Zeld Kwaad examined the beast that crouched in the cramped cell. Truthfully, everything was cramped and crowded in the Yuuzhan Vongs' last remaining battleship, speeding through hyperspace across the infidel Empire, not daring to use any major routes for fear of discovery.
The animal was in stasis, having responded well to the chemicals Zeld Kwaad had introduced into its bloodstream, hopefully it would sleep through most of their long journey.
The bulk of survivors from the doomed Long Reach of Death were gathered aboard this last ship, most of them also in suspended animation to save the craft's limited resources. A few would be taken out and periodically sacrificed, though, to help ensure a safe journey for the rest.
When the Long Reach was lost to the infidels some weeks ago, one of the intendants had thought to stop at Sang Anor's quarters and bring his villip connecting them to the supreme overlord. After hearing of this debacle the supreme one had issued them their marching orders: the majority of the surviving Yuuzhan Vong were to board their last functioning battleship and make for the Outer Rim, there to exit this infidel galaxy and eventually meet the oncoming Yuuzhan Vong fleet.
A handful of warriors, executors and shapers would remain behind, with ooglith masquers, villips and a few other organic tools, including villips cloned from the supreme overlord's communications creature so they might maintain lines of communication.
The few who remained would gather information about the Infidels' activities and, when the time of invasion drew near, do what they could to divide, sabotage and generally destabalize them.
Zeld Kwaad sighed, the jihad had seemed so close to beginning in earnest, but now he would have to wait more than twenty long years to ever see this galaxy and all its beautiful, unshaped life again. The gods, apparently, hadn't been with them this time.
But next time, he thought to himself, next time...
He came to another cell, this one held an avian creature with a broken leg. The shapers had saved all the specimens they could from the dying worldship: analyzing the native life of this galaxy would provide invaluable information about which shaping protocols would be best applied to their soon-to-be new worlds.
This bird-animal had been found in an escape pod, probably wandered in there and triggered the launch by accident. Its broken leg was encased in a coral cast, and healing microbes were repairing the damage. Personally, Zeld Kwaad would have preferred to have the defective thing killed out of hand, but with so few specimens left to choose from the shapers could not afford to waste even one.
He prepared the creature's injections: it too would need to make the trip in hibernation, awake and aware it would consume too many resources. The shaper adept frowned, for a moment the creature seemed to be smiling at him. He shrugged, obviously he was working too hard.
And so the living craft left this galaxy, to eventually rendezvous with the approaching worldship-fleet where one small, odd-looking and comical bird would catch the eye of High Priest Jakan, who would at that moment be thinking about obtaining a gift for his young daughter Elan.
Drash steered his coralskipper into the specialized 'berth' He'd designed for it inside the small freighter's cargo hold. It was cramped, but unlike Drash the fighter had no sense of claustrophobia.
He climbed out of the craft and gave it a quick look-over. Later he would go over it in detail, looking for injuries or infestations. Luckily the fighter could heal itself of injuries, so it needed little maintenance. Good news all around, as Drash didn't know of a shipyard equipped to care for a coralskipper.
Drash stroked the cockpit, a marvelous ship. He had just taken it out for its 'meal' of space rocks, which it would also use to manufacture plasma and projectiles, and now the ship had informed him that it was tired and wished to 'sleep.' If it was temperamental, well, fighters were expected to be a little wild.
What worried him were the ship's innards, he had no idea of how long the dovin basals would live, or when the cognition hood and other internal organs would wear out. Perhaps he could have the creatures cloned somehow when it became necessary.
He left the cargo hold and strolled to the small cockpit, Vergere's lightsaber at his side. He had won the ship gambling at a spaceport tapcaf, though 'gambling' wasn't exactly the correct term when he could read the other players' minds. Maybe it wasn't a Jedi thing to do, but he had no funds and nothing to sell. He had landed the coralskipper in a rural field away from the city and port, disguising the landing so that the skip would appear to the watching satellites as nothing but a falling meteor.
And of course, he hadn't worn the lightsaber in town. He still didn't know how to use the thing, but he would learn. He would have to. Drash had experienced his moment of transcendence and what lay beyond was better than anything Frae could have imagined.
Oin was waiting for him in the cockpit, in the copilot's seat: Drash was teaching him to fly.
"Did your skip settle in all right?" He asked in the Nesz language, which he was teaching Drash to speak.
"Smooth as duroplast," he settled in the pilot's chair. "Ready to jump?" Oin nodded, one hand went to his ever-present bandolier. "Next stop, the Core."
An all-but-impenetrable tangle of high-gravity anomalies, the Core was the perfect place for a colony that didn't want to be found. All they needed to do was find a world in that hell of solar radiation with an atmosphere life could thrive in.
Drash would set Oin up and visit him as often as he could in his little colony. And after the seeds took root, where would Drash go then? Perhaps back to the Unknown Regions, to wander the stars and do...well...Jedi things. Even if the Jedi were making a comeback, chances were they'd have their hands full in the known galaxy. The Unknown Regions would need a Jedi, and Drash might be new at this, but he felt the Force was calling him in that direction.
He hoped he would make Vergere proud, and Vlu. He hoped to see her again someday and give her back her lightsaber. Only the future can tell.
The stars elongated into white lines and they shot forward, into the light.
Hidden in the stolen infidel shuttle, parked in an ice-lined cave at the north pole of Sevac III, Ceis Grasm stared out at the red-grey sky and crossed her arms.
"We should have died in battle," she said, "it would have been glorious, or at least pleasing to the gods." She looked at Nom Anor, sitting motionless in the pilot's seat, hunched over the control panel with his hands clasped and his chin perched on his knuckles.
"You can walk out anytime you want," he said, "and let the cold take you." It had been his idea, and she had to admit it was a clever one: to fly their shuttle to the pole where the shapers had hollowed out caverns for their pathogen research. They could survive for months here if need be, and so here they had hidden themselves away, to wait out the battle.
The result was soon obvious, as massive chunks of the Long Reach had soon broken through the atmosphere to crash on the planet, throwing up clouds of dust that darkened the sky.
Nom Anor spent most of his time in the shuttle, staring out the cavern mouth at the dust-filled sky. Not speaking, not doing anything. Ceis Grasm didn't like this mood of his, and nothing she said could shake him out of it. He just sat there watching the sky with unblinking eyes, it was chilling. Almost machinelike.
"I think I'll wait before trying that option," she said. "How much longer must we remain here?"
"Until I'm sure the infidels have left orbit," Nom Anor said. "Then we leave as well, and try to find any other Yuuzhan Vong who might have survived." They had taken ooglith masquers when they had fled to the shuttle, as well as cloakers and gnulliths. Self- sacrifice remained an option, but Nom Anor seemed intent on surviving until the main host of Yuuzhan Vong arrived. If necessary he could use his limited shaper training to grow stasis microbes for them both, so they wouldn't have to 'live' through the entire waiting period; twenty years was a long time to just sit back and do nothing. They could put themselves in stasis three years out of every five until the jihad began, so at least they wouldn't have to waste half their lives.
It always paid to be prepared, that had been Sang Anor's last lesson. Nom Anor felt rage seethe within him, but he controlled it. If he couldn't rule the galaxy he would at least rule himself. He squeezed his clasped hands until his talons dug into the backs of his hands. He barely noticed Ceis Grasm behind him, or the blood that ran down his wrists. Nothing mattered but that Sang and Lyrra Anor, the two greatest, most brilliant people the universe had ever known, were dead and gone. They would be held in contempt by the rest of the Yuuzhan Vong, seen as nothing more than overly-ambitious failures.
Nom Anor narrowed his eyes. What kind of gods would allow that?
Damn you all, he ground his teeth, I will never pray to you again. I deny you, now and forever. You do not exist. You're just stories and pointless rituals. The thought was cold, as cold as Nom Anor's bleak and empty soul. At least he had the comfort of knowing the Jedi had not survived his father: she was now just bones and ash, with the rest of her slave friends on this poisoned planet.
Staring out at the sky, Nom Anor made a vow. Not to the gods he no longer believed in, but to the only power he now recognized: himself. He would avenge his parents, and he would fulfill his father's dreams of power, whatever the cost. And he would make all the wretched infidels who had bested Sang Anor pay: the Empire, any Jedi that arose in the future, Thrawn and his whole benighted race, they would all suffer. Nom Anor would see to it.
Inside the Hand of Thrawn, Parck was amazed that such a high-tech marvel as this command center could be concealed within an apparently ruined and abandoned primitive fortress. This place could not only withstand a siege and a full-scale planetary bombardment, but the entire Imperial territory and fleet in the Unknown Regions could be run from this point.
Raine didn't show it, but Parck suspected the phalanx commander was as impressed as he.
"Not a bad setup, eh?" Moff Niriz smiled as he hovered past holographic diagrams of the galaxy, including the explored areas of the Unknown Regions.
"Not bad at all," Parck said as he reclined in a comfortable chair. Thrawn's fortress seemed modeled after his own mind: impressive, mysterious, resourceful and full of secrets. If not for the occasional winged pests that annoyed Imperials in the sky and the tunnels below, Parck would have called the Hand perfect.
"It's what I expected of the Syndic," Raine nodded to the Moff. The phalanx commander hadn't precisely warmed up to the Imperials she would be working with, but at least she was growing to respect them. Parck was glad to have her: especially seeing as the entire Chiss contingent of Unity Fleet had requested a transfer to Thrawn's phalanx. They would still work closely with the humans, but now human officials like Parck and Niriz would only have to settle the human side of cross-cultural disputes, while Raine would handle the Chiss grievances, then they could work out something of a compromise in each case.
The Chiss citizens of the Empire were happy as well, having one of their own to turn to in times of trouble rather than the mainly-human Moffs. Even if Raine was female, she was still, they reasoned, a Chiss.
Currently, Grand Admiral Thrawn was trying to reach Imperial Center and communicate these events to the Emperor. Parck hoped for the arrival of Imperial reinforcements, even for Palpatine's new Death Star: Unity Fleet had taken losses in the battle over Sevac III, and Intelligence reported the warlords were eyeing Thrawn's territory and licking their chops hungrily. Parck grimaced, such was the gratitude the Unknown Regions had for their saviors. He felt sure they could beat back any assault, but more Star Destroyers would be a relief.
He and Raine stood at attention when Thrawn himself entered the room. Moff Niriz pivoted his hoverchair to face him.
"Sir, have you gotten through to Imperial Center?" Niriz asked. "When can we expect reinforcements?"
"There will be none," Thrawn shook his head. "The Rebellion has won a great victory at Endor, site of the new Death Star's construction. The battlestation was destroyed, and the Emperor is dead."
Parck turned pale and his legs felt weak. The Emperor... dead? Impossible! "Sir are..." he swallowed, "are you sure?" He had never doubted the Grand Admiral before, but he hoped Thrawn was wrong.
"I spoke with Sate Pestage, who is far more concerned with remaining on Palpatine's throne than sparing ships to help us, and I contacted some of my own sources in the Empire, who confirmed the news. Losses include the Executor, with all hands aboard, and Darth Vader perished as well. The Imperial Fleet is scattered, thousands of planets are in rebellion, there is even rumor that the Jedi have returned."
Parck felt ill, to have won such a great victory against the Yuuzhan Vong, only to find that the war was lost in the meantime? "What will we do?" He asked hopelessly.
"Launch an attack on the warlords before they can strike at us," Raine replied, red eyes flashing. "And continue to encourage rebellion and desertions in their ranks. News of the Syndic's power and the justice of his rule will tempt many of their planets to join us. Undercover Intelligence agents can train natives to fight the warlords, we might even be able to assassinate a few."
Business as usual, in other words: crushing warlords and uniting the Unknown Regions under the Empire. But what about the Empire proper? It was falling apart!
Thrawn raised a brow at Raine. "You've certainly changed. Why so intent on seeing the Empire become dominant out here?" The commander met his gaze, a feat few could boast, and it seemed to Parck they were sparring. Not as deadly adversaries, though, but as colleagues.
"I haven't changed, Syndic: my goal is the same, to protect the Chiss. By all accounts their war against the Ssi-Ruuk is going well, they were able to overwhelm many of Ssi-Ruuk worlds while their fleet was away, preparing to invade the Empire. Now, however, they are taking heavy losses. By the time they win the war most of the Expansionary Defense Fleet will have been destroyed. The Chiss may never recover their former strength, and the warlords will find them a weaker target than we could ever be."
"Unless Unity Fleet conquers the surrounding warlords first," Thrawn finished, "then we could ensure the Chiss will be protected."
Raine nodded, but something in her eyes and posture suggested defeat. "The Chiss will be under the Empire's protection, though the Syndics will never acknowledge it. Many Chiss will continue to desert for Unity Fleet, seeing yours as the stronger and better way. The Chiss will never again be a great power," she bowed her head, whether in mourning, submission or both, Parck couldn't say.
Thrawn's expression softened, he placed a hand on her shoulder and said something in his own language. The commander raised her head, her eyes burning. For a moment Parck though she would pull away or strike him, but then she nodded and said replied in kind.
Parck had to speak up. "But what about the rest of the Empire?" He said. "Shouldn't Unity Fleet return and help quell the Rebellion?"
"Unity Fleet will have its hands full out here," Thrawn turned to the Captain. "But you're right: the Empire must be preserved. Remember, the Yuuzhan Vong are still coming, and to them Sang Anor will seem a lone pirranna beetle beside a swarm. The galaxy must be made ready for them, and for that the Empire must endure. To that end I will go myself to the Empire proper and see to the Rebellion."
"Alone?" Niriz asked. "But there might be Yuuzhan Vong survivors in this galaxy. If there are, you would be high on their list of targets: they would have to know you intend to fight their people."
"And don't forget other Imperials," Parck warned, "many, Director Ysanne Isard in particular, would see you as a threat to their power. They would try to eliminate you as well."
"True, that is why my first stop will be the planet Honoghr, homeworld of the Noghri. With Noghri bodyguards I need fear no assassins," he looked to each of them. "While I am gone, I leave you three in command," he drew himself up slightly, "Captain Voss Parck, by my authority as a Grand Admiral of the Empire I now grant you the rank of Admiral. You have command of Unity Fleet in my absence." He turned to Niriz, "Moff Dagon Niriz, you are hereby promoted to Grand Moff, to have overall administration of the Imperial territories in the Unknown Regions."
Finally, he turned his gaze to Raine. "Haar'ain'ellena, you will take up your duties as my regent, my phalanx and all Chiss citizens under my protection are yours. Rule them well."
He looked at each of them. "Working together, you three should be able to carry on in my stead. I will return to the Hand of Thrawn as often as I am able, so a division of my phalanx will be its permanent garrison. I depart immediately, make ready a shuttle."
"You'll go alone?" Admiral Parck asked.
"As I said, I have my contacts in the Empire, and I will have the Noghri. He frowned thoughtfully, "but I will take copies of my holographic gallery," he said, "and one piece more." He looked to a corner of the command center, Parck followed his eyes to the alien artifact taken from Sevac III. The twisting, bulging, shifting mass held his eyes, teasing him with hints and mysteries he couldn't quite grasp.
"Why that?" Niriz asked.
"I need to study it further," Thrawn said. "The report of these strange creatures, these 'Nesz' and 'Eternals' intrigues me. Their art is truly amazing: it seems to combine youth and age, innocence and experience. This was made by a mind that sees the universe as new and fresh, yet holds the knowledge of millennia. A paradox, Admiral. I could never have predicted the natives would act as they did, overthrowing the Yuuzhan Vong and then calmly wait for their own extinction to follow. Why do that? Did they see their society as permanently corrupted by the violence they had partaken in? Did they simply not care if they lived or died? I cannot grasp them, and I truly regret their destruction."
"Understood, sir," Pellaeon said. "With your permission, I'll get the Chimaera underway." He turned to go-
And paused. Halfway across the room, one of the sculptures had not disappeared with the others. Sitting all alone in its globe of light, it slowly writhed on its pedestal like a wave in some bizarre alien ocean. "Yes," Thrawn said from behind him. "That one is indeed real."
"It's...very interesting," Pellaeon managed. The sculpture was strangely hypnotic.
"Isn't it?" Thrawn agreed, his voice sounding almost wistful. "It was my one failure, out on the Fringes. The one time when understanding a race's art gave me no insight at all into its psyche. At least not at the time. Now, I believe I'm finally beginning to understand them."
"I'm sure that will prove useful in the future," Pellaeon offered diplomatically.
"I doubt it," Thrawn said, in that same wistful voice. "I wound up destroying their world."
Pellaeon swallowed. "Yes, sir," he said, starting again for the door. He winced only a little as he passed the sculpture.
-from 'Heir to the Empire' by Timothy Zahn