The Art of War - Part 11
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 11 - Breaking Point
They stood silent for a long time, the nameless alien's words still hanging in the air between them like a dark shroud. But Wrenga Jixton was nothing if not practical. Shaking his head to break the spell, he took three long strides that brought him level with the short warrior.
"What do you mean? If you know anything we should know too-"
"That is quite enough," the Grand Admiral inserted coldly. And to his own amazement Jix shut up without a second thought. But he frowned at the amused expression that appeared on Mara's face. She waved him closer and he joined her side nonchalantly, his eyes never leaving the Noghri.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed under her breath.
"I thought Vader might get into trouble. And I was right," he added, huffing a small sigh.
"That guy's a Sith. They like to exaggerate sometimes. Let's hear him out first. Maybe this is not so bad."
Their whispered conversation was cut short by Thrawn's continued interrogation of their opponent. "Five minutes from now my troops will start attacking this planet. So we had better resolve this matter fast. Why should I go to Nar Shadaa?"
"Lord Vader is under dire pressure, as you must know. If he breaks he will unleash a storm that will sear this galaxy with deadly force. Do not underestimate him."
"I don't. And I can prevent that?"
"If you can find him before Lord Kell does."
"You will help me?"
"And your associates?"
The Noghri seemed surprised. "My- Of course. You are very observant. They will stay here, in case Lord Vader or else Lord Kell returns."
"There are more?" Mara muttered, sounding slightly uneasy.
"Very good," Thrawn was just saying. "But I will require some reassurance from you."
The warrior spread his empty hands in a gesture of surrender. "I will obey," he stated calmly and bowed once again.
Somehow Jix did not find this gesture reassuring in any way. Still, Thrawn seemed to be satisfied. Nodding sharply he flicked the comm fastened to his collar and spoke briefly to someone who was presumably stationed on board the Star Destroyer. "We will be picked up soon. Maybe we could pass the time with trading some more information."
"You know a lot about me, more than you should. How?"
The alien smiled coldly. "Lord Vader believes in thorough research before engaging an enemy."
"So he sent you to uncover some facts about me?"
"Not so much about you as your situation. The Unknown Territories, Niaruan, everything that might serve as an indicator toward your allegiance."
"So you've been to Niaruan. I see. Let me guess: my return to Coruscant was also his doing?"
"Indeed. The files had been altered to fool the Navy High Command into calling you back from your 'exile'. Although," the Noghri paused, "I suspect that there was some truth to that nameless threat."
"It does not take much to fool High Command," Thrawn countered dismissively. "Who deleted those files?"
"Nuron, I believe. One of my - associates."
"You said Lord Vader's warning was justified. Why?"
"If you know anything about Roj Kell you know that he likes to play. His mind is somewhat exceptional."
The loud hum of an approaching shuttle cut their conversation short. "Very well," the Grand Admiral commented. "If he likes to play so much, we will show him that we can also break the rules." The ship touched down not far from where they stood. "Come."
Jix had had enough. "Hey!" he called, as Mara made as if to join Thrawn, who was already walking away, the Noghri right on his heels. "What about me?"
Exactly one hour later Jix was pacing the length of the tiny cell he shared with the Sith. "How can anyone be so stupid?" Jix hissed in exasperation, rounding on the other occupant of the room who sat in a corner balanced on his haunches easily, his eyes closed in meditation.
"We are alive. That is all that matters."
"Yeah, right! For how long do you think they'll keep us that way?"
"At least until we have reached Nar Shadaa. Which should not take too long."
"Even better! Let me tell you this, not even Lord Vader's plans are that foolish."
The Noghri quirked a smile. "I am not Lord Vader. And now calm down please. You are getting on my nerves."
Snorting contemptuously. Jix crossed his arms in front of his chest. "And what are you going to do about it? Choke me to death? Guess you'll have to put up with me a bit longer." He had been pretty relieved to hear that those strange reptiles he'd seen Mara wear on her back could block the Sith from using the Force. And Thrawn had made sure that there were enough to go around on the entire ship.
"I don't need the Force to shut you up," the Sith explained quietly and Jix fought a sudden feeling of dread that was rising in the back of his mind. He'd seen the guy in action, hadn't he? And the storm troopers back on Korriban had had the Ysalamiri's protection too.... But still.
"Oh, you wanna fight? Good."
"No, I do not want to fight."
"Why'd you start then?" the Corellian asked angrily and dropped on the cell's single metal bunk. "Who are you anyway?"
"My name is Chi'in."
"Ah-ha. And that's all, is it? Pretty close-mouthed lot, you Sith. Were there really more or were you just bluffing?"
"There are more."
The agent threw a suspicious look around the cell. "They are listening in on us."
"You surprised the Grand Admiral pretty much when you told him you'd been into his private library."
"Nothing surprises him much."
"Same goes for you, it would seem." Leaning closer Jix squinted at the other to get a closer look. "You've been injured?"
"Who did that?"
"Lord Kell. He probably thinks he's killed me."
"Yes. That he is."
The Corellian quirked a smile. "I meant you, really."
Crossing his legs in front of him, Jix stared pensively at the opposite wall. So now the Grand Admiral was on a rescue mission to save Vader, who was imperiled by another Sith Lord, and a Sith was helping them track both down. Weird. He shook his head in exasperation.
And Mara! When Thrawn had ordered Jix to be under arrest she had not said anything, had not even tried to prevent it. Jix had known better than to fight the storm troopers aboard the Relentless. After all, they were doing exactly what he had wanted to do on Korriban. And once Vader was aboard... Yeah, then what? Throwing the alien an uneasy glance, he then closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Striding ahead through the maze of corridors that made up the vertical city, Roj Kell was barely able to control his fury. So far they had been attacked three times and each time he had believed that the former queen was the supposed target for those attacks. Now though he was not so sure anymore. No one was supposed to know about him. But apparently he had underestimated Darth Sidious quite a bit.
Turning around a corner very suddenly, he caught the neck of the man lurking there in an expert grip around the throat and dragged him further into the shadows. He shook his head ever so slightly in regret and disgust, but it was far too late for caution. Then, burying into the man's mind carelessly, he almost jerked back when he felt the light press against his mental shields with nearly overwhelming force. Growling softly, he disengaged from the thug's thoughts and smashed his unconscious body against the far wall hard.
So, Sidious was using him, was he? But not for long. He needed to find Vader as soon as possible.
Then he sought the small figure that was pressed against the wall by his side. Fearful, large eyes looked back up at him. Padmé Naberrie. Kell had wondered for a long time why Sidious had kept her alive. The Sith Master had been afraid of her, he knew, afraid of her mind, afraid of her unpredictability. The woman was a master at the game the two Sith had been playing for decades even before she was born. Deception was second nature to her. A fact she herself would deny vehemently. But he had seen her true face, and so had her husband. She had run from her own darkness, the darkness she had seen devour her beloved alive. A darkness she feared more than anything else now.
"Padmé," he whispered softly, his left hand brushing across her cheek soothingly. She did not flinch this time. A strong woman, led by reason and determination. He had known one such before, and she had been his weakness. A weakness he had been forced to eliminate in the end. Belana Jen, apprentice and lover, had died so his darkness could survive, so he could survive. And Padmé Naberrie was the one thing that held Darth Vader anchored to the light. She was the one who he had fought for, endured Sidious' torment and everything else, the only thing that could save him now. Once her flame died, there would be nothing to chain him to the light anymore. "Let's go."
Racing the corridors of the vertical city, Anakin Skywalker was trying to outrun that certain feeling of dread and doom to come. Something was very wrong. There was so much darkness here that he could hardly breathe. It was as if the Force itself had been tainted with the stain of cold fury and barely concealed contempt. Tracking those emotions through the city was not very hard, but it was more what lay at the end of the line that concerned him. Theoretically he knew that it had to be Roj Kell, but something told him that this was in no way certain. There was a hint of something more, elusive, something he had not felt in a very long time. A long, long time...
They had split up a few corridors back, himself, Solo and his Wookiee co-pilot and Karrde and his gang. That way they had better chances of covering the entire maze before the Chimaera's troops could lock down the city. Well, at least that had been the reason he had given the others. But Anakin was taking this very personally. Kell's being here could mean a lot of things concerning both Chi'in and Padmé. And Anakin Skywalker liked neither possibility.
When the dark feelings became so strong that they became almost visible, the Dark Lord lay a hand on the handle of his lightsaber in dire anticipation. It was a deserted courtyard, dank, dirty and dark, the perfect hiding-place for a creature as sneaky as Kell was. Still, what was waiting for him there nearly drove him to the brink of despair.
The old Sith, his white hair reflecting the sparse light reaching their tiny arena spectacularly, was standing with his back to the far wall, very straight, haughty even, pale eyes locked on his adversary with barely concealed fury. Combined with the emotions Anakin could pick up, it was an unsettling picture. But that was not the worst.
Holding her neck in a death-grip, Kell was forcing Padmé to stay on her knees next to him, her dark eyes dead and at the same time livid with tears. And then Anakin realized that most of what he could sense, the anger and pain, blind grief and contempt, was coming from her. It cut into his soul mercilessly, turning his determination into quiet suffering. His heart went out to her, trying to warm her soul again, to rekindle her fire, but she was fighting him, defending her mind stubbornly; a futile gesture, for Kell had already broken her. And she knew it. It was this very fact, her own defeat, that was driving her so mad. Quietly taking the lightsaber handle into both of his hands and igniting the blade, Anakin Skywalker prepared to cut her out of that darkness, if he could. Yet to get to her, he would have to destroy her captor first.
"Let her go. It is me that you want."
"You overestimate your importance, Lord Vader," Roj Kell answered softly, but there was just the tiniest flash of greed in his eyes that betrayed him.
Shaking his head, Anakin took a few steps to the right, trying to drive Kell away from the wall's protective cover. Away from Padmé. "I don't think so."
"You have exactly two choices. I am certain that by now you know the truth: the Emperor is alive and he will not rest until he has had his revenge. He will break you again and again and he will destroy you in the end. You will see your children die as you died when you became his plaything. Yes," the old man whispered, "they will not be able to withstand his power. And you know that you cannot save them now. Not anymore. No. If you choose the light, Anakin Skywalker, you will lose everything. Your children, your wife, all that you have fought for so far. Destroyed. And you know it."
"Harsh words. But they are just that, words."
"They are the truth. Accept it."
"The other choice?"
Laughing out loud, Anakin shook his head and flashed the other a mirthless grin. "What for?"
"I told you I would not stand in your way and I broke that promise because you took the wrong path. You are playing into Palpatine's hands and if he wins..."
"If he wins you and I will die. So?"
"I am a survivor, Skywalker, just as you are, just as your wife is. But I am also a Sith. And I want the Sith to survive."
"No deal, so sorry."
"You are very quick to dismiss this possibility. You would rather prefer a senseless sacrifice? The sacrifice you made when you chose to take up the fight against Palpatine, maybe? Look where that leaves you. You will not escape this time. Patience will not help you either. You must choose now and act."
"You are not making any sense."
"No?" The single word cut through the tense atmosphere like a whiplash dripping with contempt and open amusement. Seeing Padmé jump in shocked surprise drove the pain even deeper though. When he spoke again, Roj Kell's voice was as soft and smooth as honey and his words slipped through the Dark Lord's defenses like sweet poison. "If you are so ignorant of the past, I will have to open your eyes to the truth you have been shielding yourselves against for the past decades. The two of you. Let me tell you what I see here. A brilliant young woman, hiding her genius behind a facade of good faith and innocent righteousness, who knew exactly what she was getting herself into. Or maybe not? Did she care whether her sharp mind cut the heart of this galaxy? Did she believe her deeds justified? The answer definitely is yes. Queen Amidala of the Naboo was just as deceptive as her alter ego Padmé Naberrie. And yet the truth was something she blinded hersel! f against, just as the Jedi were blind to what was going on in the Republic. Cowardice was what dictated their actions, calculation what determined hers. Enter the innocent slave-boy turned Jedi Knight. Righteous, daring, unscathed by life. And madly in love with someone he thought out of his reach. Touching."
Padmé flinched at his cruel tone and tried to get out of the old man's grasp, but he did not budge. Shooting her a fleeting smile, Roj Kell raised his head again to meet Anakin's gaze. "You might not have perceived this as a sort of competition, but unconsciously you treated it exactly like that. And when Palpatine offered you the knowledge to defeat him, you took the chance to gain victory where she had failed. To beat her at her own game and to triumph over her. But unknown to you, your 'fall' into darkness was just what she needed to come to her senses. Realizing what she had done, how she had lied to herself and her friends, she became so ridden with guilt that she fled her fears and built up a cocoon to protect herself. She blamed it all on you. Just as you blamed her."
Anakin felt his breath catch. Kell could not possibly know. He was just guessing. And yet every word he said was the truth. In the sudden silence that Roj Kell's magical voice had left, the humming of his lightsaber was impossibly loud. Swallowing hard he met Padmé's blind gaze. "Is that true?" he asked quietly, barely able to hear his own words. "Did you really feel that way about us?"
"Did you?" she asked right back, a low hiss laced with anger and anguish.
The answer was so simple and yet more painful than anything else he had ever experienced. "Yes."
Raising his eyebrows meaningfully, Roj Kell nodded to himself and smiled. "Very good. I see the two of you are getting along so well now that the hard words have been spoken and the time of healing and understanding can begin. Unfortunately I do not have time for that. You have deceived each other and the betrayal was due to a mutual agreement, a declaration of war. Very nice. I like it. As it is, Skywalker, I will kill her either way. But you must choose for yourself whether to join me or watch your life disappear once more."
Anakin stared at the old Sith in disbelief. If he attacked and tried to free Padmé, he could not be certain if he'd be fast enough. And if he surrendered.... If he surrendered he'd be back where he had started all those years ago. Too much evil had come from that decision. He could not risk that again. So he'd go for the third option, the one both he and Kell knew would change everything. Calmly shutting down the blade he forced his body to relax, still, his heart was aching at the look of betrayal on Padmé's face.
"You win," Anakin told his opponent softly, but Roj Kell simply smiled, and infinite pain filled his eyes. He shook his head gravely, glistening white hair playing like snow in the winter night.
"Wrong," he whispered. "I lose."
The moment he let go of Padmé the Dark Lord moved. But he was intercepted immediately by two shadows that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Facing Vill Goir and Sedriss grim-faced, Anakin set himself for their attack.
Blocking a slash coming at his head he whirled around, spinning on his own axis, before he kicked his right boot into Sedriss' midriff. The younger man fell back with a grunt, but Vill Goir was already moving in for another go. Anakin jumped high and somersaulted over the other's head. He brought his own blade around in a wide arc that seared across Goir's shoulders, trailing smoke and torn cloth as it went. Dropping to his knees, the Sith warrior let out a pained gasp that was barely audible over the hum of the lightsabers.
Sedriss paid no heed to his companion's dismal situation. Eyes fixed solely on his quarry, he crouched low and Anakin had only a split-second to brace his mind for the other's mental attack. As counter-measure he used Vill Goir as a living missile that crashed into Sedriss' legs and caused him to lose his balance in some surprise. On the attack again the Dark Lord stabbed his blade down and through Goir's back, ending his life quickly and efficiently, before he took on the younger warrior. His eyes narrowing dangerously, Sedriss gave him a cool nod. That gesture was so reminiscent of his master that it was almost frightening.
But whatever else Roj Kell was, he was no fighter. And his students tended to be hard-pressed to stand against an honest, outright attack, as Chi'in had noted time and again and pointed out to his own master. On the surface that seemed an advantage for Anakin, but it only meant that Sedriss was more adept at using his mind than his lightsaber. Countering another blow to his mind, Anakin resolved to change his tactics again. Instead of attacking he took a few steps back, trying to goad Sedriss into a headlong charge. The other only smirked at him and shut down his blade.
Anakin stared, but caught himself almost immediately when he checked on the room and found it empty aside from himself and the Sith warrior. Padmé was gone. And Roj Kell with her. His mouth twisting into an angry grimace, the Dark Lord nodded at his opponent.
"A distraction. I see. But do you truly believe that I will spare your life?"
Sedriss shrugged easily. "That is entirely up to you," he answered calmly, and Anakin was just a bit surprised by the young man's resolve.
"I have enough time to kill you, if you speculate on my wanting to track down those two in time."
"Of course. But do you have enough time to spare to save your children?"
Anakin gave Sedriss a mirthless smile: "Please, don't do that. Your master is much more adept at this game. Best leave it to him. Do you know where he is headed?"
"All right. What about Chi'in?"
"I am not certain."
"Good. I do not care what you do, but you will not follow me. Maybe you are just a bit smarter than he was," Anakin nodded toward Vill Goir's silent form, "but I know for a fact that you cannot match Roj Kell. So, whatever he has planned for you you will have coming at you. If you can deal with that, we will talk again. Until then, farewell."
Bowing slightly, Sedriss gave him an appraising smile. "Thank you, Lord Vader. I appreciate your concern. And I will do my best."
Anakin did not reply. Turning around he dismissed the warrior immediately. What was he to do? Track down Kell? Or Padmé? No, Sedriss was right. He had no time to lose. And saving his children would serve two purposes. If he managed to get to them before Palpatine got his hands on them, he would be safe from the old man's manipulations. And maybe Padmé would trust him again when he brought them back to her. Maybe. In the deepest depths of his heart he knew that he would never make it. But this was the only way left. There was no other choice anymore.
Padmé was trying to find her way out, just out and away. Still, as confused and disturbed as she was, she had enough sense left to not venture too deep into the darker mazes of Nar Shadaa. Even if that meant a greater risk at being detected. Shuddering in sudden remembrance, she stopped and leaned her shoulder against the wall to steady herself. It had been true, all of it. She had deceived herself, her husband, everyone. And she had not wanted to see the lies that surrounded her. It had been Anakin who had pointed it out to her, telling her that she needed to use those deceptions more frequently to succeed in the game. She had refused then, had refused to believe that she was no better than the Senators on Coruscant, but just as deceiving and cold. She had sacrificed so many friends for the ends she had believed justified then. In the end though everything had fallen apart. Roj Kell had been right: she had blamed it all on Anakin, unable to cope with reality herse! lf. Was she that weak then? When had she become so afraid? Moaning softly she shook her head, trying to get rid of the memories. But the old Sith's face just would not go away.
"Do you believe in justice?" he had asked her.
"Yes, of course."
"What if I told you that there is no justice? That there is no order, no peace, no honor, nothing?"
"Then you would be a fool."
He had laughed at her then, a sly twinkle in his pale green eyes. For a moment Padmé had felt icy claws of dread reach for her heart again, but she had suppressed her fear skillfully. He had continued softly: "What you perceive as justice might be blasphemy in someone else's eyes. And yet you assume that your way is the right one. You tell yourself that there have to be rules and you are right. And do you know why?"
"We are a community. We need to be able to live together. That's what rules are for.No," holding up her hand she had forestalled any reply on his part. She had given him her most queenly stare and had been surprised at his suddenly very attentive expression. "The rules are there to protect those who do not have the power to protect themselves. And they too are valuable to the community. Very much so." She had smiled very thinly. "After all, my lord, whom would you have left to terrorize if only the strong did survive?"
Again he had laughed, but this time it had been honest mirth. "Very good. But in another sense you are wrong. These rules serve as a basis for trust. Trust in your leaders, your government, in knowing how your opponents will react, even should they break the rules. The fact that there are guidelines gives you a sense of security. If you did not have that, you would go mad with the complexity of life itself. Think about it. If there were no rules-"
"There would be chaos," she had spat in disgust. "You cannot truly believe that desirable."
"But trust is such a precious thing and so vulnerable too. So easily lost and almost impossible to win back."
Padmé had swallowed her own reply at that. Anakin would not want her back, would he? She had been so selfish! "I..." she had sighed deeply. "I see your point." And it made her shake with dread.
"Good. The Jedi never dared to explore the entire complexity of the Force. They declared there to be two sides, one good, one evil. Very pragmatic and so deceitful at the same time. Without their knowing it, they had sealed their own fate."
"Tell me, Lord Kell, what do you trust in?" she had asked quietly.
He had not replied then. And somehow she suspected that she would not have liked that answer anyway.
It had been some time since Leia had last been on Coruscant. Years, in fact. But, returning now, she knew that this time her words would be taken seriously, contrary to when she had served her stepfather in the Imperial Senate. Although that was not so long ago, it seemed to Leia as if she had grown by decades over the past months. And she was not the only one. Luke, standing by her side in the broken-down warehouse that had served Jix and Mara as hiding place on their first mission together, was the perfect picture of calm composure. A far cry from the naive farm-boy craving adventure and excitement. The Princess was proud of what her brother had accomplished in such a short time. How much he had matured.
Turning around, Leia smiled at Rieekan.
"Is everything prepared?"
"Yes. Page and his units stand ready. They are only waiting for your signal."
"Good. Then we should go and pay a visit to the Imperial Palace."
Striding ahead of the group, Leia was quickly joined by the General, who was intently studying the display he held in his hands. It showed a layout of the Coruscant underground and mapped out a way for them to get into the Palace virtually undetected, while Page's team would occupy the guards and defenses. Once inside, Leia and her companions would play off the public sentiments against the government when the first battle group of the Alliance showed up in the system. Right now Captain Needa was conducting the attacks on Duro and Gyndine and Leia was fully confident that he would succeed not only in rattling the nearby capital but also in drawing some of the ships stationed over Coruscant away before his fleet would join the ships under General Dodonna's command.
If everything went as planned, the conquest of Coruscant would be over almost before it had started and with as little fighting as possible. And when all of this was done, they could finally start again. A new beginning. Leia had to admit that she quite liked the sound of that.
But sometimes things don't turn out the way you want them to.
"Captain! Shields are down to ten percent!"
Throwing the ensign a tight glance, Lorth Needa observed the tactical display with some disdain. The two Interdictor cruisers stationed off the orbital battle stations around Duros were doing a very effective job of keeping his fleet trapped in the system. And so far they had not yielded to the steady barrage of laser fire that the Avenger and her sister ships were throwing at them. But then, they had to fight off the Star Destroyers closing in on them simultaneously. Meanwhile their TIE-fighters were trying to knock out the battle stations. Which was no easy task either. Needa watched another of his corvettes go up in glorious flames. This was not going well. And if-
"Sir! They've got reinforcements coming!"
Sighing deeply the Captain gave the ensign a short nod. "Very well. We have tried our best. Now it is time to find out if we can do even better. Establish contact with the Liberty."
A few moments later the image of General Dodonna appeared beside him in a grainy transmission. "Captain! What is going on?"
"Bad news. We will not be able to join you."
"Please, I do not have much time. Just listen. If you attack Coruscant now you will be annihilated. My advice is to retreat."
"Captain Needa, I-"
"Shut up!" Eyes widening in surprise the General's reply ended in a stutter. Out of the corner of his eyes Needa could see the ensign's concerned face at his outburst. "I do not know what has gone wrong but I suggest you find out fast. And to do that you must survive. Is that clear?"
"Captain." The ensign's words were no more than a whisper. "Five percent."
Wistfully Lorth Needa recalled the last time the Avenger had been under Lord Vader's command. Back then the Dark Lord had managed to save the ship and her crew, but at this point the responsibility was solely his own. "Very good. I want everyone to board the escape pods immediately. General Dodonna," he fixed the white-haired commander in a cold glare, "it is up to you now."
When the transmission from the Duro fleet's flagship died abruptly, General Dodonna was not the only one whose heart sank with dread and grief for their comrades. Standing next to him on the bridge of the Liberty, Admiral Piett felt his heart grow numb with sorrow. Not only had the operation failed, he had also lost a friend, a very good friend. Lorth, I am so sorry. Turning around to face him Dodonna gave him a blank look.
"What are we to do now? Retreat, as he suggested?"
Staring out of the forward viewport at the battle around them unseeing the Admiral kept silent for a while. Then he shook his head with great effort. "No. Whoever initiated this counterstrike expects us to retreat. We will not. Give me the last update on the fleet deployment at Duro." The tactical display responded immediately. "We cannot send any reinforcements to bail them out. The Interdictors would only slow us down."
"So? Do we proceed to attack Coruscant then?"
Raising his head Piett shook his head grimly. "Not with this fleet. No chance."
"Call it a hunch, General, but these ships are going nowhere near to Coruscant."
"Then after Gyndine this attack is over?"
"What about our teams on Coruscant? Riekaan and the Princess?"
The Admiral gave him a pained glance. "We have no choice," he whispered.
Suddenly Dodonna's face turned very ugly indeed. Drawing himself up to his full height he shook his head vehemently, his white beard practically bristling with outrage. "I should have known!" he roared. "I told Mon Mothma not to trust you Imperials! Admit it! You had planned this all along!"
Tomas Piett straightened slowly, his features growing very cold. "You question me now? Now? I have just lost my best friend and you accuse me of having sacrificed him for what? Nothing."
"You knew that this would happen!"
"On what grounds do you base this ridiculous assumption?"
"Very simple. I know Lord Vader, and I know that he would never change. Chances are that he has been deceiving us all the time. Maybe he has planned all this. I would not put it past him."
"No," shaking his head firmly the Admiral took a step closer to Dodonna. "You cannot truly believe this."
"And what if he has betrayed you too?"
"For whatever it is worth to you, General, I swear that you are wrong. And this is quite beside the point now."
"It is not. I am in command of this ship. And I say we go and blast Coruscant now."
"At least check back with High Command and inform them of what has happened."
"I will do that gladly. And now get off my bridge."
Darth Sidious was gleefully asserting the reports coming in from Duro and Gyndine. So, the first fleet had been annihilated and just now his troops were busy mopping up the rest of that unlucky bunch. As expected, the forces at Gyndine were doing far better. And soon they would be headed here... What a foolish move.
"I would be surprised if Lord Vader was with this group," he said pleasantly.
Behind him a silent shadow moved. "No, Master. He is not."
Nodding to himself the Sith smiled. "Not his style. He is no fool, not at all. Well, whoever is in command of that fleet will soon find out that there are quite a few ways to stop them. The Interdictors are in place already to receive them. Now, let us see how our little rebellion is proceeding."
"They have entered the underground."
"Who is with them?"
"The Princess. And Skywalker."
"Ah. The Jedi and the diplomat. Where have I seen that before?" Chuckling to himself, Sidious rose from his seat to turn around. Burning golden eyes met his as Nuron Sarin's head came up to face him. He brushed a hand along her jaw tenderly. "Now, my apprentice, the time has come to prove to me that you are worthy of my trust."
"Hey!" Han Solo shouted at the small figure that had just crashed into him on a headlong flight. Before he could move though Chewie had already taken hold of the woman. She gave them a wild-eyed once-over, then tried to break from the Wookiee's grasp.
"Let go!" she hissed.
"Are you all right?" Her eyes flickered almost imperceptibly. Chewie growled. "Yeah. You are right. We got to find this Kell first. If she's in some sort of trouble-"
"Kell? You are looking for him?" the woman breathed, relaxing a bit.
"Yeah" Han answered slowly, his eyes narrowing with suspicion. "Do you know where he is?"
She gave him a wry smile: "You better not mess with him if you want to survive."
Han grabbed her shoulders, suppressing the urge to shake the answers out of her. "Listen, it is imperative that we find him!"
"He has gone to ground, believe me. You won't find him anymore."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Listen, we are from the Alliance. We won't betray you. Please, simply tell us what you know about him."
Her smile became distant, almost dreamy. "I know nothing. You are from the Alliance? My children are with the Alliance."
Suddenly Han's heart was beating wildly in his throat. Could it be? Oh. Gods, could it be? "Padmé, is your name Padmé?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Your children are in grave danger-"
"I know," she answered tiredly. "I could not help them..."
"No! Help me and we can still turn this around. When Anakin comes back-"
"He won't." The sharpness in her tone surprised him.
"What -" Han let go of her. "You know him best, I guess. But still I must ask you to come with us."
"Coruscant. Maybe we can get them out."
"No. The Emperor has them."
"He's alive? But- Your husband knows?"
"Then it's back to Vjun," Han decided grimly. He had no clue what this was all about, none at all. But one thing he did know. Rash action would only get them into trouble.
Walking the corridors of Nar Shadaa wearily, Roj Kell was musing about the cruelty that lies in selflessness. Two choices, two ways of interpreting them, and endless possibilities. They all required sacrifices, just as survival requires sacrifices. The question was what choice to make, what loss to accept in exchange for the outcome. Anakin Skywalker had weighted his chances, and from his past and his experiences there had been only one logical choice: to surrender for show and then attack. Unfortunately that was not a decision Kell could accept. Not at all. He had wanted the Dark Lord to embrace the darkness again, to harness his anger and use it against his opponent. But what Skywalker had opted for in the end had not been darkness, even though the ancient Sith had carefully disguised it as such.
None of the choices he had given him had been ultimately evil. And the Dark Lord had realized that. Such maturity and wisdom was truly astounding in one so young. But then, he had been forced to grow up fast and life's lessons had only now found a chance to sink in fully. Too bad.
So he would die at last, the last battle lost on any level. He shook his head, smiling in quiet amusement. It was ridiculous that a decision he had made almost three thousand years ago would come back to haunt him now.
A sudden premonition stopped him short. Raising his head he focused on the gloomy shadows ahead. A familiar figure stepped from the darkness, moving sinuously, deadly, and very silently. And Kell had never felt him approach.
"Chi'in," he breathed. "You are alive."
When something moved behind the Noghri warrior, turning into the glistening white of storm trooper armor Kell stiffened involuntarily. A frown formed on his forehead. Why had he not sensed them? When he realized the truth though he knew that it was far too late. For a second he considered to try and escape, but then someone else joined Chi'in. Arms crossed on his back, Grand Admiral Thrawn gave him a cool nod, his features unreadable. "Lord Kell," he said. "We would be honored if you would join us."
"Thanks, but I decline," the ancient Sith replied acidly. He had nothing to lose, after all.
When he reached out to the Force and found only a blank space though he growled softly at his adversaries. Behind him he could just hear the quiet clanking of boots on metal.
"Excellent timing, sergeant," Thrawn commented drily. "Now. I hate having to repeat myself, but you really have no choice."
Just then Roj Kell managed to break through the hazy wall surrounding his senses. The Force was there, but it kept slipping away from him like a particularly stubborn amphibian. And then Chi'in attacked.
The Grand Admiral's command went unheeded as the Noghri's body impacted against an unstable Force shield. Retreating with a gasp Kell tried to regain control once more, but found it impossible.
The short warrior's noiseless advance had sparked something in his mind though, something ancient. Taking up the challenge, Roj Kell fell back another step before he smashed his left arm into the alien and brought his right hand around. Chi'in caught it expertly and Kell screamed when the other squeezed hard, threatening to break bone in his unrelenting grip. Suddenly he twisted his wrist around and the old Sith found himself airborn before he crashed into the corridor wall.
Watching the fight unfold Thrawn felt his face twitch with annoyance. Why did the Noghri have to take this so personal? The troopers' blaster rifles would have been so much more effective. But then, that was honor-bound people for you. Too emotional. It was clear from the beginning that Kell would lose.
But the old man would not give up yet. Once recovered from his close encounter with the hard steel-wall, he rose into a crouch, his face twisted into the feral snarl of a cornered beast. Meanwhile Chi'in was stalking him cautiously. Suddenly both moved in unison, anticipating each other and the Noghri fell back, surprise showing on his face. Unconsciously the Grand Admiral took a step back.
"Advance," he ordered quietly and the storm troopers followed his command at once.
Faced with this new threat Roj Kell abandoned his attack on the Sith warrior and started dancing among the white-clad soldiers, his long white hair playing through the shadows like the very mockery of a parley flag. A little apart Chi'in stood waiting, his large eyes tracking the old man carefully.
Just as Thrawn took a step forward to join him, he darted back into the fray and an angry shout rang through the corridor over the din of battle. The troopers stepped back to give the pair more room, but that hardly seemed necessary. The wiry strength of the Noghri was in no way surprising to the Grand Admiral, contrary to Roj Kell's stubbornness. Chi'in had his arms locked around the other's torso, trapping his arms at his sides effectively. He was shaking his quarry occasionally, as if trying to convince him to subside.
When Kell finally gave up his struggle, the moment he did so was very visible in his features. Letting out a deep breath he relaxed and closed his eyes. Unable to support himself any longer, he dropped to his knees and Chi'in immediately moved his hands up to touch the old man's forehead. That one uttered a sound between a sigh and a moan before he toppled over and lay silent.
"What was that?" Thrawn asked, somewhat bewildered.
"The-? But the Ysalamiri-"
"Do not really work for us. But," Chi'in looked down pensively at the Sith Lord's crumpled form, "you have to be focused to fight their influence."
"And that he was not. I see. Very good." Facing the Noghri calmly, the Grand Admiral gave him a slow nod. "You are free to go now."
"And leave you alone with him? I don't think so."
"I have the means to control him, Chi'in," Thrawn countered calmly.
The alien shrugged. "It is your decision, of course. What about Jixton?"
"He is also staying with me."
"Then this is where we part, Syndic. May the Force be with you." Bowing sharply the alien smiled. Then he turned around and left without another word.
"You should have taken his offer," a soft voice told the Grand Admiral quietly. Whirling around, Thrawn frowned deeply at Roj Kell. The man was rising to his feet slowly, looking very tired, but the fact that he had managed to fool Chi'in seemed even more chilling than the fire burning in his pale eyes. "So, what means were those again?"
"Simple ones," the Grand Admiral managed, calming himself rapidly. He needed a clear head now, that he knew for certain.
"I am intrigued," Kell answered and leaned against the corridor wall heavily. "Go on."
"First: protection. And don't tell me you don't need it. You can hardly stand. Second: I am certain we can find a compromise concerning Lord Vader."
The ancient Sith barked a weak laugh. "That sounds like a deal. But unfortunately I am not inclined to enter that deal on your terms."
"Very well." Gritting his teeth in anticipation Thrawn nodded at the stormtrooper sergeant. "That leaves me no other choice. You are under arrest."
Shaking his head slowly, Roj Kell smiled at him coldly. "Nice. Just like the old times."
On Coruscant Luke Skywalker was nervously scanning the strike team's surroundings. He had a bad feeling that just wouldn't go away. If Rieekan's map was still correct, they had reached their final destination before they would go on to infiltrate the Imperial Palace. Just now Leia was quietly conversing with the General and Page. It would fall to Page and his team to cause a diversion, while the rest would try and capture the heads of the government, namely the three remaining councilors from Palpatine's court.
Luke was still fully concentrated on sweeping the underground maze when a sudden commotion brought his attention to the group on his left. Page was apparently ready to leave. Taking a step forward, Leia took his hand and squeezed it reassuringly, but everyone knew that Page's chances of survival were very slim indeed. Not that the rest of them were in any less danger.
Jogging over to join his sister, Luke nodded at the retreating team. "Your orders?" he asked.
"Did you find anything?"
"No, but there is a feeling... I cannot describe it, but it tells me that the task ahead will be very difficult, if not impossible."
"Did you pick up any enemy troops?"
Leia drew a deep breath, then exhaled again. "All right. We are as ready as can be. Page will strike in half and hour and soon after Dodonna and Needa should be here to distract the home fleet. Let's go."
Stopping short Luke gasped when a he felt an icy chill settle over his mind.
"Luke! What is it?"
"I - Something to do with Needa. I am not sure. But we should not rely on them."
"It is a bit late for that," his sister commented quietly, her dark eyes unfathomable. Flicking her gaze toward Rieekan for reassurance, she saw the older man nod once.
"You are right. Too late to turn back now. We have to try. We won't get away anyway," he told the twins calmly.
"Okay. After you then."
They moved carefully and very quietly, their flashlights the only illumination on the way. And yet Luke, bringing up the rear was more on edge than he should be. Using a Jedi calming technique he concentrated again and stopped short in shock when he picked up a familiar presence. Turning around to peer into the gloom he dismissed the rest of the group and unhooked his lightsaber from his belt. And then the truth hit him.
"It's a trap!" he shouted, startling the Alliance troops, as he could feel very clearly.
"Luke!" he heard the princess yell before all hell broke loose.
But he had already picked up the presence of the stormtroopers that were now engaging Riekaan and his team. What was he to do? Help Leia? Or confront the woman waiting for him in the shadows?
As it was, she took that decision from him with her usual grace. The blood-red blade snapped into existence just two meters away from him and the hum of the young Sith's lightsaber had something inevitable about it that served to calm Luke in turn. He was committed now.
"Nuron," he said slowly, looking into the golden eyes that seemed to burn with an inner fire as they reflected the reddish glow of her blade.
"Do you remember the lessons I gave you on our voyage to Vjun?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Then pray that they will save you now," she hissed and moved in for a lightning attack.
Dancing out of her way, the young Jedi was suddenly unsure of what to do. He could not deny his feelings for her, even though he suspected that right now they would doom him. Nuron struck at him through the Force, unexpectedly, and Luke had a hard time fending her off. But that was nothing compared to the barrage of slashes and stabs she let loose on him even before he had had time to recover. It was all he could do to block her advance while he was driven back quickly. Remembering their mock duels, he ducked suddenly before she could trap him against a wall, the way she had back then. He jabbed an elbow into her ribs, then struck his left arm across her back, a jolt that sent her flying against the wall herself. Luke could hear her angry growl as she picked herself up from the floor.
"Nuron, how did you get here?" he asked, just a little bit flustered.
"On a ship," she snapped, and in the light of their blades he could see her flash him a quick smile. Attacking again, she managed to kick her right boot against his thigh and the pain lancing through his body distracted the young Jedi for a precious second. Nuron hammered the handle of her lightsaber against the side of his head viciously, and as he sank to the ground, already losing consciousness, he heard her give a triumphant howl that chilled the blood in his veins. What had happened? That question, alas, went unanswered as he slipped into oblivion.
Picking off another stormtrooper, Leia was grimly assessing the situation. It was hopeless, that she could see clearly. Her team was badly outnumbered and the Imperial soldiers knew that too. Falling into her own mind, the princess sought guidance in the Force, as she had been taught. But the only thing she could sense was Luke and something very dark. When her brother's presence faltered suddenly and grew muted, she felt the shock in her entire body. Luke! There was no answer.
Looking up slightly bewildered, Leia raised her weapon, but relaxed just a little bit when she recognized Rieekan. "General," she breathed, "we have to retreat."
"Too late, I fear."
When a blood-red beam of light arched through the gloom at Rieekan's head very suddenly, Leia screamed in horror. Too late, indeed. As he fell, she jumped back, out of the attacker's reach. Her eyes narrowed slightly as they met Nuron's golden gaze.
"Now, let us see what Lord Vader has taught you," the young alien female told her mockingly, before she advanced on the princess.
Leia 's mind was racing as she retreated quickly to get out of the Sith's reach. She did not have a lightsaber, and her blaster would be useless against the young warrior's blade. But when the other woman lunged at her, the princess made good use of her small height. Throwing herself forward legs first, Leia brought her fists up as she passed Nuron, who tried to twist around in mid-jump with predatory grace, but as Leia connected with her stomach she gave a low moan of pain and toppled to the floor. The princess was on top of her in a heart-beat and twisted the lightsaber handle out of her grasp expertly. She had been taught hand-to-hand combat ever since she had been little and, combined with her father's instructions, she felt confident that she could defeat Nuron if they were on equal terms.
But the alien did not seem to share her optimistic outlook. With a loud snarl Nuron grabbed Leia's right arm and bit down hard, her sharp teeth drawing blood. Leia reacted instinctively, but with less precision than was desirable. She missed Nuron's head by inches as she slapped at her, and by then the other had already thrown her off.
"You are lucky that my master wants both of you alive," Nuron growled before she picked up Leia's blaster and set it on stun. Although the princess managed to divert most of the blast with a quickly erected Force-shield, her body still grew slack, leaving her unable to move.
Nuron dropped down beside her gracefully. "I would advise you to surrender," she said harshly. "Your troops at Duro have been annihilated and your fleet at Gyndine will not succeed in taking Coruscant. Your second team will meet with more resistance than they have anticipated. So you see, you have lost this battle. It would seem that your father has not taught you quite enough," she added with a malevolent smile.
So, that was it! Nuron was jealous that her precious Dark Lord had chosen his daughter over her! As for the rest, Leia could only agree. Although she tried to maintain a calm composure, she was crying inwardly. This was bad, very bad. If the entire offensive on Coruscant failed... And her father was off the Force knew where! Had he known? For a split-second the princess felt hope return to her heart once more. Maybe this was a giant diversion, maybe he was already here... But no, she sighed, that was impossible. Grabbing her shoulders, Nuron dragged Leia upright before she thrust her unresisting body at two stormtroopers.
"Take her to the surface. I want her to see for herself."
See what? Leia thought frantically as they passed the bodies littered across the underground cave. There were almost only Alliance soldiers among the dead, only three or four white-armored troopers. And no sign of Luke.
"Your brother is alive," Nuron commented coolly without looking at her as they made their way up.
The princess noticed that there were awfully few prisoners. Finally the darkness gave way to daylight as they walked out of one of the service tunnels of the underground sewage system onto a square that was filled with stormtroopers and some more captive Alliance soldiers. Leia winced when she saw Page kneel among them, his face bruised and his right arm broken. He looked up to meet her gaze and even managed a smile. Leia did not feel like smiling back. Rieekan dead, Needa most probably too, and she had a feeling that Page would not survive either. She did not even want to ponder her own possible fate. Or her brother's for that matter.
Her shoulders slumped unconsciously in quiet defeat, but when out of the corner of her eyes she could see Nuron smile contemptuously, Leia drew herself up again. The young Sith arched her eyebrows coolly before she turned away to walk over to a stormtrooper bearing the insignia of a sergeant. They talked quietly for a few moments before the sergeant nodded at the troopers standing next to Page. Leia tensed when the soldiers shoved him forward and he staggered to his feet.
"Take him and the princess upstairs. Execute the rest," Nuron ordered coldly before she took the lead of the small group. Leia felt her blood run cold at the sound of blaster fire that died down again as fast as it had started. She shared a troubled glance with Page, but both knew that there was nothing they could do anymore.
"Ah, welcome to Coruscant," Sidious announced gleefully when Nuron strode into the throne room, the princess right on her heels.
"Master, all went well. The leader of the second team has been removed for interrogation and Skywalker's condition is stable," the young Zabrak informed him.
"Very good. Monitor his progress and bring him to me once he is sufficiently recovered."
"Yes, master." Bowing sharply she turned around and left. What a perfect little weapon, and so obedient too. Very much like Lord Maul. Some time he would have to find out if they were related in some way, but for now that could wait.
"Come closer, my child," he told the young woman facing him softly. She had her head raised proudly, ignoring the soldiers surrounding her completely. Just like her father would have done. Interesting.
"Nuron tells me that you are not to be underestimated. She also reported that your father has been training you. I must admit that I found that surprising. I would have expected him to not repeat his mistakes. Obviously I was wrong."
That got her attention. "What mistakes?"
"Concerning your mother. Guards, you may leave us." He waited until they had disappeared before he took a few steps toward her. "You remind me of her, quite a lot, to be frank. Undoubtedly Lord Vader feels the same way."
"Your mother was not what she pretended to be. In fact, she would have made a perfect Sith, if she had had any Force potential." The princess' face went white with shock.
"You are just trying to get me off guard."
"So I am," he answered in some amusement. "But still, it is the truth."
She shook her head vehemently. "You are pathetic, Palpatine. Don't you think I know what you are trying to accomplish? Whatever resemblance you might find between us, I am not my mother."
"No. You definitely are your father's daughter."
She laughed at that. "Another try? I would have thought that you could do better than that. I will certainly not follow my father's path. I have learned too much for that."
"You will find that one never ceases to learn."
She gave him a cool glance and he could not but admire her courage. "Then maybe it is time for you to learn that you cannot always win," came the quiet reply.
"Ah, bravo," he clapped his hands contemptuously. "Such defiant wisdom from you of all people. It is you who has lost, Princess. Admit it."
"I do. But that does not change a thing," she replied grimly.
"No, it doesn't," Palpatine whispered softly, his mirth gone.
It seemed that Vader had done a very thorough job on her. Not that it mattered. She could not hope to escape and she knew it. Breaking her would definitely take some time and effort, but it was a challenge he was looking forward to. Once that other matter was resolved, he would start on her in earnest. Until then though she was pretty useless.
Walking closer to her, he felt her disgust and anger rise, and he basked in those sweet, dark emotions, reveling in her darkness. When they stood so close that she had to crane her neck to look into his eyes, Sidious smiled again. Very courageous indeed. He touched her left cheek tenderly, daring her to break away. She did not. Instead she stood her ground, enduring his caresses with a stoic expression that was also very reminiscent of her mother.
"Such a sweet face and such a fierce soul. But you are still doomed, little princess. I will first destroy your father, once he comes back here, then I will break your brother and make him mine. And finally - you. It will be a pleasure."
Raising her eyebrows she swallowed down her fear. "And my mother?"
"Your mother!" Laughing out loud Sidious turned away again, shaking with silent mirth. "Your mother is a wreck. She will not help you and she is certainly no match for me. She has had her chance, and she missed it."
The silence that hit his back was more telling than any words. He could sense her grief and pain so clearly that it almost hurt.
Waking up, Luke fought his way past the murky swamp that was his mind. Apparently the blow he had received had been harder than anticipated. His eyes focused slowly, unsteadily, until they found something familiar to hold on to. The young Jedi stared at Nuron quietly for some time, unable to talk and unwilling to try at all. She was studying him intently, her golden eyes intense, but she too seemed reluctant to say anything.
"My lady, he is awake, do you want me to-"
Nuron waved the faceless voice into silence impatiently, not taking her gaze off Luke. "You will await my command," she explained coldly.
"Yes, of course."
How much she has grown, Luke mused, while he realized at the same time that she had just grown into the Dark Side. What had happened? Why this change? Of course, she was a Sith and Father had certainly not treated her very kindly. Still, something else must have sparked this transition to a completely heartless killer. Something, or someone.
"You are wondering why you are not with your sister, I assume," she said suddenly. Luke did not answer and kept his mental shields in check instead. Rising from her seat elegantly, Nuron paced out of his sight only to reappear a few seconds later. It went like this for quite some time until finally she stopped again, looming over him like a beautiful raptor. "As it is, I wanted some time alone with you."
"Alone?" Luke managed at last.
"Yes." Snapping her fingers she signaled the other occupants of the room that they had better leave. Once the door had closed behind them, she sat down on the edge of the bed and her right hand brushed over the bruised side of his head, making him wince in pain. She smiled almost tenderly.
"Nuron, how did you get here?" he tried once again.
"My master brought me here," she explained quietly.
"Your master? Who is your master?"
"Lord Sidious. The Emperor."
"What? But, he is dead!"
Shaking her head, Nuron leaned toward him and to Luke's utter surprise placed a kiss on his forehead. "Not at all. He is very much alive." Suddenly her mood changed again and her face grew dark with anger. "He made me see the truth."
"The truth about how your father used me for his ends, never caring for me at all. The same way Lord Kell made me his tool to hurt Lord Vader. They are both the same!"
"Your father did not tell you about him?"
The smile was back in place. "How unfortunate. Lord Kell will certainly teach your father some manners when they meet again."
"If they do."
"Smart boy. I hear your father is already on his way here, undoubtedly to try and free you and your sister."
"And you think I would believe you now, after all that has happened?"
"It is your choice, of course, who to believe."
"Nuron, why are you doing this? For revenge?"
She hesitated, her eyes growing distant. "Maybe. I am not sure. Maybe I just want someone to recognize me for what I am."
"And what are you, Nuron?"
Luke smiled at her. "Yes, you are definitely that. And if you were not that someone no one would care to use you the way they did. My father only takes the best, as you know very well, and he considered you to be among them even if you did not want to realize that."
"Luke, you do not have a clue what you are talking about, so please, be silent." Placing a finger on his lips, she sealed them close and rose from her seat. "I will let you rest some more. And then you will meet my master."
Before she could leave though, Luke called her name quietly. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, a questioning frown marring her forehead. "Nuron, back on Myrk you told me that you did not have a master anymore. Why are you so eager now to serve another?"
There was no answer, just the soft click of the door closing behind her.
Raising his head, the pirate chief scowled at the Corellian storming onto the Wilde Karrde's bridge.
"Solo. Who let you in here?"
"I did, chief," Aves piped up as he followed Solo, a short woman and the Wookiee Chewbacca at his heels.
Straightening fully Karrde sighed. "Great. And where did you leave Vader? The Chimaera, by the way, has been joined by another ship. The Relentless, if you must know."
Solo shared a glance with the woman, then threw Karrde a lop-sided grin. "Guess that means our dear Grand Admiral is back."
"Which would explain why the stormtroopers are leaving. Although we don't know why he would order a retreat. Unless he's got what he wanted here on Nar Shadaa."
"Question is, did he want Kell or Vader?" Again the Corellian sought reassurance with the strange woman.
Karrde raised his eyebrows questioningly. "And who is that charming lady? Aren't you going to introduce her to us?"
"My name is Padmé Naberrie," she answered quickly. "And I am almost certain that Thrawn did not know Lord Vader would be here. Unless someone who knew told him."
"And who could that be?" the pirate chief asked, slightly surprised.
"Someone I believed dead. He was the only one, apart from Lord Kell, who knew that the Dark Lord was here."
"Wait a minute - was? So he's gone now?"
"Presumably yes." The woman hesitated. "My best guess is that he will go to Coruscant."
"And how come you know about Kell?"
"She was his hostage," Solo put in, making it clear that he did not want Karrde to question her further.
"And now we do what?"
"Go back to Vjun. If what Kell told her was the truth the attack on Coruscant has failed. We have to regroup and decide what to do next."
Naberrie spoke up again: "Han, maybe we should consider another option."
"There is someone who might be able to help us. I haven't dared approach him in the past, but these are desperate times indeed. His name is Yoda and he is a very powerful Jedi Master."
"Yoda!" Slapping his forehead hard Solo shook his head. "Of course!"
"I do not know where he is though, maybe he is even dead by now..."
"No, no, not at all, Padmé. He's been training Luke not so long ago."
"Really?" her face lit up spectacularly. "If Yoda has been training him there is still some hope for my children."
"Wait a minute," Karrde put in. "Your children?"
"Yeah, it comes kind of as a surprise to everyone," Solo grumbled.
"It is true, Captain Karrde," Naberrie explained calmly. "But I am certain that you will agree that we do not have the time for explanations. Han, do you know where Yoda is now?"
"Far as I know, on Dagobah."
"Dagobah...." she mused. "Very well. That is were we will go then. Once we have picked him up we must decide whether to go directly to Coruscant or else to Vjun."
"If we get off-planet at all. There're still two Star Destroyers out there," Solo reminded her.
The small group turned around to face the two men standing at the entrance to the bridge. And their gazes immediately dropped to stare at the short alien they had brought with them.
"Damn! How many times do I have to tell you not to bring visitors in here unannounced!" Karrde snapped.
"In this case that would have been a futile gesture," Naberrie explained, a smile playing over her lips. Stepping toward the newcomers she nodded at the alien gravely. "I am very happy to see you alive and well, Chi'in."
"As am I, Lady Vader. Your husband?"
"Gone. Left for Coruscant, I believe."
"To confront the Emperor."
"He is alive?" the alien seemed barely surprised.
"It would seem so. According to Lord Kell."
"Ah, I see. Lord Kell is with the Grand Admiral now. Undoubtedly they will continue their games a little while longer."
"Good," the woman nodded. "That means they'll be distracted. Maybe this is our chance to escape."
"Don't count on it. But you are right. You should find someplace safe, my lady."
"And what about you?"
"I will follow your husband. If the Emperor is alive, things are not certain anymore. Not that they ever have been," Ch'in concluded with a wry smile. "My lady, I would want to speak to you in private."
Following the Noghri outside, Padmé felt a lot calmer. He guided her a little away from the pirate's ship before he turned toward her again.
"I hope Lord Kell was not too harsh on you," he began softly.
"I-" she hesitated. "It was ... painful. But I believe that he made me see a few things that I had denied existed before. He is, in his own way, quite perceptive."
"As perceptive as any predator out to capture his prey. What did he tell you?"
"A few things from the past. He wanted Anakin to join him and then he said something very strange. When Anakin surrendered Kell told us that he had lost."
"Yes. Do you know what he might have meant?"
Chi'in shook his head slowly. "I am not certain at all what it is that he wants. But I do know that he will not help the Emperor."
"Then he will help us?"
"I doubt it. My lady, there is something you must know, something I did not want to reveal to the others. If your husband confronts the Emperor, he will most certainly lose. I would even go as far as to predict that he would descend into darkness again."
"Chi'in! What are you saying?"
"Whatever I will encounter on Coruscant, I will do what I must to ensure that the balance will be restored."
"Ah, Lord Kell. Please, come a bit closer. That is enough."
Coming to a stop again the ancient Sith eyed his opponent warily. Thrawn had taken refuge inside a holo display ring that boasted ten holoproj units and a few additional circuitry whose uses Kell did not recognize. And, of course, the inevitable Ysalamiri dotted the gloomy chamber's walls, their quiet presence more intimidating than anything else in the room. Cocking his head to one side Roj Kell noticed a slight glimmer of anticipation on the alien's face. He shrugged nonchalantly, thereby testing the shackles holding his hands on his back, but got no satisfactory result. So, slightly annoyed, he decided to play on the silent cue Thrawn had given him.
"How quickly the tide can turn in this game, don't you think?"
"It is no game," the Grand Admiral corrected smoothly, his expression unreadable once more now that Kell had taken the first step. "And if it were, you have been bluffing from the very first moment. Although I readily admit that you surprised me."
"I am confident that this insignificant inconvenience pales in comparison to the end result of the gamble."
"More than you can know." A smile flashed across the Grand Admiral's face, one Kell did not like at all. Even though he had accomplished the primary mission objective, namely to get aboard the Relentless, he had no chance to overcome the Ysalamiri's influence. The risk was far too high. And defense had always been his greater strength. If Thrawn gave him a chance to defend at all.
"And what might that comment mean?" he asked at last, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
"I am just wondering." At a wave of Thrawn's hand the holo display ring came to life. A star system appeared, one Kell had not seen in a very long time. "Do you recognize it?"
Kell hesitated. What was he getting at? But not answering might be more fatal than the question itself. Reluctantly he leaned forward to reassure himself as to the identity of the displayed object. "The Shenos Cluster."
"Is that what you call it?" The smile was back and this time Kell felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
"Officially that section of space belongs to the Unknown Regions and is charted under different names for five different star systems. Since you seem to know its true name I must assume that the Unknown Regions are hardly unknown to you."
Kell shrugged. "I might have been there once."
The image changed again and what was shown then, hanging suspended between the two men, let the ancient Sith's blood run cold. "Where did you get that from?" he hissed, suddenly alarmed.
"It was actually in possession of a people we fought some decades ago. You don't, incidentally, know why it came to be there at all?"
"Of course not. And yet your name was mentioned there. Personally I stumbled over this particular file while researching the Sith. Still no idea?" Rising from his seat, Thrawn stepped closer to the image to study the pieces of armor displayed there intently. "Tell me, did you design the patterns yourself? I have noticed that the armor you wear now bears no markings at all."
"Does it matter?"
"Oh yes. I have always found that an artist's creations lend perfect clues as to the way his mind works."
"That rather depends."
"Not really. One can even deduce from a culture's artforms as to that people's behavior. There was just that one that ever eluded me. Their unpredictability forced me to wipe them out. A shame, really," Thrawn added dreamily.
"And it never occured to you that they might have taken over that culture from another people?"
"Assimilated it just like you assimilated the Sith's culture?" Kell did not reply. "You see, my lord, it all comes down to information. Right now I have the advantage over you. And it is up to you to change the balance again. So?"
"So what?" Kell had a hard time hiding his amusement at the Grand Admiral's careless comment. If anyone had the advantage of information it was him, and not the Chiss.
"Let me make this easier for you. Obviously you know the Unknown Regions, and despite having had that information at his disposal, the Emperor sent me to map it out. Why?"
"I am no strategist. I take a different view on these matters."
Thrawn nodded slowly. "That might be the answer. But I rather tend to believe that the Emperor could not access your knowledge."
"And what if?"
"You betray Lord Vader and still try to bring him back in line. You are no warrior, claim to be no strategist and yet you manipulate everyone around you. What are you?"
"Can't you guess?" Then, preparing his voice very carefully, he said: "I know what you are facing in that territory, I lived there for a long time. The annihilation of said people forced you into exile, and maybe that was even your intention. But the alliance with Palpatine was necessary for you to survive and believe me, I know all about surviving. But you could not defy him, you are too dependent on the Empire's resources. This was a magnificent arrangement, in fact. A brilliant strategist to guard the outer perimeter and another to protect the inner peace. What do you think the Emperor feared most? He was using you, Thrawn, using your skills to prevent you from getting petty ideas. Don't you think he knew exactly what terrors your people have to deal with every single day of their existence? " The reaction was barely perceptible, but Kell had no problems identifying it.
"Using me as he was using you? If that bothered you so much, why did you not change it?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"And maybe I do not know an answer either."
"You do. Lord Vader is the key."
"If you think so, why do you fight him?"
Roj Kell snorted softly. "I am teaching him a lesson. A lesson of trust."
"Trust? I do not think that he trusts anyone."
"Wrong. He trusts the wrong people."
The Grand Admiral felt sudden anger flare across his mind at the interruption of this interrogation. This was difficult enough. "Captain Palleon," he snapped, "I did not want to be disturbed."
"I know, sir, but the," the Captain paused, "the Emperor wants to speak to you," he concluded, sounding slightly awed.
The sharp laugh from Roj Kell was the only indicator Thrawn needed, to know that his surprise showed very clearly. Alive? And he was getting into contact only now? "I will take the call here," he answered at last and threw a doubtful glance at the ancient Sith. If he had known beforehand...
But then the image already snapped into existence, bringing another surprise. The man drawing back the hood of his black cloak was much younger than Thrawn remembered. In fact, had it not been for the malevolent gleam in his yellow eyes, the Grand Admiral might not have recognized him. Palpatine's blonde hair had been cut short, emphasizing his cheekbones and bold nose even more. Maybe he could even have been called handsome, had it not been for the malicious smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
Of course. Clones. Thrawn's mind did a double-flip as he made the connections between this new piece of information and Vader's little ruse with the files he'd had Mara Jade deliver as a gift. But had the Dark Lord himself been aware of the Emperor's continued existence? If so, he had underestimated the Sith immensely. Not a comforting thought.
"Grand Admiral," Palpatine began smoothly. "It is a pleasure to see you well and alive despite the company you find yourself in." Here he gave Roj Kell a meaningful glance. Turning his head to look over his shoulder Thrawn managed a smile before he sought Palpatine's eyes again and bowed deeply.
"Your Highness," he replied, "thank you for your concern, but so far Lord Kell has been quite civilized."
"It won't last. By the way, I must congratulate you. You seem hardly surprised at seeing me alive. Maybe you suspected as much?"
"Admittedly no, I did not harbor any such suspicions."
"Ah!" the Emperor gave a delighted laugh. "Excellent. I had my reasons for keeping myself hidden until now. But the time has come to bring this affair to an end."
"In what way?"
"Lord Vader will join me very soon. And I want you to return to Coruscant also. Which prompts the question why you did not follow my request the last time and went to Korriban instead."
"A strategic decision that seemed valid at that time."
"Of course. See to it that you make this trip quickly. I am running out of patience. Lord Kell, I am so looking forward to seeing you again in person."
"Time for celebrating your victory?" the old Sith replied coolly, and even without turning around Thrawn could see the other's smile in front of his inner eye.
"Indeed, my friend, " the Emperor answered with a nod. "Until then, gentlemen."
Once Palpatine had disconnected the call, the Grand Admiral turned around sharply to face Roj Kell. "So this was no more than a test of my loyalty," he hissed, truly angry. He hated those games, wholly unnecessary and a waste of resources.
"A test that you passed with flying colors, I would say," Kell told him, his smile deepening gradually.
"And Lord Vader? Was his mission nothing but a deception then?"
"Of course it was a deception, as you know very well."
There was something in the old man's gaze, a hint of amusement mixed with anticipation. Thrawn's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "But he did not betray the Rebel Alliance."
Taking a deep breath Thrawn fought down the satisfied feeling of having been proven right. So, the Emperor was trying to make him believe that this entire mission had been nothing but a test, and in no way a crisis. The fact that Lord Vader would join him again was disturbing though. Out of his own free will? Or was there something else? Eyeing Roj Kell he noticed that the ancient Sith had walked over to the viewport, watching something. Once he had joined his prisoner, Thrawn let his eyes wander over the Chimaera's flank as the Star Destroyer joined her sister ship.
"Who are you really, Lord Kell, that you defy the Emperor while you play into his hands at the same time? Why would he go to the trouble to have me track you down if this was such a secure gamble?"
"It was never that, Thrawn."
"It is a lesson."
"Another lesson? I would think that the Emperor is a little too old for that."
"Some lessons take longer than others."
"I see. So this is dying ground for everyone except Palpatine. He has learned his lesson then, don't you think?"
"Actually I tend to disagree." Turning his head to meet his gaze Roj Kell smiled again, and Thrawn was getting the feeling that he did that just to annoy him. "So far it has all been petty politics, intrigues and admittedly very subtle tactics. But now, Grand Admiral, the game is over."
When the door slid open Thrawn was at the brink of a very violent outburst. "What is it now!"
"We are ready to leave," Mara announced.
"Jade. Have you met Lord Kell?" the Grand Admiral asked, suddenly calm again. Mara gave him a long look before she studied the ancient Sith.
"I have seen him before, on Coruscant."
"So you know him?"
"Not really. My best guess is that he was one of the Emperor's councilors."
"You know that Palpatine is alive?"
"Captain Palleon was so kind as to tell me."
"Interesting. No one seems to have known except for him here." Nodding at the white-haired Sith, Thrawn went to take his place in the command chair once more.
Mara gave Kell a hard glance. She remembered him clearly, but back then she had not been certain what exactly his position was. He had been escorted by Royal Guardsmen, which could mean either a privilege or that he was a prisoner. She had been pretty shocked to find out that her former master was alive though. Shocked and surprised, that he would reveal himself only now. But of what use would the knowledge about Palpatine have been to Kell? Apparently he had been on Korriban over the past months of this conflict, but doing what? Chi'in had told them that Kell was something like a leader of the Sith, yet Mara was certain that he had not told them everything.
"Sir, if I may, what has that got to do with everything? Whether he knew or not is irrelevant. What matters is that you did not know."
"True. And that is giving me some trouble. I tend to believe that this is supposed to be a cover-up for someone's blunder. Unfortunately that someone has to be the Emperor himself."
"Truly frightening," Mara commented drily, but she was careful to keep an eye on Kell's reactions.
"Indeed. Especially since I have reason to assume that the Emperor's mind is close to breaking."
That was a surprise. "Sir?"
"I have analysed the game between Lord Vader and Palpatine previous to Lord Vader's supposed 'death'. A few factors confirmed my suspicions. Lord Kell, I would appreciate hearing your opinion on the matter."
"I am sure you would," the Sith answered calmly and again Mara was astounded by his enchanting voice.
"So, do I get an answer?" Thrawn countered, equally calm.
"If you grant me one in return."
"Very well. Concerning the Emperor's state of mind you are correct. He threatens to lose himself in chaos, something I have warned him of before. A shame he did not listen."
"And why is that so?"
"I do not assume that you understand the Force, Grand Admiral, but the essence of the Dark Side is chaos. The Emperor exists primarily as a Dark Side entity, something he is even proud of, as I far as I can tell. The fool," the old man added in a whisper.
"But you are a Sith too, so I must assume that you will also go mad, as he does."
"I am a Sith, Grand Admiral, and I do employ the Dark Side, but I am not the Emperor."
"You have your answer and more besides. This is all you will get."
"Fair enough. Then let me tell you what I think you are. You are someone who delights in teaching other people lessons, even if they cost them their life."
Mara felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end and goosebumps travel down her spine. Force! Did Thrawn realize what he had just said? But Kell's voice derailed her train of thought prematurely.
"I am that, in a sense, Thrawn. As I already told you, I am not a strategist like you are."
"No? I have heard other things."
"Which leads us to my promised answer. How did you find out about me?"
"Ah," Thrawn said with a smile and leaned back in his chair. "The question should rather be how much I know about you, am I right?"
"I so appreciate your honesty, Lord Kell. Actually Chi'in's comments about you prompted me to review the files I had on you. It seems that you bear the name of a famous Sith tactician who was apparently killed a thousand years ago, but his name appeared even before that, millennia ago, in connection to the dreaded Dark Lord Exar Kun. Personally I believe that the name itself is the legendary part. You see, this Roj Kell always appears at a turning point in the history of the Sith. You, for one, appeared in the Unknown Territories, close to the Outer Rim, just a few years before Palpatine became Supreme Chancellor. After that there was no mention of you again, until now. Maybe you really were one of the Emperor's councillors, who was exiled for one thing or the other."
Mara took a deep breath before she addressed the Grand Admiral. "Excuse me, sir, but I believe his exile was due to one single factor, one you have mentioned yourself just a few moments ago."
"What factor would that be, Mara Jade?" Kell asked softly before Thrawn could react.
"You were his master," she explained, holding his gaze, unafraid.
For a moment the silence between the three occupants of the room became almost suffocating. But Mara could see it in Roj Kell's eyes that she was right on target. Finally he gave her a quick, almost disbelieving smile.
Then the Grand Admiral had found his voice again: "I was led to believe that it was part of a Sith's initiation to kill his or her master at the end of the apprenticeship."
"As I said, some lessons take longer than others."
"I see. But that is just one part of the solution. I suppose I was right when I assumed that Palpatine could not access your knowledge. What is it you know, Lord Kell?"
The old man smiled coldly. "Everything."
Roj Kell savored the slightly bewildered expression on the Grand Admiral's face, but unfortunately he did not have the time to enjoy it properly. One thing was clear: he would certainly not let himself be led to Coruscant, meekly awaiting his death at Sidious' hands. No, he was convinced that the Sith Master would not spare him this time, and whatever else he was, he had always been a survivor. Not that this was of much use now. But if he was to die, it was surely not to be at someone else's hands.
"What do you mean?" Thrawn was asking, sounding slightly confused.
"What I mean? Oh, very easy. You are trying to make an impostor out of me and that I do not appreciate at all. There was and is only one Roj Kell."
Breaking through the Force-defying sphere the Ysalamiri had created, the ancient Sith held on to the Dark Side viciously, embracing the darkness fully for the last time. As he buried deeper into his anger and frustration at his situation, letting his dark emotions feed his power, he fancied hearing his mental shields creak with the strain. But still he managed a smile before he smashed the Dark Side into the Grand Admiral. The command chair flew backwards, impacting against the ship's hull with a satisfyingly loud thud.
"Only one. And you are not the first who has ever tried to outwit me, my dear Grand Admiral."
Jix's head came up when the steady hum of the ship's engines turned into a painful screeching roar. He thought he could hear explosions going off somewhere above him and for a moment he considered the possibility that the Relentless had fallen under attack. But that was hardly possible, was it? Besides, with the Grand Admiral at the helm, an enemy fleet would have a hard time even getting close enough for that. So that left another option: Vader was on board. That sounded almost too good to be true. And not only on board, but also pretty pissed off. Which was his natural state anyway, as far as the agent could tell. When a particularly close explosion rocked the small cell, Jix was too late to prevent himself from crashing to the hard floor. Looking up again, he noticed that the door stood open. As he scrambled back to his feet, he gave Mara standing in the doorway a decidedly cool glance.
"What is happening?" he asked suspiciously.
"Kell is loose on the ship and, let me tell you this, he is not happy."
Only now did he notice the nasty cut above her left brow. "You're hurt."
"It'll heal. If we get out of here alive."
"Where is Thrawn?"
"Waiting for us. The stormtroopers are stalling Kell, but that won't last. Come on. We gotta hurry."
"No." Crossing his arms across his chest Jix frowned at her deeply. "That was a pretty mean move you made back on Korriban."
"What? Jix! I had no choice!"
"Ah? Why don't I believe you?"
"Do you know that you are cute when you are pouting?"
"I don't care."
"Jix, one last time. We have to go. Trust me, please. I do too, despite everything."
"And what does that mean?"
"Well, I need not remind you of what happened on our first mission together."
"Okay!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes in exasperation. "I get it. Let's go."
Jogging alongside Mara, he accepted the blaster she had brought for him and checked the weapon's status.
"So, where's Vader?"
"On his way to Coruscant."
"So, did we win or what?"
"Rather the opposite," she breathed, stopping when they came across a few retreating crew members, "Turns out that Palpatine is alive."
"Yeah, 'oh'. I don't know why he is doing that," Mara added to herself.
"Both him and Vader. I don't get it."
"Hey, maybe this is not ours to understand," Jix said with a smile.
"Your modesty is very charming, smart-mouth. But there is an answer to everything."
She sprinted along the next corridor, Jix right on her heels. And then, just a few meters ahead of them, a whole section of the wall burst outward, raining hot metal and ashes over them.
"Damn!" Mara screamed, ducking out of the way before she started pushing Jix back in the direction they had come from. "We have to get to the aft flight deck!"
"Was that Kell?" Jix asked, his eyes wide with shock. He had never seen anything like that before.
"You bet. Get moving!"
Looking at her back, seeing her move with the same determination she had displayed back on Coruscant, Jix hesitated for a second. She had definitely made her choices, and he could not even scold her for it. Thrawn was so different from the Dark Lord, and apparently he had managed to inspire her loyalty much easier than Vader had ever been able to. And maybe the Sith had not even wanted her loyalty. But in that split-second of revelations Jix knew that he had to let her go her own way. He could not go to Coruscant with her, no way. If things were as bad as she had told him, he would be needed elsewhere soon. And freeing Vader from the Emperor's clutches was way out of his league. Even though he was quite confident in his abilities, Jix was realistic enough to know that alone he would never make it.
"Good luck," he whispered at Mara's back before he slipped away, to find some transport that he could handle.
They had finally decided to make their move and now the Millennium Falcon and the Wilde Karrde were slinking along the protective background of Nar Shadaa, where the Star Destroyers' sensors would have a harder time picking them up. Han was poised on the edge of the pilot's seat, his eyes glued to the radar intently. Give me just one breach, just a tiny crack. When Chewie gave a ululating cry at his side, he almost jumped.
"What?" Looking up she stared ahead in bewilderment, but then he could see it too. The Relentless was on fire in several places and apparently the destruction was spreading out from the bridge and heading back toward the ship's aft. Immediately Han hunted around for any attackers, but there was no other capital ship in sight except for the other Star Destroyer. But the Chimaera was not firing at anything, as far as he could tell.
"Han, what is going on?" Padmé asked as she came forward to have a look herself.
"Strap back in!" the Corellian snapped at her. Flipping a switch on his comm he established a channel to the Wilde Karrde. "Karrde, this is Solo. Seems like our only chance. See you back on Vjun. Good luck." His fingers danced over the flight controls quickly and then the freighter was heading for open space, right under the nose of the helpless Star Destroyers. "Next stop: Dagobah."
"Jix!" Mara yelled into the smoke-filled corridor ahead.
"Are you looking for someone?"
The disembodied voice sent shivers down her spine, but she gritted her teeth, trying to find her opponent despite the poor sight.
"What do you want from me?"
"Nothing much," Kell replied softly. "Try to keep an eye on the Dark Lord for me, will you?"
"Why don't you do that yourself?" she retorted acidly.
"No time for that."
"No? A shame." There was no reply. "Jix!" she screamed again. But Kell had been right. There was no time left, no time at all. Mara could feel her danger sense tingle warningly in the back of her mind. She had to leave fast. "Jix," she whispered, but knew that he would not hear her. Still, he was tough, and she had no doubt that he could manage to get off the ship on his own.
"Jade!" Someone grabbed her shoulder and as she whirled around, ready to strike, she was surprised to find the Grand Admiral blocking her underhand blow. "Come on! We have to leave."
As he continued his attack on the giant cruiser, Roj Kell was methodically destroying the gun emplacements and tractor beam projectors, ensuring an easy escape for himself. Now he only had to find a ship. Most of the soldiers on board had retreated, following the wailing of the siren that signaled for them to man the escape pods at once.
The ancient Sith felt like laughing. So, Mara Jade and the Grand Admiral would undoubtedly return to Coruscant. With any luck the seed he had planted today in both of them would grow fast once they realized the entire truth. The former Emperor's Hand at least suspected what was at stake and Thrawn would learn soon enough that his choices were the ones that would change the outcome of the battle to come.
As for the Dark Lord... With his children in Sidious' grasp there was not much he could do. That was the drawback to being as selfless as Vader had always been.One had to be cruel to oneself to manage, had to cope with the sacrifices one's decisions sparked. But the Dark Lord was beyond that now. There was nothing for him to lose, only to gain. And that was the greatest motivator of all.
Unfortunately Roj Kell himself had none of those left. In crossing the border he had doomed himself. And as the dark shields he had built up over the millennia slowly crumbled, he could already sense the light advance to claim what had been promised such a long time ago. Too bad that he would not be strong enough to survive the onslaught.
So there was only one thing left to do: hope that he had moved the right levers and flipped the right switches. If he had succeeded, his legacy would continue and maybe, just maybe, the Sith would truly rise again.
Tomas Piett was impatiently pacing the small expanse of his cabin aboard the Liberty, knowing full well that they were headed toward disaster. Why did the General have to be so stubborn? For a moment he wondered if Dodonna had talked to the Alliance High Command at all before turning the fleet toward Coruscant. Somehow he doubted it. Mon Mothma would not be so stupid as to allow such a senseless attack.
When the ship moved underneath his feet quite suddenly, yanked out of hyperspace by what could only be an artificial gravitational well created by an Interdictor cruiser, he knew that they had arrived at their final destination. Only a few moments later the muted sounds of missiles and laser bolts impacting against the ship's shields and hull reached him, and Piett shook his head in quiet defeat. He was solidly trapped on board the doomed vessel, with an incompetent commander at the helm and no backup at all. Dropping down on his bunk he resolved to wait. Not that he had any other possibility.
"Your Majesty, the fleet has engaged the enemy."
"Very good, Commander. I want you to capture the flagship and destroy the rest."
Disconnecting the call, Sidious relaxed a bit. All was going according to his plan. The Skywalker twins were in his hands, the Rebel fleet as good as destroyed, and Thrawn would return soon to finish them off. As for Vader... Well, once he arrived on Coruscant they would continue the game they had had to suspend for the past months, whether he wanted it or not. And then it would finally become clear who was the master.
The reports from the battle came in rapidly, and on the huge holosceen covering an entire wall of the throne room the Sith Master could follow the progress of his troops easily. It took the Rebel commander entire twenty minutes to realize that he had lost. Watching with interest Sidious noticed the tiny red dots that meant the flagship was being evacuated. They were hard to make out amidst the hailstorm of fighters engaging in one-on-one duels above the city planet. But they would not escape either. Even if some managed to land undetected, his troops would soon track them down. And then this rebellion would be ended once and for all.
It was a few hours later that the commander called him once more.
"What is it?"
"Your Highness, we have someone for you."
"Admiral Tomas Piett. He was aboard the Alliance flagship."
"As a prisoner?"
"I suppose so. He was locked up in his cabin."
"Bring him to me. Now." What the commander had failed to see was that no one would drag such a high-ranking hostage across half the galaxy and then not use him when attacking such an important target. No, Sidious tended to believe that the reasons for Piett's arrest had been of a more personal nature.
When the admiral was lead into the throne room bound and under a tight guard though, he was pleased to see that the commander was not completely witless. "Thank you. Commander, please have the survivors brought in for interrogation." Turning his yellow eyes on Piett again, Sidious gleefully noticed the man's shocked expression.
"You are alive," the other managed.
"So are you, Admiral. What a pleasant surprise."
"I had assumed that you would spend the rest of your days in captivity with the Alliance, but I seem to have been mistaken. Presumably Lord Vader thought you too valuable to lose."
"Come now, Admiral, spare me. I know what has been going on. And now you will tell me what exactly our precious Dark Lord had planned for the Alliance."