He made every effort not to move anything; each muscle's dull ache needed no helping hand to nova into agony. It was a challenge—not so much the sitting still, but trying not to work at the cords cutting off the feeling in his hands or the coarse cloth making it agony to breathe. The less he moved, the less he hurt, and the more he could overhear and observe his captors.
The resistance leader had spoke to him at great length, preaching of his glorious calling to free his people. How, with the prophet's guidance, he would lead his people to their rightful place as rulers of their world, destroying the plague of Imperials that refused to fight with their soldiers, reducing them cannon fodder. How, at the dawn's cleansing light, he would sacrifice his captive enemy leader to assure victory for his cause. How….
….beneath the rhetoric, there were clues to this leader's tactics and preferences. Dawn attacks, frontal leadership, generals managing in the back…valuable intelligence that could prove useful to defeating them.
Presuming, of course, that he survived the ritual beheading at dawn.
Chapter One: Now
The Imperial Star Destroyer Admonitor cruised steadily through hyperspace, the starlines straight-lined past the bridge viewports. The starlines almost matched the pristine gray-white of the bridge, complementing each other nicely.
"Status report completed, sir," a young lieutenant reported from the portside crew pit. "All systems fully functional. All personnel at the ready."
"Thank you, lieutenant," Captain Dagon Niriz said, turning away from the viewport. He ran a practiced eye across the bridge crew, noticing a subtle straightening spine, a quicker keystroke, a furrowed brow. It had taken quite a bit longer than he had hoped, but the crew was finally melding well enough to start anticipating problems and solving them before they came to his attention. It made his job much easier, especially the paper work that a captain had to put up with.
Niriz loathed paperwork.
But the man coming across the bridge from one of the communication stations enjoyed it, so Niriz felt no guilt in giving away more and more of the dreaded work to his first officer. Commander Voss Parck nodded to the captain. "General Habanero is readying his squadron of troops and support personnel in the shuttlebay. He should be prepared by the time we reach orbit."
"Good. I don’t want this continuing on any longer than necessary. It is bad enough that these local rebels attempted to kill one of the leaders of this world –"
""The Junior Overlord died from his wounds, after all."
"Wonderful," Niriz snarled. "They also had to kill the garrison leader and half a squad of stormtroopers. If these idiots are trying for anarchy, they are going about it the right way."
The ship gave a subtle lurch as the starlines faded into remote pinpoints of light. Ahead of them, the planet Ansi rotated around the far yellow sun, Nosai. The green world, full of forests and farmland, was ideal for the food production necessary to support the growing Imperial presence. Having a political madman ruining the world was inconvenient at best, a reason for hungry, disgruntled troops at worse. They wouldn't starve, but other worlds would have to pick up the excess, meaning revolts and forced labor.
"I doubt, Captain," said a deep, cultured voice behind them, "that this Komani's goal is anarchy." Admiral Thrawn stepped up behind the two officers, surveying both the planet and the bridge with his luminescent eyes. Finding everything fit, he turned to the two men. "I also doubt that he has any plan in place if he should manage to take power. Has Habanero checked in yet?"
"He should be ready as soon as we get down to the shuttle bay," Parck reported, checking his chronometer. "Will you be joining the admiral, Captain?"
Niriz snorted and shook his head. "As you know, Commander, I am still on half-days from the last planet fall disaster. I am sure that you miss the fresh air of primitive worlds, so enjoy on my behalf."
Parck noticed the slight smile on their commander's face, and nodded. "Perhaps I shall, after the admiral and General Habanero secure the planet. Enjoy a little shore leave. The forests are said to be excellent for hiking."
Striding onto the bridge, Niriz took in the atmosphere of the bridge before barking out, "Report!"
Parck looked up from the screen that he was studying. "We are receiving a distress signal from our outpost on the opposite side of the planet. They report that there are several squadrons of fighters, and large ships destroying any of our squadrons that try to get in the air."
Niriz scowled. "Any word from the admiral's party?"
Parck nodded, stepping up beside him. "Should be another couple of hours worth of talks, the General doesn't see them leaving any time soon. These people certainly like to discuss every single possibility."
"Advise the general that we will be out of communication range while we dealing with this situation." Niriz turned to the crew pit and began giving orders.
The talks were over, assurances given of Imperial support, the garrison restocked and briefed on the latest rebellion. There had been no sign of any attack, which pleased both the local government, and Thrawn. Not so brave, he mused, as to attack head on. Reasonable to assume, then, that he does not have the support that he claims, if he will not attack during talks between two heads of military and four government representatives, an ideal target for any rebellion leader.
The general was waiting for them when their landspeeder settled beside the shuttle. "General Habanero, report," Thrawn ordered, stepping onto the launch pad.
"No sign of rebels near the shuttle pads, or on the edge of the city, sir. The new forest stormtroopers are continuing to search outward, following trails that locals claim the rebel forces use. No results, as of yet.
"Captain Niriz took the Admonitor to the far side of the planet to deal with a rebel air strike approximately 2 standard hours ago, and has been out of communications range for just over an hour, sir."
Thrawn nodded as they made their way to the shuttle's ramp. Several troops and personnel were waiting there to return with him to the Admonitor, silent and patient. The pilot was already priming the ship, awaiting final orders for course. "Have all personnel board the shuttle. We'll return to orbit and await the Admonitor from space. The garrison is under your command, General."
Making his way into the cockpit, the admiral noticed that both the flight engineer's and gunner's stations were unoccupied. Reasonable for this flight, he thought, but certainly not optimum for performance. Lieutenant Commander Remmick was already seated behind the pilot, running over status reports. The pilot was unfamiliar to him, a serious looking young woman, which was a rarity in the Imperial forces.
"Lieutenant Scott, sir, pilot, at your command. Orders, sir?"
Thrawn nodded to her. "Bring us to the Admonitor's previous orbit, Lieutenant." He settled into the co-pilot's station, eyeing the board readouts. Everything in perfect working order, as he expected.
"Yes, sir." A few minutes later, she brought them smoothly off the ground, traveling in atmosphere for a short time to prime all systems.
The ship listed slightly, Thrawn could feel. Looking over his own board, he instantly found the problem. Scott, too, had felt the slight list and pull, and seemed to be making every effort to get the starboard engines to compensate for the retro-thrust engine's malfunction. An excellent pilot, he thought, to tell such a small problem from the usual atmospheric disturbances.
Scott turned to ready over the instrument panels in front of her, frowning slightly. "Sir," she reported, "we have a malfunction in the starboard deflector shields. We are at 25% power over the hyperdrive field projector, optimum on all others."
"Noted, Lieutenant. When we reach the Admonitor, keep the port side facing any hostile-- " As he spoke, Thrawn heard a deafening screech of stressed metal, felt the ship buck under his hands …
…saw the status board go red before his head made contact with it, darkening his vision.
Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick scanned the wreckage of the Lambda-class shuttle with a practiced eye. The remains of the starboard wing were scattered across the last 30 feet of their decent in the tree line, including the bodies of Ensigns Dern and Rizzo. The twisted metal appeared to be no stronger than cooking foil from a distance, wrapped completely around the trunk of one large specimen that had seen its fair share of winters.
The landing struts weren't much better, he noticed as he crouched for a closer look. They had caught the turf easily, ripping out chunks before slowing the craft to a halt. The starboard strut had been lost immediately after being lowered, making it back into the forest a good half-mile.
He had managed to stay awake, and alive, for the entire landing, but not everyone had been so lucky. Lieutenant Marple had been torn from his harness and crashed into the far wall of the passenger area, but was otherwise unhurt. Ensign Haskell and Chilton had been roughed up, but were in relatively good shape. Scott, the pilot, had brought the craft in well, despite a gash across her forehead that drenched her face in blood. All in all, it had been a good crash landing from being fired upon and hit both in the rear gun-turret power feed and the starboard hyperdrive field projector. They were lucky they hadn't exploded on impact when the fuel tanks cracked after hitting a massive stone outcropping.
The Grand Admiral, however, had been ripped free of his harness. He had crashed headfirst into the controls that he had been working, knocking him unconscious, with enough swelling to worry the Lieutenant Commander. He had tried to wake the alien commander, fearing a concussion, but had been unable to. Checking for other injuries, he and Lieutenant Hendorff had concluded there weren't any, and had gingerly moved their commanding officer off the shuttle. Just because she hadn't gone up after hitting the ground didn't mean she wouldn't. Remmick had no intention of being blown up as he sat waiting for help to arrive.
The trees above him were swaying gently in the midmorning breeze, softly rustling to themselves. The leaves flecked the light to the forest floor where he lay, staring into the canopy above him. There were at least three distinct species of trees, deciduous and coniferous blending to make a seamless tapestry of leaves and needles. The waving was soothing, he thought to himself, watching in passive thoughts…
Trees? Frowning, he made to sit up, only to have a pair of hands press him back down on his back onto the hard forest floor. "Take it easy, sir," a voice above him said. "You hit the instrument panel pretty hard when we crashed. We're trying to find a med-pack that survived the wreckage."
"What happened, lieutenant --" he rasped, throat dry.
"Lieutenant Hendorff, sir," the young man identified himself. "What do you remember, sir?"
Thrawn frowned, recalling. "We had left the city, and took the shuttle back up…we were up for a few minutes at least… someone fired at us."
The lieutenant nodded. "Yes, sir. Someone fired at us, and hit the shuttle. Your harness broke and your head hit the controls. You've been unconscious for over an hour."
Which would explain why it felt like something was trying to ram its way out of his skull, making the world spin around him, even lying down. There was every chance that he had a concussion, or a cracked skull, despite what his officers may think of him personally.
A whirling noise brought his eyes open again, to see another lieutenant running a hand medical scanner over him. Lieutenant Stadi ran the scanner once more over his head, shaking her own. "Hairline fracture, and concussion. I would recommend that we get him to the nearest city immediately. With the comm taken out, it could be hours before the Admonitor will send another shuttle."
Remmick nodded. "The city limits can't be more than 3 hours away. I'll take four of the troops ahead, marking the trail, and the rest of you can follow at a more appropriate pace. Do what you can for him; I'm leaving you in charge."
As they moved through the forest, Thrawn felt that there was something slowly going wrong. Lieutenant Stadi kept to his side, supporting half of his weight with her own 6-foot frame. Lieutenant Marple held him up on the other. The forest was too dense for a stretcher to be useful, so, with frequent breaks, they followed the trail that Remmick had left.
Which was the first part of his uneasiness. Twice, that he could tell, the markers weren't where they were supposed to be, evenly spaced. Once, he could see a local avian snatching the bright cloth for nesting material. Twice inside of 20 minutes, not so much, though still plausible, especially if it were possessing a higher level intelligence than average avian, like the pests on Nirauan…
Thrawn shook his head a bit, realizing that he was dozing off again. "Lieutenant," he managed, blinking tired eyes. Even with the field kit's stock of painkillers and anti-nausea medicines in him, he was still drifting off, eyes closed against the spinning world around him. It took prompting from both Stadi and Marple to keep him awake.
The second problem, he mused, involved the shrinking guard that they seem to have. Although the two lieutenants always kept the matter quiet from him, no doubt in deference to the wounds he had sustained from the crash, the fact that there was a different guard at the front every half-hour spoke volumes. Someone was systematically picking their party down to size. Which made him wonder what had happened to Remmick and the troopers he had taken with him…
"Emperor's black bones," Marple hissed, startling him awake again. As his two lifters settled him down on a fallen log, he looked past them to see what had caused the outburst.
Strewn across a small clearing were the troops that Remmick had taken with him, shot through with arrows and cleaved by various blunt weapons. Remmick himself had several of the alien's bodies around his own, obviously having taken a few with him.
"How far from the landing pads are we, Lieutenant Hendorff?" Stadi asked, standing still amongst the corpses.
"At our current pace, another 2 hours."
Stadi nodded, picking up a blaster from the ground beside one trooper. "Let's try to make it an hour."
Marple dropped silently beside him, eyes closing slowly. Closing his own eyes for a moment, Thrawn inched further behind the fallen tree, visualizing the positions of the snipers, keeping a stormtrooper's blaster close.
The situation was not good. Only Lieutenant Stadi remained alive, hidden behind the closest tree, blaster held close. The others of their shuttle party lay dead, either at the crash or strewn throughout the forest. At the end, their hunters hadn't waited for the members to become separated, but picked them off while still together.
Now the landing area was barely within sight, and there were at least three snipers with blasters between. Another hunter was moving amongst the trees, armed with a nasty crossbow that had no problem punching through armor.
Shifting against the tree, Thrawn eased his way left around the tree, trying to bring out one of the attackers. Stadi watched the forest closely, blaster raised to pick one off. Inching again, his eyes scanned the forest …
A flurry of blaster fire ensued, ending as quickly as it had started. Raising himself slowly from the forest floor, he watched as Stadi slipped to ground, dead from several shots. He sighed softly, and missed the soft click of a bolt being brought back into place. Inching around the tree again, he scanned the trees ahead—
--and bit back a scream as an arrow impaled his right shoulder, punching through the armor effortlessly under the uniform. Dropping the blaster from nerveless fingers, he collapsed to the ground as the rebels stepped out of the shadows, blasters raised against him.
Captain Niriz could see the young researcher standing by the doors to the bridge, waiting to speak with him. He gave her a slight nod and returned his attention the hologram in front of him. The locally elected leader was still spouting gibberish at him. "We are deeply sorry for your loss, Captain Niriz, but as my assistant informed you, there were no survivors of the crash."
Parck, standing behind him, snorted. "I understand that, Overseer," Niriz said, reining in his own temper. "However, there were 20 of my crew on that shuttle, along with the Grand Admiral. There were only 2 bodies found at the crash site, and 3 more in the surrounding area. That leaves 16 people, including the admiral, unaccounted for."
The overseer nodded, "However, they could have been killed in the explosion of the craft after it had landed, or been ejected during the crash…" The crash they had just been informed of by the general. After dealing easily with the air strike and the mopping up action, the Admonitor returned to frantic hails, detailing crash information. No one had been found alive at the crash site, but tracks led into the forest. With the presence of rebels, it was probably smarter for them to have left the crash site, especially after it blew up.
Niriz's fists clenched behind his back as he made eye contact with Parck, glancing at the impatient researcher inching her way up the walkway. With a slight nod, Commander Parck stepped over to the young researcher.
"Yes, lieutenant? You have the background report for this world?"
"Yes, sir," she answered. "The planet has been centrally ruled by an elected overseer for a little over a hundred standard years, although most of the country-dwellers have seen little in the way of progress. Old timers still rule in regional councils, and often flout central laws. In the last 2 years, there have been numerous attempts at rebellion, all but the last being firmly suppressed by both the government and local authorities. The last, lead by a being named Komani, is calling for a rejection of all modern thought, custom, and aid. His followers, however, are not opposed to using technology if it aids his cause. Komani is demanding that off-worlders leave, and for the execution of the leaders of the local Imperial garrison and embassy."
Parck grimaced. And they had an Imperial Grand Admiral missing with an execution happy madman running loose. "Thank you, lieutenant. That will be all."
"We are running against a time limit as well, sir."
Parck nodded. "I am well aware of the statistics, lieutenant, of missing –"
The researcher interrupted him. "No, sir, that's not what I was referring to. The Ansi-nosai used to ritually 'take in' their enemy's leaders. If this rebel Komani captured the admiral, then we have less than 2 days to find him."
Parck frowned and turned fully to face the young woman. "Take in?" he repeated, frowning. "Surely the aren't going to try and convert him to their side?" He almost wanted to be there when they tried.
"No, they'll consume him, sir."
Parck stared at her.
"Sir," she explained, "the Ansi-nosai would, in ancient times, sacrifice an enemy leader at dawn to a local deity, carving various organs out of the still living offering, although some areas preferred ritual beheading of a captive that tried to escape. The leader will then consume his enemy to gain the other's strengths. Heart for courage, brain for cunning, eyes for foresight into an enemy. It's quite common in low-tech civilizations," she added as an after thought.
"I am not about to allow them to make an entire banquet out of the genius that is Grand Admiral Thrawn," Parck ground out, trying not to visualize anything. "We have the crash location. We'll simply have to speed our search with more teams, which I will lead myself."
"Good idea, Commander," Niriz said, coming to stand with them. "The Overseer has given us permission to land another 3 shuttles to 'look for the earthly of remains of our beloved leader' so long as we realize after 5 days the folly of looking for incinerated bodies that died in the crash." He shook his head, and added wryly, "So long as we don't hunt something called an ahtaygio, which is a sacred animal, we are free to search anywhere we like in our misguided, but loyal, search."