The Art of War - Part 9
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 9 - To Court the Enemy
Stumbling after his rescuer, Luke kept his eyes fixed on the back of her neck. She was striding towards the forest purposefully, and apparently she just assumed that Luke would follow her. "Wait!" he called suddenly. She stopped and turned to face him immediately, her yellow eyes piercing into his head.
"What is it now?"
Luke shrugged: "We need a ship to get off this planet."
"Indeed," she commented dryly. "I never would have guessed."
Shaking her head slightly, she resumed stalking towards the treeline. For now Luke had to assume that she knew what she was doing. And he also had to keep in mind that she was the one who held a lightsaber in her left hand. Throwing a last glance back at the city, he slipped after her to vanish into the undergrowth.
They had walked for maybe four hours, during which they exchanged hardly a word. Luke felt tired and drained. The strange sensation had not vanished since they had left the prison complex and for a while he wondered if he would ever feel the Force again. And wondering what exactly Nuron was planning to do with him. But then, suddenly, her head came up sharply and her eyes narrowed. Raising her lightsaber she activated the blade. Its low hum was, for a moment, the only sound permeating the silence of the forest. She moved forward suddenly, then whirled around in a graceful circle. As her red blade came screaming towards him, Luke reacted instantly and dropped back. He had known that it would come to this. Whoever had sent her here had ordered her to kill him.
Pressing his lips together grimly, he threw himself to the left, seeking to evade her next stroke, but it never came. Instead he could hear a hoarse growl and when he turned around his eyes widened in surprise. Nuron was facing a tall four-legged creature baring its slavering fangs at her. Its gray coat made it nearly invisible against the dense foliage and Luke watched it stalk forward cautiously, its long, muscular tail slashing at the young trees and bushes around them like a whip. Nuron was talking to the beast softly, a strange smile on her lips. Luke could not hear what she was saying, but he did not really care. Picking himself up he was unsure of what to do. But Nuron took the decision from him by moving towards the creature in a lightning-quick move, taking its head clean off. Laughing in delight she let her blade circle in a graceful arc before she shut it down again.
Then she turned to fix her yellow predator eyes on Luke: "They usually don't hunt in packs. So we should be safe for now."
When he hesitated to come closer she smiled at him broadly, revealing a row of sharp teeth:
He shook his head slowly. "No," he told her. "What is that?"
Nuron frowned at the carcass: "This is a Vornskyr. They are the biggest predators on this planet and they hunt with the Force."
"The Force? I can't even feel it!"
"How unfortunate. You see, some species on this planet have developed a defense against the Vornskyr. They create bubbles that negate the Force. The forest is their home. They are called Ysalamiri. Pretty nasty."
"You know a lot about this planet."
"Well, it's were I grew up," she replied flippantly and grabbed the dead animal's body with both hands and threw it over her shoulder easily. "Come," she ordered gruffly," pointing towards the slowly setting sun over the treetops. "We will have to make camp soon." Then she strode off briskly without looking back.
Luke ran to catch up with her. Panting loudly he reached out to get hold of her sleeve to stop her but thought better of it when she threw him a glowering stare. "Back there I thought you wanted to kill me," he explained, trying to read the look in her eyes.
Nuron shook her head slightly. "My orders were not to kill you. I will take you to a safe place. That is, if you agree," she added with a mocking smile.
"Sure," he answered lightly. "And where are we going now?"
She shrugged: "I am hungry. We are going to find some water."
Luke frowned at the headless carcass hanging across her back. "And eat that?" he asked, shuddering inwardly. Nuron simply laughed.
They found a small creek not far away and she produced a sharp knife from under her tunic and started skinning the animal expertly. Luke paled visibly. But since her opinion of him did not seem to be very high anyway, he decided that turning away now would not gain him her respect. So he resorted to studying her face more closely while she worked in deep concentration. For the first time he noticed the small knobs raised under the skin of her forehead, half-concealed by her short black hair which barely came down to cover her ears. There were three he could make out, one each above the outer corner of her eyes and a single one above the bridge of her nose. To Luke they seemed to be something like premature horns. Which led to the question of age. She did look young, but her behavior was more befitting for a battle-seasoned warrior. And she was that too, he decided, remembering how she had dispatched the stormtroopers in the prison and outside easily.
Finally she noticed his eyes on her and looked up calmly. "See anything you don't like?" she asked lightly, but Luke could not but notice the unspoken challenge in her tone. He smiled at her soothingly.
"No, not at all. You said my father sent you."
She gave him a long hard stare before replying: "You said that you are training to become a Jedi Knight." He nodded. "Why? Did your father not instruct you?"
Luke shook his head carefully: "He has been busy."
Nuron grunted an acknowledgement, but kept silent. Apparently she did not want to talk about this subject anymore. Sighing, Luke sat down beside her. He had noticed right away that his being a Jedi disturbed her mightily. And he could easily guess at the reason for that: his father was the Dark Lord of the Sith. And from what she had just said Luke concluded that Nuron had served under him for some time. He had taught her, that much seemed clear. But it must seem fairly strange that his own son was not following his father's path.
He watched in silent awe as Nuron gathered the bloody skin and filled it with water from the creek and made it boil to cook two chunks of red meat for dinner. She was using the Force with such ease that he felt himself becoming envious of her. Not that he did not appreciate that in his current situation, Luke admitted to himself as his mouth watered at the delicious smell wafting out of the make-shift sack Nuron held in both hands.
She smiled at his hungry face, then handed him his assigned portion gracefully, laughing when he burned his fingers on the hot meat. They ate in silence and Luke tried to forget just what it was they were eating. Not that it mattered. He was ravenous.
Finally, sitting peacefully under the safe canopy of the trees surrounding them, with night already fallen and stars twinkling above their heads, Luke found himself miles away from their perilous situation.
But not for long. Nuron rose suddenly and stared into the distance in alarm. "We have to go," she whispered and jumped over the creek easily. Still without the Force, Luke splashed after her and then they jogged along an unseen trail through the forest. Unseen by him, that was. Nuron herself seemed completely at ease and he could only guess that her night-vision was excellent, as befit a predatory species. But it was not long after they had left their resting place that he too could hear the distant roar of hovercraft thundering through the trees. At his side Nuron growled softly. "They have found my ship," she explained grimly and picked up her pace.
Racing through the night Luke had a hard time keeping up with her. He was constantly slapping branches out of his way that she dodged gracefully, guided by the Force. Once or twice he stumbled and even fell, and was surprised to find that she always waited for him.
"Don't try to feel the Force," she hissed finally when she helped him up yet again. "Focus inward." Luke nodded sharply and concentrated. Nothing happened. Nuron looked down at him accusingly: "I just know you can do it. You have the potential."
He shrugged, then tried again. This time he felt an inkling of the Force and pushed deeper. In the end he managed to feel something, although it was very meager compared to what he usually did experience when opening himself to the Force. "But it is enough," Nuron told him with a satisfied smile and turned away. Indeed it was. Running side by side they both dropped to the ground simultaneously just before reaching the small clearing she had landed her ship in. Searchlights were tracking the whole area and reflected off white stormtrooper armor everywhere. Hefting her lightsaber, Nuron gave Luke a grim smile: "I take it you are a good pilot?" He nodded. "Good. I will distract them. You power up the ship." And then she was gone and the shooting started.
Walking the quiet hallways of the Relentless thoughtfully, Captain Piett shook his head slightly. He still could not believe that the Dark Lord was alive. And not only that, he was working with the Rebels. And just that fact let him regret not having heeded Needa's words when they had talked about the secret meeting on Dantooine. Piett knew very well that he was the only one of Needa's friends who had remained with the Navy. But he had had his reasons. And they were still valid. Especially now.
Lorth's capture and Mara Jade's arrival had made no sense to him so far, but now he was pretty sure that he knew what the Sith was planning. For nearly ten years he had worked with Darth Vader and the Dark Lord had taught him not only his way of strategic thinking, but also what Piett had come to think of as his code of honor. Astounding as it was, the Sith did have such a thing. At least this one. The highest priority was the well-being of the people. But Vader clearly distinguished between civilians and soldiers. Soldiers, he had told Piett once, entered the realm of death the moment they signed up to serve an army. From then on they were merely pawns in the battle-master's game. They did not count as people anymore.
On the other hand the soldiers marked for death did not necessarily need to fall victim to it. The art of war, Vader had explained to Piett, was to maneuver your enemy into, to put it bluntly, defeating himself. And that was exactly what he was doing with Thrawn. He did not seek grand battles in space or on the ground. And not because he was afraid of Thrawn's supposedly superior skills, but because he had the skills to play this game successfully and because he wanted to keep his minimize the losses. Studying the events following the Emperor's death, Piett had noticed only a handful of names of the people instrumental to the Rebels' successes: Wrenga Jixton, Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa and Lorth Needa. And Vader's son, Luke Skywalker. But he did not seem important to the game. Else the Dark Lord would never have let him become captured. For a moment Tomas Piett stared blankly into the distance. It was a possibility, but then maybe he would.
Piett smiled to himself as he punched the door-lock to his quarters aboard the Relentless. There was no way to foresee the Dark Lord's tactics, but he thought that he had a very good idea of his general strategy. He had made a very subtle offer to the Grand Admiral and Thrawn's choice would determine his answer. Stepping into the neat room, Piett took a quick look around before closing the door. After all, he had to be careful.
Apparently he had not been careful enough.
Grand Admiral Thrawn was standing at the viewport, looking out at the starlines that hyperspace painted across the plasteel window. For a moment Piett hesitated. Did he know what kind of thoughts his second was harboring?
"Ah, Captain Piett," Thrawn said suddenly, as if the Captain's presence in his own quarters were surprising in any way.
"Lorth Needa is a friend of yours."
"And you are not disturbed by his presence on this ship?"
"No, sir. I know my duties."
"Very good. Do not forget this, Captain. We will reach Hoth in three days approximately. Do you think that Lord Vader is waiting for us there?"
"I am certain that he will. The whole purpose of this exercise was to draw us into his chosen battle-ground, don't you think?"
Piett remained silent.
"I see that I did well in taking you as my second, Captain," Thrawn purred pleasantly. "Tell me what you think will happen."
Turning around to face Piett the Grand Admiral regarded him with glowing eyes. And Piett knew that his answer would determine his own survival. So he chose his words very carefully.
"I believe that you are going to Hoth to take him up on his offer."
"Ah. Still the idealist, I see. No. I will not take that offer. Not until I have verified its sincerity."
Piett bowed his head slightly.
"You do not approve, Captain?"
"Well, sir, in the past Lord Vader has always stuck to his word."
"True. But words have not been exchanged so far. When it comes to that, I will have an answer for the Dark Lord. Until then though, the game will continue. Speaking of which, how is the team on Tatooine proceeding?"
Piett was slightly surprised by the sudden turn this conversation was taking.
"They have found nothing so far."
"Interesting. I wonder where she has vanished to."
Leaving his place at the viewport, Thrawn walked past Piett and waited for the door to open.
"Another thing, Captain, that I believe you should know " he added dreamily, without turning back to look at Piett," in a game there are always two players. But only one dictates the rules."
"Yes, sir," Piett answered quietly and frowned a bit after the Grand Admiral had finally left.
So. Thrawn had seen the Dark Lord's intentions too. For Vader Thrawn was a possible, if unwilling, ally for the time being. At least that was what the Captain believed. The Chandrilan operation and the attacks on peaceful worlds had shown the Grand Admiral that it was a very easy feat for the Sith to isolate his opponent and deny him Coruscant's support. Thrawn knew that he had to move very carefully now if he wanted to maintain the trust the government had set in him. By sending Gerran to Pakrat Minor Vader had made it clear to Thrawn that he knew what game he was playing at.
On the other hand it could just as well have been plain arrogance. Knowing the Dark Lord, it was probably both. And knowing Thrawn, the Grand Admiral was only waiting for his chance to wrestle the control out of Vader's grasp. This promised to become very interesting indeed.
But to verify his suspicions it was paramount that he speak with an old friend. And soon.
Blinking swollen eyelids, Lorth Needa heaved a tiny sigh, but the breathing hurt against his broken ribs. Thrawn's interrogators really had done a good job on him, he thought grimly and shook his head. But when he started to rise, a hand gently pushed him back. "Keep still," a familiar voice ordered him quietly.
Piett was bent over him, his mouth set in a grim line, then sat down beside him, watching. Although they had been friends for quite a long time, Needa could not shed the distrust he reserved for anyone who had remained behind when he had called the Navy to join the Rebellion. Many had followed his call, but Piett had not, and that was after all what mattered right now. That, and Lord Vader's plan.
"Did you know that he would let you get captured deliberately?" Piett asked suddenly.
Needa sneered at him coldly: "That was entirely my own decision."
For a moment Piett looked nonplussed. But his apparent confusion did not last long.
"Your own decision? But I was under the impression that this is some sort of message for Thrawn. And the Grand Admiral seems to believe the same thing."
"Lord Vader told you?"
"No." Piett answered with a tiny smile. "But he told Thrawn. Who was not very pleased."
"He is playing with him."
"With everyone," Needa replied coldly.
Who did Piett think he was? A fool who did not recognize an interrogation like the one he was conducting on Needa now? The other Captain sighed.
"He is using you as a means to communicate with the Grand Admiral without the Rebels knowing. Thrawn tried to trap his mind, but failed. Fortunately."
"He did what?"
"There was a Star Destroyer waiting for you at Pakrat Minor. We knew your route and Lord Vader knew that we had a spy with the Alliance."
Piett looked at him expectantly, but Needa did not answer. Before he continued he threw a long, hard glance at the surveillance camera installed in the opposite corner. Finally he shook his head:
"This isn't working out the way I had planned it, Lorth."
"You too?" Needa asked sarcastically.
"Everyone seems to have some grand scheme. Well, I don't. I am just doing what I think is right. And you should too."
"That is exactly what I am doing, believe me. Rest now. You will need it."
Rising gracefully Piett threw one last glance at the prisoner and vanished again. For a long time Needa simply stared blankly at the door. Finally he shook his head, clearing his thoughts.
It was, of course, entirely possible that Lord Vader had planned for him to be captured. And then the truth of what Piett was implying hit him: that Lord Vader was deliberately playing into Thrawn's hand. That he was betraying the Rebels. A small laugh escaped his mouth as he turned on his back. If the Grand Admiral believed that he was a fool. Sobering again he heaved a tiny sigh. Thrawn was not stupid, far from it. And the Grand Admiral would find some way to make the Dark Lord pay for the misery he had caused his plans so far.
Sitting in the command chair on the deserted lower bridge, Grand Admiral Thrawn was musing about the future. He did not like being treated as a play-ball. What was more though, he had doubts that, even if he won, he could manage to turn the tide at all. The Dark Lord's offer was therefore more welcome to Thrawn than any one could know. This galaxy would need more adept protection that what Palpatine's crazed mind could offer. The Emperor had been incredibly powerful, no doubt about that, but power was all he had craved too.
Activating the holo-display ring, the Grand Admiral leaned forward to study the image appearing to his left. The copy of a painting which had been recovered from the ruins of the Royal Palace of Naboo. A peaceful planet and a peaceful people. It seemed impossible that Palpatine's origins could be found there of all places. And yet, plausible too. Only the best and brightest had had the chance to serve the Naboo. Intellect had been the key to success. And yet there could also be only one at the top.
Steepling his hands in front of his face Thrawn shook his head ever so slightly. The Naboo had been a wise people, for a leader's greatest tool was his mind. Nothing else. Which was why he so much enjoyed playing against the Dark Lord. He felt that they had some things in common, although the Sith let himself be guided too much by the past. Well. He would evaluate that offer and make his choices in time.
"An evacuation?" Mon Mothma asked, aghast, as her eyes wandered from the Dark Lord to Leia and back. "But why?"
Folding his hands on his back Anakin Skywalker smiled pleasantly: "From the beginning we knew that it was only a matter of time until the Imperials would discover our hiding-place. And now my sources have confirmed an impending attack. We should leave as soon as we can."
The rebel leader frowned at him.
"What alternative base do you suggest?"
His smile deepened.
"I was thinking of Coruscant."
"Well, not at once, of course, but it should be our next goal."
"The Grand Admiral is leading the attack personally. And as you know, Han Solo is on his way with Page's special units to infiltrate the capital."
"They will be waiting for our sign there. And when the time is right we can dispatch Thrawn and the government at the same time."
"Knowing you, Lord Vader, you will not give me any details at this point."
"Well, I only hope that it will work."
"It will, do not worry."
"Thank you. I know you are busy, and I would like to talk to Leia for a while. If you would excuse us?"
Slightly taken aback, he gave her a faint smile and frowned at the Princess. But the look in Mothma's eyes unmistakably excluded him from the following conversation. This was not to his liking at all. But he had no choice. Nodding at the rebel leader, Anakin turned on his heels and left, frowning as the door slid close behind him.
To his surprise Jix was waiting for him outside. The agent fell in step beside him as he started walking towards the North hangar to take the next shuttle up aboard the Liberty for his daily round. Jix was uncharacteristically silent and Anakin could feel that something was worrying him. Finally he decided to goad the Corellian into telling him the whole story.
"Have you made any progress in finding the Executor?"
"My contacts are working on it."
"Good. Any leads?"
"Obviously they will keep her at some drive yard. They are checking the major ones."
Walking in silence again, Jix shifted his shoulders uncomfortably.
"Have you heard anything from Mara?" he asked finally.
For a split-second Anakin's thoughts were drawn into two opposite directions: he could either soothe the agent or tell him the truth. Or at least part of it.
"I have lost contact with her some time ago."
"I cannot feel her anymore."
"If anything happened to her-"
"She is all right, I am sure."
"This is some kind of test for her, am I right?"
"Yes," the Dark Lord admitted, surprised. "You see, right now she is very unsettled, disturbed. She does not know where she belongs. She left the Empire to join us, but then she began doubting me. Thrawn is a warlord too, but his methods are different from mine. We shall see how she fares under his command."
"Then you do not care what side she is on?"
"When the time comes she will make the right choice, Jix. I have no doubt about that."
"Tell me this one thing, your lordship," Jix began slowly, choosing his words carefully. "You are testing each and everyone of us in some way. Right? But how about you? I wonder."
"If I am testing myself the way I am testing you?"
Taking a deep breath, Anakin stopped himself short and closed his eyes for a second. When he turned to look down at Jix again, the agent was intently studying his face and again the Dark Lord noticed how earnest he had become over the past week. And he decided that he had liked the old Jix better.
"I have been on trial ever since I decided to betray the Emperor. And long before that. Or to put it more bluntly: I am playing this game not as much against Thrawn, as against myself."
A sudden grin lit up Jix's face:
"Who is winning?"
Leia watched her father leave with mixed feelings. So far he had always taken the lead, guiding her through the lessons, but apparently this time she would be truly all on her own. She had no idea what Mon Mothma wanted to talk to her about. Turning her head to face the Alliance leader, she threw the other woman a timid smile. But Mothma did not return it.
"Leia, I am concerned about you. You are spending a lot of time with Lord Vader. And although I understand that he has saved your life and that this might form the basis for a friendship, I would much rather not have you two become this close."
Leia felt her mouth drop open in utter amazement.
"Why?" she managed finally.
Folding her hands neatly on the top of her desk, Mon Mothma heaved a deep sigh:
"Leia, despite everything Lord Vader is doing for us, it is entirely possible that he will not survive."
"You cannot be serious."
"He knew that from the beginning. And I thought that you did too."
Leia felt her mouth become dry. Of course she remembered that discussion between her father and the Alliance High Command, when Mon Mothma had asked if he would stand trial after the war was over. But no decision had been made back then. Why did she bring up the whole matter now?
"I do not understand your motivation," she began carefully, feeling numb. "Either you do not trust him or else you are unwilling to admit to the public that Darth Vader is not the monster you have declared him to be."
The other woman's face hardened.
"I will be honest with you: it is both. We cannot build a new government on this foundation. The people need to know that the good side has won, that the monster is defeated, if you will. It is politics. Something you seem to have forgotten over the past months. Tell me, Leia, what are you two talking about?"
"Strategy, tactics. Other things."
Mon Mothma blinked heavy eyelids tiredly: "Do you know what we see you become Leia? A Sith apprentice. And we cannot sanction that."
Feeling her throat tighten, threatening to suffocate he, Leia balled her hands into fists in a vain effort to control her fury and the feeling of deep humiliation.
"Then it is me you do not trust?"
"We trust you, Leia. But Lord Vader is who he is. He is toying with you. Don't you see that?"
Rising slowly, Leia shook her head vehemently, wishing she could just tell Mon Mothma that her father was apparently the only honest and upright commander with the Alliance. Someone who did not resort to petty squabbling or fights for dominance. He did not have to. Maybe the Alliance Command would do well in trying to determine why he had gained an easy authority with the troops they themselves seemed to have forgone for the sake of politics.
"I am sorry for disappointing you like this, Mon Mothma," she said instead, her voice cold.
"Please, Leia. I did not mean to insult you. Simply take this as a friendly warning and think about what I have told you."
"I will. Most certainly."
"Another thing, Leia. Do not talk about our misgivings with Lord Vader. And that is an order."
"How unfortunate that you are no longer in command of our troops," the Princess could not stop herself from telling the older woman. Mon Mothma stared at her, disbelieving.
"Surprised? It is the simple truth. And politics cannot change it. I just hope that in time you will see the error of your assumption."
Turning around sharply Leia stormed out of the door, fuming.
The atmosphere inside the Hoth base was charged, to say the least. Word had gotten out about the Alliance Command's doubts in their battle commander and now Alliance and ex-Imperial troops were discussing the whole affair most lively aboard the ships, in the base canteens and command centers.
Leia missed the presence of Captain Needa dearly. He had always been able to mediate between the fractions, something her father did not seem to care about. But she had started this and she would play it to the end. After all, Mon Mothma had been partly right in claiming that she was becoming the Dark Lord's apprentice.
Right now she was standing in his office, waiting for him patiently. She had not talked to him about her intentions beforehand and she was excited to see what he would say to it. When the door finally opened, his face bore an angry frown. Leia rose to greet him with a smile. Propping his fists on his hips he glared down at her, obviously displeased.
"What have you been thinking, upsetting everyone exactly at the wrong moment? If I may remind you, we should concentrate on evacuating the base. Timing, Leia, is crucial, and I have to tell you that you have blundered badly."
"I only wanted to-"
"I know what you are trying to accomplish, Leia, and in any other situation I would have been highly pleased with your efforts. But this whole affair is playing against my own time-frame and, more importantly, it was tipped off by your lack of control. Emotions, child, have no place in warfare."
Leia hung her head, chastised: "I am sorry."
"Well, you are learning. And this is not too bad. In fact I was planning on something similar. So you see, you anticipated me, which is very good in itself. Just not now."
"Why were you planning on that happening?"
"Politics. The Alliance needs to disassociate itself with me. I have to plead my own case when the time comes."
"Not you too!" Leia exclaimed.
"What do you mean?"
"Mon Mothma told me the same."
"Ah. So that was it. I see. Good. Very good. That saves me a lot of effort."
"You are not angry at me then?"
"I am. But I cannot change what you have done. And I have to accept it."
"Another lesson for me?"
"Yes. Emotion is all good and well and a testimony to your being human. But you have to play with your opponents' emotions and not let them play with yours."
"Is that the Jedi or the Sith speaking?"
"Just experience. Nothing more," he told her with a smile. "Now let's see to it that we can get the evacuation under way."
The bridge of the Liberty was crowded with the members of the Alliance Command, but none of them seemed overtly interested in what was going on around the planet. Instead they were watching the Dark Lord standing at the command chair suspiciously. He could feel their eyes on him, or rather, on Leia, and knew immediately that something else was going on. She seemed nervous and defiant at the same time.
Standing side by side, father and daughter were alternately studying either the sensor displays or the viewport. The last shuttles and transports were leaving the planet's surface and it was about time, Anakin thought grimly, moments before the Imperial fleet reverted into real-space. Five Star Destroyers, just as he had expected. Leia threw him a quick smile. She would take over now and he would follow her orders even if they were nonsense. If things went too bad, he could always interfere. But Anakin sincerely hoped that it would not come to that. If Thrawn gained the advantage in this battle too early and easily, they might as well surrender.
"Ion control, open fire on the enemy," Leia whispered quietly, for his ears only, and Anakin bent over towards the captain, smiling at him:
"Captain Ergh, please have ion control open fire."
"Rogue and Red Squadron are to make a run across the Star Destroyers. And move Transport 5 closer to its comrades."
This time her excitement made Leia raise her voice slightly and Anakin cringed inwardly when he felt the Alliance leaders' sudden interest and growing uneasiness. They had heard her. And apparently the captain had too. He gave the Dark Lord a quizzical look and bent over his comm station to issue the Princess' orders without waiting for his superior's command to do so. Staring straight ahead, Anakin for a second wished that he could make all of this undone, that he could play this game alone. Leia had clearly kept silent about something Mothma had told her. And now it was coming back to haunt her. He could feel her becoming more and more nervous with each passing moment.
"Captain," he said suddenly in a low, icy voice. Ergh raised his head slowly, giving him a look of surprise. Stepping up smartly Anakin smiled down at the man coldly: "You will wait until I give the word to proceed, is that clear?" The captain paled visibly and nodded once:
"Good," Anakin purred softly and turned around to face the Alliance commanders assembled at the far end of the upper bridge, not five paces away. Mon Mothma was studying him with calculation plain on her face. At her side Generals Rieekan and Dodonna both wore grim faces.
Baring his teeth in what might have been a smile, Anakin faced them down and his next words were for each and everyone present on the warship's bridge:
"Give them the impression of being cautious and they will be sure that you will strike at any time. Your move?"
"Group Red will retreat behind the second moon," Leia explained, her voice tense.
"Will he take the bait?"
"I believe not."
"He will be expecting a sneak attack. He knows that half of our ships are missing in the fleet array. So he will stay with the planet to prepare against it."
"Good. And what will you do then?"
"We will pull out in good order, but fake unwillingness to leave."
"Your troops are awaiting your orders. Make your move."
Turning back to Leia he saw her straighten and hold her head up high. The Princess gave him a sharp nod and bent down to study her display. When she spoke she was all business again:
"Captain Ergh, please order Group Red to retreat. And confirm the position of our ground troops."
"Position confirmed, Princess Leia. Group Red is on its way."
"Thank you, Captain," Leia told him with a smile and the look in her dark eyes was one of calm competence. Ergh's gaze lingered awhile on her face before he returned the smile with a thanks of his own. And Anakin knew that Leia had won. Joining the Alliance commanders, he kept his eyes fixed on his daughter, ignoring Mon Mothma's accusing glare completely.
But she had failed to take her chance. By keeping silent she had sanctioned Leia's rise to command. There would be some nasty words, of course, but later, safe from prying eyes and ears. "You will pay for this," she hissed at last and Anakin could feel the hatred burning in her mind. His lips twitched in silent amusement. But he did not answer. The Alliance Command would take a long time to recover from this blow, if they ever did. Leia was a natural leader, much more so than any of them. And Mon Mothma could see that too, plain in the eyes of the bridge officers and in Captain Ergh's pleased smile. She knew that the Dark Lord, although unaware of the reasons, had felt the growing rift between the Princess and the rest of the Alliance leaders. And with one stroke he had rid them of their command and authority. He would pay all right, Anakin knew, but not now. Not as long as Thrawn still posed a threat.
And by then the Alliance would not be his concern anymore.
Grand Admiral Thrawn watched the rebel fleet's cautious retreat with interest. Finally he raised his head to turn glowing red eyes on Captain Piett, who stood nervously beside him.
"It does not seem as if he took any interest in our being here. So much for his offer."
"I am not sure, sir, if-"
"Well, I am sure. Inform General Flarek that he is to deploy his troops. We are moving into the base. And I want you to turn the Death's Head and the Chimaera at the fourth moon. It makes for a perfect hiding place."
"You see, there are no Imperial ships with this fleet. Either they are on a different deployment or else they have set an ambush."
"We will be prepared for that."
"Yes. You have your orders, Captain. Carry them out."
Moving over to the comm officer to issue the Grand Admiral's order, Piett could not hide his agitation. He had been so convinced that something important was going to happen here. But apparently his assumption had been wrong. He had either underestimated or overestimated the Dark Lord. And right now he was not sure which possibility was worse.
One by one the rebel ships were pulling out of the system and if they still wanted to try a sneak attack they had better make their move. Staring at the sensor displays, Captain Piett felt his shoulders tense. Willing himself to relax, he risked a glance over at the command chair. The Grand Admiral was pensively studying the two fleets' layout, then stood abruptly.
"How are our ground troops proceeding?"
"They are on their way. Resistance is not too heavy."
"Of course not."
The comm beeped at Piett urgently. He answered the call. "This is Captain Piett of the Imperial Star Destroyer Relentless."
Listening intently to the words of the flustered sergeant at the other end of the line, Piett felt a frown form on his forehead. Holding the connection he turned towards Thrawn:
"Sir, apparently there have been renewed attacks. Imperial Star Destroyers supposedly attacked Reecee, Corulag and Kuat. Kuat has been badly hit."
Thrawn merely inclined his head, then closed his eyes for a moment.
Another light on the comm panel began blinking, insisting on being noticed. Piett again took the call, already expecting the worst. "Sir. Luke Skywalker has escaped detention on Myrk."
His red eyes snapping open suddenly the Grand Admiral fixed Piett with an intent glare:
"Who freed him?"
"The survivors claim that one person entered the complex and wiped out most of the troops stationed there. There is also talk about a lightsaber being involved. A red one," he added, frowning at the comm doubtfully.
"Interesting," Thrawn mused aloud, his eyes narrowing, and turned away to watch the last rebel ships wink out of realspace.
"Clearly they were expecting us. But Lord Vader would have attacked, using his advantage to the fullest."
"The Rebels do not trust him. My guess is that they forced him to order the retreat."
"Forced him?" Piett asked, bewildered.
Looking back over his shoulder Thrawn smiled at him:
"It does sound ridiculous, doesn't it? But for now I can see no other answer to this sort of action. Very well. When the base is secured I will want to inspect it."
"He is looking for allies and I am sure he has left a message for me. Don't you think?"
Sitting on the black cloak Chi'in had laid out for her, Padmé was watching Cronn's training session with interest. The Falleen had a hard time standing against his master though. They had chosen the edge of the valley, where the terrain was rougher and more treacherous. And Cronn was suffering dearly. This was already the second round he had lost in hand-to-hand combat. Although he did try to keep track of Chi'in, the short alien moved much faster than he did. To Padmé's eyes he was no more than a blur. Finally the master called a break and conversed with his apprentice in hushed tones. At Padmé's side Puket was making a face. She clearly would have preferred hearing the teacher's words too. She was after all next in line for the training.
When the Twi'lek suddenly threw a glance back and rose gracefully to move away a few meters, Padmé knew that someone was approaching. And from Puket's behavior she concluded that it was Roj Kell. And indeed, the white-haired Sith Lord came to a halt next to the still seated queen, studying the three warriors one by one. Chi'in acknowledged the Sith Lord's presence with a curt nod while both apprentices bowed deeply.
"My lady, would you allow me to join you?" Roj Kell asked smoothly and sat down without waiting for her answer. She threw him a cool glance and turned her head back to face the combatants
"How are you today?" he asked lightly, turning towards her.
"I am fine, thank you."
"I am glad to hear it."
"Are you now."
"You doubt my sincerity?"
"How could I not, Lord Kell? Am I not a prisoner?"
He laughed at that. It was a low, soft laughter, designed to make her feel at ease. She didn't buy it though. Instead she changed the subject:
"Do you think it would be improper for me to ask Chi'in his species? I have never seen his kind before."
"I would not know about 'improper' or not, my lady. I am a Sith, after all," Roj Kell told her, turning the sharp point of her previous comment right back at her. Padmé gave him a tiny smile.
"That did not answer my question."
"Then let me answer it for you," he sighed. "Chi'in is a Noghri. A primitive people, hunters of origin and farmers now."
"During the Clone Wars a battleship dropped into their home planet. They had never seen one before, but when the Republic troops arrived on the planet they immediately identified them as a threat. Such is the way of the Noghri. Luckily Lord Vader was with the soldiers and he saw the aliens' potential right away. He promised them help and they accepted gladly. Actually some of them believed your husband to be some kind of god." Kell smiled at that. "And they have been useful to the Empire ever since. Effective killers, all of them."
"Help?" Padmé inquired politely, sensing that there was more to the story.
"You see, the ship was completely ripped apart and its coolants contaminated part of the planet. The Empire later made sure that nothing could grow there anymore, while still pretending only to have the Noghri's best interests in mind. This way they could keep them in their service."
"Does Chi'in know that?"
"If he did, he still would not care. He is a Sith and his vows are to us, not to his people. Lord Vader has trained him well."
"What about the others? Cronn and Puket."
"Cronn is a Falleen. You know that their planet had to be put under permanent quarantine after a deadly virus escaped the Imperial laboratories there? One of your husband's many pet projects. He is equally fascinated with life and machinery, if only the results are deadly."
"Yes," Padmé admitted between clenched teeth.
"And Puket, well, she was a slave when Lord Vader found her. You know that the Twi'lek sell their females to the Hutts as some sort of tribute, don't you? I think he took an interest in her when he was on Nal Hutta."
"I have heard of that practice."
But Anakin had always hated the Hutts. And just what kind of interest did Kell mean? Shaking her head slowly Padmé tried to gather her wits.
"Why? Why them?" she asked finally.
"Lord Vader claims that they know the prize of failure better than others. In some way all of them know that he has spared their lives and they feel indebted to him. You see, if anyone knows about how to manipulate people's emotions it is your husband. I believe that is what makes him such a brilliant warlord too."
Padmé kept silent. How far he had come from the wide-eyed innocent and kind boy she had first met on Tatooine. His only objective back then had been to help. Without hesitation he had been willing to risk his young life for her and her people, as he had so many times after. But it was true: he had become obsessed with the power of manipulating others later on. And apparently he enjoyed destroying their lives, making them his own to do with as he pleased. Arrogant, that was what he had become. Arrogant and cruel and greedy for power. Her mouth twisted in distaste at the mere thought of having loved him once. A mistake. The worst she had ever made in her life. But she would not make it again.
"You said that he is teaching my daughter. Do you have any notion why?"
Roj Kell merely smiled at her. It was a knowing, almost contemptuous smile and Padmé wanted to kick herself for actually having asked that question. Of course she knew why! Leia, sweet Leia, that highly trained diplomat and gifted negotiator would take over the government once the Alliance had won. And Anakin would continue his rule of terror through her, using her as he did anyone else.
"My son. The Grand Admiral will use him against Lord Vader."
"He will do no such thing. I have sent Nuron to free him and take him to safety."
"I-" she began, truly surprised when a sudden wave of emotion broke through her heart and mind, making her feel dizzy. "Thank you," she whispered and meant every word of it.
"It was nothing," Roj Kell assured her with an easy smile. "I would do anything to help the Lady Vader."
"Please. Just call me Padmé."
Mara was in a foul mood when she followed a nameless lieutenant into the Relentless' meeting-room just below the bridge. She had spent most of the trip in her assigned cabin, sensing that Thrawn did not want her around right now, especially not in the attack on Hoth.
He had not commented on her absence on the bridge and so this summoning was all the more surprising. Mara could only guess that the attack had not gone as planned. Under the circumstances that would not really have surprised her. Piett had talked to her about what he thought Vader intended and she had not been sure how to react to his theory. The meeting with Skywalker had done nothing to temper her anger at the Dark Lord. And she could not be certain if Piett's confiding in her was not some just some ruse spawned by Thrawn's mounting indignation over being repeatedly deceived by the Sith Lord's cunning. Right now she was trying to keep a balance between the two fronts, but sooner or later she would have to make her choice.
Squaring her shoulders she stepped into the meeting-room and nodded at the Captain standing to attention next to Thrawn's chair. The Grand Admiral was toying with a datacard, a faint smile on his lips when he looked up to acknowledge Mara's presence.
"Ah, Mara Jade. Please take a seat. You too, Captain."
They quickly found themselves two chairs in a suitably respectful distance from the admiral, who noted this move with apparent satisfaction.
"My reason for calling you here is simple: you have the greater insight into what has been going on among the Alliance Command so far. And I would like you to confirm some of my suspicions, if that is possible."
Mara simply nodded, but her eyes flicked towards Piett for a split-second. The Captain did not even look at her. His eyes were focused into the distance and she had the feeling that he was not really listening when Thrawn continued.
"There have been some frictions between the Rebels and Lord Vader. True or false?"
"True. Yes. Very true."
"Over what issues?"
"His methods, mostly, things he kept secret until too late, dangerous deployments that the Command thought stupid or reckless."
"How did he react?"
"The way he always does when confronted with criticism."
"You mean he killed them?" Thrawn asked in open amusement. Mara blushed, a scowl appearing on her face.
"No. But he made it clear that he would not accept their objections until the results could speak for themselves. Naturally they always spoke in his favor."
"But they did put pressure on him?"
"I don't know. But he accepted an aide Mon Mothma chose for him."
"A move that I am sure was well planned. He seemed to know beforehand that Jay Gerran would get that position. My agent. I wonder why."
Mara gave him a tight smile: "I don't think you ever wonder about anything. You have a suspicion. Care to enlighten me?"
"Captain Piett has the theory that Lord Vader is looking for allies, and today's battle clearly showed that the Alliance Command does not trust him anymore. Additionally he has left a message in the abandoned base on Hoth. This," he slid the datacard across the table, prompting her to catch it, "is a list of all Imperial agents we had inside the Rebellion."
"They died defending a base that was not theirs to defend. All except Jay Gerran. A coincidence?"
"Indeed, Mara Jade. He is leaving the line of communications open, but he will not allow me to dictate the rules. I intend to make him see the futility of this position."
"And how exactly are you going to accomplish that?"
"Well. The Rebels' Star Destroyers have attacked Reecee, Corulag and Kuat and the government on Coruscant is concerned. I am sending Captain Piett back to Gyndine with the Chimaera to rally the Core's defenses."
This time Mara risked an open glance at the man sitting quietly next to her. His lips were pressed together tightly, but he kept silent. Obviously he had known of Thrawn's decision beforehand.
"He will take Lorth Needa with him to appease the politicians."
"In what way?"
"They think I have been too lenient. They want the traitor dead, as an example to the Navy. They fear the military, you see?"
"And you do not fear for your own position?"
"No. Captain Needa initiated the defection of a quarter of our troops. When he dies it will be a symbol for the politicians that this threat is gone, but the Navy will take it as a sign that the government wants to control them. They will seek another leader."
"I daresay that the Imperial Navy has no love for me."
"Despite your superior skills."
"This is exactly the same problem Lord Vader is facing right now with the Rebels."
"And you want to get him back on your side how?"
"There are ways to convince him of the necessity of working together."
"But you said that he has offered just that."
"Yes. Under his command."
"Lord Vader is a very proud and stubborn man. The Rebels are obviously rejecting him, but he would never ever come back to join us of his own free will. At least not openly."
"You are proposing to offer him to trap himself? Is that what you are saying?"
"You have a way with words, Mara Jade, I have to admit that. Straight to the point."
"How? He did not take the bait even when you captured his son."
"Another show of pride. I have analyzed the situation. Lord Vader was well aware of this trap, but our experiment with Captain Needa showed clearly that he has not planned on everything. And the bait I intend to use will come as a surprise. I doubt very much that he can afford not to act," Thrawn concluded and Mara did not like the look on his face at all.
He seemed absolutely confident that this plan would work and again she did not know if he was still testing her. A fact that made the impending decision even more urgent. Yet again her vision flashed before her eyes and Mara groaned inwardly as she understood the full extent of what was being asked of her. Vader could only push his plan through when she acted against him, he had made that much clear. And the fact that she almost felt elated at the prospect of being able to pay him back his cruelties against her frightened the agent even more. This was not Thrawn's test for her, but Vader's. Standing up suddenly and turning towards the Grand Admiral grim-faced, Mara made her choice, vowing to show the Dark Lord that she would not only pass the test but also exceed his expectations by miles. Let the games begin, she thought quietly and forced a smile on her lips.
"Grand Admiral, I know you have had doubts in my loyalty, and I surely cannot blame you for that. I pledge myself under your command and ask you to accept my services fully, with all consequences."
He gave her a sharp nod and returned the smile, his red eyes lighting up in absolute delight: "I accept your offer, Mara Jade. You will not regret it."
"And neither will you," she could not stop herself from adding.
He gave a small laugh that startled her immensely, since it seemed so alien on him. But then, she did not know Thrawn very well. And maybe there was more to him, just as there was more to Lord Vader, than a frighteningly effective warlord. Well. Only time would tell. But her decision had taken a great weight off her shoulders and Mara found that she was almost looking forward to the next step, even though it meant that she would take Piett's place. Shooting the Captain a guilty glance she found him smiling at her weakly.
"Very good, Mara Jade. You are dismissed. Captain Piett, I would like you to stay for a while. There are some things you need to know to prepare our defenses."
The Liberty's hallways were quiet and almost peaceful at this time of the artificial day. The ship, along with the rest of the Alliance fleet, was hurtling through hyperspace en route to their next destination, a planet not too far from Coruscant, but too unknown and notorious to be even considered a suitable hiding place for the Rebels: Vjun. Once home to Lord Vader, this fortress retreat was now nothing more than an assembly of empty, deserted buildings. The scout ship under Wrenga Jixton's command had confirmed that no one had remained behind. The most recent traces were that of a retrieval team that had gone through the castle's mainframe in search for any important information the Dark Lord might have harbored there.
Anakin Skywalker was reviewing his agent's report, a thorough analysis of the still functional defenses and communications devices. Jix had done good work, as he always did, and Vjun would prove a most interesting base. Interesting for the Alliance Command, that was. He knew very well that they did not approve of his choice, but when had they ever approved of anything he did? Not that he cared.
Leia had come to him after the retreat from Hoth and had told him what Mon Mothma and her officers feared was happening to her. A Sith apprentice. He smiled at the very thought of that. His daughter was too much of an idealist to ever succumb to the Dark Side. She did believe in doing what was right without hurting anyone, if possible. And although he was taking part of that idealism away from her Anakin knew very well that his daughter was far stronger than he had ever been.
Which was exactly why he had chosen to teach her and not Luke. She could take his lessons without harm, because she had grown up to be a diplomat. Leia understood the game instinctively without being corrupted by it. And she was independent enough to create her own challenges, the way she had when moving against the Alliance Command. In short, he was very proud of her accomplishments. Leia was learning so fast and eagerly that he could not but be proud.
On the other hand the rate at which her skills were improving did alarm him in some ways. He remembered that same eagerness in himself, when he had begun to learn to play. And what it had led to eventually. Well, he would just have to make sure that Leia did not make the mistakes he had. It was that simple. If only everything else were that easy too.
The landing on Vjun did take some time and the steady stream of troop carriers and supply shuttles began the task of bringing back life into the great fortress that was Bast Castle. Out on inspection, Leia was walking the huge corridors at her father's side and had grown rather timid as her feel for the place deepened. Shuddering she closed down her perception to the normal human level, trying to shut out the distant echoes of past cruelties and intrigues that seemed to permeate the whole structure. Every step she took grew more hesitant until Anakin stopped and turned to look at her in concern. Leia shrugged, shaking off her uneasiness and took a deep breath to answer his unspoken question.
"I do not like this place. You must feel it too. The dark side is everywhere."
He remained silent for a long time and Leia could feel her cheeks heat in sudden embarrassment. Of course he knew. After all he was the source of all this evil. Had been, she reminded herself, forcing a desperate smile on her lips.
"I am sorry."
"You need not be," he answered slowly, "and you have every right to question my decision in bringing you here."
"I did not-"
"I can feel your doubts, Leia, and they are understandable. But in no way justified. That is all I ask you to accept. My reasons were of a wholly tactical nature. And although I was aware of how this place might affect you, I simply thought it another opportunity to test your progress."
Leia nodded in understanding and acceptance. She knew that he had changed. She had, after all, been the one who had sparked that transformation back on Debelan. And although Leia still could feel a darkness lingering in her father's mind and in his actions, she was confident that he would overcome his long years of service to Palpatine in the end. If they only let him, she thought ruefully, remembering Mon Mothma's prediction and Anakin's thoughts on the matter. A sudden movement noticed out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, but she did not let it startle her and instead reached out carefully with her mind to determine the newcomer's identity.
"Jix," her father rumbled pleasantly, turning away from her to welcome his agent.
"Good news, Your Lordship. I have gone through the recent reports of my contacts and they have found her at last."
"The Executor. Finally. Where is she?"
"One of the drive-yards, and since Kuat can be ruled out and Corulag too, there is only Gyndine left."
Leia smiled at Jix, who wore a pleased expression on his face, and she could feel anticipation rolling off him in huge waves. Clearly he was expecting another assignment, one more interesting and exciting than going through endless reports.
And there was something else too. A sly gleam in his eyes, his twitching lips. He was only waiting for someone to ask.
"Any other news?" Leia prompted and felt his relief and pride so clearly that he fairly shone with it in her eyes.
"I have found Needa."
"You did?" she exclaimed.
"Where is he?" Anakin asked calmly, his voice alone cooling both Jix and Leia down.
"They are taking him to Gyndine. Piett has assumed command of the Chimaera, strangely enough. My guess is that Thrawn has sent him there to prepare the defense of the Core worlds, especially Coruscant."
"Good thinking. Any news on Solo and his team?"
"None so far."
"Very well. Then you will be on your own in this. You will go to Gyndine and spread the rumor that the Rebels have already infiltrated the facilities there. Make it convincing and Piett will be chasing shadows until the teams on Coruscant are in position."
"And in passing I can go and free Needa, right?"
"You will do no such thing."
Leia flinched at her father's harsh words, but Jix was used to such outbursts. He did not even twitch.
"But it is the same planet. I could get him out easily and still be back in time."
"I told you no. Your mission must remain secret and losing a pawn or two is inevitable in any game. And none is so valuable that it could not be replaced," Anakin answered coldly.
"And what does losing a pawn say about your strategic skills?" Leia put in quietly. Her father turned towards her, a look of hurt crossing his face for a split-second.
"I regret losing him too, but there is no way we can get to him without..."
He blinked once, then his face hardened again. "Without jeopardizing my plan. Tomas Piett and Lorth Needa have been very good friends for a long time. So far Piett has remained loyal to the Empire, but I know that he does not feel that loyalty at heart. Therefore, if Needa is sentenced to death, and he will be for sure, Piett has two choices. I pray that he makes the right one. Bottom line: you will not free him, Jix. Is that clear?"
"Clear, but you know I object."
"Don't you dare defy my orders," the Dark Lord hissed viciously and stormed away down the corridor, leaving his daughter and agent in a foul mood.
"He is nervous," Leia said suddenly, tapping a finger against her lower lip pensively, staring straight ahead.
"Oh man, I wish you hadn't said that."
"And if he is nervous he is bound to make mistakes..."
"I know, I know, no need to say that too."
"But Needa is too important. If he is executed we might lose the support of our Imperial allies."
"You will get him out. I take the responsibility."
"You sure? He said Piett-"
"And do you really believe that Thrawn is unaware of that friendship or that the Captain might not know what is at stake? I daresay that risk is too high for him. Besides, I don't think my father would kill me for it, do you?"
"Better your head than mine, Princess," the Corellian was actually grinning now.
"Thank you, Jix," Leia replied dryly, then smiled. "Good luck. You'll need it."
As it turned out, Vjun did not only make Leia uneasy. And the Alliance Command was not yet finished with voicing its misgivings about Leia's training to the Dark Lord. Mon Mothma had had called a meeting as soon as everything and everyone had found their places in the castle. Anakin was late for the conference and he knew that this would be taken as another affront. Giving the assembly an open smile, he took his seat, facing Mon Mothma along the length of the table. Leia, sitting next to the Alliance leader, was the only one to return his smile.
Taking in the violent mood permeating the room, Anakin willed himself to relax, but kept his thoughts guarded, a fact that brought a frown on his daughter's face. But what he intended to do today was not something she would understand. And he did not want her to reveal his intentions beforehand, even unwillingly. Mon Mothma squared her shoulders and gave him a cold look.
"Lord Vader, we have followed your advice and your strategy willingly, put up with your capricious behavior and tolerated your keeping secrets. But now you have gone too far. It is not your right to appoint Princess Leia to a position she is not suited for, deliberately deciding over our heads. If I may remind you, we were the ones who put you in command and we will relieve you of it, if need be."
"Is that what you intend to do then?" he asked pleasantly.
He could see her balk at that, keeping her anger and hatred in check just barely. When she spoke again, her tone was icy cold.
"Not yet. First I want to know your reasons for that decision. Well?"
"My reasons: first, Thrawn knows that I am opposing him and he will act accordingly."
"Wait a minute. You told us that this was to remain a secret."
"I never claimed that it would stay one forever. It was inevitable that he would find out eventually. And it doesn't matter anymore."
"Mon Mothma, I get the feeling that you have never been really listening to me at all. My very words were: Thrawn will want revenge, since we have demoted him in the eyes of the others. And I will give him the opportunity for vengeance and while he is occupied you can strike in earnest. Do you understand now?"
"Semantics, Lord Vader. Tell us what you really mean."
"Very well. I predict that Thrawn will lose Coruscant's support and that Captain Piett will take his place. An excellent choice, by the way. But the Grand Admiral is no fool. He has anticipated that and I daresay that he has already put a plan in motion that will gain him not only the support of the Navy but also of the public. I do not know yet just what exactly he has planned, but I will find out soon enough. When that day comes I will leave you."
"Which is why I have chosen Princess Leia to advise your generals. She knows how I fight now and knows Thrawn's tactics well enough to give you valuable input. And the Grand Admiral will be too busy to realize that we have trapped him."
"Trapped him? I still do not understand."
"He will have lost Coruscant's support and he will not get it back, because, and that is the trick, Coruscant will be under your control by then. Simple."
Mon Mothma, who had almost come out of her seat during his little speech, slumped back in stunned admiration.
"Brilliant," she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment and shaking her head in disbelief.
At her side Leia wore a deep frown on her beautiful face. Just as he had anticipated. She knew her father well enough to know exactly what would be occupying the Grand Admiral's attention. Or better, who. But Mon Mothma did not see it that way. To her the most important issue was that the Dark Lord would be out of her way, giving her free leave to elevate the Alliance Command's role once more. Yes. In her fondest dreams. Anakin smiled to himself and leaned back slowly, content in the knowledge that Phase 3 was rapidly coming to its well-deserved end.
Luke had not been granted much time to think once Nuron had started the fight with the Imperial troops surrounding her ship, and in hindsight it was for the best, he decided. He had never fought so many enemies before and the efficiency with which the warrior had dispatched half the troops had almost frightened him. Now, safe in hyperspace aboard her small yacht, Luke had ample time to regain his calm. Kneeling on the floor of the ship's main-hold in a meditative posture, he let the Force soothe his jittery nerves, blowing away all doubts and fears and leaving nothing but profound peace.
Nuron's sudden arrival did nothing to disturb that. Opening his eyes Luke smiled up at her. She was leaning in the doorway, all long-limbed grace, and watched him with curious interest.
"You have fought well, Luke. For a Jedi," she added poignantly and unclipped the lightsaber from her belt. "Care for some practice?"
For an instance Luke battled himself, curiosity finally winning out against caution.
"Sure. I always wanted to fight a real Sith," he answered calmly and rose. Nuron nodded at him with a smile and waited for him to ready his own weapon.
They circled each other for some time, and Luke let Nuron do all the feinting, trying to draw him out. He wanted to test something and he would have to wait for the right moment. Nuron claimed that his father had trained her and Luke was curious as to what exactly he had taught his apprentice. When she feinted again he could feel her simmering anger and frustration. Surprising her, he caught her blade, twisting it around his own, but she used a very unconventional method to get her weapon out of this trap: she simply shut the blade down.
Grinning at Luke's surprised face she ignited the lightsaber again and attacked, this time with more power behind her blow. Luke side-stepped her and brought up his own blade, slicing through where her head would have been if she had not ducked with a cat-like grace, coming up again with her lightsaber flashing at his legs. He jumped high, almost touching the ceiling and Nuron laughed at his suddenly white face as he realized how close he had come to cracking his own skull. Blushing furiously he extended his senses outward, intent on not letting her get the best of him. They fought on, testing each other's abilities and finally Luke had to admit defeat.
She was much more experienced than the young Jedi and as she drove him back against the wall yet again Luke shut down his blade, sweat pouring down his forehead into his eyes. Nuron smiled at him.
"You need more practice," she stated finally and stepped back. Luke saw a silent shadow speed across her face and the smile vanished form her lips. Growling softly she turned away and vanished from the hold. He took his time in following her into the cock-pit, stopping at the fresher to take a shower and only then did he take his seat in the co-pilot's chair. Nuron was staring straight ahead, her eyes fixed into the distance.
"Where are we going?"
"With more Sith?"
"Only one," she told him solemnly.
She must have felt his relief for her yellow eyes turned towards him in a curious stare:
"You expected something else?"
"Maybe. I am sorry."
"That you still do not trust me?"
For a long time neither of them spoke. And gradually Luke realized that his distrust was in no way justified. She was acting just like his father would, pushing him to his limits but never beyond. And this did only prove his suspicion: whatever Anakin Skywalker had taught his apprentice, it was not the way of the Sith. Had Palpatine known? Had he even cared? Nuron was not human and the late Emperor had been well known for his anti-alien biases and politics. And Luke could well imagine his father taking a defiant pride in training the young warrior. He smiled at that faintly.
"What were you thinking of?" Nuron asked suddenly.
"When you smiled."
Nuron simply snorted, but it was as expressive as any lengthy speech. Somehow she did not like her mentor much. And yet here she was, delivering the Dark Lord's son into his father's hands as if she were baby-sitting him. That widened Luke's smile even more. Luckily she was too busy glowering at the starlines to notice. Finally something else demanded Luke's attention.
"How long will it take?"
"A few days, maybe a week."
"Do you know where we have to go?"
"Do you always take a step before you know your way?"
"The place is called Vjun. It is quite unique. You will see."
Silence fell again and after a while Nuron excused herself, vanishing into the back of the ship. Left all alone, Luke was wondering what had sparked those contradicting feelings Nuron held for his father. Well, he would find out soon enough.
Captain Piett knew very well that his presence on the Chimaera's bridge was less than welcome and Captain Palleon, the ship's commander, made him feel that animosity subtly, but with a lot of enthusiasm. He always had the uneasy feeling that the whole bridge crew was studying his back with open hatred whenever he stood at the forward viewport-he did not even dare to take a seat in the command chair although he just knew that Palleon would allow it, if only because protocol demanded it. So he spent as little time on the bridge as possible. Instead Piett had found some comfort in talking to Lorth, who was gradually opening up and recovering fast.
Their conversations tended to circle around one particular subject and Needa was more than willing to share his opinions with Piett as long as they kept off the Dark Lord's actual plan. But Piett got the feeling that his friend himself had gotten lost in that tangled web, which was hardly surprising with all the backtracking and double-dealings. The Grand Admiral had ordered his second to prepare the defenses, but had also made it apparent that he believed that Vader had already made his move on Coruscant, if not openly yet.
So Piett had two choices: he could either try and find the leaks which might have allowed small rebel teams to infiltrate the capital, or he could simply ignore Coruscant, focusing his troops on fending off fleet attacks. That last option did not appeal to the Captain at all. And with Needa he had a bargaining chip that might serve him well in luring out the rebels, if he chose to. Because that was the most important question: with all that he knew now and out of Thrawn's reach, could he even afford to choose sides?
"Did he ever talk to Thrawn again?" Needa was just asking, his gray eyes looking at him earnestly.
"You mean through you? No. I don't think so."
"Do you think Thrawn scared him off?"
"Hardly." They shared a smile.
"What are you going to do once we reach Gyndine?"
"Get you and myself off this ship fast."
"Good. And then?"
"Well, I have my orders."
"And you will follow them," Needa's voice showed his disappointment plainly even if he kept his face impassive.
"That does not lie in my hands, Lorth. I fear that the politicians will do something stupid."
"Like give the fleet command over to you? That would not be stupid at all."
"Oh yes, because I would never survive this," Piett answered with a chuckle.
A subtle shift let them both know that they had reached their destination and the Captain rose quickly, shooting his friend an apologetic smile. Needa merely nodded at him and Piett left, steeling himself against the battles to come.
Not surprisingly he was summoned to Coruscant within the hour of arrival. And although he was loath to leave Needa behind, he at least had the prisoner transferred down onplanet, getting him out of Palleon's reach. He was almost certain about his prediction concerning the government, but he knew what Thrawn was planning, after all. And once the Grand Admiral had secured the Dark Lord's support, the politicians might scream and rant, but they would not be able to prevent the inevitable from happening. Once more Piett was astounded at how Vader had managed to maneuver himself in such pivotal a role and how easily he played this game.
What Thrawn was planning to do with the Sith Lord once his duties were finished though, he did not even begin to ponder, knowing full well that the Grand Admiral would never get that far. His own part in this would depend on what exactly the politicians wanted with him. After all Piett could not be sure whether they would truly elevate him to Fleet Commander or have him executed. What a charming set of choices, he thought grimly, but his mood lightened considerably when his shuttle sailed smoothly along the whole length of the completed Super Star Destroyer orbiting Gyndine majestically. The Executor. Her black, glistening flank rolled past the viewport slowly and Piett found himself leaning towards her, admiring that sleek beauty. But then they were already past and headed for the short jump to Coruscant.
Talon Karrde was anything but patient, Han decided for himself, when the smuggler chief started pacing the length of the small room he had made his office in an abandoned warehouse in the underground of Imperial City.
"You have sent that signal, haven't you?" Karrde asked for the umpteenth time and Han heaved a deep sigh.
"Yes. And no, they haven's answered yet. My guess is that the signal got lost in hyperspace."
Throwing up his arms in exasperation Karrde turned on him: "Wonderful! This means we are stuck here, you know? And for how long? I have a business to run!" At that moment Chewie stuck his head through the door, growling a question at Han. "What's he saying?"
Rising from his seat Han made for the door, his forehead furrowed in concern. "Official announcement. Might be interesting."
By the time they reached the comm room, half of the command team under Page's lead had already assembled in front of the very illegally rigged holoscreen centering in the middle of the room. All eyes were fixed on the image as the newsspeaker gave his audience a long stare, trying to purvey importance to his message even before he broke it.
"In an emergency meeting this morning the government has relieved Grand Admiral Thrawn of his command and announced the promotion of his second, Tomas Piett, to the post of Fleet Commander and Admiral. Admiral Piett has served in the Imperial Navy for 15 years and ten years under the direct command of Lord Darth Vader. As the Admiral said today in his acceptance speech, he will honor the former role of the Navy as protector of the people's interests. Furthermore-"
Han snorted contemptuously: "Protector of the people's interests? More likely protector of the government's-"
"Shut up, Solo!" someone shouted angrily and the Corellian subsided under the withering stares of the assembly. At his side Chewbacca huffed a small chuckle.
"Yeah, yeah, keep on laughing," Han muttered sullenly, "you'll see-"
Chewie slapped his shoulder to silence his friend's quiet tirade, his blue eyes fixed on the screen.
"Huh? What was that about Needa?"
The newsspeaker, oblivious to the differing reactions of his audience, continued solemnly: "The government stated that Lorth Needa's execution will serve as a warning for those who betrayed the trust the people have set in them. Admiral Piett refrained from issuing any comment on the matter. It is well known that-"
The image died and Talon Karrde stepped up to stand in front of the blank screen, holding up his hands to gain the loudly protesting assembly's attention. Once they had quieted down, he began in a low voice that sent shivers down Han's spine, because his words voiced the thoughts of everyone present.
"With Piett here we have already lost." Pointing at Han, Karrde continued grimly: "You yourself told me that Piett was Vader's disciple and if he has only half as much brains as the Dark Lord, he will know that we are here and act upon our presence. I will not jeopardize my men and my business. You are welcome to come along when we pull out of here, but I will certainly not stay and wait for the Imps to find us."
His little speech gained grumbling acceptance from most team members, and Han could see the fear and despair in their eyes. He shared a concerned glance with Page across the room, then stood to answer Karrde.
"I agree to the theory of what you have just said, Karrde, but there are some things you are overlooking, mainly because you do not know as much as I do."
"If you are referring to your Sith commander, I am not interested. He is too far away to help us."
That comment brought everyone's attention fully on Han. "What do you mean?" someone asked and to Han's dismay that someone was Page.
The Intelligence officer came towards him briskly, his forehead furrowed with suspicion. Han knew that he had to act fast and risk everything if he wanted to save this mission. Straightening himself he gave them all a lop-sided grin, holding out his hands defensively:
"Okay, okay. This was to remain a secret but Karrde is forcing my hand."
Behind him he could hear Chewie shifting his position nervously and no doubt the Wookiee had hardened his grip on his bow-caster.
"All of you have heard the rumors, right? That our new strategist is one of Palpatine's Sith and so on. Right?"
He got a few nods and a lot of uneasy, questioning glances. Heaving a deep breath, Han steeled himself.
"Well, that Sith is a certain Dark Lord, whom Karrde has just credited with enough brains to foresee not only our actions but also the Imperials'. Which is why we will succeed with this mission."
Karrde stared at him, disbelieving, and he was not the only one. "Darth Vader is commanding your fleet?" the smuggler chief asked, incredulous.
"Best thing that could happen to us, don't you think?" Han answered flippantly.
But his voice was almost drowned out by the rising noises of a shouted dispute, questions and comments. The crowd surged towards him, a sea of angry faces threatening to swallow both Han and Chewie.
"Wait! Wait!" the Corellian shouted at the top of his voice, waving his hands to quiet them. When they had subsided a bit, he shook his head frantically.
"Who do you think was responsible for Palpatine's death, for each and every victory we scored in the past months? Piett being here does not mean anything. We will stay put, just as we have been told to."
"Do whatever you want, I am leaving," Karrde put in coldly and turned for the door.
To Han's surprise Page moved to block his way with a pleasant smile. Taking his chance Han addressed the smuggler again:
"Karrde, if you go now you will never know who hit you first: Vader, Thrawn or myself. You have agreed to this and you will keep your promise. Please?" he added, unwilling to enrage Karrde more than necessary.
"Thrawn is out of the game, isn't he?"
"If you believe that, you can believe that Vader is dead too."
"All right then. What do you plan to do now?"
"Well," Han shrugged, "I will surely not let Needa get executed. They are holding him on Gyndine and I propose we split the team, two thirds remaining on post and the rest accompanying me."
Page nodded slowly. "I will assume command on Coruscant then. If you fail, don't count on us."
"Agreed," Han told him with a smile. "What about you, Karrde? Wanna stay here?"
"Don't you have to inform your superior first?"
"Nah. Vader likes his agents to remain independent. He'll understand."
"And if we fail it won't matter anyway," Page added quietly.
Wrenga Jixton had spent most of the flight to Gyndine with preparations. He had downloaded a layout of the facilities and docks on the planet from Vjun's mainframe and had studied them intently, memorizing every detail. Of course he knew that freeing Needa had a lower priority than spreading the rumor of rebellion on Gyndine, but he liked to be prepared for everything. His pilot, a Sullustan named Niju Naab, had had to endure his questions concerning the ship controls, and Jix thought that these lessons combined with the sims he had flown under Mara's supervision should suffice to get him out of Gyndine if they got separated. At least that was what he hoped. Niju had told him that most ships had a standardized control panel and once he knew one of them he could handle any other. This way Jix felt pretty confident when they touched down without any trouble after having fed the proper codes to the control tower.
Niju promised to remain close to the ship, since both knew that he would only raise suspicion if he remained onboard all the time during their stay. Leaving their assigned landing bay behind, Jix double-checked his equipment: blaster, spare blaster, knife, commlink and a sufficient supply of credits. As one of the three major shipyards Gyndine was always busy, and with the recent attacks on Kuat and Corulag, activity had increased tenfold. Which was very much to Jix' liking. This way no one would bother about yet another new face hanging around. He followed the steady stream of newcomers into the maze of corridors making up the major spaceport which served as capital and command center at the same time. The presence of Imperial stormtroopers absolutely everywhere told Jix that the Empire did not intend to lose this planet too.
Well, he always enjoyed a challenge. Smiling to himself, Jix left the main hallway he had been following so far and almost immediately found what he had sought: a bar. This one held a respectable amount of busily chatting customers even at this early time of the day. Workers getting off shift were constantly increasing their numbers and Jix had to hurry to find a place at the bar. Seating himself comfortably he ordered a drink and let the conversations around him sweep him up in their wake, allowing him to get a feel for the mood on Gyndine and its space docks. Apparently news had just hit home about the dismissal of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Jix could not keep himself from smiling. Insert the rumor of rebels on Gyndine and everyone would panic. Turning towards a Rodian sitting next to him, Jix gave a nod, trying to get his attention.
"Whaddya want?" the alien growled at him and Jix flashed him a toothy smile.
"Just curious, buddy. You sure that Thrawn is out of it?"
"The government say so, so it's got to be true."
"Sure. And who's gonna take over now?"
"Guy named Piett."
"Piett?" Jix furrowed his eyebrows, seemingly trying hard to remember something. "Wasn't he Thrawn's second?"
"Huh? I don't understand. They sack the Grand Admiral and get his second in his place? Smells fishy to me."
"Really?" the Rodian snorted, not really interested.
"Yeah. I mean Thrawn is the best and only a fool would bring in the second choice, right?"
"Like those fools on Coruscant?"
"Hey, mind your manners!" Jix exclaimed, feigning outrage.
"Cool down, mister. So, what do you wanna prove with that?"
"Kuat and Corulag got hit and I figure that Gyndine is next in line. I think they want to put the rebels at ease."
"Sure. I guess they are already here and Thrawn is on some secret deployment to ferret them out. Would explain why there are so many Imps around here. Do they patrol the docks too?"
The Rodian stared at him, shook his head, stared again.
"Could be," he muttered, "could be true."
"Hey, guy like Thrawn don't vanish just like that. And did I see the Chimaera in orbit? One of his favorite ships that, or so I've been told."
"But he's been commanding the Relentless."
"A decoy for the rebels," Jix answered slyly and gave the Rodian a conspirative nod. "I am telling you this because I think you are a smart guy, but," and here he lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper, prompting the Rodian to bend closer, "there's a Super-class Star Destroyer up there and I did notice a lot of activity going on there doing a fly-by."
Straightening again Jix gave his counterpart a wink: "Nice flagship for a Grand Admiral, eh?"
Leaving the bar half an hour later buzzing with rumors about Grand Admiral Thrawn taking command of the Executor and wild stories about rebels posing as dock workers, Jix felt pretty smug. His job here was done and he had some time before things got hot on the planet. On his way back to the ship he could pick up stray wisps of conversations dealing with the same rumors and he was astounded at how fast news traveled here. But maybe that was just because the off-shift workers had nothing to do but gossip in their free time.
Niju was waiting for him excitedly, but Jix waved him away:
"Yeah, I know. Piett's in charge now."
The second bit of news though hit him like a hammer-blow:
"Execution? Do you know when?"
Niju nodded solemnly, indicating to Jix that they did not have much time before Needa would be transferred to Coruscant for his trial.
"All right," Jix sighed finally. "We move tonight."
Getting into the high-security prison should not prove too difficult, for someone who was used to bypassing security at Lord Vader's stronghold on Coruscant for a past-time.He would have to get through the military complex situated in the heart of the town. It was late and Jix was walking towards the complex unconcernedly, a half-emptied bottle of Corellian brandy swinging in one hand, and singing at the top of his lungs.
"Hey, you!" someone shouted and he turned around unsteadily to face two stormtroopers.
"Hm?" he asked muzzily, swaying on his feet.
"Keep the noise down," one of them admonished him threateningly and Jix smiled faintly.
"Sure," he promised, but just as soon as they had turned away he started the song again, this time changing the lyrics from the story about his long-lost love to the one about festering idiots called stormtroopers he did not miss at all.
"Hey, you!" came the immediate response and Jix hiccuped loudly.
"Sorry," he mumbled, steadying himself against a wall. Subtly shifting his weight Jix waited for one of the pair to grab his right arm brutally and snarl: "You are coming with us." Jix pushed himself off the wall, seemingly toppling over and the trooper let go immediately, giving the agent time to unholster his blaster and shoot the second soldier. Silencing his captor with a well-placed blow to his helmet, Jix took a deep breath. This was just the easiest part. Now to get into the fortress. Dressing quickly in the stormtrooper armor he double-checked his weapons and the rest of his equipment. Everything was in place.
The sentry at the entrance moved to block his way as he came running up to him. "Give alarm!" Jix snapped, "We just got attacked."
The sentry gave him a long look: "Your identification?"
Jix rattled off his number and swiped his left glove over the ID reader.
"All right. You are cleared 1247. Report to the officer on duty immediately."
Rushing past the guard Jix almost felt like laughing. He found a dressing room close to the prison complex and stripped out of the armor and then simply waited for the next trooper to show up, changing his disguise. Leaving the room again he made his way towards the prison slowly, senses alert.
This would be the hardest part now.
"Hey, you!" Turning around and snapping to attention, Jix eyed the officer storming towards him, a calculating frown on his forehead."13336, what are doing here? You are on duty on Level A1."
Standing even straighter the agent let the other's tirade wash over him, snapped a 'Yes, sir' and made an about turn, calling up the building layout from his memory. Level A1, high security prison complex. Grinning to himself, Jix hoped that his luck would hold out a little longer. Marching off he cleared the entrance zone through three security checks without difficulty. The high, polished walls of the prison were gleaming in the cold lights above and his lonely steps echoed down the sheer endless length of the main hall, making Jix feel slightly out of place.
A turbo-lift took him up and he reported back in for duty before he began studying the latest prisoner reports to find Needa. As it turned out, A1 was the second-highest security level, after detention area A, on the floor above. Getting there should be no problem, but he knew from experience that the troopers on guard there would tolerate no stranger and would report his presence immediately. Needa's cell was A 31, easy to remember. But Jix knew that he was running out of time. It was only a matter of minutes until someone would find the downed trooper posing as 1247 and then it would be an easy feat even for stormtroopers to draw their conclusions.
Studying the control panel before him, Jix tried the master code Mara had used to get into the mainframe. Access denied. Jix gritted his teeth in frustration. Damn Thrawn. Almost immediately alarms started assaulting his ears and the room began to lock down rapidly. With a hearty curse on his lips Jix threw himself underneath the closing door just in time, skidding over the polished floor against the opposite wall. Running down the hallway he got rid of the armor as quickly as he could, grabbing a blaster in his left hand. The next door did not open. Very well. Thrawn might know Mara's codes, but sure as hell Vader had kept his own secret. Setting the lock in a different mode he punched in the ominous 'Padmé' and heaved a relieved sigh when the door slid open again.
Ducking through the entrance, he took a few shots at the waiting troopers outside, then moved in for close combat. Once he had dispatched the guards, Jix sprinted to the next turbo-lift, taking it up to level A. Jix emerged from the lift shooting immediately and the adrenaline surging through his blood pushed him forward until he had reached Needa's cell. Opening it he stormed into the confined room, cursing loudly when the door closed again behind him. The Captain did look bad, all bruised and beaten up. But his gray eyes were clear and alert.
"No time for explanations, we gotta get out of here fast. Can you walk?"
"I'll manage," Needa replied and stood up, wincing in pain.
Slipping an arm around the other's waist to steady him, Jix' head came up with a frown when the door slid open far too soon for his estimate. The tall officer striding into the cell took in the scene immediately, his eyes widening in surprise, before a shot out of Jix' blaster threw him backwards against the opposite wall.
"Jix!" Needa gasped, shook his head and hobbled into the hallway to kneel next to the dazed officer. "Tomas, are you all right?"
"Are you kidding me?" the other man moaned softly, a hand pressed over the still smoking wound right above his hip.
"Tomas? As in Admiral Tomas Piett, newly-appointed Fleet Commander?" Jix asked slowly, his eyes narrowing. Stepping into the corridor he threw a glance at the far end, then, seeing no obvious threat, knelt down beside Needa and put the muzzle of his blaster to the Admiral's head: "We'll use him as hostage then."
"Brilliant," Needa snapped irritably and slung his arms around Piett's shoulders, hoisting him up.
"Clear the way, we'll follow."
Jix gave the two men a curious look, sensing that there was something going on that he did not fully understand. Piett's face had turned waxen and cold sweat was pouring down his face. Blinking his green eyes slowly, he took an anguished breath.
"Come on, we don't have much time," he hissed between gritted teeth.
"You mean you came here to free him too? Okay, okay, I get it. Let's get moving. Don't think, just run, leave the thinking to me," Jix ordered sharply and grabbed Piett's left arm, while Needa limped on the Admiral's right side, steadying him.
They moved swiftly, despite the fact that two of them were injured, one of them gravely so. Piett almost fainted a few times, but only almost, and Jix had to admire the man's endurance despite everything. It was also the Admiral who led the threesome towards the shuttle waiting for him up on the fortress' roof. Once Jix had gotten rid of the two troopers guarding the ship, the threesome hurried into the cockpit. Needa moved towards the pilot's chair but the Corellian pushed him aside:
"You are injured. No way you are flying."
"Jix, you can't even pilot a ship!"
"I've had some lessons."
"This is no game, Jix. We have to get away. In one piece, preferably."
"We are not going very far, Captain."
"What do you mean?"
"We are only taking a ride up there," Jix explained, pointing at the huge ship looming in the distance.
"The Executor? Are you out of your mind?"
"I have studied the plans. There is the possibility of flying it by remote and I am sure that the Admiral here knows everything about it."
"If he survives until we reach the ship," Needa put in quietly.
"You keep him from dying on us and I'll keep the rest of us from going up in flames. Now get to work."
While the Captain moved to take care of Piett's wound, Jix gritted his teeth in concentration. He had not really planned on taking the Executor back to Vjun, but it would make a nice gift for the Dark Lord, and in passing would cool him down once he learned that Jix had chosen not to follow his orders. But it was still a long way to the Super Star Destroyer and already the Chimaera was spitting out TIE fighters at them. The sudden arrival of two freighter-sized ships therefore was a more than welcome sight, when Jix identified them as the Millennium Falcon and the Wilde Karrde. He called up the comm code to Solo's ship immediately:
"Run cover for us, will ya?" he yelled, not waiting for Han to acknowledge him.
"Jix! What are you doing-? Don't tell me you are flying her!"
"You bet! Can you two distract that Star Destroyer and the TIEs?"
"That's a lot of fire-power over there..." Han muttered sarcastically.
"You just wait until I get my hands on the Executor's batteries."
"Jix, you are mad."
Watching the two freighters swerve away to intercept the fighters Jix smiled grimly. But not for long. Turning his head he frowned at Needa who was pressing a patch of synth-flesh against the Admiral's side.
"Is he still conscious?"
"Yes," Piett answered weakly.
"The hangar bays are closed. How-"
"You can send a signal. Wait. For a fully automated response the code is-"
His voice dropped hoarsely and even Needa apparently strained hard to hear him. Finally the Captain straightened up, looking at Jix calmly:
"The code is Alpha 101. Can you program that and send it over?"
"Sure," the agent replied slowly, eyeing Piett closely.
If the Admiral was dying... Well, now he had other things to worry about. The Executor loomed ever closer and Jix quickly sent the code over the transponder, praying for a positive response. In what seemed the last possible moment the great hangar just ahead opened ponderously and the shuttle slipped through the energy field separating the landing bay from open space. Jix landed the shuttle as careful as possible, which wasn't very gentle at all.
"Get him up to the bridge. Remote control is where, lower?"
Piett did not answer.
"He's unconscious," Needa explained calmly. "Come on, give me a hand here. We can give him something once we are there. No need to put him under stress now."
Together they carried the Admiral's limp body through the ghostly quiet ship and Jix really did feel uncomfortable here. Not that he would ever admit that to anyone. Still, he was more than relieved when they put Piett down on the floor in the remote center. Straightening slowly, Jix studied the layout of the room and immediately he spotted the rounded helmet hanging suspended from the low ceiling, wires and cables connecting it to multiple control panels. Jix frowned at the construct, hoping for some instruction.
"Put it on," he heard Piett say weakly behind him. "The gloves. Those too."
Stepping into the circle underneath the helmet Jix pushed what looked like the activation button on a sleek panel in front of him. The helmet descended slowly until it came to rest on his shoulders. All of a sudden the inside flickered and a display came to life, showing a detailed layout of the space surrounding the ship.
Fumbling for the gloves Piett had told him about Jix found the pair hanging from the central panel and put them on. On the screen a few commands appeared, for rescaling the size and changing the view and a rectangle showed the ship's readings on power, shields, weapons and general crew status. Except for the crew all of them seemed on maximum scale. Jix smiled slowly. This would be fun.
Han Solo threw the Millennium Falcon into a wild corkscrew maneuver that brought a few choked protests from the crew strapped in in the back of the ship, and an angry growl from Chewbacca at his side. But it effectively shook off the three TIEs on their trail. The freighter's dorsal and ventral guns blazed again, spewing laser bolts after the retreating fighters. Suddenly the comm came to life.
"The Executor is moving," Talon Karrde informed them calmly and Han looked up to see the Super Star Destroyer indeed under way towards the Chimaera.
"Wow!" he commented, awed and Chewie whined in empathy.
"Our job is done, Solo. Let's get out of here. Next stop?"
"Nar Shadaa. We'll try to contact our fleet from there."
"Done. See you there."
When the Wilde Karrde winked out of real space Han still could not turn his eyes away from the huge Star Destroyer gliding across their viewport, all majestic grace. Until it started firing. Time to leave.
Luke had felt a bit uneasy on their descent towards the great fortress dominating Vjun's desolate plains from atop a sleek, dark mountain rising into the reddish sky like a tidal wave. But his uneasiness was nothing compared to what Nuron was feeling: fear, anger, hatred. The young Jedi could not help but think of his master's words concerning those emotions. Hatred leads to suffering, Yoda had told him and if what Luke could feel from the alien was any measure she was expecting to suffer immensely.
He studied her grim face for some time, wishing that he was brave enough to just ask what caused those feelings in her. Or who. When she turned her head towards him though, the look in her yellow eyes forbade any comment on her emotional state. So Luke bit back his question and kept silent until they had touched down on the landing pad assigned to them.
"Welcome to Bast Castle," Nuron growled, unstrapping from her flight restraints and went aft to gather her gear together. Luke followed slowly, unsure of what to say. Finally he decided it best to let her make the first step. If she wanted to talk about it he was sure that she knew that he would listen.
Leia was waiting for him at the landing ramp, fairly beaming with joy. Throwing her arms wide she rushed forward to hug him tightly, laughing:
"It is so good to have you back! I was so worried!"
"Well, you needn't have to, Leia. I had some help. No. A lot of help. This is Nuron."
Letting go of her brother, the Princess studied the alien female quietly, then gave her a nod and a smile. Nuron did seem nervous, standing very straight, her eyes constantly searching the fortress's landing pad. But whatever threat she seemed to expect failed to materialize. Finally she moved over to stand at Luke's side.
"You are his sister?"
Nuron took a step back, scrutinizing the Princess' slight form curiously.
"Your father has been training you!" she exclaimed finally, clearly astounded.
"Yes. Please, he will want to meet with you."
The alien merely nodded, her mouth turning into a grim line. On their way through the Castle's hallways she became more and more tense and again Luke quietly began to wonder why. She had saved his life, hadn't she? There was really nothing she had to fear. And if she did, he would protect her, just as she had protected him.
Leia was the first to enter the Dark Lord's office and Luke followed her immediately, anxious to see his father again. The twins both wore huge smiles when Anakin looked up from his desk, frowning. But to their surprise the frown did not fade. Instead it deepened and all of a sudden his eyes were sparkling dangerously. Rising from his seat he came around the desk briskly, his gaze intent only on the tall woman facing him with quiet pride. Luke did have a sudden premonition of things to come but by then it was too late. Closing the distance rapidly the Dark Lord let his left arm whip around in a lightning-quick move and hit Nuron's head with unbridled force.
Although she obviously had expected it, the warrior did not make any move to fend off the blow. Stumbling past Leia, she bounded against the wall hard, then slid to the floor, holding her left hand to the side of her face. Blood was trickling out of the corner of her mouth and from her nose. Both Luke and Leia stared first at her, then at their father, disbelieving. But the mask of cold rage painted on his face allowed for no argument. "Go. Now," he snarled at the twins, pointing at the door. Luke hesitated at first, but Leia, now deadly pale, dragged him outside. The door slid close behind them.
Anakin Skywalker was looming over the downed agent, barely able to contain his fury. Nuron looked up at him, her yellow eyes burning with betrayal and hurt.
"You are no longer my master, Lord Vader," she hissed.
"Then stop acting like an apprentice," Anakin snapped. "This is a war situation and you are obliged to follow my orders and mine alone. And you have no right to question them."
"But reason enough."
He regarded her coldly for a short while. But she was not easily cowed. And her defiant stare dared him to try and punish her for the disobedience.
"What reasons would that be?" he asked finally, his voice leaden.
Nuron rose gracefully, but kept within striking distance, honoring his authority. Wiping the blood from her mouth she met his gaze levelly.
"Your son, Lord Vader, is training to become a Jedi Knight."
"And that is your reason for defying my orders? I have warned Lord Kell and I have warned you. This is your last chance, Nuron."
Using the Force to sweep her off her feet, he stepped forward to rest his right boot on her exposed neck. She did not stir, but he could feel the sudden fear in her mind. Smiling coldly, he shook his head in mock compassion.
"Nuron Sarin, you have disappointed me, broken my trust and questioned my authority. I will not kill you now because you are young and will learn. But I want you to realize that I decide who will live and who will perish. You are mine, Nuron. Roj Kell does not own you, I do." He drew an angry breath, waiting for her reaction. "Well?"
"I am yours, Lord Vader," she whispered, her voice choked with hot tears of humiliation.
"Indeed. Get up. I am not finished with you just yet."
Releasing the pressure on her neck he let her rise again, fully aware of her cringing inside as she anticipated his next move. But she did not try to protect herself when his right knee came up sharply before she could straighten fully. With a quiet moan Nuron stumbled back, her eyes full of tears, blinding her. Which was just as well. This way she could not see the pain in his own.
When he finally left his office he nearly walked over Gerran as the short spy came around the corner, obviously to talk to the Dark Lord. He could catch a brief glimpse at the alien woman lying motionless on the floor before the door slid close again and by then Anakin was already blocking his view. Jay Gerran gaped at him, open-mouthed.
"What is it?"
"I-I have a message for you."
"Later. I am on my way to my quarters and do not wish to be disturbed."
"Yes, of course, Lord-sir."
Baring his teeth at him in a grim smile, Anakin turned around and stormed down the corridor, too agitated to deal with Gerran now and let him live. Finally he had reached the safety of his own cabin and immediately walked up to the viewport to stare moodily into the distance.
"What did you do with her?"
Gasping in surprise Anakin whirled around to face his son. Luke was sitting on the edge of one of the comfortable chairs scattered throughout the Dark Lord's quarters, his blue eyes at the same time cold and troubled. It was an unsettling combination.
"She knew what was waiting for her here."
"I could gather that much. But why?"
"You would not understand, Luke."
"Why? Because I am a Jedi and she is a Sith? Because you are still a Sith?"
"No. Because you are no strategist, no politician. You are a guardian."
"This would mean that it is my duty to guard her too."
"Then you have just failed," Anakin told him cruelly, crossing his hands on his back.
It was a gesture that could mean many things-defiance, acquiescence or simple arrogance-and Luke frowned at his father, unsure of what exactly to make of it. Anakin could feel his son's anguish as clearly as he could feel his own.
"Father, you hurt her despite everything she did for me."
"Are you that important, then? Do not get me wrong, Luke. You are very important to me and I love you dearly. But that is personal. What I did to Nuron I did because it was necessary."
"You will not be taken seriously if you are not willing to carry out your threats, Luke. I regret her punishment, very much, because she too is dear to me. But personal is not the same as important."
"Do you realize that you hurt me and Leia too?"
"Never as much as I hurt myself," Anakin whispered coldly.
"There's a happy thought."
"Luke, please leave me alone for now. You will understand, in time."
Rising slowly Luke heaved a tiny sigh. He hung his head for a moment, closing his eyes in dismay. Finally though he sought his father's gaze and smiled at him:
"I understand, I truly do. But maybe, just maybe, this time personal is the same as important. Nuron has not deserved your wrath and you have not deserved to suffer so. I know that you are under a lot of pressure. But you trusted Leia with taking part of your responsibility. And by sharing it she is making you stronger. Nuron is suffering with you. Why don't you trust her now to ease your pain?"
Nodding once at Anakin, he turned around to leave without looking back. His father stared after him in utter amazement. How much he has grown, he mused quietly, shaking his head still disbelieving. So much wisdom in one so young. But on the other hand Luke could not grasp the full extent of what was going on. Roj Kell was testing him. And to add insult to injury, he did not only use Luke for his ends but also Nuron, knowing full well that the Dark Lord had no choice but to hurt her.
Never ever before had he punished her deliberately like this. True, there had been some injuries throughout her training, both physical and mental, but that had been well within the normal range between teacher and student. This time though, he had to prove to the Council that his threats were to be taken seriously. If he became lenient now, they would truly begin to doubt his loyalty. Still, it was more than unfortunate that it was Nuron who had to suffer for that.
Dropping into the chair Luke had previously occupied, Anakin leaned back tiredly, closing his eyes. Nuron was so much of a warrior now and so eager to impress her mentor that he had almost forgotten how young she still was. "A wild one," Chi'in had called the sullen orphan when he had first laid eyes on the then ten year old Zabrak girl they had met on Myrk seven years ago. She had not been afraid of Darth Vader's grotesque mask and armor, not at all. Nuron had been curious. Myrk had been a test of the Dark Lord's abilities initiated by Palpatine who knew very well that he had to keep his disciple in check, and, even more important, had to keep his mind off playing dangerous games. And Chi'in had insisted on going along, fearing for his master. And his worry had been justified.
It had taken the Dark Lord two painful weeks to discover the secret of Myrk and how to fight the Ysalamiri's influence. All the while Chi'in had guarded him against the Vornskyr stalking them both every night. The predators had felt drawn to the immense source of life-force created by these two powerful beings and the first week had been full of unpleasant encounters. At first Anakin had sought to protect his apprentice and both had suffered some injuries. Finally Chi'in had been able to convince his master that his own lack of experience in using the Force was actually an advantage, since the absence of the Force affected him less than the Dark Lord. So the Noghri warrior relied only on his hunter instincts in battling off the predators' attacks, a strategy that had proven most effective and allowed Anakin to concentrate on his mission fully.
They had taken Nuron out into the forest then and Anakin had shown her the beauty of life, of the Force. With no kin to hold her on Myrk, she had agreed to follow the Sith to Coruscant. Anakin remembered well the day they had reached the capital to meet with the Emperor. Nuron had been awed by the sheer size of the city and the billions of noises and images assaulting her ears and eyes. "I see you have found yourself another pet," Palpatine had commented contemptuously, making it very clear that he did not approve his Dark Lord's choice of apprentices. Anakin had kept silent, fully aware of the waves of humiliation and hurt pride rolling off Chi'in standing a few paces behind him. When Palpatine had bent down to examine the young Zabrak more closely, he had actually started to smile. "I know her kind. Very effective warriors, but not what you seek, Lord Vader."
Indeed, it was only too true. As Dark Lord of the Sith, the title encompassing both the duties of a strategist and a combat teacher, it was his task to choose and train an apprentice to follow in his foot-steps. Chi'in had been his first choice and although the Noghri was a deadly opponent both with the Force and without, his personality was too protective, especially of his master. He was an effective killer, but no leader and never would be. He cared too much. With Nuron it was much more complicated. She had shown promise at first, her independent and creative mind very open to the Dark Lord's teachings. But she was a warrior and furthermore she had grown up among the Council, always seeking their consent on anything when her teacher was not around. And Palpatine had forced him to spend most of his time on Coruscant.
Anakin had felt the effects of his lack of caring and control most prominently in the past months, as Nuron had continued to defy his orders, following Roj Kell's instructions instead. To her it must seem natural that Kell was the leader of the Sith, now that Palpatine was dead. And Anakin was almost sure that she was acting like any abandoned child would, punishing the offending parent by disobeying him deliberately. Maybe she even believed that the Council was backing her actions, not realizing at all how she was being used in this foolish fight for dominance.
A fact that, in Anakin's mind, only confirmed that she was unfit to take his place. The Council, and especially Roj Kell, had not liked having a former Jedi Knight rise to the position of Chief Strategist and Fleet Commander instead of their kind. Not at all. And this jealousy was exactly what Palpatine had been counting on. With multiple fronts to fight, Anakin had in time given up resisting him, resigning any hope of ever gaining the upper hand in their game. For a long time he had been truly broken and his only choice had been to fully embrace the Dark Side. But now he had taken up the battle again and this time he would bring it to an end. Whether Luke understood or not could not be his concern.
"But it should be, Anakin."
Sighing deeply he closed his eyes without turning to look at his friend.
"Tell me, how can I please everyone, Obi-Wan?"
"Exactly right. So I will end this game with as few casualties as I can manage."
"It has become far too dangerous a game for that."
"In my mind there are no others worth playing."
"But this time there are even more fronts. Mothma, Thrawn, the Sith and your agents. Take care. I have warned you once before."
"It will not go on for much longer, Obi-Wan."
"Master Yoda says that your trials have begun."
"I know. I felt it. And I am doing my best."
"Your best? The way you handled your apprentice-"
"Don't you start too!" Anakin shouted, rising from his seat angrily.
"Anakin. You could have chosen another way."
"Too late for that."
"Indeed. But please, try to take more care in the future."
"I will. I promise."
After Obi-Wan had left, Anakin stood alone at the window for a long time, studying the plains laid out before him and watching the sun set in a glorious blood-red ball of fire. Night was falling quickly on Vjun and finally he decided that there was indeed another solution: he would tell Nuron what exactly he was planning. He owed her that much and maybe, just maybe then she would trust him again.
To his mild surprise he did not find her in his office. Instead of the Zabrak warrior Jay Gerran was waiting for him nervously.
"The message?" Anakin inquired coolly, eyeing the metal box standing on his desk suspiciously.
"Yes, my lord."
Waving his right hand impatiently Anakin snapped: "Well? What are you waiting for?" Gerran bent forward to work the lock, then stood back to let the Dark Lord have a look. Stepping around his desk Anakin frowned deeply. He had the sudden nagging feeling that the message purveyed nothing good.
The severed alien head staring up at him out of dead, lantern eyes shocked him more than he cared to admit. A Noghri head.
"The message is-" Gerran began tentatively, but was immediately interrupted.
"I have understood, thank you," Anakin growled and looked up to give the agent a long, hard glance. Withering under his steady stare Gerran retreated until he bumped into the wall next to the door.
Anakin smiled cruelly: "Guess."
Standing next to Chi'in at the far wall Padmé watched Roj Kell prepare to accept the transmission that had just come trough. It was the first time that the queen had been invited to share any information with the Sith leader and somehow she felt that this did pass as some sort of initiation rite. He gave her a tight smile, then took a step back as the life-sized holo-image of a tall man appeared before him. Padmé did not recognize him at first. And when she did she felt all color drain from her face. His bald head was decorated with long, purple scars contrasting sharply with his deadly white skin. Only his eyes had stayed the same, although, taking a closer look, she noticed that they had turned even colder than she remembered.
"Lord Vader. What news?"
"You know very well why I am calling you, Lord Kell. My son has returned. With Nuron."
"Nuron. How is she?"
"She will recover. Eventually," Anakin replied with a cold smile that chilled Padmé to the bone.
"I was only trying to do you a favor."
"Spare me those lies, Kell. Your so-called favors are messing up my plan."
"I am sorry to hear that."
"Are you now." Anakin's mouth twitched with a contemptuous smile. "I have a message for Chi'in. Is he with you?"
"Yes." Waving the Noghri closer Roj Kell returned the Dark Lord's icy stare levelly: "What kind of message?"
But Anakin had apparently chosen to ignore him. Turning his head to look down at the short combat trainer he gave him a curt nod.
"Thrawn is using your people against me. He knows of my bonds to the Noghri and threatens to kill them if I do not surrender."
"What?" Kell exclaimed, suddenly angry. "Lord Vader, I demand that you-"
"I cannot accept his challenge without jeopardizing the plan, Chi'in. And I want to ask you not to interfere. Do not forget who your vows are to."
"I understand, my lord," the Noghri replied calmly, but a certain tremble in his voice betrayed his true emotions.
"Very good. I am counting on your insight here. Do not disappoint my trust."
"I will not, Lord Vader."
"Good. That is all. Lord Kell, do not think that I have forgotten your part in this. And you will pay, just as Nuron has."
Abruptly the connection broke, plunging the room in nearly total darkness for a second before their eyes had grown accustomed to the usual gloomy light. Padmé stepped forward cautiously and put a hand lightly on Chi'in's shoulder. He looked up at her with an ironic smile and she knew that he understood. She shook her head slightly, smiling back. Anakin had chosen to abandon her and her people a long time ago and now he was abandoning another one. Just as he had abandoned the Jedi, sacrificing them for his own ends.
"We will have to keep a close eye on him," Roj Kell mused aloud.
"What do you mean?"
"I fear that he is planning to betray us to Thrawn."
Padmé was taken aback. But then she realized the truth of this assumption. Yes, it would be just like him to make everyone think themselves safe before he struck. Roj Kell was looking at her pensively, expectantly even, until she found herself prompted to ask:
"Is there any way I can help you?"
"Not yet. my lady, all I can ask of you is to stay patient a bit longer," Kell answered smoothly.
So, Thrawn had finally played his cards and apparently they were better than what Vader had to show for. How unfortunate. Chuckling to himself he shook his head ever so slightly. Again Vader had lied to him with a straight face. He was getting good at that. Roj Kell did not believe one minute that the Dark Lord did not care about the Noghri. And he had just very subtly reminded Chi'in of just who he was bonded to. When the time came the short warrior would turn against Kell. But that would not be necessary, not at all. This business was firmly moving into the hot phase, where there were no rules save one: survival. And Sidious must know that. So, with Vader distracted, he would be able to move his pawns at his leisure. The problem was, of course, that the man he had enlisted to hunt the Dark Lord down was a warlord, heart and soul. His mind was ticking differently than those of both Sidious and Vader. He would not let himself be guided by an amateur. No, Thrawn would make his own choices.
Alarms were wailing throughout the fleet assembled around Vjun and were echoed down on the planet along the hallways of Bast Castle. Something had arrived in the system and was heading straight for the planet. Something huge.
"The Executor," Anakin explained calmly and strode into the comm center where a few officers were trying to raise the Super Star Destroyer. Finally something got through.
"...eeda reporting back for duty. Repeat: Captain Needa reporting back-"
"Needa," Anakin barked into the commlink, "What are you doing here?"
"Your agent freed me."
"Yes. Why? Didn't you know? I do not understand."
"Get him on the line," the Dark Lord hissed viciously.
"I fear that is impossible right now. He is just trying to bring us into orbit."
Anakin stared at the comm as if it had personally insulted him:
"What? You mean he is actually flying the Executor?"
"Yes, sir. Is there a problem?"
"There will be once he shows his face down here."
"Sir, we have brought someone with us."
"Who is it?"
Piett woke up to the steady sound of a breathing apparatus pumping oxygen into his weakened system and the annoying beeping of a control unit monitoring his heart-beat. He had hung on for dear life throughout the entire voyage, fully expecting not to survive. Now though he was glad he had.
"Congratulations to your appointment to Admiral, Piett," an unfamiliar voice said softly and he turned his head slowly to face the tall human looking down at him out of calm blue eyes. Piett frowned, searching his memory for the stranger's scarred face futilely.
"Do I know you?" he whispered and the other man laughed quietly.
"You should. Captain Needa is recovering too. I fear that I will have to thank Jix after all."
Suddenly realization dawned on Piett: "Lord Vader?"
The man smiled at him: "It took you some time. But it is good to see you again. I had expected you to act as you did, faced with Needa's execution. Unfortunately my agent decided to take matters into his own hands, against my orders. Although he assures me that he was not responsible."
"What are you going to do with him?"
The Dark Lord took a seat on the edge of Piett's bed and continued to smile.
"Actually I am unsure whether I should be mad at him because he defied my orders or because he dared to fly my ship in here."
"I see. So?"
"Nothing drastic. I still have some use for his services."
This time Piett did laugh, although it hurt. Suddenly though he sombered again.
"Lord Vader, there is something you need to know. It concerns your wife-"
"Yes. I know. Captain Needa has informed me of their encounter on Chandrila. He sacrificed his mission to let her escape on Tatooine. I am very grateful for that."
"Do you know where she is now?"
"You should rest now, Piett. The Alliance will need your expertise soon enough."
Swallowing the comment he had been about to utter, Piett fixed the Dark Lord with a curious stare. The Alliance needed him? Interesting. Apparently Lord Vader had never had had any doubt about Piett's loyalty, especially when faced with the impending execution of his long-time friend Lorth Needa. Was that the only reason for Needa's capture? Well. In hindsight it did seem obvious. Shaking his head slowly Piett smiled at the Sith.
"You know, Lord Vader, the Alliance is indeed lucky to have you on their side."
The tall man gave him a quick smile:
"Then they should make the most of it, because it won't last much longer."
"What do you mean?"
"I am leaving very soon. And that is why I need you here."
"An honor, Lord Vader."
The Dark Lord did not answer, but his smile did not fade either. Giving the Admiral a short nod he whirled around to leave and once again Tomas Piett had the feeling that he had just missed something. A master of manipulation, Thrawn had called his opponent not so long ago. And how very true those words were proving to be. But what would happen when he left? Who would take over? Not himself, that Piett was sure of. His son? Possibly. Well, whoever did get his post surely would be hard pressed to get even remotely close to the Dark Lord's skills.
Luke had joined his sister in her quarters immediately after he had welcomed Jix back and heard what had happened after the agent's report to his father. He had found Nuron huddling next to the Princess, sobbing quietly, and the sight had nearly broken his heart. Apparently his father had demanded another explanation of her and he had not liked what she had told him. Nuron had barely recovered from the punishment the Dark Lord had delivered to her previously, but Luke had the feeling that this time it had been even worse. All three looked up when the door slid open suddenly, revealing Anakin Skywalker's imposing form. His face did not reveal any emotion, but his silence spoke volumes. Nuron returned his gaze defiantly, but when he came forward briskly she flinched back, only to rally herself again with an angry growl.
"We need to talk," Anakin said sharply and dropped into one of the soft chairs opposite from the bed.
"Your turn," Leia prompted quietly and he nodded.
"Yes. My turn indeed. Well, you both know that your mother is alive. Nuron has just told me that she is currently on Korriban."
"Korriban?" Luke asked, confused.
"A secluded planet and home to the Brotherhood of the Sith. Her presence there concerns me and I know that I will have to act soon. Especially with Thrawn breathing down our necks."
"The Noghri?" Luke again.
"Yes. I will not allow him to use them in that manner."
"What is your plan?"
"Very simple. Leia will take over for me, with Needa and Piett to help her. Together they can defeat the Imperial Navy easily."
"What about yourself?"
"I am going after Thrawn."
Leaning back in his chair, Anakin gave them all a slow, cold smile and Luke realized with dread that the real game had only just begun. And this time it was personal.