Star Wars / Wing Commander :
The Imperial March
A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY. . .
TWENTY-ONE YEARS AFTER THE BATTLE OF ENDOR
THE KATREL SYSTEM, UNKNOWN REGIONS
IMPERIAL OUTPOST OMEGA-7
They are on their way."
Grand Moff Jhediah had received the confirmation from the command center.
He stood before the viewports of his sparse quarters, his hands folded behind his back as he stood in a perfect expression of proper military posture. Looking to the stars, pinpricks of light spread across the empty void of space as twinkling gossamer, he pondered what lay ahead of him, and the decision he had made an hour ago that would decide the future of the Empire. As he stood pondering this, his thoughts drifted to his past, his beginnings, where he sought reassurance that what he was doing was right.
He had learned from the mistakes of the greats. Vader, Isard, Zsinj, Thrawn, Daala—all of them had shown their strengths in the skirmishes of the past two decades. It was in their weaknesses that Jhediah drew his own strength from. For each of the warlords, no matter how intelligent, how cunning, let their weaknesses become their failing. Vader had a treasonous side; Isard was overly ambitious; Zsinj was arrogant; Daala had a temper. Thrawn, a Criss, had been perhaps the greatest officer to ever don an Imperial uniform, but even he fell to a treacherous Noghri's knife when he was oblivious to certain information regarding Leia Organa Solo's relationship to Darth Vader.
"Our time has nearly elapsed."
Jhediah had given his life to the Empire, was ambitious only realistically so, was not arrogant, and had no temper. If Thrawn's only failing was that the man was not in full possession of the facts at the time of his unforeseen assassination, then Jhediah would make it a point to let no information slip through his fingers. Unlike the other figures that had dominated the Empire since the disaster at Endor, he had grown up in an era where the Empire was not the sovereign power in the galaxy. Twenty-one years old, he was born on Carida while the fledgling New Republic struck their truce with Bakura and the reptilian aliens of the Ssi-Ruuk Imperium launched their invasion in the days after Endor. He had not lived through the decades when the Galactic Empire ruled supreme over all charted space. No, he had been born to a beaten Empire, and had been charged with the duty of restoring it to its former glory, a glory he himself had never known.
"A pity it has to happen now."
His only living relative, his uncle, had seen his conviction in restoring the Empire even at six years of age, as he trained to become a Stormtrooper on Carida. His uncle had seen to it that he be transferred to the facilities on Bastion in the Tingel Arm of the galaxy, where he was subjected to thirteen years of the Empire's most vigorous program in officer training. He had missed the destruction of his homeworld by the Sun Crusher only a year. At nineteen years of age, while the Dark Jedi Brakiss' Shadow Academy was being destroyed by a band of children Jedi, Jhediah had risen from a mere promising cadet to a grand moff. The last grand moff. His posting upon receiving his new rank, Outpost Omega-7, was anything but a dream assignment for the aspiring officer, but he took it all in stride. Though commanding a lonely stronghold in the Unknown Regions beyond the Outer Rim did not offer him the opportunity to participate in any offensives against the New Republic, or even the opportunity to annex worlds into the New Order so that it might replace its lost numbers and resources, he took a small measure of pride in knowing that if the Empire's borders continued to recede, its entirety would fall back to his outpost.
Outpost Omega-7, the Empire's final frontier.
And fall back they did. The entirety of the remaining Imperial Fleet, a paltry nine 1,600-meter Imperial II-class Star Destroyers, four 900-meter Victory-class Star Destroyers, two 250-meter Lancer-class Frigates, a 600-meter Interdictor Cruiser, and a pair of dreadnaughts from the ancient Katana fleet. Almost all of them were ridiculously slave-circuited due to a lack of competent crewmen. The three-fourths constructed Executor-class Super Star Destroyer, Vacillator, though massive, did little to bolster their ranks. It depressed him to know the Empire had fallen so low, so badly, but he dare not show it.
Jhediah turned this time as he spoke to his visitor. "They are almost here, are they not?"
Ensign Danaaris' nervousness betrayed the news he was struggling to sugar coat. "Y-yes, sir. They must have followed Admiral Tschel's Star Destroyer from the ambush at Obroa-skai."
"The latest probe telemetry readings indicate that there are eight capital ships en route to this installment. Is this correct?"
"Yessir. Eight ships were confirmed coming out of hyperspace at Van Cappeci, then making the jump here."
Eight capital ships... The New Republic sent but seven ships to deal the final blow to the Empire. Seven ships for them to win the war.
It was an insult. It was to be the final insult.
"This was all you came to tell me?"
"Not all, sir. The admirals have received your orders, sir."
"Oh. Their commentary?"
"Their reaction... what was it?"
Danaaris made an expression as if Jhediah's question was of no consequence. "Reluctance at best. It was Admiral Güthrig that made the biggest protest."
"Yes, I understand." Jhediah nodded as he spoke, "Outpost Omega-7 was to be the final frontier for the Empire, where we would make our last stand if need be, and now I ask us to draw the line even further back."
"Is that not so, sir?"
"Drawing the line back further? You see, Ensign, that is where they are wrong. I am not asking them to withdraw even further. I am asking them to look objectively at our losses, at our place in galactic affairs, and decide if this war against the New Republic is winnable."
"The Rebellion will crumble before the Third Imperium, sir." Danaaris' using of the New Republic's former identity showed the older man's deeply-rooted hatred. "We just need more time. The New Republic is only days away from intervening in the brewing Osarian-Rhommamool dispute... surely we must take advantage of this moment of weakness. We can reunify our factions, rebuild our fleet, rest—"
"None of that is going to happen, Ensign," he interrupted. "Not, at least, with the New Republic looming over us, and not in our current state. Surely you can see that. The time for hit and run sorties and tactical offensives has been over for years. Ensign, we have become the Rebellion." As Danaaris offered nothing in response, Jhediah began a slow pace. "You see, Emperor Palpatine had this installation built at this specific location thirty years ago for a very good reason. Though he trusted his Empire would never need it, he was tactful enough to create himself an escape route. A tactical failsafe, if you will."
"The black hole this outpost orbits."
"The dormant black hole this outpost orbits," Jhediah corrected. But not just a black hole. A rift. A gateway. Surely there was no other reason the Emperor would have had the outpost built there. He knew enough of Palpatine to know he had never done anything in his life of move and countermove without a reason. "It will stay that way until I give word otherwise."
"When shall I tell the admirals to begin departure?"
"When I give the word." Jhediah's attention turned back to the viewports of his quarters, where, in a mottling of pseudomotion, emerged eight capital ships in standard Echelon Left formation, barely visible to the naked eye. They were at least nine hundred kilometers away, but were closing fast. He murmured, still looking at the distant ships, "I give it now."
"Yessir." The ensign brought his heels together, saluted, and went to relay the message.
Left to himself, Grand Moff Jhediah went back to observing the stars and the approaching task force of ships. He would shortly be making his way to his new flagship, the Vacillator, where he would supercede Admiral Güthrig as commanding officer, but for now he would allow himself the luxury of watching and waiting. He had always found there was much to learn if one only took the time to stop and look.
With a note of wonder to his voice, he whispered, "For the glory of the Empire."
A way out. A new beginning. He would make it happen.
SUPER STAR DESTROYER VACILLATOR
When the outpost's graviton beam shut down, the spectacle could be seen in all of its splendor through the viewports of the bridge. Where had once been nothing, a brilliant white light cast its shimmering radiance from a pocket of space two kilometers away from the outpost. Wisps and prominences of the energy-like light stretched out from the pocket, as if reaching to the fleet gathered before it.
Admiral Güthrig grunted, then took his seat on his command chair. "He didn't reconsider?"
Grand Moff Jhediah was a perfect example of the Empire's efforts to rush its trainees into uniform. He was practically a kid, and yet he held the governorship his grand moff title denoted.
It had been Jhediah's stratagem that had birthed the Third Imperium. In a cunning campaign that had kicked off his rise to power, he'd—for the most part—reunified the straggler warlords and their factions in the fractured Imperial Fleet. Breaking the armistice of the Imperial-New Republic peace accords signed six years before, a new Galactic Empire was borne, one with reaffirmed dedication to the late Emperor's New Order and faith in the Empire's right to galactic sovereignty. The Grand Moff almost made the forfeit of the capital world of Bastion and their subsequent retreat into the regions of Imperial space in the Unknown Regions charted nearly two decades ago by Grand Admiral Thrawn seem as if it was all part of his plan. It might very well all prove to be, but Admiral Güthrig wouldn't give the callous youth so much credit.
Overnight Jhediah had not only become Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet by default with the death of Grand Moff Quillan and the loss of Bastion to the Republic in the past month, but had made plans to take the Vacillator away from Güthrig. It was, perhaps, for the best, but that didn't mean Güthrig had to like it. He and every officer in the Fleet had enough to be bitter about as it was.
Jhediah's orders had been promptly been received ten minutes ago. Admiral Güthrig was not being so prompt about acknowledging them, but it wasn't necessary. They had only to await their greenlight, and Jhediah's shuttle.
"Grand Moff Jhediah's Tyderian has left the outpost," Commander Cavanaugh spoke behind him. "Sublight Engines at full when his shuttle is aboard, Admiral?"
"Yes. Inform the rest of the Fleet to synchronize velocity and enter the black hole at intervals of thirty seconds on our lead."
"Very good, sir."
Even as Cavanaugh went to relay his orders, Lieutenant Griere was walking toward Güthrig from one of the crewpits. "Admiral, sir! The Republic fleet, it's converging on our position. We have less than three minutes before they intercept us."
"Admiral, transmission coming in from one of the Star Cruisers!"
The feminine voice's intrusion was as abrupt as the New Republic incursion itself, "Imperial Fleet, this Leia Organa Solo, New Republic Chief of State, speaking on behalf of President Gavrisom. Our best reconnaissance indicates that this is your last refuge. Emperor Palpatine is dead. His New Order is over. There are no more worlds held in Imperial deadlock. The Imperial Fleet has dwindled to the few skeletally crewed vessels you have gathered here." She let silence hang in the air, giving them time to think, no doubt. "I ask you to surrender now, so that the bloodshed may end here and now. It is in your power. I await your answer."
Then she would be awaiting their answer while they were making their escape.
"MC80a, MC80b, and MC90 Mon Calamari Star Cruisers on our scopes, sir! A single MC Battle Cruiser, and an Executor-class Super Star Destroyer of their own!"
"I suspect that would be the Lusankya, Isard's old folly," Güthrig spoke, regarding the reporting Lieutenant with a dismissive snort. "Still only a task force of eight capital ships." Eight capital ships Jhediah is asking the Imperial Fleet to flee from, he mentally scorned the Grand Moff.
"Sir, I'm picking up squadrons of X-wings, B-wings, E-wings, A-wi—"
"That's enough, Griere!" Güthrig looked for Commander Cavanaugh among those in the crewpit to his immediate right. He found him leaning over one of the navigation consoles. "Is Jhediah's shuttle aboard yet, Commander?"
"We have him, sir!"
"Full Sublight, then," he ordered. "Into the black hole."
MON CALAMARI STAR CRUISER NRS DEFIANCE
The thin white aura around the black circular mass in space dwindled as the blue sublight engines of the last Star Destroyer disappeared into it. Whatever it was, it was closing, and closing fast.
Admiral Ackbar blinked his Calamarian eyes, his gaze dancing over the faces of the crew and staff present on the bridge. He moved his repulsorlift chair beside his first officer, Lieutenant Commander Tannas. "Can you give me an answer yet, Commander?" he asked.
"Well, it appears to be a massive gravitational field generated from just beyond the outpost. If I had to guess, I would say it is a—"
"A black hole?"
The younger Mon Calamarian tipped his head at his superior. "It looks that way."
Chief of State Leia Organa Solo, on board the Defiance to oversee what was hoped by all who those in the New Republic who still believed in peace to be the final confrontation with the Galactic Empire, stepped forward. "Then why are they trying to enter it?" she asked. "It was my understanding that nothing can enter a black hole."
"Suicide, perhaps?" Ackbar suggested, somewhat hopefully. "They see they've lost, so why give us the privilege of destroying them in battle? I never believed surrender would be on their agenda." Admiral Ackbar then turned a glance behind him, looking at the black-garbed man seated in a state of silent, deep concentration. "Do you have any thoughts on this, Luke?"
The near-middle aged Jedi Master nodded. "That black hole... it is not a normal phenomenon. Not this one. There is... the Dark Side is about it... yes, Sith magic is about it. It is artificial, man-made, and Force-maintained." And I sense Emperor Palpatine's hands were all over its creation, was the unpleasant revelation he chose to not speak of just then. Luke looked up, an expression on his face as if something great had just dawned on him. "It's not suicide. They see they've lost, yes, but it is not death they are rushing to. It is a new frontier."
"A new frontier? Then you're telling me this black hole is actually some sort of wormhole?"
"In function, not property. They are heading for a new region of space... or a new dimension... reality... maybe even a new time—I don't know, but they are going toward a new beginning. Excitement and confusion is about them all."
"They go to impose the Emperor's New Order on new peoples, then, ones they hope will be more susceptible than we have proven to be."
Ackbar grunted in disapproval. As perhaps one of the oldest surviving freedom fighters that had put in their share at the height of the old Rebel Alliance, he would have hoped the peace treaty signed with Admiral Pellaeon and the Empire six years ago would have put a stop to all of this. It was a hope most had shared in those historic days.
The New Republic had made compromises in the interest of peace—allowed systems that had become part of New Republic territory to return to Imperial rule at their request, guaranteed trade between Republic and Imperial worlds, and confirmed and accepted the Empire's borders. The Empire, too, compromised, temporarily retracting their New Order and allowing the enslaved and exploited nonhumans among their worlds their equality.
But old ways died hard. Even after the Empire attempted a failed resurgence through a Second Imperium backed by a Shadow Academy of Dark Jedi two years before, it was only a matter of time before unrest built to the boiling point it reached upon the consolidation of the Third Imperium's admiralty under a single grand moff.
Ackbar looked back to Tannas. "Bring up the rest of our fleet on the comm. Perhaps we can follow."
"Sir, if the readings I'm getting are correct, that black hole will collapse completely in two minutes."
Luke winced. "They're burning their bridges."
"Blast!" Ackbar exclaimed. "How many ships can get there in time?"
"Only us and our escort frigate, sir," Tannas replied. "And perhaps the Millennium Falcon."
Ackbar nodded at the mention of the infamous YT-1300 freighter belonging to Leia's husband. "Then we have to act quickly. Inform General Antilles and Commander Corran Horn to lead Rogue Squadron back to the Defiance on the double and make Captain Solo aware of our intentions—unless I miss my guess, he may very well be interesting in participating." Ackbar turned around, acknowledging everyone on the bridge. "If anyone has objection to us following the Imperial Fleet, let it be heard now."
He could see Leia was hesitating to voice her own misgivings and the conflict that had to have been going on in her mind. Surely, even entering the black hole was a risk in itself. They might be crushed. And even if they did enter and deal with the Imperial Fleet, how did they plan on getting home afterward?
Too many lives had been snuffed out in the Empire's march across space; too many had been lost in the Old Republic and Rebellion. Entire worlds had been laid to waste, and the victim list was simply incalculable. The New Republic had come too far and paid too high a price to turn back now. If the Defiance and Liberator alone were to make their stand against the remainder of the Imperial Fleet, then that was how it was going to be.
"Thank you for your vote of confidence," Ackbar spoke, his sincere voice going warm. "Tannas, full speed into the black hole."
"Yessir." Tannas was about to go back to work at his station when he heard something in his headset that made him light up. "Sir, Captain Solo has agreed to follow our lead."
As the white aura of the black hole grew larger in the viewports, the crew was growing more nervous. They had entrusted themselves to the pursuit of justice, of right. They were in the hands of fate now.
Leia took a seat beside her wizened brother, resting her elbow on his shoulder as she sighed, "I wonder what Han and Jaina think of this."
Luke took a moment to reach out with the Force, touching the minds of the father and daughter on the nearby Falcon. "Han is reliving his youth," he informed. "Jaina is wishing her brothers could have come along as well."
"Jacen and Anakin had better things to do than hang around their parents this time, I suppose."
"Oh, those two... they're busy on Yavin 4, watching over the Jedi Academy until my return." Luke smiled. To say he was proud of his two nephews would be an understatement. "They're my substitutes."
When the gravitational forces of the black hole began taking hold of the Defiance on its entry vector, Leia whispered under her breath, "I wonder where we'll wind up."
THE ENYO SYSTEM, DAY QUADRANT,
Commodore Christopher Blair took a casual stroll of his heavy fleet carrier—the first Midway-class megacarrier—for the third time that day, looking over every man and woman that crewed the vessel on the bridge level. At nearly two kilometers, not even Eisen's St. Helens could measure up to the behemoth of a ship, the end result of he and his crew's labor of almost five years. Any time he found himself questioning his decision to end his teaching runs at the TCNSF Academy on Hilthros and the Fleet Service Academy in Houston to head the Armed Forces Committee's design team, he had only to take a walk on the Midway's grandiose decks.
The Midway had performed exceptionally well in the scuffle with the Kilrathi pirates in the Valgard System just over a week ago. The short fight was hardly a worthy trial by fire for the fleet carrier, but it did prove that the Midway could indeed measure up in a combat situation. And then some.
Senator James Taggart, once known as Paladin to his wingmates, walked beside Blair as part of a thinly-veiled inspection tour. He wasn't fooling anybody. The man just wanted a look at her in person. "You and your team have built a beauty of a ship, Chris. I knew you were the right man for the job," Taggart piped. "The Admiralty has been pressing me to put the pressure on you, so I might as well ask while I'm aboard."
"Have you chosen a captain yet? It's your call, you know."
"I've given it some thought," he admitted distractedly. "Commander Drake and I have pretty much agreed on Daniel Wilford."
"Vice Admiral Wilford?" Taggart's surprise seemed genuine. "Of the Union of Border Worlds Navy?"
"One and the same, though he's back with Confed and up for an assignment. It's his if he wants it."
"Huh." Taggart shrugged. "What of the flight roster? Have you got any pilots in mind for permanent posting? It isn't the Claw, you know... there's an air group's worth of three flight wings to fill, you know..."
"I'm reviewing several candidates," was Blair's non-committant answer.
"I know Colonel Manley is currently the wing commander of the Midway's first flight wing, but are there any shoo-ins?"
"A couple, I suppose," he ceded, passing an ensign at a navigation console. "For starters, Dirk Stingray' Wright just came in off the Kagimishu, who I used to fly with off the old Concordia. Used to be a real asshole, but we got along all right after a while. He's already thinking about retirement, so I don't know how long we'll be able to keep him. Jean Stiletto' Talvert, some kind of Academy Wonder Woman, I guess. Then there's the son of a man I flew with off the Claw, Lance Casey. Another Academy prodigy. They send me updates every week and his scores are consistently among the highest. Not that you can judge a man by his scores."
Taggart cocked an eyebrow. "And... Maniac?"
"Yes, well," Blair cleared his throat. "He's received a grade reduction to major and is already aboard. He's back to his old bad self."
"Shame about him, you know. Finally promoted to colonel, given wing command of the Kiev's flight wing, and now this."
"The Kiev was decommissioned." Blair couldn't help but chuckle. "He had nowhere else to go."
"A real Greek tragedy, wouldn't you say?" Taggart chimed. He shrugged. "Not that signing onto the grandest ship in the Confederation Armada isn't desirable. If I were a younger man, you could be damn sure I'd be kissing ass all over the place to get on."
"Well, you kn—"
A tremor wave was felt through the deck tiles of the Midway, throwing all on the bridge off balance. Some even fell to the floor.
With that, the chaos began.
"Commodore!" a panicked crewman, Ensign Jarvis, shouted from a console. "There's some kind of... of gravitational anomaly opening up directly ahead of us!"
"The anomaly has closed!" another crewman informed not a second later. "Two ships—one of them definitely capital—are at three klicks and closing!"
Taggart stared through viewports at the front of the bridge, squinting as he observed the large, blister-shaped capital ship that was in plain view now. "Bloody hell..." he rasped.
Blair scrambled to one of the consoles and brought up profiles on the two vessels. Neither were recognized. The capital ship was nearly a kilometer and a half in length and bore multiple alien weaponry batteries. The small craft, about the size of a Hellcat fighter, didn't appear overtly militant.
After a moment of bewilderment and anxiety, the capital ship made its first move. The holoprojector emplaced in the raised ceiling of the bridge whirring to life, the holographic image of a human woman in a gown-like garment appeared.
The woman asked only one question:
"Where is the Imperial Fleet?"
THE KILRAH SYSTEM, KUR'U'KHAG QUADRANT, KILRAH SECTOR
IN ORBIT OVER PLANET RAWSH
RALARI II KIS VHAS'KARATH
"For the glory of Sivar, fight, my brethren!"
Thokkarh nar Caxki, the Kalralahr of the Vhas'Karath and Kal Thak'hra of the royal Clan Caxki, was not about to be undermined by the cowardice of others. Visible on the starfield before him through the viewports of the flag bridge, the battle continued unabated. The gigantic, arrowhead-shaped vessels of varying capacity—spearheaded by a larger, 8 kilometer-long arrowhead-shaped vessel—and their entourage showed no sign of stopping their outtake of the different varieties of the small bone-white fighters that vaguely resembled eyeballs.
From the VDU his relay officer had on-screen of Vargas' Vaktoth squadron, Thokkarh could see it wasn't going well.
Though the strange fighters the enemy vessels were pouring from their innards were small and shieldless, their variety, agility, seemingly infinite number, and the orderly, methodical manner in which they struck was taking a heavy toll on everything they were throwing at them.
The face of a green-suited man—a Terran male, by the looks of him—appeared over the viewports, overlaying the battle scene. "I am Grand Moff Jhediah of the Super Star Destroyer Vacillator. I speak for the Imperial Fleet of the Third Imperium. Our TIE Fighter squadrons have bested your own complements. Our Star Destroyers have routed and immobilized your fleet. You will lay down your arms and prepare to be boarded. Know that in the days to come your peoples will accept our New Order and become a part of the Galactic Empire. Or die. I await the reply of your representatives."
"Sire, he expects a response!" shouted his Tho'reari, Vharvek, moments later.
The Kilrathi Assembly of Clans. Eleven years after the destruction of their homeworld of Kilrah by the Terran Confederation, that name meant nothing. Applied to the loose union of Great and Lesser Clans that survived the decades-long war with the Terrans, it was a joke. And a cruel one.
The Empire of Kilrah was gone. No one could bring it back. Many a Kilrathi had committed Zu'kara rather than live as the disgraced people they had become since its dissolution.
They had to be strong in the days ahead. They had to be vigilant. Their old enemies, the Mantu, were still skirmishing along their outer borders and the Prophecy of Kt'lan and Sivar still loomed over the masses. Eleven years had been spent getting the Kilrathi to the point they were at—which, aside from minor military reconstruction, was embarrassingly nowhere. Were their numbers to be slashed again, there would be no clans left to keep an assembly.
"I cannot speak for all of my people, the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans, but I speak for my clan," Thokkarh began, doing his best to hold his rising anger at bay. "Bowing down before another race of hairless apes will bring no honor, only humility. I offer instead an alliance."
"Alliance?" the Grand Moff snapped. "Unacceptable. Your worlds will be annexed with or without your consent."
"You are alien to this region of space, am I correct?" Thokkarh pressed. "I offer an exchange of knowledge, of technology—even what is left of our fleets to your purpose."
The man seemed to consider that. "I am listening."
"I myself, as Kal Thak'hra—leader—of Clan Caxki, can give you my word that Clan Caxki, Clan Ragitagha, and Clan Kur'u'tak, and possibly others will pledge allegiance to your Empire on one special consideration."
"And what consideration would that be? Do keep in mind who has the power to decimate your worlds."
"That together we can venture into the space of a union of peoples known as the Terran Confederation, take what we can from them, then destroy them utterly."
Grand Moff Jhediah put on his best tight, salty grin. "I believe you and I may be able to negotiate further."