ram them if they have too! This is Homeworld!"
Galvanized by having orders to follow, the officer relayed her instructions.
"Enlarge the planet and worldship and cut away all intervening space," Sang Anor said to the yammosk, "I want to see every detail."
The two images flickered and reappeared side-by-side, both more than tripled in size. Sang Anor clasped his hands at the small of his back and slowly circled them, eyes shifting from one scene to the other. Blue darts, yellow flares, brief blossoms of explosions, the pristine sky of the Chiss planet was stained blue- black, as though ink was injected into a crystal globe of water. The Executor thought he could see the surface shuddering from the initial quakes.
His mouth twitched up in a smile. What could make this moment more complete?
Sang Anor's face fell as the happy sensation in his chest turned into a cold lump that weighed down on his stomach. He knew the answer to that question.
If Lyrra Anor were here. That would do it. We would dance together as the Chiss planet was massacred. The yammosk chamber suddenly seemed very large, very empty despite the flashing, bright images and the presence of the war coordinator.
He shook himself, willed the grief away. Walking between the represented battles, ships and fighters passing through his body, he caught sight of some new arrivals. Like a small school of silver-white fish looking to gobble up the strips of flesh from a sea predator's mouth, thirty Imperial Star Destroyers appeared near the worldship.
"Ah, Thrawn." A small smile devoid of humor twisted Sang Anor's lips. "Right on schedule." He glanced up at the yammosk. "Pull all forces back and head for the nearest hyperspace jump points." He paced over to stand directly in front of the Star Destroyers and extended one hand. His claws brushed lightly against the underside of the image, as though the Star Destroyer was a fish he would gut in one swipe. "We've set the scene, time to take a bow and let Thrawn enjoy the renovations we've done on his old home."
He glanced back at the planet, and was both surprised and mildly annoyed to see there were only seven desk hai now. While his attention had been elsewhere one of the living spacefarers had broken into several pieces by fire from the Chiss vessels. He sent a questioning thought to the yammosk and the coordinator dropped the information into his mind: the Chiss had sent fighter crafts to harass the desk hai, unable to target the small, fast ships it had been forced to use its dovin basals defensively. When the gravity- manipulating organisms tired and the desk hai was left helpless, the capital ships and gunboats had moved in to finish it off.
If only there'd been time to send an escort of coralskippers to join them. Sang Anor shook his head. Well, the distraction his worldship provided had at least allowed the desk hai to complete their mission with a minimum of interference, had saved seven out of eight. Obeying the yammosk, the surviving desk hai were moving away and were almost to the hyperspace departure point. I can always have more shaped later, he reflected as the coralskippers returned to their perches.
When hyperspace resolved into star-specked night of realspace and Parck saw the Long Reach of Death for the first time he thought he was looking at moon or a rogue planetoid around which a battle was being fought. Only when he saw the gouts of plasma and numerous, living, guided missiles launch from the craters that pitted the surface and destroy shining Chiss battleships did he understand that this was the worldship he had heard about.
The term worldship echoed in his brain with new meaning as he beheld the raw, terrifying size of their enemy. The Long Reach rivaled the Death Star in scale, but there was no unshielded exhaust port in this mammoth, and they had no Rebel Jedi to destroy it single-handed.
Parck had looked forward to open warfare, an end to the enemy's attacks from the shadows: he knew there were only a few Yuuzhan Vong in the galaxy so he had assumed the Empire would have the power to crush them once they had come out in the open, but even with these thirty Star Destroyers he felt like a sandmite trying to fight a raging bantha, he wouldn't know where to start attacking this thing. The Long Reach could probably swallow the entire Unity Fleet!
"Families help us," Beyin murmured beside him, the distinguished Chiss was visibly trembling, "that thing is fighting an entire fleet." He turned his red eyes to the Chiss Homeworld in the distance to see if the planet was safe, and started.
"No..." Thrawn whispered, the single word trailed off into a silence of horror and despair. Parck followed their eyes to the planet and understood. He had never seen the Chiss Homeworld personally, had only viewed holograms and other such images, and in those the planet had been a lovely blue-green, not the blue-black of a fresh bruise.
Abruptly, Parck felt a chill creep across him. He looked around and saw that every Chiss on the bridge had fallen silent. Stations went unattended as over a dozen pairs of red eyes were fixed on the distant world. Blue faces were frozen in some stark emotion they all seemed to share. The emotion seemed to have transferred to the human crewers as well: a deathlike silent hung over the entire bridge.
"Stations!" Thrawn roared. Parck spun around, he had never heard the Grand Admiral raise his voice in anger before. Cords stood out on his neck, clearly visible under his blue skin, and his eyes were so bright the captain had to look away. "Launch fighters! All ships, converge and engage enemy!" Without realizing it he took three steps forward, as though he would walk through the viewport, across the vacuum and assault the worldship with his bare fists, then managed to jerk himself to a halt.
The crewers turned back to their consoles, but despite the illusion of business-as-usual Parck felt his skin turn clammy. The pain and shock that had rippled through the ship was still there, but had hardened and turned to hate fiercer than a sun's forge. He could sense all that rage and hate focusing on the worldship. Swarms of TIE fighters streaked from the Imperial ships.
"Admiral," a Chiss crew said sharply, "the enemy is falling back, vectoring toward the hyperspace jump point!"
Thrawn raised two tightly-clenched fists as the planet-sized spheroid elongated an impossible distance before vanishing into hyperspace.
After the Long Reach of Death departed, the Imperial fleet was forced to withdraw before the remaining Chiss ships turned on them. The Star Destroyers remained at the Cavexil base at the edge of Chiss space while Thrawn sent constant messages to his former House and Syndic Taesk's. Seven hours later Taesk responded. The older Chiss, obviously distraught, proposed a face- to-face meeting the following day, to which Thrawn agreed.
Thrawn, Parck and Beyin waited in the Annihilator's hanger bay while the two shuttles, one from each of the Chiss capital ships that had arrived in-system moments before, pulled in and settled down.
Parck alternated between watching the shuttled and Thrawn and Beyin. Word of what the Yuuzhan Vong had done was spreading throughout the fleet. No one in the Empire knew how extensive the damage to the Chiss Homeworld was yet, but the mere fact that aliens had struck at the origin of the Chiss had sent the entire alien segment of the Empire into mourning. Parck was worried: he wasn't sure what kind of effect this disaster was having on the Grand Admiral.
The boarding hatches of the shuttles lifted and the ramps lowered to the floor. A party of Chiss departed each shuttle, one wearing the blue-and-gold uniforms of Taesk's Household phalanx, the other the burgundy of Vraet's. Syndic Taesk himself was present, along with his phalanx commander and two other officers. The old Chiss was tall and straight-backed, but Parck sensed something brittle and damaged about him. His craggy, white- haired face was devoid of expression, his glowing eyes muted.
Parck turned his attention to the other party and watched them with some interest: as he understood it this had originally been Thrawn's House. They were almost down the ramp. Parck looked and felt his eyes widen. The center Chiss, wearing a uniform with the insignia of a phalanx commander, was female.
The Captain fought the urge to rub his eyes, just to be certain they weren't lying to him. After all, the Empire was an admittedly patriarchal society, but the Chiss made them look positively liberal by comparison!
Apparently, no one had told this particular female that. Or if they had, she'd knocked the speaker down and walked over him.
Parck was curious. Most of the Chiss females he'd seen had worn veils or other facial coverings in public, and all had kept their red eyes modestly downcast. This commander didn't look like someone who would back down from anyone or anything, and while female Chiss tended to move in an elegant, gliding fashion, she moved with an almost feline grace that seemed natural for her, this was enhanced by her mane of blue-black hair. This was a dangerous person. Parck was intimidated.
He had another reason for staring as well: the Chiss commander was extraordinarily beautiful. For an alien, that is.
Her party stepped down to the deck and stood at attention. Like all the other Chiss he'd seen in the past day, her face seemed cast in stone. As expressive as a sculpture of ice. This didn't make the aliens seem aloof or unfeeling, though. Rather Parck sensed they were all caught up in grief so strong it threatened to overwhelm and shatter them if they were to lose control, even for an instant.
Abruptly, Parck realized he'd been staring at the female Chiss for a long time and jerked his eyes away. He tried his best to control the flush he felt heating his face. There's no need to worry, he thought, they just think of humans as animals with clothes anyway. There's no reason for them to take notice of me or my reactions.
He watched as the Syndic stepped forward and extended his hand. Thrawn clasped his forearm and they exchanged greetings in the strange, musical language of the Chiss.
"Mith'raw'nuruodo," Taesk said in their own language, "we greet each other in person again. We always knew it would require the end of all we knew before that could happen. How right we were." The joke was a bitter one. Taesk had never seemed so old before, so frail. Something had been broken inside the great Syndic, never to be restored.
"Have you lost loved ones?" Thrawn asked sympathetically.
"Three children, five grandchildren," Taesk nodded. "I am the last of my line."
"I am sorry." That was all he could say, and it would never be enough. "I have heard," Thrawn swallowed a hitch in his throat before continuing, "about my son. Has Kethria survived?"
"She has." Taesk withdrew his hand. "But she will not speak with you. She's gone into seclusion with her relatives in the Gel'ra colony, but she gave me a message for you first." His mouth twitched. "She said that the only thing you two still shared was now dead. She wants nothing to do with you. All that was yours, your territories, property and phalanx," the female commander didn't move, but the glow of her eyes flared, "she returns to you."
"But," Thrawn blinked in surprise, "with Vraet's...death, all he had in Chiss space is hers."
"And she has bestowed it on you."
"But by the ruling of the High Families I no longer exist!" Thrawn snapped.
"Nevertheless, you are restored." His voice was dust-dry. "I greet you, Syndic Mith'raw'nuruodo."
"I have no place in Chiss territory," Thrawn shook his head, "not any longer. My phalanx I'll accept, I will have need of them," he nodded respectfully to the commander, and if anything that seemed to make her more affronted, "but as for the rest: give what lands I now control on our colony worlds as homes for the refugees from Homeworld, and give all the monies I poses to the same. I trust you to handle it."
"Of course." Taesk nodded absently, then turned to Beyin. "It's been a long time, General."
"I only wish circumstances could have been better, Lord." He answered.
Thrawn looked around. "I apologize for keeping you waiting out here. Come, I have a conference room prepared." He looked from Taesk to Vraet's-to his-phalanx commander. "Your officers and guards may remain."
"So be it," Taesk said, "but my phalanx commander will accompany me." He glanced at the young Chiss beside him, who nodded sharply.
"I ask you to speak Basic," Thrawn said as the door slid shut, leaving himself, Parck, Beyin and the three Expansionary Defense Fleet Chiss in the conference room, "for the benefit of Captain Parck."
"Very well." If Taesk was insulted, he didn't show it. Truthfully he didn't seem to be anything besides weary. "This is Raine, your phalanx commander." He gestured to the female Chiss, who said nothing. Parck had never seen a Chiss who openly despised Thrawn before, but he suspected he had just met one.
"I'm honored. Now tell us: how extensive was the damage to Homeworld?"
"Total." Raine spoke. "The aggressors launched missiles that produce massive seismic shifts into Homeworld's crust. Earthquakes and tidal waves have destroyed every structure on the surface. Loss of life is horrifying." The commander spoke Basic in the precise manner of the Chiss. "In addition, they released a toxin into the atmosphere before launching their attack. Our scientists have determined that the toxin is converting Homeworld's oxygen into other elements. Within days Homeworld will be devoid of oxygen and the surface temperature will have increased by five hundred percent. No living thing will survive, and nothing will ever be able to live there again."
"We have heard that the council of Syndics have survived." Beyin said. "What are they planning?"
"Yes, the council managed to get off Homeworld in time." Taesk nodded. "Most of their resources are tied up with evacuating refugees to other Chiss worlds, but they are planning a large-scale war as well." He looked at Thrawn and Beyin. "Against the Ssi-ruuk."
"But that makes no sense!" Beyin exploded. "It was the Yuuzhan Vong who attacked us, the Ssi-ruuk had nothing to do with this. Why go to war with them?"
"There are times I envy you, Beyin." Thrawn smiled bitterly. "You're a military man, not a politician, the galaxy is a much simpler place for you." The words, delivered from an old friend, had no sting as they weren't meant as an insult. "It makes perfect sense, am I right Taesk?"
"Yes," the old Syndic nodded, "apparently someone, I suspect these Yuuzhan Vong, have been spreading a rumor that the Ssi-ruuk were, in fact, behind the assault, but even if these extra galactic had no part the falsehood I can easily imagine the Syndic's leaping to that conclusion. Our people are proud. We would only accept that a great power could do this to us, and the Ssi-ruuk are the only such power nearby. All attention will naturally focus on them."
"But can't you just tell them the truth about the Yuuzhan Vong?" Parck found himself speaking without even being aware of making the decision to open his mouth. Immediately he was the focal point of five pairs of glowing, red eyes. He swallowed and forced himself to go on. "I mean, if they knew the Yuuzhan Vong were responsible wouldn't they change their plans?"
"It wouldn't work," Thrawn shook his head, "after something like this the Chiss will need a war of retribution, our blood cries out for one."
"And the Syndics have already publicly declared war on the Ssi-ruuk," Raine said, her voice carried the cold of vacuum, "they can't retract now, it would be political suicide. The war will come and no one can stop it, the strongest of the Chiss will be sent to die in a useless fight.." Her eyes narrowed. "Politicians, if my phalanx ever had any respect for them, they never will again."
"Sang Anor is more cunning than I gave him credit for." Thrawn admitted. "He must have foreseen using the Ssi-ruuk as scapegoats, they were probably high on his list of targets all along: their practice of entechment must be an affront to him."
He turned and began pacing. "The Chiss and the Ssi-ruuk, the two great powers of the Unknown Regions, at war. Whoever wins will be weakened and the Yuuzhan Vong will finish them easily, clearing the way for them to rule the Unknown Regions." He passed Taesk and his phalanx commander. "We are the only ones left standing in his way."
Taesk's commander, a tall Chiss with a grim expression, turned toward Thrawn and, in a movement so fluid Parck failed to react, pulled a coufee from his sleeve. He grinned suddenly, showing sharp teeth, and stabbed at the Grand Admiral's unguarded back.
And while Parck and the others did nothing, Raine put her hands on the edge of the conference table and leapt, pivoting her body to kick the knife-hand off course as she propelled herself over the table.
Thrawn jumped away, spinning and reaching for his blaster, but Raine and the false Chiss were already locked in combat.
The Yuuzhan Vong in the blue masquer hissed and narrowed his red-dyed eyes. He stabbed, underhand, with the coufee but Raine blocked and, moving faster than Parck's eye could follow, spun and slammed an elbow against the alien's temple. The Vong staggered back but didn't drop his blade and Raine followed through with a series of kicks and punches.
Taesk watched all this calmly, then turned to Thrawn and began to draw his charric. He was stopped by a hand that seized his wrist in a grip strong as durasteel. He turned to meet the cold face and burning eyes of General Beyin. The General had drawn his blaster and aimed in at Taesk's head, and now he removed the Syndic's hand from his weapon and disarmed him. Taesk bowed his head and said nothing.
Three seconds later the Vong assassin was dead at Raine's feet. Breathing hard, she turned red eyes to Taesk.
"Traitor." She snarled in the Chiss language.
"Taesk." The fire Thrawn's eyes dwarfed that of the other three Chiss combined. "My colleague," he walked toward the older Chiss, "my mentor, my friend!" He seized Taesk's collar, forced him back and slammed him against the wall, driving the air from the old Chiss. "Were you working with the Yuuzhan Vong all this time?" Thrawn spoke through clenched teeth. "Tell me the truth before I kill you. Were you reporting to Sang Anor? Were you a part of what happened to Homeworld?" He shouted into Taesk's face.
"No!" Taesk shouted back, fury breaking through his misery. "Sang Anor contacted me three hours after the attack on Homeworld. One of his agents, disguised as a Chiss, brought me a..." he stumbled over the word, "a villip I think he called it. The Executor said, he promised," Taesk swallowed, "he said it was within his power to restore Homeworld. His people could cleanse the air and stop the quakes, make our world livable again, and he would do all this if I brought one of his assassins into your presence."
"What of the dead?" Raine demanded. "Did he also promise to restore them too?" Families! This savage has the blood of our people on his hands and you dealt with him?"
"You would violate one of the oldest of the traditions," Beyin seethed, "you would assassinate a fellow Chiss during parley. You would collude with the aliens who attacked Homeworld." He was ready and willing to open fire on the Syndic.
"Yes!" He shouted defiantly, but his eyes never left Thrawn's. "Yes to all." He stared at Thrawn's enraged face. "Mith'raw'nuruodo, what is the first thing I taught you? What is a Syndic's first duty?"
"To protect his people." Thrawn answered slowly.
"And you betrayed that oath!" He snapped. "You were the one who brought this down on us! You went out into the chaos and savagery of greater galaxy, and you led that savagery back to your people!" His face crumpled and he squeezed his eyes shut, chest heaving as he gulped in air. Parck realized this was the Chiss equivalent of sobbing.
"By the Families I wish I had never entered your life." He managed to say at last. "This is what comes of breaking with tradition, I see that now. Now that it's too late." He glared at Beyin, who still held a blaster trained on him. "Go on and execute me, I deserve it for my part in this. By encouraging Thrawn I am as guilty as if I placed a charric in a murderer's hand." He shook his head. "They, the Vong, they would have left us alone if not for you."
For an eternity, Thrawn said nothing.
"Put the blaster away, Beyin." He released Taesk. "Look at me." He used his most compelling voice, and the other Syndic raised his crimson eyes to meet Thrawn's. "Sang Anor lied to you," he enunciated each word carefully, "I know grief and guilt are tearing you apart, but you must use your mind to understand that. He would not have left the Chiss alone. The Vong must have been planning this or something like it all along, judging from how quickly they were able to put it into effect. Sang Anor meant to conquer all the Unknown Regions before taking on the Empire. My actions accelerated those plans, yes, but it would have come anyway. You spoke to him yourself, so you must understand that. And you must understand that even if he could restore Homeworld, he never will."
He looked at Beyin. "Give me his charric." The General complied and Thrawn slid the weapon back into Taesk's holster. The older Syndic didn't react, but Beyin started and Raine looked ready for another fight. Parck was surprised as well: the Grand Admiral was never one to let treachery go unpunished.
"Sir, he has dishonored himself and his people-" Beyin began, and Thrawn turned and quieted him with a look.
"Enough Chiss have died already." He said. "I will not kill another one." He looked back at Taesk. "And I know the lengths that grief can drive someone to." He took all the residents of the conference room in at a glance. "This never happened." There was command in his voice and eyes. "As far as anyone outside this room will ever know, nothing more than a conference took place here." He glanced at the dead Vong. "We will have to think up a story to explain his disappearance to your other officers." He said to Taesk.
The white haired Chiss was watching Thrawn as though he were a thing beyond comprehension. Then he stepped forward and embraced the younger man. Thrawn returned the embrace, patting Taesk on the back as though he were a child.
"I'm sorry," Taesk was whispering, "I'm so sorry."
"I know." Thrawn murmured back.
After Taesk and his ship had departed, minus one crewmember, Thrawn burst into his chambers on the Annihilator, and sealed the door behind him. He sat down in front of the captured villip and touched it's ridge.
"Sang Anor!" He shouted in Basic. "I know you're listening! Face me!" For a moment there was nothing, then he felt the strange, humming, vibration in the arteries of his skull and the villip inverted, taking on the scarred and tattooed features of the Executor.
"Hello again." The villip smiled politely.
"Your assassin failed."
"I surmised as much." The cool smile remained, and the representation's eyes seemed to gleam.
"You never intended for him to succeed." Thrawn continued coldly. "You wanted to force me to kill Taesk, after showing me how you'd forced him to dishonor himself." It was his turn to smile now, a hard, sharp twist of lips. "It didn't work. Taesk lives."
The Vong's confident smile faltered a little, only to slip back into place. "A pity. That was to be the final touch: first your son, then your world, then the teacher and father-figure responsible for shaping your mind. Ah well, no one ever gets everything they want." He chuckled. "I'd hoped you would thank me for all the thought I put into this. There is an art to causing pain, you know, and you of all people should be able to appreciate my work."
"And I suppose there is a purpose to all this besides showing off your skill?" Thrawn snarled.
"I consider it throwing down the gauntlet." Sang Anor answered. "You were correct when we last spoke, Admiral: I am tired of all this dancing around. It's time we brought this conflict to a decisive end."
"Look for me in what you call the Sevac system, it seems fitting that this should end where it began, don't you think? I will be waiting for you there. With my worldship, my seed world and all my strength. Bring all the ships you want, bring your entire infidel fleet. Only one of us will leave that star system alive, and to him goes the Unknown Regions."
"And if I choose not to take you up on the offer?"
"Then what happened to your homeworld will be repeated on every planet the Empire controls in the Unknown Regions, and all those who placed themselves under your protection will find they have really drawn targets on themselves and their loved ones." The smile broadened. "I will be waiting for you."
"You wont wait long." Thrawn promised. He pushed away from the table, stood and drew his blaster. "And I hope you feel this." He hissed as he squeezed the trigger.
The blaster bolt tore through the villip, demolishing Sang Anor's face as the communication creature was reduced to pulp. Thrawn fired three more shots into the table, until the remains smoked and curled.
Captain Parck entered Thrawn's VIP suite in the Annihilator and heard the doors slide shut behind him. He frowned, squinting in the dim light, then saw the glow of the Grand Admiral's eyes as he turned his swivel-chair around.
"Ahhhh." The Chiss blinked a few times. "Captain."
"Sir, I just received a message from Moff Niriz," Parck said as he stepped forward, "repairs to the Imperator are complete and she is spaceworthy again. I thought we could discuss strategy for when we arrive-" he trailed off, noticing Thrawn's distracted state and the sour smell that tainted the metallic air of the Star Destroyer. "Sir, are you well."
"Don't worry about me, Captain." Thrawn stood, and the human saw he was a little unsteady on his feet. He held an almost- empty bottle in one hand and a few others were on a nearby table. "I am merely," he paused mid-sentence, "conducting an experiment." He took a few steps forward, and Parck again noted that slight unsteadiness.
"An experiment, sir?"
"Yes." He smiled a little. "I am testing the theory," he seemed to lose his train of thought, "that consumption of alcohol," another pause, "can lessen a being's grief." He looked at the bottle for a long moment, then tilted his head back and drained the last of the fluid. "It doesn't work." He concluded.
Parck licked his lips. "Uh, sir-"
"I made this happen, you know." Thrawn said.
"Homeworld. Taesk degraded. V-Vraet." He stumbled over the last name. "I knew. You see. If I pushed Sang Anor hard enough. If I frustrated him. He would have to. Come out into the. Open." He walked past Parck, a slow, purposeful stride. Suddenly, he broke out into laughter.
"I. Manipulated him very well. Didn't I. Captain?" He pivoted and, with a cry of rage, hurled the bottle across the room to shatter against the wall. He watched the pieces fall to the floor, then slowly turned to face Parck. "I'm so clever. Aren't I? So brilliant." He closed his eyes. "My son is dead. Captain." His voice and faced were composed, betrayed no emotion, which made his announcement all the more terrible. "My only child. My son. Dead." He frowned and looked at his hands, then back at Parck.
"Captain, I believe I'm drunk."
Parck nodded slowly. "I would have to agree, sir." He understood now. The Admiral's deliberate movements, so carefully controlled, were to keep him from staggering. He was speaking in that halting, equally deliberate way to keep from slurring. The proper way for a Syndic to behave was trained into him so deeply that he couldn't abandon it, even in drunkenness. Parck suddenly felt sorry for his superior.
"Perhaps you should. Run things. Onship. While I. Recover." There was an armchair behind him. Parck expected Thrawn to collapse into it, but the Grand Admiral slowly lowered himself and leaned his head back. "I believe I will. Sleep. Now." The glowing eyes closed and his breathing became deep and regular. Parck retreated, allowing Thrawn to retain his dignity.
He ran across General Beyin in the corridor. He expected the Chiss general to be as cold and aloof to him as he was to every other human, but once again he was in for a surprise.
"You've spoken with Mith'raw'nuruodo, I take it?" The Chiss fell into step beside him.
"Yes." Parck said carefully. "I spoke to him concerning matters of strategy."
"I had heard that the Grand Admiral had ordered several bottles of Corellian whiskey brought to his quarters, from the captain's private collection." Beyin said quietly. "I had also heard that you were on your way to see him and came to stop you. I felt that the Grand Admiral would not want to be disturbed." He turned and caught Parck by the arm, his glowing eyes boring into the Captain. "Thrawn in a strong man, and he feels for his people, as well as every being under his protection. It is a great burden." He leaned close to Parck. "A strong man, in the midst of great tragedy, may be permitted a moment of weakness."
Parck met the other's stare. "I have great respect for the Grand Admiral, General. I saw nothing out of the ordinary in his rooms."
Beyin nodded and withdrew his hand. "Captain," he frowned, "when I first joined Unity Fleet I could not understand why the Admiral allowed you, a human, to serve in such close proximity to him. I make no secret that I had a low opinion of your race, but recently I have begun to reevaluate that opinion." Beyin's lips tightened and he hunched his shoulders a little. "You are a good and worthy man, Captain Parck, as are many of the humans in this fleet. It has been an honor to serve with you." Parck blinked. Beyin. Cold, superior Beyin, actually looked uncomfortable!
"I do no make friends easily." The General finally said. "It is not in my nature, but I would be honored to number you among them." He extended his hand.
Parck smiled a little and returned the handshake. A small smile lightened Beyin's normally grim expression a fraction.
"General, I would be delighted to call you a friend." He even chuckled a little. "Perhaps, after all this is over, assuming we survive that is, you could join me for a drink?"
"If Thrawn and the First Families see us through this, Captain," Beyin's smile widened a fraction, "I'll buy rounds for the entire fleet."
Raine entered Thrawn's chambers in the Imperator, to find the Grand Admiral sitting in contemplation of a half-dozen holograms of Yuuzhan Vong bodies, hanging in midair and slowly turning. If she was surprised she didn't show it, any more than she had evidenced being impressed at the workmanship of the new model Star Destroyer.
Thrawn saw her and deactivated the holograms.
"Commander," he nodded as she approached the chair, then winced a little.
"Is there something wrong?"
"No, no," he rubbed his temples, "I'm just paying for some foolishness. I take it you wish to review strategies for the imminent battle?"
"No, sir." She handed him a datapad. "This contains the names and specification of every vessel in the phalanx." A small fleet of ships had accompanied the Imperials back to Orrsa, where the repaired Imperator waited for the fleet's supreme commander. "It also lists all members of the phalanx. There is a separate list of officers for my replacement."
Thrawn looked up. "I have no plans to replace you." He set the datapad down. "I've reviewed your performance as Syndic Vraet's phalanx commander, you seem highly effective."
"It was because of me that my Syndic died." She said. Thrawn looked at her sharply.
"I should have been the one leading his phalanx in a counterattack. I allowed him to go to his death."
"It was his decision, as I understand it." Thrawn said carefully. "I don't see how you could have stopped him."
"I could have." Raine said calmly. "I could have given him a concussion."
"Yes, I suppose you could have." Thrawn said quietly. "But the fact remains, your record in combat is impressive. We have a powerful enemy to defeat, and even with all Unity Fleet combined with my phalanx there is no sure guarantee of victory. I will need you and your familiarity with commanding the phalanx. You will also be important if I am to successfully integrate Vraet's..." he paused, "my phalanx with Unity Fleet afterwards."
"May I speak freely, Admiral?" Raine asked.
"I recognize the threat of the Yuuzhan Vong and the need to defeat them, but after they have been repaid for Homeworld I have no intention of remaining in your service." She clasped her hands behind her back. "You have been a long-standing threat to the Chiss and I have no desire to help you conquer them for your Emperor."
"And yet you saved my life yesterday, when an assassin's knife would have killed me."
"Only because you spoke the truth when you said the Empire was all that stood in the way of the Yuuzhan Vong. You will be needed to defeat them." Her voice was cold. "But I have no love for you." She grimaced. "The universe has a fine sense of humor. Just days ago I was your enemy, now I find I must serve you. For a time."
"The Empire is the way of the future, Commander. I would not have sacrificed so much for it if that was not my belief."
"I disagree, Admiral. I will not be part of a phalanx that serves you for a second longer than I must."
Thrawn leaned back and regarded her thoughtfully. "I understand." He stood up. "But I would like to persuade you to remain in the Fleet awhile longer, even if it is not as a member of my phalanx."
"For what reason?"
"You were Vraet's lover." Raine jerked as though an electrical current ran through her.
Anger flared in her eyes. "That had nothing to do with my promotion." She said in a harsh whisper.
"I believe that." Thrawn nodded. "Let me explain something," he began to pace the floor in front of her, "when I was exiled, Vraet was little more than a child. I missed watching him grow up, and when I next spoke to him it was as a man, one with views completely different from my own." he frowned. "I always held out the hope that I would be reunited with my family, but on my terms." He shook his head. "Pride. I wanted Vraet to admit that I was right. Now it's too late."
He faced her. "But you knew Vraet better than anyone else would. I would be grateful if you would tell me about the kind of person he was. How he felt about me."
Raine's eyes narrowed. "You want to know how he felt about you?" She raised a brow. "He hated you and all you stood for, but at the same time he yearned to prove himself worthy of you. That's why he lead the phalanx into the alien trap. That's what destroyed him." She grimaced and turned away from Thrawn as if she couldn't stand the sight of him. Crossing the room, she continued.
"But that's how he was raised, wasn't it?" She grunted in disgust. "You Chiss males, you're like another species. What you do to yourselves, to each other, to us females: how you force us all to try to live up to these impossible standards of perfection, it's insanity. Sometimes I think that's the reason the Chiss are in decline, why we're so afraid to do anything that might meet with disapproval."
"I agree completely." Thrawn said. Raine spun around and fixed her crimson gaze on the Grand Admiral.
"That is why I defied the traditions in the first place." He continued. "To try and escape the tiny box that society had forced me to live in. And to free others as well." He walked over to her. "I think we are more alike than you think, Commander."
Raine tilted her head. "How so?"
"We both loved Vraet." Thrawn saw her throat hitch, but otherwise she remained calm. "But I could never be a part of his life. As you said, my son and I were both too proud. But I still want to learn about the person he was."
For a long moment, Raine said nothing, then a small smile quirked the side of her mouth. "You're good, Syndic, I've got to hand it to you, but it wont work. I'm no friend to you, or your Empire, and the instant the Yuuzhan Vong have been nullified our paths with part." She drew herself up. "Permission to depart?"
Thrawn nodded, and the phalanx commander turned and opened the door. "One thing more, Commander." She regarded him with bright, red eyes. "You'd do well to remember, like males, a female can be too proud for her own good." He grimaced. "I speak from experience: pride is a bitter comfort when that's all you have left."
Raine's expression remained a frozen mask as the door slid shut.
Thrawn closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his face.
Yes, I imagine pride is bitter indeed, but it's not all I have. Raine brushed her abdomen absently with her fingertips. She had been thinking a great deal lately about Chiss children: raised to meet exacting standards of perfection where love and acceptance were withheld until they could fulfill those demands. Like Vraet, who had killed himself to prove he was the perfect Chiss. They'll never do that to you! she thought fiercely.
She strode down the corridor. Vraet, I should have told you. But it was too late now. She hadn't told Thrawn either, and didn't know if she ever would. Certainly she couldn't say anything now: she needed to be in the coming battle. Not because of pride, or even to avenge Vraet-the late Syndic would never want her to take this kind of risk-but because she knew she was the best commander in the phalanx. If they were going to defeat the Yuuzhan Vong, she'd have to be there.
Vraet was right when he said a Syndic's life belonged to the people he protected, and that was true for the soldiers of the Chiss as well, but Thrawn would never let her near combat if he knew she carried his grandchild.