The starry expanse of the Mid-Rim territories stretched out before the Imperial Interdictor Tenacious like a mural of tiny lights. Far from any system, the ship floated silently as just one more element in the vastness known as "Empty Space." Given that the amount of emptiness within the known galaxy exceeded the volume of inhabited areas by a factor of at least a thousand, there were limitless places a ship could become stranded and never found again.
This thought didn't disturb Stormtrooper NX-743, though. As a soldier in the service of the Empire, he felt confident in the abilities of his shipmates to keep the Tenacious running smoothly. More importantly, anxiety was not possible for the man who had once been CT (Clone Trooper) 34/219 of the Grand Army of the Republic. Like the rest of his clone brethren, he had been born without unnecessary functions, such as fear, doubt and independence.
Now known simply as Sergeant Nix, his assignments had seen less and less combat in the six years since the conclusion of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire; so much, in fact, that his assignment during the last five standard months had been aboard this picket ship, guarding her bridge crew and unusual commander. Another soldier might have balked at being given such a green assignment after years of battle experience.
Sergeant Nix, of course, didn't even flinch.
The conscripted Imperial officers littering the bridge, however, were another matter. Nix had noted that many of them had grown increasingly uncomfortable with their captain's unorthodox style. Not one crewmember had been prepared for their new commander's methods and routines, which were anything but textbook. Confusion was an unfortunately typical state of mind for the officers aboard this ship and as a result, morale was decreasing. This condition was not improved by the fact that the gravity well projectors of the Tenacious, which pulled passing ships out of hyperspace, had been running for several hours without capturing a single target.
If the captain noticed the crew's discomfort, he didn't acknowledge it. After studying several diagnostic reports, he was now staring calmly at the viewscreen, as if by will, he could force a ship to pass within reach of the Tenacious. From experience, Sergeant Nix knew that the gravity well projectors would need to be shut down soon, as their power requirements were too high to sustain indefinitely.
The same thought must have occurred to Lt. Krashick, who had stood from his station and was moving intently towards the captain's chair. Questioning a superior's orders was simply not done in the Empire, which meant the young lieutenant would have to find a more politic way to address the situation.
He was saved the effort when a voice from one of the operations pits stated loudly, "Sir! Contact bearing three-zero-six."
The captain turned his head to address the pit crew on the opposite side of the bridge. "Identification?" he asked.
"It's coming up now, sir," the officer responded. "The ship is registered as the Emerald Wing under the command of Maisean Lu."
"Comm?" the captain asked another officer. "Ready," came the reply.
Standing from his chair, the captain straightened his gray uniform, took two steps closer to the holoprojector and stopped with his hands held behind his back. "This is Captain Thrawn of the Imperial ship Tenacious. Please state your business."
For several moments, no answer was received. The bridge began to fill with anticipation, most of the crew recognizing that the captain's next order would be a warning shot fired across the bow of their new arrival. When the holoprojector finally buzzed with a response, it revealed the image of an olive-skinned male with slightly graying black hair. He was of medium build, though the set of his shoulders showed him to be an individual who could take care of himself. His unkempt beard was in stark contrast to a pair of sharp eyes and a clear voice that had obviously been conditioned to grab the attention of an audience immediately.
"This is Maisean Lu," he spoke at once. "May I ask the reason why we are being detained, Captain?"
"The reason is simple," Thrawn replied patiently, "Imperial authority. Again, I must ask you to state the purpose of your voyage."
Lu studied Thrawn for a couple of moments, taking in the details of the Imperial commander. The captain's light blue skin and laser-red eyes certainly made him stand out amongst the officer corps of the Empire, which was primarily composed of humans. Eventually, the other man said, "My ship is en route to the Addiego system. We're carrying inventory to be used in their homestead manufacturing plants."
Captain Thrawn turned slightly to face the viewscreen, which now showed the image of the Emerald Wing. Sergeant Nix recognized it as a Calamari design light freighter, which sported no weapons and a crew of half a dozen.
Thrawn again turned to the holoprojector, one eyebrow raised. "Your vessel appears somewhat small to be offering service to the industrial sector of Addiego, Shipmaster."
A tiny grin formed on Lu's face. "You are correct, Captain Thrawn. The raw materials I'm shipping are a bare fraction of what a single plant on Addiego requires. But today, I'm in the fortunate position to be carrying a rather unique...and expensive type of equipment for our clients."
The silent stare from Thrawn indicated that he expected Maisean Lu to elaborate.
"Pulte energy converters," Lu said at last. "Thirty-two units altogether. Considering the asking price from the supplier, I'm surprised there's a single guild that can afford all that I'm carrying. Apparently, they want to offer some really top end residences powered by these babies. The Pulte energy modules have a specific advantage over others in the market based on-"
"I'm familiar with Pulte technology," Thrawn interrupted sharply, "and I have no desire to delay any of the processing on Addiego. However, I must ask you to submit to an inspection."
Even through the grainy image of a hologram, the disgust on Maisean Lu's face was apparent. Nix knew that many of the galaxy's citizens had not yet become accustomed to the Empire's strict enforcement of its security measures, but out here away from the Core, few cried for a return to the policies of the Old Republic. The widespread devastation of the Clone Wars had been directly attributed to, among other things, a lack of rigid security provided by the central government of the galaxy. The military might of the Empire had so far followed through on the Emperor's promise to keep future conflicts from flaring up. A slight nod and a "Very well," communicated Lu's acceptance of Thrawn's thinly veiled order.
"Thank you, Shipmaster. Our boarding party will be over shortly. Tenacious out." Once the holoprojector returned to its dormant state, Captain Thrawn addressed Lt. Krashick "Get a firm tractor lock on the Emerald Wing, Lieutenant. Once completed, order Engineering to disengage the gravity well projectors, but keep them on standby."
Thrawn then turned to face the entryway to the bridge. "Sergeant," he said in the direction of Nix, who took one step forward and stood at precise military attention. "Assemble a boarding crew, no more than twelve men. Take only light arms. Scanning equipment will be at your discretion, but have the quartermaster bring up a protocol droid to accompany you."
Had Sergeant Nix been a freethinking being, rather than a test-tube soldier, he might have considered Thrawn's last order unusual. Protocol droids were designed for the more menial tasks, such as sanitation, communications and domestic duties. Their use on any kind of military operation, even one as basic as an inspection, was severely limited. Unless they planned to make the droid carry the scanning equipment, which was unlikely given their awkward mobility, a protocol model would in fact serve exactly zero purposes for this mission.
Predictably, this knowledge also had exactly zero influence on Sergeant Nix's response to his commander's order.
The Imperial shuttle settled down into the only cargo bay on the Emerald Wing. Sergeant Nix issued reminders to the five stormtroopers and six fleet troopers under his detail before lowering the boarding ramp and exiting the shuttle.
Not surprisingly, the first thing Nix's gaze fell upon was Maisean Lu and one other shipmate standing behind him, a Quarren. Probably the first officer, Nix thought, and most likely the connection that gained Lu an expensive Calamari vessel.
Like so many of the independent shippers Nix had met, Shipmaster Lu gave off a clear reflection of arrogance, punctuated by the lazy hand resting on a blaster slung to his right hip. Nix was glad his stormtrooper mask prevented Lu from seeing the sour expression he now wore, indicating exactly what he thought of the Shipmaster's demeanor. As the last of the boarding crew disembarked from the shuttle, Sergeant Nix caught a fleeting, though distinct, look of anxiety cross Lu's face. The clone couldn't be certain, but he believed the shipmaster was responding to the sight of the protocol droid.
By the time Lu spoke, though, his expression had returned to its sloth-like state. "Welcome aboard, boys," he said. "You want the red carpet or will the five decacred tour be enough for such polished soldiers?"
"We require access to all cabins, as well as your consent to examine any areas we deem suspicious," Nix replied. The meaning behind "suspicious" was not lost on Maisean Lu. The stormtroopers were going to cut open any floor plates or interior bulkheads they felt like and this was the only warning the shipmaster was going to get.
The smirk had disappeared from Maisean Lu's face, but he managed a curt nod before walking towards the exit from the cargo bay, leading into the rest of the ship. The twelve troopers filed into double line formation and followed the shipmaster.
The group had gone only a handful of steps into the first corridor when a bright flash temporarily blinded everyone. Out of reflex, the troopers fell into an elongated oval formation, their backs to one another and weapons pointed outwards, making a perfectly secured position around the protocol droid, which, of course, was not armed. As vision returned, Nix could make out the form of Maisean Lu, his blaster drawn and held loosely with one hand while the other rubbed at his eyes.
As the party scanned the corridor for the source of the disruption, the Quarren first officer dashed a few quick paces farther down the hall and stopped by the twitching form of a Twilek, undoubtedly another member of the ship's crew. An open fuse box, still firing the occasional spark, explained the situation to Nix.
Regardless, Maisean Lu asked the obvious question. "What happened, Isum?"
The Quarren answered without looking up. "Looks like a fastener on Jokan's vest picked up a surge from the panel he was working on. He should be okay, but a synaptic depressor would help take care of his muscle spasms, if that's okay."
"Do it," Lu replied, "and after you get him settled, run up to the bridge and have them run a diagnostic check on the nav board, in case that surge screwed up the beacon locator."
Isum nodded and began helping Jokan to his feet while Lu turned to face the Imperials, now looking slightly embarrassed. "My apologies. There shouldn't be any danger, so we can continue towards the-"
"Sir," interrupted one of the fleet troopers, "we have a problem."
"What is it?" asked Sergeant Nix.
"I think that power surge fried the servo relays of the protocol droid. It's still active, but doesn't seem to be able to move under its own power."
"We may have a hover-sled on board that you could use," Maisean Lu offered.
Nix ignored the shipmaster's offer. "Private, you and a volunteer will carry the droid back to the shuttle. Report this to the Tenacious and determine if the droid can be repaired with what we have available. If not, return to the group," ordered Sergeant Nix.
The two fleet troopers gave strained exhales as they lifted the heavy droid and moved back into the cargo bay. Sergeant Nix turned back towards Maisean Lu and led his men down the corridor.
The Emerald Wing was, by design, a small vessel and took little time for the ten remaining Imperial troops to inspect. Maisean Lu was indeed transporting some raw materials, but little in the way of personal effects for the six crew members, indicating no one stayed on the fast ship for very long. The inspection of the priority cargo, however, was taking considerably more time, a period that seemed to stretch every time the shipmaster made some pointless comment.
"They're beauties, aren't they?"
Wishing he could filter out Lu's voice, Sergeant Nix attempted to study the Pulte energy converters with a mix of mild curiosity and growing impatience. The three troopers operating the scanning equipment had taken close to a standard hour analyzing the units, stacked floor to ceiling in four even columns. Their mass was large enough that combined, they filled almost the entire cabin, which made their presence somewhat obvious to the clone trooper and the lengthy analysis by his team all the more unnecessary.
When his patience finally reached its limit, Sergeant Nix said, "Private?"
The young trooper responded without looking up from the display panel. Sergeant Nix tried not to be annoyed with the breach of military etiquette. "Sergeant, we've almost completed scanning all thirty-two units. They match our records for the energy signatures and outputs characteristic of Pulte Energy Converters. I believe they are genuine."
"Thank you, Private," Nix concluded quickly and moved towards the exit. Maisean Lu leaned against the bulkhead next to the door, hands in his pockets, with a complacent stare fixed on the ceiling. To his credit, though, he did move his feet back within the cramped space to allow the Sergeant a clear path.
Once in the corridor again, Sergeant Nix looked over the rest of his team and noted the return of the two troopers who had taken charge of the malfunctioning protocol droid.
"What kept you two?" he asked. "We've just finished the inspection."
As one of the troopers opened his mouth to reply, his eyes flashed momentarily past Sergeant Nix to Maisean Lu, now standing behind the team leader. "Our apologies, Sergeant. We wanted to be thorough in our attempt to repair the droid."
This was almost too much for Sergeant Nix. His troopers were becoming sloppy, inefficient and disrespectful. He silently promised to double the amount of required training for each new conscript brought on board the Tenacious.
Nix turned back towards Maisean Lu, gave a quick "Thank you for your cooperation," which was met with a sarcastic nod, and then began leading the team back towards the cargo bay. As they came within sight of it, he keyed his comlink.
"We're returning to the Tenacious, Captain. The Emerald Wing passed the inspection."
"Thank you, Sergeant," came the always cool voice of their commander, "but before you return, there is one more thing I require..."
"Captain Thrawn, I would like nothing more than to assist with the Empire's supremely important security tasks," Maisean Lu spat out with obvious contempt, "but this is going too far. I'll have you know that I'm on good terms with Senator Bro'salik of the Military Oversight Committee and he is just itching to make an example of a hothead naval officer."
"Your candor is disconcerting," Thrawn said evenly, "but I will not release you until I get some answers. And if I am not satisfied with those answers, you will experience firsthand the extent of the authority granted to the Empire by the Imperial Senate."
Sitting at the other end of the conference table aboard the Tenacious, Maisean Lu shifted uncomfortably in his seat, making it clear he didn't want to be in the custody of the Empire any longer than necessary. But his face betrayed no fear, which Nix found both curious and impressive.
After another moment had passed, Thrawn began again. "Now, Shipmaster, tell me why you are trying to deceive us."
"Come again?" was the confused response.
"You have lied to me, Maisean Lu. You have this one opportunity, without further interrogation, to reveal everything you have hidden."
Another minute of silence passed. When it became obvious that Maisean Lu was going to treat this conversation like a sabaac match, Thrawn turned towards the pair of stormtroopers guarding the door and simply nodded. They approached the shipmaster from behind, each using a free arm to lift him from his seat, and escorted him out.
After keeping a passive stare on the stubborn prisoner's exit for several heartbeats, Thrawn then addressed Nix. "Sergeant, return to the Emerald Wing. I want you to thoroughly inspect the cabin that you reported contained the Pulte energy converters. Assign one other trooper to join you."
"Sir," Nix responded, allowing conviction to fill his next statement, "I respectfully remind the Captain that our first team spent a great deal of time scanning that cabin. There was barely enough space in that compartment for the units, let alone anything else you'd want to hide."
A brief smile crossed Thrawn's face, which quickly vanished. "Sergeant, carry out your orders."
As Sergeant Nix and his trooper escort marched briskly down the same corridor of the Emerald Wing they had been in just hours before, the clone's analytical mind searched furiously for what Captain Thrawn suspected. For his own part, Nix was utterly convinced the shipmaster was being forthright and the possibilities for deception were maddeningly elusive to his imagination.
Upon re-entry into the storage cabin, Sergeant Nix no longer needed to imagine a deception.
The room was now practically empty. On the floor sat three identical devices, each rectangular in shape, no bigger than a meter wide. They sported small control panels and were all giving off a faint orange glow. Recognizing them immediately, Sergeant Nix felt his blood begin to boil as he scanned the rest of the room.
Obviously, his companion wasn't as sharp. "What are those?" the trooper asked.
His attention now on the opposite side of the cabin, Nix bit out an answer while moving forward. "Fombossa modules - 'phantoms.' Used to produce energy signatures and false readings. That's why our scanning equipment believed this room was filled with Pulte energy converters." His gaze now fell upon a single sleeping mattress at the far corner, lying next to another doorway that undoubtedly led into the adjacent cabin.
"That doesn't make any sense, Sergeant," the trooper retorted. "We all saw the energy converters stacked up in this room, even those of us who remained in the corridor. These 'phantoms' couldn't have fooled twelve pairs of eyes."
But Sergeant Nix was no longer listening to his younger companion. Upon closer inspection, the clone had spotted two objects resting neatly on the mattress, objects that immediately made his once red-hot blood icy cold.
Spinning on his heels, Sergeant Nix ran towards the exit while thumbing his comlink. "Tenacious, this is Sergeant Nix! We have a fugitive onboard the Emerald Wing! Request backup immed-"
Before Nix could finish his excited statement, the other trooper, only half-turned towards the exit from the cabin, let out a gurgled yelp and dropped the sidearm he had just drawn. Stun bolt, Nix's mind registered. Not wasting any team, the clone stretched his left arm out and hooked it around the trooper before he could collapse to the floor. Using his forward momentum, Nix propelled both of them through the exit and onto the floor of the corridor outside the cabin, just as another blue stun bolt soared over their heads and splashed harmlessly against the opposite bulkhead.
As soon as Nix's body made full impact with the deck he placed his palms face down and pushed himself up and to the right, placing himself on the other side of the wall separating the cabin from the corridor. Hoping their assailant wouldn't choose to fire a lethal shot on the unconscious form of his comrade still lying in plain sight through the doorway, Sergeant Nix smoothly drew his own sidearm while turning back through the doorway on one knee, and fired three quick shots in the vicinity his tactical mind had calculated their adversary was located.
Whoever the attacker was, they were good, thought Nix. Even before his second shot had left the barrel of his blaster, he could see that the cabin was already empty, with the door leading into the adjacent cabin wide open. Realizing this was exactly how their assailant had managed to sneak up behind them in the first place, Nix began to move in the direction of the next doorway within the corridor, expecting to catch their enemy within his hiding place. But he instead had to throw himself back behind the corridor bulkhead as his attacker once again leaned into the original cabin and fired.
This time, however, Nix got a good look at the shooter. She was approximately one and a half meters tall, had shortly cropped, white hair and a pale complexion. Leaning back into the doorway, he squeezed off two more shots as his opponent ducked away again. His sensitive ears now detected running footsteps coming in his direction from the bow of the ship. Realizing his options were now severely limited, particularly with an incapacitated partner, he slung the trooper over his massive shoulders and retreated to the docking bay.
To his surprise, the pursuers allowed him his sluggish escape. Confused but grateful, Nix was within twenty meters of the shuttle when he felt the subtle ripple of vibrations coming off the deck. Years of combat experience identified them in a microsecond - turbolaser fire. The supposedly unarmed Emerald Wing was now firing on the Tenacious!
Fuming with determination to defend his ship, Sergeant Nix practically leapt into the shuttle, shrugging off the barely conscious trooper, and fell into the pilot seat. As the preflight was concluded, he considered what kind of damage he could inflict with the shuttle's puny weapons when another vibration, this one more violent, reverberated throughout the Emerald Wing.
A smile finally came to the clone's face. That was the Imperial response, he thought. Judging from the magnitude, I'd say the Emerald Wing just lost most of her propulsion capabilities.
Once his shuttle was free from the larger ship, Nix was able to survey the damage. The Tenacious appeared functional. The port bow showed a little carbon scoring from turbolaser fire, but nothing that would keep her from being battle ready. The damage appeared to be localized on the general vicinity of the forward tractor beams. That's not good, he thought. The gravity well projectors must have been activated again, otherwise the Emerald Wing would have escaped by now.
That theory was jettisoned as soon as Nix's eyes moved towards the stern of the Tenacious. A single shuttle, identical to his own, was rocketing away, obviously prepping for hyperspace. Before Nix could even switch on the comm, the ship disappeared in a flicker of pseudomotion. Damn it! Nix thought. If Maisean Lu just escaped in one of our shuttles, I will have the deck officer's head on a plate...
Sergeant Nix then turned his head to examine the Emerald Wing and felt his brow furrow. The other ship didn't appear to have any external damage, not even to its now visible weapons, still trained on the Tenacious. Given the vibration he'd felt before leaving, Nix was certain the enemy ship had been hit by something, yet it still looked pristine from the outside. That didn't make any sense.
Then again, he considered, this whole day had been confusing.
"Thank you for the report, Sergeant," Captain Thrawn said. "You performed admirably during some rather unpredictable events."
"Thank you, sir," Nix replied. "And, if I may...?"
Thrawn raised a patient eyebrow. "A question?"
"Several, actually, sir, but most of them can wait. I would like to know how you managed to destroy the Emerald Wing's engines without using our ship's cannons."
A smile that wasn't the least bit condescending appeared on his captain's face. "Four strategically placed detonators, within their engine bay, activated by remote from here." When Thrawn could see that the Sergeant was still lost, he added, "I ordered the two troopers who reported the malfunctioning protocol droid to quietly set them up before rejoining your team during the original inspection."
Now the clone smiled with understanding. This explained why the troopers assigned to the protocol droid had taken so long to return from the shuttle. Hastily, Nix committed his own breach of etiquette by blurting out another question before the captain could turn away. "But why did Maisean Lu abandon his ship and crew by stealing one of our shuttles? He struck me as being more loyal to his people than that."
"To answer that question, Sergeant," Thrawn answered as he strode towards the holoprojector, "I suggest we contact the Emerald Wing."
With a nod from the captain, the lieutenant at the comm station signaled the other ship. Within seconds, the holoprojector spewed forth a transmission that made Sergeant Nix grit his teeth. Standing before them was the image of the white haired woman who had fired upon him. Despite his discipline, Nix desired another confrontation with this woman as soon as possible.
But his rage was replaced with shock upon hearing Thrawn's initial statement towards the hologram. "Maisean Lu, I presume."
The hologram of the woman nodded solemnly. "Captain Thrawn, I respectfully request that the Empire show leniency on my crew after I have personally surrendered."
Sergeant Nix felt as though his cranial nerves were about to fire. How is Captain Thrawn piecing all this together?
Thrawn's red eyes opened a little wider. "You misunderstand, Shipmaster. I am calling to congratulate you."
Lu's own eyes narrowed while she considered her response, visually showing just how far she trusted Thrawn. "Please explain," she finally said.
"You beat me, today," Thrawn stated, admiration clearly reflected in his voice, "Despite my best attempts, the fugitive you were harboring escaped. Right out from under my nose, no less. I believe I anticipated everything, except the possibility that the two of you might switch identities from the beginning of our confrontation. So, as I stated, congratulations."
The woman snorted. "You'll forgive me if I don't accept your praise graciously. The 'fugitive,' as you call him, was a close personal friend of mine and that escaping shuttle could be just a deception on your part to convince me he actually escaped."
"Why should I lie?" Thrawn countered. "If he were still onboard my ship, I would make certain you knew it. The truth is, the fugitive responded to your panicked shootout with my sergeant just as you knew he would. Eluding our security, he went to Engineering, disabled our gravity well projectors to aid your own escape, then made it to a launch bay and stole a shuttle."
The real Maisean Lu considered this a moment. "We almost made it, too. Your ship's cannons wouldn't have responded fast enough to stop this little ship. But you must have known that, which explains why Isum is now collecting bomb fragments from the remains of our engines. I don't know how you knew our Pulte energy converters were false, though."
Thrawn favored her with a slight shrug. "Nothing complicated, I assure you. Few people know that Pulte energy converters have a slight design flaw - they leak small amounts of carsic radiation, even when not in use. Carsic isn't dangerous to organics and can't even be detected without highly specialized equipment. But it does have the unique feature of corroding reflective plasteel immediately upon contact."
Lu nodded in understanding. "Such as the plasteel used to cover older models of protocol droids."
Thrawn smiled. "Precisely. When our boarding party returned, along with your fugitive, it was obvious our protocol droid hadn't been anywhere near carsic radiation, which would have been the case since your small ship would have loaded Pulte energy converters through the same cargo bay our shuttle used. Either way, your fugitive was still clever. He knew that the droid would be immune to the, shall we say, trickery, that fooled my troopers' eyes while inspecting your false energy converters, so he manufactured that electrical malfunction to incapacitate it. All in all, a worthy strategy."
Now it was Maisean Lu's turn to look impressed. "Well done, Captain. My original statement still stands, though - I will surrender to your authority for my actions."
"And as I've indicated," Thrawn replied, "that won't be necessary. You are free to leave as soon as your engines are repaired."
"You can't be serious," Lu stated incredulously, "I've harbored a dangerous fugitive, attacked an Imperial vessel and fired upon your troops. Palpatine would have you executed for allowing me to leave."
The Captain slowly shook his head. "I think not, Shipmaster. You've already proven yourself to be as clever and adaptable as your fugitive. Were you to be arrested, I'm certain you'd find a way to spin this scenario to imply the fugitive took control of your small vessel and manipulated you into the actions you've just listed. With the Senatorial backing you no doubt have, Maisean Lu would emerge the victim, while the Empire would be better off using its resources to hunt down our previous guest. No real harm was done to my troopers, thanks to your reliance on stun beams. As for the damage you caused, my crew could use the experience this has given them, plus the service duty that will now be required to repair the tractor beams, as well as the gravity well projectors."
Thrawn gave a curt bow to the image of Maisean Lu. "You played a good hand today. I look forward to our next encounter"
Anger welled up in Sergeant Nix upon hearing his captain dismiss Lu's actions like they were exercise drills. The woman, however, simply answered, "Very well, Captain. Good day to you." With that, the hologram faded away.
Thrawn turned to the starboard pit crew. "Bring us about, Ensign, bearing one-seven-five." When the maneuver was completed, the captain then faced the tactical station and nodded. Lt. Krashick gave his acknowledgement and punched a series of commands into his board.
The turbolasers of the Tenacious roared to life. When they silenced, the Emerald Wing was a maze of burning wreckage.
Captain Thrawn continued to stare through the viewport for several minutes, his eyes losing none of the respect he had shown the late Maisean Lu.
Finally, he turned and walked towards the doorway leading out of the bridge, speaking quietly as he passed Nix. "Accompany me, Sergeant."
Sergeant Nix was forced to adjust his eyes to the low level of light in Captain Thrawn's private command room. The cabin was circular in shape with a typical captain's chair positioned in the center. Upon further inspection, the room appeared to be littered with pieces of artwork of various sizes and origins. Briefly, the clone wondered why his commander chose such useless items to fill the area of the ship specifically deigned for strategy and tactical analysis.
Thrawn passed by his chair and walked directly to a control panel at the far end. He punched in a series of codes and stood back waiting for a response. Nix recognized one of the codes entered as a relay for Imperial Center. Whomever Thrawn was about to speak to, they were high on the chain of command.
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind, than the entire bulkhead they faced was covered by a large holoprojection of the Emperor.
"Captain Thrawn," the aging ruler acknowledged, "report."
"Your information was correct, my Lord," Thrawn said. "We intercepted a vessel known as the Emerald Wing and boarded her. But I must regrettably report that I failed you. The Jedi escaped."
Palpatine's eyes focused on Thrawn a little harder. "You are certain a Jedi was on board?"
Thrawn turned his head slightly in the direction of the Sergeant, which Nix took as his cue to speak. "My Lord, I am certain we faced a Jedi. Only one of their kind could have manipulated our minds to see objects that weren't really there, as well as escape the confines of our ship while sabotaging its systems. Finally, the discovery of a folded brown robe and lightsaber aboard the Emerald Wing leaves very few doubts in my mind."
A smirk found its way to the Emperor's face. "I will certainly trust the judgment of a soldier that once served under the command of Jedi. Can you provide an exact identity of this criminal?"
"No, my Lord, I cannot," Nix said.
The Emperor spent a moment reflecting on the report. "This is most distressing news, Captain Thrawn. Lord Vader will not be pleased when I relay this to him. I don't envy your next encounter with him."
"Yes, my Lord," Thrawn responded coolly.
"What of the Emerald Wing? Did she and her commander also escape?" the Emperor asked.
"No," Thrawn replied. "Unfortunately, the Emerald Wing has become lost in the vastness of space. I doubt she'll be heard from again."
The Emperor let forth a sinister cackle before saying, "Very good, Captain." After another pause, he continued, "I believe the Tenacious will have its relief arrive within the next standard week. Report to Imperial Center afterwards...and we will speak some more."
With that, the projected visage of the Emperor disappeared. Thrawn turned and said, "You are dismissed, Sergeant." Nix saluted and walked towards the exit.
As the clone looked back through the closing doors, he caught a glimpse of Thrawn displaying an image of Maisean Lu amongst his collection of holographic artwork.
Original cover by boushh2187. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.