The screams resounded in the vast coral cavern.
Like many communal areas in the worldship's belly, the hold was at least five stories tall and so wide that the grand archways on one end could barely be seen from the other. Thick pillars grew from the floor, etched with intricate carvings. A few unruly Vong children were using the etchings as handholds to climb the pillars. Some adults paused to watch, amused at the antics.
It was a game, to see who could climb to the top, snatch one of the lumin bugs from the roof and bring it to the floor first. One of the children had slipped, fallen to the floor and broken her neck. The other children had paused only long enough to glance down and see that their companion wasn't going to get up before resuming their play. A squat, crablike creature had removed the body. None of the other Vong bothered giving it a second glance.
The communal areas of the worldship were always a buzz of activity, where off-duty Yuuzhan Vong could relax, dine or otherwise seek recreation. Several tall fountains reared up in the center of the cavern, where colorful avians perched to drink. The birds nested in the fragrant plant life that grew in the hold, fed by attendant creatures and watered by the fountains.
Paths wound their way through the gardens, dotted by benches and gazebos for Yuuzhan Vong to relax and meditate on their surroundings. There were flat areas for Vong children to form teams and play various sports, and young lovers courting took long walks down the paths.
The screams were loud indeed to resound in that place. They were good screams, hallowed screams, loud enough to reach the ears of the gods.
The ears of one particular goddess especially.
So Sang Anor thought as he gazed down from the third story walkway along the curving wall, claws lightly brushing the railing. He picked out the sacrifices, lined up against the far wall so as not to disturb the flow of traffic. They numbered fifty in all, of various species. He counted six humans, more than twenty Xanians, a Transhodan and two odd, bristly little aliens who called themselves Ryn. There were others, all of various ages. It didn't really matter who or what they were: even among the infidels they had been slaves.
For years, Coerl had been in the business of sweeping the poorer districts of his conquered worlds and selling undesirables into the slave trade, and Sang Anor had seen no reason not to continue the practice after gaining control of the Warlord: it was an easy way of obtaining sacrifices.
It was simplicity itself to have a slave transport (crewed by Yuuzhan Vong in masquers) divert course off the normal hyperspace lanes where the Long Reach could take possession, and hopefully giving these fifty infidel lives to Yun Harla would entreat her to grant him success in his deception. If all went well, the Imperial presence would soon be destroyed by revolt from within and warlords without.
In addition, Sang Anor had ordered several top-of-the-line droids included in this particular shipment, but saw no reason to bring those abominations aboard the worldship. The worldship had simply crushed them, ship and all, with its dovin basals.
While it was technically true that all the 'plague' victims and the casualties from the skirmishes between Thrawn's forces and the warlords' were sacrifices to the Cloaked Goddess, Sang Anor thought these extra fifty, sacrificed with the full rites and ceremony, would provide that extra, personal touch that could make all the difference.
Behind containment fields maintained by dovin basals, black-robed priestesses of Yun Harla oversaw the sacrifices, with each one being performed in a different, more inventive way than the one before. The Cloaked Goddess was not Yun Yammka, wanting nothing more than bloody-minded brutality in her devotees. No, she demanded more subtle and imaginative methods in her sacrifices.
In one area, a Ryn was being slowly torn apart by opposing gravitational fields from dovin basals. In another, blorash jelly had forced itself down a humans throat and was playfully exploring his innards. Forty-eight other torments went on enthusiastically, with sluglike njdin happily licking up the blood on the floor.
Sang Anor nodded. Courting Yun Harla's favor was no different than courting any other female, except in scale. He quirked a thin smile, he would serenade the goddess with infidel screams.
Giving a final glance backward, he turned and walked down a coral hallway leading away from the common-area, he had an appointment to keep.
The hall was a wide tunnel with many branches, heavily traveled by Yuuzhan Vong, but even the busiest took time to at least incline his or her head in passing when they saw him.
Sang Anor made his stride especially brisk, his face a mask of sternness, to make up for an earlier weakness he had indulged in. While he had overseen the sacrifices from the balcony he had, for a moment, allowed himself to be lulled by the peaceful atmosphere of the communal area; watching a pair of courting Vong, younglings with apparently nothing on their minds but each other, he had found himself staring off into space, tracing the tattoo that adorned his left cheek with a sharp talon, unaware of the trickle of blood streaming down his hand and face.
He treasured that tattoo above all his others: Lyrra Anor had given it to him, had drawn it on his face the day they bonded. It was her personal sigul, a brand that proclaimed to the world that she was his Primary wife. Among other things that meant she ruled his household, and any other female who wished to bond him had to approach her first.
Sang Anor smiled, his Primary had sent any female foolish enough to try crawling away with broken limbs and a few extra scars, if the unfortunate was lucky. Nor were they the only ones to feel her anger: he had the hardest time convincing her that he did nothing to encourage those proposals. He remembered the fights they'd had after each incident, he could still feel the sting of her claws sometimes. Truly exquisite fights, almost as exquisite as the making-up that always followed.
Memories and sensations had caught him like an arachnid's web, he remembered Lyrra Anor so clearly, every mood, every expression. She had been the one Vong he could never quite get the best of : she knew every trick he had, every strategy he could devise. She knew his mind better than he himself did, and had been able to slip past all his defenses with ease and drive him to distraction, she made him feel pleasure and pain like no other being could.
Three years had past and yet it seemed impossible: he Couldn't conceive of a universe without Lyrra Anor in it. There were times he had entered his quarters fully expecting her to greet him, or to see her working with the other Shapers, eyes shining with excitement as she made yet another discovery. Last night he had almost felt her beside him when he awoke, only remembering the truth when he had reached out and touched... nothing.
Sang Anor made himself dredge up all his grief, made himself embrace the pain. All pain was to be embraced, even this.
Near the end of the tunnel he spied a hunched, shuffling shape out of the corner of his eye. Nearly doubled over both by its deformed back and legs and by the shame that weighed down on it. A Shamed One: a Yuuzhan Vong who had been found wanting at the Time of Changing, and rather than escalation, they had been consigned to the lowliest status a Vong could sink to. The Shamed Ones were lower than slaves, lower even than infidels, who at least had ignorance as an excuse for their unworthiness. The other gods had turned their faces from them, only Yun Shuno, that most contemptible of deities, would hear their prayers.
The Shamed Ones were enveloped head to toe in their thick robes, and they would never venture near the communal areas or any other heavily trafficked space on the worldship. There was no honor in their deformities, they were signs of weakness and the gods' disfavor.
Trying to stay out of the light, the Shamed One hurried down the hallway, the ragged hem of its robes dragging on the floor. It. That was how Sang Anor automatically thought of the creatures, because it was impossible to tell their genders under the robes and because they were no longer even people as the Yuuzhan Vong reckoned things. None of the Vong in the hallway looked quite in the Shamed One's direction, they neither glanced at it in sympathy nor kicked and jeered at it. They went about their business as if unaware the squat, lumpish being even existed.
A Vong turned the corner and ran down the corridor, there was a look of deep concentration on her face and she held a head- sized villip carefully in both hands. The cut and color of her tunic identified her as an apprentice Shaper, the villip was the type used for information storage, most likely plans needed for one of the Shapers' projects. The Shaper was so intent on the villip that she failed to notice the Shamed One until she actually treading on its robe, at which point the color fled her face and she jumped back with an audible squeak before scurrying down the corridor as if afraid Yun Shuno himself would appear to claim her. They might refuse to acknowledge the pariah, but they saw the Shamed One. Oh yes, they all saw, and they all knew the penalty for failing the gods.
As he reached the end of the corridor, Sang Anor saw a Vong child with a sweet in one hand glance at the Shamed One and swallow visibly. Evidently losing his appetite, the child tossed the sweet in the Shamed One's path before hurrying away. The robed creature didn't reach out to take the scrap, even though its malformed hand was undoubtably gloved, instead it shuffled forward until its robes covered the bit of food, then bent down to take it. A Shamed One would not reveal any part of its body if it could help it.
"Anyone can misstep, but the higher you stand, the steeper you fall." Sang Anor jumped slightly as he spun around, evidently he was a little more shaken than even he realized, but composed himself as he faced the black-robed priestess.
"A fact I always keep in mind." He replied to the priestess, a handsome Vong in her middle-years, with traces of grey in her black hair. He smiled slightly and raised a brow. "I trust I have not kept you waiting?"
"No," she shook her head, "I am just returning from some business of my own," she turned and motioned for him to walk beside her, "overseeing the sacrifices you so generously provided for us."
"Have you seen any omens in the sacrifices?" Sang Anor asked. "Any signs that Yun Harla smiles on my plans to frustrate her enemies?"
The priestess shrugged. "The goddess is never direct, even with her followers. Many a time a portent has been speculated to mean one thing only to have it discovered that the exact opposite is the intent."
"Spoken like a true devotee, a great many words to say very little." He chuckled.
"So speaks a man who thinks he can buy a goddess' favor like a merchant." She returned. "I do not presume to tell you how to wage a war, you would be wise not to criticize my calling."
"Point taken." Sang Anor conceded as they came to Yun Harla's temple. He knew better than to insult a follower of the Cloaked Goddess. Yun Yammka himself had been brought low more than once by incurring her wrath. Overlords had been humbled for offending Yun Harla. They moved to one of the side entrances and went inside.
The temple was dimly lit and the slightly sharp tang of incense spiced the air. Priestesses were performing rites and nearly three dozen females of varying ages and occupations were present, most of which were Shapers: Yun Harla was the goddess of skill and craft, the Shapers were among her chieftest devotees.
The priestess guided Sang Anor along a wall carved with scenes representing the Cloaked Goddess' many triumphs: the breeding of the first dovin basals that allowed the Yuuzhan Vong to leave their own planet, in the wars against the machinists of their own galaxy where stealth and misdirection were as important as brute force, and finally the grand exodus from their galaxy in search of a new home.
"Things have been set up for you in here." Sang Anor's robed guide said softly. She led him into a small side chamber with a single occupant: a younger priestess sitting cross-legged before a statue of Yun Harla. She rose gracefully and bowed to the other priestess.
"Who gives tribute?"
"I do." Sang Anor said.
"From your own flesh?" He nodded. "For what reason?"
"That is a private matter," he replied firmly, "between myself and Yun Harla." The questioner raised a brow and glanced and the senior priestess, who nodded. She was probably just as curious as to just why Sang Anor had asked for a scourging.
"So be it then." She bowed again to the other priestess, she inclined her head in response and withdrew, sealing the door.
The priestess held out her hands. Sang Anor removed his clothing: a loincloth and sleeveless tunic, and laid them across her arms. "Your place is there." She indicated the space in front of the shrine.
Sang Anor stood at the center of the chamber, facing the statue. He held his arms outstretched and two thin tendrils slithered out from ridge compartments in the coral ceiling. They explored the air as they lowered themselves, and on encountering Sang Anor's hands they coiled around his wrists and tightened, cutting deep into his flesh.
He hissed through his teeth as he felt his feet leave the floor, but did not take his eyes off the statue. He didn't resist when two other tendrils emerged from the floor and caught his ankles. All four of them pulled with equal force, until they were a hair away from pulling his joints out of their sockets.
Then that section of the chamber revolved slowly until he was upside-down and suspended: now the bloodflow to his head would keep him conscious throughout.
The priestess had crossed the room to a small side-niche in the chamber, it held a basin fed by a stream of pure water and several handles were mounted on the wall. She folded Sang Anor's clothing over one handle, then removed her robe and placed it on another. A sheet of coral closed over the niche, so no blood would spatter on the clothing.
"Goddess," she intoned softly, "hear your disciple. One has come to offer up tribute: his blood to feed you, his pain to make you strong, in the hope that you will see fit to grant..." she paused, here she was to name the supplicant's desire, "his request." She knelt at the image's feet and picked up the short whip that lay across the alter, then stood and turned toward Sang Anor in one fluid motion. Without further preamble, she drew her arm back and lashed him.
It took a few seconds for Sang Anor to feel the pain of the lash, and by then she had struck him a second time, and then a third. In proficient hands, the whip was an instrument of pain that could cut to the bone with a single lash. The priestess was clearly skilled in its use.
Sang Anor embraced the waves of pain and focused on the image of the Cloaked Goddess. Yun Harla was represented as a tall, feminine shape, but beyond that he could make out no specific feature: the lighting was dim and the statue was grown from oltdan corral, a substance that breathed out misty vapor from its pores. The mist quickly dispersed into the air, but left the effigy enveloped in a continual shroud. He peered at the image, trying to see the features past the mist and knowing it was useless.
The other sacrifices, on the worldship and the plague- ridden worlds, were purely political: to entice Yun Harla's support in destroying the Imperials and securing Sang Anor's hold on the Unknown Regions. This offering, on the other hand, was personal.
I have sent my only son into my enemy's stronghold, in pursuit of another enemy at least ten times as deadly as the Prefect. He prayed to the Cloaked Goddess as the whip cut into his shoulders. He knew the Jedi's prowess, and he could easily predict Ke'Nass' stupid and spiteful reaction to Nom Anor, and yet he had sent the boy, newly raised to adulthood, into that viper's nest.
It was not so much a test as certain death, but that was the way of the Yuuzhan Vong: while other races coddled and weakened their young, the Vong made every effort to strengthen their children, so that every generation would be stronger than the one preceding it. He'd had no choice: the gods demanded nothing less of a man who would be Overlord.
But he had already been made to sacrifice more than he had ever dreamed for that goal.
He noticed the blood running in hot, crimson rivers from the new cuts on his body. Take my pain, he thought as another strike of the whip racked him, and grant him success and an honorable return, this I beg of you. The blood flowed down into the grooves in the carved floor and was drawn down the channels to the statue's feet. Take from me if you wish, and let him live.
Of course, she could easily reject Sang Anor's solicitations: many who tried to play Yun Harla's game found themselves the netted insect rather than the one spinning the web. She was fickle, and keeping her favor could sometimes be worse than losing it: the Cloaked Goddess was a jealous mistress, one who would tolerate no rivals in her servants' hearts. Sang Anor had learned of that firsthand three years ago, when he had allowed the Jedi to escape.
It had all been part of his plan: the Jedi would escape and Sang Anor would lay the blame on the then commander of the worldship. Using that as an excuse, he could challenge that Executor. Gaining control of this mission had been the first step toward ruling the entire galaxy.
He had planned and executed the scheme flawlessly, so much so that no one, not even the Jedi herself, had a clue that the escape was anything other than a matter of pure chance. Sang Anor alone knew the truth, he had made certain of that. He flexed his bound hands. With those hands he had silenced everyone involved who might bear witness against him.
He had released her, but what had happened next wasn't a part of the plan. She was supposed to escape, nothing more. Certainly she was not to... he shuddered in a way that had nothing to do with his flogging.
If Nom Anor knew the full story, he would want to take his Father's head off with his own hands, and Sang Anor doubted he could bring himself to fight back if that day ever came. He squeezed his eyes shut, he had been half-crazed with grief when he had challenged the Executor, grief and... guilt. But it had all been a matter of chance and the whims of the gods. Simple as that. It was not his fault. It couldn't be his fault.
How would he live with himself if it was?
The pain was like electric volts surging through him now. No, it was the Jedi's fault. She was to blame, and she had to die. The knowledge that she lived gnawed at him, was like a spur on his back. He would never again know peace while she lived.
The crack of the whip.
It tore into him.
An eternity later Sang Anor seemed to swim out of a black sea, called by a voice from the surface.
"What?" He asked, noting that he was upright again.
"Your offer has been accepted." The priestess replied. She pointed at the statue with the bloodied whip. Sure enough, the oltdan corral had reacted favorably with Sang Anor's blood, the mist had turned a deep scarlet. The goddess had received his blood, a good omen.
The tendrils unwound from his ankles and he let his rubbery legs dangle awhile. The priestess opened the niche and took a folded cloth from a shelf there. She soaked it in the water and wiped the lash clean before returning it to its place. She then began washing the blood from Sang Anor's body while he hung in the chamber. The wounds made by the lash were already healing, but loss of blood had weakened him.
"Has my-" she had gotten the last of the blood and the tendrils lowered him to the floor, and his knees threatened to buckle under his weight. He clenched his teeth against the whimper that had threatened to escape his chest. Remember who you are. He embraced the pain and made his legs stiffen by force of will. "Will my request been granted?" He asked calmly, by his tone it was only a minor concern.
"Yun Harla has acknowledged your tribute." She replied. "What she decides at this point is not revealed to me." The tendrils released his wrists.
"So be it then." The priestess donned her robe, then took his clothing from the niche and dressed him. The door irised open and the elder priestess entered, bowing first to Yun Harla's image and then to Sang Anor.
"It went well?"
"Quite well." Sang Anor nodded. He thanked the younger priestess for her time and effort on his behalf, then walked out with his guide.
As they exited the temple, she handed him a goblet of pinter juice to help him regain his strength, the fruits having been enhanced by Shapers to increase the vitamin and nutrient value.
"Thank you." Sang Anor sipped the drink, refusing to wince at his sore muscles. "She very devoted to her work." He jerked his head in the direction of the temple.
"My third daughter." The priestess smiled and a trace of pride entered her voice. "I instructed her myself."
"She is well trained." He nodded and they exchanged pleasantries awhile longer before he departed. He had other appointments to keep.
Coerl sat back in his ruined chambers and wished for a window. For his own safety, he had made certain his private chambers were well away from the outermost wall of the bunker: an assassin could shoot through a window, after all, and he spent most of his time outside or on one of his warships anyway, so there was never any real reason for one. Besides, who would want a view of the polluted sky of Orune Prime? Almost reflexively he barked a short laugh, a bitter and hollow sound in the empty room. He was the most powerful man in the sector, a word from him was law, and he would trade his life for one last look at the sun. Gladly.
How his mother, a strict ascetic who had taken a cane to his backside more than once, must be chuckling in her grave. She would undoubtably have some cutting and righteous remarks to make about her wayward son and the rewards of a virtuous life, as opposed to the one he had led. Coerl ground his teeth. He had strangled his mother in her bed over thirty years ago, the first time he had killed and himself still a boy, and she still tormented his dreams occasionally.
The Warlord was sitting on the floor with his legs sprawled out in front of him and his back braced against a corner. He could get up and walk around if he wanted to, he hadn't been forbidden to move around these rooms, but there was no reason to. The door to his chambers was unlocked, but there might as well have been an energy field set to kill barring his way. He couldn't leave: she had told him to go to his chambers and remain there, and that was what he did, the lumpish growths under his scales made anything else impossible.
Obeyers, that was what she called them. Whatever the creatures were, exactly, they were certainly effective. The slavers with whom Coerl often dealt would have paid fortunes for the secret of breeding them: Obeyers would have made the long process of breaking and training a sentient unnecessary and saved the slavers untold amounts of time and money. Coerl himself could vouch for that.
Three years ago he would have been pacing around the room like a caged wildcat, he had always been a man of boundless energy, his cunning mind searching for ways to free himself and defeat his tormentors. Those three years had felt like three centuries, and even the most stubborn of beings eventually grew weary of resisting the kind of punishments the Yuuzhan Vong dealt. Last night he had simply leaned against the wall and sunk to the floor. He hadn't moved since and didn't have any reason to do so.
Coerl had never been a deep and philosophical thinker, the kind who pondered the intricate ironies of life and the universe. He had always devoted his mind to practical concerns: how to mount a successful attack on an enemy world, where and when to engage a fleet, how to make the most profit out of his conquests. Unable to exercise his intellect in that direction, he had found his thoughts turning inward instead, remembering his life and past victories.
He had enlisted in the Monarch's Fleet the day after reaching adulthood, when he'd had his final molting and his crests had all grown in. He had risen through the ranks quickly: there were many opportunities for advancement considering the raids by pirates and warlords and the constant insurrections and seditions that had blossomed like nightweeds on Orune Prime. Coerl had made a name for himself by getting results, with a reputation for complete and utter ruthlessness in achieving his objectives, though he avoided putting himself in personal combat whenever possible. Eventually the King had been so impressed he had declared Coerl chief defender of the realm.
Coerl had accepted gracefully, swearing by the gods of the Jrukto to serve the dynasty and defend his people against all enemies, within or without. In reality he served only himself, and when he saw his chance he hadn't hesitated a moment in overthrowing the weak and tottering monarchy ten years ago and taking control of the planet. He had hunted the royal family to extinction and crushed the royalists who supported them underfoot. Under his leadership, Orune Prime had gone from a backwater agrarian world to a major war machine. Of course, much of what many considered a naturally beautiful world was ruined by pollution when Coerl had industrialized the planet, but that and the fact that many needed special masks to breathe the air was never any real concern to him.
Then he had looked to expand his territory. Several neighboring worlds had long-standing treaties with Orune Prime under the Monarchy, non-aggression pacts and trade agreements. Coerl had convinced those worlds that he would abide by the agreements, then took them by surprise when he launched his attacks.
It was almost too easy. Planet after planet fell to his growing fleet. He stripped his conquered worlds of their wealth and resources and sold undesirables into the slave trade to finance his wars. Anyone who raised voice against him was arrested, given a quick show trial and either executed or used as slave labor. He once had hopes of ruling the entire sector, eventually.
How could this have happened to me?
The thought came without any real conviction. The fire that had once driven him to dominate everything around him had been suffocated over the years of captivity in his own home. Only ashes remained. Coerl closed his eyes. Perhaps he would sleep, perhaps not. He had once wished the lumin bugs on the ceiling would obey him as they did the Vong, that way he could at least make them dim down while he slept. Now, as with everything else, he no longer cared. All that really mattered was avoiding punishments.
The mere thought of incurring his keepers' anger brought on a fit of dread that threatened to freeze his hearts; he hadn't known what pain was before Kei Rascer had begun his 'training.' He was disciplined for causing his masters the slightest displeasure, for even attempting to misbehave.
Not that he ever misbehaved these days: the price of defiance was too high.
Idly, his gaze traveled around the room, to the objects of her rage: the broken glowpanels, the shattered viewscreens of his quarters. The Vong had dismembered every droid and device he'd owned on taking control of the bunker, in disgust of machines and frustration at being unable to do the same to all Orune Prime. They had punished him as well, for allowing technology to spread like a plague across his world and perpetuating it on his conquered territories.
He would never forget his two worst punishments at Kei Rascer's hands: one after the first and only time he'd tried to kill her, the second after the first and only time he'd tried to kill himself. In both instances the attempt was a joke: the Obeyers had prevented him from acting on his plans. As bad as the pain that had followed was, much worse was the feeling of helplessness and shame.
There had been no punishments for a good many months now, but that brought no comfort, not when he realized he had not only stopped fighting them, but was actively trying to please his new masters. That mindset had crept on him gradually, like a debilitating cancer, and the first time he felt that warm rush of security blossom in his chest and spread throughout his limbs after he pleased them, much as a pet must feel when the master scratches its ears, shame had gripped his innards and twisted with clawed hands. He had never been so disgusted with himself. The realization of what he'd become had prompted his first only suicide attempt.
Since then he had stopped thinking, stopped planning, stopped telling himself he was only biding his time, waiting for a chance to fight back. This was his life now. Some might say he was paying the price for all he'd done, but Coerl was neither a religious man nor a theologian. He didn't believe in universal balance and he certainly didn't feel any repentance for the things he'd done. No, in Coerl's experience the universe operated by simple rules: the strong ruled the weak.
He had discovered one thing about those who lived by that rule: eventually, inevitably, they encountered someone stronger than themselves, and while that argument was useful in justifying a ruler's actions, it was poor comfort to the ones ruled over.
He heard footsteps in the corridor leading to his chambers and was on his feet in an instant, hands clasped and head lowed. He knew how to behave around his masters.
The temperature seemed to drop to below zero when Kei Rascer ordered the living door to open, the automatic door and the mechanism that made it work had been removed three years ago. His chief minder didn't intend on taking him on another tour of the city, she wasn't wearing an ooglith masquer and she was always at his side when he appeared in public, though she wore various guises.
Coerl had been a man of great appetites, he was never with the same concubine for more than a month, and he sampled a wide variety. He'd once owned a graceful Twi'lek dancer and an exotic Falleen female, both dearly bought from slave traders because of their rarity in this part of the galaxy. Kei Rascer had avoided suspicion as much as possible by changing her appearance frequently, though Coerl wasn't certain if she used different masquers or altered the same one. He only saw the results: she would be a pale-skinned redhead one day, a tanned brunette the next and so forth.
He never dared to question her: she was always in a foul mood before and after accompanying him on a tour of the city and being surrounded by such rampant technology. She was in a foul mood right now, her body radiated fury, but he didn't think he'd be going outside: not only was the Vong undisguised, she was wearing living armor. The silver-trimmed black shell pieces covered her except for head and hands and her long, black hair was tied back away from her face. She was ready for battle.
"Come." She said shortly, and Coerl followed without thinking: the Obeyers took over his legs and propelled him after her.
They hurried down the reformed halls to the broadcast room. The only machinery the Vong allowed was the com system - the holopad, projector and a generator to power them. They used this arrangement for Coerl to make private communications with his commanders or public broadcasts to his people.
Despite the crippling despair at his predicament and the resulting lack of motivation, the cunning mind and powers of observation and deduction that had made Coerl a power in this sector remained functional and he passively noted all the signs of his keeper's distress. She was tense, visibly bursting with nervous energy and the kind of alertness that comes from adrenaline. Something was definitely wrong here.
Wrong from the Yuuzhan Vong point of view, anyway.
As they hurried down the corridor, the walls of the bunker shuddered in a way that Coerl recognized: fighters were strafing the building. Unexpected, almost in spite of himself, Coerl felt something like hope stir in his chest.
A brief but very satisfying image of his loyal troops, somehow wise to his predicament, taking up arms to storm the bunker and free their leader was dispelled by a harsh voice speaking the Vong language. Kei Rascer paused and looked over her shoulder, annoyed, at the warrior standing in the open doorway. He wore full armor, with an amphistaff in hand and a bandolier of deadly creatures across his chest. Obviously ready for battle. Kei Rascer sighed and turned toward the doorway, gesturing for Coerl to follow.
The holoprojector Coerl used to communicate with his commands had been set up in the room. A Vong in an ooglith masquer and the uniform of his chief bodyguard stood on the holopad facing the shimmering blue image of a tall, trim Jrukto, the garrison commander for the capital city. Kei Rascer circled the room to stand behind the hologram, where the disguised Vong could see her without taking his eyes away from the commander. The Vong weren't worried about the commander seeing them: he could only perceive what stood in the auditory and visual field created by the holopad.
"-so raise the planetary shield!" The disguised Vong was saying as Coerl entered the room.
"Can't be done." The Jrukto shook his head. "As soon as the shield went down the Imperials targeted the planetary array and the backup. Damage is too extensive, it could take days to fix."
One of the Vong muttered something in a tone of disgust. Coerl didn't speak their language, but he got the gist of it: machines took a little damage and quit while living things would have fought on no matter how badly wounded.
"They've started landing ground troops," the commander continued, "they'll be marching on the capital in less than ten minutes, six fighter wings are already here."
"We've noticed." The Vong barely kept from snarling.
"So far, the orbital defense platforms and armed satellites have kept the Star Destroyers from getting into position to bombard our cities, but they can't last much longer."
"Send out a distress call to the fleet."
"We've tried, they've set up a jamming field around the planet." The commander's crest rose and spread.
"Deploy the garrison forces to defend the city and bunker, the-"
"I want to speak to the Warlord." The Jrukto interrupted. "Do these orders come from him?" The Vong looked past the hologram to Kei Rascer. She glanced at Coerl, then back at the Vong and shook her head slightly.
"The Warlord cannot be disturbed," the Vong drew himself up arrogantly, "I'm authorized to speak for him at present, no obey my orders!" Kei Rascer signaled and the armored Vong flipped off the holoprojector, hesitating only a second before touching the machine.
Kei Rascer and the other two exchanged a few brief words, ending with her two subordinates bowing their heads and running out the door, probably to set up the living defenses the Yuuzhan Vong had installed in the bunker. Only now did Coerl realize how quickly all this had taken place, with none of them wasting any time with greetings and farewells. Such haste in the normally protocol-conscious beings was very unusual.
Kei Rascer, Warlord in tow, departed the room as well. They turned another corner and stopped at a section of wall seemingly no different from the rest, whether seen from the light of the lumin bugs or of the glowpanels before they'd all been shattered two and a half years earlier.
The bunker shivered again. An Imperial attack? It must be serious for them to spirit him to safety inside his fortified bunker. They were taking no chances with his life: they needed Coerl as their figurehead to maintain control of his territory and fleet.
The hidden door would normally have responded to a small button in the corner, also disguised, but like everything else here the machinery that operated the door was offensive to the Yuuzhan Vong and rendered inoperable.
They had installed their own system in its place. Kei Rascer rapped the wall her knuckles and the doorway slid open and smoothly as when servos and hydraulics had moved it. The elevator beyond had likewise been removed: Kei Rascer and Coerl stepped onto the flattened shell of the huge, crablike arachnid that gripped the durasteel walls with pincer-tipped and suction cup- coated legs.
The creature slid the door shut with one leg and began the five-story decent to the bottom. Even Coerl had to admit the ride was smoother than any turbolift he'd experienced, and lumin bugs detached from the ceiling and hovered around them, following their progress down the shaft, providing more than adequate light.
At the bottom, the creature opened the door and the two passengers stepped off into the subterranean hideaway. Kei Rascer gave a sharp command in her own language and the lumin bugs flew out of the shaft to join the swarm on the ceiling. A few more words had the crab-creature shutting the door and climbing up to the top with instructions to guard against anyone who tried to open the door without using the proper commands.
Now that he was able, Coerl backed away from the Vong female and looked around his personal bolt-hole, which this place had been before the Yuuzhan Vong had taken over. Since then Kei Rascer had converted it into her personal dwelling. From what he'd learned of his masters he could understand why. At three levels underground it was the safest place in the bunker, having been built to withstand a heavy bombardment from orbit. It was also made entirely of stone-walls floor and ceiling-with the only machines being conveniences to store food and provide heat, air and light, all powered by a portable generator. What better place for someone who wants to be away from technology.
Coerl hadn't seen the place in three years, but he wasn't surprised to see that all the machines had been removed. He was surprised to see what looked like an indoor meadow down here. The plush carpets had been taken out and the stone floor somehow converted to fertile soil covered in thick grass under the lumin bugs on the ceiling, which glowed with what looked and felt like natural sunlight.
To complete the illusion, all the bugs were clustered in one spot on the ceiling. Their combined luminance was unbearably bright. The cluster of bugs were even positioned at exactly the angle the midmorning sun would be. They probably even moved across the cavern ceiling from east to west to mimic the sun.
The once-bare stone walls were now covered by flowering vines attached to the rock by sticky sap. The large, varicolored flowers spiced the air with a soothing fragrance and the furniture was so unobtrusive it seemed to blend into the background. Taken all in, it was a lovely, pastoral scene, hardly what one would expect in the home of a tattooed demon like Kei Rascer. The flowers especially surprised Coerl: judging by how disgusted she was at playing the role of a concubine, he'd never have thought the being who had made his life hell for the past three years would have anything so... feminine in her quarters.
One of the lumin bugs, slow, sluggish and obviously at the end of its short life-cycle, drifted near one of the blossoms, which promptly closed on the dying insect. Coerl swallowed at that, and at seeing the thorns that coated the long vines. They were barbed; once stuck in, they couldn't be pulled out. No, on second thought this place suited Kei Rascer perfectly.
The bomb shelter didn't shudder, but Coerl was certain the Imperials hadn't been beat back. He knew about Thrawn and his well-earned reputation for brilliant campaigns, had studied the man's battles and victories, if anyone had a chance of overwhelming the planet's defenses and prying him out of this fortress, it was Thrawn. Going by all the energy his masters had spent on tying up his fleet and weakening him from within, the Grand Admiral had even the Yuuzhan Vong worried!
There were less than twenty Yuuzhan Vong on Orune Prime and only six of them, counting Kei Rascer, were actually inside the bunker. If the Imperials could only get past the living defenses the Vong had set up inside the bunker...
Coerl almost laughed out loud at the irony of it. Not too long ago he had viewed the Empire's growing power in the Unknown Regions as the greatest threat to his power, would have gone to any lengths to be rid of them. Now he saw them as saviors, and they were: he didn't care whether they were here to kill or capture him, only that they get him away from the Yuuzhan Vong.
The excitement turned sour when he saw Kei Rascer, watching him with cold, narrow eyes. Instantly he adopted a subservient expression and posture.
"Are you worried, my pet?" Coerl shivered, that tone often preceded a particularly painful punishment. He dared to raise his eyes. Kei Rascer stood beside a small table, on top of which sat a clam-like sclipune.
She bared her upper teeth and ran a fingertip across her fangs so that blood welled from the cut. Using the bloodied finger, she traced a pattern on the top ridges of the sclipune. The hinged shell parted and the top swung open, revealing two items within: a head-sized, leathery villip and a spine-covered dovin basal, one of the four the Vong here possessed, the other three being situated to defend the bunker.
"You needn't fear, we will keep you safe." Coerl cringed. "I guarantee it."
The Imperitor rained basterfire on the defense platform in orbit above Orune Prime. As Thrawn anticipated, the defenders diverted all power to the upper shields and weapons, and while the station returned fire a wing of TIE Advanced fighters and Interceptors attacked the underside. Blaster bolts and missiles punctured the weakened shields and destroyed the propulsion systems.
The defense platform tipped to one side, drifting, and began the slow, burning fall into the atmosphere. Parck had to give the platform crew credit, they kept firing until the shields gave out and life support system failed, then escape pods jettisoned from the hulk of wrecked durasteel.
"Defense platform is out of commission, sir." Commander Veenir turned to his superiors. "The gunners have a clear shot at the surface."
"You have your orders." Thrawn replied. "Continue landing ground troops and engage any enemy unity attempting to prevent their landing. Also continue targeting all antiaircraft installations."
Meanwhile, other orbital platforms were slowly moving in to cover the threatened area over the capital, firing their weapons and launching wings of fighters. Armed satellites, small but well- shielded and equipped with powerful repulsers, moved swiftly across the atmosphere. Using a design similar to Thrawn's own missile boats, they were capable of catching a fighter with their tractor beams, then launching a missile at them. Fortunately there, were only a few of the things, most of which were quickly taken out by the Star Destroyers.
Aside from the Imperitor, six other Star Destroyers were a part of the assault, along with eight smaller strike cruisers. An Interdiction cruiser maintained a hyperspace anomaly that kept enemy ships from escaping and prevented hostile vessels from jumping into the battle. It was all that could be scraped together on such short notice, nowhere near enough to conquer a well- defended world like Orune Prime, yet they were doing just that.
Despite the Grand Admiral's long-standing record of success, Parck had harbored a few doubts about this campaign, which had evaporated the instant the small fleet had jumped out of hyperspace and the planetary shield had gone down, just as Thrawn predicted it would.
"I've had agents on Orune Prime for almost two years," Thrawn had said when Parck pointed out the formidable defenses they would be facing, "remnants of the old royalists, and others Coerl has oppressed during his rule. Even before we knew about the Yuuzhan Vong I had been planning Warlord Coerl's defeat; it was the only way to extend the Emperor's control throughout this sector. Imperial Intelligence operatives have been contacting various groups, training, arming and organizing them, all in preparation for our assault." He had grimaced. "Though truthfully I had believed the attack on Orune Prime itself would not occur for several months. Before we jump into hyperspace I will signal them to sabotage the planetary shield and begin an open revolt."
And just like Thrawn had planned it, the fleet fell out of hyperspace to find Orune Prime naked as a mollusk without a shell. More, there were only a handful of capital ships defending the planet, vastly outgunned by the Star Destroyers.
"Studying those dead Vong has certainly shown results." Parck murmured. "You predicted the defenses we'd run into exactly."
The Grand Admiral nodded. "As I said before, I have gained some understanding of how Sang Anor thinks. I suspected that, seeing Unity Fleet's collapse as imminent, he would expend all of Coerl's resources on harrying us to the point of stripping defensive ships from around Orune Prime itself. He depended on the plagues to keep us on the defensive and Orune Prime's planetary shield to protect his figurehead." Thrawn smiled. "He was so intent on us, he ignored the cracks in his own fortress' walls."
On the viewscreens, damaged TIE and enemy fighters spiraled down through the grey, polluted clouds while those pilots that could jettisoned from their doomed ships. Orbital platforms and satellites were taking heavy damage from the Imperial battleships, and the ground forces were making their way to the capital. Or rather, the fortified bunker near the capital.
"That's the last of them." Parck said as the final defense platform exploded in a brief flash; the void of space drank up the artificial atmosphere in the breached station, leaving the fires nothing to burn with. The few remaining fighters had been mopped up as well, and the satellites were now just so much charred scrap. The surprise of the attack the overwhelming firepower of the Imperial ships and the disabling of the planetary shield had coincided with devastating results to Coerl's forces. "The skies are ours."
"Organize the ships in a defensive formation." Thrawn ordered. "It's only a matter of time before one of the other worlds under Coerl's control discovers the jamming field and alerts their fleet." He looked across the bridge to the Imperial ships beyond the transparisteel viewports, all the ships that could be gathered on such short notice, before Sang Anor could hear of his plagues' failure and have Coerl pull back his ships. They would have to be enough.
"Hopefully we will be able to hold off any counterattack long enough for Beyin to do his part. Coerl is our primary target here, his fleet and resources are a tool Sang Anor has used with considerable effectiveness. We must take that tool away from him."
"Sir," Parck said quietly, "if that's the case, why not just fire on the bunker from orbit?"
"It wouldn't work," Thrawn shook his head, "by now, the Vong have Coerl tucked safely away underground. They may have gotten him out of the bunker altogether, though I doubt that very much. Most likely they'll dig themselves in and wait for reinforcements." He watched the land battle via transmitions from the ground units and the sensor readings from the Imperitor. "We would not be certain, and I will not retreat from this world until I know that Coerl is either captured or dead." Parck's eyes widened.
"But your allies revealed themselves when they brought down the shield. You told them you were coming to topple Coerl and liberate them, if we retreat when Coerl's forces arrive-"
"It can't be helped," came the implacable Chiss voice, "I will hold this planet if at all possible, if not, then we leave Orune Prime to whichever of Coerl's commanders secedes him. At least Sang Anor will no longer control this territory and his position in this galaxy will be weakened."
Imperial AT-AT walkers advanced across the blighted plain, their sensors peering through the smog-filled air, searching for opposition. Hovering tanks and troop transports moved among the walkers' lumbering feet, like squat Jawa children playing around a herd of banthas. A vanguard of faster AT-STs scouted the way and wings of TIE fighters flew overhead.
From one of the lead walkers, General Beyin scanned the terrain and unit reports with the air of calm authority that had carried him through a hundred other campaigns. While the majority of Chiss troopers in the Empire were fairly young, Beyin's black hair and square-cut beard sported several streaks of white, and there were fine lines around his glowing red eyes; he had been a famous general even before joining the Empire.
Fed up with the politics and scheming of the Chiss rulers, Beyin resigned his commission and contacted the Grand Admiral six years ago. His defection was a serious blow to the First Families: it was easy for them to ignore the outflow of young, low-born males, no matter their numbers, but the disappearance of such a celebrated general was bound to draw attention to Thrawn's activities. "Scout K-14 reporting, sir, no sign of enemy units." Pollution in the air tinged the AT-ST pilot's voice with static.
"They're probably massing a few clicks closer to the capital." Beyin said. "First wave, increase speed, all others hold your pace. J-4, take point." Beyin's mouth twisted slightly, it still felt awkward delivering commands in the human tongue. Intellectually, he could accept that 'Basic' was the common tongue in most of the galaxy, but it still irked that Imperial Chiss were expected to conform to at barbarian language.
He had once considered advising Mith'raw'nuruodo to at least teach the Chiss language to the humans in his fleet, but the thought of his native tongue being mangled in barbarian mouths stopped him. Beyin sometimes doubted the Syndic's sanity in allying himself with this human Empire: the General had been involved in military campaigns against every significant power in five sectors, upstart aliens who thought they could carve out a piece of Chiss territory, but in those battles he had always led or fought beside his fellow Chiss, men he trusted and whose minds and motives he understood. To him, the humans were still too much of an unknown.
By the Families, I hope these savages don't get in the way.
As he expected, the capital garrison had turned out to meet them about three klicks from the target. A line of tanks stood between the Imperials and a well-shielded mobile fortress that had hovered out from the capital and settled down in their path. Turboblasters and ion cannon bristled on the walls, Beyin didn't see any fighters rising to engage the wings of TIEs overhead, but several antiaircraft turrets jutted from the walls.
The Walkers were strung out in a long line. The Imperial Walkers were impressive and useful pieces of machinery, but Beyin knew from experience that it was a bad move to cluster them together: if one of them went down, the others could easily be blocked or tripped up by them. As per his orders, five walkers and their accompanying support tanks increased their speed. They would bear the initial brunt of the garrison assault.
Like a pyrotechnics display choreographed by a madman, the defenders opened fire. Blaster bolts seared through the smoggy air to impact the Imperials. The Walkers staggered at the force of the blows, then shrugged them off and pressed on with the charge.
The defenders faced a dilemma: the head and body of a Walker are the easiest to hit, but also the most heavily armored. By contrast the legs and knee joints are the most vulnerable part of the war machines, but very difficult to hit from a distance. If an AT-AT was close enough that you could aim accurately at the legs, then the Walker was close enough to return fire, and you were already dead. The simple panic brought on by seeing an AT-AT bearing down like an avalanche of durasteel is enough to rout most defenders.
Imperial speeder bikes zipped ahead of the vanguard. Like AT-STs, the small, fast units would harass and distract defenders, but they also served a more important purpose: to detect land mines that might endanger the Walkers. The mines were primitive things, but effective, pressure sensitive and only activated by a great weight, say a Walker's foot or the repulsors of a hovering tank. More advanced machinery was too expensive, especially when investing in something designed to blow up, and there were too many things that could go wrong with complicated equipment.
Not knowing that the Imperials were coming or from what direction, it was doubtful Coerl's forces had time to bury more than a few of the explosives barring the Imperials' way, and the freshly dug earth would be visible to the speeder pilots even when moving at such great velocities.
Of course, no system was perfect, so Beyin reflected as one of the Walkers set off a mine. The explosion under the front-left foot made the AT-AT stagger, but it seemed the pilot might regain his Walker's balance and keep it on all four feet, until the garrison's turboblasters targeted the unbalanced machine and knocked it on its side. Beyin made a note to himself to reprimand the crew of the Walker and the speeder pilot who both missed that mine. It would surprise him if all were human.
A blast from one of the garrison's ion cannons splashed across a Walker in a wave of energy that scrambled the computer systems. The war machine's right-front leg was partly raised in the act of taking a step when the hydraulics automatically locked the joints and made all the legs rigid. It slumped forward but remained upright, at least, even though it couldn't move or shoot. As useful as a thousand-ton paperweight.
The Imperials were doing some damage as well as being on the receiving end. Blaster bolts battered the defenders' energy shields and two tanks exploded in a ball of fire and shower of charred durasteel.
Beyin bent all his concentration on the battle. He could only hope Green Squadron was doing well against the true target of this invasion.
As Thrawn had hoped, the capital garrison was devoted to stopping the Imperials, leaving Coerl's bunker almost completely undefended. At least by conventional weaponry. Green Squadron located and destroyed every automated defense blocking the and a few troop transports Before resuming their primary mission: strafing the bunker.
Their twin ion engines screaming, the TIEs circled back. The bunker was a squat, ugly shape perched on a rocky hill some distance from the city. Outwardly austere and utilitarian, it gave no evidence of the luxurious interior Coerl was known to prefer. There were scores along the walls and top of the structure: the energy shield that should have protected it had been disabled by the Yuuzhan Vong along with everything else technological in their reach. Another volley of blaster bolts streaked down, bent and vanished before touching the durasteel walls.
"What the fragg-!" One pilot exclaimed. "The bolts just winked out!"
"Initiate secondary attack plan." The squadron leader snapped. Everything was going according to the Grand Admiral's plan: he'd hoped to force the Vong to utilize their dovin basals before the ground forces moved in. "Low-power blasts, tire them out." The TIEs made three more passes over the bunker, attacking with weak but plentiful blaster bolts. On the second pass a few got through, on the third pass most of the bolts splashed against the hull.
"They're weak, weapons to full power."
"Green Squadron, this is Captain Parck," transmitted by radio waves because of the jamming field around the planet, the captain's voice was scratchy but recognizable, "the Admiral's analyzed their defense pattern, target these areas." Three points on the bunker diagram in the targeting computer turned red. "The dovin basals are stationed there."
"Aye, sir. Green Two, Green Five, take the first target. Four and Six, the far side. Three, we'll get the center."
"Understood." The perfectly pronounced Basic of the Chiss pilot responded as Green Three's Interceptor angled to keep pace with the squadron leader's Advanced. Green One had kept two of his missile back for just this occasion, now he launched them both. The missiles flew, trailing white smoke that looked oddly clean compared to the filthy smog, they impacted and gouts of fire and force tore into the wall, killing the dovin basal sheltered behind.
Two similar explosions followed. "The way's clear." Green One sent to the carrier.
Stormtroopers exited the carrier in the quick-but-orderly way characteristic of the Empire's top infantry. Facing the rent fortress, they waited for whatever the Vong would try.
The bunker was silent.
"They're not coming out to meet us." The officer said, the black glass of his helmet hid the glow from his red eyes. "Turn on your helmet cams, the Admiral wants records of this. We're going in. Check your weapons and remember the orders: get in, get Coerl, get out." They were to take Coerl alive if possible, dead if necessary, but not to leave without the Warlord in tow. Ignoring the noise and flashes of light from the battle, they filed up the hill and into the bunker.
"We're in," he said to the transport pilot via his comm link, "no hostiles in sight." But gods of space, look at what is! what they saw of the interior was wrecked, but in far more detail than the strafing runs might have accounted for. Everything remotely technological, down to the smallest device, had been smashed to its component bits and the wreckage left to gather dust. Computer screens had been smashed, holopads taken apart, every conceivable modern convenience and device was utterly wrecked. Even the wall jacks and plug-in sockets had been torn out and the wiring pulled from the walls.
More amazing than the destruction, though, was what had replaced the technology. The stormtroopers saw large tubes of black coral that had apparently jutted up through the floors in spots where garbage pales or waste incinerators would be placed. The central heating and cooling systems were doubtless scrapped too, but fungus-like growths on the walls seemed to expel warmth into the chilly air. It took the Imperials a moment to realize the plants were also cleaning and processing the polluted air let in through the holes they had made in the exterior. What looked like veins of some armored substance traced the walls, taking nutrients to the organic devices? Carrying away waste?
The glowpanels set into the ceiling were broken, but there was light: thousands of winged insects flew near and landed on the ceiling. Their rounded bodies glowed bright. Lumin bugs, they had short lifespans and reproduced rapidly. There was no problem with feeding them or sweeping up the corpses of dead bugs: with the typical, frightening efficiency of Yuuzhan Vong creatures the old and slow were devoured by the newborn.
Aside from cannibalizing each other, the insects got their sustenance from a carpet of thin, fuzzy moss that covered the ceiling. The Imperials could glimpse the cracked glowpanels through the moss and the glowing bugs. Barely.
The greatest astonishment was that the sliding doors had been replaced by odd orifices which looked as though they could open and close like irises, all of which were closed and sealed.
"Looks tough." A stormtrooper rapped the 'door' with an armored hand.
"Let's see how it likes blasterfire." A trooper aimed.
"No!" The officer said, but the Imperial had already fired. The energy bolt struck the seal and ricocheted. The troopers half- ducked as the bolt struck the ceiling in a startled cloud of lumin bugs.
"Nice shooting, soldier." The officer put an edge in his voice. "I hope the Grand Admiral appreciates the marksmanship." A not-so-subtle reminder that Thrawn would be viewing their every action when they turned in the datacards in their helmet cams. The stormtrooper looked ready to sink into the floor. "Sniffer, get a reading on this thing."
The Imperials parted as a scanner droid that hovered past and stopped at the barrier. It extended an arm and probed with its sensors. The 'door' was a hard, chitinous substance secured to the frame by some sort of hardened gel. The droid studied the door first, then the frame, and reported its findings to the officer.
"Dense, but not too thick. Two packs should do it." He gestured to a trooper, who secured two thermal grenades to the door with a quick-acting adhesive. The Imperials took cover and activated the explosives.
The blast shattered the door and took some of the frame with it, and the way was cleared.
The compound was big, so they split into two groups and set off in different directions. According to the plans for this type of structure the royalists had provided, they should be able to sweep this level and meet at the opposite side quickly using this strategy. Thrawn doubted that Coerl would be on the first level, but if he was then they would find him.
Moving with surprising lightness, the armored men methodically moved down the hallways. Occasionally they came across a door either blocking their way or leading to a side room, all of which were blocked with the same kind of living seal. They had to plant their explosives and backtrack to wait for the blast before proceeding. The Imperials had penetrated some ways into the bunker and were alert for any sign of ambush, but so far all was quiet, no sign of enemy activity.
Group One had reached the end of a hallway and was preparing to blast through the doorway blocking them when three high, piercing whistles sounded. The sounds came from no discernable direction, and the Imperials had no time to wonder what it meant: on the third whistle all the lumin bugs winked out and the bunker was black as the void.
"Night vision, now!" The humans began activating the special sensors build into their helmets and the darkness resolved into black shapes lit by a green background. The Chiss didn't bother: their eyes provided sight in total darkness that was about equal to that of the night vision sensors.
The officer was about to contact the second group via his comm-link when he heard a low buzz behind him. He turned his head just in time to hear the stormtrooper's brief, gurgling shriek, quickly uttered and quickly cut off.
It was one of the soldiers in the rear: he jerked, stumbled forward and dropped to his knees.
"There! I saw something!" A trooper fired down the corridor they had come from, where a dark figure could be glimpsed ducking back around the corner. Other stormtroopers were turning and shoot. The injured trooper, still on his knees, had dropped his blaster rifle as he frantically tried to reach behind his back, then fell forward, dead. A discus-shaped insect with razor- sharp sides was wiggling out of the incision it had made in the man's armored back.
Lips twisted in disgust, the officer shot the razorbug.
"Get him!" The stormtroopers began running back down the corridor, and alarm bells went off in the officer's head. Something was wrong here, either the thrower was trying to lure them into a trap, or...
He spun back around, eyes widening, to the door. So fast he could have missed it by blinking, the barrier irised open and a dark figure bounded into the hallway.
"Troopers, turn and fire!" He barked. The officer glimpsed black armor with silver trim, a staff spinning in its hands, he raised his blaster rifle but the amphistaff's tail struck the barrel, knocking it to the right so the blaster bolt struck the corridor wall. The Yuuzhan Vong followed that move with a side-kick to the officer's stomach that knocked him onto his back. It felt like a battering ram even through the armor.
The stormtroopers were turning back around, trying to get their bearing in the darkness. The Vong warrior charged them, amphistaff whirling. Meanwhile the narrow door to an unnoticed supply closet in the left wall of the corridor swung open and another Yuuzhan Vong seemed to unfold out into the hall from the tiny space: even cleared of the cleaning droid and its supplies it couldn't have been more than a half-step deep. The amphistaff around his arm uncoiled and stiffened as he plunged into the Imperials from the side and the sniper Vong at the end of the hallway jumped back around the corner and hurled another razorbug at the stormtroopers.
Group Two had already set their charges on a door blocking their way and found cover when the lights winked out. The officer commanding the second team ordered his men to activate their night vision sensors. He automatically reached for his comm-link and tried to talk to the first team. He got shouts, grunts and the sound of blasterfire as a response, then the explosives cleared the way.
The officer faced a decision he had only seconds to make: there could be Vong in the room they had just opened, if the stormtroopers hurried to reinforce their comrades without clearing that room first they risked attacks and ambush from behind. For all he knew, the attack on Group One could be a diversion with just this purpose in mind.
"Blast," he murmured and signaled the stromtroopers to rush into the newly-opened room.
It was awkward, charging with only night vision to go on, some of the troopers almost tripped on the dead alien matter that had been scattered in the blast, but they all made it.
They piled into the room and spread out, blasters trained in every direction. There was, apparently, no one there, but the room itself was more than enough to keep their attention.
The space was large, circular, big enough to be a conference room of some kind, judging by the excellent acoustics. Whatever the original purpose was, the Vong had converted it into some kind of temple. The Imperials had no need of their night vision sensors here: the place had its own light source, globular membranes filled with some sort of lighter-than-air gas glowed with a ghostly light drifted around the perimeter of the room, casting strange patterns of light and shadow.
The walls, floor and ceiling had been completely coated with corral. The substance was covered with carvings: alien symbols, designs and pictures which might be writing, and the etchings themselves glowed softly. There were also four statues in the room, at opposing sides. They were built to human scale, but of larger dimensions. A massive, hideous thing, all spikes, fangs and claws. A tall, vaguely feminine shape, but with no clear features. A hunched, grotesque thing that actually seemed to be shying away from the light had its visage turned to the floor.
The biggest statue, a solemn expression on what remained of its face, actually looked dismembered and partially eviscerated.
The strangest thing was the alter in the room's center, where what looked like a rack was set up.
The officer was the first to break the spell this alien place had cast on them. "Spread out and check this place, and make sure your helmet cams get a good look at those carvings, the Admiral will want to study them."
One of the stormtroopers approached the picked-apart statue and prodded it with his blaster. "Ugly scragger, isn't it." He said.
"I don't know," another chuckled, "hook some prosthetics limbs on him, maybe cover him with synthaflesh, he might be presentable."
"Can say that ag-Ahh!" He shrieked as a glob of blorash jelly released its hold on the ceiling and dropped on his head. The trooper stumbled back, dropped his blaster and grabbed at the jelly, which quickly coated his entire upper body.
"What's that stuff on him?"
"Sithspawn!" A stormtrooper gasped. The goo was cutting off his comrade's airflow, he heard the muffled screams under the jelly. The jellied trooper was running, struck by blind panic. He ran into a wall and staggered, almost fell. Another stormtrooper approached him, reached out his hand in a desire to help.
"Stop! Get away from him!" The officer shouted, but it was too late. Tendrils of jelly shot out, stuck to the trooper's arms and head and pulled him and the other Imperial together. Now, both their heads and torsos coated with living jelly, they struggled with the blorash jelly and each other and tried to run in two directions at once.
"Get back! Get back!" Another stormtrooper shouted in terror as the two jelly-covered Imperials stumbled towards him, the Vong creature extending more tendrils toward him. He stepped back, raised his blaster.
"No! Stun them!" The officer snapped. The stormtrooper was well-trained enough to pause the half-second necessary to switch settings before shooting. Blue arcs of energy covered the troopers and their assailant. They both dropped to the floor, but the jelly stretched out toward him with terrifying, fluid speed. It struck, splattered and stuck to his chestplate, the hauled the rest of itself up onto him, putting the stormtrooper in the same position his stunned fellows had been in.
"Weapons to stun! Get-" The officer was interrupted when the Yuuzhan Vong warrior lying full-length on the ceiling unhooked his feet from the corral and swung down, kicking the officer hard in the chest. As he fell back the Vong twisted his lower body, legs shooting out in opposite directions, and knocking two other Imperials to the floor before releasing his handholds and dropping down into a defensive crouch.
"Do-ro'ik vong pratte!" He howled and seized the amphistaff around his waist, whipped it out and knocked the legs out from under another stormtrooper. He leaped over the Imperial, staff whirling. "Defilers!" He roared in Basic.
Blasterfire was everywhere, some bolts struck the walls and statues, a few struck the alien and were deflected by his armor. A stormtrooper rushed the warrior, but the Vong ducked and hit the Imperial's back with his amphistaff. He stumbled into the alter, where two long arms unfolded from the rack, reached for him, grabbed his wrists, pulled.
The officer was getting to his feet when the scream made him turn toward the Embrace of Pain. He took one look and quickly turned his head away. In Imperial space, he had often heard Wookies threaten to tear someone arms out of their sockets, but until now he had never seen it done..
"We've got control of the first level." The voice crackled over the comm board in the AT-AT. "But we've lost eight men and three others are wounded."
Beyin bit off a curse as blasterfire rocked the AT-AT. "How many hostiles?"
"We engaged four, took out three. One got away, we think to the next level down." A pause. "If there'd been any more, they would've wiped us out."
Beyin scanned the battle. Another enemy tank had just been blown up and the Imperials were flanking their adversaries, but the remainder of the defenders were clustered together, blaster cannons bristling in all directions.
"I'm sending another troop transport, hold the first floor and wait."
"Is it ready?"
"Yes, the air is saturated." The warrior glanced down at the bulbous creature, glued to the floor by its own mucus, then up at the ceiling. His eyes narrowed behind the mask. "The infidels are defiling the temple." The undercurrent of rage was clear in his voice.
"We will cleanse them soon enough. With fire. Go down to the lower levels. I will wait for them and spring the trap." He turned to the doorway. Like all the passages on this floor, it was wide open to better circulate the treated air. The other Vong stopped him with a clawed gauntlet.
"You go to the lower levels, let me stay." He was the only one of the warriors who had not yet engaged the infidels. The trap they had set here might delay the Imperials until the Warlord's fleet arrived and drove the Star Destroyers out, in which case he would get no chance to fight at all. Remaining to trigger this trap, though, that would be a great escalation.
"You're sure of this?" The other asked with some reluctance.
"If one of us fails, the other will be all that stands between the infidels and Kei Rascer." The Vong pressed. "We both know you are the better warrior."
"So be it then." The two warriors clasped forearms. "Give the gods my greetings when you see them, little brother, and bring them many infidel lives." He struck his shoulders with opposite fists and left for the stairwell.
The freshly-reinforced party of Imperials stormed through the stairwell door and into the sublevel. Any mechanized alarms or check points that might have barred their way had been long since trashed and the biological devices of the Yuuzhan Vong made no effort to stop them.
"No opposition so far," the officer used his comm link to speak to the stormtroopers who remained on the ground floor, "in fact it looks too easy, over." By the light from the lumin bugs, he could see all the living doorways around them were open.
"Proceed, do a quick search and head down to the next level." They left five troopers to guard the stairwell while the rest began their search.
The Imperials suspected that Coerl was on the lowest level, but no single stairwell extended more than one level down, after which one had to cross the entire level to reach the next stairwell. The turbolifts, even if they still existed, wouldn't be much better: the lifts were all code-activated and a single missed keystroke could result in lethal traps. Coerl had always been a maniac about his personal security, as well as other things.
They couldn't even scale down the empty shafts: the Vong had used them as garbage chutes for the technical devices they removed and scrapped. Genetically engineer alien bacteria was breaking the down the plastic and durasteel into a kind of feed that fueled their organic devices.
"Careful," the officer led them, single-file, through a doorway, "the right command and this door could snap shut." And cut someone in half at the threshold, armor or no. They hurried through.
"Something stinks," a Chiss trooper said.
"Yeah," another answered, "this is suspicious-"
"No, I mean something stinks!" The Imperial heard sniffing beneath the other's helmet. "Can't you smell it?"
"What's wrong?" A human trooper smirked. "This place offend your delicate olfactories? Maybe you should've brought perfume-"
"Shut up," the human flared his nostrils and tried to smell beyond the sweat-and-plastic interior of his helmet. Now that the Chiss had mentioned it, he did detect something odd in the air. Sharp, sulphurous... "Sir-"
"Way ahead of you." The officer signaled for them to stop. "Helmets off." He pulled his own headgear free.
With their faces directly exposed to the air, the contaminant stung their nostrils like ammonia. "Sniffer, what do you make of this?"
The droid extended a sensor. "There is a vaporous agent in the airflow, Master." It responded. "Unfamiliar reading, but initial analysis suggests it is highly combustible." The officer felt a chill creeping along his back.
"Did you get that? Over." He spoke into his helmet.
"Affirmative." The comm link replied. "Withdraw, no shooting, ov-"
"Do-ro'ik vong pratte!" A Yuuzhan Vong appeared at the end of the hallway. Small, spherical thud bugs shot down the hall and knocked three troopers to the floor. The speed and density of the small creatures was enough to puncture the troopers' armor. One of the Imperials raised his blaster rifle, took aim...
"No!" The officer exclaimed, too late. The energy bolt streaked towards the Vong, igniting the air as it flew, and the air became fire.
It took less than a second for the airborne agent mixed with the oxygen to completely burn itself out, but during that time the atmosphere of the sublevel was like the outer layer of a sun. Durasteel walls, Vong creatures, people, melted and ran together. On the upper level the floor buckled under the Imperials' feet and huge gulps of air were sucked down the stairwell, to fill the void made by the oxygen burnout that fueled that burst of heat. A stormtrooper was stationed near the upper stairs and the gust knocked him off his feet, dragged him to the doorway and nearly broke his neck.
"Sithspawn." The officer managed to say. His voice was very small and he gazed at the disfigured floor with wide eyes.
"The capital garrison has surrendered and the royalists have control of the city." The life-sized image of General Beyin appeared in the bridge and reported to the Grand Admiral. "The diversion tactic was a success." The holographic view expanded to show a three- dimensional field depicting the battlefield. Jrukto troops, wearing breathing masks in the smoggy air, were climbing out of their wrecked war machines, throwing down their weapons and raising their hands. Stormtroopers, their armor blue in the hologram's light, herded the prisoners into a large group near one of the downed AT-ATs.
Thrawn nodded, exactly as he had planned it: while the city garrison was busy engaging the Imperials, the native royalists and the Imperial Intelligence team supporting them had seized the city commanders and forced them to issue surrender orders.
A good plan, but not one the Grand Admiral could honestly take credit for: during his time with the Empire proper, he had made a detailed study of military history. He had borrowed this particular battle plan from Naboo's defeat of the Trade Federation more than forty years ago. He had modified it slightly from what he'd read in Palpatine's records, of course: Queen Amidala's plan to retake her homeworld had been so desperate it was beyond believable, which was the essence of its success.
I would have enjoyed meeting such a remarkable female. A pity. The Admiral felt little satisfaction from this victory: it was still incomplete.
"And the bunker?" Thrawn asked, though he could already guess the answer before Beyin reappeared and continued.
"We've taken the first floor, but the Vong have kept us out of the sublevels. I've already lost over a company in that deathtrap. I'm taking another company up there right now, sir." The elder Chiss was as crisp and proper as Thrawn remembered from his training on Homeworld. The general was the most demanding taskmaster he had ever known, a nightmare for any of the young Syndics-to-be lucky enough to be put under his command. It was impossible for any of them to please General Beyin, but Thrawn had come the closest.
It had been a most unexpected surprise when the general had decided to resign his rank on Homeworld and join Unity Fleet, and it still felt awkward giving his former teacher orders. It was even more of a shock to realize he now understood Beyin better than the general understood himself. His belief in the innate superiority of the Chiss over all other beings, for instance, was the key to his personality. It was also a weakness Thrawn would not tolerate in any of his underlings, even Beyin.
"Very well, general, but one thing," Thrawn held up his hand, "the company will consist of humans and Chiss mixed in equal numbers." Beyin's face did not change, but his eyes brightened several shades, confirming Thrawn's suspicion that he would have taken only Chiss stormtroopers if he could.
"Yes, Admiral. Beyin out." The hologram vanished.
Captain Parck took the opportunity to approach his superior. "The TIE fighters report no enemy activity in the system, and the escape pods, friendly and hostile, have all been gathered in."
"Have the fleet take up defensive positions around the planet. I anticipate a counterattack by Coerl's fleet very soon, we need to buy Beyin time to capture the Warlord."
"Yes sir." He turned away, paused, then turned back. "Sir, may I speak freely?"
"Sir, why the preoccupation with Coerl? As I see it, we should be more concerned with taking out opposition and holding his capital world."
Thrawn scanned the skies above the planet while he spoke. "Even if we hold Orune Prime, Captain, it means nothing without Coerl in custody or a confirmation of his death. That bunker probably has several hidden escape routes, but right now the remaining Vong handlers are holding him in the there, I'm certain of it, because they're hoping his fleet with drive us out. If the outcome is not in their favor, then they will retreat.
"If they escape with Coerl they will try and get him offplanet and use him to rally his remaining forces, and Sang Anor will retain his influence. The purpose of this attack was to deprive the Executor of Coerl's territory and resources, but I cannot as long as he is alive and in Vong control.
"Even if the Warlord doesn't make it off Orune Prime, the Yuuzhan Vong could still manage to retain control with a facsimile: perhaps they have a form of cloning, or they could use an impersonator with a new kind of masquer. We need Coerl captive or proof of his death to present his commanders with: it will prevent them from uniting behind a Vong imposter."
Below, the smog swirled in a windblown dance. For a brief second, Thrawn could make out the bright lights of a smog- shrouded city. Then the tide of tainted air covered the patch of bright with shadow.
Beyin was a traditionalist in every sense of the word. As such, he gave the appearance of complete confidence in both the decisions of his superiors and the ability of his subordinates, though he was having his doubts about both. Mith'raw'nuruodo had always been clever: he had seen through Beyin instantly and prevented the general from using an exclusively Chiss team to raid the bunker. Now he had to worry about these undisciplined savages bumbling through this important mission.
But the Syndic had given his orders, and Beyin obeyed without question, as he hadn't questioned the attack on this planet: a dishonorable pre-emptive strike that stung his Chiss pride.
Honor, pride, obedience, these were lessons drilled into Beyin's very soul during officer's training. He was of noble blood, of course, if only that of a poor and very minor House, else the upper echelons of command would have been as far beyond him as the other side of the galaxy. His time in the battlefields had taught him that a soldier's merit had nothing to do with who his ancestors were, though. Seeing disciplined and dedicated Chiss soldiers placed under the command of officers chosen more for their breeding than their brains, nobles who would waste many good lives to make a victory more costly and thus more impressive, had driven him to the Empire, but he never considered abandoning his training. If your commander gave an order, you followed it, and that was all.
In spite of himself, he felt a flash of pride at serving the Grand Admiral. Thrawn had become the best of the Syndics in every way, and Beyin had a hand in that. Oh, he had kept Beyin on his toes as a trainee: he was always so willful, so confident in his ideas, unnerving because he was so often right. But in this instance he was wrong.
He was wrong to have anything to do with these humans and their Emperor in the first place! He could have fought the High Families, could have refused their sentence of exile. He had a strong phalanx and the support of several other Houses. Thrawn could have stayed and tried to reform the system, could have...
He could have plunged the Chiss into civil war, and we would have destroyed ourselves as no outside aggressor could have. Beyin ground his teeth. Thrawn had taken the long view, seen what would result from defying the High Families and so had accepted the exile. The Families had gloated, smug in their victory, and forgot all about the Syndic. Until he returned commanding an alien fleet. Now the word was spreading: Mith'raw'nuruodo was making headway against the enemies of the Chiss, he didn't waste his soldiers and bloodlines wasn't a consideration among the prospective officers.
But it still isn't right! Beyin thought fiercely. The Chiss are the greatest race in the galaxy, we shouldn't serve an alien Emperor!
He let those threads of old anger trail away as he studied the bunker interior. This was Beyin's first direct encounter with the biotechnology of these strange, new enemies Thrawn had called 'Yuuzhan Vong,' and what he saw he found repulsive. This, combined with the wanton vandalism they'd committed on the mechanized devices gave Beyin a low and distasteful opinion of the so-called extragalactics.
Clearly he was dealing with barbarians, but the general wasn't fool enough to underestimate his opponents. He knew what had happened to his advance parties, about the conflagration on the first sublevel. And he knew from experience how dangerous the savages of any race can be: not only were they violent and brutish, they were highly deceitful as well, not being bound by the honor and standards of behavior the Chiss were.
On entering the secured first floor of the dark bunker, Beyin and his team tried to use their glowrods to splash the walls with directed beams of light. That was something else the general held against his human troops: he and the other Chiss had no trouble at all with the lack of light.
As soon as the glowrods were activated the dormant lumin bugs clinging to the ceiling came to life and swarmed the light source, each one of the thousands seeming to vie with all others for brightness until it seemed there was a small sun in the room.
"Blasted things!" A trooper squeezed his eyes shut. "I've got the eyepiece tint on maximum and I still can't see!" He windmilled his arms in an attempt to swat the glowing insects.
Beyin had to agree, not even Chiss could tolerate the blinding light. "Shut off the glowrods." He ordered. He kept his voice calm, didn't bark or snap the command: no Chiss noble, and certainly not an officer of the higher echelons, would ever under any circumstance allow emotion to color his tone. That was one of the first lessons he'd learned in his military training.
Once the glowrods were doused, the lumin bugs winked out and drifted back to the ceiling. "Why'd they do that?" A trooper asked himself. "And why'd they stop."
"The mating drive." Beyin chose to answer. "It proved stronger than Vongs' command to stay dormant. With most luminescent insects, the purpose of the glow is to attract and signal mates. They recognized the light from the glowrods as a mating invitation. Humans, switch to night vision." He hit the switch on his helmet's interior with his chin. Beyin wore the armor of an anonymous stormtrooper, with no outward sign of his true rank. Warfare had taught him many things, including one truism: enemies will always target the officers first. But unlike the Chiss, other races often had no reluctance to use pre-emptive strikes or snipers.
Beyin heard his troopers' reports as he toured the first floor. The troopers spoke via helmet com links, so that any organic surveillance creatures would be unable to tell who was giving the orders. After checking the blocked elevator shafts and the stairwell, shattered by the sublevel explosion, he returned to a secured room where a portable holopad and projector had been set up. Almost on cue, a life-sized hologram of the Grand Admiral materialized before him.
"Your analysis, general?" Thrawn asked without preamble.
"Intelligence claims there are five sublevels. My guess: Coerl is on the lowest level. We'll have to proceed with caution, I believe all the Vong in the bunker are dead by now aside from the whoever's with the Warlord, but the rest of the bunker is sure to be booby-trapped."
"There is no time." Thrawn countered. "Enemy vessels have been detected at the edge of the interdiction field, a counterattack is imminent."
"There is no direct way to the lowest sublevel."
Thrawn made to speak, then stopped, frowning. "I think we've overlooked something."
"Coerl designed this bunker himself. He would want to be able to get to the lowest level quickly in case of a surprise assault like this one. He would have a private elevator installed, running directly to the bottom."
"But the Vong would have destroyed it along with all the other technology they found here."
"No, they would keep it operational for the same purpose: to quickly get Coerl to safety."
"I'll order a search, but it's a long shot."
"Look in or around Coerl's personal quarters." Thrawn glanced at something outside the hologram's visual field. "More enemy vessels have entered realspace. Time is of the essence." The hologram vanished.
The sensor droids scoured the rooms and halls near the Warlord's quarters and quickly located the hidden door. Beyin and a squad of stormtroopers were there in moments.
"I've found the controls." A stormtrooper pointed to a toggle that had been concealed by a compartment in the wall. "They aren't responding."
Beyin nodded. "Force open the door, but be cautious: the Vong may have set traps." He turned away just as the section of wall was slid aside from behind, he saw a blurred shape out of the corner of his eye and a second later he felt the shock of impact on his back and the floor was rushing up at him.
The general rolled onto his back as he hit the floor, hand reaching for his blaster pistol. Surprise and anger flared to life as he brought the blaster up, only to drown in a flood of raw terror as a massive claw reached out of the wall and seized the stormtrooper who had shoved him out of the way.
The claw closed on the man's shoulder and cracked the stormtrooper armor like eggshell. Blood spurted from the wound as the monstrosity pulled its catch into a tooth-filled maw.
Beyin's eyes were bulging and bright behind helmet. The Vong creature filled the portal, probably filled the entire elevator shaft beyond. Mandibles long as a human's arm shoved the struggling stormtrooper into the maw while two claws and numerous armored legs gripped the edge of the door and began pulling the bulky shape into the hall. Beyin's blaster was trained on the thing, but he couldn't squeeze the trigger, couldn't move, couldn't think. For the first time, since his first experience in real combat a lifetime ago, he froze. The general was accustomed to fighting, but this thing of scuttling legs and grasping claws with its clusters of tiny, senseless eyes was something out a sentient's nightmares.
The sound of a blaster firing and the flash of a bolt impacting the thing's shell snapped him back to reality. Instinctively he adjusted his aim so not to hit the struggling, screaming stormtrooper and fired as he tried to get his feet under him, scrambling backward to avoid the long, snapping claws.
The other stromtroopers were moving back, but some didn't move fast enough, so Beyin observed as a claw shot out and gripped a stromtrooper's middle, snapped the Imperial's spine and hurled him into the wall. For the first time in his life Beyin envied the humans, who lacked the visual ability of the Chiss and so could only see dark shapes against a green background with their night vision sensors instead of being subjected every gorey detail.
Blasterfire pelted the crustation from either side but did no more than scorch its shell. So far the main body of troops were out of reach; the Vong creature was only halfway out of the shaft and seemed to be stuck, its makers had probably put it there when it was younger and smaller and let it grow. Beyin's tactical mind quickly noted that the beast was slowly inching through, the blasterfire was doing little damage, and if it got loose in the corridor he and his men would be so much hash on the walls.
Beyin noticed something more as well: while one of the claws had dug into the durasteel floor for purchase and was straining to pull the creature's bulk free, the other was raised, shield like, across its 'face' where the stormtrooper, screaming and struggling in blind panic, was still held.
"The eyes!" The discipline of the Chiss officers kept panic from Beyin's voice and turned it into the whip-crack of authority. "Shoot the eyes!"
Blasterfire was shifted to rain on the eye clusters. Most of the bolts splashed the claw but a few found their mark. Beyin's superior vision treated him to the disgusting sight of several tiny black eyes popping like pus-filled pimples.
The creature emitted a high scream and swung its claws wildly at the Imperials, but they were out of reach and it could hardly see them because of the stormtrooper still gripped by its mandibles, obscuring its vision. The beast had limited intelligence, and was starting to realize taking hold of the stormtrooper might not have been a good move on its part. It had the idea of taking a few bites as it emerged from the burrow-space its masters had given him, but its mandibles and maw weren't strong enough to break through the enemy's white shell. The trooper certainly wouldn't fit in its maw whole.
Its claws were powerful enough to crack that shell, it knew that already, but it didn't have the dexterity or range of movement to touch its own face. Too bad: when it got free, it would have to crack them like shellfish instead of eating them live, like it preferred.
It swung a claw at the enemies while hooking some legs on the doorframe and continued working its way out, careful to it would work its way free. It was more cautious now: these creatures were small and weak, but they had stingers as well as shells, flashes of light has already destroyed some of its eyes. True, they would grow back in a few days, but the pain of the wounds were unbearable. The struggling one in its maw wasn't helping matters either, especially when one of its flailing limbs struck the creature's wound, signaling a fresh wave of agony. That was enough, it released the stormtrooper and flung it away with its mandibles.
That was a mistake. Beyin saw the creature 'spit' the trooper out, revealing the open maw, a clear path the to the vulnerable parts inside the armor. He unhooked a small thermal detonator from his belt, armed it and signaled a sensor droid. After some quick instructions the droid hovered forward, past the shooters and into the creature's reach. When it snapped the droid up in its free claw and began to crush it, Beyin cocked back his arm, took aim and threw.
The explosive shot into the maw and the beast reflexively swallowed. Beyin ducked to the floor. A second later there was a muffled boom and the entire 'face' exploded outward in a flood of gore. The reflex-clench of the thing's claw cut the droid in half.
Beyin rolled over, wincing, he would feel this in the morning: he kept himself in excellent shape, but he just wasn't as spry as the younger men. He looked at the monster plugging up the doorway first, to make certain it was dead. A glance told him that was beyond question. His next thought was for the trooper it had spit out.
"Check that man." He ordered, then took in the rest of his troops. "Any injuries?" The stormtroopers were clearly shaken, but the general's command of the situation helped bolster their spirits. Good, he needed to maintain an image of control, to keep their confidence up. They quickly took stock of themselves and reported a negative.
Beyin nodded, turned back to the fallen trooper, and his glowing eyes went wide with shock. He was glad the helmet hid his face, this surprise had shaken his calm visage for an instant. They had gotten the man's helmet off and Beyin could plainly see that the trooper who had, without hesitation, pushed him out of the beast's reach at the risk of his own life, was human.
"How is he?" He asked when he found his voice. He was relieved to hear how level it was.
"Lost a lot of blood, sir." The trooper kneeling over him said. "Gone into shock too. Good news is the armor protected him from the worst of it. Got a broken arm, collarbone and maybe a couple ribs."
Beyin nodded, observing the trooper's white, senseless face. "Get him out of hear as soon as possible. The rest of you," he glanced at the dead monster, "clear the doorway."
It was difficult, pulling the creature out of the passage: the stormtroopers hooked their arms around claws and legs, a few braced themselves against the wall and pushed with their legs. There was muffled cursing and some slipped in the newly-messed floor, but the dead weight was dislodged.
Now that it was outside the corridor, Beyin could see the creature was even bigger than it had first appeared. Light spilled from the doorway, showing every detail: the lumin bugs in the elevator shaft were still active and kept their place. A stormtrooper leaned over and looked down the shaft. "Where's the turbolift?"
Beyin looked at the flat-backed crab. "I believe we've just killed it."
The general picked out five stormtroopers. "Uncoil the lines and magnet-seal them to the shaft's interior. We'll repel down."
"You're going yourself, sir?" An officer started. "The risk-"
"If we don't dig Coerl out soon we will lose a valuable opportunity." He tested the line. "We'll keep our com links open. Double-check your helmet-cams," he said to the troopers going with him, "the Admiral will want a record of this."
The six Imperials braced themselves and jumped out, unreeled some line and stopped the reel after three seconds. Their weight swung them back to the wall and Beyin felt the impact of his feet travel all the way to the top of his head. Mejas is right, he thought grimly, I am getting too old for this. For months his wife had been pressing him to stay off the battlefield, or at least to command from a safe distance. His response had always been the same: "I wouldn't trust these humans to lace their own boots without me standing over them." That was his attitude on this mission as well, but almost getting scooped out of one's armor and eaten by a giant crab can encourage one to stop and take stock.
Perhaps I'll try and avoid direct combat after this, he thought, a little sadly, Mejas should be relieved, if I'm too old for battle, then she's too old to moon over her man's latest scars. He chuckled quietly, she probably wouldn't be so happy to hear it that way, he decided. So he would phrase it in just those words.
They had gone down nearly two levels when Beyin noticed their companions: the lumin bugs that hovered just a foot over their heads, gently glowing. The humans would no longer need their night vision.
The Imperials landed, unhooked their harnesses and let them hang, then readies their blasters. The door to the last sublevel was a normal-looking one that slid into the wall, apparently the Vong saw nothing wrong with that simple mechanics. It was closed, but there were handles and the door itself looked light.
"You take point," Beyin indicated one trooper, "the rest of us will spread out behind him. We don't know what we're dealing with, so set blasters on high and shoot anything that moves." The troopers gave quick, affirmative nods. Beyin took the handle and pulled the door into the wall.
In the backs of their minds, the Imperials had expected to see something resembling the inside of an insect hive in this place, far from prying eyes, where the trappings of the surface civilization could be set aside: a stone cavern, stripped bare of technology but covered by strange and grotesque organic devices. They expected slime, buzzing, transparent wings and things that scuttled on fast little legs. What they saw was a sunny day in paradise.
The grass, the lake, the colorful avians and the bright sunshine were so overwhelming a contrast to horrors above that it took a moment to register the single Yuuzhan Vong standing before them, about five paces from the entry.
The Vong female was armored, but her head and hands were bare. A tall, portly Jrukto in military-style clothing stood beside her, looking both hopeful and terrified. The alien held something in both hands, heart-shaped and spined.
Beyin blinked. "Fire!"
Blaster bolts streaked past the doorway, converged and vanished at a point a good foot from the Vong. The alien wore a smug half-smile and held out the dovin basal as if she were a primitive native offering what beads and rocks her tribe took for wealth to the strange sky-gods, a scene Beyin had witnessed several times on backward planets brought into the Empire.
The point man charged through the door, blaster raised to shoot again, and in less than a second he was yanked off his feet pulled forward, compressed into a speck of dust and sucked into another universe, caught by the miniature gravity well of the dovin basal.
A fresh volley of blasterfire was sent through the door, only to meet the same fate as the first. The Vong took a step forward and tilted her head to one side.
"The gods taste your fear." She spoke in Basic. The remaining five stormtroopers had pressed their backs against the far end of the shaft. By now they knew their weapons were useless, but the sheer, blind panic that seized all of them, even Beyin, kept them firing anyway. The Vong took another step and Beyin fancied he could feel the undeniable tug of gravity.
For a moment she stood and contemplated the Imperials, then began walking steadily toward them. "Enough of this." Her eyes glittered and her smile was a savage baring of teeth. "Feed the gods."
Kei Rascer and the other minders had made a mistake in dealing with Coerl: they failed to understand him. They believed he was just another soft, weak-willed infidel, he certainly broke quickly enough, and so never expected trouble from his quarter. As a result, Kei Rascer paid no attention to him at all as she moved to deal with the Imperials, as if the Warlord was just another of the ever-obedient Vong creatures.
It was a mistake Thrawn would never have made.
Coerl was a great many things: an opportunist, a liar, a thief, a slave master and a murderer thousands of times over, but he had never been a coward. True, he wouldn't fight for a hopeless cause, and true to his opportunistic nature he would always try to make the best of his situation, but if he believed there was a chance of victory, even the ghost of a chance, then he would fight like only a cornered ranat could.
The Warlord glanced at Kei Rascer as the troopers opened fire and one poor fool was sucked into the dovin basal, he saw she was concentrating exclusively on the Imperials. Quickly but quietly, he moved to a small desk he had noted earlier, noticing the long coufee that lay atop it. He closed his fingers on the weapon and lifted it. Strong, well-balanced, freshly-sharpened, it would do.
The Obeyers would have stopped him immediately if he tried to attack Kei Rascer: she had told him long ago never to raise hand or weapon to a Yuuzhan Vong, but she had said nothing about Vong creatures.
Moving with speed and agility that hinted a good portion of his bulk was still muscle, Coerl crossed the room, drawing back his arm.
"Feed the gods." Kei Rascer was saying. The Imperials were probably about to dirty their fine, white armor. Coerl rammed the blade into the dovin basal up to its hilt, wrenched it away from Kei Rascer and hurled it away, coufee and all. It impacted a wall, hung for a moment, caught on the vines by its spike, then dropped to the grass dragging the flowering plants with it. Kei Rascer spun, eyes wide, and Coerl saw something on her face he would have died a hundred times over the past three years to see: total shock, complete disbelief.
"Feed them yourself." Coerl grinned at her with an expression of pure triumph. The stormtroopers were rushing out of the shaft, raising their weapons. Shock turned to rage as Kei Rascer swung her arm at Coerl in a move too fast for him to avoid even if the Obeyers allowed him to dodge. The first of the blaster bolts struck her torso as her claws caught his neck, tearing his throat out as she was flung backwards by the force. The feeling of joy wasn't lessened in the least by the pain and the feel of warmth running down his neck and chest. This was, undoubtably, the greatest victory of his life.
Thrawn was watching the final scene play itself out on his monitors as the sliding doors heralded Captain Parck's arrival with a low swish. The recording, taken from a stormtrooper's helmet-cam, showed the conflict under the bunker from a firsthand prospective.
"A moment, Captain." Thrawn stroked his chin as he studied the images. "This is almost over." Freed from the dovin basal, stormtroopers charged out of the turbolift and opened fire on the Vong female while Coerl bled the last of his life out on the grass.
"Ironic that the Warlord should play such an important part in this, isn't it Captain?" Thrawn murmured. "Ironic, unexpected, but with a touch of dramatic symmetry that is almost artistic."
If you say so. Parck thought. Personally, he was too happy all had worked out so well to notice patterns.
The recording was naturally a bit grainy and the picture tended to wobble, but Parck could make out the action. The blasterfire converged, knocking the armored Vong to the ground. She was up in a heartbeat though, wielding one of those double- edged daggers Vergere had called coufees. She was moving with unbelievable speed, not retreating but rather attacking Beyin and the stormtroopers. She actually managed to kill one and injure another before her armor finally gave way to the blaster bolts.
Right now, the corpse of Coerl's chief minder was being thoroughly autopsied by a team of Imperial surgeons and droids. In whatever plane of existence he now occupied, the Warlord would undoubtably be thrilled to know his tormentor was being scanned, analyses and taken apart by hated machines.
Thrawn switched off the recording and turned to the captain. "Very enlightening. Now, what is our status?" Parck handed him a datapad.
"Battle damage and casualty reports," the captain said, "as well as recommendations for promotions in the ground forces from General Beyin. He recommends one injured stormtrooper for the commendation medal." Park stood at ease. "I've also been in contact with Moff Niriz; the warlords have pulled back their fleets and appear to be on the defensive."
Thrawn nodded. "Without the plagues they no longer have common cause, nor do they have Coerl to goad them, and none wish to be caught off-guard as he was." He scanned the casualty lists first and shook his head. "The families of those killed in action have been notified and compensated?"
"Moff Niriz has arranged it."
Thrawn nodded and returned the datapad to Parck, who glanced down and saw the admiral had marked out the names of those who had served with special distinction. "I will express my condolences to these families personally." He stood and walked to one of the pieces of holographic art. "A pity, we have lost some exceptional men."
"Men die in any battle." Parck nodded. "That's a reality we all face, and it's never easy to replace good soldiers. Unless you know where to find some Spaarti cloning cylinders I don't see how it can be avoided." The last sentence was spoken with deliberate levity and punctuated with a chuckle, but instead of smiling Thrawn turned and regarded him with his eyebrows slightly arched.
"An interesting observation, Captain. I will think on it later." He paced to a small table at the far end of the room and set his glowing eyes on another prize of particular interest; a head- sized, leathery sphere, inert to all appearances. The villip that had been inside the clam-creature under the bunker, miraculously undamaged by flying blaster bolts.
"I wonder, Captain, if the Vong sent word of our attack to Sang Anor." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. If he doesn't know by now he's lost Coerl, he soon will. We can expect him to make a move against us soon, but now he will be forced to act in a much more direct manner." He smiled. "I am close, Captain, very close to drawing our true enemy out into the open." He turned to Parck. "Finish your briefing."
Things had gone perfectly, better than any could have hoped. The counterattack by Coerl's fleet had been disorderly, unplanned, reactionary and lacking in strength. Thrawn's forces had taken damage, given a lot more, and the enemy forces had pulled back. More Imperial ships were arriving and royalist forces had taken control of Orune Prime. Coerl had eradicated the old royal family in his first years in power, but the formerly outlawed noble classes had compared bloodlines and determined who had the strongest claim to the throne. A coronation ceremony had just occurred in the capital. A new Monarch ruled the Jrukto, with an Imperial advisor at her side of course, and plans for Orune Prime's induction into the Empire were being finalized.
Enemy hold-outs on Orune Prime were being contained, and without Coerl the fleet and planets had no central leadership. The late Warlord's commanders were too busy carving up Coerl's territory to mount an attack, and none of them had the will or the strength to do so anyway. By now the plagues the Vong had unleashed were burned out. The sick were being treated by the best Imperial doctors, and instead of shaking Unity Fleet and its protectorates apart, the disaster had the Imperial territories more close knit than ever once Thrawn had given them Coerl as a common enemy to focus on.
Aside from the creatures in the bunker, there appeared to be no Yuuzhan Vong presence on Orune Prime. Imperial and royalist troops hadn't encountered anything except conventional weaponry in the fighting. The surviving Vong must have gone to ground somewhere on the planet. Thrawn had ordered that any unknown human or Chiss be detained and checked, and Imperial troops were warned to stay on their guard and not get separated, in case the Vong tried to isolate some troopers and assume their identities for the purpose of sabotage and assassination, as they had on the Admonitor.
"On a closing note, sir, we have just received word from the Miashku system. On hearing of our victory at Orune Prime, the High Councilers have arrested several of the late Warlord's operatives who were encouraging them to withdraw from the Empire. The High Council offers a total and public vote of support to you in whatever your endeavors. Also, Moff Niriz reports the Admonitor is spaceworthy again. He has selected a captain for her and a new crew is being trained."
"Excellent, excellent." The Grand Admiral nodded. "Once the repair crews have finished work on the Imperitor we will set course for Orrsa. Captain Zreem will remain as head of the planetary garrison. Once we arrive at Orrsa I intend to contact Imperial Center and try to speak with the Emperor. Hopefully he and Lord Vader have crushed the rebellion with their Death Star by now and will be free to-"
Both Imperials spun to face the strange voice behind them. Parck reached for his blaster, Thrawn's was already drawn and aimed at the source of the voice.
A severed head.
That was Parck's initial reaction to the active villip. Thrawn had told him about the Vong communication devices and, intellectually, he knew what they did, but he felt his stomach twist at how realistic the face was. It must have inverted and morphed the visage of a Yuuzhan Vong, one with more scars and tattoos than Parck had seen on any of the Vong corpses they had obtained so far. The Captain shivered, and not just because of the grotesque alien-ness of the creature. There was something about that face, a quality of the eyes, that made Parck feel like a blade of ice was twisting in his stomach even though he knew it was only a representation.
"Kei Rascer." It said again, slightly louder, in a voice more realistic than any com-link could provide. Then the villip... waited, its 'face' composed and 'eyes' lowered, probably reflecting how the real Vong was directing his eyes to his own villip.
Thrawn had holstered his blaster and Parck belatedly did likewise while the Chiss slowly circled the table. The talking head simply waited, evidently expecting a response. "Well," the Admiral said quietly, "the Vong must contact Coerl's minders at about this time."
"Sir," Parck swallowed, unable to look away from the villip, "do you think that's-"
"Sang Anor. Yes, I believe so." Thrawn pulled out a chair and sat, facing the villip. Parck took a step forward. So this was the enemy himself, the being who'd caused them so much misery lately. Thrawn studied the face while the Vong waited patiently for his chief overseer to report.
"Should I get..." Parck trailed off, technitions and splicer droids wouldn't do any good, perhaps a biologist could scan the thing for whatever it used to communicate, "someone?"
"No need, Captain, just switch on my chambers' internal sensors and holocams, the controls are on the arm of my command chair." Parck did as he was told, and when he turned back he saw the admiral reaching both hands to the villip.
"Sir, what are you doing?"
"I think it's time the Executor and I spoke, face to face, or at least in a close approximation."
"Is this safe?" Parck asked as Thrawn's fingertips touched either side of the ridge encircling the villip's 'neck.'
"From what Vergere told me, yes I believe so." The villip's face turned upward and its eyes met Thrawn's gaze as the connection was made.
Sang Anor seemed to nod slightly, and then he saw the features his villip assumed. The eyes widened fractionally for a second, then narrowed slowly. Parck, a veteran of more than a few battles, found he was very relieved that Sang Anor's villip could only show him Thrawn's face and let him hear Thrawn's voice. He had a feeling that being noticed by that Yuuzhan Vong wasn't exactly conductive to a long and healthy life.
They were silent for a long moment, the Chiss Admiral staring intently at what appeared to be a severed head, which in turn was staring back at him just as intently. The image might have been ridiculous if Parck hadn't known how deadly serious this was. Both were probing, studying, taking each other's measure, waiting to see who would make the first move. It was Sang Anor who finally spoke.
"Grand Admiral Thrawn, I presume?" A cool, smooth voice, the tone was one of a greeting between prominent individuals who have heard of, but never met, one another. Parck wasn't sure what, exactly, he expected: snarling rage, threats, demands to know what was going on, something like that. Certainly not this sedate voice.
"And you would be Sang Anor." Not a question, a statement of fact. The Vong lifted his brows, then narrowed his eyes in understanding.
"The Jedi told you my name." He said pleasantly, two acquaintances discussing a mutual friend.
"She told me a great many things about you." Thrawn answered in the same tone.
"Is that so?" Sang Anor replied. "I take it your possession of this villip means I have lost my... local support?"
"You are correct."
"I see." Parck felt his heart pounding in his chest. They both sounded so pleasant, so civilized, but if they were truly face-to-face they would be trying to kill each other with their bare hands by now. He fought the urge to step back further. This conversation made him feel like a Jawa huddling in the sand while two krayt dragons circled one another, probing for weaknesses before they began a fight only one would walk away from. The likes of Parck could be crushed in a battle between those two, and neither would even notice.
"If the Jedi told anything about me, you would know how unwise it is to continue getting in my way."
"Really? I think the reverse would be more accurate." Thrawn leaned forward. "Opposing me is a mistake, Executor: you tried twice, you failed twice. Now you have lost Coerl and all the power and territories he controlled. Your influence in the Unknown Regions has evaporated while I have never been more secure." A smile as false as a Sith lord's promises crept across his face. "I would think you'd be tired of dancing around by now and realize these schemes of yours are getting you nowhere. I was given to understand Yuuzhan Vong were warriors." He finished in a tone of disappointment.
"My methods have yielded some results, you must admit." Sang Anor smiled back. "Ask all the Imperials my plagues have struck down, and all your protectorates who will yet fall ill."
"There will not be any future victims." Thrawn said coldly, the pleasant tone vanished replaced by a slight edge in his voice. He gave the Vong a look Parck hoped would never be directed at him. "Your spore plants have been destroyed." The glow from his eyes brightened several degrees, the only sign of emotion he allowed. "I mean to see you dead for that."
The calmly-delivered threat would have left any half- intelligent sentient shaking. Sang Anor didn't show any apparent reaction at all. Then he smiled.
"No." He laughed softly.
"No what?" Thrawn's mouth twitched slightly.
"You're not ready for that, Chiss. You're still too... civilized... to understand how Yuuzhan Vong fight."
"I understand enough."
"Again, no. This fight is still too much of an intellectual exercise for you, Thrawn. You need to be... bloodied. You need some stains on that pristine uniform of yours." He showed his teeth. "I'll help you with that."
"What are you going to do? Have me shot in the back? Unleash another plague?"
"I'm going to wound you, Admiral. I'm going to put a scar on you that will last the rest of your life. My face will be the first thing you think of when you wake up, the last before you sleep, and my name will echo in your dreams, then you will know how to fight as Yuuzhan Vong do."
"Resorting to vague threats, I'm very intimidated."
"You'll get no hints from me, it would spoil the surprise." Parck ground his teeth. "My next move will be personal, Thrawn. Very personal."
The face seemed to lose definition and began to sink in on itself as Sang Anor released his own villip. Thrawn withdrew his hands as the villip inverted and became inert.
Thrawn folded his hands, saying nothing, still watching the villip.
"Sir," Parck ventured, "should I turn off the sensors?"
"Yes, I believe so." Parck turned to the chair. "Captain," Parck turned to Thrawn and saw something in the glowing eyes he had never observed there before: a lack of confidence that he would be tempted to call fear in any other being, "I think I may have miscalculated."