Added on April 20, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: R. John Burke

A Lifetime Spent In Darkness

Feedback welcome at: R. John Burke; The Kessel Run.

Description: A second prequel to the Freedom series takes place one year before "You Need Me." It involves young Captain Mykel Garreth, another young captain named Thrawn, and the last days of the Jedi Purge...

NOTICE: Star Wars is a copyright of Lucasfilm, Ltd., and was created by George Lucas. No infringement is intended to his wonderful universe by this not-for-sale fan fiction story.


FOURTEEN YEARS BEFORE STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE

"Captain Garreth? The Emperor will see you now."

In the corridors of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, Mykel Garreth exhaled a long breath, then marched past the Royal Guardsman into the private chamber of His Excellency, Emperor Palpatine. A short human of thirty-seven, with dark eyes and crewcut brown hair, Garreth wore the black dress uniform of a captain in the Imperial Starfleet.

The room was darkened, as always. For some reason the Emperor preferred to sit in darkness. His throne faced away from the door, towards a large hologram of the galaxy on one wall.

"Come in, Captain," said Palpatine's dry, cackling voice. "I just had this installed. What do you think?"

Garreth knelt before the Emperor's throne, his eyes cast towards the hologram. It covered the entire wall, and seemed to delineate every part of the Known Galaxy. Likely sections of it could be enlarged for more detail. Even as it was, Garreth could make out constellations and some star systems. Alderaan, Chandrila, Naboo...

"Very impressive, Your Highness." Garreth kept his lip from twitching as he said the words. He'd resigned himself to his duties in the Imperial fleet - he believed in order - but the casual way in which Senator Palpatine had declared himself Emperor - temporarily, he said, for the duration of the Jedi crisis - still galled him.

"And now I sense you are displeased."

"Not at all, Your Highness," Garreth said, quickly burying any resentment. "Merely confused."

"Ah," said the Emperor, finally turning to face him. He gestured, and Garreth stood. Those yellow eyes peered out from beneath his dark cloak - no doubt about it, the Emperor was definitely looking sickly these days. "Your recent promotion."

"For a start," Garreth said. "I thought it was our understanding that I'd remain a Commander, and on the GUARDIAN, for the present."

"My plans have changed," said Palpatine. "New patterns in the Force have revealed themselves to me. Do you doubt my judgment in this matter, captain?"

"Not at all, Your Highness. But - the other commanders are beginning to talk. I was a Lieutenant Commander a mere three years ago. Some of the admiralty see my rapid rise as - well, favoritism."

The Emperor cackled, long and loud and in a key that sent shivers down Garreth's spine. "But of course it is favoritism, my servant. The corrupt days of the Old Republic and their advancement-through-tenure schemes are done. In my Empire, advancement comes through success. Of all my officers, none has proven so capable of achieving results as you."

Garreth recognized a rare compliment when he heard one, and bowed low. "It is my duty to serve my Emperor, however I can."

"That indeed is the proper attitude, Captain. And now I have a new assignment for you."

Garreth shrugged. "Name it."

"Our patrols in the Unknown Regions have made good progress in bringing those systems under control, but I have heard rumors."

"What sort of rumors?"

The Emperor's eyes seemed to glow. "That one of my captains, a man named Thrawn, may be plotting against me. Thrawn is brilliant, decisive - and entirely too independent. Admiral Banicon believes he may be gathering support in order to stake claim to his own, personal Empire out there."

As opposed to claiming one right here at home? some small part of Garreth's mind thought. "And what am I to do?"

"The Imperial Star Destroyer ADAMANT requires a new commander. You will go there and take command. Your official posting will be under Banicon, of course, but with regard to Thrawn, you will report only to me. Get close to him, Mykel. Learn his secrets. Determine whether he is worthy to have a part in our Empire."

The captain nodded fractionally, all the while wondering why one treasonous officer was so important. If Palpatine had doubts about this Thrawn, why not just kill him? He'd never shown reluctance to terminate disloyal officers before. But Garreth said only, "As you command."

The Emperor touched a switch on his chair arm, and the hologram changed to an oversized holo of a man in an Imperial Navy uniform.

Garreth took an instinctive step backwards. Now he understood why Thrawn was different.

The Emperor cackled, pleased by his servant's discomfort. "Yes, Captain, now you see, don't you? Thrawn's skills are exceptional, which is why I've overlooked his obvious flaws. But such a creature can never be completely trusted."

Garreth found himself drawn to Thrawn's eyes: Glowing, red eyes in the middle of a blue-tinged face. If this Thrawn was an Imperial captain, then he was the only such non-human in the Imperial Fleet.

"Yes, Your Highness," he muttered. "I understand very well..."

It was winter in this part of Coruscant, and the air in the Grand Corridor had taken a definite chill. Garreth pulled his uniform jacket closer as he walked down the corridor.

"Captain," said a voice from the side. Garreth turned to see a man seated in one of the alcoves adjoining the corridor.

When he'd first seen holographs of Bail Organa, when he'd been a junior officer in the Republic Navy, Garreth's first thought had been that if not for Organa's accompanying bodyguards, he'd have taken the man for a street vendor, not a Viceroy. In his younger days, Organa had possessed sharp, hawkish features and beady brown eyes that made him seen almost untrustworthy.

Of course, Bail Organa, like all men, had aged. His dark hair had gone gray, his slightly nasal voice had acquired a richer timbre, and his eyes, though still small, had acquired a new depth. He now looked and sounded very much like a Planetary Viceroy.

Though Garreth had met him a few times at formal affairs, he couldn't imagine what business they might have together. He bowed. "Your Highness."

Organa smiled. "None of that, now. We're all equals here. And friends, too, I should think."

"Friends?"

Organa stood, hissing slightly as he did so. "Think of me as a friend of the family. I'm told your Trina defended my little Leia most diligently during the last State Justice Day dinner. Something about a food-fight at the children's table?"

Garreth snorted. "I'll never understand why our families had to be there in the first place. I hate Public Relations."

Organa gripped Garreth's shoulder and steered him down the Corridor, his eyes flicking back and forth to the ch'hala trees lining the corridor. "Yes, well, they do serve their purpose, I suppose. How is Trina, by the way?"

Garreth frowned at him, uncertain about this whole thing. Organa seemed to have something to say, but he was certainly taking his time leading up to it. And his subtle but definite pressure to leave the corridor was - well, strange. Organa tossed him a look, and something in those brown eyes told Garreth to play along.

With a shrug, the captain said, "Fine. She's in the top three percent of her class in most of her subjects. It's early, of course, but I'd like to see her attend the Academy. I've already made a few inquiries."

"I'm certain they'll admit her," Organa said. "The Imperial Fleet seems to be growing larger by the day."

"Er...yes..."

Then they were out of the corridor, and Bail Organa steered him towards the nearest exit. They found themselves on a landing platform, with the orange rays of Coruscant's evening sun glittering off a sleek, elongated shape of a TX-21 Alderaani Escort.

"That's a beautiful ship," Garreth remarked. "I haven't seen one of those since the Clone Wars."

"My personal ship," Organa said. "My people are peaceful now, of course. This one's been totally disarmed. But I still like the styling. Care to go for a spin?"

Garreth frowned at him. "You're joking."

"I'd very much like to talk to you, Captain."

For reasons he didn't quite understand himself, Garreth backed away. "I really should be getting back to my ship."

"At the very least, let me take you to your shuttle."

"I can walk, thank you. It's a lovely evening."

Bail Organa chuckled. "A 'lovely evening?' On Coruscant? You must be joking. If you want to see a truly lovely evening, Captain, free of smog and noise-- come to Alderaan someday."

"I've been there. Lovely world." Garreth let his eyes bore into Organa's. "Suppose we get to the point, Your Highness."

"Point?"

"What is it you want to say to me?"

Bail Organa gazed out at the sunset, and shivered. "Look at it, Captain. Just one star among billions. Not even part of a major constellation. From space, Coruscant is as insignificant as a pinprick."

"As is Alderaan," Garreth said stiffly. "Or any world."

"But to hear Palpatine talk, you'd think Coruscant was the center of the galaxy." Organa's voice held a slightly wistful, sorrowful note that left a hollow feeling in Garreth's stomach.

He tried to ignore it. "Coruscant is the center of the galaxy."

"But it doesn't have to be." Noting Garreth's distressed look, Bail Organa chuckled and patted his arm. "Oh, it's quite all right. My ship is putting out a surprising amount of ionic interference. You know how it is with older designs."

"Like us?" Garreth put in dryly.

Now it was Organa's turn to crank up the intensity on his stare. "Everything we say is quite off the record, I assure you."

Garreth turned away from the sunset, still feeling the breeze ruffle his hair. It couldn't ruffle very well - not in its current state. In his youth, Garreth had worn a ponytail that went halfway down his back. It was a small point, but Garreth missed that ponytail. "I wouldn't be so sure of that, if I were you."

"The only way anyone will hear about this, Captain, is if you should tell them."

The Imperial officer frowned. "Then I'd say there's an excellent chance someone will hear of this."

Organa still gazed out at the receding sun, the clouds reflecting shades of orange and gold an purple. He said, "You must do what you feel is right. But tell me: Why do you serve the Empire, Captain?"

"I believe in order."

The older man smiled. "Order. There was a time, wasn't there, when you believed in something more?"

"Such as?"

"The principles of the Old Republic?"

"The Republic is dead," Garreth said flatly. "The Empire is carrying on its ideals."

"What ideals? Homes of 'suspected dissidents' broken into in the middle of the night? Men and women held without charges filed, without notification of their families? Aliens and women prevented from sharing in the bounty of this supposed New Order? The right of protest eliminated..."

"Those things are rumors," Garreth said.

"These things are fact," Organa said, his voice husky. "It will only get worse, Captain. Or do you trust in Palpatine's good intentions?"

"I trust in my duty," he said.

"Your duty is to the Republic. This man, this Emperor, seeks to destroy everything it once held dear."

Garreth grabbed hold of the Viceroy's tunic, feeling the soft material between his fingers. He sneered. "Don't presume to tell me my duty. Look at you. Bail Organa, the great Viceroy of Alderaan. How many credits did this suit cost, eh? A hundred thousand? Two hundred? It's very easy to criticize from your comfortable place atop Alderaan's throne. You with your distinguished lineage, your noble rights of succession. You presume to speak about liberty? The Empire has given voice to the masses. Your way of life is dying, sir, before your eyes, and I don't blame you for being scared. People are always frightened during times of change - especially when it means that a few credits will be flowing out of their pockets. But I am a loyal officer. You cannot frighten me."

Organa laughed. "Is that what you think I'm trying to do?"

"I'd be very interested to know what you think you're doing, sir. Aren't you a little old to be preaching rebellion?"

"You misunderstand me, Captain," Organa said. "My people are pacifists."

"Yes, you were very pacifistic during the Wars, weren't you?"

Bail Organa glowered down at him, real anger beginning to show through his noble mask. "What I saw during the Clone Wars made me a pacifist."

Garreth sighed and took a step back. "You're right. That was out of line. Pardon me. But I don't understand what you're saying, Your Highness."

"I'm saying that a time is approaching - perhaps not today, but soon, when you will have to decide what you stand for, Captain. The Empire is founded on darkness. I think you know that as well as I. You have only to look at the Jedi to understand that. They stood for the Light, they dedicated their lives for it, and for that they had to die."

"The Jedi were a bunch of vigilantes," Garreth said. "Their Council was nothing more than a group of doddering old fools deciding the fate of the universe from on high, much like yourself. Good day, sir."

He turned to leave, and Organa caught his arm. "I've heard good things about you, Captain. I've watched you. You cannot shut your eyes to the light, no matter how hard you try. If you continue to attempt to please your sense of duty and your conscience both, you'll break in two."

"Then I'll break," Garreth said quietly, "as an officer. And what about you, Your Highness? Your lovely, peaceful world? If it comes to that, will Alderaan fight for these ideals you love so well? Will you let your daughter fight?"

The lines around Bail Organa's eyes tightened, and he seemed to be looking at something very far away. Almost under his breath, he muttered, "Alderaan will continue to fight for the Republic peacefully, on the Senate floor. But... in my heart, I know that fight to be futile."

Garreth opened his mouth to reply, but nothing would come out. So after a moment, he just walked away.

"Captain, sir? We're about to come out of lightspeed."

Garreth muttered an affirmative response, then climbed into the copilot's seat. He looked out the window, waiting for the first glimpse of his new command, but soon had to turn away. Hyperspace made him nauseous.

His pilot, a stocky, dark-skinned man with a trimmed mustache, said, "Something wrong, sir?"

Garreth forced himself to look back out the viewport. Wouldn't do to appear weak on his first day. "Nothing, Lieutenant..."

"Reidy, sir. Zander Reidy."

"Well, Zander Reidy, what brings you to the Unknown Regions?"

Reidy shrugged. "I'm a pilot, sir. I go where they send me. I've been on this route for months - some time out here, some time on Coruscant. You know how it is."

"And will you be returning to Coruscant after dropping me off?"

"No, sir," said the younger man. "I'm to remain with the Fleet, as pilot of your shuttle." Reidy's brown eyes were earnest. "I hope that's acceptable, sir."

Garreth chuckled. "Oh, quite all right, I assure you. Mere curiosity."

"I'm told..." Reidy hesitated, "that I'm to obey your orders, no matter what the circumstances. Apparently, your safety is my responsibility."

Garreth shrugged. He hadn't requested a bodyguard, but then the Emperor hadn't asked him - and Reidy didn't appear much like the standard Imperial watchdog. "Well, then, it should be an interesting trip."

"Have you ever met Admiral Banicon, sir?"

The captain shook his head.

"'Interesting' doesn't begin to describe it," said Reidy, and he turned back to his controls.

Before Garreth could inquire about that, Reidy adjusted a lever, and the starlines condensed back into pinpricks of stars. Arrayed before their viewport were a dozen distant dagger-shapes, surrounded by flickering lights of support craft. The Eighth Fleet, assigned to the task of guarding and taming the Unknown Regions for the Galactic Empire.

As they soared closer, the dagger-shapes became visible in detail, and Garreth picked out nine VICTORY-class Star Destroyers, the backbone of the Imperial fleet, with the watch-towers growing from their flattened, triangular hulls. For a moment, Garreth was reminded of the GUARDIAN, and home.

Then their shuttle flew past the smaller ships, and as they parted before him Garreth got his first good look at the behemoths of the Imperial Fleet, three IMPERIAL-class Star Destroyers.

Painted sterile white, with their engines giving off a cold, blue glow, the Star Destroyers hardly looked inviting, but to Mykel Garreth they seemed the most beautiful thing in the world. They were twice as long as the VSD's, sharper, sleeker, with engines that could outrun the most reckless smuggler ship. If the VSD's were the backbone of the Fleet, the ISD's were its spirit. The embodiment of the New Order.

"Take us in," he breathed, and Reidy complied.

Garreth's eyes didn't leave the Star Destroyers during their approach, but their field of vision narrowed as one of the ships grew to fill the screen. The homogenous white hull was revealed to be pitted and uneven, with bumps and outcroppings of sensor ports, shield generators, and coolant lines. Somehow it reminded the captain of an arid, desert landscape.

As they closed in on the ship's ventral docking bay, Garreth noticed the lettering passing by overhead: I.S.S. HYPERION.

Garreth glanced at his pilot. "Aren't we heading for the ADAMANT?"

Reidy shook his head. "Admiral Banicon wanted to meet you as soon as you arrived."

"Do I take it from your tone that I don't necessarily want to meet him?"

Reidy looked away, unsuccessfully suppressing a snort.

"You know, for a supposedly nervous young lieutenant, you seem very well-informed."

Their shuttle fluttered up, into the HYPERION's docking bay.

The ramp slid open, and Garreth found himself in the middle of dual rows of stormtroopers, their polished white armor gleaming in the shipboard light.

He stepped down, with Reidy just behind him. "I've given a lot of these VIP greetings - don't recall ever getting one before."

Reidy shrugged. "You're the Emperor's envoy, sir. The admiral knows that. He'll go out of his way to show respect to your face, but... watch your back."

"I thought that was your job."

Almost on cue, a tall man with a neat fringe of white beard appeared at the other end of the row of stormtroopers. With a pair of them flanking him, he made his way down the aisle.

He arched a bushy eyebrow. "Welcome, Captain Garreth."

Garreth saluted. "Sir. This is certainly an unexpected welcome."

"The Emperor speaks highly of you," said Admiral Banicon in a rich, commanding voice. His accent marked him as being from one of the Inner Systems, though probably not Coruscant. The look in his clear, blue eyes said he wasn't sure whether the Emperor's recommendation was a good thing or not.

Garreth decided to let it drop, and gestured behind him. "My...er, my aide, Lieutenant Reidy."

Banicon's eyes swept past Reidy before returning to Garreth's face. "Lieutenant."

"Sir." Reidy saluted sharply.

"I've heard a great deal about you, Captain. Particularly your swift annihilation of the resistance on Latria..."

The captain choked slightly, and managed to turn it a choke. "That was an unfortunate incident, sir. I prefer to exhaust my other options before resorting to bloodshed."

Banicon made a small "hmmph" sound that Garreth couldn't interpret. "Then you'll feel out of place here. Most of my commanders believe there's no way to bring these primitive aliens into line, other than through force."

"Is that what you believe, sir?"

The admiral half-smiled as they walked back down the line. "A debate for another time. For now, I hope you'll join me for the noon meal - after that, I'll release you to your ship, where you may take command and get some rest. There's a staff meeting at 2100 hours. I'll expect you to attend."

"Yes, sir." As Banicon walked slightly ahead of them, Garreth muttered, "He doesn't seem so bad."

Reidy bit his lip, but made no reply.

Garreth frowned at the woman with the curly, sandy-brown hair. "And how are you doing?"

She shrugged, her green eyes piercing his even through the grainy connection. "All right. The committee is meeting tomorrow. We're voting on Palpatine's 'request' to have the statues of the Jedi Masters removed from Monument Square." She paused, then said dryly, "There seems to be little doubt about the outcome."

"Well, why would you oppose it? The Jedi are enemies of the State, rightly or wrongly. It would be foolishness to have statues casting them as heroes in the middle of--"

The woman held up both hands. "Mykel - Mykel, not now."

He sighed. "I'm sorry. You're right, it's not the time. Give the children my love."

"Of course."

"And," he added slowly, "take care of yourself."

"You, too."

The comm blinked off, and Garreth sank forward with head in hands. That was about as warm as it got between his wife and himself these days - "Take care of yourself." Sometimes Garreth wondered what the galaxy expected of him.

"Captain, sir," said a quiet voice in the doorway, "it's 2000 hours."

He rose immediately, a bit embarrassed to have been caught with his defenses down. He slid his dress tunic on, trying not to hurry. "How much of that did you hear, Lieutenant?"

"Oh, almost none at--" Zander Reidy broke off as Garreth glared at him. "All of it."

Garreth snorted. Naturally. "I hope you understand that my personal affairs are not to be bandied about as shipboard gossip."

Reidy snapped to attention. "Of course not, sir."

Garreth checked the mirror, tugged at his collar, and with poise restored, turned towards the door. "Excellent. Then let's..."

"May I ask a question, sir?"

He suppressed a sigh. "What?"

"What's your wife's name?"

Garreth made a show of straightening his belt, though he knew perfectly well it was straight already. "Miranda."

"Nice name."

The captain suppressed a grimace. "I always thought so. Shall we go?"

Reidy looked like he wanted to say something more, but as Garreth was already past him - and there was probably no tactful way to make his comment anyway - he wisely let it drop.

His first glimpse of Thrawn was at the far end of a conference table. The alien sat there, his red eyes flicking back and forth across the ten other officers arrayed around the table. His expression revealed nothing of what he thought of them.

They, on the other hand, seemed to have made no secret of what they thought of him. A chair had been left open for Garreth near the head of the table. All the other chairs in the room were filled - except for the seats on either side of Thrawn. Like an invisible barrier, they separated the alien captain from the rest of the room.

"Captain Garreth," said Banicon, "Please sit down."

"I apologize if I'm late, sir. My chronometer reads only 2045."

"Yes," Banicon said with a touch of humor. "Apparently, the staff was only too eager to meet this week."

Translation, Garreth thought: They all got here early so they could talk about me. Very well, if that's the way they want it...

Garreth moved past the chair they'd left for him, past the line of officers - two of the captains, Garreth noted, were female. The Unknown Regions seemed to be Palpatine's personal storehouse for "non-standard" officers. Hoping the alien wasn't keeping his distance because of some cultural moray that required a territorial deathmatch with anyone who approached within a meter, he sat in the chair to Thrawn's right.

His instincts proved correct, as Thrawn glanced at him with equal parts puzzlement and surprise - but no anger.

"Wouldn't you," Banicon cleared his throat, "wouldn't you be more comfortable up here, in the middle of the group, Captain?"

He shrugged. "I'm fine, thank you."

The admiral watched him for a moment, then turned away. "Very well. Captain Mykel Garreth, may I present Captain Lenar Hennig of the Imperial Star Destroyer ALLEGIANT."

"Your sister ship," said Hennig, a thin man with a prominent nose and odd, darting eyes.

"Captain Hennig is the Fleet XO. When I am unavailable, you will report to him."

"Understood," said Garreth.

"And then, of course, we have the commanders of our VICTORY-class Star Destroyers..." Banicon proceeded to rattle off a list of names and ships. Although Garreth possessed an excellent memory, eight new captains at once was a bit much. He did manage to remember that the female captains were Connover and Taimsen, and that one one of the males was named Sandspinner, an unusual name which marked him as being from Tatooine, if Garreth wasn't mistaken.

Finally, Banicon reached the end of the list, and nodded with some reluctance towards the ninth VSD captain. "And here we have..."

"I am called Thrawn," said the alien in a quiet, strangely-accented voice, "but you knew that already."

"Yes," Garreth said. "My briefing mentioned something about a non-human captain."

"I'm sure you are very curious to learn how such a thing came about."

He shrugged. "I wouldn't say very curious..."

"If we may return to the subject," Hennig said, "I believe the Admiral was about to speak."

Banicon stood. "Yes. Now, then, I have received new orders from the Emperor. It seems he has felt what he terms - a disturbance in the Force." Most of the captains present chuckled or laughed outright, but Garreth continued to watch his new commander intently. Thrawn's expression didn't shift either.

After a moment, Banicon waved for silence. "I know it sounds preposterous. However, the Emperor does seem to have a special... insight in these matters. In any case, doubting his vision is an excellent way to obtain, shall we say, early retirement?"

That quieted everyone down. Banicon nodded, then continued, "Now, the source of this disturbance appears to be somewhere in the Catalano Cluster, and we will be patrolling that area until further notice."

"Excuse me?" Garreth said, "what sort of disturbance are we looking for?"

The others around the table smiled in mild amusement. "Did I miss something?"

Finally, Connover put him out of his misery. "The Emperor's had us on alert on-and-off for weeks now. Every time he gets a funny feeling. Apparently, Lord Vader is too valuable to send all the way out here."

"You've lost me again, I'm afraid," he said. "Send out here - for what?"

"We're hunting a Jedi, Captain," said Banicon.

Garreth snorted. "That's absurd. You don't expect me to believe that the Emperor regularly diverts an entire fleet - twelve Star Destroyer - to hunt for one Jedi? A vibroblade in a haystack? It doesn't make sense."

"Perhaps you'd like to tell him that," Hennig muttered, "since you two seem to be so close."

"I believe I will tell him that," Garreth said with complete honesty. He met Hennig's eyes, and eventually that wild gaze darted away.

"In any case, there's no use arguing about it," Banicon said. "It only lasts a few days, at the end of which time the Emperor's insights go back to whatever hole they crawled out of, and we can get back to business."

Garreth still didn't like it, but he was willing to leave it there for the moment. Until Thrawn said quietly, "It is a mistake."

The entire table turned as one to regard this freak of nature who had dared to question the Emperor's plan.

"You wish to add something, Captain?" Banicon said quietly.

Thrawn, for a wonder, ignored him, focusing instead on Garreth. "When you speak to His Majesty, please inform him that the pirates we encountered in the Mragi and Os Tanan systems will strike again the moment we leave our scheduled patrol."

"That's impossible!" said one of the other captains, a caramel-skinned man whose name Garreth didn't recall. "They can't know we're planning a detour, and unless they knew that there'd be no time--"

Thrawn skewered him with a look. "I have studied these pirates, Captain Deiok. They are remarkably perceptive. The moment we break with our schedule, they will be moving. They will hit two, perhaps three star systems before we can chase them off again." Thrawn leaned forward, his eyes sweeping the table. "The Jedi can wait. These pirates are the immediate threat. Order in these outlying systems is not so well-established that we can afford to appear vulnerable. If we allow their raids to continue, we will only be forced to expend more energy later on repairing the damage done to our image."

Captain Sandspinner, a short man with a gaunt, weathered face, said, "Our image? Does anyone here particularly care what these - aliens - think of us?"

"If you do not, you're a fool," Thrawn said bluntly. "Neither the Mragis nor the Tanans have shown any particular love for the Empire. A second attack, under the nose of their Imperial 'protectors,' might cause them to turn their not-inconsiderable production power towards building weapons to use against us."

"Then we'll crush them," Sandspinner said.

"Yes. We'll crush them. Losing their invaluable resources in the process, but even that is beside the point. We can crush the Mragis and the Tanans. But what of the Artellans? The Vysh? In point of fact, I can name at least eight other star systems in this sector close to the edge of rebellion. One more pirate attack against any one of them could cause them all to unite against us." He turned those glowing red eyes on the Tatooinian, who seemed to somehow become smaller. "Can we crush ten star systems with impunity, Captain?"

The briefing room was silent as a crypt for a long moment. Finally, Banicon stirred. "Captain Thrawn's point is well-taken. Unfortunately, the Emperor's orders are also well-taken. If Captain Garreth or anyone else wishes to advise the Emperor to leave the strategy in this sector to us, you may do so..." he coughed, his tone deadpan, "at your own risk. Now, then..."

The admiral continued, handing out assignments and dealing with minutiae. Garreth caught Thrawn's eyes for a moment and saw that this was a familiar pattern. Clearly the other captains didn't much care what the alien thought.

But the hell of it is, Garreth realized, he's right...

Not wishing to push too hard with Thrawn, or to contact the Emperor until he had something to report on that front, Garreth kept to himself for the next few days, going over his new ship and making a few changes to suit his preferences.

Three days after his arrival and six hours before they were due to reach the Catalano Cluster, Garreth managed to dig up a power-consumption report concerning Thrawn's ship, the PALADIN. He brought the report to Hennig's attention, and Hennig in turn told him to discuss it with Thrawn himself. Garreth had counted on the Fleet XO not wishing to bother with Thrawn personally, and his insight had served him well.

So it was that Garreth found himself navigating the corridors of the PALADIN (a layout which he knew by heart, for it was the same ship-class as his previous command). Reidy had wanted to accompany him, but Garreth had asked the younger man to remain on the shuttle. After only a few moments, he located the captain's office, and was told that Thrawn was in. Thrawn's aide, a young woman who looked Corellian, gestured him into the office.

Garreth had to admit being surprised by Thrawn's office. Even darkened as it was, he could make out probably a dozen works of art - mostly paintings on the worlds, but also a sculpture or two. A few of them he recognized - art from Alderaan, Chandrila, and Coruscant. The others were plainly alien - even more alien than Thrawn. It was a wild hunch, but Garreth imagined he'd picked those up out here in the Unknown Regions.

Thrawn sat not at his desk, but at a console near the wall, facing some sort of holo-display where a hundred colored shapes shifted around in random patterns. Another seat sat empty on the other side of the console. It seemed to Garreth a very lonely way to spend one's time.

Am I any better? Garreth wondered. When was the last time I was home for more than a brief stopover? We're all lonely out here.

"Captain Thrawn," he said.

"Yes, Captain, come in. I have been expecting you."

He arched an eyebrow. "You have?"

Thrawn flicked the display off, then looked at him. "Mykel Garreth, formerly first officer and later captain of the VICTORY-class Star Destroyer GUARDIAN. Architect of the Latrian Massacre, or at least that is what the Empire believes. Recently promoted by order of the Emperor himself, and now, if I am not mistaken, here to determine my fate."

Garreth offered him the datapad he'd brought. "Actually, I wanted to discuss your Fuel Status for the month..."

Thrawn chuckled softly. "Very good, Captain. Let us play the game for awhile longer."

Perhaps it's some kind of alien thing, Garreth thought. Maybe he just doesn't converse the way we do. But somehow he doubted that. Thrawn knew exactly why Garreth was here.

And given that he knew, there was really only one way to regain the upper hand. He sat across from Thrawn at the console. "I don't think that will be necessary. It's very simple, Thrawn. The Emperor doesn't trust you."

Thrawn's red eyes glowed brighter. "Why should he be any different from his officers?"

"You were right the other day. About the pirates."

"Indeed," Thrawn said, settling back in his chair with fingers steepled together. "Have they attacked yet?"

Garreth snorted. "Would I be here, wasting time, if they had?"

"No, I expect not. They will attack within the next hour, possibly two hours. No later than that."

The human captain leaned forward. "You know them that well?"

"I understand them."

He frowned. "How?"

Thrawn smiled slightly, then turned the holo-imager back on. "Another time, perhaps."

"No, please. Tell me."

The alien looked at him for a long moment. "I will make you this bargain." He waved at the holo-imager, which was back to displaying the shifting colors and shapes. "Defeat me, and I will tell you how I know."

Garreth chuckled. "I don't even know the rules."

"It is a game favored by my people. I will show you how to play."

He shrugged. The Emperor had said to get close to Thrawn, after all. He allowed Thrawn to set up the game, and the alien spent several minutes explaining the concepts to him.

It was a strategy game. Different shapes and colors had different abilities, like holo-chess, only a thousand times more complex. Garreth couldn't help but realize that the positioning and attack strategies used were quite similar to those used in battle. Since Garreth had finished at the top of his tactical classes in the Academy, he assumed it wouldn't be too difficult.

Thrawn beat him inside of five minutes.

He leaned back, wiping a slight film of sweat from his forehead. "Impressive."

The alien captain narrowed his eyes. "Likewise."

"Are you joking? I was slaughtered!"

Thrawn shrugged. "Captain, my people have played this game for generations. Some have studied for a hundred years without fully comprehending it's intricacies. Before I was... before I left my world, I was considered a High Master at it, and even I am still learning. I have never seen a novice last so long on his first attempt."

Garreth arched an eyebrow at him. "You never intended to tell me anything."

"Come now, Captain. You cannot expect me to give away all my secrets."

Garreth held his eyes for a moment, then turned back to the game. "Let me try this again..."

He lasted fifteen minutes in their second game, and nearly forty minutes in their third. Once he got the hang of the abilities of the various pieces, he found it to be great fun. Like the intricacies of battle, but without the terror.

After the third game, Thrawn looked up, impressed. "Only one man in the history of my world has made such rapid progress."

"Who would that be?"

The alien smiled. "Do you really have to ask?"

"I suppose not. I--"

Garreth was interrupted as the door snapped open. Thrawn's Corellian aide stood there. "Sirs, we have a fleet-wide alert developing. That pirate fleet has hit Os Tanan and Vyyshi."

"I'd better get back to my ship." Garreth stood halfway on reflex alone. He frowned at Thrawn. "How...?"

"Come back when this is over, Captain," said Thrawn. "We will play again, and I will satisfy your curiosity. You are dismissed, Lieutenant, thank you."

Garreth's eyes remained locked with Thrawn's even after the aide had gone. "If you can truly do that - predict your enemies' movements with that degree of accuracy - you really could start your own Empire out here."

Thrawn's eyes glowed, and he looked away. "Never question my loyalty, Captain."

And that was where they left it.

"You were gone a long time," said Reidy, when Garreth returned to the shuttle.

"Yes. Merely a few details to go over."

Reidy looked him over for a moment, in-between running the preflight check. "I've heard Captain Thrawn is somewhat unique."

"He's a puzzle, all right," Garreth muttered, strapping himself in.

"Did you solve the puzzle?"

The captain frowned at his aide. "I haven't even found all the pieces yet."

"Sir, we are three days out from Vyyshi, three and a half from Os Tanan. We cannot catch the pirates..."

Garreth regarded Commander Dorian Kile, a thin, blond man a few years older than himself. "No, we cannot, Commander. But if we redline it - and I mean push the reactor beyond its limit - we can reach Artellia."

"What does Artellia have to do with anything?" Kile asked.

"They're on the list," Garreth muttered, remembering Thrawn's answer when, during their game, he had asked just which ten planets Thrawn thought were near revolt, "and next in line."

"Sir, Artellia is rather primitive. It's not the best target for pirates..."

Garreth nodded. "But it hardly matters. They've given us a bloody nose, Commander, they're not going to stop now. Get me Thrawn."

"Excuse me?"

Exasperated, Garreth shoved past his first officer, addressing the young woman in the nav/comm crewpit. "Get me the PALADIN on holo."

"Yes, sir."

A moment later, he was once again regarding that bluish face. "Thrawn. I had a thought on the way over here..."

"Artellia," the alien said immediately.

"Yes," he agreed. "I'll speak to Banicon."

"You may wish to take credit for this particular stroke of inspiration, Captain," Thrawn said dryly.

"Understood. Get set for the jump to lightspeed."

The alien blinked. "I doubt Admiral Banicon will assign my ship to accompany you. We're usually assigned to rear-guard duty."

"And I wouldn't dream of changing your assignment without the admiral's input," Garreth said, "but while I seek his considered opinion... set for the jump to lightspeed."

Thrawn nodded, and cut off the signal.

He turned to the comm again, but the young woman there was already working. "Admiral Banicon is on-line, sir."

The hologram shifted to a picture of a tall man with a trimmed white beard. "Garreth, what do you think you're doing, breaking formation?"

"The pirates will hit Artellia next, sir. I'd like permission to take the ADAMANT and PALADIN there to check it out."

The admiral looked chagrined. "Is that what you were plotting this evening with Thrawn?"

"Sir, this has nothing to do with Captain Thrawn. It involves my own insight, and I'll take full responsibility."

Banicon nodded. "Well, if it has nothing to do with Thrawn, then you won't mind if I assign Captain Hennig and the ALLEGIANT to..."

"With respect, sir, this is my show. I'd like to run it my way."

The older man stared at him for a moment. They both knew what was really going on here, and any other captain would not have gotten away with it. But Garreth did have that nebulous connection to the Emperor...

Banicon sighed. "Be back within the week."

"Yes, sir. ADAMANT, out." He turned to Commander Kile, and nodded. "Commander, is my vessel ready?"

"Sir, the ADAMANT is fully at your command."

He grinned. "Then let's go hunting."

They didn't quite beat the pirates to Artellia. That world was already being pounded by the pirate fleet when Garreth arrived. The attacking fleet ranged from banged-up Z-95 Headhunters and Uglies all the way up to the pirate mothership, an old Bulwark Battlecruiser. Upon seeing the pair of Destroyers, the fighters went into a frenzy, scurrying off for their mothership. The Bulwark itself lurched away from the greenish orb of the planet, its exhaust glowing bright orange as it revved up to full speed.

Got you, Garreth thought. He turned to Kile. "Status of the planet, Commander?"

"Distress calls on all frequencies - reading heavy burn damage down there. They've been pretty well pillaged, sir."

He grunted. "Well, at least we got here in time to prevent this from happening again." He signaled the woman at Nav/Comm, and spoke without waiting for a reply. "Thrawn, they've already hit the planet, but we've got them cold. It'll take that Bulwark at least three minutes to get its ancient hyperdrive working, and they don't have that long."

"Agreed," said Thrawn. "I shall wait at 133 mark 209."

"Understood," said Garreth. Since a VICTORY's sublight drives were too slow to catch any but the most sluggish of ships, the logical strategy was clear: Garreth's IMPERIAL-class Destroyer would go after the pirates, cutting off their escape angles, and herding them towards Thrawn and the PALADIN, who would cut them apart.

Simple, but effective.

"Close on the Bulwark," he ordered, returning to his command chair. "Release the TIE fighters. Open fire, all forward turbolasers."

"Aye, sir. Firing."

Space on the viewscreen lit up with green laser bursts as ADAMANT closed on her prey. A moment later, white-painted shapes of TIE fighters appeared, dodging the laser blasts and slashing through the pirate fighters. Multiple puffs of explosions brightened the screen.

"The Bulwark is making for the outer system," Kile said. "Heading 0-9-1 mark 1-7-5."

"Cut them off," Garreth said briskly. "Direct them towards the PALADIN."

"Yes, sir," said the helm.

Garreth watched as his ship circled around the bulky, humpbacked form of the Bulwark. It rather resembled a giant crustacean out there, with its hard shell, painted blue and red, the only defense against the ADAMANT's turbolasers.

Garreth intended to crack that shell. He didn't particularly enjoy that thought, but he would not abide piracy, either.

One of their TIE fighters soared close to the command tower with a Headhunter on its tail. While the TIE pulled up, its wingman came in from the side, firing multiple bursts. The Headhunter detonated, and the incoming TIE climbed steeply, missing the tower's shields by such a narrow margin that Garreth could have sworn he say sparks fly between them.

"That was too close," Kile muttered.

"Status of the fighters?" he asked.

"Fourteen enemy fighters destroyed, sir," said one young officer. "Our TIEs are making short work of the remaining ones, but most have either fled to their mothership or been destroyed."

"The Bulwark is still withdrawing, on a direct heading for the PALADIN." said someone else.

"Outstanding. Just keep him pointed at Thrawn, and we'll..."

Suddenly, the Bulwark cruiser's nose jerked to the side, coming around on a new course.

"Cut him off..." Garreth started to say, but he never finished the sentence.

The Bulwark flickered with pseudomotion, and jumped to lightspeed.

"That's impossible," Garreth muttered. "Bulwark battlecruisers just can't got to lightspeed that fast. They've too much mass."

"We've lost them, sir," said Kile, avoiding his captain's eyes.

"The scopes are clear," reported the young officer from before. "All enemy fighters escaped or destroyed. Total number of kills: Sixteen."

"They can't have jumped that quickly, unless they were..."

The woman at nav/comm said, "Sir, Captain Thrawn is signaling."

"Put him on."

The holo-projector flickered to life, and Garreth saw his own suspicions mirrored on Thrawn's blue-tinged face. "I trust you understand what happened here, Captain?"

Garreth stood up, his expression set in stone. "We were expected."

"What have you to report, my servant?"

Several hours later, the cleanup on Artellia proceeded as well as could be expected. Garreth knelt before an oversized hologram of the Emperor in his private chambers. "We're almost done here. I believe we've quelled the people's fears for the time being. I don't anticipate any major unrest."

The Emperor's yellow eyes narrowed. "Yes, so I understand. You disobeyed my order, Captain."

Garreth held those eyes. He knew captains in the Fleet who were terrified of the Emperor, but he personally was not. He had his doubts about superstition and sorcery, and he suspected that Palpatine - once a master politician - had manufactured half the horror stories that circulated throughout the Fleet to inspire obedience.

Garreth refused to frighten that easily.

"Your Highness," he said, "I acted in what I believed were the best interests of your Empire. If you wish to punish me for that, you have that right."

The Emperor laughed. "And that, Captain, is why I enjoy our conversations. I have enough sycophants and parasites."

Garreth arched an eyebrow. "Thank you - I think."

"And what of Thrawn?"

The captain bit his lip. "I'm not sure yet. It's true that he's independent - but as you said yourself, that can be an attribute. I've seen no direct evidence that he's disloyal."

Again, the lines around the Emperor's eyes crinkled. "Oh, but I think you have. It is my understanding that the pirates you sought to capture were forewarned of your arrival."

Garreth cleared his throat. "That is true, Your Highness. But I would point out that it was Thrawn who led me to Artellia in the first place."

"I see. How much longer do you think you will need to evaluate this man?"

"I'm really not sure."

Palpatine watched him for a long moment, something dark sparkling behind those yellow eyes. Then he said, "No matter. For the time being, I am pleased that you should remain with the Eighth Fleet. But Captain: I do expect results."

Garreth nodded. "Of course, Your Highness."

"There is one other matter. I have felt a Jedi in the vicinity of the Catalano Cluster."

"Yes, I know."

"I would be most grateful," the Emperor said lazily, "if you would see to it that he never leaves the Cluster... alive."

Garreth took a deep breath, let it out. "Understood."

"So let's get down to business," Garreth said, after nearly two hours worth of strategizing had resulted in a narrow victory for Thrawn. "Why do you suppose the pirates knew about us?"

The alien captain glanced around his quarters, then turned off the holo-projector. "I am not certain."

"You seemed to have a very good handle on them earlier."

Thrawn narrowed his eyes at Garreth. "If you think I have betrayed the Empire, why don't you merely turn me over to your master?"

"I'm not that certain," Garreth bit out.

Thrawn settled back in his chair. "An interesting dilemma."

"So what's the excuse, Thrawn? Why can't you predict their actions anymore?"

"It is not as simple as that," the alien snapped. "I told you. I will explain when you have beaten me."

Garreth's fist came down on the tabletop. "We're not playing games anymore. I've stuck my neck out for you about as far as it'll go. Now talk."

Thrawn shrugged, then gestured around the room, at the artwork on the walls. "That is my secret."

"Good taste in art?" Garreth snorted. "I don't see the connection. Moff Dezel has velour paintings of Twi'lek dancers on his wall. Doesn't make him a bad commander."

"Look at that one," Thrawn said, pointing to a pastoral Alderaanian watercolor behind Garreth's head, "and tell me what you see."

Garreth twisted to get a look at the painting. "I see... a village at the base of a mountain. Idyllic setting. So what?"

"Look deeper, Captain. What do you see ? About the artist?"

The captain sighed, and tried again. "Well, he makes good use of highlights. He's captured a bit of Alderaanian folklore there. It's a very nostalgic work - rather tugs at the heartstrings, doesn't it?"

"Yes," Thrawn said quietly. "Now, go deeper. What does it tell you about his mind?"

Garreth turned around again to face Thrawn. "I have no idea."

Thrawn steepled his fingers before himself, as he was accustomed to doing when deep in thought. His mellifluous, accented tones said, "This man was a typical Alderaanian. Idealistic, peaceful. Stronger, I think, than he knew. I tell you this: The Alderaanians will be a thorn in the Empire's side for some time. They will do everything they can to fight the New Order peacefully, but eventually it will come to a head. At that point, there will be two possibilities: They may decide that they cannot abide war, and submit peacefully. Or..." he voice trailed off.

Garreth's mind flashed on his brief conversation with Bail Organa. "Or what?"

Thrawn shrugged. "Or we will be forced to destroy them. As enemies, they would be far too dangerous. It will be some time yet, but I think the latter possibility is most likely."

As the import of Thrawn's words sunk in, Garreth glanced back at the painting. "You got all that... from..."

"Learn about art, Captain. It is a window into the soul of its creator."

Garreth's gaze turned to the other paintings around the room. He picked out the ones from before - paintings from Coruscant, a sculpture from Chandrila, and the others from the Unknown Regions. And he realized something. "Banicon's from Chandrila, isn't he?"

Thrawn nodded fractionally.

"What does your insight tell you about him?"

Thrawn pointed past the Chandrilan sculpture, towards a new painting that had appeared on the wall - a hologram, most likely, since it hadn't been there a few days ago. He'd missed it in his sweep of the room. "Wouldn't you rather hear about that piece of art?"

Garreth's eyes widened. "I own that painting!"

"Indeed. 'Firestorm Over Sable Cliffs,' by DasCont. A most unusual choice."

"You don't believe you can psychoanalyze me from a painting?"

Thrawn shrugged. "I have already done so."

"And?"

Thrawn's glowing eyes were like fire in the darkness. "I would not wish to oppose you."

"Flattery will get you nowhere."

"I never flatter, Captain," Thrawn said. "You never liked the Empire, but you see no choice other than continued service."

Garreth's lip twitched. "Now who's questioning loyalties?"

"It is a simple fact," Thrawn said quietly, "that a warrior without spirit can be overpowered, and a peaceful idealist can be trampled. But an idealistic warrior... he is the more dangerous than any weapon in the galaxy."

Garreth didn't know quite how to reply to that. Fortunately, his comlink went off while he was deciding. "Yes?"

"Captain, sir," said Reidy's voice, "we're approaching the Fleet. Admiral Banicon wants you in his office, ASAP."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he said, and stood. "Next time, I'm going to beat you, Thrawn."

"The galaxy plays host to limitless possibilities," the alien said.

"Indeed. Perhaps I'll read your mind next time."

Thrawn quirked an eyebrow. "If you believe you can. In fact, I will challenge you."

"More games?"

"A simple game only," Thrawn said. He pointed at one of the alien sculptures, a jagged, crystalline thing, infinitely complex, like a thousand intertwined icicles. "That is my favorite work of art. Understand it, Captain, and you will have all the answers you seek."

Admiral Banicon's piercing blue eyes glanced up from behind the desk. "Come in, Captain."

Garreth stepped into the admiral's office, allowing the door to slide shut behind him. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Yes, I did. I understand it didn't go very well at Artellia?"

He shrugged. "We chased the pirates away, sir. My report will be on file within the hour."

"I'm sure it will be, Captain," said the older man. Banicon looked down, seeming to take no notice at all of the man standing uncomfortably in the middle of his office. Then his head shot up suddenly, as if inspired. "I wonder if they could have been expecting you?"

Garreth coughed. He hadn't particularly wanted to voice that suspicion to Banicon, but it was an easy enough conclusion to draw. "That's a strong possibility, sir."

"No, that is a fact, Captain. It is also a fact that your alien friend seems inordinately close to the pirates."

"That's not true," Garreth said automatically, though he didn't know that for a fact.

"No? Then how did he predict their movements?"

Garreth sighed. "He's good."

Banicon nodded. "I'm planning an inquiry into these events. Unless the traitor is found, I'll be forced to..."

"What?" Garreth demanded. "Blame it on Thrawn? You've not a shred of evidence!"

Banicon rose to his full height, stepping around the desk to glower down at Garreth. "I don't appreciate the tone."

"I don't appreciate the accusation."

"I'm not accusing you of anything," Banicon said. His eyes narrowed. "You don't have any particular fondness for this alien, do you, Captain?"

Garreth met his eyes. "Actually, I do. I find him far more interesting than anyone else I've met out here. I've begun to think of him as a friend."

Banicon snorted. "I'd pick another friend, if I were you, Captain."

"Why? Because he's an alien?"

"No, because he's that alien!" Banicon exploded, his fist slamming into the wall. Garreth jumped back involuntarily. "You think this is about his race? I could give a damn what color his eyes are! But Thrawn is dangerous!"

"To what?" Garreth demanded. "To the Fleet's genetic purity?"

"Don't take that tone with me! I don't deserve it! I am the only flag officer in the Imperial Fleet with two female captains!"

"Because you've been given no choice!" the captain said. "Thrawn's the best captain I've ever seen, yet you give him the worst ship, the worst assignments, you exile him from your midst--"

"Because I don't trust him!" Banicon said, "I can't. He's too smart for his own good. He has no loyalty, no sentiment. You turn your back, he'll put a dagger in it."

Garreth took a step closer. "You informed on him..."

"Yes," Banicon admitted.

"Do you really believe he's a traitor?"

The admiral watched him for a moment, then turned aside. "I believe the Fleet is better off without him."

"You've been sending these reports to the Emperor because of a personal grudge, isn't that so?"

"No!" Banicon shocked Garreth by grabbing him by the shoulders. It seemed to take all the admiral's willpower not to shake the smaller man. "You have no idea what's at stake here! What I'm fighting for! You can't possibly understand this situation after two weeks."

Garreth broke the man's grip and stepped back. "I don't think you understand it, and you've been here for years. My report will arrive by 1500."

And he left.

TWO MONTHS LATER

The ALLEGIANT was burning.

The two IMPERIAL Star Destroyers, ADAMANT and ALLEGIANT, had been sent to the Vyshii system, checking on that Jedi of the Emperor's. They'd run smack into the pirates, with that Bulwark cruiser of theirs taking the ADAMANT by surprise. She'd nearly taken the command tower off the Imperial ship, then hopped to lightspeed - again - much faster than she should have been able to.

It was almost as though the pirates had ambushed them. But who ever heard of pirates going out of their way to confront Star Destroyers?

Mykel Garreth's knuckles were white on his command chair. "What is your situation, Captain Hennig?"

The man with the prominent nose wiped at his grime-covered brow. "My ship may recover. My pride won't."

"Don't blame yourself, Captain. There was nothing to be done."

Hennig bit his lip. "You warned me to be careful near the Nebula."

"Well..." Garreth smiled slightly, "I knew there was a reason I made a good salary. Do you need assistance?"

"No-it's not too bad. They were ahead of us again."

Garreth nodded tightly. "As ever."

Hennig's large nose wrinkled. "We'll have to do something about that."

The younger captain tried to ignore that last. "Have you received orders from Banicon yet?"

Hennig frowned at something Garreth could not see. "Coming through now... about what I expected. Oh, and Captain - there's a special order for you."

"'Get your tail back here immediately,'" Garreth quoted, already steeling himself for another of his inevitable debates with the admiral.

"Something like that. I wouldn't want to be you, Garreth."

As he stabbed the cutoff switch, Garreth muttered, "Mutual, I assure you. Commander Kile... best speed for the Fleet."

"Sir."

It was when he saw the other shuttle landed in the HYPERION's docking bay that Garreth knew what he was in for. The shuttle's markings made it the command shuttle from the PALADIN.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he muttered to Reidy.

Reidy nodded towards the fringes of the docking area. "Welcoming committee."

That they were - four of them, Military Police. Garreth sighed. "It appears the Emperor was not willing to wait for my report. I'll be back."

"Sir..." Reidy stood quickly, his hand on his blaster pistol. "I think I should come along."

Garreth glanced again at their "reception," then nodded once.

Their ramp hit the ground at almost the same time as Thrawn's. The alien commander's eyes met Garreth's briefly, then turned towards the matter at hand. The MP's were stepping forward.

Garreth and Reidy moved to Thrawn's side.

Three of the MP's were men, the fourth a woman. The shortest of the men, a man with slicked-back dark hair, stepped forward.

"Captain Thrawn. By order of His Majesty, Emperor Palpatine, and by authority of Admiral Banicon, I hereby relieve you of command and place you under arrest. The charge is treason."

"Now just a moment--" Garreth began, even as Thrawn nodded, submitting to the order.

"This doesn't concern you, Captain," the MP snapped. "Admiral Banicon is waiting for you in his office. I suggest you don't delay."

The four MP's had them encircled now, quietly but forcefully asserting their control of the situation. There would be no trouble.

"Captain, it is all right," Thrawn said quietly. "I can deal with this."

"You shouldn't have to deal with it," Garreth snapped. "I have been assigned to this man's case by the Emperor. How dare Banicon just--"

"I believe you'll find your orders have changed, sir," said the lead MP. He stepped forward with force shackles. Thrawn held up his wrists, and a moment later he was chained. Like all the other alien slaves in the Empire.

"I believe I'll have a word with the admiral," Garreth hissed through clenched teeth. He couldn't afford to lose control in front of these crewmen, who after all were only doing their duty. He started to push past them. Stopped.

He peered at one of the other MP's, a redheaded man. "Where's your armband, Lieutenant?"

The redheaded man glanced down at his right arm, which did not bare the same blue-and-gold Military Police insignia as his colleagues'. He grinned sheepishly. "I apologize, sir. I must have... forgotten it. I'll tend to that immediately."

But now Garreth was looking at the female MP. "I've seen you, haven't I? You were in the ranks of those assembled when I first arrived."

She frowned. "It's possible, sir. That was... months ago. We get a lot of VIP's."

"Out here? I doubt it." He smiled at the man with the slicked-back hair. "That was one of your mistakes. Using a woman. Even out here, there aren't so many in the Fleet that they can blend into the crowd."

"I don't know what you..."

"Shoddy costuming was a second mistake. And a third..."

With that, Garreth reached out, ripping the uniform of the redheaded MP to reveal the tunic beneath.

The light-blue tunic. The colors of the Engineering division.

"What's an engineer doing arresting a captain?" He held the redhead's eyes until the younger man looked away.

The black-haired MP stepped forward. "Sir, you're right. Obviously this man is out of uniform. What were you doing, Parn? Drinking all night again? Couldn't even stagger into your proper uniform? You're on report!"

Parn swallowed hard. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

Garreth exchanged a look with Thrawn. The alien nodded.

With his sidearm out and ready, Garreth said, "Lieutenant, would you mind unfastening your uniform jacket?"

The black-haired lieutenant balked. "Sir ?"

Garreth raised the sidearm to chest-level. "Lieutenant, your jacket, please."

With a sigh, the dark-haired man unfastened his green Imperial Navy jacket - revealing a yellow tunic beneath.

"Astrogation." Garreth raised an eyebrow. "How interesting."

"MP's are just recruiting from all over these days," Reidy said quietly, stepping to his captain's side.

"Sir, I can..."

"Who set this up? Banicon? Hennig?"

The lieutenant recovered his bravado. "Sir, I have orders from Admiral Banicon to take Captain Thrawn into custody. You're interfering with an arrest, sir. That is a court-martial offense."

Garreth's aim didn't waver. "There's no arrest here. This is a lynching."

The lieutenant sighed, his eyes downcast. Then, in a blink, he moved, reaching for his sidearm.

Garreth's weapon pressed against his temple. "Don't."

"Sir, I don't think you..."

And suddenly, something hard was pressing against Garreth's side. The redheaded man's blaster pistol. "Let him go, sir."

The woman also had her weapon out. "We have no problem with you, Captain."

Garreth sneered. "You've impersonated Military Police, detained my colleague, and made a mockery of the Imperial Fleet. I assure you, I have a problem with you."

The three MP's glanced at their leader, who stepped away from Garreth's weapon. "Sir, just stand aside. You do not want to be involved in this."

"I'm involved already."

The black-haired man nodded to the redhead, and to the fourth MP, a hulking man with leathery skin and a shaved head. "Take him."

As the two stepped forward, Thrawn idly moved his hands - and tossed the force cuffs to their leader. "You may need these for yourself, Lieutenant."

The lieutenant blinked. "Sithspawn! Jojo, get him!"

The bald crewer moved forward - and stopped. Zander Reidy had him by the wrist. The young officer twisted somehow - and the huge crewer went down with the most pathetic moan Garreth had ever heard.

Reidy released the man's arm, which Jojo immediately cradled to himself. Reidy smiled coldly down at the larger man. "You're going to want to have that looked at."

The lieutenant charged, his weapon raised. "You--"

Reidy didn't even seem to move, but suddenly the lieutenant's blaster was on the floor. "Do you want to get hurt? No? Then step away."

The two locked eyes for a moment, but finally the dark-haired lieutenant nodded to his colleagues. They separated, handing their weapons to Reidy. Garreth nodded to his young aide, then stepped past them, towards the turbolift.

Banicon already had his arms raised in a defensive posture. "Lieutenant Reidy has already notified Security. I knew nothing about it."

"No," Thrawn agreed. "That would not be your way."

Garreth frowned at him. "Hennig, then?"

"Almost certainly."

"You won't prove it," Banicon said. "Especially since the ALLEGIANT has been recalled. It will require at least a month at the Bilbringi shipyards to repair her damage. Captain Sandspinner will take over as Fleet XO."

Garreth frowned. "Taimsen has seniority, doesn't she?"

"Captain Taimsen lacks... certain qualities necessary for the job."

He sighed. "In other words, she just hit the transparent ceiling."

Banicon, to his credit, did not look happy about it. "One might say that. No, it wasn't my decision, but in any case, it's not worth your effort to argue about it."

"And why not?"

Banicon handed him a datadot. "New orders from the Emperor - and an encrypted, private message for you. You're leaving the Fleet, Captain, on detached assignment. Both of you."

Garreth's hand closed around the dot. "Sorry to see us go, Admiral?"

Banicon didn't quite roll his eyes, but his dry tone made up for it. "Your absence will be keenly felt. Dismissed."

"Captain Garreth. It is indeed an honor that you have consented to communicate with me."

Garreth winced. It had been a while since he'd sent Palpatine an update.

Yellowish eyes glowered out from under a darkened hood. "For your sake, I will assume the ADAMANT is experiencing communications trouble, and route this message through Admiral Banicon."

Garreth smiled and grunted. Not precisely a subtle warning, there.

"You failed at Vyshii. This is to be expected, for I realize now that the Jedi I mentioned to you is no longer in the Catalano Cluster. In fact, I cannot feel his presence anywhere. This is most disturbing, but I believe I understand the explanation. I am feeding coordinates for an Outer Rim world, one not far from your current position. The Jedi may seek to hide from me there, but his efforts will be in vain. Go there, my servant. Seek him out. As you seem to have developed such confidence in Captain Thrawn, you may take him with you. When you return, I will expect a final and accurate report on Thrawn's involvement in this matter. Do not fail me again, Captain."

The hologram fizzled out, and Garreth muttered, "Lights."

The room around him became entirely too bright.

"Cancel! Cancel!" The lighting cycled down again, and Garreth sat there in the dark for a long time. As unhappy a message as he'd received from Palpatine in some time. In fact, the Galactic Emperor had never treated him with such thinly concealed disdain.

If Garreth were a pessimistic man, he'd have thought the Emperor was tightening his leash.

No matter. He had a mission to accomplish, and evidence to find.

Evidence, he was determined, that would clear Thrawn once and for all. For he was convinced now that, if Thrawn ever did turn against the Empire, there would be a lot more trouble than a few simple acts of piracy.

"Got you!"

Two days out from the Outer Rim planet the Emperor had specified - at sublight speeds for the last leg, since their course took them past several navigational hazards - Garreth had won his third game out of the last five from Thrawn. Their tactical matchups had become much more even in the past two months, and Garreth calculated he'd won about half of their games, all told.

Characteristically, the game screen showed no flashing lights, no triumphant message, only reset to its default. Garreth thought that very typical of Thrawn's attitude, and possibly of his people: No single victory was important. It all revolved around the larger picture.

Also characteristically, Thrawn was gracious in defeat. "Very good, Captain. You are indeed well-suited to this game. And now, shall we talk of other games?"

"Others?" He frowned, but Thrawn's piercing red eyes seemed to look straight into his heart.

"The game you have been playing since you received your message from the Emperor."

"I told you the contents of the message." Garreth gestured out the window. "We're here, aren't we?"

"You told me the contents of our orders," Thrawn said. "There was something more in the message."

The human officer stiffened. "I am not at liberty to discuss the content of the Emperor's private communications. You must know that."

"There was nothing classified in the message, Mykel. In fact, I will tell you what was in it: A stern reprimand from His Highness, and a direct order to come to a decision about me quickly."

Garreth considered denying it, then groaned. "Not too stern a reprimand. I'm still alive."

"And if you fail to fulfill his wishes?"

The human shook his head. "That's a risk we're all subject to."

"Indeed," the alien agreed. "Not the most efficient way of running a fleet."

At Garreth's upraised eyebrow, Thrawn continued, "Oh, I am not talking treason, my friend. It is only that there are better ways that the Emperor is apparently not open to. Better ways to rule."

"Agreed," Garreth said bitterly. "Starting with that title. 'Emperor.'"

"There is nothing wrong with the title. The weak will always need a strong hand to guide them."

He frowned. "Sooner or later, the weak want to guide themselves."

"And that," said Thrawn, "is the way of anarchy and rebellion."

"We've covered this ground before. I'm afraid we'll never see eye-to-eye."

Thrawn smiled slightly. "One would almost think you were the suspected revolutionary. A lesson that things are seldom as they seem. Your bodyguard, for example."

Garreth laughed. "Young Mister Reidy. Do you suppose he's Imperial Guard?"

The alien captain shrugged. "It is possible. Certainly he belongs to an elite unit. Trained... in the Corellian sector, I think."

"Now how in blazes do you know that?"

Thrawn's answer was cut off by a bleeping comlink. Garreth raised it to his lips. "Yes?"

"Reidy, sir. Commander Kile wishes me to inform you that ADAMANT is ready for those drills you ordered."

He nodded and stood. "On my way. Thrawn... always a pleasure."

Thrawn shook his hand, then nodded towards the crystalline artwork in the corner. "Have you learned anything yet, Captain?"

"About you?" Garreth laughed. "It's quite useless, I'm afraid, Thrawn. I can appreciate artwork for its beauty, but... I just don't see the things you see."

"In that, you are hardly alone, Captain." Thrawn led the way out of his chambers. "Good luck with your drills."

"Captain on the bridge!"

Garreth nodded to his exec as he passed by the crew workpits on his way to the command chair. "Run Simulation 21-B. Sound Red Alert."

"Red Alert, all stations!"

The bridge of the ADAMANT was bathed in crimson light as the short, stocky captain found his seat. A glance around the bridge convinced him that all stations were running up to speed.

Kile stepped to his side. "Any special orders, sir?"

"Yes. Kill the enemy. Don't get killed."

The Commander cracked a smile, then called, "Sensor readings?"

"Five fighters off the port bow! Releasing TIE Fighters!"

"Port turbolasers, fire!" Garreth commanded.

"Firing..." said Kile, checking his own readouts. "Hit... hit... missed that one. Eighty percent destroyed. The remaining fighter is circling back around... retreating, sir."

"Let him go," Garreth said. "We'll soon have bigger problems than one Headhunter. Set 1-2-5."

Kile leaned closer, muttering, "You know, sir, it might be better for the crew if you didn't announce the incoming craft before they arrived. In battle, we won't have a program to follow."

Garreth smiled thinly. "This is a randomized program. I don't know the order. But judging from their point of attack, we can expect a Dreadnought to come out of hyperspace... now."

"Sir, Dreadnought cruiser bearing 1-2-5!" said a sensor tech.

Dorian Kile rolled his eyes. "I suppose I owe you dinner again."

"Yes, and I'll be expecting something better than galley food this time around. Nerf medallions, perhaps."

"Where am I going to find nerf medallions in the middle of--"

"Captain, new contact! Bulwark Battlecruiser coming in, 2-0-9 mark 1-1-8!"

Kile's brow furrowed. "I know you randomized the order, sir. When did you input the second capital ship?"

Garreth hissed. "I didn't... Brace for impact!"

A moment later, the bridge rolled around them as a very real Bulwark Battlecruiser connected with a full spread of concussion missiles, then turned away.

The intercom was screaming. "All hands, this is not a drill! Repeat, we have a hostile contact! All hands to battle stations - this is not a drill!"

"Sir, what are your orders?" Kile said, as he scrambled up from where he'd landed on the deck.

"Do we have turbolasers?"

Kile checked a readout. "Not to starboard or aft. Shields in those areas are also weakened - and our engines just cut out!"

He hissed quietly. "It would seem they haven't left us many options. Rotate using thrusters. Try to keep our nose pointed at that battlecruiser!"

"Trying, sir. With our engines out, though, the Bulwark can outmaneuver us!"

Garreth's hands clenched into fists. "Thrawn, where are you?"

"He may believe the Bulwark is a sensor ghost generated by our simulation," Kile suggested. Then, more quietly, "or maybe he's just not coming."

"Damn. A thousand tons of the best Bilbringi has to offer, and we get to sit here while that old relic picks us apart."

As if to emphasize the point, the bridge shook again.

Garreth realized he had only one option. He didn't really think Thrawn would be fooled by sensor ghosts - the alien was far too clever for that. He'd just have to hope that Thrawn, realizing the limitations of his own, slothlike VICTORY Star Destroyer, was waiting for a cue from Garreth rather than simply charging in. That being the case, he had a chance to set up one of Thrawn's favorite strategies - and an easy kill, if his friend actually showed.

Garreth blew out a deep breath. "Spin 90 degrees to starboard. Expose our underside to them."

"What?" Kile demanded. "But that's insane! In another minute, they'll be ready to fire a new spread, and then..."

"And by then Thrawn had better be here, or we're dead anyway. Do it, Commander."

Kile looked about to object, but bit his lip and said, "Helm, ninety degree spin."

The helmsman nodded, and nervously went about making the course corrections. A moment later Garreth winced as damaged inertial dampers allowed him to feel the ADAMANT turning on her side, exposing the superstructure, the belly of their giant craft, to the Bulwark's weapons.

Kile clung to his seat as turbolaser fire rocked the bridge. "Shall I release TIE fighters?"

"Now? Their docking ports are exposed. All we can do is wait."

They waited. It took nearly three minutes to complete the spin on thrusters - three minutes of hanging on while the Bulwark pounded their ventral shields.

"Get me a view of the Bulwark," Garreth said, and a holographic image appeared of their enemy, cautiously but definitely edging closer.

Two possibilities, Garreth thought. Either they're just greedy, or they know Thrawn won't attack them. He held his breath. They'd better just be getting greedy...

"Sir, ventral shields have failed," said a tactical officer, whispering into the suddenly quiet bridge.

"Bulwark is fully loaded and plotting solution for a torpedo barrage," said Kile. Then, more quietly, "We're dead, sir."

"Not yet. Give me a count."

One minute appeared on the holo-viewer, counting down. One minute until the Bulwark was cleared and ready to fire. Forty-five seconds. Thirty. Fifteen seconds. Garreth stared at the viewscreen, willing Thrawn to appear. His knuckles were white against the armrest of his command chair. Ten seconds.

And then, literally five seconds before the Bulwark would have fired, the VICTORY Star Destroyer PALADIN came cruising in, using the superstructure of its larger cousin for cover.

The unfortunate Bulwark, realizing it had pressed its luck, tried to back off, but Thrawn had already locked on. Green bursts of turbolasers alternated with red swells of firing torpedoes.

The holographic image flashed, then turned to static.

Garreth sighed, long and loud. "There's your traitor, Mister Kile."

Although her damage was nearly as bad as the ALLEGIANT's, the techs were able to jury-rig the ADAMANT so she'd run. Garreth made the decision not to scrap the mission - they wouldn't catch a Jedi Knight with a Star Destroyer, anyway. After making certain that the repairs were progressing, Garreth retired to his quarters. The pirate attacks, he was now certain, were not mere coincidence. They continued to come at the best possible times to disrupt the hunt for the Jedi. Or perhaps the Jedi rumors provided a distraction for them.

Either way, if there was a Jedi, he was working with the pirates. His information leak in the Fleet was likely coordinating the two threats. And there were still two threats. The Bulwark hadn't launched fighters, although they could have provided a considerable advantage during the battle. She'd left her smaller ships behind on this run. Conceivably, as many as half the pirates had survived to fight another day. That much was obvious.

Almost as obvious was the identity of the traitor. Not Thrawn, for he would never resort to such clumsy tactics - attacks which left him as the primary suspect. Besides, Garreth had come to truly believe in Thrawn's loyalty to the Empire. He might have been wrong, but his instincts had served him well until now.

His instincts said the traitor was the only man who knew their orders in advance. Banicon.

It seemed to fit - a rouge admiral out here on the fringes of space, probably disillusioned with the New Order (part of Garreth didn't blame him for those doubts, but he tried to keep that small voice silent). He makes a bit of profit on the side by protecting a pirate gang. If he shares Bail Organa's anti-Purge sympathies, perhaps he doesn't try too hard to hunt down the local Jedi. And he casts suspicion on a non-human like Thrawn - an easy target - in order to divert suspicion from himself.

Garreth knew he had no proof - he would have to acquire some to bring his ideas to the Emperor - but it was the one workable theory he'd come up with.

His first impulse was to take those suspicions to Thrawn. See what the alien's uncanny perception might have picked up on Banicon. But Garreth wasn't that trusting. Guilty or not, Thrawn was too close to the subject. Garreth was fairly sure he wasn't the traitor - but he was not at all sure yet that Thrawn was above blaming Banicon to save his own hide. Besides, surely the Emperor would not accept Thrawn's perceptions as evidence.

Garreth needed to talk to someone else. Someone he hadn't spoken to seriously in a long time. Someone he'd once trusted above all others.

He needed to talk to Miranda.

He'd been laying on his bunk, waiting for a message from Central Communications, for nearly half an hour when the door chime sounded.

He hastily sat up and pulled on his uniform tunic. "In."

Zander Reidy hesitated in the doorway. "Sir - Central Communications reports no success making a Scrambler connection to Coruscant. There's just too much interference at this time."

Garreth groaned. "Very well, Lieutenant. Dismissed."

Reidy didn't leave. "May I speak, sir?"

"Go ahead."

"You want to talk to her, don't you? Your wife."

He frowned. "That's right. Of course, that's probably what I'd say if I were entering into high-level conference with the Emperor, isn't it?"

"I--" Reidy coughed into his fist, "I usually know when you're due to contact the Emperor, sir. Besides... you look like you need to talk."

"Thank you for your appraisal. Will that be all, Doctor Reidy?"

"Well - er, no, sir. I thought... maybe I could be of assistance."

Garreth smirked. "You're not at all reminiscent of my wife."

"No - I mean..." Reidy took a step into the room, and Garreth motioned him into one of the chairs. "Well, look... getting advice from someone - someone you know as well as a spouse - is pretty simple, isn't it? What do you think she'd say?"

Garreth sighed. When he'd arrived in the Unknown Regions, he never would have spoken to a junior officer about such things. But Reidy had saved his life back on the HYPERION. And, as Thrawn had pointed out, this junior officer was more than he seemed.

Finally, Garreth admitted, "I don't know. I don't think I know her anymore. I know what she would have said, a long time ago."

"What?"

"She would have said: You have to learn to care about something, Mykel. You have to have a goal. Once you know what your goal is, you have to be prepared to do anything, make any sacrifice, to achieve it. She was always - very set on accomplishing things."

Reidy smiled. "And you weren't?"

"I had to learn to care," Garreth said. "It was a painful lesson."

"What do you care about?"

He thought about that for a long time. "I care about protecting my own. That's why I'm here. That's why I stayed here, when so many of my colleagues were pining away for the Republic and jumping ship. The Fleet is all we have between the innocent and the guilty. Whatever our problems, we can't forget who we are. We are the last line of defense. Someone has to care about that. It might as well be me."

Reidy nodded. "Do you think Thrawn cares about that? Protecting the innocent?"

"I don't know."

"What about Admiral Banicon?"

Garreth's eyes flashed. "How the hell do you know what I'm thinking?"

Reidy shrugged. "That's what I'm paid for, sir."

"Who pays you?"

The lieutenant got up from his chair. "Maybe I'll tell you someday. We're approaching that planet, Captain. I'll notify you when we've made standard orbit."

"Please. And while you're at it, would you find the traitor for me? You seem to be a man of many talents. Pilot, bodyguard, therapist... informer?"

The younger man just shrugged. "And more. It's lucky for you, too, if I may say so, sir. You're going to need those talents when we get to the surface."

It wasn't until Reidy was gone that Garreth thought to ask how he knew what the surface would be like.

The data package the Emperor had sent, time-dated for their arrival, included the name of the planet, its characteristics, and the reasons for the Emperor's suspicions. That was enough for Garreth and Thrawn together to plan their operation.

It would be a simple enough project - land a ring of speeder bikes in entrapment formation in the world's plentiful forests. Two shuttles of stormtroopers would be enough to search the world's major city. And if that didn't work... there were other ways of trapping Jedi.

Garreth conducted the briefing in combat fatigues, a variation of the uniform he hadn't worn in some time. Thrawn and Reidy stood at his side, with a squad of white-armored Stormtrooper Scouts standing at rigid attention in the hangar bay. Their officer focused intently on their orders, like a good little drone.

Sometimes, Garreth had nightmares about the stormtroopers. Their loyalty was... unsettling.

"Remember, Commander," Garreth was saying to the officer, "I don't want any civilian casualties..."

"Unless otherwise ordered," Thrawn put in smoothly.

Garreth frowned at him, but went on, "We're here on a hunt, not a seek-and-destroy. Remember, also, that our target will be somewhat inconspicuous. We don't know what he looks like, or even if it is, in fact, a 'he.' Jedi come in all shapes, sizes, and races. Don't overlook anything."

"We are still unsure," Thrawn said, taking over the briefing, "how strong the unusual effects of this planet are. If you are tracking the Jedi, and note any sort of Force use whatever, immediately stop what you are doing and get as close as you can to one of these..."

He touched a button, and a sluggish, reptilian creature appeared on the screen.

"They are called ysalamiri, and they are literally everywhere on the surface. They prevent the use of the Force. However, we have not measured the extent of their power, so exercise caution at all times."

Garreth nodded. "Finally, remember to be on the lookout for any signs of rebel activity, smuggling dens, anything that could be a starship hangar. Our pirate friends are operating out of this area somewhere, and this planet would make an excellent haven. Questions?"

"Yes, sir," said one of the stormtroopers. "If we find the Jedi, do we shoot to kill?"

"This is a Jedi we are discussing," Thrawn said. "If you don't shoot to kill, you're a fool."

No one else had any comment, so they dismissed the briefing, and the shuttles began loading. En route to the command shuttle with Thrawn and Reidy, Garreth said, "Charming little garden world. If you can get past the giant salamanders, the smugglers, and the bloodthirsty predators."

"But useful, Captain," Thrawn said. "Remember the name - Myrkr. A world where the Force does not exist. There may come a time when its secret will determine the fate of our New Order."

Reidy grunted. "Preparing for the return of the Jedi, sir?"

Thrawn did not smile. "I prepare for everything, Lieutenant."

The nominal mayor of Myrkr's "capital," Hyllyard City, was a chubby older man in a cheap suit named Werdi. As nearly as Garreth could ascertain, he was more or less a decent sort - only a little corrupt - whose desire to impress the Imperial representatives with the civilization on his dirtball planet was rather sad.

"Oh, yes, sir," Werdi was saying, as they met on the steps of the capital building. "We've been meaning to request a more official presence out here for a while now, but with things the way they are... well, it's a struggle just to stay alive, if you know what I mean. Myrkr's still the depths of space - not that I'm not proud of what we've built here."

"As you should be," Thrawn assured him. "What we need to know, Mayor, is whether you have noticed any - unusual sorts of people in the area."

"Unusual?" Werdi wrinkled his nose. "Everybody's unusual. Look, sirs, I'll level with you; at any given moment, Myrkr is crawling with smugglers. Not that we want 'em here, you understand, but we're so out of the way - my authority is limited - we just can't seem to do anything about 'em. Most days, it's impossible to tell them from the honest traders. We need those out here, you know. Honest traders."

"I quite understand," Garreth said. "What we'd really like, sir, is merely your permission to look around."

"Might even be able to get rid of a few of those smugglers for you," Reidy said.

The momentary grimace on Werdi's face said he wasn't as fond of that idea as he'd let on, but he recovered quickly enough. "Why, that sure would be a blessing, Captain. Certainly, you can look around. Never let it be said that Hyllyard City wouldn't cooperate with the Empire. I'll even get you a guide. Kia! Kia! Now where'd she go? Loso, where'd Kia get off to?"

Garreth held up both hands. "That's all right, sir. We can manage."

Werdi's jowls seemed to expand as he took that in - Garreth wondered if their "guide" would have been assigned to take them where they wanted to go, or lead them away from it. "Well, now, I'm not sure that's too safe, Captain... er, Captain Garret. We've got some wildlife on Myrkr you wouldn't believe. Now, you take the vornskrs. They'll rip a man's head off without..."

"We're safe," Reidy said, his hand resting on his sidearm. Werdi chuckled nervously, said his good-byes, and retreated into the capital building.

The three officers descended the steps together, silent for a moment.

Thrawn spoke first. "You know what we will have to do to force the Jedi into the open."

Garreth sighed. "I'm not prepared for that just yet."

"It may be a necessity. The natives here will not cooperate - they are fiercely independent. For example, you are making a mistake if you believe that mayor is the buffoon he appears to be."

The human's lip twitched. "You know, Thrawn, there's such a thing as being too smart for your own good."

Their search went on for several hours - stormtroopers going door to door with flittering surveillance droids, while Garreth and Thrawn tried to outguess a Jedi who might have been on the other side of the planet - or the sector.

Just past planetary noon, as they stood in the main square, Reidy caught his captain's arm. "Heads up."

One of their stormtrooper squads was returning with a knot of rough-looking spacers in tow.

The stormtrooper commander approached Garreth, and saluted. "Sir. We found these... people... loitering around the spaceport. They all possessed illegal weaponry."

Garreth inspected the blaster pistol the commander held up, then nodded. "So does every spacer in this sector, Commander. I hope you have more than that to go on."

"No, sir, but..."

"What is this symbol?" Thrawn asked, pointing to a a small crest emblazoned into the weapon. A marking Garreth had never seen before. But it did bear some resemblance to the Alderaanian markings on Bail Organa's ship...

"That's the symbol of the Rebel Alliance," Reidy said. "They're a tiny group - or, I should say, groups. They're fragmented - no threat at this time. All they have in common is that symbol. But they are traitors."

Garreth gave him a weary look. "Someday, Mister Reidy, we will have to sit down and explore the origins of your encyclopedic knowledge." To the group of spacers, he said, "Whose weapon is this?"

One of them, a tall, pale blond man, said, "It's mine."

"And you are, sir?"

The man looked away. "Roth Mankin."

Garreth's blood turned cold. "Mankin... that's a Jedi line, isn't it?"

"It's also a very common name near the Inner Systems," Reidy pointed out.

"Where'd you get the weapon, Mister Mankin?"

"Bought it off a Jawa at my last stop," the tall man said. "The marking was there when I bought it."

"Was it, now?" Garreth paced in front of him, trying to push back the memories flooding his brain. "I knew a man named Mankin. Almost twenty years ago, now... he was a Jedi Knight." He surveyed the man's face for a long moment. "You look a bit like him. Perhaps you're a relation?"

Roth Mankin laughed heartily, and his colleagues joined in. "Me? Related to a Jedi? Captain, sir, my high-and-mightiest relation is a gundark farmer. Wish I knew a Jedi Knight. That'd come in handy, I guess."

"Not these days, Mister Mankin. Commander, hold these men for questioning."

"Yes, sir," said the stormtrooper, saluting. Then he paused, his head cocked. Probably listening to the comlink inside his boxy helmet. When he spoke again, his voice was distinctly pleased. "Sir, my scouts have located five starfighters hidden in the forest near here. two Headhunters, three Uglies."

Garreth made a show of counting. "One...two...three... well, that's everyone. Care to explain, Mister Mankin, or shall I shoot you as a traitor?"

"There's nothing to explain. Those ain't our fighters. You can't prove that they are."

Garreth motioned to Reidy. "Get a bioscan down here."

"Captain, a moment?" said Thrawn.

Garreth nodded, and stepped off to the side with the alien commander.

"We must do it now," Thrawn said.

Garreth shook his head. "A simple bioscan will..."

"Will a bioscan reveal the Jedi? I tell you, the Jedi will be the first to blink."

He sighed. "Have your people evacuated the building?"

"Of course."

Garreth nodded. "All right."

They returned to the knot of prisoners. "Mister Mankin... there's been a serious misunderstanding. You're free to go, in a moment."

"In a moment?" Mankin asked suspiciously.

"Yes. We'd like you to be our guest... it's a sort of apology." He pointed at a large structure at the end of town - an inn of some sort, he thought. "We've found the Jedi we're looking for. In there."

"So why d'you need us? Go arrest him."

Garreth snorted. "Arrest a Jedi? They're far too dangerous, or so I'm told. No, we've a simpler method."

He raised his comlink. "Turbolaser control: fire in one minute."

Mankin's eyes popped out. "You're gonna blow up the building? What if there's people in there?"

Garreth allowed himself to look surprised, as though he were only just considering the possibility. "Mister Reidy... are there people in there?"

"Yes, sir. Lot of 'em."

"Oh." Garreth shrugged. "Well, easy come, easy go."

"You're out of your mind!" Mankin snapped, definitely agitated.

"No... actually he's out of his mind," Garreth said, pointing at Thrawn. "I'm just helping. My, look at the time... forty seconds left."

"Roth, forget it," said one of the other spacers. "It don't concern us."

"The hell it doesn't!" Mankin exploded. "I knew the Empire was corrupt, but this... it's an offense against sentient life and the Force itself!"

"Your diction seems to have improved," Garreth noted. He stepped closer to the tall man, appearing totally calm. "The Mankin I knew would never have stood for such a thing. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps you're nothing like him."

Mankin lowered his voice so that only Garreth could hear it. "You can't win. Every one of us you destroy will grow powerful through the Force. And in time, another will rise in his place. The circle goes on, Captain."

"Twenty seconds," Garreth replied.

And Mankin moved. His cuffs disappeared - sliced in half - as a glowing, green lightsaber appeared in his hands, raised to a ready position.

The blade moved against Garreth's throat.

"Cancel," Garreth said quietly.

"Yes, sir," said a voice from the comlink.

To Mankin, he said, "Do you intend to kill me?"

"You would have killed them."

He smiled. "You're a fool. The building is empty."

"Oh?" Mankin moved the lightsaber tip, gesturing past Garreth to the inn.

Garreth turned, and saw a child, about six or seven - his son's age - skipping down the steps of the inn.

"You bastard..." he breathed.

"It was necessary," Thrawn said. "There had to be no chance he would detect our bluff."

"Who do you stand with, sir?" Mankin said. "Him? Or us?"

Garreth's voice caught as he raised his sidearm. "You're under arrest."

"I could slice that weapon in two."

"You're outnumbered. Without the Force to guide you, you cannot win."

Mankin searched his eyes for a long moment. He lowered his saber, shut it off, and smiled. "I've already won."

"Your victory will be short-lived, I'm afraid," said Thrawn. He raised his pistol and fired. The tall Jedi collapsed to the ground with a hole in his chest. "The Emperor's standing orders are clear."

The alien captain then moved towards Reidy. "Very clear."

Two more rounds fired, and the young man was on the ground.

"NOOOOO!" Garreth exploded. He leapt to Reidy's side, checking for a pulse. He found one... and it faded beneath his fingers.

"Him..." Reidy gasped, and his eyes closed.

In one motion, Garreth rose, swung around, and smashed his fist into Thrawn's jaw. The alien fell, his weapon flying away.

"You set it all up!" Garreth exclaimed, his weapon pointing down at Thrawn's head. "You Sithspawn, you set it up and I fell for it! Banicon was helping the pirates - you cast suspicion on yourself to get me out here - so you could use me to find the evidence to bring him down!"

"The Emperor never would have trusted my word over his," Thrawn agreed. "Go on, Captain. You know there is more."

"Yes, there's more," Garreth agreed. His finger was white on the finger. "Banicon set up the initial raids - but you set up the last one. The last raid, the one which finally convinced me of your undying loyalty to the Empire. A figment of your invention. Through Reidy. Poor, young Reidy who was such a good spy. I took it for granted that he was our spy. But he was working for them. You used him, and then you executed him."

"For the good of the Empire," Thrawn agreed. "When did you know?"

"I should have known on the HYPERION," he said. "When you told me that the lynching wasn't Banicon's style. It was, of course - practically the land-based equivalent of the pirate ambush. But you couldn't tell me Banicon was a traitor. You needed me to figure that out. And then, here on the planet - Mankin, admitting to a Jedi name I'd be sure to remember? The Rebel insignia? Fleeing here, of all places, the one planet in the galaxy where he couldn't defend himself? Very convenient. Not nearly subtle enough for a man of your talents. The inn was the key, though. It wasn't until then I realized how manipulative you were. When that Bulwark disappeared... it jumped into hyperspace, didn't it? You didn't destroy it. It was set from the beginning. You made a trade with Reidy - his job was to have the Jedi here and waiting. A sacrifice, a distraction, while you, with your genius, helped his friends to escape from our Fleet permanently."

Thrawn nodded. "Tragically, the Bulwark's jump coordinates will lead it into a trap. There will be no survivors."

"All of it very nice. You've certainly proven yourself to the Empire. But why the inn, Thrawn? Why Reidy? Why so much death - there's no point to it! We're supposed to be protecting the innocent out here!"

"That is your dream," Thrawn said as he pulled himself to his feet. "You told me once that you could not see what I saw. That is my advantage. You have one as well, though, Mykel. You have a code of conduct, an underlying belief system that I cannot understand. To me, death is a tool. Not to be overused, certainly - but not to be shied away from. I cannot fathom why these things have such importance to you. It is your strength as a commander - you can convince your crew to follow you, to love you - because their dreams are the same as yours. So, my friend, I cannot see the things you see, either."

The alien walked away, heedless of the weapon pointed at him. He nodded to the pirates. "There is your evidence against Banicon. These men will testify against him, before they die."

Garreth kept the weapon pointing at him for what seemed like a long time, but did not fire.

ONE MONTH LATER

The gray-haired man with the hawkish features squinted out from the balcony at the golden sunset of Coruscant, as he'd done once before. "Banicon's trial seems to have been quite a success."

"Yes," Garreth agreed. "A public relations coup for the New Order."

"And you, the hero of it all - the man who brought down the greatest threat the Empire has yet faced. How do you feel about it, Captain?"

"Terrible," he admitted to Bail Organa. "I spoke to Banicon, the day before the trial. He was a good man. In his way, he believed in the Republic no less than you or I."

Organa shrugged. "It's useless to believe in a Republic that no longer exist, isn't it? And when it did exist, it was run by blind, foolish elitists like myself, isn't that true?"

Garreth sighed. So much had happened since that day on Myrkr. Thrawn had neglected to share his entire plan with the Emperor - perhaps not wishing to admit to Palpatine what a dangerous rival he could be, if he chose - and had graciously split credit for their victories over the Jedi and the pirates with his human friend. The Emperor was most pleased with their success. He'd given Thrawn ex-Admiral Banicon's posting - as Fleet Captain, free and clear. Garreth had been given full command of the ADAMANT-- now attached to the Second Fleet, patrolling the Inner Systems. The Emperor had even allowed him to take the month's leave he had coming.

He had a lot to think about in that month. Starting with his apology to this man.

"I'm sorry... for what I said." Garreth sighed. "People will often say inexcusable things - when you hit them a little too close to the mark."

"Is that what I did?"

"Definitely," he said. "I don't know, Your Highness. I don't know what I believe anymore. I thought I could protect the things I cared about from my post - but I only seem to be helping destroy them.

Organa nodded sagely. "Everyone loses faith, Captain. The key is how you go about getting it back."

Garreth snorted. "How does one regain one's naivete?"

"You were never naive, Captain. You knew what the Empire was. You didn't wish to face it. Will you face it now?"

"And join you? I don't know that I can do that, sir. I've always been a man of duty." He hesitated, watching the transports flitter by. "But... for the time being... I won't stop you, either."

"A neutral." Organa grinned. "I told you once, Captain: In time, there will be no neutrals in this struggle. Jedi or none, you will serve the dark side or the light."

"I'm afraid I don't know where the light is anymore.

Bail Organa gripped his arm. "The Jedi would say, you will know when you are at peace. But you won't find piece talking to an old man on a rooftop."

Garreth nodded, his mind suddenly filled with images of brown curls and intense, green eyes. "I believe there's someone I should be talking to, though."

Organa grunted, turning away from the rooftop, towards his TX-21 Escort. "Come on, then. I'll give you a ride home."

This time, Garreth didn't even have to think before accepting.

***

TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER

Mykel Garreth sat in his office aboard the N.R.S. GUARDIAN, in the wake of their "ultimate victory against the Empire." At least that was what the politicians called it. He suspected Bail Organa would have called it something else.

He chuckled. Strange, he thought, to remember Organa after all this time. Or perhaps not so strange. Perhaps only to be expected.

The message from their Noghri mole, Rukh, contained only three words, glaring up at him in harsh, blinking letters: "THRAWN IS DEAD."

He sighed, pushing the pad away, as he'd done several times before.

"For you, Reidy," he said quietly. "Whoever you were."

Then he touched a switch on his desk, activating the holographic display. He cycled through the possibilities until he came upon the one he wanted: A piece of artwork, an almost crystalline sculpture. Its delicate, ice-blue angles intertwined.

For the thousandth time in the last twenty years, Garreth stared at it. This time, something seemed different. He shifted the angle, staring at the thing, scratching at his long, graying hair.

Then he saw something in the sculpture, something that had evaded his notice before.

His eyes widened. "I'll be damned..."

THE END

R. John Burke


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