March 05 - May 05, 2000
Category: Star Wars
Author: Viola

[Disclaimer]

Star Wars: Rebirth of the Empire

Episode 1

Author's Notes: A couple of things you should know, gentle reader: This is not an angsty story of grand, aching passion whose sole reason for existing is to ensure the coupling of the major characters. I know what I believe our heroes are doing in the twilight-hued shangri-la of the subtext, but you'll have to decide for yourself. Further notes: This little project doesn't take into account anything after The Last Command, for reasons that should soon become obvious. Just humor me. I, personally, think that my version of the post-Thrawn Empire is significantly more realistic than a lot of others. But then I would, wouldn't I? Suffice it to say that if you loved the idea of Luke having a magical Jedi academy or him marrying Mara Jade or Han and Leia's children getting their own series, we probably aren't going to get along. Just read. It'll be fun.

Also - George Lucas made big, lung-bucket-fulls of money from Star Wars, and I've made naught. Therefore no copyright infringement is intended. Timothy Zahn made (albeit smaller) buckets of money from his Star Wars books and, although, I've borrowed a few of his characters as well, no infringement is intended there either. (Besides, I'll probably be nicer to them than some of the people who did get paid to write about them. No leather pants or sparkly catsuits on Mara in this story. Uh-uh…)

Feedback sounds as good as Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby after a week on SlimFastTM! Send to maraj42@aol.com


EPISODE I

An uneasy peace has settled across the galaxy. The remnants of the once-proud Galactic Empire and the fledgling New Republic have drawn a line in the stars, agreeing to an uncertain truce. While the Empire struggles against decay and decline, the Republic threatens to be torn apart from within by battles for personal power and political strife. Until both sides face a new threat...

CHAPTER ONE

Mere light-years from the New Republic border, the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera hung in space, an island of winking lights in the frigid darkness.

"Captain Cavanaugh, sir..." The young officer stood patiently at attention, awaiting the response of his commander. Cavanaugh looked up from the engineering report he had been reviewing.

"What do you have to report, Commander Tschel?"

"We're getting a report from the Gallant, sir. It's intercepted a distress call from the New Republic Corvette Hopeful. It appears their task force in the Anoat sector is under pirate attack..."

Cavanaugh nodded. "Thank you, Commander. You have the bridge." The younger man turned smartly on his heel and moved away from the crewpit.

Cavanaugh left the bridge, striding toward the door to Admiral Pellaeon's private office.

"Admiral?" With a soft whush, the door slid open and Cavanaugh stepped into the entryway. As he approached the main door, he could almost imagine that he was not alone in the subdued light and shadow. Irrationally, he glanced behind him; half expecting to see some monster out of childhood nightmare, but the foyer remained empty save the captain himself.

He stood with back straight and awaited the pleasure of the Commander of the Imperial Fleet. The inner door slid, almost diffidently, open.

A calm, measured voice sounded from within. "Come in, Captain. Would you like some tea?"

Cavanaugh entered the room, his polished boots clicking lightly on the floor. "I apologize for the disturbance, Admiral, but you requested that I inform you when we had received the Gallant's report."

Pellaeon sat in the dimly illuminated room, a steaming cup close at hand. Barely perceptible beneath the reassuring drone of the ship's engines, soft music filtered in. A wide transparisteel window behind Pellaeon's desk captured one of the nameless nebulas that lay beyond the Inner Rim.

Pellaeon's eyes met Cavanaugh's. "What does Captain Harbid have to tell us? ... Are you sure you wouldn't care for some tea?" He gestured towards the decanter of steaming liquid.

"No, thank you, sir... Harbid and the Gallant intercepted a New Republic distress call outside of the Anoat sector. It seems, sir, they are having trouble with some pirates." He said the last with a measure of uncertainty, his brow furrowing.

Pellaeon took a sip, then swiveled his chair to face the panoramic display out of the window. "Pirates, Captain? Perhaps we should give them a hand."

***

"New Republic task force: This is the Victory Star Destroyer Gallant. We are here to assist you..., with your permission, of course." The comm officer did not have to wait for more than a few seconds before turning to the command chair.

"They are acknowledging, Captain. Shall we launch?"

Harbid permitted himself a tight smile. "You may launch fighters when ready, Commander."

"Yes, sir."

Harbid settled back in his command chair. Once this kind of cooperation between Imperial and New Republic forces would have been unthinkable. Now, he merely hoped the New Republic military would appreciate the skill and discipline of his painstakingly trained pilots and crewers.

"Fighters are launching, sir." The lieutenant at the tactical display console indicated the blue dots that represented the Gallant's three TIE Fighters and their accompanying Z-95 Headhunters on an intercept course with the New Republic convoy and the unidentified Dreadnaught-class starship locked in a badly one-sided battle. Harbid chafed at having to rely on the outdated Z-95's as interdiction craft, but he was always determined to make the best of whatever resources were available.

The pirates shifted position to address the new threat posed by the Gallant's fighters. Even as they did so, blips representing the nearest pirates began to wink out. Harbid was confident that despite their greater numbers, the pirates' motley collection of Z-95's, R-41 Starchasers and Y-Wings would succumb to the more maneuverable TIE craft.

"Lieutenant, as soon as the last of those fighters are clear, take us in to engage that Dreadnaught. Let's show these pirates that the Imperial Fleet is still a force to be reckoned with." And perhaps the lesson would reach the New Republic as well.

***

"Report from the Gallant, Admiral. Captain Harbid reports that the attackers were repelled. The losses on our side were negligible. The New Republic extends its utmost gratitude."

Pellaeon reclined a bit in his chair. "Very good, Captain. Was he able to determine anything about the pirate group that attacked the convoy?"

"No, sir. The surviving pirates escaped to hyperspace. The Gallant was unable to find anything along their hyperspace vector."

"Unfortunate... Or perhaps, not so unfortunate for us."

"Sir?"

"We may be at peace with the New Republic, Captain, but any instability it suffers can only serve to strengthen us."

Cavanaugh studied Pellaeon. There was something in the older man's tone; a flicker of something beneath the words. Cavanaugh held his tongue. Whatever it was, the Admiral would tell him in time... if he even had a need to know.

"If that will be all, sir..."

"Yes, of course, Captain. Dismissed." Cavanaugh exited the room, leaving Pellaeon to his reflection. Two years had passed since he had assumed command of the Imperial Fleet. After Grand Admiral Thrawn's death, the fleet had been in disarray. Only the pleas of the remaining fleet officials had persuaded Pellaeon to take command. His proponents had championed him as Thrawn's protégé: a successor worthy of the Grand Admiral's vision of the rebirth of the Empire: only to have those supporters vilify him after his negotiation of a treaty with the New Republic.

Short-sighted fools, Pellaeon thought contemptuously. Grand Admiral Thrawn had never been afraid to retreat when doing so was necessary. And in order for the Empire to survive it had needed time to recover from the loss of its leader. The treaty had prevented an outright defeat but it had earned Pellaeon more than his share of enemies within the Imperial power structure. Soon the time would come when those enemies would see the folly of their narrow minds. Soon, but not yet.

***

Across the galaxy in the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, now home to the government and military of the New Republic, General Garm Bel Iblis looked up from the datapad on his desk.

"Gentlemen, it would appear we have something of a problem." The commander of the New Republic's armed forces regarded the four men gathered in his office. "This is the sixth attack of this kind on one of our convoys in the last fortnight."

"Pirate attacks in the outer territories are unfortunate, of course, but fairly common." Admiral Drayson said.

"The same pirate group responsible for six straight offensives? No offense, Admiral, but that is definitely uncommon, even for the outer territories," said the quiet man to Drayson's left.

"Really, Lt. Page, don't you think we're getting ahead of ourselves?" Drayson countered. "It's not as if we have any conclusive proof that the attacks were indeed perpetrated by the same fringe gang."

"I beg to differ, Admiral. My intelligence units have been given every reason to suspect that this is all part of a concerted effort on the part of one organization."

"I was under the impression," Admiral Ackbar sniffed, "that our so-called friendly relations with the larger smuggling organizations afforded us some measure of protection against just this sort of thing." He shook his head. "What good then has capitulation with these smugglers done us?"

"Gentlemen," Bel Iblis held up a hand. "Perhaps for now we could concentrate on reducing the risk to our shipping? I would like to provide some of the more important convoys with additional escort ships. Any suggestions? Commander Antilles? You've been rather quiet."

Wedge Antilles ran a hand through his short, dark hair, carefully considering his words. He wasn't entirely sure why he'd been summoned by Bel Iblis in the first place and was feeling slightly out of his league.

"I think, sir, that taking extra precautions is a good idea, but only a temporary solution. We need a clearer idea of what we're dealing with if we're going to risk our pilots and starfighters."

"True enough, Commander. That's where Lt. Page comes in. Lieutenant, I want more information. Just tell me what you and your operatives need to get started. Well, gentlemen, I'll expect your recommendations." He stood as the others prepared to leave. "Commander Antilles? A moment, if you please."

"Yes, General?"

Bel Iblis paused, allowing the others to exit before beginning. "Commander, I need the benefit of your experience."

Wedge swallowed a gasp. "My experience, sir? I hardly think..."

"You misunderstand, Commander. I need an objective voice in all of this. You've persistently kept yourself out of the politics that have infected most of the upper echelons of the military."

"Yes, sir. I'll do what I can to assist, but..."

"All I'm asking is that you keep me apprised of what's really going on out there. Most of what I hear now is filtered through agendas and power struggles. Can I count on you to level with me no matter what?"

"Certainly, General."

"Excellent, Commander. There may be something else at work here... I want our eyes open just in case."

***

Talon Karrde was pouring a perfectly chilled wine into two goblets when the message came through from Torve.

"Well, Mara," The smuggler chief said as he handed one of the glasses to his associate seated on the couch. Karrde replaced the cut-quartz decanter on a low table and rescued his own glass. "This is interesting." Taking a seat next to her, he swiveled the screen to give them a better view.

The room was elegantly, but comfortably, furnished. A wide, printed screen stood across the far wall filtering the sunlight that crept through wide windows. The walls were burnished wood, ornately carved with ancient bas reliefs. Most of the furniture and objects d'art in the lounge had been salvaged from Karrde's abandoned base on Myrkr. Mara was curled up on the plush cushions of the low couch in cat-like contentment, but her expression changed as she scanned Torve's report.

"Since when has the Empire been interested in bailing out the New Republic?" She frowned.

;"Bother you?"

"Hardly. Any feelings I had toward the Empire were put to rest along with the late Grand Admiral." She narrowed brilliant, green eyes, her expression daring him to contradict.

"Touché. In other words, I should know better."

"Probably. Did Torve get any information on who these 'mysterious' pirates were?" She asked, taking another sip of her wine.

"No." He looked at her quizzically. "Any ideas?"

"Any particular reason we should care?"

Karrde regarded her for a moment before continuing. "Our rather profitable arrangement with the New Republic aside, it's always in our best interest to know what's going on in the galaxy."

"So, are you suggesting that we should try to find out?"

"I'm sure you would know how to casually ask around the next time you're on Coruscant." Karrde reached down to scratch his pet vornskr, Drang, behind the ears.

"Such faith in my abilities," she smiled wryly.

"Well, that's why I keep you around." He raised an eyebrow, "Seriously, I think I'll talk to Mazzic and the others and see if they've heard any rumblings about these pirates. Remember, if they are causing trouble for the New Republic, it's only a matter of time before they start making trouble for the Empire and, eventually, for us."

***

"Hello, Mazzic." Dravis smirked over a mug of ale at the man who sat down across from him. "So, where's your lovely lady companion this evening?"

The noise level in the cramped taverna rose slightly as the house band strove to be heard above the raucous group of young shockball players, obviously slumming it for fun as a victory celebration, who had just commandeered the place's last remaining table.

"Shada's around. I'm sure she'll be joining us later." Mazzic raised his voice, competing with the shockballers who had begun to sing along with the band.

Dravis made a face at the kids, and returned his attention to the other. "Okay, then, I'm here. What's this all about?"

Mazzic slid a datapad across the table. "Message from Karrde. He's got something for us."

"If it's not cash up front, my friend, I'm afraid my employer and I will have to decline the invitation this time."

"Mind if I ask why?"

"Not at all. Billey just sent his kid off to school. He wants to play it safe now that he's got university tuition to pay." Dravis chortled, as if that were the funniest joke in the galaxy.

Mazzic snorted. "You must be joking. What is the galaxy coming to?"

"Tell Karrde if he can provide the credits, we're in. If not..."

"Tell him yourself. He's wants a meeting with everyone in ten days."

***

It took the Chimaera almost seven days to reach the newly christened Imperial capital at Ord Mantis. Cavanaugh accompanied Pellaeon to the planet's surface and into what he feared would turn out to be an all out political fire fight.

"Admiral," General Veers nodded in greeting. "I trust you remember my aide Colonel Barse..." As the general continued with the formalities, Cavanaugh surreptitiously surveyed the myriad military officials gathered in the makeshift conference room. Admiral Hastings, Captain Brandei, General Macyn, Captain Harbid... Harbid? Cavanaugh frowned inwardly. He had been under the impression that the former commander of the Death's Head had fallen out of favor with Pellaeon and been shipped off to a minor command on a VSD in the outer sectors. Yet here he was attending a meeting with the most influential men in the Empire.

"Gentlemen, perhaps we should get started." Pellaeon motioned the others to sit. "Over the last several months, Captain Harbid has been keeping me appraised about the pirate raids that continue to plague the outer systems. In four days we will be receiving visitors representing several neutral systems. These diplomats are coming here to discuss with me the possibility of rejoining the Empire. I want to show them that the Empire is far from defeated. We must demonstrate that we can provide for them, militarily, politically, and economically. Once these systems accept that the Empire can provide more stability and order than the New Republic, others will follow their example until the glory of the Empire has been restored."

"Admiral, with all due respect, how do you intend to demonstrate all this? We have enough talented crewers and soldiers but not enough resources to provide for them. We've almost no stormtroopers to speak of and precious few starfighters to squander in a vain attempt to beat back some nebulous pirates!" Admiral Hastings ventured. "I applaud your strategy, but merely point out the reality of our situation."

Cavanaugh spoke up. "If we are judicious in our reconnaissance and planning, we can easily destroy these pirates when we find them. Systems that are currently straddling the proverbial fence between Empire and Republic cannot help but be swayed by the fact that we protected them when the New Republic could not!"

"Do you really think that the New Republic would let those systems go so easily?" Captain Brandei countered.

"They will have to," Pellaeon said quietly, "To do otherwise would force them to betray their policy of so-called free will for the galaxy. The New Republic is already fragmented enough. They cannot afford any added instability."

At the opposite end of the table, General Macyn growled viciously, "Is this what we are reduced to? Legalistic quibbling and currying favor with star systems that were once ours by right! Our once-proud Empire is reduced to chasing fringe scum to prove our worth to those who once feared and respected us!" He slammed a fist onto the already wobbly table, sending data cards skittering.

"Peace, General," General Veers held up a hand, "The end of the Empire is not yet. Not so long as we remain true to the Emperor's New Order." A knowing look passed between Veers and Pellaeon.

"All I am proposing at this point, gentlemen," Pellaeon continued, "is an increased presence in the area...for now. Imperial Intelligence will continue to look into this matter. Then we will decide how best to proceed. I suggest we adjourn and prepare to receive our very important guests."

Veers stood and the others followed. "Admiral, gentlemen." He nodded. The officers began to file out.

"Captain Harbid?" Pellaeon motioned to the other man. "A word, if you don't mind."

Cavanaugh began to sit back down, but Pellaeon stopped him. "Thank you, Captain, but I have need of your presence back on the Chimaera. Captain Harbid and I have much to discuss in private."

"Yes, sir." Cavanaugh left as ordered, and spent the whole trip back to his ship trying to puzzle out what in space Pellaeon was up to.

***

With engines straining a full point above flank speed, the Gallant made it to Way Station Gemini nearly ten hours ahead of schedule.

Harbid allowed himself a tight, wolfish smile. Things were proceeding extremely well. "Lieutenant? What's our ETA to target?"

"We'll be within range in 20 minutes, sir."

"Commander, put our fighters on yellow alert. I want them ready to launch on my command."

"What shall I brief them for, sir?" The Gallant's captain had been uncharacteristically closed-mouthed about their current assignment.

The captain turned and addressed the bridge crew. "Gentlemen, several important diplomats are transferring through Way Station Gemini on their way to meet with Fleet officials on Ord Mantis. Imperial Intelligence has intercepted a report that pirates are planning to attack the station in 18 hours. We're here to stop them."

*** A name="2">

CHAPTER TWO

"Thank you for extending your hospitality to us once again, Gillespee," Karrde said, surveying the elaborately set table in his old friend's dining room. "The others should be arriving shortly."

Samuel Tomas Gillespee, former smuggler and self-proclaimed Ukian country squire, grinned from across the room. "Now that I've joined mainstream society, occasional visits from old scoundrels like you is all the excitement I get." He tossed back his drink and peered at Karrde over the cup. "It's also partly curiosity. I'm surprised you've held everyone together for as long as you have. Smugglers don't generally tend to play well with others, you know."

"The Smuggler's Alliance survives because it is more an informal association of business-people than a communal body or governing committee. A lesson that could, perhaps, be learned by our glorious colleagues in the New Republic."

"Really, Karrde, I'm surprised you'd care whether the New Republic survives. It's all the same as far as smugglers are concerned, you know."

"The alternative isn't particularly attractive to me, Gillespee. There are plenty of people in the Empire who would like to see me dead. I'm told that Admiral Pellaeon holds me at least partially responsible for Thrawn's death."

Mara Jade entered the room so quietly that Karrde wasn't aware of her presence until she was standing right beside him. "Sentries are in place. The perimeter looks secure."

Gillespee reacted in mock horror. "Are you implying, young lady, that I'm untrustworthy? This is hardly the Whistler's Whirlpool. Ay, Karrde?"

Mara merely favored him with a raised eyebrow and returned her attention to Karrde. "We've spotted three freighters coming in from the south. They're too far out to be certain but it looks like Mazzic, Ellor, and Dravis."

"Shall we get ready? Gillespee, after you." He offered Mara his arm, "Mara..." She accepted with a nod and the three of them emerged to greet the first arrivals.

***

The most powerful smugglers in the galaxy had their attention fixed on Talon Karrde as he began to speak. "I trust you are all comfortable? Excellent." He surveyed his audience. Par'tah, the female Ho'Din smuggler chief; Mazzic, seated next to his decorative female bodyguard; Ellor, the Duro who had worked closely with Mazzic for years; Dravis, lieutenant to Billey, Karrde's former employer; Clyngunn, the ZeHethbra. All were looking at him expectantly. At the back of the room, Gillespee stood next to the table shoveling grilled brualki into his mouth and grinning up at Karrde.

"I think I have a new and profitable assignment for us, gentlefolk. For the last several months the New Republic has suffered attacks by a new and, as yet, unidentified group of pirates. I think they would be most appreciative if we were to deliver them."

"Now, Karrde," Dravis grinned insolently at him, "Has the New Republic hired us to do this or are we going to go running around the galaxy again relying on their generous spirit after the fact?"

"We have not been hired as such..." Karrde began.

Dravis cut him off. "Sorry, old chum, but Billey wants money up front for this little adventure or we're out."

Several of the others echoed Dravis' sentiment. Karrde held up a hand. "I don't think that will be a problem. You'll get your money. What we know about the raids is contained on these datacards." Aves began to pass the cards around to the smugglers. "I assume you'll want to get started as soon as possible, so perhaps we should wrap this up. The credits will be deposited in your accounts. Good hunting." He stepped away, to find Mara at his side.

"Have you been holding out on me?" she murmured, close to his ear. "I wasn't aware we had that kind of ready cash just lying around."

"It won't be a problem. If you'll remember, we still have a private credit line with the New Republic."

"Mmm. I was under the impression we had to get approval before we could draw from that."

He nodded. "We do. That's why you're going to Coruscant."

She regarded him for a moment and then smiled coolly. "That and a little information slicing of our own?"

"Again, that's why I keep you around." he said, appreciating, as always, the quick intellect of his second-in-command.

Mazzic suddenly appeared before them, minus his impossibly proportioned bodyguard. He smiled slyly at Karrde before taking Mara's hand. "So nice to see you again, my dear. You grow lovelier with each encounter." It was a performance that would have put Lando Calrissian to shame.

Karrde frowned and Mara delicately extricated her hand. Mazzic turned his attention back to Karrde. "That was nicely handled, by the way. I'm not sure I want to know where you're going to get the money, though. I just thought you might have a preference as to what direction Ellor and I head on our way to snoop around. Maybe something in the rumor mill?" He flashed a winning smile.

Karrde seemed to consider it for a moment, then said, conspiratorially, "You might head out toward the Hoth system. Of course, if you happen to find something it would be purely coincidental that I mentioned it to you."

"Of course." He winked at Mara. "Once again, my dear, a pleasure."

After he was safely out of earshot, Mara said, "I don't remember any intelligence indicating a pirate presence in the Hoth system."

An almost-smile tugged at the corners of Karrde's mouth. But he merely said, "Let's get you to the Starry Ice. Dankin can drop you at Coruscant on the way to Ketaris."

***

The cantina was crowded and most of the clientele were on the lower end of Coruscant's food chain, but that was to be expected in a place like this...even counted on. A slight, nondescript man sat at the bar, apparently focused on his mug of Forvish ale.

Another man jostled his way up to the bar and signaled the bartender for a drink. "Hello, Page," said the newcomer, sliding onto the barstool beside him. "Been a while. I take your presence here to mean that you need some information. I hear you have some new friends on the Outer Rim, this have anything to do with them?"

"Why would you assume that?" Page asked, never looking directly at the other.

"Come now, Lieutenant. With the outer systems screaming for independence all over the holonet? I just assumed that our benevolent leaders would be scrambling all over themselves to appease them in every way." The bartender chose that moment to produce his drink. Page's companion looked pointedly at him, and, with a sigh, Page forked over his credit chit.

"So, tell me," the other man continued, "is that what you're interested in or not?"

"It might be." Page conceded. "What's the going rate for information of that caliber?"

"The usual. It might take me a few days, though."

Page raised an eyebrow. "Really. Why would that be?"

"Page, just between you and me, this all smells funny. Nobody has ever heard of this group and, suddenly, they drop out of hyperspace with enough firepower to take on New Republic shipping convoys? It doesn't track. I'll see what I can find, but there's no trail. No spaceport cantina boasting, no big losers at the sabaac tables, nothing."

"Almost as though they didn't exist..." Page mused, almost to himself. "Contact me through the usual channels if you find something." He paid his own tab and began to thread his way through the motley crowd toward the exit.

***

Following her escort through the main atrium of the Imperial Palace, Mara Jade realized that she would never completely get used to the idea of the New Republic occupying the place she had once called home. This was not a new insight for the former agent of the Emperor. It often crept into her consciousness, catching her unaware on many of her visits to the Imperial City.

Her escort deposited her, with a nearly acceptable amount of deference, in Bel Iblis' outer office.

"Hello, Mara." The general's civilian attaché rose from behind her over-large desk to extend a hand in greeting. "I'm afraid the General is running a bit late. I hope you aren't on too tight a schedule." Madeleine Hgyashi was an attractive but professional-looking woman a few years older than Mara. "Anything I can do for you in the meantime?"

Hgyashi and Mara had launched an amiable enough professional relationship during Mara's visits as Karrde's liaison to the New Republic, and for a moment she was tempted to ask the other woman what the Republic military had been able to find out about the pirate raids. Instead, she kept her mouth shut.

"No, thanks. I'll just wait."

A harried-looking Bel Iblis finally saw her 45 minutes later...for all the good it did her. After a curiously unproductive meeting, Mara was forced to leave with Bel Iblis' vague assurances that he would see what he could do about getting Karrde's credit line opened. Absentmindedly, she walked through the Grand Corridor in the direction of the Council chambers. She would have to wait for Bel Iblis to get back to her and so she might as well see what gossip she could overhear. The Council should be adjourning just about...now. The massive doors opened and the marble corridor flooded with beings of all different shapes and species.

She was listening to the representative from Svivren discussing the impact of pirate activity on trade routes when she felt a tingle on the back of her neck. She turned, facing the center of the corridor, where the rows of ch'hala plants had been replaced by an intricate series of fountains and aqueducts. Through the rainbow spray of the water she glimpsed a familiar figure, sensed before actually seen.

"Hello, Skywalker," she said as he approached.

"You're getting better at that, Mara. You knew it was me before I even saw you." He looked pointedly at the lightsaber attached to her belt. "You really should consider coming here to Coruscant to work on your training."

"Really, Skywalker, we've been through this before. Anyway, that's not why I'm here." she said, fighting down mild annoyance.

Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and hero of the New Republic, studied her for a moment and continued with irritating earnestness, "If you would just..." She impaled him with a look and he faltered mid-sentence. "Well, why are you here then?" he finished instead.

"Trying to convince Bel Iblis that the Smuggler's Alliance is worth its weight in gold."

"It may not be up to him," Skywalker said quietly. "Maybe I should take you to see Leia."

That was certainly unexpected. She studied him carefully; suspicious that this offer was merely an excuse to continue his Jedi sales pitch in private. But then Skywalker wasn't capable of being that devious.

"All right. Let's go see your sister."

***

"Platform Gemini, this is VSD Gallant. Be advised, we have detected incoming pirate ships."

"Upgrade fighters to red alert, Lieutenant. Prepare to launch on my mark." Even as Harbid spoke, a Loronar Strike Cruiser shot out of hyperspace and began disgorging starfighters. "Lieutenant, you may launch. And advise our fighters to protect the diplomats at all costs."

"The diplomats, sir? Wouldn't they already be on the station?"

"No, lieutenant. They are right there." He pointed to the display where a Muurian transport scurryied desperately for the relative safety of the station.

"Sir, shouldn't we have alerted...?"

"You have your orders, Lieutenant," Harbid barked. He leaned forward, peering at the display console where the Gallant's three TIE Fighters were acquitting themselves admirably against the pirates' superior numbers.

"Bring us in closer to engage that strike cruiser," Harbid ordered, turning to the conn officer.

"Yes sir," the officer replied smartly. "Turning to heading point three eight. We will be within firing range of the cruiser in three minutes."

Harbid turned his attention once again to the tactical display, watching impassively as one of the TIEs blew apart the last of the pirate's sluggish R-41 Starchasers. The display flashed a message, warning of a new arrival in the conflict.

"Signal Alpha squadron to engage those incoming T-Wings immediately," Harbid said flatly.

"Sir, the transport is hailing us," the comm officer reported. With a nod, Harbid indicated to open a channel.

"This is transport Houtuduit!" a panicked voice stammered. "We have T-Wings targeting us! Can you assist us!?"

"This is Captain Harbid of the Gallant. Our fighters are intercepting as we speak. Your safety is assured."

Harbid signaled the comm officer to close the channel, returning his attention to the combat situation. The swift T-Wings were within weapons range by now. The lead fighter fired two concussion missiles, which streamed toward their target and rocked the transport with a muted explosion against its deflector shields. Harbid could imagine the expression of the panicked pilot as the missiles struck. The first T-Wing banked as it approached the transport's aft section to avoid the engine wash. The next closest fighter let loose its missiles. The projectiles cut through the vacuum, and suddenly exploded as green bolts of laser energy tore through each. The next laser volleys struck the T-Wing itself, tearing through its weak deflector shields and blasting the fighter to pieces. A thoroughly dramatic presentation, Harbid concluded.

The other T-Wings broke off their assault on the transport to meet the challenge of the TIE Fighters. Designed for speed and little else, the handful of T-Wings were quickly dispatched by the better-balanced TIE Fighters.

By this time, the Gallant had moved into position alongside the pirate cruiser, turbolasers tearing away at its portside shields. The outgunned ship began slowly descending, attempting to position itself below the Star Destroyer's underside, where fewer turbolaser turrets were positioned.

"Match their maneuvers," Harbid commanded.

A wing of Y-Wings shot out of the cruiser's portside hangar entrance. It was a foolish move; one of the fighters blew apart under the barrage of laser fire, and several others took hits to their shields.

As the last of the T-Wings burst into flames, Harbid turned abruptly to the flight officer. "Move Alpha squadron to intercept the Y-Wings."

The TIE squadron let loose a brilliant stream of laser fire ending the Y-Wing squad's lame attempt at a torpedo run. It was the work of a few minutes to reduce the unwieldy fighters to debris.

With its shields failing and its complement of fighters eliminated, the Strike Cruiser changed its vector, pulling slowly away from the Gallant. A few parting laser bolts were exchanged, and with a flicker of pseudomotion, the pirate ship jumped to hyperspace. The fight was over.

***

With the departure of the Strike Cruiser, many of the civilian freighters huddled against the underside of the way station began cautiously to get underway.

On the Messaline, Mazzic shook off his amazement and slapped the comm. "Ellor, did you get any of that?"

[[Yes, I think we have sufficient data to return with.]] And that, Mazzic knew, was all he would get from the stoic Duro on the matter.

"All right, old friend." He keyed off and said, almost to himself, "I wonder what in the gates of hell the Empire thinks it's doing, anyway."

"Boss?"

"Let's get out of here, Quinn. I've had enough of the Hoth system to last me awhile." And on the way back he would figure out exactly how much this information would be worth to the New Republic.

***

"Oh, Master Luke, it's so good to see you!" See-Threepio exclaimed, rising awkwardly from the reception desk in Leia's outer office. "Mistress Leia will be ever so pleased! She is in a meeting but I will gladly alert her to your presence." The droid burbled happily into an intercom as Luke leaned back against the desk to face Mara.

"So are you going to tell me what's going on or not, Skywalker?" The other opened his mouth to respond when the door to Leia's office flew open and a distressed-looking Bothan barreled out.

"If the past actions of one Bothan are going to color your relations with the entire species, Councilor, then we have nothing further to discuss!" he seethed, fur rippling with psychedelic frenzy. Mara stopped, hand halfway to her blaster, and stared at the blustering alien.

Leia appeared in the doorway. "Thank you for your time, Councilor." She smiled, apparently unruffled. That served only to further aggravate the Bothan representative, who promptly stomped from the office.

Leia smiled at her brother. "Hey, Luke. Nice of you to drop by. Come on inside." Then as if suddenly noticing Mara, she said, "Oh, hello, Mara. I didn't realize you were here." She dropped heavily into her chair, cradling her head in her hands. "Threepio, would you get me some tea?"

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a brandy?" Luke teased, following her inside.

"Or a blaster..." Mara muttered under her breath.

"As you can see, my day has been pretty eventful. How about yours?" Leia smiled ruefully.

"No more so than usual. With the exception of a visit from Mara."

For a moment Mara was tempted to remind Skywalker that she was not on the planet to visit him, but Leia was already speaking.

"Does Karrde have some piece of interesting information to sell us?"

"No...That is to say, not yet. It's a bit difficult to operate a business without any incoming capitol from your clients. Particularly a client as large as your New Republic."

"Well..." Leia seemed to weigh her words before continuing, "The way things are we may not be as profitable a client as Karrde would like."

"Why is that exactly?" Mara asked bluntly, suddenly tired of this game. "Skywalker here pulls me out of the Grand Corridor with vague whispers of intrigue and veiled hints that relations between the Smugglers' Alliance and the New Republic are about to go south. So now I would like to know, specifically, what in the seven worlds this is all about."

"You aren't going to get any money from the Council." Leia said, evenly. "They won't authorize it and, unless Bel Iblis is ready to commit political suicide, neither will he."

If Leia had been expecting surprise from Mara, she wasn't going to get it. "All right," the other woman said, her voice flat. "So am I to understand that you have no interest in protecting your shipping against pirate raids?"

"Of course not. The problem is proving to the Council that these raids really pose a threat. And then getting all of the factions within the Council to agree on the best course of action. You might as well wait for the Emperor to resurrect himself...it just won't happen." Leia continued, ticking the points off on her fingers as she went. "Admiral Ackbar has been opposed to this from the beginning. And where he stands, Drayson and most of the rest of the fleet stand. Mon Mothma has too much to handle just keeping the internal conflicts under control, so she won't be willing to risk another split over some possibly beneficial information that may or may not be produced by freelancing, a.k.a. mercenary, smugglers. The Bothans are still a powerful faction. And though they've tried to distance themselves from Councilor Fey'lya as much as possible, they are still going to remember Karrde's part in Fey'lya's downfall and, by association, their own political disgrace."

"Perhaps if you were to lend your support to our alliance?"

"Perhaps. But even then, no promises."

"At this point it seems I'll take what I can get. Without the New Republic's financial support, some of our people will have to go back to smuggling spice from Kessel or running supplies to the Imperials. Even with a treaty in place I imagine there are still some things you'd rather the Empire didn't know about you. And, believe me, the market for secrets is still quite lucrative. I can't guarantee that some of them won't work for the Empire against you. Your Council may not understand how damaging that could be, but I think you do." Mara held Leia's gaze. It wasn't a threat, just a statement of fact. But that didn't make it any less dangerous.

"I'll speak to the Council on your behalf when we resume."

***

Cavanaugh came down to the planet's surface from the Chimaera several hours before the diplomats were due to arrive. He had been kept busy attending to last minute details and was at last ready to give his final progress report to Pellaeon. His polished boots echoed against the newly gleaming floor as he made his way down the glass and metal corridor. The imposing door slid open at his touch and he entered the reception area.

"It's not Coruscant, but the view is rather spectacular, isn't it, Captain?" Pellaeon was standing at the end of the long, narrow room, framed in the silvery light from a large window. This wing of the Imperial Centre on Ord Mantis had been completed just in time to receive their guests. It had none of the opulence of the Empire at its height, but it did have an artistic kind of spare elegance. Pellaeon had signed off on the plans himself, as a kind of aesthetic monument to Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The building sprawled out from a geometric center instead of up, its transparent, silver symmetry the antithesis of Imperial Coruscant design.

The room itself was neutral and understated, it's subdued grace highlighting the reception hall's true showcase: the view. One wall was entirely transparisteel, floor to ceiling, granting one a dizzying view of Ord Mantis' luminous landscape. In the distance two of the planet's moons could be seen rising against the dark blue horizon, casting a silver sheen over the snow-topped mountains and foothills.

"Yes, sir. Everything has come together remarkably well. We are prepared to greet the diplomats as soon as they arrive." Cavanaugh stood patiently at attention, awaiting Pellaeon's inevitable flurry of questions.

"The other officers are ready as well?" Cavanaugh nodded smartly. "What report from the Gallant?

Cavanaugh blinked, thrown slightly by the abrupt change in topic. "Captain Harbid sent his data from the Gemini battle. If you would like I could put it on the display."

"Yes, Captain." Cavanaugh keyed for the battle data at a small, neatly camouflaged console behind the polished metal bar. Pellaeon studied the replay thoughtfully, then looked sidelong at Cavanaugh.

"Something wrong, Captain?"

"Well, sir. It just seems to me that this puts a new perspective on our negotiations."

Pellaeon nodded. "True enough. Our position is strengthened. And?" Cavanaugh hesitated. "Speak freely, Captain," Pellaeon commanded.

"Sir, it's just...Well, if we knew that the station was going to be attacked, shouldn't we have alerted the diplomats beforehand?"

"And waste the opportunity for such an impressive rescue? In our circumstances, Captain, we must take advantage of every opportunity."

"But, sir, we put potential allies at risk..."

Pellaeon paused, watching the other as if considering...but then abruptly the moment of indecision vanished and Pellaeon continued. "A calculated risk, Captain."

The intercom beeped, interrupting any further discussion.

"Admiral? The diplomats are in orbit. They will be arriving shortly, sir."

"Thank you, lieutenant." He turned to Cavanaugh, indicating the door. "Shall we, Captain?"

***

The voluminous moon had reached the apex of its nightly arc; its smaller blue brother tagged along below its tail. The nights on Ord Mantis were lit nearly as well as the days. From the reception area it seemed that one could see clearly to the top of the farthest mountain peak. A protocol droid moved around the narrow room, serving brandy.

Once his glass was full, one of the diplomats stood, nodding to his host.

"On behalf of the Berchest System, I would like to officially petition for re-admittance to the Empire," the representative from Berchest raised his glass in a triumphant toast. "To the future of the Empire." The men seated around the low table raised their glasses as one and drank.

"Thank you, Governor Staffa. We welcome you and your people back within the protective sphere of the Empire, with all the rights and privileges Imperial citizenship entails." Pellaeon stood, surveying his guests. So far, Berchest was the only system to formally announce intentions to rejoin the Empire, but he knew several of the others were on the verge. Their spectacular rescue from the pirates at Gemini had tipped the scales for many of these systems. He expected that the representatives from Palanhi, and the Athega and Churba sectors would probably speak with him quietly after the reception. The only wild card in the group was the Orus Sector. They were biding their time, trying to determine if the Empire was a safe investment. He would have to make sure that they realized that it was.

***

Overlooking the Western Mountains of Yoncalla, a slightly decaying, Ellisian-style villa perched on a high plateau. Talon Karrde sat on the terraced steps immersed in his evening ritual. Sturm and Drang, his pet vornskrs, were sprawled on the remaining steps, luxuriating in the final orange-red rays of the retiring sun. He reached back, questing for his glass. In his quieter moments, he still missed Myrkr, the planet that he had once called home. And yet, Yoncalla was proving a worthy substitute. Through a gap in the mountains he could see the sun sliding below the quietly restless ocean, white-capped breakers sacrificing themselves on the altar of a submerged reef.

Sturm raised his head with a questioning cackle-purr. "No, it's not time to go in just yet." Karrde soothed, reaching down to pet the animal. He returned his focus to the dying red and gold embers of the sun reflected on the glassy emerald surface of the sea. His thoughts drifted to Mara, light-years across the galaxy on Coruscant. She'd been gone too long. He would have to get a message to her. With the mercurial political atmosphere in the New Republic anything could have happened. Nagging doubt crept up on him disturbing his reflection. If Mara wasn't able to get the money they needed, his fragile alliance would crumble.

"Karrde?" Aves inquired, appearing at the top of the steps. "Report just came in from Mazzic and Ellor. They've got some data for you. They're transferring it now. I thought you'd want to know."

Karrde stood up, Sturm and Drang following suit. "Really? I must admit I'm surprised."

They walked through the dining area, with its vaulted ceilings and archaic chandeliers, which had probably once served as a grand ballroom of sorts for whatever ancient nobleman had occupied the villa. Now small, round tables and comfortable chairs were sprinkled across the vibrant, mosaic-tiled floor. The dinner hour had passed and there were only a few lingerers still tarrying over drinks or conversation.

On their way to the parlor, which served as the communications/decrypt center, Karrde paused at one of the tables to glance down at its lone occupant.

"I trust you're enjoying our hospitality, Dravis," Karrde dropped a hand to the back of Dravis' chair. The other propped his feet on the table and took another drink.

"Now, Karrde, don't be like that." Dravis lounged brazenly, affecting a grin. "I told you, as soon as that transfer of credits goes through, my people and I will be out of your hair and on the case. But I checked this morning and my poor bank account is sorely wanting."

"And as I told you, Mara is on Coruscant as we speak. She'll transfer your money."

"Sure thing, old buddy. And as soon as she does, I leave."

Karrde walked off, shaking his head in disbelief.

Ghent, Karrde's best slicer, looked up from a computer as Karrde entered the parlor. "Hey, boss! Just finished the data transfer." He brought up Mazzic and Ellor's report, complete with battle footage. "Here you go."

When he'd finished reviewing the report, Karrde shook his head, the ghost of a wry smile flitting across his face. "Leave it to Mazzic." He murmured. Then to Ghent he said, "Send this to Mara on Coruscant." He turned to find Sturm and Drang, still at his heels, gazing up at him.

"That's right. Mara. You remember her, I know." Drang cocked his head, and whined. They seemed to look at him knowingly and he smiled down at them. "Come on. Let's get you some dinner."

***

In all fairness, Leia had gone above and beyond the call defending the Smuggler's Alliance to the Council Defense Committee. But it wasn't going to do any good. The Council, indeed the entire New Republic, was so split into factions and special interest groups that a consensus on anything was nearly impossible. But whatever their reasons, no one on the committee was going to spend New Republic funds on an external problem when the Republic itself was threatening to fall apart from within.

"Councilor Organa-Solo, I'm sure we all share your concerns about these pirate raids. However, I cannot in good conscience espouse the methods you propose to combat these brigands." The councilor from Corellia paused for good effect, glancing around the smaller committee chamber to insure he had the full attention of his audience, including the journalists in the balcony.

"Surely, our glorious New Republic has the resources from within to handle any threat."

Next to Bel Iblis, Madeleine snorted softly. The debate had been going on now for almost an hour. Bel Iblis shook his head slightly. When he had rejoined the New Republic over two years ago, he'd done so because of an overwhelming sense that it was the right thing to do. When had all of this gotten so out of control?

As soon as the Corellian representative had taken his seat another Councilor grandstanding for the holovid replaced him, arguing that the outer systems were not sufficiently protected by the New Republic or taken into consideration in matters of legislation.

Far to the rear of the chamber someone politely cleared his throat, interrupting the speaker on the floor.

"Madame Chief of State, fellow Councilors. If I might?" At a table positioned near the exit, Councilor Borsk Fey'lya stood to the muffled gasps of his fellow Bothans. Ever since his failed attempt to grab power from Admiral Ackbar more than two years ago, Fey'lya had been a political pariah among the Bothan councilors. Although they'd been unable to unseat him, Fey'lya rarely spoke on the floor of the council any longer. "We shouldn't even be having this debate. What is at issue here is whether or not we have faith in our abilities as a government to provide for our constituents. I do not believe we would be serving their best interest by using their money to glean uncertain information from a dubious source."

"I agree with Councilor Fey'lya," Ackbar put in. The two glanced at each other as if mildly horrified to find themselves on the same side of an issue. But Ackbar continued, resolutely. "I have disagreed with this arrangement all along. If these smugglers are so eager to help, why do they not commit themselves to the New Republic?" He gestured with a webbed hand, nodding his head succinctly as if that settled the matter.

Bel Iblis felt a stirring at his side. Madeleine was leaning over to whisper to someone at the end of their table. Mara Jade, sharply and professionally dressed, her red-gold hair pulled back severely into a knot as if she could somehow distract from her obvious youth and attractiveness; had entered without anyone noticing. Bel Iblis wondered how she had managed that. The liaison from the Smuggler's Alliance was whispering to Madeleine and pressing a datacard into her hand.

Madeleine leaned over to him as Mara melted away into the background.

"Sir, I think perhaps you should see this." She indicated the datacard. "It's footage of a pirate attack on an Imperial target: the first one that we know of so far."

"Is there, perhaps, something that you would like to share with the rest of the assemblage, General?" Councilor Djirk Od'win of Bothawui waited expectantly.

Bel Iblis looked appealingly to Mon Mothma. "If we might have a recess? Something may have arisen to affect these proceedings. I need a few moments to ascertain its relevance."

"Granted, General." She tapped her desk with a small hammer, gazing noncommittally around the Committee chamber. Then she nodded. "We will adjourn for a 30-minute recess."

***

After the battle footage had come to an end, Bel Iblis sat at his desk staring into space. There was something wrong in all of this. Something that he could not put his finger on. He replayed the battle, watching carefully. There was nothing obviously amiss, nothing concrete that he could take to the council. But, somehow, the form...the tone of this battle was wrong. With the internal politics in the Republic being what they were this would never be investigated. At least not with money appropriated by the Council. Page and his operatives had turned up nothing, not even a cold trail. Perhaps Karrde's smugglers would have access to resources that would be unavailable to New Republic agents. Perhaps this was a threat that could destroy everything they had worked so hard to create. Then again, perhaps he was becoming a paranoid old fool.

But could he afford to ignore his instincts? Could he allow the New Republic to be put at risk because of the political posturing of those who had forgotten what it was supposed to stand for in the first place? Grimly determined, he made up his mind.

He keyed the intercom. "Madeleine? Find Mara Jade. I need to talk to her."

***

"Bel Iblis did what?" Mara could hear the sentiment echoing throughout the Grand Corridor as she hurried toward the palace exit. She wanted to be as far away as possible when Bel Iblis dropped the hammer inside of the Inner Council chamber.

She pulled out her comlink. "Torve? Are you ready to get out of here?"

"You bet. Karrde says he'll be waiting for us at the usual contact site. I assume you know where that is, because he wouldn't tell me."

Mara smiled tightly. The day Karrde stopped being paranoid...

"Don't worry, Torve. I know exactly where we're going. But first we have to make a stop at the bank."

"The grand and noble New Republic actually gave us the money?"

"No. Not as such. But Bel Iblis did."

***

Three days later the Etherway began its descent into the number 36 landing pit at the Rishi spaceport. Karrde shook off a feeling of déjà vu as he watched the ship settle to the permacrete. Even though he knew that, this time, there was no Imperial Star Destroyer skulking in orbit, he couldn't help remembering the last time he'd waited like this for Mara to emerge from the Etherway.

When nothing exploded as the hatchway opened and Mara started down the ramp, Karrde let himself relax a bit.

"Welcome home, Mara."

She favored him with a smile. "It's good to be back."

"Nice to see that our friends in the New Republic are still willing to show a tangible appreciation for our services." He said, moving forward to meet her at the end of the ramp.

"Well, it's a bit more complicated than that," Her expression turned serious. "We may have some unforeseen problems, Karrde."

He relieved her of the small satchel she carried as Torve appeared in the hatchway.

"You can tell me all about it after you have a chance to freshen up."

"Thanks." She grinned, following him away from the ship. "After spending three days up to my neck in the tawdry political machinations on Coruscant I could use a shower."

"I think that can be arranged."

***

CHAPTER THREE

The lights, curiously, were brighter than usual in Admiral Pellaeon's private office aboard the Chimaera. Cavanaugh blinked and looked around, realizing that he had never really noticed his surroundings on previous visits with the Admiral.

Pellaeon gestured for him to sit. "What news, Captain?"

"Sir, we've been contacted by two more systems interested in speaking with you."

"Excellent, Captain. But, for now, I think further discourse will have to wait."

"Sir?" Cavanaugh was flummoxed. Now that they had some initiative back...

"Don't look so distressed, Captain. We will see to them in time. But first I have some things to attend to. I would like to think that you may be able to help me."

"Of course, Admiral. I am fully at your disposal."

"Thank you, Captain. Your devotion to duty does you justice, but this is not an ordinary assignment. It...goes outside the boundaries of normal duty." Pellaeon studied him again. "I think I am correct in my assessment that you and I share a vision for the Empire. If I am wrong, Captain, now is the time to tell me."

A discomforted Cavanaugh resisted the temptation to shift uncomfortably. "I hope, sir, that I have proved my loyalty."

"Very well. I have several groups of agents operating outside of the conventional Imperial power structure. From this point on, Captain, they will be reporting to you. And their first assignment under your command will be the elimination of certain undesirable fringe elements.

"Did you ever meet Grand Admiral Thrawn, Captain?" As Cavanaugh shook his head; Pellaeon continued, eyes flattening with memory. "He was perhaps the greatest military genius the galaxy has ever seen. Under his leadership, the Empire achieved a new era of intellect and subtlety. His betrayal and subsequent murder have haunted me for two years. I will see those responsible pay for their treachery." Pellaeon's fists clenched reflexively, his knuckles turning white. "Along with renewing the Empire, that is my utmost goal. A goal that I now entrust to you." He looked up, measuring the other. A cold, bitter fire smoldered behind those eyes, the result of years of hostility, frustration, and a blunted desire for vengeance.

This was, Cavanaugh realized, a test of his loyalty. Not to the Empire, but to Pellaeon personally. Over the last months, he'd had the sense that Pellaeon wanted to confide in him, but was unsure where his allegiance lay.

"I will not fail you, sir."

"Excellent. The first assignment for your men is the elimination of a smuggler named Talon Karrde. All of the specifics are contained here on this datacard. And I will order Major Llanym to contact you immediately for further instruction."

"Understood, sir. If that will be all?"

"Of course, Captain." Cavanaugh turned to leave. Next to the door stood a sculpture he had never noticed, visible only now in brighter illumination.

Noting Cavanaugh's gaze, Pellaeon smiled vaguely. "When I first saw that piece, I was strangely enthralled and not a little bit disturbed."

"It is unique." The sculpture seemed to writhe and pulse with an inner intensity. Cavanaugh tried to pull his eyes away as Pellaeon continued.

"It was a bequest to me from an old friend. I think, only now, I understand the lesson he was trying to teach me."

***

Red flashes played across Wedge Antilles' helmet as laser bolts issued forth from his B-Wing's triple array of cannons. The bolts met the target drone with a violent explosion of colorful energies, far more than should have been expected in the vacuum of space. Blast packs attached to the hull of the drones always guaranteed a more impressive show. Wedge executed a fast spiral turn to dispatch the next target instantly; flying impressively through the garish explosion it produced. His show of skill stemmed less from genuine enthusiasm, more from professional pride.

"As you can see by Commander Antilles' exceptional flying, gentlemen, our technicians have effectively increased the B-Wing starfighter's acceleration by 1.2 MGLT's per second and increased laser convergence efficiency by 8 percent," a tinny voice piped over the radio. "As you are no doubt aware, these improvements have allowed us to produce a starfighter that will give the pilot a true combat edge. If you'll observe how..."

Wedge tuned out the rest of the plant director's droning, irritated by the notion that his flying was the result of the fighter he flew rather than from years of combat experience. In reality, Wedge would rather have been sitting in his familiar X-Wing cockpit than in the bulky B-Wing, despite any minute improvements made to the design. Not that the B-Wing wasn't a useful ship, but as it was in effect a replacement for the less capable Y-Wing, it was really suited far more for bombing runs than dog fighting.

When the request to have the "famous commander of Rogue Squadron" participate in the unveiling of the TelStar starfighter facility's first completed batch of fighters, Wedge understood that he would be expected to fly one for the audience. The message had failed to mention, however, what type of craft he would be given to fly. At the moment Wedge felt he would be more pleased to stare down a squadron of TIEs or pirate fighters instead of drones, if he only he were given a fighter more his speed.

Wedge took the last target out, delivering a liberal stream of laser blasts that betrayed his mood, but that would be taken by the audience as an attempt at showiness. In truth, Wedge was no show-off, and would have turned down the offer to appear in the demonstration, had he not been so heavily pressured from "above." His only consolation was that in a few minutes the cruiser Benevolent would dramatically exit hyperspace and await transfer of the fighters. With luck, he would be aboard the cruiser and away from the Parmel system within the hour.

"Nice shooting, Commander!" his wingman, a young man named Hodges, piped in enthusiastically. "It has been an honor to fly with you, sir!"

"Thanks, lieutenant," Wedge responded, managing politeness as he glanced briefly at the other's A-Wing to his starboard. "You didn't do too badly either."

"Very impressive work, Commander Antilles. Now, gentlemen, we are expecting the arrival of the cruiser Benevolent any moment. If you'd care to join me in..."

The transmission cut off, Wedge's part in the demonstration completed.

At least, he considered, in his cockpit he was safe from mundane conversation with the director and the members of the Republic envoy.

An alarm cut through Wedge's thoughts. His display flashed a warning indicating new contacts. Wedge cut his engines and performed a 180, only to see an Old Republic-era Dreadnaught staring him down.

Pirates, Wedge concluded with a sinking feeling.

"Yellow One to TelStar, I have an unidentified capital ship. Dreadnaught class, heading .5," Wedge reported, just as a wing of Z-95's shot out of the intruding ship's hangar. "Launch whatever fighters you have in your hangar... these guys mean business."

"Unidentified craft... this is a New Republic facility..." the factory's comm officer announced shakily. Greeted by silence, he continued, "Leave immediately or we will respond with force!"

So much for diplomacy, Wedge thought dryly. A squad of Y-Wings emerged from the Dreadnaught, following the Headhunters closely.

"Sir, the fighters are closing on us...what should we do?" Hodges inquired, managing to remain calm.

"Follow my lead," Wedge responded. "And stay close to the facility until our fighters can launch."

The words had scarcely escaped Wedge's lips when the first wing of Republic fighters, a group of X-Wings, launched from the factory's hangar.

"Green squad," Wedge snapped, taking control. "Split your group and have half go after those Y-Wings...the other half, join us in intercepting the Headhunters."

"Roger, Yellow One." the squad leader responded, clearly relieved at having the weight of command lifted from him by Wedge.

Wedge turned his ship around and pushed the throttle to full, irritated by the B-Wing's lack of speed. Within ten seconds the Republic fighters encountered the pirates.

"Break formation and pick your targets," Wedge commanded.

The order was hardly necessary, as both Republic and pirate formations broke as the first laser blasts were exchanged. Formation flying was impressive for drills and bombing runs, but dog fighting was always semi-chaotic. Wedge picked his target, spun away from its laser barrage and flipped behind it, hammering his own blast through its shields and tearing the Z-95's wing off. The fighter spun uncontrollably, its pilot managing to eject before a fireball consumed the hull.

"This is Green Three," a panicked voice sounded over the radio. "I can't shake this guy...I...I've lost my shields!"

"Sit tight, Three. I'm on him," Wedge responded, taking a moment to incinerate his current target before targeting Three's assailant.

Wedge transferred his laser power into the engines in an attempt to reach Three in time. He was within weapons range when the Z-95 fired its last barrage. Green Three exploded before the pilot could eject. Wedge cursed inwardly as he blew away the Headhunter. A shout of distress, and Green 4 was destroyed. The Y-Wings were now totally unopposed, and were converging on the station.

"Commander Antilles," the plant director broke in urgently. "Those Y-Wings are locking on with torpedoes!"

"Green group, stay on the Headhunters," Wedge ordered. "I'll stop those Y-Wings."

Wedge picked the first Y-Wing and hammered it with his lasers. He succeeded in breaking off its bombing run and went on to the next rather than following it. It was too late, though, as the bombers were already letting loose their proton torpedoes. He succeeded in driving off three, but the rest unloaded several warheads each, then turned their attention on him. Switching to the B-Wing's ion cannons, Wedge broke off his attack, firing nonstop at the stream of torpedoes heading toward the factory, hoping to interdict as many as possible before they hit the plant. Wedge took out four before they were out of range. Several blasts to his aft shields forced him to return his attention to the Y-Wings.

The rest of Green group went down while Wedge evaded the Y-Wings, their limited piloting skills no match for the clearly seasoned pirates. Two of the pirates fell to Wedge, but he knew it was only a matter of time before they overwhelmed him and Hodges, the only two pilots left. Meanwhile, the torpedoes completed their deadly course, tearing apart the factory's deflector shields and mangling chunks of the hull.

As if in answer to Wedge's need, the Calamari Cruiser Benevolent emerged from hyperspace, just as a group of T-Wings appeared, bolstering the pirate's numbers.

"Cruiser Benevolent," Wedge called. "We are under attack and request urgent assistance!"

"Responding immediately!" came the Benevolent's startled reply.

The factory had suffered critical damage. Half of the Y-Wings broke off from Wedge, giving him a little relief, to finish it off. Bombarded on every section of the hull by laser and ion cannons, the dying factory careened on its side before being consumed by a massive fireball. Wedge cursed...millions of credits worth of materials and labor, not to mention the finest engineers and Republic representatives, were destroyed. Converting his anger into cold purpose, Wedge targeted an attacking Z-95 and vaporized it.

The Benevolent launched its meager force of four Z-95's and four B-Wing's to fight off the pirates. Having removed its old fighters to make room for the new ones, it had little to offer the conflict. Wedge just hoped that it would tip the balance. The Y-Wings, he noticed, were turning their attention on the Benevolent. They were well out of laser range, and he fervently wished the demonstration had included warheads...the B-Wing's launchers were empty. He could only hope the Benevolent could turn them back. Turning his attention on the T-Wings, he glanced nervously at his shield strength indicator...down to 50 percent after his dogfight with the Z-95's.

"Sir... my engines have been hit... I can't...." Hodge's frantic plea was cut off. Wedge only hoped he'd had time to eject.

The Y-Wings had not used all of their torpedoes on the factory, and the rest were launched toward the cruiser. The Benevolent's gunmen did their best, but the torpedoes presented too small a target to be effectively destroyed. The majority made it through, taking out the cruiser's portside shields.

"Attention fighters!" the Benevolent's flight officer shouted. "Our shields are out, we need you to...."

Brief static sounded... then silence. The Y-Wing's ion cannons were scoring hits up and down the Benevolent's hull, and its systems were failing. Blue fingers of electricity crackled across the ship's surface as its fried electronics discharged energy. The cruiser's engines went dead and its light's dimmed.

The cruiser was launching cargo ferries, going after the crates of starfighters waiting just near where the factory once was.

So that's what this is about, Wedge thought, ...simple theft.

It didn't add up though... it was almost as if they had known the Benevolent would be here. His suspicions were confirmed as a group of Assault Transports shot out of hyperspace near the cruiser.

They can't mean to take the Benevolent, he thought, ...or did they?

Wedge's speculations had to wait, as he was forced to return his attention to more pressing matters. The pirate's numbers were slowly overwhelming the Benevolent's fighters, and his own shields were weakening. An alarm sounded as a T-Wing achieved missile lock. Keying for countermeasures, Wedge discovered to his dismay that the B-Wing's chaff launchers were empty... another "unneeded" portion of the demonstration. He attempted to dodge the missile's path, but found the B-Wing too unwieldy. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as the last remaining New Republic fighter blossomed into a spectacular ball of fire. Shunting all his laser power to the engines, Wedge attempted to dive from the deadly projectile. He was thrown hard against the side of the cockpit as it slammed into him with a rocking explosion.

His console crackled as sparks flew from it. Damage indicators lit up and the only working screen flashed "eject" in time with a warning alarm.

Not bloody likely, Wedge thought. About to be overwhelmed by the remaining pirate fighters, Wedge risked it all on one desperate gamble. He steered the craft toward a section of empty space, reached up towards the smoking console and pulled the hyperdrive lever. The stars stretched into star lines and Wedge silently hoped that his next stop wouldn't be into a star or passing asteroid.

***

It was late. The ancient clock at the Central Gathering Hall washed the Imperial City in undulating colored light, marking the hour against the low-hanging clouds. The frenetic pace of the city was unrelenting. Air ships and speeders darted through the mist in a kinetic, strobe-lit dance. Far to the south, a tempest was gathering above the Manrai Mountains, invisible to those below in the city shrouded in fog.

An air of expectation loomed in the Palace, like the pent-up atmosphere before an electrical storm. Ever since Bel Iblis' defiance of the Council over the Smugglers' Alliance, every bureaucrat and politician on Coruscant had been watching and waiting, knowing that the fallout could spell their own ultimate opportunity or political downfall.

In his office, Bel Iblis half-interestedly reviewed a report from Commander Antilles. It seemed the young commander of Rogue Squadron had been commandeered by Ackbar for parade duty of some sort.

"Sir?" Madeleine appeared in the half-open door to Bel Iblis' office. "Councilor Organa-Solo is here to see you."

Bel Iblis looked up from the datapad. "Thank you, Madeleine. Show her in."

"Hello, Leia." He gestured toward a chair. "The council making any progress with the Sarkan negotiations?"

Leia gestured helplessly. "Some. Not enough. I'm not sure the outer systems are even listening to us anymore."

She paused. "The Sarkan situation wasn't the only matter we discussed, Garm."

He nodded. "I expected as much." He studied her, thoughtfully. "Does Mon Mothma know we're having this conversation?"

Leia shook her head. "I thought you deserved to know what was happening... Several of the councilors have asked that you step down."

Bel Iblis regarded her grimly. "You know I can't do that, Leia."

"I know." She smiled tightly. "I never expected that you would." She looked down again. "A vote will be called. There will most likely be an inquiry."

He shifted in his chair. "Yes, I know. That will take time, though. And in the meantime, if I'm allowed to continue in my position... I like to think that I'm doing some good for the Republic."

"For all it's worth, Garm, I believe you are. And I think Mon Mothma knows it, too." She paused. "You aren't a politician, Garm. You follow your conscience and in doing so you've simply become too controversial for many councilors. Your ideas are outside of party lines; they don't know what to make of that. Some people see your independence as part of the problem, not the solution. Especially now."

Bel Iblis considered her words for a moment. "Leia, I think you know me well enough to know that I wouldn't feel I was doing my job as a military commander if I didn't follow my instincts."

She nodded. "I know that. But the Republic is no longer a primarily military entity. The real power is in the hands of the politicians."

"Perhaps that's part of the problem."

"Perhaps. But after all of the regional conflicts of late, the council is determined to put on a united front. In their estimation, if you can't be part of that agenda, then you are the problem."

"Unity and order at the expense of personal conviction? It seems to me I've heard that somewhere before." He paused as if to let the implication sink in. "Tell me you aren't buying into this, Leia." He leaned forward, folding his hands on his desk.

"No. But I'm also not going to stand by and watch everything that we've sacrificed for be destroyed after just a few short years. I'll do what I can for you because I believe that your leadership is good for the Republic. But, Garm, I have to follow my convictions as well."

Leia stood, "I have to go."

Bel Iblis stood also and walked her to the door. "I appreciate your coming."

Leia stopped at the door and turned to say something more. Bel Iblis shook his head, "It's alright. I've done as my conscience dictated; I accept the consequences." He nodded slightly. "Thank you, Leia."

The outer door slid closed behind her and Bel Iblis retreated back into his office. He sat down heavily behind the desk, feeling fatigue drag at his limbs.

"Sir?" Madeleine was bathed in light from the doorway as she tentatively entered the room. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No, thank you, Madeleine." He smiled wanly.

Still, she hesitated, "If there's anything at all, General..."

"I know. I will." He said. She nodded and moved away, leaving him alone.

His comm board pinged, and Bel Iblis glanced at it, surprised. The transmission was coming in on his private extension, one to which few people had access. He keyed on.

"Bel Iblis..."

"Good day, General." Talon Karrde favored him with a faintly sardonic half-smile from the other end of the comm frequency. "I know this a classified frequency, but I couldn't think of another way to reach you... well, discreetly. And don't bother trying to trace this..." He said before Bel Iblis had even considered it, "The signal has been encrypted, rerouted, and boosted over enough comsats that it wouldn't do you much good."

"Well, Captain Karrde. I must say this is something of a surprise. To what do I owe it?"

"Simple gratitude, General. I understand you went quite out of your way for us."

The younger man's expression remained neutral, betraying nothing.

"I hate to disappoint you, Captain, but I didn't do it for your organization. I made a decision that I thought was in the best interest of the Republic. Besides, your young associate already passed on her appreciation. And as I told her, my interceding was inconsequential." Bel Iblis folded his arms across his chest, determined not to reveal to the smuggler how bad the situation on Coruscant was becoming.

"Really?" Karrde raised an eyebrow. "If my understanding of the situation is correct, you must be in rather politically delicate circumstances. Mara tells me things on Coruscant are beginning to degenerate."

Bel Iblis shook his head. "I can't speak to that, Karrde. Particularly not to a man whose business is the sale of information." Bel Iblis tried to sound stern, but was unconvincing, even to his own ears.

Karrde, for his part, seemed vaguely bemused more than anything. "I understand, of course, General. However, if your circumstances were to change for the worse...I might be able to return the favor at some point."

"I appreciate your offer, Captain, but we're hardly at that point yet." Bel Iblis hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt.

"I'm glad to hear that, General. More than you probably realize." Karrde paused. "I've tied my organization and the Smugglers' Alliance to the New Republic. If it were to collapse, the people I'm responsible for would be put at risk." He leveled his gaze at the other, "I'm sure you of all people understand that kind of responsibility, General."

"Indeed I do, Captain." Bel Iblis nodded, relenting a little bit. Even if Karrde was fishing for information, there was probably also truth behind what he said. "If I can use your help in the future, I will be sure to let you know."

"Thank you, General. And good luck." Karrde said as the transmission cut off.

***

Karrde keyed off as Lachton entered the shabbily furnished room, the antiseptic tang of the outside air wafting along on his heels.

"Things look relatively quiet, boss. My people are in position." He set down the bag he'd been carrying. "Mara's team ready to go?"

Karrde nodded distractedly. His conversation with Bel Iblis had left him feeling oddly unsettled. He looked up briefly from the patently illegal monitoring equipment that occupied his attention. Smuggling the latest in decryption and security-slicing technology into the cheap Abregado hostel had been no simple task.

"She checked in ten minutes ago." He said, dragging his attention back across several light years from Coruscant. "Her team is en route."

Lachton unconsciously adjusted the blaster at his side. "Well, then. Let's do it."

"Indeed?" Karrde raised an eyebrow. "I think patience will serve us best in this case."

"Whatever, boss." Lachton ran a nervous hand through his spiky hair. "This whole set-up is just making me edgy. I don't like trusting our necks to a bunch of computers."

"Karrde?" Mara's voice came small and tinny from the comlink.

"Mara?" Karrde keyed on the comm. "How are things looking on your end?"

Across the spaceport-city, Mara pressed her lips together in a wry smile. The Abregado-rae spaceport was truly at the bottom of the galactic heap. The government was corrupt and oppressive, but thorough. And, according to Dravis, somewhere in their records were reports of an anomalous amount of supplies headed for the Outer Rim, possibly intended for the same pirates who had been harassing New Republic shipping.

Mara turned her rented speeder around a tight corner, approaching the looming Spaceport Records Department building from the deserted southern service entrance. With the last scheduled courier leaving an hour earlier, this entrance would be little used in the middle of the night and afforded the team the best chance of a quiet entry. A quick glance confirmed the presence of only one bored-looking guard covering the street-level entrance.

"Everything's going as planned," Mara said calmly, keeping her gaze forward as she pulled towards the entrance. "We're proceeding."

She slowly brought the vehicle to a halt, hopping dexterously out the right side.

"Hey... you can't park that thing here! You'll have to..." further protest from the guard cut off as the blue ripple of a stun blast bowled him over.

Mara pulled the concealed stun rifle from beneath her jacket and purposefully strode over to the unconscious guard. Gripping him under the arms, she hauled him into the guard shack. When she emerged, the rest of her team, Dorsett, Faughn and Ghent were out of the speeder and past the gate. Dankin had replaced the downed guard, playing the part convincingly.

"That spaceport security outfit looks made for you, Dankin." Ghent chuckled softly. "Maybe you should consider a change of career." Dankin responded with a withering look.

"Cut the chatter...this isn't a field trip." Mara admonished as she attached her comlink headset. She turned to Chin, waiting in the speeder. "Get that thing out of sight, but stay nearby. We may need to get out of here in a hurry." Turning back to her three companions, she whispered. "Let's get in there. We've stayed out here too long already."

The gate guard's passkey opened the security door, and the team ducked inside the dimly lit service corridor.

"Karrde, we're in," Mara whispered into the comlink. She turned to face Ghent. "We're in your hands now. Which way?"

Ghent attached his computer headset, and the three watched as his right eye moved back and forth, in sync with the left, which was viewing floor plans and schematics through his vid-screen eyepiece. After mere seconds, his attention returned to Mara.

"We need to get to one of the sensor monitoring stations so I can tap in," Ghent whispered tightly. "The closest one is on level four, section C-6. If we take the service lift, we should be able to avoid sensor or security-vid detection."

Mara nodded, gesturing for Ghent to lead the way.

"Let's just hope no one's working late." Faughn muttered.

The service lift deposited them on the fourth level, in one of the Records Center's mainframe rooms. Cabinet sized computers lined the wall, quietly sorting information.

"The Abregado government has every flight plan of every passing freighter from the past five years stored in this building," Ghent whispered excitedly as they walked through the rows of computer systems. "It's a massive system. Not as impressive as Coruscant's, of course, but still nothing to sneeze at."

"The Abregado authorities didn't secure their tight control through being sloppy," Dorsett commented.

"Why don't we take a tip from them," Karrde cut in over the comlink. "and stick to our objectives."

"Karrde's right," Mara added. "We don't need any distractions."

"Okay, okay," Ghent said. "We're here anyway."

A solid transparisteel door blocked their way into the monitoring station. Ignoring the bold-lettered "Authorized Personnel Only" sign, Ghent quickly and expertly had the panel off the code reader. He probed around inside the jumble of circuitry, and within seconds, the door slid neatly open with a whoosh.

"Piece of cake," Ghent grinned.

The monitoring room was smaller than Mara would have thought. There was room for little more than the single chair, surrounded on three sides by vid-screens and computer panels. Luckily the chair's occupant was nowhere to be seen. During the late night hours, all security-monitoring operations were performed by the automated systems. As such, the only light in the room was the green glow given off by the monitors.

Ghent quickly sat in the chair and ran his gaze briefly over the massive panels.

"This shouldn't be too hard," he called over his shoulder. "Just give me about five minutes."

It took just over three minutes for Ghent to complete his work. He ran a final check on the systems, running his hands rapidly over the controls.

"Everything looks good. You should now have access to all sensor controls," he said into his comlink."

"I have it, Ghent. Good work," Karrde answered. He watched as information flooded his screen, his face bathed in the green backwash of electronic light. Karrde smiled in appreciation. Since the building's security sensors could not be disabled without sending alarms ringing across the city, Ghent's plan was to merely reroute the sensors to Karrde's console, convincing the mainframe that Karrde's system was in fact the monitoring station.

The sensors now served a double purpose. Karrde could monitor the team's progress and alert them to any unexpected visitors. If anyone bothered to check the system, the reroute would be obvious, but knowing spaceport police the lack of any alarms would be enough to divert suspicion.

"Everything looks good...security doesn't seem alerted to your presence," Karrde said. "How long can we maintain this connection?"

"Indefinitely...that is until someone finds the data-link I attached to reroute the signal," Ghent answered. "But remember, you only have control of the sensors in the east wing of the building...that's all this station monitors."

"That should be all we need." Mara cut in. "Now that we can move freely, where can we tap into the records mainframe?"

They waited as Ghent perused his schematics. "The mainframe is closed off from all outside access, so we have to access the terminal directly. It is located on the sixth floor in section E-18. We'll need to take the main lift up."

"Okay. Let's move," Mara ordered.

***

Far from the bright and civilized core of the galaxy, the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera trolled between the stars like some aquatic behemoth from another age. Stoic and proud, the ship made its stately way through the less-populated systems of the Mid-rim, a throwback maintaining order in the last vestiges of the Empire.

Onboard that ship lay perhaps the last, best hope for the Empire. The officers, pilots, and crewers were the finest the Empire had left to offer. All chosen not only for skill, but for their unwavering dedication to salvaging the Empire, to the Fleet... and to their admiral.

In his private office, Pellaeon studied. Tactical reports, technical readouts, political strategy, intelligence, rumour… Nothing was discarded as useless. He read and theorized until his head throbbed and his eyes teared. And when he felt he could go on no longer, he studied Thrawn. Pouring over the Grand Admiral's logs and journals, he felt rejuvenated, as if his purpose was renewed.

Among Thrawn's things Pellaeon had found the outline for his final sweep against the New Republic over two years before, Thrawn's grand and glorious strategy that had been blunted by an assassin's blade.

Those plans were now useless. The Empire was too weak. Peace had been the only viable option for survival. But conditions would not always be so. And Pellaeon knew that when the time came, he and the Empire would be prepared. But for now, what gave him focus was Thrawn's personal journal. Many of the entries were addressed to Pellaeon himself. At first he had been surprised at the discovery, but upon reflection, saw it for what it was. A man like Thrawn prepared for every eventuality...even his own death. So on the days, like today, when Pellaeon despaired of ever setting things right in the universe, Grand Admiral Thrawn reached forth from the grave to guide him.

Captain- As we have progressed in our goal of restoring the might of the Empire, I have taken it upon myself to teach you, in the hope that you will learn that what may seem at first like tenuous intuition or inspired stratagem is merely the result of thinking outside of our boundaries. Your years in the regimentation of the Fleet have made you a fine officer but they have also limited your thinking... I have faith in you, Captain. Learn to think beyond yourself, beyond the Imperial Navy. Touch art, or whatever inspiration you will... and then you will understand...

Pellaeon had no aspirations of becoming Thrawn, merely of gleaning enough of his knowledge and technique to make the Empire strong again. And then he would see destroyed those who had destroyed Thrawn. In all of this he knew only two constants: his desire to see the Empire reborn and a passionate fury to see Thrawn avenged. The fire burned low, smoldering beneath his staid façade, but it was with him each moment, waking or dreaming.

"Admiral Pellaeon? Sir?" Commander Tschel's voice piped over the intercom, intruding upon his reflection.

"Yes, Commander?" Pellaeon rubbed his temples, leaning his elbows on his massive desk.

"Sir, there's a message coming through for you from Ord Mantis. Shall I send it on to your office?"

"No," Pellaeon stood up. "I think I should like to take it on the bridge, Commander. Thank you."

"Yes, sir."

Pellaeon strode from his office, leaving behind the bitter shadows of his private thoughts. He entered his bridge, feeling simultaneously the weight and pride of long decades in the Imperial Fleet. On either side the officers came to attention as Pellaeon walked by them. Cavanaugh looked up from the tactical display over which he was bent with study.

"Commander..." He motioned Tschel forward. The young officer dutifully escorted Pellaeon to the communications console.

The message was from Veers. Its contents would perhaps have been cause for celebration among his officers if they could have understood its import. He looked up, studying the hunched shoulders of his second in command. The day was coming when Cavanaugh would have to be trusted with the plans Pellaeon and a few others had held so close and secret for so many months now. He would have to learn to trust Cavanaugh, untried though he was, much as Thrawn had trusted Pellaeon himself, although that time now felt as distant to him as fleeting memory.

"Good news, I trust, Admiral." Cavanaugh had left his chosen station and moved over to his commander.

"Yes. Indeed it is." Pellaeon acknowledged noncommittally. "In a manner of speaking."

Cavanaugh's brow furrowed, as though trying to gauge his Admiral's words.

"I see, sir."

"No, Captain. I don't think you do. Perhaps it is time we changed that." The ghost of a grim and pleasure-less smile wafted across Pellaeon's lips. "Perhaps it is time indeed."

"As you wish, sir." Cavanaugh nodded.

"What is our ETA to New Cov, Captain?" Pellaeon asked, abruptly all-business.

"Twenty-seven hours, sir."

"Good, Captain. After my meeting with the planetary officials there, you and I shall have time for a discussion...including, among other things, your progress with that other matter we discussed recently." He met Cavanaugh's gaze coolly, as though the topic was of minimal importance, but the captain could still the see the vestiges of bitter fire he had witnessed before.

"Of course, Admiral. I look forward to it."

***

Wedge stared out from his cockpit into the acid-washed starkness of deep space that comprised the no-man's land between the Republic and the Empire. Far-off stars radiated ancient, passionless light from hopeless distances. The desperate flight from TelStar that had saved his own life had been the death knell for his much-abused B-Wing. Without hyperdrive or communications, and with life support functions slipping slowly and quietly away, the ship would provide him shelter from the hungry vacuum for only so much longer. He scanned through the small ship's remaining navigation files, searching for an inhabited planet within this system. If he found one, he would have to try and coax his ship to limp the nearly unattainable distance to relative safety.

As another of the cockpit displays flickered and died with a silken, electronic sigh, Wedge found a likely target. It would be a long shot, a million to one chance, but he would take it and hope that this was not the time his luck was destined to run out.

He moved in his seat, trying switches and adjusting the few remaining systems, as the B-Wing continued its quiescent demise all around him.

"Not yet," he murmured, half to the ship, half to himself. "We've got to keep moving." He rapped decisively on the panel and several systems flickered to life and came on-line...for the time being. Bringing the B-wing's nose around with only moderate difficulty, he pointed the ship in his desired direction and mentally crossed his fingers. He knew that even if he made it safely to the third planet in the Udzah system, the only inhabited one as far he could tell, there was no guarantee that he would find help there. This far from the heart of the New Republic, the loyalties of the locals were bound to be divided at best.

Resigned, Wedge nursed his damaged engines. Aware that if he did not survive and return to Coruscant, the truth of the disaster at TelStar would never be known. He wasn't sure what that would mean for the Republic, but in these days of uncertainty and strife, he knew it could be nothing good.

Grimly determined, he guided his wounded craft toward the heart of the Udzah system.

***

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