November 15, 2000
Category: Star Wars; PG13
Author: Robert DeFrank

[Disclaimer]

Clash of Fates, a Thrawn Duology: Part One


Spoilers: Vision of the Future, Vector Prime, Dark Tide: Ruin, Rogue Planet

Summary: While the Battle of Endor draws near, another confrontation just as crucial to the future of the galaxy is taking place. Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Yuuzhan Vong have become aware of one another, and a war for control of the Unknown Regions has begun. Thrawn and the Executor wage this war in their own way, but it will a lone Jedi Knight, a psychotic TIE fighter pilot and an innocent native of a conquered planet who will decide the outcome.

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by George Lucas, Timothy Zahn, Michael A, Stackpole, R.A. Salvatore and Greg Bear. No money is being made and no infringement is intended.

Author's Note: Much of this story was written before Agents of Chaos: Hero's Trial was published, as a result I have had only a vague idea of Vergere's situation, appearance and personality. This means that I will have to alter the forthcoming chapters of Part Two in order to return Vergere to where she is in the beginning of Hero's Trial. I am confident that I can make it work, though, since I had a similar crisis when writing Part One: I was in the middle of writing Chapter Two when Rogue Planet was published, which gave me the idea of putting Vergere in this story in the first place. Enjoy the story, and may the Force be with you.


Prologue

The slaves were hard at work under the morning sunlight, tending the many fields of yorrik coral where the Yuuzhan Vongs' creatures grew to maturity. The sight pleased Sang Anor to no end. The Executor walked with long, easy strides along the uneven ground, surveying the development of the many and diverse life forms that grew around him, tailor-made to fit the needs of the Praetorite Vong. On this small, obscure planet deep in what the beings of this galaxy called the Unknown Regions a fleet was slowly being constructed, and when the waves of holy warriors arrived at the Outer Rim to bring the superior ways of the Yuuzhan Vong to the infidels they would find the human Empire in chaos and a strong foothold already established. The worlds of this galaxy would be like to ripe villips waiting to be plucked.

Like most Yuuzhan Vong warriors, Sang Anor was clothed in a loincloth only. The Vong wore as little as possible when circumstances did not call for vonduun shell armor or an ooglith cloaker, the better to reveal his masterpiece of scars, tattoos and various other functional deformities that marked his exalted status as the highest ranking Yuuzhan Vong in this galaxy.

That would change once the great jihad against the infidels began, when the Vong forces questing here from across the vast space between galaxies arrived. So they thought, at any rate. Sang Anor had his own plans, and they did not include being subordinate to Domain Shai. Taking control of this world was the first step in the Executor's plans: the armies of the Yuuzhan Vong would have a secure foothold on this galaxy in the power base that was being grown here, under Sang Anor's direction. He would be in a position to control the course of the war and when, inevitably, the Yuuzhan Vong were victorious he would rule this galaxy. In the name of the Overlord, of course.

That would be awhile in coming, though: the many worldships of the Praetorite Vong were still a long way from these stars. It would be more than twenty years before the first worldships reached the Outer Rim, no matter how hard the dovin basals that were focused on these star clusters worked to propel the ships. Sang Anor meant to be alive and powerful when they arrived, though, ready to begin his true work.

But in the meanwhile he had problems nearer at hand to deal with. One of his private pleasures, however, was stealing a few minutes to walk among the living tools and weapons of his people, watching them grow stronger. He was unaccompanied, armed only with a long-bladed coufee hanging at his side, and he was out of sight of the nearest Overseer, but Sang Anor wasn't worried as he passed a group of slaves searching for signs of infection or parasites in the yorrik coral. The slaves had all been implanted with Obeyers, of course, at the temples, joints and other power centers of the body and could no more raise a hand against a Yuuzhan Vong than they could grow wings and fly. Besides, he could easily hold his own against any five of this world's short, reptilian natives.

Lean and broad-shouldered, Sang Anor towered head and shoulders over the tallest of them. Before the Executor had selected this planet as a seed-world the natives had been a primitive race, small tribes living in mud huts along the marshes. Now both they and their world had been put to use in forwarding the goals of the glorious Praetorite Vong. They should be grateful.

Topping a ridge, he came in sight of two Overseers who nodded respectfully and continued their work. One reptile, an old one that could barely lift it's thick tail, had collapsed while carrying a gourd of nutrients to feed the coral. The Overseers kicked it a few times for spilling the feed and ordered it to rise. The Obeyers inside the slave forced it to try, but the native was unable to get to it's feet. It only lie there, breathing shallowly.

One of the Overseers took a step toward the prone slave. It had fallen near a holding pit for infant amphistaffs. A younger reptile broke away from a group of a half-dozen and ran to the old one's side as fast as the growths the Obeyers caused in his knees would permit. It knelt beside the oldster and turned its slitted eyes to the Overseers, babbling in the garbled Basic that many of the slaves had learned from their new masters (they also knew better, by now, than to ever dare to speak in the tongue of the Yuuzhan Vong). Sang Anor recognized the words "wait" and "rest" in the sibilant pleadings.

The Overseer didn't dignify the slave with a verbal response, merely tapped the head of the amphistaff that lay across his shoulders and coiled around his upper arms. The trained serpent uncoiled, straightened and stiffened. Quick as a snake himself, the Overseer lashed the slave, using the flat of the staff's tail rather than the razor-sharp sides -- no sense in wasting labor. The slave scurried off and the Overseer put one bare foot on the worn-out slave and shoved.

The reptile rolled into the holding-pit, and any sounds it might have made were swallowed up with the screeching cries of the infant amphistaffs. Mature, amphistaffs were intelligent and obedient, but the infants were savage, untrainable and always hungry. They would leave nothing of the slave and it was near their feeding time anyway. Sang Anor nodded in approval. Nothing went to waste here.

The Executor heard the sound of bare feet on the beaten path between the coral fields and turned as his son appeared around a growing coralskipper. Nom Anor stopped at a respectful distance and dropped to his hands and knees, eyes downcast, awaiting acknowledgment.

Nom Anor was a young Vong with little combat experience. He wore a long-sleeved shirt woven of arach-threads. The garment was calf-length and slit on either side to his waist, so as to conceal the disgusting smoothness of his body without obstructing movement. The young Vong had nearly his father's height and frame, but was still of the feenir level, the slang term translated as "larva": minimal scars and no tattoos.

"Rise and speak." Sang Anor spoke coldly. Any familiarity between two Vong of such vastly different stations would only dishonor them both. As the son of the Executor, the only special treatment Nom Anor was entitled to was that everyone expected three times as much from him than from the other feenir. Everyone except Sang Anor himself, who expected five times as much from his son.

He longed to see Nom Anor as a battle scarred warrior, one he could embrace as an equal. Of course, he let none of this show on his ruin of a face. It was unwise to grow too attached to one's offspring: the feenir state was the weeding-out phase, where the weak and stupid were culled. Whether Nom Anor prospered or not was entirely up to him and the gods.

Nom Anor stood upright in single, fluid move, but he kept his head bowed to hide the shameful symmetry of his face. Sang Anor, who's facial bones had been broken and rebroken countless times, noted the perfectly disciplined stance with approval. The feenir couldn't keep the flash of excitement from his eyes.

"Executor," he said respectfully, "Prefect Ke'Nass has returned with a prisoner from the Imperial fleet."

Sang Anor's head snapped around, eyes blazing up. "Come!" Nom Anor following in his wake, they loped across a coral field, their tough-soled, clawed feet enabling them to find purchase on the rough surface. They soon arrived at the living shell-structures that served as residences for Overseers and slaves. A spaceport was not needed, as coralskippers required little in the way of maintenance. There was a flattened area used as a landing field, though. Two coralskippers were settled there now, being fed by attentive slaves, and between the two beautiful, living ships...

Sang Anor's eyes narrowed at the telltale solar side panels and spherical cockpit of a TIE fighter.

"Executor." The tall Vong at the edge of the field greeted Sang Anor. In full armor, an amphistaff coiled around his arm, Prefect Ke'Nass looked every inch the proud warrior. If his intelligence, or at least the good sense, matched his ambition he would be formidable indeed. The Prefect was cunning enough when it suited him and none could deny he had a fair amount of charisma. He was also Sang Anor's most despised rival for power.

"Disgusting, isn't it?" Ke'Nass went on, indicating the fighter which Sang Anor saw at a glance was no ordinary TIE. "The prisoner called it a TIE Advanced. An improvement over the normal abominations. I didn't want the worldship defiled by it so I had the vessel set down here."

"What is the meaning of this?" Sang Anor slowed to a walk, then stopped a few paces from Ke'Nass. He didn't raise his voice, but the menacing undertone got through the Prefect's dense skull. Ke'Nass' lips were twisted in a perpetual smirk, but the mocking expression was in earnest.

"Information, Executor." The prisoner, a man in the uniform and masked helmet of a TIE pilot, was kneeling beside the Prefect, his hands bound with blorash jelly and an armored Vong warrior standing behind him. "Intelligence about the Imperial fleet operating in this sector. My scouting group detected this lone fighter and I saw an opportunity."

An opportunity to make a grab for personal glory, and perhaps revealing our presence to that fleet. "You were instructed not to engage the infidels unless you were detected."

"I prefer to strike at our enemies, not hide in the dirt like worms and hope the machine-men don't notice us."

Sang Anor slowly flexed his hands, his hooked talons almost itching, and for a second he seriously considered cracking open the Prefect's armor, turning him inside out and feeding his guts to his own coralskipper. "And I prefer to have my orders obeyed. Tell me, what did you learn that was worth your disobedience?" Especially when the spies Sang Anor had dispatched were already at work gathering information about the ships that were operating in this supposedly unknown part of space. Ke'Nass' grand gesture was not only risky, but useless as well.

The Prefect gestured briefly and the warrior behind the prisoner pulled off the captive's helmet. Nom Anor, standing a half dozen paces away from the high ranking Vong, drew a sharp breath as his eyes widened. Sang Anor, more practiced at hiding his feelings, confined his surprise to a low hiss through clenched teeth as he saw the pilot pale blue skin, black hair and the red eyes that burned defiantly at all around him.

"Very melodramatic." Sang Anor said to cover his shock. "Is this a joke, Prefect?" A Chiss? In an Imperial uniform and flying an Imperial fighter? Impossible! Only humans were allowed in the Empire's military. "Or perhaps you came across some pirates using stolen equipment. There are no aliens in the Empire's fleet."

"So we thought," Ke'Nass shrugged, the spikes that studded his armored shoulders seemed to bristle, "this pilot boasted otherwise when I spoke to him during our transport back to this world. It seems the Imperials operating here have made an alliance with the Chiss, which does not bode well for our work here remaining undiscovered." The smirk twisted further to show the Prefect's sharpened fangs. Sang Anor offered a thin smile in return. Ke'Nass would dearly love to see this project fail: building a power base in the Unknown Regions was all Sang Anor's idea, Sang Anor's "baby" as the infidel slang went. If he failed, then Ke'Nass was the Prefect most likely to become the next Executor.

As for Sang Anor, a Yuuzhan Vong Executor cannot be demoted, he or she holds the position for life. The issue was the way that life ended, whether in old age, in battle, or at a summery execution, which would certainly be ordered as soon as he communicated his failure to the villip sympathetic to the one held by the Overlord.

And Ke'Nass will be Executor, and if we are discovered, the Empire made ready for our assault in twenty years' time and we lose this galaxy, well, that is all secondary, isn't it? he though with contempt. "Well it seems you've brought something interesting after all." He said pleasantly. Nothing his spies wouldn't have found out anyway. "I will take over the interrogation, unless you think you're more qualified for it as well?"

"By all means, Executor. This warrior will brief you." He turned and sauntered away. The Vong behind the kneeling Chiss bowed.

"I am Saven Marn, Executor. I was flying a coralskipper on the patrol when the Prefect detected this machine. In accordance with orders we disrupted the machine's communications and moved to capture, not kill. Because of this the machine was able to destroy two coralskippers before it was disabled."

"Impressive." Sang Anor turned to the kneeling pilot. The Chiss wore a look of cold disdain, but the Executor could smell his fear. They had been speaking the Yuuzhan Vong language all this time, now he switched to Basic. "What is your name, Chiss, and why do you fly for the Emperor?"

The glowing eyes narrowed and he spoke in a complex, musical language. Sang Anor was one of the few Yuuzhan Vong who could speak flawless Basic without the aid of a tizowyrm, but the Chiss language was beyond him. He picked out a name, "Mith'raw'nuruodo," because of the emphasis the pilot put on it, but that was all.

He was impressed by the creature's defiance. Strong enemies offered the best challenges, and it was so much more satisfying when they broke. His long arm shot out, faster than the glowing eyes could follow, and gripped the pilot's shoulder like a vise. Nom Anor started, by touching the Chiss, the Executor had conferred a great honor on the infidel.

The glow in the alien's eyes flickered uncertainly as he was lifted upwards. He maintained his dignity, but Sang Anor could feel him tremble as his booted feet left the ground and he held him up, one handed, without trouble or tiring.

"Let's stop playing games." He brushed the pilot's face with his free hand, the hooked talons a hair from breaking the skin. "If you are an Imperial pilot, it follows that you speak Basic. So start speaking." He studied the Chiss with eyes like spears of blue ice. "I've always wondered about you Chiss. Tell me, do your eyes continue to glow after they've been dug out of their sockets?"

That did it. The pilot began to talk, and Sang Anor soon learned more than he wanted to know.

***

Chapter One

Purity.

Perfection.

That was what flying was all about, not crushing the Empire's enemies, keeping order in the galaxy or any of the political rhetoric the propaganda artists at Imperial Center cooked up. It wasn't even about settling the Unknown Regions in the Emperor's name, the official purpose of Unity Fleet.

Lt. Drash Tevock sent his TIE Dagger streaking after the enemy fighter, the black emptiness around the ship's protective shell was alive with blasterfire and speeding shapes as sleek fighters danced around massive capital ships that lumbered through space trying to bludgeon each other to death with turboblasters.

The fighter Drash tailed was good, no question, but Drash was better. Drash was the best. The Dagger followed the enemy as it climbed, passing so close to the raiders' battlecruisers that both were at risk of being vaped in the exchange of fire between it and the Imperial Star Destroyer, Hurricane. The pilot was as dense as a Wookie's cranium if he thought that would unnerve Drash. The targeting computer locked on the enemy and a red square framed its image on the targeting display. Not that it mattered. Drash would have known if he'd had a clear shot regardless, he would have sensed it.

His thumbs squeezed the firing buttons atop the steering rods and four blaster bolts lanced out and converged on the raider, knocking out the fighter's rear deflector shield. The pilot tried to roll away, but it was too late: another salvo followed the blazing trail of the first and took out one of the ion engines. The ship was sent spinning to impact and explode on its own side's battleship.

Drash didn't linger, but flew in search of more targets. He was not disappointed.

Drash Tevock was rarely happy, only when he was flying, then the petty concerns of life vanished and the universe became a wavering shadow. No memories, no past, no future, only the moment, the kill, the fight at breakneck speed. He stopped being a human and became a force. He became the sharp edge of the blade. That was why he loved his Dagger: there was nothing faster in the fleet. And if it lacked the protection of energy shields and the heavy firepower of missiles, that only brought him closer to the state of being he so loved.

The TIE Dagger was the equal of the TIE Interceptor in most respects, but with superior visibility and targeting systems and a smaller profile which made the Dagger a harder target. It also meant a hundred of the fighters could be packed into a Star Destroyer's launching bay instead of the usual 75 standard fighters. The Imperial fighters were simply overwhelming the raiders, it was getting harder to find targets.

Almost half the enemy fighters were vaped in the first few minutes of engagement, when the enemy fleet intent on ambushing a Miashku convoy was pulled out of hyperspace by the Interdictor Cruiser Barricade and found themselves surrounded by Star Destroyers. The ambushers had become the ambushed.

A TIE pilot ejected as his Interceptor had exploded and an enemy was closing on the life pod. Drash vaped the raider before he even knew what was happening. Pathetic. You'd think pirates would be used to sneak attacks. He ignored the pod. Let someone elsetow it to safety.

"Grey Squadron, this is Grey One," Commander Lont's voice crackled over the comm, "one of the cruisers is running. Sector 6-2." Sure enough, one of the three enemy capital ships had slipped past the Destroyers and was making for the edge of the Interdiction field, where it could escape into hyperspace.

Trying to leave the party early? Drash smiled. We can't have that. "This is Grey Seven, I copy Grey Leader." He moved to join his squadron mates.

"Try and leave some for the rest of us, Seven." A refined voice over the comm. Grey Twelve, Lt. Rael, was a Chiss, and so he managed to make even a joke disdainful. Many humans in the fleet disliked the Chiss: bad enough working with aliens, but aliens who actually looked down on humans? Unthinkable!

"If you spent less time talking, Twelve, it wouldn't be so hard finding targets." Another Grey, a human, spoke. The tone tried for lightheartedness, but had an edge to it.

Drash for one didn't care about any of that. Rael could be a Mon Cal as far as he was concerned. All interest lay in the kill, the perfect kill. He could feel the panic, desperation and hope in the cruiser as it struggled to escape. Badly damaged, still running somehow, it reminded Drash of something he'd seen on his homeworld.

A badly wounded cave bear, all shaggy for and muscle. A raptor sporting with it, keeping just out of reach of the crushing claws and slashing with beak andtalons. Drash felt like that raptor, he and the fighter were not two separate things, but one deadly predator. He was strong, pure and complete, existing in the moment. The sharp edge of the knife.

Seconds from escape, the crew struggled to aim turbo blasters at the fighters closing on them. Powerful weapons, but slow, so slow. Too slow.

"I'll take out the shield array." Rael said over the comm. He flew a TIE Advanced, equipped with shields, a hyperdrive and missiles.

"I've got it, Grey Twelve." Drash sent over the comm. He increased power tohis ion engines.

"Grey Seven!" The Commander's voice held the whip of authority. "Fall back and let Twelve have it!"

"You're coming in fuzzy, Grey Leader." Drash said absently, all attention was focused on the cruiser. He was closer to it than any other fighter by at least three klicks and his Dagger was faster than an Advanced. He didn't need shields, he was too fast. He didn't need missiles either: the enemy ship was so battered the shields were barely holding anyway, and his scanners had already pinpointed their weakest point.

He fired as he passed over, blaster bolts penetrated the shield just over the array. The shields collapsed and the battlecruiser was now just a big target.

Drash overshot the capital ship then swung around for another pass. The turboblaster batteries fired, of course, but he was too fast. He strafed the battleship with blasterfire, taking out the bridge as the Dagger flashed over like a bolt of lightning. His eyes burned bright under the pilot's mask, and his face twisted in a savage grin. For a brief instant in that pass, Drash was tempted to angle down and plow into the bridge. Stab the body of his fighter like the dagger it,and it's pilot, were.

The desire was short lived, vanishing as soon as it flashed across his mind.This was good work he'd done, but it wasn't what he was searching for. It wasn't the perfect kill, the one that he would give his life for.

The rest of Grey Squadron was only now converging on the battleship, but there was little left to do: the great beast's head had been cut off and now the vessel was drifting dead in space. It was in the past now, and the past meant nothing to Drash. He searched for his next kill.

***

On the bridge of the Admonitor, flagship of Unity Fleet, the Miashku Ambassador's tentacles writhed in pleasure as it watched the pirate fleet that had preyed on its peoples' shipping lanes being taken apart by the Imperial forces. Captain Voss Parck watched the alien out of the corner of his eye and a small smile played across his face.

Serving with the Grand Admiral in the Unknown Regions, Parck had encountered more alien life forms than in his entire career prior to being assigned to Unity Fleet. Also, he had learned a few things from the Admiral. Though he had no claim to that level of brilliance, what he knew of Miashku body language told him thatthe Ambassador was very impressed indeed. It was certain to recommend that its world petition admittance to the Empire.

"I trust this display of Imperial precision has convinced you of the benefits of the Empire's protection." The Miashku turned toward the Chiss in the white Grand Admiral's uniform, but kept a few of its eyes on the battle. The gurgling reply issuing from several orifices was dutifully translated by the protocol droid at itsside -- a tripod with many jointed arms and legs. Parck had long since gotten used to the little oddities about the Unknown Regions, such as the fact that so few protocol droids were modeled after the human form.

"The lord Ambassador is most pleased with your fleet's performance, Admiral Thrawn, especially at how you were able to predict the exact hyperspace vector the pirates would use."

"The Ambassador is most courteous." Thrawn inclined his head slightly.

"Admiral sir," one of the crewmen turned from the comm station, "incoming transmition from enemy vessels. They wish to surrender."

"Excellent. Order our forces to cease fire and open a comm channel."

"Open, sir."

"Pirate fleet, this is Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Imperial Unity Fleet. Your surrender is accepted. You will cease all hostilities and allow your vessels to be boarded. At which time you will turn over all weapons and equipment onboard. Afterwards you will be released."

"This**** Commander Fran," a voice crackled over the comm, "****terms are accepted, we will **pare to be boarded."

On hearing this, the Miashku spurted more words, which the droid translated."The Ambassador approves of your decision, Admiral, but points out that the raiders have stolen much from its people. Perhaps the Admiral is too merciful?"

Parck listened carefully. Thrawn had told him earlier that this next conversation would be crucial to winning the Ambassador over. Miashku were merchants to the core, thinking always in terms of profit and loss, so Thrawn has told him as he pointed out various holograms of Miashku artwork. Half the battle would be to show them it was more profitable to have Imperial protection than to bribe warlords and hire mercenaries. However, it was also necessary to show them they could live under the Empire's justice.

"Certainly, if your people were Imperial citizens the pirates would be made to compensate you with interest." Thrawn said smoothly. "Since that is not the case, I do the next best thing." He swept his arm toward the remains of the pirates. "Those raiders are ruined and will be released to spread word of the Empire's power, and the penalties for attacking the Empire's allies, throughout Zoab sector."

The tentacles writhed in a satisfied way. To the Miashku, it was better to humiliate and impoverish one's enemies than to kill them. "Your point is well taken." The droid said. "And now the Ambassador wishes to retire to its quarters."

"Of course," he turned to another crewman, "Ensign, escort the Ambassador to its quarters." The Ambassador followed the crewman into the turbolift, the droid rolling behind it on wheeled feet. "Captain Parck, you have the bridge, I will be in mychambers. See to the prisoners and download the data from their ships' computers.I will expect a report of the battle as soon as possible."

"Aye sir."

***

"Interesting." Thrawn scanned the datapad Parck handed him and turned his command chair to the monitors and consoles of his command station. Parck saw star charts of the various systems of the Zoab sector and tactical recordings of the latest battle.

"Admiral?" He asked.

"The battle went well, Captain. Complete victory, casualties almost nonexistent, but something about the engagement caught my attention." He touched a console and a recording appeared onscreen. "That cruiservery nearly escaped. Most likely it would have if not for Grey Squadron."His red eyes glowed softly as he watched the cruiser being disabled. "Very impressive flying, especially Grey Seven." He replayed that section of the recording again, the tiny Dagger harassing the battleship like a venomous gathi wasp, an insect who's sting was as deadly as a blaster bolt.

"Something about the way this pilot flies interests me." Leaning over another console, he called up a complete history of the pilot, Lt. Drash Tevock. Parck saw the name under the picture that appeared with the text. A nondescript face except for dark, intense eyes. His complete history, psychological profile, battle data from his TIE fighter's computer, and his service record before and after his transfer to Unity Fleet, all at Thrawn's fingertips.

"But I'm getting ahead of myself, Captain." The Grand Admiral turned his chairback to Parck. "Can you guess what our next move will be?" Parck stood up a little straighter. He'd had a look around the darkened command room on entering and noticed that many holograms of Miashku artwork had been replaced. He had seen several pieces from Orune Prime, Warlord Coerl's homeworld. Also, soft music of a strange melody was playing throughout the room. The strangest thing about that music was once you listened long enough you literally stopped being aware of it. It was from the Chiss homeworld, and the Grand Admiral claimed that it helped stimulate creative thought. He often played such music when formulating military campaigns.

"I would say, sir, that you are planning some action against the Warlord Coerl."

"Very good, Parck. As you know, Coerl commands the strongest forces by far of all the factions in this sector." One of the star charts had colored-in areas corresponding to the groups that controlled them. Coerl's territory took up over twenty percent of the sector.

"It will take a major campaign, Admiral, but I'm certain we can pull it off." In Parck's opinion, the Unity Fleet under Thrawn was superior to any other division of the Imperial Armada, including Lord Vader's much-vaunted Death Squadron.

"Of course. The Admonitor will set course for the Miashku homeworld as soon as the data captured from the raiders is compiled. We will begin moving against Coerlas soon as we have finalized the Miashkus' admittance into the Empire. I expect their agreement to come quickly and wholeheartedly."

"Are you certain they will be so quick to commit to the Empire? While winning over their Ambassador is a good start, the Miashku have been paying protection fees to Coerl for more than six years. They may be reluctant to make this kind of step."

"They will, Captain," Thrawn said casually, "when we tell them that those pirates were in fact Coerl's forces."

"What?" Parck blurted, forgetting himself.

"You have learned to observe and deduce, Captain, but you must do so at all times, not merely when ordered to." Thrawn admonished. "All the evidence we need will be in the data banks of the captured ships. One must admit, Coerl is very clever indeed: he extorts protection fees from nearby systems and then stages the occasional 'pirate raid' on his client's convoys. When he hears of especially valuable cargo, of course."

"And such a convoy was due to be shipped today." Parck finished. "That was what this 'demonstration' of Imperial might was really all about. You wanted evidence of Coerl's deception."

"Exactly." Thrawn leaned back. "When this is revealed to the Miashku government, half the High Councilors will be outraged."

"Only half?" Parck raised an eyebrow.

"Of course, the other half are a party to Coerl's scheme. How else would he know which convoys to strike and where to attack? Doubtless they were paid a handsome share of the stolen goods. And doubtless they will be quick to agree to any course of action that will keep this news from going public. The resulting investigation would leave them poor, powerless, disgraced and owing a great many debts to a great many of their people." A slow smile played across the Admiral's face. "When the Miashku join, all their clients will find themselves attached to the Empire." The Miashku traded with every civilized world in the sector. "And once we have destroyed the strongest warlord in the area and have the leading traders on our side, extending our control throughout Zoab sector should be no trouble at all."

Parck could only stand amazed at the Grand Admiral. "A question, sir." He ventured. "Would the Emperor approve of this? All this political maneuvering and making alliances isn't exactly standard Imperial procedure."

"Point taken, Captain." Thrawn stood and paced toward one of his holograms,Parck fell in step beside him. "But the Emperor has given me the authority to conduct this mission however I see fit." He turned his attention from a portrait on the wall to a towering statue of an armored alien. "To bring the Unknown Regions into the Empire by conquest would be long and costly in terms of men and resources. By using our military forces in specific cases to achieve maximum results we will instead convince these worlds to join the Empire willingly."

He turned his attention to a human statue. There were humans native to the Unknown Regions, of course. There were humans almost everywhere in the galaxy, but they were by no means the majority they were in the Empire.

"It is important that the peoples of the Unknown Regions see us as liberators rather than conquerors. This is wild space, Captain. Lawless. Many will welcome the stability the Empire offers. Many already have. Certainly it will take time and effort, but in the long run I believe my way will be more effective than, say, sending a Death Star to destroy planets until everyone submits. Which is most certainly what will happen if we fail here." He deigned to notice the shock that painted Parck's face. "Yes Captain, a Death Star. A second one is under construction as we speak. It should be nearly complete by now, in fact. I take it the thought of seeing the Emperor's superweapon in action does not fill you with joy?" He said wryly.

Parck could barely speak, his throat was suddenly very dry. His entire body had gone numb. Thrawn, he knew from experience, could be incredibly ruthless, but compared to a Death Star... the very real possibility of entire planets reduced to space dust in the blink of an eye... "No sir," he whispered, "I think I much prefer your methods."

***

The rations were as tasty as always, with all the flavor of fresh plastifoam.In the Admonitor's galley, Drash did his best to cover the taste with some imitation Coerillian seasoning and was modestly successful. He was taking a bit of something that was supposedly nerf-meat when a shadow fell over him. He looked up into the glowing eyes of Lt. Rael. The Chiss face was utterly composed, as usual, but the red eyes pulsed with fury. "You took my kill." His voice had a slight edge as he struggled tokeep it level.

"I didn't see your name on it." Drash turned back to his unappetizing meal.

"I had that cruiser and you took it. I want to know why."

Because I wanted to. Drash thought, not really caring. The kill that had seemed so important a few hours ago was now all but forgotten. "I was closer. "He said, draining that last of his beverage, "and faster." He was uninterested in discussing his motives with anyone. They wouldn't understand anyway.

"It's because I'm an alien isn't it?" He said through clenched teeth. Around the galley, groups of pilots and fleet troopers at various tables looked towards them.

The rest of the galley was, for the most part, divided into little groups of humans or Chiss. In most of the areas where off-duty Imperials socialized, the two races tended to gravitate to their own kind. There were a few exceptions: pilots in a squadron often sat together, and at one table a group of human and Chiss fleet troopers had a game of sabacc going, but in most cases the two species looked on their alliance as one of convenience only. Drash himself was an exception to all that: he sat alone.

"You humans think you're the only ones with any ability." Rael snapped. "Even the word 'alien' is an insult, your Basic lumps all nonhumans together regardless of their superiority. I had that array, but you thought I'd botch it because I'm not human. I'm a better pilot than you anyway, I've vaped you a hundred times in the simulator."

Drash didn't like to be reminded of the flight sims, he spent as little time as possible in the simulator, the minimum practice time required by regulations. He despised it. So much like flying, but it was all a lie. It lacked the feel of combat, intangible sensation that came when the void of space burned with blasterfire and all between it and you is a womb of durasteel.

He stood up, tray in hand. All this talk of reasons and prejudices was tiring. It had nothing to do with flying and he was bored.

A blue hand on his chest stopped him. "I'm not finished." Rael said coldly.

"Why don't you mind your own business, alien?" A human fleet trooper, oversized black helmet set aside, was beside them both, glaring at the Chiss. Rael kept his glowing eyes on Drash, who met the red gaze easily. "You Chiss can't stand being upstaged, can you?"

"This is a private conversation." Rael gritted. "Leave us alone."

"Always giving orders. Thinking you're so much better than humans."

Rael turned his head and snapped. "I've taken a lot from you humans-"

"You've taken a lot alright." The trooper snarled. "The best assignments, the top ranks, the best fighters - that Advanced you fly - all because that alien Grand Admiral thinks his people are better than us!"

"Because we are better." Another Chiss broke in, shoving the fleet trooper."The Syndic knows it."

Drash watched with amused contempt as almost a dozen humans and Chiss, the most hotheaded of the Admonitor's crew, traded hard glares as words, and it looked like more than that would be traded soon. Rael was looking around, confused at the small crowd that had so quickly surrounded them. The majority of the troops had remained in their seats, but were all watching the confrontation.

Suddenly he became aware of something stirring inside him. All this anger, all this rage, begging to be channeled into the pure, free sense of combat. Only a pale shadow beside flying, but it would still help him feel truly alive. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a Chiss Commander walking toward them. Any second now he would shout something to diffuse the situation.

If, later on, he tried to explain why he swung his tray at Rael's face, he honestly wouldn't have been able to think of a reason. Not that he would try very hard: Drash was never one for self-examination. He just didn't know why.

In any case, that blow turned the gathering into a melee that the other fleet troops and pilots had to help break up.

***

Thrawn steepled his fingers and studied the information regarding one Lt. DrashTevock. He had found some surprising things there, more than he had anticipated. Tevock was born and had lived the first sixteen years of his life on a largely unsettled world in the Outer Rim. Until the Rebellion grew in strength, then along with most young men Tevock was conscripted into Imperial service seven years ago.

The small agricultural community he'd been raised in called itself the Enlightened Society. It was controlled by Zesir Frae, a self-proclaimed spiritual leader. Reports were sketchy and Thrawn had to piece much of the story together. Nowhere, for instance, is the word 'cult' used to describe the community, but Thrawn had the rare ability to see what was under his nose.

Frae had been discreet, and undoubtedly had paid regular bribes to the planetary governor not to look too closely into the Society's inner workings, corruption being away of life in the Empire. Two years ago, however, when the community leader had been diagnosed with a rather malignant and incurable form of cancer, he apparently decided the rest of the community should 'molt their physical shells,' as he so eloquently putit in his private journals, and join him as he ascended to a higher consciousness, so he led them in a mass-suicide. The resulting investigation showed evidence that Frae had ordered severe and chronic physical and psychological abuse on members of the community, especially on the children, since its founding.

Tevock, meanwhile, had been put into training. He'd been a good, if not outstanding, student. It was noteworthy how quickly his indoctrination took. The process of breaking down a civilian's old system of morals and ethics and replacing them with the Imperial philosophy usually took years. Thrawn was not surprised, he suspected that Tevock had no morality for them to start with.

Tevock had shown an aptitude for flying and trained as a TIE pilot, and here was another paradox: Tevock was probably the best pilot in the fleet, in the entire Imperial armada, with more kill points than the rest of his squadron combined,and yet he was never noticed. He was never awarded a commendation or put in line for a promotion.

So many instructors classified a pilot's abilities by concentrating on the flight simulators and largely ignoring the actual combat performance. While Tevock was outstanding in combat, in the simulator he was barely more than mediocre. Tevock was also a consummate loner: he had no friends and was disliked by his wingmates in whatever squadron he was transferred to. Very interesting.

The doors to Thrawn's chamber slid aside and Parck walked in and stood at attention before the command chair. "Admiral," he said, "the prisoners are secure and the data from their ships is at your disposal. There is more than enough evidence onboard to link Coerl to this raid."

"Very good." Thrawn nodded. "Have our forces return to the base at Ios V. TheAdmonitor will set course for the Miashku homeworld. We have new allies to welcome into the Empire."

"Of course, Admiral. Also, the Nightbird has returned from it's scouting mission. The captain reports minimal enemy activity in the Maser and Lor systems, but one TIE Advanced was lost near the Sevac system."

"Lost?" Thrawn frowned. "You mean destroyed?"

"Unconfirmed, sir. The pilot, a Lt. Wras, had made a hyperspace minijump into Sevac using the Nightbird as base point. He had barely exited hyperspace when thesignal disappeared, contact was unable to be reestablished. The Nightbird'scaptain considered investigating further but the possibility of ambush convinced him to withdraw."

"Unfortunate, we have lost a superior pilot and a superior fighter." Only the best pilots were given Advanced fighters. "I will make a note to investigate this further. By all accounts, Sevac system has no tactical value and no resources, but if Coerl is doing something there then I want to know what."

The Nightbird was a carrack class cruiser. Fast and heavily armed, they made excellent long-range scouts. Their biggest drawback was that they could only carry four TIE fighters, but Thrawn had solved that problem by providing an escort of TIE Advanced for each scout. Equipped with hyperdrives, the fighters could follow the cruiser anywhere and give more than adequate protection.

Standard Imperial protocol was that the superior fighters were too expensive for mass-production, and so they were never widely used in the Empire. Thrawn, though,was not standard Imperial protocol and had 'appropriated' the complete design specifics of the fighter before leaving for the Unknown Regions. One of the high priorities of the first shipyard set up out here was the building of TIE Advanced fighters.

"Is there anything further, Captain?"

Parck looked uncomfortable. "A small matter, Admiral, nothing worth considering. A brawl among a few pilots and fleet troopers in one of the galleys, just a few blows quickly broken up."

"I take it, Captain, that one side was composed of humans and the other of Chiss?" Parck's discomfort was confirmation enough. "Humanity and the Chiss are both proud peoples, and pride can breed arrogance, but our peoples are strong as well, Captain. They will adapt. They adapt already: they fightside by side and are forced to depend on one another. This will lead to trust and respect."

"If you're so certain this alliance will work-"

"Have faith in the humans, as I have in the Chiss. Our species are compatible. I am sure in it." He turned back to the screens and called up more star charts and trade reports for the Miashku. He noticed Lt. Tevock's report, still onscreen.

"I've been doing some research into our TIE pilot, Grey Seven." He said as Parck was turning to leave. "I've found some interesting facts."

"Sir?" He asked, confused at the new subject. By his tone, Thrawn could tell Parck had already forgotten about Lt. Tevock.

"For one thing, he is apparently the best pilot in the fleet." He indicated the screen with Tevock's service record. Parck scanned it and his eyes widened.

"Sir, is this accurate? This pilot rates a TIE Advanced easily! Has he been tested for a wing command?"

Thrawn chuckled. "Oh no, Captain, giving this man any kind of authority or command responsibility would be a grave mistake!" The mirth vanished. "Hecan barely control himself. Our Lt. Tevock interests me because while he couldbe very useful to our cause, he could prove very dangerous as well."

"Why is that, sir?"

"Because," Thrawn said grimly, "this man is a psychopath."

***

Chapter Two

Sang Anor had always felt most comfortable in the Yuuzhan Vong worldship Long Reach of Death. He'd beenborn and raised here after all, during the long search for a newgalaxy to call home. In these coral hallways and chambers he andother Vong children had spent many hours at play: fighting hand tohand, setting up ambushes for one another and figuring ways to anticipate or even reverse such ambushes. He had killed for the first time at that period of his life: the process of weeding out the weak and stupid started quickly.

When he was older, all the feenir of his age-group were divided into armies and staged battles in a long series of wargames designed to teach strategy and tactics. He had bonded to his wife (now dead these past three years) onboard this massive ship, and she had borne his son within it's walls.

And it was on this ship, under the eyes of the yammosk that Sang Anor, then Prefect Sa'Anor, had torn the previous Executor apart for his failure in allowing the captured Jedi, Vergere, to escape three years ago. And for the tragedy that resulted from that escape. It was here that he took that Executor's place.

Right now the Long Reach was hidden in plain sight, just one more titanic rock in Sevac system's asteroid belt. As all the major events of Sang Anor's life had occurred onboard, it was only right that here he would plan his response to the Imperial threat.

"From what our new Chiss slave has told us this alien Grand Admiral does indeed have the support of the Chiss population, if not the actual leaders." He spoke to Nom Anor as he selected two tiny, clear gel spheres from a coral shelf. Inside each hollow ball was a fat-bodied, bright red insect that breathed through minute air holes in the gel surface.

"Unfortunately, we would have known of this much sooner had we been able to plant agents on the Chiss planet." As a rule, non-Chiss are not welcome on the Chiss homeworld, and while blue ooglith masquers could easily be produced, the glowing eyeshad, until recently, posed a problem. "At any rate the interrogation, along with the intelligence our 'friend' Coerl has obtained for us, shows the extend of Imperial penetration into the Unknown Regions."

He paced across the chamber, a high-ceilinged room lit by the glowing bodies of thousands of Lumen bugs on the ceiling. "The Empire has established a strong presence in eight sectors, with systems providing resources and positions for tactical bases in exchange for protection and stability, and Imperial humans and Chiss providing troops. The human troops have even transferred their families to these bases, so the Imperials are here to stay. A grim business, but not insurmountable." A thin smile grew on his face as he turned to his son, standing at attention in the living chamber.

"But you know all this, Nom Anor, and you were rated highest in your age-group in terms of tactical skill. So tell me, what solutions do you see? What is the weakness in our enemy?"

Nom Anor drew himself up, but kept his eyes down cast."Executor, as I see it the great weakness of our foes is also their great strength: Grand Admiral Thrawn himself."

Sang Anor suppressed a smile, pleased his son had come to the same conclusion he himself had. "Explain."

"They rely on him, Executor. They depend on his leadership. He is the heart of their fleet."

Sang Anor lifted a gel ball to eye level, pretending to examine it closely. He cocked his head to one side. "And you suggest we tear out the heart and crush it?"

"In a specific manner." He kept his eyes on the floor, but excitement animated his face. "Thrawn must die, but by human hands. Imperial humans and Chiss are infamous for not working with other races. There is stress and division in their ranks. Thrawn alone holds them together: their mutual respect for him is what makes their alliance work. If it is known that humans have slain him then the Empire loses their Chiss support."

"Also," he continued, "many of the worlds see themselves allied with not with the Empire, but with Thrawn. He is the one they trust, and his death will show them the Empire is not as orderly and stable as they let on. Some planets will withdraw and the Imperial fleet will be too occupied with keeping what they have to turn their eyes this way. At the very worst it will slow them, throw them into confusion and buy us time." Abandoning their seed world remained an option, if necessary the Yuuzhan Vong could utterly erase their presence in this system, but if the Empire became dominant in the Unknown Regions then it would be impossible to undertake any large scale operation in this galaxy and go unnoticed.

"The gods have given us a clear path." Sang Anor pronounced. "Grand Admiral Thrawn dies."

***

The world Sang Anor had chosen as his breeding ground for Yuuzhan Vong creatures was unremarkable by galactic standards. Located in a system with no military or industrial value. The native, sentient species, who called themselves the Nesz, however had a number of odd traits that early survey teams never got around to cataloging. Partly because anthropology with no profit was not very often done in the Unknown Regions, partly because of the nightmares and odd occurances that prompted Outworlders to leave quickly.

The Nesz were aware of one another, they felt another's pleasure or pain as clearly as their own. For that reason the Nesz were utterly free of conflict. Tribes worked together instead of competing, spears and bows were for hunting and fishing in the marshlands, not battle. The Nesz knew nothing of war.

Until the Yuuzhan Vong came to their world.

They were like nothing the Nesz had experienced before. They captured Nesz and changed them, making them dead to their free brothers and sisters. They changed the very lands the Nesz had know since the beginnings of their race: marshes and towering bora trees were replaced with vast coral fields and breeding grounds for monsters.

Worst of all, the Eternals who had defended the Nesz from all Outworlders were powerless against these new invaders. It was not until a newcomer arrived that the Nesz once more found hope.

***

Oin kept his head down and back bent so the Overseers wouldn't notice he lacked the growths that had been forced on his brothers and sisters. It was easy, there were only a handful of Vong on the entire planet and they ignored the slaves unless one made a mistake.

The young Nesz moved from one group of slaves to another, counting things being grown and how far they'd matured. He looked in on the rows of dovin basals, the amphistaff pits, the razorbug hives and the growing mass of a yorrick coral battlecruiser.

It was strange and terrible being so close to members of his race without feeling them. Oin got no sense of the slaves working along side him, they were now things separate and apart from the Nesz. Only the sense of the Eternals watching over him gave Oin the courage to do this.

He moved to the flat area the invaders used to land their flying things. There he saw dozens of coralskippers, and something else. It was made of metal, round with panels stuck on two opposite sides. Oin's slit-eyes widened slightly. The newcomer would want to know of this. He went to a bushel of rods with rows of sharp teeth at the ends and took one. They were used for scraping the coralskippers clean.

Oin walked to the edge of the landing field where the metal thing lay, separate from the coralskippers. It was dented, the panels bent and the transparasteel of the cockpit shattered.

"You!" A harsh voice rang out behind him and Oin dropped to his belly with knees and elbows underneath him and his thick tail curled against his right side. Groveling to the Overseer, he hoped to hide his lack of Obeyers.

"My coralskipper filthy!" The Overseer snarled in Basic, the human tongue the Nesz had learned from the invaders. "Go clean!" He must have pointed to a specific ship, but Oin saw only the Vong's clawed feet and didn't dare lift his head. The Overseer must not have noticed, as he turned on his heel and stalked away. Oin wasted no time in getting out of there.

***

He felt better as soon as the mud of the marshlands squished between his toes and he left the coral fields behind toenter lands that were as yet unchanged. This was home.

He sensed the others, the few Nesz yet uncaught, and the presence of the Eternals was strong as well. For now. The changes made to the planet drained the Eternals of their power. They drew strength from the life of this world, and that life was being choked out and they couldn't touch the invaders or their creatures.

Oin jumped over the waist-high root of a bora tree and fel this feet sink into something strange in the tall grass. He tried tomove his feet, pull them out, but the substance held them. He gaped in horror as the blorash jelly spread upward, engulfing the rest of his body. A trap!

Sticky tendrils of jelly reached up, seized his arms and held them against his sides, he tried to scream but the jelly soon covered everything but his eyes and nostrils. From a hollow in the bora tree, a small insect crawled free and examined Oin with its antenna. Transparent wings unfolded and the bug darted off. It would tell one of the Yuuzhan Vong a trap was sprung, and Oin would become in truth the slave he'd played at being.

Heart pounding with terror, he struggled uselessly. Then, spying a pond, he rolled himself toward it. He didn't hesitate: he saw himself as escaping death, not going toward it. Drowning was infinitely better than being one of the walking dead in the fields. At least this way he would join the Eternals.

He never made it. Whips of jelly reached from the cocoon encasing him, slapped against the tree and pulled Oin back. It held him upright against the trunk no matter how he struggled to break free. He stopped squirming when he sensed something moving inthe brush. One of the invaders was here to take him! Fear chilledhis heart, and vanished in a blaze of violet light.

A cloaked figure, far too small and slight to be a Yuuzhan Vong, flowed out of the grass screen. The jelly reacted, tendrils whipped at the Jedi faster than the eye could follow, which thel ightsaber easily sliced off. More jelly reached out to take the newcomer and the stuff parted from the main body attacked as well. The Jedi was fast, incredibly fast, and the lightsaber was a blurring shield.

Oin renewed his struggles and the jelly couldn't hold him and fight at the same time. It tried to cover his nostrils and smother him, but Oin had managed to free a hand and cover his face. He pulled himself from the sticky embrace and the Jedi fled as soon as she saw he was free. She turned and ran, with Oin beside her. Her hood fell back, revealing a triangular face with whiskers, feathers and large eyes the color of the lightsaber.

"You did well, Oin." She spoke in his own language.

"With your help, aye, Vergere."

***

Vergere peeled the screen of greenery away from her smallFreighter's airlock and entered the old crate she affectionately called the Loon. She set the computer to check all systems, then went into the adjoining workroom and glanced at the small storage closet she used as a meditation chamber. There she often tried to find direction through the Force, or better yet to make contact with the spirit of her Master. So far she was unsuccessful, but she was having trouble meditating on this world: it was as if something was blocking her. Most likely the Vong operation had altered the Force on this planet somehow. Too bad, she could use a little guidance.

Sithspawn, just having another Jedi to talk to would help. She sat at a workbench and began disassembling and cleaning her lightsaber. Along with the traditional weapon, she had a blaster, a hold-out blaster and two vibroblades concealed in her robe and khakis. Maintaining her lightsaber was second nature to Vergere, so she could afford to think about the intelligence Oin had gathered.

Prefect Sa'Anor was keeping busy. She supposed he was Executor by now, though. She hoped the pilot of that TIE had died before falling into Vong hands: Sang Anor would make him feel pain like he never knew existed. Vergere knew Sang Anor all too well: a dangerous man, more so than any of his people she had met. Vergere got no sense of him in the Force, but the Jedi had other ways of judging a person's heart. There was a coldness behind that one's eyes that she never could get used to. She had never encountered the Emperor or his henchman, Darth Vader, but she guessed there was little difference between Palpatine and Sang Anor.

There were other matters to concern the Jedi. From what Oin had said, there was a TIE fighter on this planet. That could only mean the Empire is getting close to his seed world. For over a year Vergere had heard the Empire had a fleet operating in the Unknown Regions and had been debating over what to do about it. On the one hand, the Empire was by definition the deadly enemy of her and her vanished Order, of the galaxy itself. On the other hand the Yuuzhan Vong were an equal threat.

It had been a great temptation to simply tell the Imperials about the Vong and their plans, but there was little chance whoever commanded that Imperial fleet would listen to wild tales of a people from another galaxy who used organics instead of machines. Not when a Jedi was doing the telling. Her only chance had been to follow the path of the Vong worldship hoping to findsome evidence of the threat they posed.

An entire planet used to breed weapons of conquest fit that bill.

Vergere reassembled her lightsaber and hooked it on her belt, then left the ship to go and speak with the Nesz elders. She would need food supplies for her trip, which they could easily provide. She sat sipping a very tasty brew made from water,herbs and ingredients she'd rather not know and considered her nextmove.

Getting offworld wouldn't be difficult, as the Yuuzhan Vong would be looking outward for attackers, not inward. After getting away it would be a simple matter to eavesdrop on open comm channels to find out where the Imperial fleet is. Then she would bring the vaunted might of the Empire down on this world. A thorough planetary bombardment should deal with Sang Anor once and for all. And the best part was that only Yuuzhan Vong and Imperials would die.

A smile tickled the corners of her mouth, and died when a small Nesz female approached her. Vlu, one of the elders, appeared beside the little one.

"I am sorry for disturbing you," Vlu looked sheepish as he scratched the young Nesz's head, "but the little one has heard you will leave soon and wishes to thank you for all you have done forus."

She set her cup down. "I've told you before Vlu, it's all part of a Jedi's responsibility."

"Perhaps, but if not for you we would all have been slaves in the coral fields by now. The hope you have given us has helpedmany stay free." He tilted his head. "Will you return soon? With help for us?"

"I will do what I can." Vergere said carefully, her mouth dry. The Imperials would sterilize this world utterly when they understood the threat. These hidden villages would be vaporized into so many drifting molecules. She looked into the innocent, trusting eyes of the Nesz and balanced their few hundred lives against the rest of the galaxy if Sang Anor were allowed to continue his plans unchecked.

She felt a lightsaber was carving her own heart out.

***

Deep in the marshlands, on a tiny Island dominated by a bora tree, Oin scuttled up its massive trunk with the agility of a lizard-monkey. He carried a large sack made of shed Nesz skin and was slowly filling it with clinger fungus he plucked from the damp hollows, quite delicious when cooked slowly with the right spices.

He found a treasure in a nest of grubs burrowing under a piece of bark and shooed away a bird, who retreated to a highbranch and watched with jealous eyes while the young Nesz ate. Oin wasn't afraid: there were no Vong traps this far from the coral fields and no native creature could harm an adult Nesz. It was an odd but familiar feeling in the air that made Oin stop picking at the grubs and look down.

A shimmering mist appeared above the water shadowed by the bora's spreading branches. It coalesced into an ethereal figure that hovered over the surface. The strange being seemed to be here and yet somewhere else at the same time, one second Oin saw skin and scales similar to his own and seemingly solid, the next he saw bones, innards and flowing blood, all transparent. The creature turned what looked like its head to the right and was soon joined by another Eternal.

"The Jedi will leave soon." The second one said to the first, not with words: Oin didn't hear it with his ears but inside his head. He sat quietly on the branch and stilled his own thoughts as best he could.

"Yes, I know." The first answered. Its mouth, first on a Nesz-like face, then a reptilian skull, did not move. "I have made certain she knows only what she must of this world."

"You have been blocking her." The second said. "Keeping her from seeing us."

"It would do no one any good." Underneath the two Eternals, the water swirled.

"Some disagree. They think we should reveal ourselves,that the Jedi could help us."

"She is the enemy of our enemy, this does not make her our friend." There was no mistaking the authority in the first one's 'voice.'

"Jedi are bound to defend life." The second reminded.

"All life, friend, the invaders threaten the whole of the galaxy. The Jedi would have our world destroyed to stop them, I see it in her thoughts. So let her worry about saving the galaxy, we must save ourselves and our young ones." Blobs of water rose up under them and combined into an ever-changing sculpture between them.

"We cannot stop the invaders." There was despair in the second one's voice. "Many of us have died already. Few of ouryoung ones remain free."

"There is hope." The first Eternal reassured. "I have a plan, it calls for one of our young ones." It turned its shifting face up to the tree. "Come down Oin." It spoke into the Nesz's mind in a warm, amused voice. Oin's snout drooped a bit, he should have known better than to try and fool an Eternal.

He quickly shimmied down the trunk and sat attentively on a root. The Eternals were not the fierce slave masters the Yuuzhan Vong were, demanding groveling obedience. The Nesz regarded the Eternals as wise and loving parents.

"Young one," the first Eternal spoke gently, "you have spent much time with the Jedi here. Now there is something you must do for us, something that will mean salvation for all the Neszyet free." In a gentle but commanding voice, the Eternal told Oin what to do.

***

Nom Anor removed his clothing and allowed the ooglith masquer to flow over him, tiny tendrils hooked into his pores with exquisite pain as the second skin covered him. When the new 'face' adjusted and he could see, speak and breathe normally, he turned to his father for examination.

Sang Anor walked slowly around what was now, to all appearenced, a naked human male. "Very good." He nodded.

Prefect Ke'Nass smirked. "You are proud your offspring will pass as an infidel?"

"Send in the warriors." Sang Anor turned to the shelves. To rush to his son's defense as if he were an infant would only dishonor them both, and Nom Anor had too little status to take objection to the high-ranking Prefect. The best strategy was simply to ignore the jibe, but under the cloaker Nom Anor seethed with rage.

Part of that was because he knew the contempt was in someways justified. His father had put him on this important mission when he had so many seasoned warriors to choose from as a chance to prove himself. Nom Anor knew it, he knew everyone else knew it, and the only way to justify his presence would be to exceed everyone's expectation. Even his father's.

Three warriors entered the chamber, their bodies covered with scars and tattoos. As one they knelt before the Executor and Sang Anor broke open two of the gel balls containing red dye bugs. He set each one on the ridge over one of the warrior's eyes. The kneeling Vong did not flinch as the dye bugs each sprouted a stinger and stabbed into the white of the man's eyes.

They pumped red lumin dye into the eyes and removed their stingers. Quick as an amphistaff, Sang Anor plucked them off the Vong's face and deposited them in a bottle-shell. By the time he turned back the warrior's eyes glowed red. He smiled and handed him a blue ooglith masquer.

He repeated the process and soon three naked Chiss and one human shared the chamber with the Executor and Prefect.

"Very good." He nodded. "The lumin dye will fade awayin a few hours so you will have to reapply, but you are not to try and pass as Chiss unless necessary." He spoke to the four assembled warriors. "Use the human-skin masquers. I give you these as a precaution: because the Grand Admiral is a Chiss, some doors may be closed to humans."

"Although our Chiss slave has given us an idea of his culture it is by no means complete, and the tizowryms have somedifficulty in coding their language. If you must use these disguises then avoid interacting with true Chiss and speak only Basic." He folded his hands behind him and continued.

"My agent on the Miashku planet has confirmed Coerl's information, the Grand Admiral's flagship is on a course for that world. It will be our perfect opportunity."

For almost two years the Warlord Coerl had been entirely under Sang Anor's control and many of his top advisors were Yuuzhan Vong agents. The warlord was very useful, both as a source of information and as a screen against intruders on the seedworld. Selecting a system in space Coerl controlled was not a random choice at all.

"Once you arrive at the traders' planet you will rendezvous with my agent, Hren Silra, and put yourselves under his command. Once the Chiss commander has been eliminated you will go to ground until the Imperials leave Miashku space, then return here. Understood?"

"Yes, Executor." The senior warrior answered.

"Very good. Remove your masquers and prepare for the rites." The disguises were stripped off and sent to a far corner. Sang Anor turned to the Prefect. "We are ready for him."

A new Vong, gaunt and aged, appeared at the expanding iris-door. Horribly burned and scalded from bald head to bare, cracked feet, he turned a skull-like face toward them. His eyes were gone, his sockets black pits of nightmare, and the sightless gaze was enough to unnerve the strongest warrior.

He was enveloped in a vrashi membrane, its sensitive skin and long, bristling spines gave him a sense of the world around him and the long, sensitive amphistaff he held guided his way.

The four naked warriors dropped to their bellies, faces pressed to the floor. Ke'Nass knelt and Sang Anor gave a deep,respectful bow to the priest.

"May the Cloaked Goddess hide you from the infidel." He spoke to the warriors in a deep, emotionless voice. "May the Slayer guide your hands in time of bloodshed." The Prefect was dismissed and an Embrace of Pain was unveiled from one of the walls. The warriors who would journey into the heart of the heathens' land would need to be cleansed before and after encountering the taint of machines.

Sang Anor oversaw the rites himself, and although his expression remained stern his heart swelled with pride as Nom Anor took the agony as well as the other warriors.

***

Chapter Three

The Admonitor hung in orbited around the Miashkuplanet, directly over the Capitol Marketplace, it's sheer size and power dwarfed the freighters and yachts that frequented the tradingpost. The multitude of communications satellites were like mites flitting around a cougar, and the small strike cruisers of the world's defense force was not comparable at all.

Exactly the impression Thrawn wished to make.

While the High Council debated allegence to the Empire, Thrawn would make certain as many beings as possible saw the Empire's power, and realize it was to be their friend than enemy. That the commander of Unity Fleet was here, far from an Imperial base with only his flagship would show his confidence in his men and materials.

This was reinforced as he sent wings of TIE fighters on practice maneuvers in space, which the local satellite-cameras could record and broadcast. Thrawn even put on a few air shows above the larger cities to show off the precision of formation and superior technology and discipline of the Empire.

Until now the only military and police forces for the Miashku were the private armies of the High Councilors and other powerful citizens, composed of mercenaries, small groups of corrupt killers for hire.

"We must show them the benefits of Imperial rule, such as civilization." The bridge was its usual buzz of activity when ever the Grand Admiral was present, with everyone at their best. Whatpleased Thrawn was the security cams and performance reports marked the crew as nearly this efficient when he was not in sight.

It could also have something to do with the two scarlet figures who had accompanied him to the bridge and stood on either side of the turbolift doors. Even Thrawn had to concede the Royal Guardsmen were impressive in their silent menace. Perfectly silent, perfectly still, they were ever watchful and capable of exploding into action in an eye blink.

With their lethal force pikes, any of the hundred weapons under the red cloaks or just bare hands and feet they could deal out death to the entire bridge crew. The Emperor had sent them as a symbol of his presence and the authority vested in Thrawn. They were also here to assassinate him if he showed any signs of trying to build an Empire of his own here. No doubt they sent private transmitions daily to Imperial Center and could easily receive private instructions from the Emperor, by conventional means or through a special link Palpatine seemed to have with all his elite guard.

Parck licked his lips, his sole nervous gesture. "I still don't like this, sir. The planet is a nest of vipers and we're a tempting target up here, a chance to cut the head off Unity Fleet."

Thrawn smiled slowly. "A concentrated attack on the Admonitor would require a good many ships and personal. Coerl is the only power within reach strong enough to make that kind of strike, and my intelligence sources report no movements in this direction, nor are any of the other minor warlords and pirate gangs concentrating military material for a large-scale attack. If worse comes to worse we have two Star Destroyers and the Interdictor Cruiser Black Hole ready to jump in-system at amoment's notice."

Put that way, Parck had to agree, but he still disliked losing the initiative. "To change the subject, sir, the Miashkus' awe of us seems to have lost its edge. Their satellites are bombarding the ship with advertisement for investment opportunities, goods and services, and the crewers allowed shore leave on the surface have been propositioned with everything imaginable. The crew would be bankrupt right now if Imperial credits were the standard currency out here."

"They will be soon." Thrawn said. "I've just received word from the High Council. In one hour they will announce their membership in the Empire."

Parck exhaled slowly, after days of solid negotiating the major trade center of Zoab sector was theirs. This would tie half the sector to the Empire, the other half coming with Coerl's defeat. "Shall I have the conference room prepared for the formal signing?"

"No, Captain, the High Council insists, and I agree, that the signing should take place planetside in a public ceremony broadcast into every household."

Parck gaped. "Sir I advise against this." He managed to get out at last. "There are many who would like the alliance, not to mention the Imperial presence in the Unknown Regions, stopped. A military strike against the Admonitor might be out of the question, but an attack on you personally is a simpler thing entirely, especially in an open port where anyone could plant agents with ease!"

Thrawn's eyes tracked the freighters that trafficked to and from the surface. "We must show we have nothing to fear to win their confidence. In any case, I've considered all this." He turned on his heel and gestured Parck to follow him as he paced to the far end of the bridge.

"An Imperial survey team will help in preparing the ceremony sight and check for explosives, gas canisters and other surprises." He spoke quietly. "During the event itself I will be wearing body armor under my uniform that will protect against anything less than a high-intensity blaster bolt. In addition, I plan to stage a full military parade and air show. It will impress the people, and incidentally it will put four companies of stormtroopers around me and eight wings of TIEs overhead." He stopped near the Royal Guardsmen.

"And finally, I will have these two at my side. The Emperor's watch-nekks can finally start earning their keep." He said the last lightly, neither Guardsmen so much as twitched, as Thrawn expected. The last words were calculated to sting at their pride and make them more vigilant.

Parck swallowed. It seemed everything had been taken into account, but he still didn't like it.

***

Vergere knew she was having a nightmare, but was helpless to alter it or wake up. In the dream, a Star Destroyer rained death on the world of the Nesz. Coral liquefied and bora trees burned under the onslaught.

Then she saw Sang Anor walking among the fires, but now he was a giant miles tall. Striding toward him was another giant, a Chiss in the white uniform of a Grand Admiral. Sang Anor was as glorious and terrible as a barbarian god, his deformed face a mask of pure hatred. The Chiss admiral's eyes burned with the fires of all the galaxy's hells. They met and grappled and fought in the shower of turboblaster bolts.

Unnoticed by anyone but Vergere were the Nesz being crushed under their feet.

Then the scene changed and the planet was a burned out husk abandoned by Imperials and Vong alike. One lone figureremained on the blasted landscape. It turned and she saw Oin's face. The young Nesz's eyes were so weary, filled with sorrow and a burden too great for Vergere to comprehend.

My fault, she thought, my purpose is to defend and I brought death instead.

She awoke then, minutes before the alarm would've sounded. Shivering, she left the small sleeping berth, used the 'fresher and went to the helm. According to the navicomputer the ship was almost ready to come out of hyperspace. Her hands trembled as she adjusted the controls. Vergere was too experienced a Jedi to tell herself she'd simply had a bad dream. It was a true vision of the future. She didn't know what to make of the Chiss Admiral, aliens weren't allowed to serve in the Imperial military, but the rest...

Vong works and Nesz alike destroyed, that was straightforward enough. She had once spoken about glimpses ofthe future with Master Yoda, the acknowledged authority in that field. He claimed the future was always in motion, that sometimes beings could alter its results by their actions, but did she dare attempt to change what she'd seen if the sacrifice of a few innocents could end the Yuuzhan Vong threat?

The ship reentered realspace in the Miash system. She powered the ion engines and cruised on a course for the centralplanet. Numerous other ships were heading to and away from the world, and Vergere fell in with a small convoy of bulk freighters.

Rumors on the open comm channels was that the Miashku were seriously considering alliegence to the Empire, and that the Fleet commander himself was there with his flagship.

Rumors, it seemed, were true.

A grey-white Star Destroyer hung in orbit, terrible in its size and majesty. Overwhelming, to one who didn't know the true power of the Force, compared to which that war machine was just an oversized toy. Her eyes narrowed and mouth thinned.

Ground control directed her to a small spaceport in the Outer Ring of the Capital Marketplace. She settled into the landing cradle and the comm flashed with advertisements for cleaning services, permawax, refueling and upgrades.

Vergere went to her workroom and got a few gems and credit chips to use for money. They should convert well despite there being no standard currency in this part of the galaxy. After a second's consideration she decided on packing herself somethingto eat rather than depleting what money she had on sampling the local foodstuff.

She took a step toward the kitchen, and stopped. She sensed a presence, someone moving around in the room behind the door!

Vergere sidestepped and unhooked her lightsaber. Taking a deep breathe, she hit the button to make the door slide open and bounded into the room before the door was even a quarter open. Her lightsaber blazed to life and she spun it in her hands. She landed with the burning point at the throat of the intruder...

Oin!

The Nesz, eyes wide, stood backed against a cooler unit with a half eaten meat roll in his clawed hand. He swallowed and smiled sheepishly.

"Want some?"

***

Lt. Stev Rollis and his four companions had found more than enough to make their shore leave on the Miashku planet interesting. Everything, it seemed, was legal here. The only restrictions came from how much one could afford. Of course, the Empire would clean this place up once they took control, and Stev had yet to experience some of the more wild passtimes: all Imperials on shore leave were under orders to keep their conductexemplary.

Besides, Imperial credits just didn't transfer well into local currency, as the money of the Empire wasn't widely used out here.There was no standard currency in the Unknown Regions, ironically the most valued currency was Chiss money, giving the alien Imperials a wider range of choices.

One of the reasons why Stev despised the blue would-behumans.

Many of the humans in Unity Fleet had developed a healthy respect for, even friendships with, the Chiss crewers. Not Stev. Maybe it was their attitude that rubbed him the wrong way: they were so smug, so secure in their greater knowledge of this part of space. They even acted as if they were superior to humans! It could also be that they often proved correct in their belief. Perhaps it was the simple fact that he didn't like aliens.

He couldn't fault the Grand Admiral, the man had time and again proved himself to all his subordinates down to the lowest ensign. Stev was completely loyal to him. Well, there were exceptions to every rule, and while he might tolerate one alien in a command position, thousands of Chiss were downright stifling!

"When I signed on to serve the Empire, I thought I'd at least be in the Empire, not the backwater of the galaxy working to bring civilization out here."

"You have to wonder what the Emperor sees in this place." Another trooper said in Basic, or as it was known out here, the human language. Another drawback to living out here being the lack of a standard language for all the diverse peoples. That language being, of course, the human tongue.

"Perhaps his Majesty didn't know what else to do with his pet Chiss." Another trooper sneered.

"You may not be happy out here," a strange voice called,"but I am glad to have you here." The five Imperials turned and saw a tall human leaning against a wall.

"And who're you?" Stev asked.

"My name is Hren Silra, but who I am is less important thatwhat I am. Human, brother, like you." He pushed himself away from the wall and sauntered towards them. "There are humans out here who have heard rumors of your Empire and its views. Who would welcome the new lifestyle you would bring."

Hren's eyes narrowed. "But we did not expect you to be fighting side by side with aliens, or a Chiss," he spoke the word like a curse, "leading you. Maybe rumors of the Emperor's ideals are only that: rumors."

"Unity Fleet is not the standard of the Empire, not by any means." Stev drew himself up and spoke coldly. "This is a temporary alliance."

Hren Silra smiled knowingly. "You are thinking, perhaps,that you will use the Chiss for their ability and connections out here, then abandon them when you have established control. But the Chiss are clever. Be careful it is not you who are left by the wayside." Stev felt a chill, this was frighteningly close to his own half-realized fears.

Hren's smile warmed. "But enough of this. It is a time to celebrate, is it not? Today the Emperor takes another step toward extending his control throughout the galaxy." True, the formalsigning was scheduled to take place this evening. "And friend, I know just the way fine humans like yourselves can celebrate in style."

"That so?" An Imperial crossed his arms. Stev, like the rest, could feel the sales pitch coming now. The planet's capital wasn't called a Marketplace for nothing.

"A fine establishment, brothers, where equally fine beauties, all of them human, are willing and eager to comfort weary soldiers in every way they could desire."

"What if we're not that weary?" A trooper asked with a smirk.

"Then be assured you will be." Hren smiled. Stev and the others couldn't help but grin in return.

"These girls, they'd better not have any of the stuff that floats around ports like these." Stev tapped his sidearm warningly.

"Strong, healthy specimens," Hren assured them, "the very flower of humanity. And I am more than willing to acceptImperial credits. They will soon be the standard currency afterall."

"All right then." Stev chuckled. "We'll give your place a look over."

Their guide led the Imperials through a few dark alleyways and old, unrepaired roads damaged by wheels, treads and age. This was the Outer Ring of the capital, where the poorer denizens dwelt far below the towering pillars of the Inner Ring. It was also unpoliced and home to the more unofficial and popular of goods and entertainments.

Hren walked past the spaceports situated at the edge of the Outer Ring. Stev and the others followed, chuckling and joking to one another as they swaggered. They were Imperial troops in acity they controlled, a Star Destroyer hung over the planet like a vengeful god's dagger. What did they have to fear?

They passed a couple of Chiss troopers, which they of course ignored (most of the smug aliens frequented the more classy and expensive places in the Inner Ring), saw a few ranats gnawing on waste canisters, strange how the vicious rodents managed to spread to every planet in the galaxy, and were offered the wares of a dozen venders, but other than that they met no one.

Hren Silra stopped a non descript building at the edge of theRing, near the landing pads for supply transports from other cities.

"This had better be worth the walk." Stev said coldly.

"You will find this a unique experience." Hren keyed the side panel and the door slid open. He walked through, followed by the Imperials.

Stev didn't expect what he found behind the entrance: the building was a single room, windowless. Only a handful of the glowpanels on the high ceiling still functioned, providing a few patches of weak light that contrasted starkly with the inky blackness. Hren had entered and continued walking towards the center of the room, the light revealing him for seconds only before the night-black nothingness swallowed him.

"What is this?" Stev demanded, but Hren didn't answer, only continued walking across the floor in that same pace. Because he kept walking, Stev and the others hurried after him. "I said 'What is this?'" Stev roared, but the stranger had stopped and turned on his heel, spot lit by a flickering glowpanel, and Stev was forced to stop short of bumping into him. "I'm not in the mood for games." He said in a dangerous voice.

Hren Silra cocked his head to one side, a half-smile on his face. "The atmosphere isn't to your liking, brother?" He spoke pleasantly, but the last word had a harsh, sarcastic edge. "It suits my purposes just fine. Behind them, the door slid shut, locking out the daylight. The unmistakable sound of a locking mechanism came from that direction. As one, the Imperials felt a chill on their scalps and ice in their stomachs.

They weren't alone.

Stev looked around and noticed the floor they'd walked across. Plain grey permacrete, dusty, with small, circular drains set at regular intervals on the surface. And they noticed the smell, old and not completely covered up. The smell of blood. This was no brothel, it was an abandoned abattoir.

Stev drew his blaster. The others, sensing ambush, began to do the same. "This is a slaughterhouse." He bit out and pointed the weapon at Hren's chest. The space around them was utterly silent, whoever Hren's compatriot was, he obviously hadn't moved. "Open that door and tell us what the deal is if you don't want to know what a blaster bolt through the heart feels like."

"It could not hurt worse than having to call you 'brother.'" The smile dissolved, and what replaced it was the coldest expression Stev had ever seen. "And I said, the atmosphere suits my purposes." He looked over Stev's shoulder into the darkness." Remember, I want no blood on the uniforms." And there wasuch a whip-crack of authority in his voice than Stev jumped.

And then all hell itself burst loose. It all happened so fast,faster than the eye could follow, it took Stev seconds to even compile what he was seeing.

Long, lean shapes tore out of the darkness, launched themselves at the Imperials. Stev saw a blur of half-naked humanoids, their flesh a mess of old scars and tattoos. Blasters went off, jerked by startled hands rather than deliberately fired. Stev fired his own blaster and Hren Silra, but the other man was making his own move by now, and he was much, much faster.

His body twisted to one side so the energy bolt burned past his chest. His long arm shot out like a snake, his large hand seized Stev's wrist, gave a small, almost uncaring twist, and snapped the wrist-bones. Pain raced up Stev's arm, to the tips of his fingers to the top of his head. His hand opened, the blaster fell to the floor,and Hren pulled him forward and hurled him into the air.

Instinct made him tuck and roll as he struck the hard permacrete. He lifted his head, focused dazed eyes, and saw anightmare scene. All his companions were down and disarmed, none having the chance to get off a second shot before the monsters batted their weapons aside. One of the savages drove a knee into a man's chest, cracking ribs and rupturing internal organs. Another simply took both sides of a trooper's head and snapped his neck. Hren Silra watched, nodded slightly, then turned to Stev.

He struggled to his feet, adrenaline gave him strength to ignore his wrist, and rushed the other man. Stev was in a fighting crouch, the undamaged left hand raised in a fist, he clung to one thought: he was a fleet trooper, a soldier for the Empire, of course he was superior to anything these savages had.

Hren Silra tracked him with cold eyes, and when the Imperial was within reach his arm shot out again fast, so fast! He reached through Stev's guard before he could react and caught his throat in a vise-grip, stopping him cold. The arm lifted, forcing Stev to straighten or have his feet leave the floor altogether. Hren's smile had returned, this time with a sad, almost wistful expression.

"See how helpless your dependence of machines had made you? How weak? But there is some courage in this frail form, isn't there? You will make a decent sacrifice to Yun Yammka." The fingers tightened and Stev's eyes bulged as is air supply was cut off. He pried at the fingers on his neck, he punched and kicked at the man holding him. Stev was a big man, well versed in hand-to-hand combat, but this was like hitting durasteel!

Hren Silra lifted his free hand and long, wicked claws sprouted from under the fingernails. He reached up and touched something on his face, and his face... sagged. It was as though the skin was loosening, peeling away from the skull beneath, and that was exactly the case.

If it were possible for Stev's eyes to bulge any farther they would have. There was another face under that second skin. A face straight from the hell his mother had used to scare him with as a child. A place that, until this moment, Stev Rollis had convinced himself he no longer believed in.

***

With his face free of the masquer, Hren Silra opened his hand and let the corpse fall to the floor, then turned to survey the other Yuuzhan Vongs' handiwork.

"As you commanded," the senior warrior addressed him, "not so much as a drop of blood stains their clothes." True enough: there were bruises and broken bones, but the humans' skin had not been pierced. And the fight would have ended in a fraction of the time had that not been necessary.

"Good, I would have hated having to go out and find another batch of fools to lure here. Strip them. But be careful notto tear those uniforms." He looked down at Stev's body. He was about Hren Silra's size, it would be a tight fit in some places, loose in others, but it would do.

In minutes the five Imperials had been undressed. Four ooglith masquers lay in a darkened corner of the slaughterhouse, they were called over and their face-sections were pressed against the faces of the corpses, long enough for the masquers' features to alter and match the Imperials'. Hren Silra placed his own masquer's 'face' on Stev's.

Two Vong then placed the bodies over a drain while Nom Anor, the youngest present, fetched the ruaswyrms. The small, white grubs that the Yuuzhan Vong used to dispose of waste materials were released on the corpses, and quick as an eyeblink the thousands of tiny worms bored into their flesh.

The gluttonous worms ate trails through the humans, and as they ate they excreted corrosive acids in their myriad wakes. Within moments the bodies began to deflate, to collapse in on themselves. In less then half an hour the five were completely liquefied. The ruaswyrms were summoned back into their container. One of the Vong unrolled a long hose from the wall, twisted the spigot and sprayed the floor. The five Yuuzhan Vong gathered their ooglith masquers and turned to the uniforms.

A little less than an hour after they entered the old slaughterhouse, the five Imperial fleet troopers appeared to exit the building. They spread out and made for the central Marketplace, where Grand Admiral Thrawn himself would appear to sign the formal treaty in a few hours' time.

***

Chapter Four

Vergere stared, open-mouthed, at the intruder before switching of her lightsaber. "What in the name of the Force are you doing here?"

Oin shrugged half-heartedly. "It was a long trip, I thought I'd have a snack."

"You know what I'm talking about!" She snapped. "Why did you stow away on my ship? And for that matter where were you hiding?" They were speaking the Nesz tongue, but Oin could speak excellent Basic as well.

"I hid in that little room you use to sit and think in." The storage closet she used to meditate. I thought a Nesz should be here to help save the Nesz. And," he looked sheepish, "I was curious too, about other worlds than what I know."

"Well," She looked around as if an answer would pop out of the walls, what would her Master do right now? "There'snothing to do about it now. I need to leave the ship, I want you to stay here and out of trouble."

Oin jumped up. "But I can't! That is, ah, you might need help. Where are we by the way? Which of those other worlds you talked about? Is this were we will find help driving off the Yuuzhan Vong?" Questions were coming hard and fast

"Listen to me, Oin. You're very brave, but you've never been off your own world before. You know nothing of the galaxy. The best way to help me is to stay here."

Oin protested weakly and hung his head as Verger packed some food and went to the airlock. Somehow she had to speak to the commander of the Imperial Fleet. Just in case, she locked the door on her way out with a simple code. Now no one would begetting in or out.

"Sorry Oin," she murmured, "but you're one variable I can't afford to have running loose. May the Force be with us all if I fail."

***

Oin went to the airlock door, waited a few minutes, then sniffed at the buttons on the side panel. Vergere's sweat-smell lingered on four of the buttons, and he tried those until he found the pattern to open the door.

"Sorry Vergere." he muttered as the airlock sealed itself behind him and he crept down the landing cradle's rampway. He would have liked to obey the Jedi, but was under orders from a much higher authority.

He was amazed long before his clawed feet touched the pavement. The spaceport was crowded with ships, many of them much larger and more imposing than the Loon, as Vergere called her old freighter. Flying and rolling and walking around them were the port's droids, which serviced the vessels for a price. Oin knew what droids were, of course, he had seen pictures and holograms during Vergere's stay on his planet, she even kept a small cleaning and service droid onboard, but dozens of the mobile, metal beings, mere inches away from one's snout was another thing entirely.

And of course, there were the aliens. Beings that crawled, flew, floated on repulsor couches and breathed through filters and masks. He saw hair, scales, gills and feathers, sometimes all on the same creature!

That was all tolerable, but what truly shocked Oin's Nesz sensibilities was the haste and business around him. Everyonepushing and shoving one another, all talking at once and eager to finish what they were doing and move on to something else.

Nesz were generally a people who took life slow and managed to find some joy or value in whatever task was at hand. They didn't run headlong and helter-skelter like these beings, and they certainly were never so discourteous. It occurred to him for the first time that these creatures were separate from one another. One being didn't feel another's pain or joy as the Nesz did. Excluding the Yuuzhan Vong, Vergere was the only offworlder he'd met, and the Jedi was so in tune with the life-energy she was almost a Nesz herself. These people were different. They frightened him.

Instinctively he kept low to the ground and inconspicuous as he made his way out of the spaceport. He tried to follow Vergere's scent at first, but it was soon lost in the tangle of smells, body odor and machine oil. Running from the madness, he made for a place he sensed was less hectic.

The tapcaf near the spaceport was noisy, but at least beings seemed at ease here and the dark, cool and dimly lit common room was better than the harsh glare of the sun. He made his way to a darkened corner and sat down. He could sit and think awhile, at least, while he planned his next move.

As he thought, he reached for the thick bandolier he wore, many pockets were sewn into it, but it was the one on the inside of the belt that he tapped for reassurance. The small wrapped bundle hidden there was the only hope for the Nesz survival. So the Eternal had said. They had charged Oin with this mission, entrusted him with this all-important object. It was his duty to make use of it, but only at the proper place. That place was obviously not here.

But where to go? And how to get there?

A high pitched gurgling directed at him caught Oin's attention. He looked up and at the glistening creature standing over him, if 'standing' was the right word. The thing was a mass of thick, ever-squirming tentacles that obscured its body. Some ofthe feelers ended in bulbus eyes, others in toothless sucker-mouths, but most were simply organs of manipulation.

It stood on a single wide foot. On either side of the Miashku was a burly alien and a tripod protocol droid was near at hand. It gurgled at Oin again and the Nesz stood up on his shortlegs.

"Um, hello?" He said tenativly in his own language. One of the aliens, a stupid-looking Gotel, snorted derisively and said something to the other. Both chuckled. Oin belatedly realized the aliens wouldn't know his tongue. He switched to the Basic he'd learned from Vergere and the Vong. "Is there any trouble?"

Some of the Miashku's tentacles reared back and spoke to the droid. "You speak the human tongue?" The machine asked in Basic.

"Yes." Oin said.

"This illustrious fellow is with the port authorities, you are to come with us." One of the aliens offered him a wafer with a sweet but artifical smell, a treat of some kind. Both were edging towards him.

While reason might tell Oin to obey the local authorities, his instincts screamed danger warnings. In a case like this, the Nesz was inclined to follow instinct. He made as if to take the sweet, then slid past the Gotel with the fluid speed of his kind. While the droid commanded in Basic for him to stop, the Miashku slapped the aliens with whiplike feelers, sending them after the Nesz.

Music was blaring in the tapcaf to the movements of a holographic band. Oin dropped to all fours and slithered around and among the tables. Passing underneath one on which a sabacc game was being played, his tail brushed a female human's shins. She jumped, spilled the cards in her hand and a few up her sleeve. The game quickly became a brawl.

The Gotel hurried to block the door while the other, a red-furred biped, pushed past the patrons in Oin's pursuit. TheMiashku was moving as fast as it could also, which was much slower than the others.

Oin jumped on a stool, then onto the bar itself. He ran across the stained surface and aliens either picked their drinks up in time or got them spilled. The barfight had grown to include the surrounding tables and the small, five-armed bartender shouted for the bouncers.

The Nesz jumped to an empty table that broke under his weight and sent him to the floor. He bounded up, saw the other pursuer nearly on top of him and swung his tail at a chair. The alien's feet tangled in the chair legs and sent him sprawling, where he was trampled by the brawlers.

The bouncers, two eight foot tall aliens with thick slabs of bone grown over various body parts, appeared from the back room. Both had stun blasters but in most cases could end a fight with their simple presence. One of them saw the Gotel blocking thedoor and roared at him to move. The horned alien, his eyes on the Nesz, palmed a small blaster from his sleeve and aimed it at Oin. The bouncer, seeing this and knowing no weapons were allowed in the tapcaf, wasted no time in closing the distance between them and slapping the blaster out of the Gotel's hand. He then simply picked the lackey up and hurled him into the mess of fighters.

Oin ran out the doorway and into the bright sunlight, glad to be back in the busy atmosphere he had fled only moments before. His joy was short-lived as a tentacle snaked around his ankle and tripped him.

His long, flexible neck bent around and he saw the Miashku, tentacle stretched to its limit, pulling him back as its single foot inched it through the door. A few months ago Oin wouldn't have known what to do, but experience with the Yuuzhan Vong had educated him. His claws slashed the feeler and it released him. More tentacles whipped at him, clutched at him, but Oin had strong jaws and sharp teeth as well as claws and the Miashku reared back, afraid of losing 'fingers' to this snapping monster.

Oin was about to run, then he noticed something dangling from one of the alien's feelers. He looked down and felt his shoulder, then back at the Miashku: it had taken his bandolier!

"Give that back!" He snapped in his own language. The Miashku was sliding away, however, tentacles squirming. Oin saw red. Fear forgotten, he charged the mass of tentacles.

***

Vergere left her ship, paid the standardized berthing fee that would keep the vessel from being impounded for three days,then went to one of public consoles and paid for ten minutes' access to the planet's information network. She learned all she could about the Imperial presence before her ten minutes were up and she was cut off. She managed to learn about the public announcement that Miashku would seek membership in the Empire, and about the official ceremony to be held in a few hours at the Inner Ring where the commander himself, whose name was Grand Admiral Thrawn, would make a personal appearance.

"That makes things simpler, at least." Vergere muttered as she walked to the edge of the spaceport. "All I need to do is get past a few hundred stormtroopers inclined to shoot first and ask questions later and convince one of the Emperor's top people to listen to a Jedi."

With all this on her mind, the last thing she expected to see was her young stowaway attacking a Miashku port official out side a very tacky looking tapcaf. The Miashku was backing away as quickly as it could and trying not to be mauled by the reptile-man.

"Stop this!" Vergere seized Oin's shoulder and held him back. The alien's tentacles writhed and sputtered in its own language. "What's this about?" She snapped at Oin. "I told you to stay on the ship!" The Nesz was almost unrecognizable in his fury.

"He took my... my bandolier!" He hissed and Vergere saw the belt hanging from one of the feelers. She used the Force to give it a slight pull that made it drop to the ground. Oin brokeaway, moving with more speed than Vergere had ever seen in him and caught it before it touched the ferocrete and darted back to her side.

"Madame, this creature has assaulted a Miashku spaceport security agent!" A protocol droid exclaimed as it rolled out the door. The alien gurgled at them. "My master wished to inform you of the penalties for such an act." The alien's feelers writhed with apparent indignation, but through the Force Vergere felt fear and unease emanating from it. She could get nothing clearer as she was unfamiliar with this race's thought patterns, but a quick look into Oin's surface thoughts cleared things up.

"Very well, lets go report this to the Portmaster. I'm sure it will be only to happy to investigate things." She spoke in Basic, asher own language was unknown here. The tentacles twitched in surprise, then quickly spoke.

"My master does not think that necessary." The droid translated. "It believes settling this privately will be more convenient to all parties."

"I can imagine." She said sarcastically. "Fine, here's my offer: stay away from me, my friend and my ship and I forget about this." The Miashku considered this while focusing a pair of eyes on her and Oin, noting how poorly the Jedi was clothed: she wore a homespun robe over simple but serviceable clothes. Obviously she had little in the way of money.

On the other hand she and the little reptile might be worth something together. She would be easy to take: she was small and slight, only half a head taller than the short reptile. Besides the money it could make from them there was the matter of her ship, it would get a share of the profits once it was impounded and sold after the owner disappeared. The Miashku's hired thugs were being shown out of the tapcaf along with the other brawlers and it was about to order them to seize the two offworlders.

It didn't give the order. This Miashku made a living on reading other beings and there was something subtlety dangerous about her, and it already knew the reptile was vicious. Its instincts warned it off and it was inclined to agree. In any case they were moving away from it by now and the opportunity had passed.

"Why did you leave the ship?" Vergere demanded. "And how did you get out in the first place?"

"What did they want with me?" Oin asked after explaining.

"That Miashku must have seen you sneaking off the ship. It thought you were a slave or a pet. It wanted to sell you."

"Why would it think that?"

"You're not wearing clothes." She answered. "No one knows all the different races out here, and which ones are sentient.If a being doesn't have the trappings of civilization then it's generally considered nonsentient. It either thought you were ananimal or too weak to defend yourself." She shook her head."You see why I didn't want you here? This part of the galaxy is wild space, Oin. There are no laws and no sure protection for anyone but the strong and the rich."

"But you threatened to tell its elder, this Portmaster, what it was doing."

"What it was doing was trying to kidnap and sell a traveler without giving the Portmaster a share in the profits. The Miashkuin charge of this spaceport probably runs everything that goes on here, and nothing is legal or illegal."

Oin suppressed a shudder, how could people live like that?

"Are you going to stay in the ship now?" Vergere pressed. Oin only shook his head. "Blast it, I thought you had sense!" She snapped.

"Sense enough to know even a Jedi will need help here."

Vergere closed her eyes and took a calming breath. "So be it then."

They approached the Inner Ring, were Grand AdmiralThrawn was scheduled to appear. Oin was amazed at what he sawas they neared the edge of the Inner Ring. The capital of the planet was literally half a mile above the surface.

A forest of white pillars thicker than mountains supported acity of glittering towers crisscrossed by small, personal craft. Gangs had sprayed the bases of the towers with graffiti, which several hundred droids were busily cleaning.

"Those are the repulserlifts," Vergere pointed to the floating platforms, large enough to hold a dozen beings at once, "they are one of the two ways into the Inner Ring. We wont be using them." Her cloak swirled around her as she approached one of the outer pillars. Oin saw that there was a spiraling stairway built into the side. "This way is better: it's free and we wont be noticed."

There was a guard stationed at the pillar and he started to block the Jedi's way, but she merely looked at him for a few seconds and he stepped back to his post, face clear of hostility. Oin followed Vergere, confused.

"Why don't you want to be seen?" He asked her. "Andwhat planet is this? Is it were we'll find help to free my people?"

"It's were we'll find help to fight the Yuuzhan Vong." She answered, seeing the Star Destroyer in her mind's eye. "TheMiashku planet is a major trade center for this sector." She went on as they climbed. "Considered neutral ground by every power, until now at any rate. Now the Empire is moving to add this planet to its territory. I came here to speak to the Imperial commander. They're the only ones strong enough to fight the Vong."

After an eternity of climbing they came up at the edge ofthe Inner Ring. There were small spaceports up there as well, where private yachts of the wealthy were berthed. There were towers of glass and mirrors, shining architectural masterpieces with vaulting spires and overhangs. The homes and business centers of the elite.

"We need to get to the Capital Marketplace. That's where the commander is scheduled to appear." She said softly.

"Why not just go to one of his soldiers and ask to be taken to him?" Oin inquired.

"The Empire and the Jedi are not on the best of terms." She whispered in the Nesz tongue, there were many beings on thestreet and she didn't dare risk being overheard. That was easy: their poor clothing and Vergere's subtle use of the Force guaranteed they would go unnoticed. "They would be inclined to shoot first and talk afterwards-" She trailed off, seeing for the first time that not all the Imperials on shore leave were human.

Yes, she had seen a great many Chiss since entering the upper city, but it hadn't registered that they wore Imperial uniforms. Aliens serving in the Imperial fleet?

Oin noticed her surprise, but before he could ask her what was wrong a hologram appeared a nearby street corner, one of the methods used for public announcements. A hologram of a Miashku High Councilor began to talk and the speakers on several nearby streetlamp poles blared the words in several different languages: Miashku, Chiss and the tongues of a few other influential races. A small crowd was gathering and the Jedi and Nesz stayed close together.

It took a few minutes for them to find a speaker translating into Basic, and when they did many of the words were blotted out by the others. Oin caught the words "Empire" and "signing," and, with significance attached to it, "Grand Admiral Thrawn." Vergere jerked in shock as the hologram switched to another figure. That of an aristocratic Chiss in the white uniform of a Grand Admiral. He tried to get her attention but here violet eyes were riveted on the image.

Vergere stared at the Chiss face, willing herself to be mistaken but knowing she was not. This was the man from her dream, the one who fought Sang Anor and, along with him, destroyed the Nesz.

***

"-and move forward into a new and brighter future." Thrawn finished and the hologram broadcast switched off. "Is my shuttle ready?" He asked Parck.

"Yes sir, and all other preparations are as you specified."

"Good. I will embark for the planet in one hour." He sat at his command chair, activated a console and bent his attention on it.

"I wish you'd let me go with you." Parck bit out.

"No Captain, if anything should go wrong I will need you up here to coordinate things. Not that I expect anything of the kind." He smiled slightly. "And if I am wrong, we will simply have to improvise."

***

They saw more Miashku and many more Imperials the closer they came to the center of the city. Vergere and Oin retreated into an alleyway near the capital building. "I need an opportunity to somehow speak with Thrawn alone." She still had trouble believing the Emperor would make a Chiss one of his Grand Admirals.

In any case, she had enough evidence to convince even the most skeptical of Imperials of the threat Sang Anor posed. The datacard in her robe's pocket had detailed images of their works on Sevac III, along with a carefully compiled report on what to expect from them. She had began that report in her mind over thirty years ago, when she had surrendered to the Yuuzhan Vong task force in order to save the inhabitants of Zonama Sekot, the most amazing inhabitant being the planet itself!

She couldn't help the sigh that escaped her: she had seen neither her Master nor any other Jedi since then, but she had felt them as they died. Thracia most of all. Now it seemed she must make a choice between the Sith and the Empire they had built and the Yuuzhan Vong vision of the future, with the lives of innocents caught in between.

But at least with the Empire there was hope, a chance for rebellion. The Vong would change more than the government under which the people lived, they would change the people themselves. There would be no escape, and the Jedi would never again rise: Sang Anor would cut the beings of this galaxy off from the Force itself.

"Come on, we need to get a closer look at the Marketplace." She started to leave the alley, Oin beside her. Suddenly the Nesz's eyes widened and his clawed hands grabbed Vergere. He pulled her back just before she would have run right into a passing Imperial. Vergere jumbled back and pressed herselfagainst the wall. Her eyes were wide with terror. The human was tall, broad shouldered and strong looking, but that wasn't what frightened her.

She hadn't sensed him approaching through the Force, nor did she now, though she bent all her will on the figure. Her senses told her nothing was there. She knew what that meant.

Oin's eyes were narrow slits, his nostrils quivered. He couldn't sense the Force but he had a sensitive nose, and he recognized the 'human's' lean but broad-shouldered shape, the deadly grace of movement and the ingrained arrogance that made him stalk and swagger at the same time.

"One of them!" He hissed.

"Yes." Vergere nodded slowly. A Yuuzhan Vong in human guise, and in the uniform of an Imperial. This complicated things, especially as both she and the Nesz race were known to them. "And not just one if I know Sang Anor. It's more important than ever that I talk to Thrawn."

***

Nom Anor paused after passing the alleyway. He had seensomething out of the corner of his eye. Movement: a small, slight figure in a cloak and a slightly shorter but much broader creature. Probably nothing, some of this world's criminal vermin, but something tugged at his memory and made him uneasy. Something about the cloaked one. He half turned and reached into the pocket of his stolen uniform, ignoring the blaster, that perverted machine at his side, in favor of a long-bladed coufee strapped to his thigh under the uniform.

"Are you coming yet, or does the scenery interest you?" The speech was Basic, but the voice and tone were unmistakable. His lips tight and angry under his second skin, Nom Anor turned back and hurried toward the Vong warrior.

The Vong full warrior, who regarded him with cold contempt, then looked over and around him as if he were a smashed bug. "Warrior," he said softly, "I saw something-"

"I expect total obedience from you, feenir." He overrode Nom Anor. "Do not get distracted from your duties again." He turned on his heel and stalked towards the Marketplace, Nom Anor followed, seething inside. The curt dismissal said it all: the warrior's contempt for him, that Nom Anor was nothing in his eyes, a stripling who was here only because of his father's power and importance.

So be it then. He would simply have to prove them all wrong.

They met with the other three covert warriors at a small restaurant. They sat at an outdoor table and gave their reports to Hren Silra. The Vong commander nodded and told them each what positions to take.

"You will have the honor of striking the death blow." He said to the senior warrior. He bowed his head, pride and disgust mingling on his face: he would, of course, be required to use the blaster at his side. A machine.

"Think of the irony, warrior." Hren Silra smiled. "To use the machine-mens' own weapons against them. May Yun Harla hide us and guide our hands."

They all bowed their heads in prayer. Nom Anor couldn't wait until this was over. He felt suffocated in these machine made clothes and objects. The sooner the Chiss admiral was dead, the better.

Yet he couldn't help that nagging unease...

***

Grand Admiral Thrawn's shuttle set down at a landing padnear the edge of the city. Stormtroopers had already disembarked and assembled and a vehicle was waiting for Thrawn himself. The Chiss admiral ascended the steps to the railed platform atop the hovercar and the parade began.

Ranks of stormtroopers marched behind the vehicle as it moved down the street. Hovering camera droids darted around and reporters spoke into comm-broadcasters. Citizens, merchants, Miashku leaders and powerful traders lined the street, watching to see how the balance of economic power in this sector was shifting and how they could take advantage of it.

Overhead, wings of TIE fighters streaked across the sky, showing incredible precision in the high speed maneuvers. Quickly but majestically, the Imperials made their way to the center of the city where an ornate platform with a long table had been set up. The High Councilors were assembled behind it, their bejeweled tentacles flashed in the bright sunlight.

"Quite a spectacle." Vergere murmured. Her violet eyes flashed from the depths of her hood as she scanned the marketplace as she moved, using the Force to project an aura of inconspicuousness. She cast out her senses in a wide net and searched for people who didn't register in the Force. Ah yes, she could see Sang Anor's hand in this. The Executor was devious,and this was an opportunity he couldn't resist: to break up the alliance that was giving the Empire so many advantages in the Unknown Regions without revealing himself at all.

The Imperials were in sight now as well as on the public viewscreens, moving to the dais. Vergere fisted her hands in frustration, it was no good: there were just too many minds here to zero in on a few blank spots. She would have to wait until Sang Anor's agents made their move.

"Here," she handed Oin a small hold-out blaster, "take this and stay beside me." The weapon was small enough for the Nesz to conceal in his palm. She had let him fire a similar weapon a few times before on his homeworld. He'd never killed anyone and he wasn't anything resembling a good marksman, but he knew how to use the thing. He could hopefully defend himself.

"We need to find someplace we can see what's happening, preferably at the edge of the crowd." She discounted a sniper or a bomb would be used: it was essential to Sang Anor's plans that the assassin be visible when he struck, that there be no doubt that human hands killed the Grand Admiral.

The Chiss walked up the steps to the dais, the Councilors bent the top parts of their bodies in imitation of a bow and Thrawn inclined his head in response. He was flanked by two Royal Guardsmen, their blood-red capes contrasting sharply with Thrawn's white uniform.

"My friends," amplifiers carried Thrawn's voice throughout the square, "you bear witness to the future this day. A future where beings will no longer live in fear for their lives and property. A future where the rule of law will replace the rule of force. Order will replace chaos and all will be free to work and prosper in peace under the benevolence of the Emperor."

***

Hren Silra followed Thrawn with his eyes, a tight smile on his face. Yes, almost, but not quite yet. He fingered one of the small but powerful grenades hidden in his clothes, as they were concealed in the clothing of the other three Vong situated throughout the square. The chaos they would create would aid in the assassin's escape after he struck.

Thrawn's brief but stirring speech was coming to a close, along with his life. Hren Silra's smile widened a fraction as he imagined how pleased the Executor would be with his success.

***

"-and the future begins today!" Thrawn concluded triumphantly. Applause roared in the square as he took up the golden datapad and pressed his thumb to the scanner to read his print. He had charisma, Vergere had to admit. She jumped onto one of the news hovervans broadcasting the signing, grabbed the roof with her hands, swung her legs over and lay flat on the roof. Searching, searching... there!

A human fleet trooper, half a head taller than those around him, moving through the ranks of stormtroopers to the foot of the dais, not so much pushing his way past as flowing through them with deadly grace. Quick as a hunting cat he mounted the first two steps. His hand gripped the blaster at his side, intense concentration on his face. She bent her will on him, probed him with the Force. As she though, nothing. This was it!

***

On the bridge of the Admonitor, Captain Parck watched the signing on the main viewscreen. So far, everything was going smoothly...wait!

A fleet trooper walking up the steps behind Thrawn, drawing a blaster and aiming it. Turn around! he screamed silently to the Royal Guards on either side of the Admiral, the Emperor's precious elite soldiers, useless!

***

Despite herself, Vergere had to admire Sang Anor's cunning. Thrawn would be on guard against an attack, but from his own people? Never!

She pulled a vibroblade from her robe, rose to her knees and cocked back her arm. I am saving the life of one of the Emperor's warlords, she thought, saving him so he can help destroy the Nesz, who are guiltless of anything. The 'human' pointed his blaster between the two Guardsmen, at the back of the admiral's head. She threw, the blade spun...

And the Yuuzhan Vong dropped the blaster and clutched his throat, where the hilt of a vibroblade suddenly sprouted. He fell backwards onto the stairs.

***

Thrawn's head twisted around to look at the fallen man, then snapped back, eyes wide and glowing crimson. He dropped into a defensive crouch and the Royal Guardsmen belatedly moved to shield him with their bodies and usher him into the ranks of stormtroopers.

The Grand Admiral shoved their red-guantleted hands away and pushed past them to look in the direction the throw had comefrom. Looking past the writhing tentacles of the panicked HighCouncilors, he saw a small figure in a robe jumped to its feet andstand atop a broadcast vehicle.

***

On the bridge of the Admonitor Captain Parck bolted upfrom the command chair. On the main viewscreen the camera eyefocused on the dead Imperial, then zipped to the knife-thrower. Asharp hiss of relief escaped through his clenched teeth: the Admiralwas safe, for the moment at least.

Only now did he become aware of the talking on thebridge, that many of the crewers had stood and left their stations.

"Order!" He barked. "Order on the bridge! Back to yourstations!" His hands fisted helplessly: there was nothing he coulddo about the events planetside, but by Vader's teeth he would keepthings together up here! If whoever was behind this tried an attackon the Admonitor, they wouldn't find the Star Destroyer off itsguard.

***

"You!" A stormtrooper aimed a blaster rifle at Vergere, by the melodious quality of the voice, even in issuing a sharp command, she guessed there was a blue face under the white helmet. "Freeze!" Two more leveled their weapons at the small, brown-robed alien.

Vergere raised her hands and the long sleeves fell awayfrom her bare arms. Her hands in plain sight, she pulled back herhood. She silently and ironically thanked Sang Anor: he had givenher the perfect opportunity to speak to the Imperial commander.Now he would certainly listen to what she and Oin had to say, andwith her datacard and a Yuuzhan Vong body to back up her story-

"Jedi!" A scream of the purest hate. A man pushedthrough to the foot of the van, shoved beings away like rag dolls.A 'man' who didn't register in the Force. The Vong's face was atwisted mask in every sense, his lips peeled back to show jaggedfangs. The same one who had passed them in the alley, Vergerewas sure of it, and his enraged voice was familiar.

"A filthy Jedi!" Nom Anor pulled the blaster free and opened fire, not caring if it was a machine he was using.

Verger moved faster than the eye could follow. Her lightsaber was in her hand and blazing violet before anyone knewwhat was happening. Almost of its own volition, the blade moved to block Nom Anor's blasterfire.

But that was only the beginning. The stormtroopers around the van were shooting at her, too many to deflect. She jumped andbackflipped through the air. Stormtroopers and the mercenarypolice force tried to converge on her when she landed, but the lightsaber gave her breathing space and deflected the blaster bolts back into the shooters. Men screamed and fell, wounded by theirown fire, and those that got too close were soon missing half ablaster. Or a hand. Nom Anor tried to push to the front but thenumbers rushing past him for even a Yuuzhan Vong to overcome.

"Oin, where are you?" The Nesz appeared beside her."Come on!" She slashed her lightsaber and one of the poles fell,bisected. A shove with the force sent the pole, lengthwise and atknee-level, into the advancing troopers. Stormtroopers tripped andfell by the dozen and Vergere turned and ran.

***

Thrawn saw the violet blade of what was unmistakably alightsaber and his breath caught in his throat. He'd been in closecontact with Lord Vader and the Emperor often enough to knowwhat a Jedi was capable of, and he was uneasy about anything thatcould look inside his mind, that could see his plans andunderstand how he thought.

But if this Jedi was here to kill him, as one would logicallyconclude, then why wasn't he dead? The Jedi evaded thestormtroopers with ease and disappeared into the crowd, a short,lizardlike alien beside him.

A blur of red on either side of him-the Royal Guardsmenbounded past him and vaulted over the railing like twin waterfallsof blood. Thrawn activated the comm link at his collar, keyed tothe receivers built into the Guardsmens' helmets.

"Guardsmen!" He snapped. "I order you to capture thatJedi! Bring him to me alive!"

"We serve the Emperor, not you." The answering voicewas a cold, harsh rasp in Thrawn's ear. "His Majesty's standingorders are for the termination of all Jedi." The signal cut off.They were working their way rapidly through the crowd, beingsgot out of the way or were shoved aside.

Thrawn bit out a curse in his own language, then turned thecomm to a different frequency. "Major," he spoke to the commander of the stormtrooper companies, "have your men take control of the Inner Ring spaceports, lifts and stairways. No oneenters or leaves this city!" There were definite advantages to being half a mile up in the air. "I want a search pattern carried out, set weapons for stun only. I repeat, stun only!" He turned to some nearby stormtroopers.

"Take that to my shuttle." He pointed to the corpse, then turned to the panicked Councilors: he had to salvage this situation if he wanted to keep their alliegence.

***

Vergere and Oin hurried down the street, she ducked inside a store and pulled Oin with her just as a group of stormtroopers turned a corner.

The Miashku shopkeeper lashed its tentacles in alarm as the two fugitives ran through the store toward the back entrance, knocking over crystal plates and goblets. The stormtroopers must have seen them because white-armored men crowded through the doorway, and to Vergere's surprise stun bolts, not lethal fire, blazed through the air. She ducked and rolled through the doorwhile Oin sidestepped and dove after her. The shopkeep tried to back away, was caught by a stun bolt and collapsed on its broken wares.

"We've found them!" She heard a stormtrooper say into his comm link as she slammed the door and jammed the lock with the Force.

"You still in one piece?" She asked Oin.

"Yes," he clutched the bandolier to his chest to reassure him it was still there, "I think I've seen enough of 'civilization' to last three lifetimes!"

"I agree." They ran past a dumpster and startled a nest ofranats. "If we live through this I might consider a long vacation in a swamp planet, or maybe a desert." They took a shortcut through a park of sculpted gardens, making for the edge of the Ring.

"How will we get down?" Oin panted.

"I have a plan-" blaster bolts burned through the air, searedthe elaborate trees and hedges. Clouds of bright, multicoloredsongbirds flew from their perches in panicked waves as a dozenstormtroopers tromped after the Jedi. Bad, but not nearly as bad aswhat appeared around the corner of a domed building in the park.

An AT-ST Walker trotted into sight on its bent-backchicken legs. The boxlike head swiveled, the chin-mountedblasters aimed...

Blaster bolts dug twin craters in the path were Oin andVergere once stood. Vergere had jumped to the right while Oinheaded left. The Jedi looked back but couldn't see her friend, andthe Force was too disturbed to focus on a single being. Thestormtroopers were shooting and the Walker stalked a few moresteps before taking aim.

With no other option, Vergere ran and hoped Oin wouldfare decently.

***

Concealed in the boughs of the tree he'd swung up into,Oin watched the Imperials chase Vergere and leave him alone. He breathed a sigh of relief, followed immediately by a grimace ofshame. The Jedi had been right, he had no place here: the worldsabove his own sky were insane!

The allies Vergere sought were as intent on destroyingthem as the Vong, and Oin had made no progress on his missionfrom the Eternals. He dropped to the scorched ground and went inthe same direction as the white-armored warriors. One thing wasclear: Vergere was his friend, more than that, she was his onlychance. No one else in this greedy, violent universe cared a witabout the plight of the Nesz, no one else would help Oin.

He still had the blaster she'd given him. He knew how touse it, but to kill...unthinkable! And yet, if there was no othercourse...

***

The four surviving Yuuzhan Vong met in the restroom of asmall luncheonette in the Marketplace. They barricaded the doorwith a machine that dispensed small packets of tentacle lubricantthen had a calm assessment of the situation.

"A disaster!" One warrior hissed. "We have shown ourhand and achieved nothing-" he was silenced by a lash from HrenSilra's fist.

"You were not given leave to speak." He snarled andshoved him to the floor. Enraged, he tried to bound up, but foundHren Silra's foot pressed down on his neck. "And if I did not needyour help I'd rip your spine out for this display." He turned on themall. "Do you forget who you are? We are Yuuzhan Vong! Thismission can yet be salvaged." He released the warrior and glaredat them all from the openings of his ooglith masquer.

"How?" Another whispered.

"Where you see failure, I see opportunities. We will tryagain, and this time we will succeed." He grinned. "If anything, Ibelieve we can accomplish more than the Executor ever expected!"He told them his plan and sent two of the warriors to their localbase-the hotel Hren Silra had rented-ordering them to change intoChiss ooglith masquers and bring a few other items along as well.

"But destroy everything else, even the ooglith masquers younow wear. Turn the ruaswyrms on them and then meet us at theeast spaceport in one quarter of an hour." After they left he turnedto Nom Anor.

"That was quick thinking." He said. "The Jedi nearlyruined everything, but the chaos you caused kept her fromspeaking with Thrawn, and then our mission here would havefailed. Your actions gave us the chance to rectify the situation."His eyes gleamed. "Having a disgruntled human-supremacist fromthe Empire's own ranks kill Thrawn would have sufficed-but whenThrawn is found gutted onboard his own Star Destroyer, killed bythose red guards of his obviously acting under the Emperor'sorders, then this neat little alliance will dissolve into a bloodbath!"

Nom Anor listened, but his eyes burned with a differentfire. "Master, I wish to go after the Jedi." He bit out with all therespect he could muster.

"Under no circumstances. You will be needed to completeour mission."

"This is a blood-debt, Master, a matter of honor for allDomain Anor!" He ground his teeth and began to lower himself tohis knees. "I beg you-"

"I said no!" Hren Silra's hand shot out, gripped NomAnor's shoulder and pulled him to his feet. "This mission is allimportant, it comes before all familial obligations. He shook thefeenir. "Remember who you are, Nom Anor, and cool yourblood. I know what this Jedi did to you and the Executor beforeher escape, but now is not the time."

Nom Anor straightened and bowed his head. "I will obey."He followed Hren Silra out the door.

***

Vergere pressed herself against a wall and took a few deepbreathes. She had lost her pursuers, at least for the moment, butshe had also lost Oin.

She was in a parking basement under one of the officebuildings. Spacious, dimly lit and almost empty but for a fewhovercars. She sank down and buried her face in her hands.Things had not gone well at all. She had a tenuous plan for gettingback to her ship, but that would mean leaving Oin to fend forhimself. Also she still hadn't spoken to Thrawn, her entire reasonfor coming here.

There was another way to make the Empire aware of SangAnor: she could simply broadcast her message via her ship'scomm-either contact the Admonitor directly or make theannouncement on an open, broad-band. She had wished to avoidthat: it would start a panic and Sang Anor would know for certainhe'd been discovered. It seemed that was the only way, though.

Unfortunately that would mean leaving Oin. The youngNesz was her responsibility, never mind that he had stowed awayand followed her: she had still misled him about where she wasgoing, about how hostile the other planets were, of course hewould believe they would be seeking friends who would helpthem. She had led them to believe just that, to ensure the Neszwould cooperate with her in gathering information on Sang Anor'sactivities.

She took a deep breath and stood. There were times theJedi had to be absolutely ruthless. It would hurt her to leave Oinbehind, but unless they ran into each other again she could see noother way. She would get to her ship and contact the Imperials,then do her best to track down Oin when the search cooled. In anycase, her vision had assured her that Oin would live. Long enoughto see the destruction of his world and people at any rate. Thememory of that suffering face and those grieving eyes returned. Yes,Oin would be the last of the Nesz, the future was always in motion,but some things were inevitable.

Vergere pushed away from the wall and walked past one ofthe many thick support pillars. Only a tingling through the Forcewarned her of the attack.

A tall, bright red figure leapt from behind the pillar, a forcepike whirled in his hands and his cloak billowed around him in acrimson cloud. The Royal Guardsman aimed his slash at her kneesbut the Jedi jumped, somersaulted over his head to land behindhim. He spun on his heel and launched another attack, butVergere's lightsaber was out and blazing by then. She swung theweapon and the Imperial's staff was neatly cut in two.

She struck again but the Guardsman jumped back, twirlinga half of the pike in either hand like twin short swords. The Jedi madeto attack again, but was warned by the Force just in time to dropand roll as the second Guardsman charged, coming within a hair ofdecapitating her.

By a feather, she amended, seeing a few of her crest-feathers drifting down to the floor.

Quickly she sized up the situation. Both the towering menwere much taller than her and heavily armed. More, they were theEmperor's own elite guard, intensely trained and in primecondition. She was a Jedi Knight, the greatest of the galaxy'swarriors, but she was also exhausted while they were fresh.

"Listen," she said as the Guardsmen separated and movedto circle her, "I have information your master will want-" she triedto buy time while she swept the barren lot with a mental probe,searched for any loose item light enough to levitate and throw atthem. No good, the lot was meticulously clean and the RedGuards weren't interesting in listening or talking.

The one with the whole force pike pulled a blaster fromunder his robes and shot at her. The lightsaber moved, deflectedthe bolts back at him. Or where he used to be, he was moving ashe shot, and when she turned to block the shots the other Imperialattacked her from behind. She bounded at the shooter, inchesaway from having her spine sliced by half a force pike. A slash ofthe energy blade cut the blaster in half, but the shooter simplydropped it and swung his pike under her guard with intent todisembowel.

She sidestepped backward, moving out of the pike's rangeand spinning to meet the one with the forcepike halves, but hemoved with more agility than one would believe of such a tall andheavily armored man and dodged her saber even as his partnermade a lance-strike at her head.

Now their strategy was clear: attack her from two sides atonce, she couldn't defend effectively or launch a counterattackagainst one because the other would move against her while shewas occupied. She tried to use some of the mind tricks Thracia,her Master, had taught: instilling a sense of fear or overconfidence,confusing the senses so that one would see or hear things notpresent, and that always-handy trick of switching her image withthat of his partner in the Red Guard's mind. To her surprise noneof it worked. The Emperor must have trained his bodyguardsagainst such things. She could receive emotions from them,anticipate what they would do, but she couldn't affect their minds.

In any case, she had no time to concentrate on a mentalassault as one of the Guardsmen charged her. She backpeddled ashe drove her toward a parked hovercar with his pike. The Jedijumped, landed on the car's hood and jumped again when theImperial aimed a slash at her legs. She timed her landing,however, so that her she was able to ram her boot heel onto thestaff. His weapon trapped, the Guardsman pulled a longvibroblade from his robes and stabbed at her. Vergere wasted notime in swinging her lightsaber in an arc that would havedecapitated the man had he been any slower at ducking.

The instant she took the initiative the other Guardsmanmoved in and threw a vibroblade of his own. The lightsaber sweptup to cut the knife in two while Vergere kicked the firstGuardsman's blade out of his hand. This was getting her nowhere:one at a time she could take them easily, but eventually they wouldwear her down. They worked too well together, were too much insync. She had to take one out, and quickly.

The knife-thrower was drawing a small blaster while theother tried to free his trapped pike. Vergere moved faster thancould be believed, a kick to the first one's face sent him staggeringback: even though his face was protected by his face mask theimpact was painful.

Quickly, the Jedi gathered herself up and sprang at theother Guardsman, the one with the pike halves. She closed thedistance between them in a few bounds. He fired his weapon withdeadly accuracy, but her lightsaber was everywhere at once,blocking every shot. Before the Red Guard could take a half-stepback and delay her until his partner could help him the Jedi hadbrought herself within striking range and the blaster, as well as theman's smoking hand, tumbled across the floor.

Incredibly, the Guardsman's only reaction was to stab at her withhis pike half. With a flick of her wrist she amputated his other armup to the elbow. In a single, fluid movement she spun around,reversed her lightsaber and stabbed backward into the Guardsman.The blade pierced his armor, skin, bones, lung and heart.

She deactivated the blade and heard the body drop to thefloor as she held the handle in front of her and snapped the bladeon again to face the warrior who would be closing behind her.

The Guardsman wasn't there.

Vergere twisted her body just in time to avoid the blade ofa force pike. She couldn't avoid the guantleted fist that impactedthe side of her head. A kick knocked her feet out from under herand she fell to the floor. She let go of the lightsaber, which died assoon as it left her hand. The handled rolled across the floor.

She shook her head, dazed. She looked up and her eyesfocused on the blood-red Guardsman towering over her. Vergereopened her hand and her lightsaber switched on and flew at theImperial's back like a burning arrow.

The Guardsman pivoted, the saber shot past him and hishand lashed out to grab the handle. The next second her ownlightsaber was at her throat.

Vergere felt the cold, controlled rage emanating from themind behind the mask. Fury at his brother Guardsman's death. Hewould kill her, now, with her own weapon.

But how? She had seen the Imperials attacking theYuuzhan Vong in her vision-dream, how could that come to pass ifshe died before talking to Thrawn? Perhaps when they searchedher robes they would find the datacard. Perhaps they wouldcapture Oin and he would reveal all under interrogation. Hervision did not specify that she would live to see the Neszslaughter, only that Oin would. Devious is the future, Yoda hadonce said.

When a bright light seared through the darkness shethought he'd killed her. But then she felt the Guardsman's shockas well. The starburst became a vehicle's headlight and a hovercarlifted off from its landing pad and flew at top speed a fewhandwidths over the floor. It flew straight at the Guardsman.

Agility and fast reflexes let him survive. He jumped, rolledover the hood, hit the transparisteel windshield with his shoulderand bounced off. He landed on the floor and tried to get up again.The car jerked to a stop in front of Vergere, then swivelledsideways. The passenger-side door slid open and a welcome voicecalled:

"Come on!"

Vergere called to her lightsaber and the weapon flew intoher hand. She clipped it to her belt and jumped into the backseat.A very frightened human male in a business suit was at thecontrols. Oin was on the seat beside him, pressing a blaster to theside of his head.

"Make it go!" Oin ordered in Basic and snapped his jawstogether. The human squeaked and turned up the accelerator. Thespeed pressed Vergere back against her seat. They shot throughthe parking garage at top speed, she was only grateful it was nearlyempty, else the terrified driver would have crashed for sure.Looking out the rear window, she saw a receding red-robed figurestumbling upright.

"Slow down." Vergere said calmly, reinforcing thecommand with the Force. So that the driver decelerated withoutthinking as they left the garage. They entered the flow of traffic,which was being held up by stormtroopers and Walkers searchingthe Inner Ring for her.

She turned to Oin. "How did you find me?" Evening wasfast approaching, not that the Inner Ring was ever dark. Thestreetlamps and building fairly glowed with luminance. If thatwasn't enough, the bright searchlights atop the Walkers splashedpools of artificial light wherever they looked.

"Easy, I saw the red robes and followed them into theunder-place. They're good fighters, but easy to spot dressed uplike that." Oin lowered his blaster and their captive breathed a sighof relief. "I was too late to warn you, but I saw this man leavingone of the moving rooms and grabbed him, made him take us tohis vehicle." Vergere knew the rest. Oin had been very lucky itwas a human he encountered: he only spoke two languages, hisown and Basic, which was simply the human language out here.An alien wouldn't have understood what he'd wanted.

"Hey, um, guys?" The driver spoke up. "Listen I'm sureyou got the wrong guy, I'm just, like, some accountant. I'm notone of the big fish around here, I was just working late. I'm-? helooked back at Vergere. "Hey! I saw you on the vidscreen atwork, you're the one who tried to take out the Grand Admiral-" heturned white. "Not that I have anything against that. Empire's gotno business out here. Hey, I'm with you." His eyes darted fromher to Oin frantically.

"How reassuring." She said dryly. "Calm down," shepatted him on the shoulder, letting calmness flow into him, "yourinvolvement in this is over. Tell me, is this vehicle insured againsttheft?" At his wooded nod she smiled. "Then you have nothing toworry about. Open the door and get out."

The man wasted no time in sliding out of his seat andrunning down the sidewalk. Vergere climbed into the driver's seatand shut the door. Stormtroopers were walking along the row ofhovercars, looking inside. The trick of not being noticed wouldn'twork with so many on their guard. "Fasten your safety straps."She said, then had to show her friend what and how to do that."This is a bumpy ride." She pulled out of the flow of traffic andonto the sidewalk, then sped parallel to the road.

Stormtroopers and Walkers wasted no time in opening fire,but Vergere handled the bulky hovercar like a speeder. With theacceleration on high, they were soon past the holdup and in normaltraffic. She swerved and shot past slower vehicles, driving almostdouble the speed limit and avoiding wrecks by bare inches.

The comm system sputtered to life. "This is ground-trafficcontrol," a protocol droid said in Basic, the vehicle was registeredto a human, after all, "you are in transgression of twelve major andminor violations of Miashku vehicular law: speeding, recklessendangerment-" there was a buzz as the signal was cut off. "Jedi,"the authoritative tone screamed 'stormtrooper,' "in the name of theEmperor, stop the vehicle or be terminated!" Vergere's responsewas to shove her vibroblade into the comm speaker.

"That's one distraction we don't need."

"I hope you have a plan." Oin's eyes were squeezed shutand his clawed hands sank and tore into the cushioned seat.

"Don't worry." She kept her eyes on the road. Walkersappeared and stalked down the road. Searchlight beams soughtthem and bolts of blasterfire speared out whenever they werecaught in the beams. A Walker stepped out onto the road in frontof them, and several cars swerved and crashed. With blaster boltsfollowing them from behind, Vergere drove right into theapproaching Walker. Quick adjustments on the controls and theblaster bolts sprayed harmlessly around them.

As the passed the Walker, Vergere took her lightsaber,stuck her arm out the window and switched on the blade. Theypassed close, the blade burned through the durasteel, and theWalker toppled and fell behind them.

"We're almost there." She said as she pulled the lightsaberback and deactivated it. She had abandoned her earlier plan infavor of an idea she'd had seconds ago. She preferred to call it theguidance of the Force. They were driving with their lights off so tobe less conspicuous, but the Imperials already knew their positionand the sensors on a TIE fighter didn't need light.

Bolts of energy strafed the road across them. "And they'vecalled in the fighters." Vergere said grimly. Low flying craft spedoverhead and rained bolts down on the street. Cars crashed andpedestrians fled in screaming panic as their capitol wastransformed into a war zone.

Then at last they came to their destination: the edge of theInner Ring. Stormtroopers had control of the transports and stairs,but the hovercar flew past them, heading for the edge of the Ringitself.

"What are you doing?" Oin screeched.

"Trust me." The stormtroopers opened fire and scorchmarks appeared in the rear of the vehicle, but it didn't matter.There was a waist high railing around the edge of the Ring, wherecitizens could look out across the fertile plains, or occasionallydown at the less attractive Outer Ring. The hovercar plowedthrough the barrier and was plunging through midair. Vergereturned the repulsers to their maximum setting, but knew thatwouldn't cushion the fall. It was merely to help her slow theirdecent.

She closed her eyes, not seeing the things around her butthe way the Force flowed between them. With the calm of atrained Jedi, she willed the energy to gather around the metal shell.If she could levitate small objects then she could do the same withthe hovercar. Size matters not.

And so they plunged toward the dubious safety of the OuterRing.

***

Chapter Five

Standing beside Thrawn in the Grand Admiral's privatechambers, Captain Parck swallowed and tried to calm the fear thatfluttered in his stomach as he watched the viewscreens. Like mostof his generation, the Imperial Captain had been raised on storiesof the Jedi Knights, the invincible warrior-sorcerers of the OldRepublic.

Of course, that was before the Emperor took control andreplaced superstition and ineffectual leadership with the rule ofOrder. The Ministers of Propaganda had long been disprovingthose old stories, revealing the Jedi as nothing more thancharlatans and tricksters who used elaborate techno-illusions tooverawe the weak and foolish. Parck had even come to believe allthat (thankfully, he had never worked closely with Darth Vaderand experienced the Sith lord's power firsthand), until now.

"The reports are in from the Inner Ring," he began.

"The Jedi evaded the search and escaped to the OuterRing." Thrawn concluded for him. "The tone of your voice toldme that much."

"Yes, sir." Parck continued. "Early Reports and the imagesrecorded from the broadcast suggest she has a companion, areptilian of unknown species who aided her." He paused for amoment, giving Thrawn the chance to supply the species name, butthe Grand Admiral merely waved for him to continue. He didn'tknow what race the reptile-being was either.

"Apparently the reptile stole a hovercar from a Miashkucitizen, which the Jedi drove over the edge of the Ring." Parck'smouth thinned. "Troops located the vehicle, abandoned, near oneof the supporting pillars. Somehow it had survived the dropcompletely intact and was being looted by scavengers." Parcklowered his eyes. "I apologize, sir. I should have ordered moreground troops stationed in the Outer Ring. The Jedi wouldn't havegotten away-"

"Not your fault, Captain." Thrawn waved the apology awayand turned to his viewscreens, his eyes glowing coldly. "TheEmperor was indeed careful in destroying all records of the Jedi.Unfortunately, this purge of information also meant Imperialforces would be unable to anticipate a Jedi's powers if they shouldencounter one. In any case, if anyone is at fault then it is me. Ishould have known there was the chance of encountering a Jedi inthe Unknown Regions. Where else is there to hide from thePurges?"

"We're most relieved the Jedi's attempt on your life failed."Parck put in. One of the screens showed recordings from thebroadcast being played, then rewound and played again in a loop.

"You think she was trying to assassinate me, Captain?"Thrawn said smoothly.

"Of course that was her intent." Parck responded promptly,pointing to the split screen. "See, there she is preparing to throwher knife at you," he indicated one half of the screen, then theother, "and there one of our fleet troopers has seen her. He drawshis blaster to stop her, she sees this and adjusts her aim to kill himinstead, saving her own life." Parck nodded.

"Your response shows the depth of your Imperialconditioning, Captain, not that of your intelligence andobservation, which would otherwise be more than up to unravelingthis." He touched the controls and the images moved in slowmotion. "She may have killed him, but the 'loyal' fleet trooper wasdrawing his weapon before he could have possibly seen theJedi. And he does not aim at her position." Parck's eyes widenedas he tracked the path of the shot, which would have taken theAdmiral's head off! "As for the Jedi, she does not make a moveuntil she sees the trooper making his. Her aim is true, and hitswhat she intends to hit."

"The Jedi saved your life." He said under his breath, half-afraid that Imperial Intelligence agents would appear out of theshadows and seize him for a traitor.

"Yes, and after she has revealed herself and the threat tome is no more, what does she do? She surrenders, Captain. Sheonly flees when this man fires on her. Onscreen, the Imperialshoved past and raised his blaster. Thrawn froze the image andenlarged the section of the man's face. Parck instinctively steppedback, the face was almost inhuman in its hate, like a half-rabidanimal's. It must be some defect in the recording that made hisbared teeth look like fangs. On another screen, Thrawn hadenlarged the image of his would-be assassin and was studying itvery carefully, particularly the strangely graceful way the manmoved.

"This is a very curious business, Captain. I would like verymuch to know why this Jedi acted as she did."

"She wont get away." Parck promised. It may be difficult,the Outer Rings has many more spaceports than the Inner Ring,and they're highly disorganized, so finding the Jedi's ship will bedifficult, but I'm ready to call in more Star Destroyers andblockade the entire planet if need be."

"You can wipe that plan from your memory, Captain."Thrawn said in a glacial voice. "Imperial forces have alreadybrought chaos to the capital mere minutes after entering theEmpire, an act that was to usher in an age of peace and order. Istill have the government leaders in my pocket, but we need to winthe confidence of the people. Blockading the major trade center ofthis sector, an act that will cost countless billions, is not the way todo that."

"Besides, I have an idea already about where the Jedi'svessel might be located."

"Yes Admiral." Parck said. "I can't begin to express myshock that one of our own people would commit this kind oftreachery. We've identified the dead man, and rest assured I willbegin a full investigation into his past actions and associates.Whether he was motivated by an anti alien bias or if he was boughtby Coerl, we'll soon learn the truth."

"You can hold on the investigation." Thrawn said. "Ialready have a team of Intelligence agents backtracking hismovements since we landed." He was looking at a list of starcraftthat had recently arrived at the Outer Ring spaceports. It was avery long list. "And I have another plan for-" The com on hisarmrest beeped.

"Thrawn here." He said into the speaker.

"Sir," the voice of the bridge's comm officer, "we have atransmition from one of our shuttles at the Inner Ring spaceports."Transport shuttles had landed with orders to transport all Imperialpersonal in Inner Ring back to the Admonitor. "One of theImperial Guardsmen arrived with the... remains... of the other anddemanded that the shuttle lift off for the Admonitorimmediately, before the shuttle is full to capacity as per yourorders."

"Yes, well tell the pilot to give the Guardsmen the command patch the transmition in here."

"Aye sir." A few seconds later...

"Grand Admiral." The Guardsman's voice was a cold rasp.

"Yes," he leaned back in his chair, "so tell me, how didyour Jedi hunting go? I'd have thought you would want to betrailing your quarry."

"My fellow Guardsman is dead." There was a dangerousedge to his voice. "And I have no chance against a Jedi on myown. His Majesty commanded me to defend you, the Jedi maymake another attempt on your life."

"Yes," he steepled his fingers and smiled, "by all means theshuttle will launch for the Admonitor immediately. Thrawnout." He deactivated the comm. "Needless to say, Captain, youwill keep silent regarding our findings. I would not like thereaction if the Emperor's watchdog discovered a Jedi saved mylife." Parck nodded. "Good, now I have a mission for you and afew highly trusted troopers. You must be planetside before ourGuardsman friend arrives, and it would be best if he had noknowledge of what you are about."

***

The two other warriors met Hren Silra and Nom Anor andboarded one of the transport shuttles for the Admonitor. Bothwarriors were now disguised as Chiss troopers, their eyes glowedred with lumin dye, and two of the red bugs were concealed ineach of their pockets for when the glow began to fade.

They had turned the ruaswyrms on all the Vong creatures intheir possessions. All the evidence that they had even been herewere the ooglith cloakers they wore, the dye bugs and theruaswyrms themselves, concealed in their pockets. Hren Silrahimself had destroyed the villip that allowed them to communicatewith Sang Anor after outlining his plan to the Executor andsecuring his approval to go forward.

They had arrived on this planet in gel-lined corral podsdropped from low orbit, which had begun to decay soon after theyhit ground. When their work was finished there would be noevidence of the Yuuzhan Vong presence on this planet.

Nom Anor shivered, he felt sick being encased in thismachine, and they were actually going to enter that cursed StarDestroyer. There would be nothing around him but a world ofnonliving matter, unnaturally animated and offensive to the gods.Only the cold, pure purpose of their mission allowed him tovoyage into the heart of that monster without flinching. The fourof them gathered at the rear of the shuttle and listened as HrenSilra gave them their orders.

"When we arrive, you two will head down to the medicalarea and find the body of our fallen warrior. Then use theruaswyrms on him." He spoke in a low voice to avoid beingoverheard.

The warriors gasped in shock. "But Master," one of themwhispered, "to destroy his body, it would desecrate him and showdishonor to his family! It is our duty to recover his body andpresent it to the Executor!"

"This mission is all important, warrior." Hren Silraoverrode him. "Sacrifices will be made in the name of expediency.His family's elders, and the gods, will understand." The warriorswould have protested further, but Hren Silra had been vested withthe Executor's authority and they remained silent.

"We will also plant the wyrms to facilitate our escape.While you deal with the body you and I," he indicated one of the'Chiss,' "will head up to the command bridge and deal with theGrand Admiral." A wicked smile appeared on his human face. "Iwish I could see the Chiss' reaction when their beloved Syndic isslain by one of the Emperor's own Guardsmen. In less than a daythe Chiss and humans will be at war and the Empire will have lostall it has gained here."

***

Vergere and Oin had to take their time and avoid theImperial patrols that were sweeping the Outer Ring, sometimeshaving to go far out of their way and fight off starving vermin andterrified gangs, but they eventually made it to the spaceport wheretheir ship was berthed.

The port was uncharacteristically quiet, Vergere hadsuspected there to be a mad scramble as the Imperials seizedthe ports but now things seemed under control. The portitself was almost deserted and her ship was in sight. She wasthankful it hadn't been searched yet, but with so many vessels andno guarantee she even had a ship of her own and hadn't simplystown away on another vessel there was no way the Empire couldsearch them all quickly.

They moved around the ranks of berthed freighters andneared the ship. It wouldn't be long now. She would send thetransmition as the ship lifted off. The freighter was lightly armedand not very maneuverable, but Vergere was a skilled pilot withmore than a few tricks up her robe. She had a chance of gettingpast the TIE Fighters that would be sent after them, as long as theystayed away from the Star Destroyer and its tractor beams andturboblasters.

Through the Force, the Jedi sensed the fear of the beingsinside the ships and of the port authorities, their confusion anduncertainty. Their whole world had changed, they didn't knowwhat the future held in store for them.

"When we board," she whispered to Oin, "strap yourself inand stay quiet. It will take a few miracles for us to get clear of theplanet and make the jump to hyperspace, and I hope the Force inthe mood to indulge us."

Apparently it wasn't.

When they were halfway to the boarding ramp a dozenstormtroopers stepped out from around their ship and the shipsbehind them. They were surrounded, blocked from the front andflanked from behind, the focal point of a dozen blaster barrels. Itmust have been the emotions emanating from the ships aroundthem that had masked their presence in the Force. InstantlyVergere's lightsaber came to life in her hands and Oin tried topoint his blaster in every direction at once. Vergere stood ready todeflect their fire and charge any weak spot in the ranks.

They didn't open fire, only stood there, white armor shiningin the spaceport's lights.

"That wont be necessary." A man in a captain's uniformwalked around the berth and stood between them and the ramp.He was tall and his black hair was going grey, but he was still trimand fit. "I am Captain Voss Parck of the Star DestroyerAdmonitor, and I bring a message from Grand AdmiralThrawn." His hands were clasped behind his back and his voicewas calm and controlled, but Vergere sensed fear just under thesurface.

"I'm all ears." She responded dryly. "You seem to have acaptive audience."

"Yes, the Grand Admiral wishes to speak with you onboardhis flagship. You are to accompany us there. In return you willboth be given safe passage out of this system afterward."

"And if I decline?" She asked coldly.

"The Admiral doubts you will do so, as you seemedinterested in preserving him and speaking with him before." Parcksmiled.

"My companion stays here, aboard my ship."

"You are not in a position to negotiate. The Admiralwishes to see you both."

"Perhaps I should fight now rather than be shot in the backlater."

"Grand Admiral Thrawn is a man of honor," Parck's eyesflashed angrily, "he has given his word that you will not be harmedand will be allowed to leave in peace, and his word can be trusted."The honesty in Parck convinced her. She switched off herlightsaber and hooked in to her belt.

"Put the blaster away." She said to a reluctant Oin. "Verywell then," to Parck, "we accept."

***

Drash Tevock stalked down the corridors of theAdmonitor. He had spent a few hours in one of the shipsworkout areas trying vainly to sweat out his angst. It was thatblasted fight, not much more than a scuffle, but since then hisname hadn't been on any of the rosters.

He kept away from the windows and the beautiful, cleanvoid beyond the ship. The sight would only torment him, seeingspace without being able to fly through it, without being strippedaway of all the illusions that so many had, the little, unimportantthings that seemed so momentous. Then there was only thepure focus remaining as he became the sharp edge of the knife.Closer to the truth than any other. Blast it he had to get out there!

With a sigh he turned back to the training rooms. He wasrequired to spend some time in the flight simulator and he had bestget it over with quickly. He hated those things, they only mockedwhat he experienced in real piloting.

Drash had just turned a corner when he saw something odd.Very odd. Two fleet troopers walked past him, one human andone Chiss. The Chiss he didn't know, but the human was crewmannamed Estra, probably the worst human supremacist Drashknew.

He turned back, mildly curious. His first thought was thatHe'd made a mistake. No, there was Estra Vran, a man whoWouldn't even eat at the same table as an alien, standing to the sideof a corridor talking softly with a Chiss.

If Drash was curious before he was burning up inside now.He didn't bother thinking about what he would do next, he simplyfollowed his instincts. He stepped around the corner and put on awide, open smile. He walked quickly towards them and called in ahearty voice no one who had spent more than a few minutes withDrash would ever recognize as his.

"Estra, you Huttling!" He laughed and opened his arms,clapped his hands and rubbed them vigorously together. He closedthe distance between them in a few steps. The two had stoppedtalking and turned as one to look at him. They looked like a pairof startled wildcats.

"When did they transfer you here anyway? Last I heard youwere on the Incinerator. They finally got tired of you stinkingup their ship and sent you upstairs to offend the Admiral, eh?" Heclapped his hand on Estra's shoulder and felt the other tense, readyto throw the hand off. Then Estra, one of the handful of humans inthe fleet who still despised Admiral Thrawn for his race, looked atthe Chiss beside him. A brief glance, and the Chiss noddedslightly.

"It's good to see you too, friend." Estra smiled, and Drashnoticed he seemed taller than he'd been yesterday. "Yes, Itransferred here just a few days ago, from the Incinerator.Estra had been serving aboard the Admonitor for over a month, andthe Incinerator wasn't even a part of Unity Fleet. "I'd like tostick around and catch up on old times, but Zaen and I-"

"We have duties to attend to." The Chiss supplied. Themelodious accent seemed to be lacking something, though, as didthe glowing eyes.

"Right, of course." Drash smiled. Come and see me onyour off hours, we'll start up a slingball game." They beganmoving away, soon they were out of sight around another bend.The friendly smile vanished from Drash's face. Replaced by anexpression of cold speculation.

***

"That was a close thing." Nom Anor muttered to his Chiss-disguised companion. "I almost thought we'd have to kill thatfool."

"The gods favor us, it seems." The other led the waythrough the vile machine-ship. "Let us pray we do not run intoanyone else." They had already planted most of their ruaswyrmsand had just enough left to deal with their fallen warrior's body. Aquick trip to the shuttle bay afterwards and that would be the endto their time here. Nom Anor smiled under his human skin. Hisfather would be pleased with him for this.

***

"I must ask you to turn over your weapons." Captain Parckheld out his hands as they boarded the Lambda class shuttle.

"Not going to happen." Vergere strode past him and tookher seat. Oin did likewise. Parck shrugged and signaled the pilotto close the ramp. To her mild surprise, there were nostormtroopers onboard. They and Parck were to only passengers,and the Captain took his seat beside them. He was holding adatacard that had been handed to him as they had boarded theImperial shuttle.

The shuttle was meant for the personal conveyance ofMoffs, Admirals and other VIPs, the interior was plush andluxurious and the liftoff was so smooth they had to look out thewindow to make sure they'd left the ground. They saw the sidewings fold down as the shuttle lifted and pointed its nose skyward.Oin alternately watched the receding ground and approachingstars with interest. Vergere had other things on her mind.

"What's that?" She asked Parck, meaning the datacard thathad been handed to him as they had neared the shuttle.

"A report by Intelligence agents on the actions of the manwho attempted to assassinate the Grand Admiral." He said. "Theman you killed."

"Tell me more." Vergere said smoothly.

"This is classified data."

"Just a few questions, like where he went and who he wasseen with. A few questions will hardly bring down the Empire,will they?" She nudged him with the Force, tried to lower hisdefenses and relax his guard. "I have information about who thisman was working for, and who his associates might be."

"He was last seen in the company of four other human fleettroopers in the Outer Ring." Parck said softly, a vacant expressionon his face. "A Chiss saw them entering an abandonedslaughterhouse in the company of an unidentified human. Herecognized two: the shooter and a Lt. Stev Rollis. We are lookingfor him for questioning."

"You wont find him." Vergere said. Five, that meant atleast four were left. "Rollis and the others are dead. They diedwhen they entered that slaughterhouse."

"What?" Parck raised his eyebrows, alert again.

"An autopsy of the shooter will show that he isn't who youthink. He's not even human. Agents took their places to get closeto the Grand Admiral. They took human guise to break up thealliance with the Chiss, I suspect."

"But I've never heard of an alien that could mimic in thatway!" Parck gasped. "Who is behind this? Coerl? Some otherWarlord?"

Vergere only shook her head. "Probably the mostdangerous warlord in the galaxy. And the least known. It's a longstory and I'll save it for the Admiral." The Admonitor filled upthe window. There was no hurry, the other Yuuzhan Vong were probablyhiding out or on their way back to Sevac III by now.

***

In the medicenter's sterile lab, an Imperial doctor lookeddown at the table where the dead man lay. Naked and with avibroblade handle projecting from his throat. "Sorry about this,"she said to herself as she laid out the instruments, "but the Admiralwants an autopsy."

"Query, might I ask your meaning?" The medical droidassisting her asked.

"Never mind. Begin recording." She looked at the datapadand compared. "Subject is a human male, 28 years old. FromCoruscant-Kuat stock. Stands 5 foot 6 inches tall-"

"Incorrect." The droid put in. "Subject is 5 foot, 9 inches."

"Hmmm?" She took out a measure. "So he is." Sheshrugged, that was bureaucrats for you, they got nothing right."Odd, the file clearly says green eyes, his are brown." She pulledthe blade out and set it in a tray for later examination. "Beginningincision." She activated a laser scalpel and brought it close to thecadaver's skin, but before she could make the first cut the skinbunched and pulled away from her.

The doctor jerked back and pulled off her face mask."Emperor's black heart!" Her eyes widened. "Delete that lastsentence." She ordered the droid. "He seems to have some kind ofreaction in the epidermal layers." To say the least! The man's skinwas... sagging, pulling away from his body. Experimentally, sheheld the scalpel against the skin. It pulled back, afraid of pain.This thing isn't human! She thought.

"Touch him not with your machines!" The command was avicious snarl. The doctor spun around and saw two beings in thedoorway.

"Unauthorized entry." The droid warned. The human andChiss didn't care about that. If anything, they were furious at thedroid speaking to them. The doctor instinctively stepped back,half-raising her scalpel. It did not good: she was dead before shehit the floor.

While Nom Anor tore off the droid's head and ripped outIts wiring, the other warrior sprinkled ruaswryms in the corpse'smouth. "Come on." He led the way out. It would take time for thebody and ooglith masquer to completely dissolve: they had few ofthe worms left after planting them around the ship, and they wereall sterile. It would happen, though, and the only thing anyonewould find would be a puddle of acid and a few dead worms. Notas neat as Hren Silra would've liked, but good enough.

They entered the main area of the medicenter, empty. NomAnor looked around casually, and suddenly pushed the otherwarrior just as a blaster bolt would've burned through his head.

Drash fired again. He had gotten a look at the inside of thelab as the two had left, and the dead doctor on the floor told himall he needed to know. They had taken cover, whoever they were,one behind a metal. table, the other behind a storage locker. Theymoved like wild animals, but he had them pinned down. Hemoved to the alarm. This should help make up for his earlier badbehavior and get him in a TIE's cockpit all the sooner.

From their respective positions, the two Yuuzhan Vongglanced at one another, an entire conversation passed in less than asecond. The 'Chiss' warrior picked up a table and threw it acrossthe room. Drash threw himself against the wall to avoid the crush.The two were up and bounding at him, the Chiss in the lead.

Drash shot at him, winged him, then the Yuuzhan Vongwas knocking the blaster out of his hand, the other taloned handshot out to shred his face. Drash was fast too, though. He dodgedthe claws, stepped forward and landed a punch in the Chiss'midsection, helped by the forward momentum of the warrior as heleapt into the punch, knocking the wind out of him.

Drash followed with an uppercut to the jaw, then swept theWarrior's legs out from under him and ran for the alarm. NomAnor was ready for him, however, and clipped Drash on thetemple, knocking him out. He drew back his hand to tear theImperial's throat out, but the other warrior quickly bounded up andgrabbed his wrist, stopping him.

"No," he gasped, "this one has spirit. It is a dishonor to killa worthy fighter this way." Quickly, they put him on a bed and setthe table upright. With luck, nothing would look suspicious.

***

Hren Silra and his companion were near the commandbridge, almost to the Grand Admiral's chambers.

"Lt. Rollis." They both turned to see a man withCommander's bars on his chest standing at the far end of the hallbehind them. "We've been looking for you. You're to report for adebriefing."

"I'm sorry Commander," Hren Silra said smoothly, "but Ihave been ordered to report to the Grand Admiral."

"For what reason?"

"I was not told." He shrugged slightly. "The Lt. here isescorting me there."

The Commander's mouth tightened. "I'll see you afterwardthen." The lights blinked above them. The wyrms were doingtheir work. They would not eat metal, but they devoured theinsulation of the ship's wiring greedily. The acid would do therest. "What's the matter with this ship?" The Commandermuttered as he left.

Hren Silra motioned his subordinate to follow and theywere soon at the corridor leading the Grand Admiral's chambers.A single Royal Guardsman stood on one side. The two Vong glancedat one another and back at the Guard. He stood in front of the doornow.

"I've been ordered to report to the Grand Admiral." HrenSilra said. The Guardsman remained silent, force pike helddiagonally across his chest. He moved his hand to his face mask,most likely to a built-in comm link to talk to Thrawn. The twoYuuzhan Vong attacked without a signal, without being betrayedby the tensing of a single muscle.

One didn't get to be a Royal Guardsman by being a fool.The Imperial reacted instantly. A few seconds of flashing clawsand fangs, of whirling force pike and billowing red cloak, and theRoyal Guardsman was on the floor with a broken neck. HrenSilra's companion was dead also, with a force pike buried in hisgut.

Hren Silra leaned against the wall, breathing hard. He hadunderestimated the Royal Guardsmen. A lucky thing one of themhad died planetside. A few seconds later he had composed himselfand pulled the bodies to one side, where they would not beimmediatly visible.

On the way out he would dress in the Guardsman's robesand leave his pike in the Grand Admiral's body. It would beobvious to all that the Red Guard had killed him at the Emperor'scommand. The Guard himself Hren Silra would dress in his ownLt. uniform and leave him somewhere. That left only the body ofhis companion. He would work that out later, he said to himself ashe entered the chambers.

The door slid shut behind him and Hren Silra's eyesinstantly adjusted to the dim room. He looked past the holograms-abdominous machine things-to the command chair.

"Yes," a melodious voice from the chair, "what is it?"

"Lt. Rollis here, sir." He put the proper submissiveness inhis tone. "I've received a report from planetside. I wascommanded to put it in your hand alone." He held up a blankdatacard. "I believe it is in regards to the Jedi terrorist." He keptwalking toward the chair. He only needed to distract the Chisslong enough to get within range...

The chair swiveled to face him. Thrawn regarded the manwith glowing eyes that seemed to weigh and measure. "Ordered bywhom, Lt.?" He asked.

"By the Captain, sir." He answered, hesitating only aheartbeat before answering. A few more steps... Thrawn's eyesnarrowed and a blaster appeared in his hand.

"Stay where you are."

"Admiral?" Hren Silra asked innocently.

"Amazing." The blaster was level with his head. "Youreally are the image of Lt. Rollis. I am most interested in how youdo it."

"The Admiral is most perceptive." Hren Silra's eyes andvoice changed, filled with cold menace. The datacard broke in hisclenched hand.

"I have the rare ability to see what is right in front of myface." Thrawn said easily, his blaster never wavering. "After theattack planetside I surmised that imposters had somehow taken theplace of my crewmen to infiltrate my ship. I also concluded yoursis a tenacious race and would certainly make another attempt onmy life. I welcomed this. I saw an opportunity to uncover yourplans and find out who sent you."

"You set a trap with yourself as bait." Hren Silra felt areluctant respect for his adversary.

"Yes, I was unable to notify the crew, as I didn't know howfar my ship had been penetrated and I could not risk alerting youuntil I have my quarry. Of course, I will soon have all the answersI need. How did you get by the Guardsman, by the way? I warnedhim to be on his guard after I tested him to make certain he waswho claimed."

"He is dead."

Thrawn raised his eyebrows. "It seems I'll have to lookinto a better class of bodyguards. At any rate, I can now turn youover to proper handlers. He reached for the comm on his armrest,and Hren Silra moved, launched himself at Thrawn withoutwarning. A blaster bolt burned through the empty space he'doccupied seconds before.

Thrawn was out of his chair and rolling on the floor justbefore the Yuuzhan Vong landed. The Chiss came up in akneeling position, weapon arced to point at the warrior. Hren Silrawasted no time but stabbed his coufee into the comm and pulled itfree in a shower of sparks and tangle of wires. He sidestepped,swivelled Thrawn's chair and ducked behind it. Blaster bolts deflectedoff the chair back.

"You wont get any help, machine slave!"

"I have all the help I need." Thrawn darted forward andslapped a button on one of his consoles. The arrangement ofholograms changed, now primitive tribal art of various worldsdecorated the room. Feathered masks and painted shields adornedthe walls and beast-totem sculpture stood on the floor. Thrawnmoved, ducked behind a woven rug on a weaving stand. He kepthis weapon trained on the chair and shot as Hren Silra lept fromhis cover.

He landed, crouched to avoid the shots that burned throughthe holograms, creating ripples in the light, and quickly losthimself in the artwork. He had just gotten an idea of the Admiral'sposition relative to his when the artwork changed. Now he wassurrounded by arrangements of crystal statuary and abstracts.Translucent and glowing with their own inner light. Moreimportantly, Hren Silra's cover had disappeared and only luck andtraining kept him from being killed by the volley of bolts Thrawnsent his way. He took a nasty burn in the leg, though.

He clenched his teeth, embraced the pain and tried to makefor the Admiral's position even as the art changed again.

***The shuttle glided into the landing bay and set down a littleapart from the rest of the transport shuttles busy removing theImperials from the planet and the rows of TIE fighters. Parck ledthe way down the ramp, followed closely by the robed and hoodedJedi.

"There is a conference room adjoining the landing bay,used for last minute briefings. We will wait for the Admiralthere." Oin stayed behind in the shuttle with the pilot, watchingthe ships, the crew and technitions, and the droids that scrambledaround them.

"It's best you both stay out of sight." Parck explained."The Grand Admiral can't have it known he's meeting with a Jedi.Not with a Royal Guardsman onboard. Have a seat." He pointedto one of the chairs around the conference table and reached forthe comm console, but the lights dimmed and the screen turnedblank.

Parck bit back a curse and raised his comm link. "Have toget some techs in here to look at this console." He said as headjusted the frequency. "Admiral, this is Captain Parck." Hefrowned and readjusted the link. "Commander Veenir," he said hisfirst officers name. "This is Captain Parck."

"Veenir here, sir." From the comm link.

"Commander, I can't get through to the Admiral, I need youto take a message to him."

"Of course, sir. His interview must be over by now."Interview? It must be something important, Thrawn would wantnothing to delay this.

"Who is he talking to?"

"A Lt. Rollis." Parck felt his blood drain from his face. Hisgaze snapped to Vergere, whose own eyes were wide with alarm.

"Commander, get a squad of stormtroopers to the Admiral'schambers, now!"

"Sir?"

"The Admiral's life is in danger! Do it!" He cut off thelink. "Stay here!" He ordered as he ran out the door.

***

When this was over, and his claws sunk deep into Thrawn'sbelly, he would take those glowing eyes and give them to his favoritewife as earbobs. So Hren Silra promised himself. He cursed the infidelChiss as he moved around the artwork, trying to get within reachof him before the Admiral could get to the door and rescue. Theproblem was this blasted artwork changed every ten seconds andonly Thrawn knew the pattern.

The two circled each other in the vast room, the Vongmoved without a sound and Thrawn was amazingly soft-footed inthose boots of his. Hren Silra tried to determine where theAdmiral was by scent, but the smell of Chiss was all over theroom. He couldn't pinpoint him.

He knew he was getting close, though. He could feel it.And Thrawn didn't dare use his blaster heedlessly: he would giveaway his position and the weapon was getting low on energy.They both stayed behind the holograms, to simply walk throughthem would risk being seen.

The artwork was now an offensively mechanistic design.Orderly, geometric shapes, curves running into spirals running intosharp edges. The geometric designs of a dozen cultures combinedinto a vast mechanical thing whose function could not be guessed.

Hren Silra was trying to get in front of the door. He wascertain that was Thrawn's goal. He searched the shifting artwork,a glimpse of white, two glowing eyes, that was all he needed.

There! A flash of white! Without a second's hesitationHren Silra bolted. He burst through holograms, a blaster boltblazed over his shoulder and a second later he had torn the weaponfrom Thrawn's hands. The Imperial's eyes blazed and he pulled avibroblade from his sleeve and took a fell into a fighting stance.

"You use machines to fight your battles." He hissed atThrawn. "This makes you weak and damns you in the eyes of thegods. But you are a worthy foe despite all that." He smiled. "Youwill make a fine sacrifice." He dropped his coufee and unsheathedhis claws.

"I use whatever weapon I have." Thrawn spoke in a levelvoice and lifted his blade in challenge. Hren Silra charged,knocked over Thrawn and bore him to the floor. His claws toreinto the white uniform.

The doors slid open and a squad of stormtroopers entered,led by the commander Hren Silra had met earlier. Blaster rifleswere leveled, but the troops couldn't see clearly for the holograms.

"Admiral!" The commander yelled. "Are you all right?"His question was answered when the holograms shifted again andthey saw for themselves. Hren Silra reared back from Thrawn'ssupine form, shreds of white in his claws and a vibroblade in hisstomach. An eyeblink later a dozen blaster bolts struck him. TheYuuzhan Vong warrior was thrown off Thrawn by the force of theblasts and lay dead on the floor.

Captain Parck ran down the corridor, shoved past thestormtroopers and half knelt, half collapsed, at the Admiral's side.

"Sir!" He yelled. "Talk to me, are you all right?"

"Perfectly fine, Captain." Thrawn sat up and brushedhimself off. "No need to shout." Parck nearly gagged, seeing therips in the Admiral's tunic. Only then seeing the body armorbeneath. "Yes, I thought it wise to keep this on. I do congratulateyou on your timing, though. A few seconds later and my friendthere would have had me."

"Thank the Jedi, sir." Parck stammered as he tookThrawn's arm and helped him stand. Stormtroopers surroundedHren Silra's body. "She was the one who warned me of 'Lt. Rollis'there."

"Indeed." Thrawn's lips tightened slightly. "It seems I oweher my life yet again. Have the bodies brought to the medicenterand-"

All the holograms shorted out and the lights blinked, thendimmed.

***

Nom Anor pointed to the Lambda class shuttle. "That one.It is small and will be easily handled." It was also a transport forhigh-level Imperials. What else would a Royal Guardsman whohas just assassinated a Grand Admiral use for his escape?

That was Hren Silra's analysis, anyway. The two YuuzhanVong crossed the hanger bay unnoticed, though the droids andtools of the techs made them both tremble in anger. They wouldprepare the ship, wait for the other two warriors and make theirescape before anyone knew what was happening.

Oin was in the back of the shuttle, feeling the strangecarpeting with his feet when he caught the scent. His long necktwisted around and he ducked behind a seat as the two figureswalked up the ramp and entered the shuttle.

He clutched his blaster in trembling hands and crouchedbehind the chair. He would know them no matter what skins theywore, by their stench and by the way they moved they wereYuuzhan Vong! The one in the guise of a Chiss knocked on thedoor to the cockpit. It slid open and the pilot walked out.

"Yes, is everything alright back-" His eyes widened. "Whoare you? What's this ab-ow!" He gagged as the Chiss slammed theheel of his hand into his face, shoving him back into the cockpit.The 'Chiss' followed and the stench of fear and blood filled Oin'snostrils.

"I'll ready the ship." The Vong called back in his own tongue,which Oin understood. "You go outside and watch for Hren Silra."The human-Vong nodded and stood at the rampway.

Oin swallowed nervously and held his blaster like alifeline. He had to get out of here, he had to warn Vergere! TheYuuzhan Vong stood framed in the hatchway, tapping his fingerson the wall. Oin held his weapon in steady hands. Killing wasanathema to the Nesz, but he carried the future of the Nesz withhim. He took a deep breath and got ready, but found it wasn'tnecessary to shoot. The Vong was gone.

Oin peeked around the back of the chair. He was nowherein sight. Carefully, in case the one in the cockpit should hear, hecrept around the seat and slowly made for the hatch. He wasalmost at the threshold when the human-Vong stepped around theside and grabbed him by the throat.

"Well! I thought I'd smelled something foul-" Nom Anorfrowned, eyes narrowing. He didn't know the name of the racethey had enslaved on Sevac III, but he knew a Nesz by sight."What is this?" He said as he walked in the shuttle. Oin kickedand struggled furiously in Nom Anor's grip. The Vong swatted theblaster out of Oin's hand and kicked it across the shuttle, but theNesz struck him with his bare claws, slashed at his eyes.

Nom Anor jerked his head back just in time to keep fromlosing an eye, but not before the reptile's claws raked one cheek,shredding the ooglith masquer. The living skin writhed and pulledaway from Nom Anor's face and head.

For a second, the shock had paralyzed Nom Anor. Notbecause of the pain, which he didn't even notice, but at the sight ofthe Nesz and what its being here meant.

The Jedi.

The blasted Jedi.

Gods damn her!

"So," Nom Anor hissed as his own claws sprouted from themasquer, he shook his hair free, "you slaves have some fire in yourblood after all. Or was it the Jedi? Did she give you your spine?"He held his arm straight so Oin was unable to reach him, thenheaved the Nesz up so his feet left the ground and he was at eye-level with the Yuuzhan Vong. Oin clutched Nom Anor's wrist, butcouldn't break the hold.

"You vermin were hiding her, weren't you?" He snarled,rage built inside him until he thought his blood would boil. "Shewas right under our noses, lurking around our seed world."

"Your seed world?" Oin gagged. "No, our planet, ourhome! You have no right there! No business there! Vergerehas found allies who will free my people and drive you from ourworld forever!"

Nom Anor shook the Nesz until Oin's teeth rattled. "Youare a fool. Where is the Jedi? Tell me!" Oin glared and remainedsilent. Nom Anor flexed his claws.

"What goes on?" The other Yuuzhan Vong stood in thecockpit door.

"The Jedi is here!" Nom Anor spat. "And she was on theseed world." He held up Oin as evidence. "Is the ship ready fortakeoff?" The other nodded. "Good, I'll close the hatch."

"But Hren Silra-"

"Isn't coming back." He turned, still holding the strugglingNesz easily. "The Jedi warned Thrawn. Hren Silra walked into hisdeath. Right now she is probably telling them all about our seedworld. The mission has failed and we must inform the Executor.And you," he tightened his grip until he was a hair from snappingOin's neck, "you I will break in half and toss your body out to roton this vile machine-ship!" He reached the hatch when he heardthe telltale snap-hiss of a lightsaber. Oin and Nom Anor lookeddown and saw a small, slight figure in a brown robe standing at thefoot of the ramp. A lightsaber burned in her hands.

***

"Nom Anor." Vergere spoke in a level voice. His ooglithmasquer was injured and had pulled back to reveal his true face.The Yuuzhan Vong had changed little in the past three years. Afew more scars, perhaps, but his face still had the uninjuredsymmetry of a Vong youth. Shoulder length black hair framed ayoung but hardened face, he had his mother's eyes and they burnedwith hate. She had sensed Oin in danger and hurried back to theshuttle, now it appeared she was too late.

"Jedi." He had a coufee in one hand and Oin's neck in theother. He looked ready to leap down the ramp, shielding himselffrom her lightsaber with Oin's body, and tear her apart.

"Your mission here has failed. Thrawn knows everything."Or he would soon. She had left her datacard in the conferenceroom for him to find.

"So I thought." He ground out. "But there is still a measureof vengeance I can take-"

"Nom Anor!" Another Vong voice from inside. "Close thehatch, we have to take off!"

"But-" he glanced back.

"Do it! Now!"

"Let him go!" Vergere pointed her lightsaber at Oin. "Heis no warrior, it would do you no good to kill him!"

"But it would hurt you." Nom Anor's eyes flashed, hesqueezed his hand and Oin gagged, but then a new expressionappeared on his face. The hot rage seemed to drain away andsomething colder and infinitely worse took its place. A smile ofpure malice twisted his lips.

"Slave," he snarled at Oin, "you are indeed a fool. Youthink this Jedi is here to help you? Look around! See what kind ofpeople the Imperials are! They will come to your world, but no tofree you, !" He pulled his arm in until Oin's snoutwas inches away from his face.

"Do you understand? They will lay waste to your world todestroy us, and wipe out your people as well. They wont care.Your race is doomed! Enslaved or destroyed, that is your onlydestiny. Your Jedi knew it. That was her purpose all along!" Heturned his face to Vergere. "Tell him." He commanded. "Tell himor he dies!"

Vergere swallowed, feeling like her heart was beingcrushed. "It's true, Oin. It's all true."

"Nom Anor's glittering eyes bored into Oin's. "Live withthat, slave." He hissed, drew back his arm and threw the Neszdown the ramp. Vergere deactivated her lightsaber and caught Oinwith the Force. She lowered him to the floor as Nom Anor hit thebutton that closed the hatch and raised the ramp. Oin shook heroff and tried to run up the ramp before it closed.

"No!" Vergere pulled him back, held him as the hatchsealed and the shuttle rose from its pad, thinking he meant toattack Nom Anor.

What she didn't see, what Oin had only just noticed, wasthat his bandolier was no longer with him. It must have been cutoff when Nom Anor had held him in his clawed hand, and Oin hadseen it, the only hope of the Nesz, coiled unnoticed on the floor atNom Anor's feet as he had thrown Oin down the ramp.

The shuttle unfolded its wings and sped for the spacebeyond the energy field.

"What's this?" The deck officer yelled. "No one gotclearance to launch that shuttle!" The ship soared over the dockedtransports and nearly crashed into a docking ship before it passedthrough the energy barrier. Vergere lifted the officer's comm linkwhile he was occupied and adjusted it to Captain Parck'sfrequency.

"A Lambda shuttle has just left the ship, you have to stop itat all costs!" Unfortunately the acids of the ruaswyrms had alreadydone their work. The tractor beams, turboblasters and sensorswere malfunctioning. TIE fighters were sent after the shuttle, butone of the features of this particular ship was shields that werethree times as strong as a normal Lambda class vessel. None ofthe pursuing fighters were TIE Advanced and equipped withmissiles, so Vergere could only watch helplessly as the shuttleescaped into hyperspace.

***

Nom Anor paced the passenger compartment of the shuttle,his mood shifting from malicious triumph to bitter fury as herealized how petty and meaningless was the hurt he gave the Jedi,then frustration: he couldn't destroy the machine around himwithout risking both their lives. He had stripped the injuredooglith cloaker from his body and tossed it against the hatch.Naked, he contented himself with ripping the cushioned seats apartand disemboweling the dead pilot with his bare hands.

He looked down as he felt his foot snag on something.Frowning, he picked up the bandolier the slave had worn. It wasmade of organic matter, not living, of course, but at least it showedthe slaves weren't completely abandoned by the gods.

As he examined the thing he noticed a large pocket stitchedinto the inner side. Curious, he tore it open with a swipe of hisclaws. The contents spilled out into his hand and onto the floor.Nom Anor found himself staring at a pile of seeds.

***

"Quite an interesting story." Thrawn paced the length ofthe conference room before returning his glowing gaze to its onlyother occupant. "But tell me, how do you know so much of theseYuuzhan Vong? And if you don't mind my asking, how did yousurvive the Emperor's Purges?"

Vergere crossed her arms. "I survived the Purges, Admiral,because I never saw them. Shortly after Palpatine was madeSupreme Chancellor I was sent on a mission to a planet in theTingle Arm, at the edge of the known galaxy. It was near therethat the worldship Long Reach of Death first penetrated thisgalaxy. They attacked the planet and would have annihilatedthe life there, but I struck a bargain with the Executor, Sang Anor'spredecessor: I would go with them and allow myself to be studied,they have no knowledge of the Force or Force-users. In exchangethey would leave the planet in peace."

"I am intrigued. I would hear more of this first contact.Perhaps I could speak to the inhabitants of this planet."

"I doubt you'll be able to." Vergere smiled to herself. "Butthat has no bearing on the events now unfolding. I spent nearlythirty years with the Yuuzhan Vong, learning their ways and theircapabilities. Three years ago I escaped. I have followed in theirwake ever since, looking for a way to stop them."

"I would have thought a Jedi would be fighting for theRebellion, not hiding out in the backwaters of the galaxy." Thrawngave a self-depreciating smile. These 'backwaters' were his home,after all.

"The war against the Empire is not my fight, Admiral."Vergere shook her head, her feathers seemed to bristle. "I soughtguidance in the Force and saw my destiny was on a different path.The Yuuzhan Vong are a potential threat greater than your Empirecould ever be. Palpatine takes away beings' freedom, but the Vongjihad would take away their connection to the Force. I saw theirwork on Sevac III, they are destroying that world's ecosystem andreplacing it with their own. That is how they spread, Thrawn.They change a planet and the people on it so completely that it istheirs forever."

Thrawn narrowed his eyes in concentration. Vergere haddeclined Thrawn's offer of a chair, and though the Jedi was a headshorter than the Grand Admiral the calm dignity with which shecarried herself made him seem his equal in stature. "It seems I willbe moving against Coerl sooner than I had anticipated. The Sevacsystem is in his territory and the threat that world poses is graveindeed." He tapped the datapad on the conference table. "If thedata you have compiled is accurate, we could be facing a smallfleet in a matter of weeks."

"A small fleet, and the nucleus of an even bigger fleet tocome. Sang Anor has apparently decided to begin the conquest ofthis galaxy now, with the main Vong force still more than twentyyears from reaching the Outer Rim."

"You said there are only a few thousand Yuuzhan Vongactually in this galaxy. Does the Executor truly have the strengthto challenge the Empire?"

"Not now, no. But if he is given enough time, builds up astrong power base in the Unknown Regions, then I would give hima fair chance."

"We may have need of the Emperor's new toy yet."Thrawn said as if to himself. Vergere wanted to know what hemeant by that, but he quickly changed the subject. As she hadbeen living in the Unknown Regions so long, she had littleknowledge of the goings on in the rest of the galaxy. She knewthere was a Rebellion underway, but she had never heard of theDeath Star, and while she had sensed Alderaan's death years agoshe had never connected the deaths of millions with a man-madeweapon.

"Sevac III will have to be dealt with, yes." She said. "Butthe seed world isn't the main threat." Now she began to pace. "Theworldship Long Reach of Death is what must be destroyed, atall costs. As long as that worldship lives the Yuuzhan Vong cando to any other planet what they did to Oin's homeworld. Thatvessel is the only thing capable of seeding and starting such aprocess, if it's destroyed then the Yuuzhan Vong here will be cutoff from the means to create their organic technology. They'llhardly be a threat until the main force arrives, and if the galaxy isprepared for them then the Yuuzhan Vong jihad can be defeatedbefore it even takes root."

"Yes, you are correct." Thrawn nodded and Vergere sensedhis agreement, if little else. The Chiss Admiral was amazinglystrong-minded. Influencing his thoughts would be like trying touproot a tree with bare hands.

"The ship must die." Vergere said. "Best case scenario,Sang Anor dies with it."

"Is he really that dangerous?" Thrawn raised an eyebrow.

"I spent my last five years with the Vong under his personalcharge, Admiral." Vergere shivered. "I couldn't sense him in theForce, but I know him. Yes, he is very dangerous, evenwithout a worldship and weapons. You wont be fighting justYuuzhan Vong when you go after him. He's based himself in thisWarlord's territory, that can only mean he has control of this 'Coerl'person. That means he controls the man's fleet as well, and hewont hesitate to use machines indirectly."

Thrawn nodded. "I wish you could have brought me someof their artwork instead of simply describing it too me. I couldlearn much about them if I could see their art firsthand."

"If you want to study their art then just look at the twoVong corpses you have. They consider what they do to their ownbodies artistic. They are a race that sees destruction and pain as aform of art and they are very refined in their practice. Study that."Vergere shrugged. "Anyway, I've told you all I can about what toexpect in fighting them. I'm sorry I couldn't find out more, but Ican't begin to understand their science and Sang Anor was carefulto keep the actual shaping and building process from me. I'm surehe has a few weapons even I have never heard of too. He loves hissecrets."

"I see," Thrawn nodded, "at least you have given me anidea as to what these Yuuzhan Vong can do, and how they will doit. Tracking the worldship down or drawing it out is my problem.You and your companion are free to go. You will be taken to thesurface and your freighter allowed to leave in peace."

"Thank you." Thrawn turned to open the door. "Admiral,"Vergere stopped him, she had to at least try this, "when you attackthe Vong on Sevac III there is something you should know: there isa native race there, the Nesz, who are being hunted and enslavedby the Yuuzhan Vong. They are innocent, and have shown greatbravery in helping me gather information about their conquerors. Iwant you to do your best to spare them."

Thrawn's face hardened. "That will be impossible, as youalready know. By your own testimony we can never be certain ofdestroying all the Yuuzhan Vong works if even a single livingthing survives our assault."

"The Nesz are innocent. They didn't ask for any of this."

"Regrettable, but the they are only a few hundred primitivesstill unaltered and the Yuuzhan Vong threaten the entire galaxy.There is no comparison." The coldly glowing eyes held nocompromise. "I thank you for your warning, but your wish to spareyour allies is out of the question."

Vergere's shoulders slumped. Her eyes closed for amoment, but when she opened them again her gaze met theAdmiral's without flinching. "Tell me Thrawn, why do you dothis?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why do you serve the Emperor? You seem to be anhonorable man, your subordinates respect you. You inspiregenuine loyalty in your men. Not the hallmark of Imperialcommanders, yet you occupy one of the highest positions in theEmpire's military."

"The Emperor will bring peace and order to the entiregalaxy." Thrawn crossed his arms. "While you see him as evil, Iperceive the greater good in what he has built."

"Order," Vergere nodded her head, "I thought that would beit."

"What are you talking about?" Thrawn was clearlybecoming annoyed with this conversation, he had important thingsto see to, not least of all the damage done to his flagship.

"How Palpatine got to you." The Jedi explained. "What hepromised you. Order and control. Unity. It's your drug, Thrawn,and the Emperor is a master of finding a person's weaknesses andusing them to his own advantage. To some he promised power.Others he offered revenge. It all ends the same way, though: yousell your soul for empty promises."

"What do you know of me?" Thrawn took an involuntarystep toward Vergere, his cool facade had cracked slightly and alook of pure fury flashed across his face. "How dare you judge meand what I work toward? I have seen the chaos that rages amongthese stars, the endless, pointless wars? The Emperor is anecessary evil, Jedi, in the end there will be peace."

"The Empire corrupts, Thrawn. Palpatine is a Sith Lord,corruption has ever been their way and there has never been onewho embodies the ways of the Sith as completely as the Emperor.How do you think he got where he is? He ate into the heart of theOld Republic and rotted it from within. I have never encounteredhim, no, but I him, like a blight in the Force poisoningeveryone and everything he touches. Your Emperor is nothing buta glorified parasite, an exalted cancer."

"You call him a necessary evil, you think you are using himto accomplish your goals. The name of your fleet says it all,Unity." She smiled bitterly. "The starlanes to hell are navigatedby good intentions. I don't care how clever you are, the Emperorcan see right through you. Literally. You bring order to the worldsof the Unknown Regions, but you take away their freedom. You'retelling yourself things will get better over time. The oppressionwill ease and eventually disappear once things settle down, oncethe Rebellion is crushed and the warlords are defeated." She heldup her hand as Thrawn started to speak.

"No, Admiral, I'm not reading your mind. You may notbelieve it but your aren't the only one who can see what's obvious,and I'm telling you now that things will never get better. Thecorruption will only get worse and more tyrannical. More andmore atrocities will be committed in the name of this nebulous'greater good' that is always just out of reach, that will alwaysrequire just one more life destroyed, one more planet laid to waste,one more freedom crushed."

"The Empire was built by a Sith." She continued. "It wasborn in the mind of a Sith, and everything the Sith have evertouched brought nothing but pain and fear and hate because theSith serve the dark side. They draw their power from it and allthose emotions are what the dark side feeds on! Do youunderstand? The stronger the dark side becomes, the strongerthey become, and that's all the Emperor has ever really caredabout!"

Verger sighed. "Why is it you think Palpatine has alwaysfavored humans? It's not because of any prejudice on his part, oreven because humans are the most numerous and widespread racein the galaxy. It's because he knows how humans think moreintimately than he could know the thought-patterns of any otherrace, which makes them all the easier for him to corrupt. Why doyou think he accepted you? Because you're sufficiently humanlikefor him to understand and so to corrupt. He has been manipulatingyou from the first moment you met, and you never even realizedit."

For a long moment the Grand Admiral said not a word. Hisface was inscrutable, his eyes and mind gave away nothing. Then:

"Another shuttle has been prepared for you. You will betaken to your ship. As I promised, you will have safe passage outof this system. I trust we will not meet again. I have problemsenough to deal with." With that, he turned on his heel and strodeout the door.

***

The shuttle trip to the planet was quiet, but with a tensionthat Vergere could feel like a thousand wires stretched tauntthroughout the Force around her. Oin sat beside her, looking outthe window but seeing nothing. He had not spoken a word sincehis encounter with Nom Anor.

Finally, hesitantly, the Jedi touched his shoulder. Heneither flinched away nor lashed out at her, but simply turned hishead toward her. Vergere couldn't meet those terrible eyes. Hisdespair washed over her, threatening to drown her. The samedespair she herself had felt when she sense the Jedi dying.

"Oin," she said slowly, "I am so sorry-"

"We have to go back." He spoke as the ship set down. Hisvoice was dry and firm.

"Back where?" Vergere asked, not understanding.

"To my homeworld." He touched his chest where thebandolier had lain. "To save my people."

Epilogue

"It was all the Jedi's doing." The warrior spat his rage onthe coral floor of the worldship. "Things would have goneperfectly if not for her interference."

"But things did not go perfectly, did they?" Sang Anor saidcoldly. He stared over the kneeling warrior's head, deep inthought. "And that is the reality we must deal with." The Jedi hadbeen here, in this system, in the very palm of his hand, and hadgotten away. The Executor stroked the sinuous body of theamphistaff that lay across his shoulders and coiled around his arm,his claws brushing its scales oh so gently.

"Yes," Prefect Ke'Nass said, a smirk in his tone, "where dowe go from here, Executor?"

"You have told me everything?" The warrior nodded."Then go to the priests for your Cleansing." The warrior was upand out the door of the yammosk's chamber in two bounds, afraidthe massive coordinator would pick him up and crush him beforehe was Cleansed.

The Imperial shuttle had been detected by the yammosk assoon as it had entered the system, by means of the sensory buoysthat it was mentally linked to placed throughout the system, it wasstill a mystery how the Jedi had managed to get in and out undetected.

The occupants had been taken to the Long Reach ofDeath. The senior warrior had been put in an ooglith cloaker tokeep him from tainting the worldship and brought to theyammosk's chamber to give his report. Nom Anor had been takento the priests immediately to begin his Cleansing after being insuch close contact with the machines. Sang Anor would speak tohis son privately later.

"Well," the Prefect said with relish, "look at what yourgreat plans have come to. The Empire is alerted to our presence,the Jedi moves around our seed world freely, tainting what shewill, and native race, supposedly cowed and enslaved, is giving herevery assist."

"Use your mind instead of your mouth, Ke'Nass," SangAnor snapped, "I had analyzed the situation as soon as the reportwas complete. And conceived our course of action. As for yourconcern for our seed world's security: I quite agree that things havebeen far too lax for too long with our slaves there. Which is why Iam assigning you to rectify the problem."

"What?" The Prefect's eyebrows rose.

"I am relieving you of your duties and placing you incommand of the seed world. I am assuming direct command ofthe worldship and taking it out of this system. I will be leaving astrong force of warriors with you. I trust that the native populationwill be enslaved or dead by the time I return."

"This is insane! I-"

"You have your orders, Prefect!" Sang Anor roared,overwhelming all objection. In response, the wrinkled mass of theyammosk writhed atop its pedestal overhead.

Ke'Nass stiffened and gave a ridged bow. "Yes, Master."He ground out.

"Good. This task will be well within your abilities while Ibegin work to salvage the situation."

"Really, Executor?" Ke'Nass snarled. "Tell me, what willyou do? What can you do?"

Sang Anor turned away, threw back his head and laughedgently, and he curled his fingers around the amphistaff, just behindthe serpent's head, spun back around and lashed at Ke'Nass. ThePrefect didn't have time to think or react as the tail of the staffwrapped itself around his neck. At a squeeze of Sang Anor'sfingers the serpent turned rock-hard and he pushed the other Vongdown to the floor with it. The Prefect clutched at the serpent'sbody that held him down like a bar of durasteel, the razor-sharp edges were pressed against Ke'Nass' neck. With a flick of hiswrist Sang Anor could decapitate him.

"What will I do?" Sang Anor laughed, and there was nothing gentle in it. "I will tell you. I will kill, Prefect. I will kill until the worlds of the Unknown Regions are piled with dead. Iwill kill until the exalted Unity Fleet are just metal coffins driftingin space. They say the Emperor and his tame Jedi Darth Vader cansense life events. Fine. I will draw a curtain of death across the Unknown Regions so that they will feel nothing but the terror ofthe slain when they turn their eyes this way." His voice had become low and cold as he spoke, and even Ke'Nass flinched at the unholy light in Sang Anor's eyes.

"I will kill until the gods themselves weep and cry stop."

***

Robert DeFrank

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