A/N: Brace yourself. Here we go. If you have not yet read "Turning Point", check that out to see how the galaxy changed when Rukh failed.
Three Months Later
There had been a time in Giriad Quoris's life when seeing the massive bulk of an Imperial Star Destroyer appearing out of hyperspace in the midst of a raid would have been cause for relief, not a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Of course, that had been nearly six years and several lifetimes ago and he had not been in the cockpit of a two-seater Y-wing fighter, hoping that the order to disengage and make the jump to hyperspace would come before that Destroyer began either deploying its TIEs or just decided to let the turbolaser gunners amuse themselves instead.
"If you've got any fancy flying stunts, Squints, now is the time!" said his gunner, Lieutenant "Dag" Daggair, who even after six years of flying together had yet to mention his real, allegedly-embarrassingly-Rimworld, given name.
"If I'm about to get vaped by our own former Navy the last thing I hear better not be you calling me 'Squints'," Giriad said. Not least because the nickname was a reminder of his early days after Endor learning to fly the cumbersome fighters he'd once thought of only as targets, when it had been a concerted effort not to constantly compare the inelegant Y-wing to the nimble TIE Interceptors he'd been accustomed to flying. As the Rebel pilots had nicknamed the dartlike Imperial fighters 'squints', he'd been tagged with the soubriquet quickly and without mercy.
To be fair, he had once thoughtlessly blurted the TIE pilots' nickname for the antiquated Y-wings: 'ace-bait', for their lumbering speeds and system-sized turning radius that made a squadron of them easy pickings for the faster, better-armed Imperial fighters. Enough of the pilots within hearing had friends who'd been those kill counts that he'd forfeited any real hope of their finding him a better nickname if he had to have one, even long after the distrust had faded. .
A lot of the pilots who'd been within hearing had become kill counts for other Imperial pilots in the years since. Especially in the last year. Since Grand Admiral Thrawn had made public his return with the near-catastrophic Sluis Van raid, what had been the dying flickers of a rear-guard action by the Empire had turned back into the kind of shooting war not seen since the Emperor's death. Even the famous Rogue Squadron had been devastated in recent months, still not quite recovered from being torn to shreds at Bilbringi. Now, with the Imperial Fleet apparently cloning Star Destroyers along with crews and impregnable bastions like the Hapes Cluster turned into little more than subdued "protectorates" with their defenses broken and governments scrambling to appease the resurgent Empire, every New Republic pilot knew their next combat scramble might be their last.
This was not supposed to be one of those missions, but then wasn't any encounter with the Empire potentially 'one of those' now? They were supposed to be attacking the Empire's supply depot in the Kessel sector, easy pickings and lightly defended with a couple Carrack-class cruisers. The big ships were supposed to be nearer the Core, ideally walking into General Bel Iblis's planned trap. That had seemed to be the case, too, with the vulnerable supply ships apparently surprised when the Rebel task force dropped into the system, easy pickings for the Y-wings and their preciously-rationed A-wing escort. It had worked perfectly, too. Right up until two Star Destroyers, an Imperial-class and a Victory-class, appeared out of hyperspace, tilting the odds abruptly and firmly in the Empire's favor.
"Any idea who they are?" Dag asked, over the whine of his weapons charging as the larger red threat blips on the targeting computer began to disgorge a swarm of smaller blips.
"The Impstar is the Defiance," and Giriad thought that sounded vaguely familiar but couldn't put his finger on why. "Vic's reading as the Resolute."
"At least we don't rate Grand Admiral Thrawn's first-stringers," Dag said, opening fire as the first TIEs came into range. "Hopefully they're too busy to care about puny little raiding parties."
"We can hope," Giriad said, swinging them into a tight dive. There was a squeal from the astromech back in its socket. "Deesix, don't get fried back there!"
The readout spat a string of syllables that suggested if he did, the pilot was at fault. Which was fair enough. Giriad re-trimmed the shields and engines, searching for a little more speed as he noticed the number of Interceptors among the TIEs coming at them. If they were going to get through this, it would be because of their superior shielding and bulk, but minimizing damage never hurt. R3-D6 had already gone through an ion-induced memory wipe once and was only now developing a personality again. Giraid had initially thought of the droid as an extension of the ship's computer, but it had surprised him how much he missed Deesix's distinctive personality when he'd gone back to his base programming.
Between Dag and Deesix, it was like having two wingmen again.
The comm cracked. "All fighters, break and find escape vectors!" Commander Akroff sounded not-quite-frantic yet, but far more tense than Giriad ever liked to hear. "Break contact and escape if you can. Break contact–"
The comm shrieked with the too-familiar sound of jamming. "So much for that conversation." He threw the Y-wing into a steep dive, yawing back and forth as the green bolts flew past the cockpit. "Deesix, start calculating the best vector out of here."
"Just when it was starting to get interesting," Dag said, over the sound of his turbolaser vibrating through the ship. "At this rate I'll never make ace in one battle."
"I'll settle for getting back in one piece." Giriad thought of the holoflat tucked in his flightsuit pocket and forced himself not to.
"Old married man. Makes you soft." Dag didn't sound cruel about it, though.
"Gives me a reason to get home every time, and since you're riding behind me, don't knock it." Giriad began scanning the navicomputer readout with a growing sense of unease. Any option above, below, or behind meant a long run within the planetoid's gravity well, giving the faster TIEs plenty of time to close and forcing him to make the lose-lose choice between shields and engines. But the only other way out meant skirting the range of the Defiance's turbolasers. Even a Y-wing could outmaneuver those if necessary, but the Impstar almost certainly had more TIEs than they'd launched thus far, and there was always the chance one of the turbolaser crew would get lucky.
A scroll through targeting told him that even if the Defiance managed to launch another squadron, the odds would still be better than trying to turn back into the scrum of the battle.
"Hang on back there," he said, kicking as much power as he dared to the engines. "Deesix, have jump coordinates locked in, as soon as we're clear of the grav well we'll go to lightspeed."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Dag said, blasting a TIE that had swung around to pursue them. "I'd offer to take Fi a message if it turns out you don't, but since I'll be blasted to my component molecules with you . . . ."
"You're such an optimist sometimes, it's really uplifting to fly with you." Giriad wondered where he'd really picked up the sarcasm, with the Alliance, or if Rurik Caelin had really rubbed off so much? And then he wondered what had made him think of his old wingman, long lost at Endor?
The gray-white bulk of the Impstar loomed large in the viewscreen. Probably something to do with that.
"Watch it, two more from above!" Dag was firing even before Giriad pitched the nose of the fighter up, scattering the two Interceptors diving for an easy kill. The nimble little Imperial fighters were too fast to turn back on him, their superior speed carrying them far enough away he had time to throw more power to the engines and run for the gap beneath the Defiance. Heavier green bolts began arcing by the cockpit as the capital ship's turbolasers opened up on them. At least their accuracy didn't seem to have improved much.
And it was irritating how that thought still felt vaguely like treason.
Dag was still shooting, the Interceptors closing on them again. "Whatever HQ thought was so important about this system, it was overrated."
"You can tell them that when we get back." Giriad made a quick choice and banked, carrying them closer to the Defiance's great hull, hoping to reach a point the turbolasers couldn't aim on a ship at that angle. "For what it's worth, I agree with you." A squeal from the rear socket added Deesix's approval.
"Oh, I'll tell them something, all right." Dag blasted another of the TIEs and there was a shower of sparks from its starboard solar panel.
"Not much farther now," Giriad said, eyes on the numbers of the navicomputer as they counted down to clear space, Deesix's escape coordinates already programmed in.
He slammed hard into his harness as their forward momentum abruptly stopped and he heard the 'oof' from Dag as his helmet lashed back into the seat. Deesix wailed, and through the control yoke he could feel the engines straining against an invisible grip. Invisible, but not unknown. The Defiance's tractor beam had them firmly locked in place, and the shaking was the force of their engines trying to go forward while the Imperial ship drew them inexorably back.
The static jamming flared, then cleared, and a voice in an accent so ironically like his own said, "Rebel fighter, this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Defiance. Stand down and prepare to be taken aboard. Any further attempts to escape will result in your destruction."
"What do we do?" Dag, for his part, didn't sound afraid, but he suddenly sounded very, very quiet.
Giriad gave the throttle a final nudge, hopefully not enough to prompt the threatened obliteration, but he knew as well as Dag and as well as that cool, Core-world voice on the comm did that it was futile. Their choices had abruptly been reduced to surrender or destruction.
The holoflat in his flight-suit pocket suddenly seemed very heavy indeed. As a prisoner, there was a chance of getting home to Fi and the girls again, however remote. Dead . . . dead was dead. He and Dag and Deesix so many particles drifting in space, more names whispered in the squadron ready room, more belongs packed up and sent to loved ones.
There really was only the one choice.
He keyed the comm. "Acknowledged, Defiance. We're powering down and will not resist." He thought, but he couldn't be sure, that he heard a faint sniff of surprise at his accent, but the comm officer didn't speak again.
The docking bay of a Star Destroyer was still familiar, though he realized with a start it had been a long time since he'd been on an Imperial-class. The last time he'd worn black and launched in a TIE, it had been from the long-dead Executor. A lifetime and more. And that time, even if there'd been a hangar bay to return to, he would not have been met by a squad of Navy troopers, their blasters drawn and covering him.
"You realize," Dag said quietly as he removed his helmet, "if they run our genetic scans and we show up in the computer as MIA, we're done for."
"The thought had crossed my mind." Gir stowed his own helmet and gloves. "Deesix, you better stay in your socket. Maybe they'll forget you're there." There was a soft "pfft" noise and a scroll of text on the screen. "You're right, that's probably wishful thinking, too."
"Maybe they'll just send us to hard labor," Dag said. "There has to be a reason for taking prisoners, right?"
"Not any one I can think of. Even if what General Solo and Commander Skywalker said is true and the Empire's cloning facility is gone, they can't seriously think captured pilots would fly for them." But Dag had a point. There was no reason he could think of for the Empire to take prisoners, and yet they had been making a habit of that of late. Even now he could see they were not the only Alliance fighter being forcibly docked as an X-wing, its engine nacelles smoldering, was guided into place by the docking tractors, and one of the A-wings was already docked on the bay floor, the pilot, minus helmet and gloves, kneeling on the deck plates with his hands on his head.
The major commanding the group of troopers around their Y-wing made a sharp gesture, and Giriad nodded, raising his hands so they were clearly visible. The muzzle of one of the trooper's E-11s jabbed upward and he understood, punching the cockpit release. Behind him he heard the sharp, inadvertent gasp from Dag at the sound, and he sympathized. Carefully, he unstrapped his harness, and climbed out.
What struck him first were the smells. It was strange–despite having spent years in Imperial service, he'd never noticed the distinct scents that permeated the atmosphere of a Star Destroyer. Plassteel, in practically ever surface. That slightly-acrid cleanser the laundry used so everyone's uniforms had the same, faint bitter scent that you eventually stopped noticing. The tang of grease and coolants unique to the hangars and to the ready rooms where the flight suits had picked it up. In spite of himself, Giriad took a deep breath, and in some part of his memory that had started to seem like a dream, it smelled familiar. Almost homelike. He didn't dare look at Dag as they both climbed down and were unceremoniously shoved to their knees on the deck, but he wondered if the former TIE bomber pilot was having the same thought.
The sounds were familiar, too, most painfully the wail of twin ion engines powering down as the Defiance's fighter squadrons were tractored back to their docking gantries. Giriad couldn't help looking up and watching the trio of Interceptors being guided into place. They were bigger than he remembered, he thought absently, and they were nimble, that he did remember, watching one make a minuscule repulsor correction as it locked into place. It was a strange feeling, not being sure which thought made him disloyal–nostalgia for the quick Imperial fighters or the feeling of guilt for thinking less of his Y-wing by comparison. And to his astonishment, high in the docking racks, he could have sworn he saw the distinctive solar panel array of one of the rare, near-invulnerable TIE Defenders. Maybe Defiance wasn't Thrawn's second-stringers after all.
A jab of a blaster rifle's muzzle to his neck, forcing his eyes back to the deck plates, reminded him there was a distinct down side to the those TIE fighters, too.
A deck officer in the gray-drab Navy uniform approached, datapad in hand. He stopped in front of them and after a brief glance at each of them settled his gaze on Giriad. "Name, Rebel?"
Giriad gritted his teeth, and said nothing. The officer studied him for a long moment.
Giriad felt another sharp poke from the blaster's muzzle, but he kept his mouth shut. There was nothing in New Republic regs that said he couldn't give his name and service number, but there was also nothing in it that said he had to, either. If they ran a bioscan, they'd likely find it soon enough. He didn't have to make it easy for them.
He heard the clack of boots on the deck plate, pilots' boots, not the plastic sound of troopers. And as the major was about to order another, harder strike with the blaster, one set of boots paused, and a voice said, "Quoris?" The tone was not hostile, but rather incredulous. "You're Quoris, aren't you. The 207th. Aren't you dead?"
Giriad looked up sharply, then cursed himself for admitting it so easily by his reaction. The man who'd stopped was a TIE pilot, and as his eyes automatically searched for the rank tabs Giriad realized this was a colonel, likely Defiance's starfighter commander. The olive skin, middling hair, and dark eyes were familiar, and as Giriad stared, memory cleared away the lines of stress and six years of aging. "Orono? It's Zeth Orono, isn't it?" There was a lighter poke from the blaster barrel, but it withdrew as Orono (Colonel Orono!) approached and stared back at him. "And no, still alive, last time I checked. At least one of us is still hard to kill." Never thought it'd be me, of the three of us, but here we are.
"You're alive–and a Rebel?" To his surprise, Orono didn't sound mocking, just stunned. "He was so sure you got vaped . . . did they pull you out and you joined up out of gratitude? Never mind." He looked at the trooper commanding the prisoner detail. "Major, get on the comm and tell the Captain to get down here. These prisoners don't go anywhere until he does."
"With all due respect, Colonel," and there was no mistaking the barely-concealed disdain in the major's voice, "I fail to see what interest a few captured Rebels hold that the Captain needs to be bothered personally."
"Oh, this one's worth it, believe me." Orono was still staring at Giriad as if he'd seen a ghost, shaking his head. "You might want to order a holocam, too. This is going to be a reaction we'll want to preserve for posterity. What happened?" The last was to Giriad, while the major visibly "hmphed' but stepped away and raised his comlink.
"Like you said. They picked me up. The Empire was dying, at least it used to be, and–" He cut himself off. The New Republic had seen no activity from the dark ships and whatever alien power controlled them since, and he'd half begun to think of it as a dream. "And besides, by the time I recovered, there were . . . other reasons to stay."
"Dying, huh?" Orono glanced at some of the Navy troopers, and all of their laughter at least sounded indulgent. It was the laughter of people who knew they were winning and strangely enough, seemed to feel nothing but a sort of pity towards their defeated allies.
"Well, if someone had mentioned after Endor there was a tactical-genius Grand Admiral hiding somewhere waiting to make a big entrance, maybe I'd have thought differently." The holoflat once again felt heavy in his pocket. Maybe not.
"You wouldn't have believed it any more than the rest of us," Orono snorted, but then he paused. "Then again, all things considered . . . the Captain wasn't surprised. Maybe you wouldn't have been, either."
There was another sound of boots approaching, this the hard-heeled clack of an officer, and Giriad lowered his eyes to the deck as he felt the blaster close on his neck again. Beside him, Dag made a choked sound and whispered between his teeth, "So I'm hoping this Colonel's an old friend of yours?"
"I wouldn't say that," Giriad hissed back. "Last time I saw him we'd all gotten into a fistfight in the mess hall on the Executor."
"Oh. Great. So now we're getting spaced for sure."
Giriad was about to say something in reply, when a voice with a very decidedly not-Core accent said, "Zeth, I know I grant you a lot of leeway, but if you haven't noticed we're mopping up from a battle and a Captain is usually required on the bridge at such times."
"Trust me, boss. This one, you want to be here."
Giriad's jaw dropped, and he nearly bashed his own head into the blaster's muzzle looking up. The figure who'd joined Zeth Orono was, at first glance, a typical Star Destroyer captain, if a bit on the short side. Tall black boots, real leather, not synth, as befit his rank, gray drab trousers and jacket, belt with a sidearm (which seemed to be a new rule in Thrawn's Empire), rank cylinders and comlink neatly in their pockets, the six blue and red squares on their rank plate over his heart.
The face, though aged more than a few years really ought to have caused, with a hard, grim set that Giriad did not remember, was one he had never expected to see again in this lifetime.
From the look in Rurik Caelin's wide, astonished blue eyes as he stared at Giriad, mouth agape, he was thinking almost exactly the same thing.
Mitth'ele'arana was almost accustomed both to hearing her fullname, to having one arm that still did not entirely feel as if it belonged to her, and to being present at meetings that a real mere commander would not belong at. Almost, but not quite.
Thelea was at least physically present in the Chimaera's command room, as were Captain Pellaeon and Master Aleishia. Vice-Admiral Parck, Captain Niriz, and the captains of the other Star Destroyers in the Chimaera's battle group were present only in hologram, something Thelea had grown very tired of in the weeks she'd been with the Admonitor on their visit to the maw. It had been a productive few weeks, true, and she'd had the unmitigated delight of being there when the already-battered Hapan fleet had seen the five Destroyers-Admonitor, Hydra, Manticore, Gorgon and Basilisk drop out of hyperspace, putting the odds suddenly and overwhelmingly in the Imperial Navy's favor.
"And the Grand Admiral barely smiled," Pellaeon had said that day, after she transferred back to the Chimaera and he'd come to greet her. Rating a formal welcome now . . . ."But we all knew it was over. Even the Hapans."
"We had the impression when we arrived they were already considering negotiations," Thelea had replied as they headed for the command room. Chimaera was never going to feel entirely like a home, but the corridors were familiar, the sounds and sense of the ship and her crew known to her now, and when she passed she rated only polite nods and a yielding of right-of-way that she no longer suspected was because of the company she kept. Her eyes and skin were not an unusual site either. It was strange, but a pleasant feeling. "They'd certainly taken damage, and of course it would have been the sensible thing to do, but I didn't think the Hapans were known for being sensible."
Pellaeon smiled and Thelea thought she saw a hint of her father's influence in the expression. "The Queen Mother Ta'Chume hoped that she could perhaps talk the Grand Admiral into a more amicable settlement."
"I thought the Queen's name was Teneniel." She did pay attention sometimes.
"It was. Emphasis on was," Pellaeon explained. "Apparently, the dowager Queen Mother had less confidence in her successor's ability to defend the system. Or she disagreed with the decision to stay allied to the Rebels. Whatever her reasoning, she chose to remove the queen and her consort and offer the Grand Admiral a negotiated truce, with her remaining in power in the Hapes Cluster, of course."
"Remove. You mean . . . ." Pellaeon had nodded, and Thelea couldn't help her eyes widening and her mouth dropping open. "She had her own daughter-in-law and son assassinated? Even by my people's standards that's reprehensible."
"The Grand Admiral was none too impressed," and his tone made it easy for Thelea to imagine her father's reaction. "Nor with the implication the Queen Mother made that she would be happy to make the settlement very amicable indeed, if he were so inclined, provided she maintained her throne."
"Gods and ancestors," Thelea muttered in her own language, then back in Basic, "you don't have to tell me how he took that."
"He was even less impressed with her suggestion," and Thelea hadn't been sure if the note in his voice was admiration or incredulity. "I suppose I agree, though she was, for her age, quite an attractive woman. Your father showed admirable restraint."
"Don't be too impressed," Thelea couldn't help saying. "Father is . . . well, suffice to say he doesn't approve of my own taste in human men and he doesn't have similar inclinations where human women are concerned. To be fair, if you think we look alien to you, imagine how unusual you look to us. I was just raised poorly enough not to care." Pellaeon, wisely, had let that pass.
Now, standing among his captains, present and holographic, Thelea understood somewhat how her father felt. He was the only other alien in the room, and as she stood at the left shoulder of his command chair with Pellaeon to his right, she marveled at how not a single one of his officers showed the slightest unease. Of course, Thrawn had given them something not even the Emperor had managed–victory after victory. It was hard to care of technicalities like race when that was true.
The holographic display showed a junction of the hyperspace trade routes, the Corellian Trade Spine where it crossed with the Rimma Trade Route near Yag'Dhul. The tiny icons indicating the shipping traffic seemed increased in number, unusually so considering the war. Some of them had to be military, and there had to be a reason the New Republic was concentrating them there.
Thrawn sat in his command chair, at his usual ease, despite the proverbial thermal detonator he'd just set off in the room.
"You're certain, sir," Pellaeon was the one brave enough to say, "this is bel Iblis?"
"Yes." If Thrawn was irritated with the doubting tone of the question, he didn't show it. "Ackbar is once again restricted to Imperial Center, Drayson is still in command of the planetary defense forces. Bel Iblis is the only logical commander. He knows that Coruscant and the Core are our highest priorities and he will want to stage a battle on his terms. The intersection of the trade routes at Yag'Dhul is a reasonable target, and increased shipping would of course, be tempting with Bilbringi damaged and our access to new capital ships limited, and would have the added benefit of crippling two vital trade routes. If he can stage the battle on his terms, it would be a prime opportunity to damage or cripple our fleet."
"One presumes, then," said Niriz, "we won't be taking the bait." Thelea saw some of the other captains, those who'd only in the last year come to know the Grand Admiral, flinch, but Niriz had been in Thrawn's service too long to be afraid of questions, rhetorical or otherwise.
Though even he blanched at Thrawn's reply. Had Master Aleishia not prepared her in advance, warned her about the intended plan, Thelea would have cringed, too. Instead, she was able to maintain a serene, slight smile her father had often said was a ghost of her mother's, as her father said:
"On the contrary. Bel Iblis has chosen his ground wisely-for us. We will be attacking Yag'Dhul. And that is where we will crush the Rebel forces' will to fight once and for all."
A/N: Character Note 1: No, the Maw ships' "Admiral" didn't accompany them. When I get "TIE Fighter: Hidden Fortress" done, you'll see why.
Character Note 2: Yes, you can rack up the folks from "Courtship" as "terminated with extreme prejudice," too. Thrawn does not appreciate Ta'Chume trying to pull a Cleopatra on him any more than Octavianus appreciated Cleo's attempt.