Han's eyes widened.
The mention of their name alone inspired two immediate reactions: loathing, for the aliens who so arrogantly were forcing their wills on the Empire, on the entire galaxy—and fear, because they were unerringly brutal, fierce warriors who fought to their last breath with no concept of defeat or surrender.
And because for two years their conquest had progressed ruthlessly, inexorably, with billions subjected and killed, entire planets rendered uninhabitable by their insidious bioweaponry.
Everyone else on the bridge seemed frozen in place for those first few seconds, unable to believe that their triumph had been so quickly reversed into a nightmare; and then Thrawn strode briskly back to his command chair and sat down. "Bolster shields," he commanded calmly, clearly refusing to let himself be shaken. "Give me readings on the Yuuzhan Vong force, sensors."
The words shook everyone out of their stupor. The crew pits burst into life, with one ensign shouting to be heard over the sudden flurry of activity. "We're reading ten cruiser-size analogs, admiral—twenty smaller frigate analogs—a dozen gunship analogs—"
"Enemy coralskippers launching!" Snapped another crewman. "Hundreds of them! Picking up over two hundred—"
"It's an armada," Han murmured dazedly.
"It's an ambush," Thrawn added ominously. "Direct your TIE fighter squadrons to launch, Captain."
"Sir." Han swallowed hard, willed his surging panic down, and directed a shout down into the crew pits. "Launch all TIE fighters. Do it now!"
"Luke," Leia's shout came from somewhere above and behind him. "I think you'd better take a look at this."
Luke shot a glance at Lando, who shrugged back at him, and then he pulled himself out of the access panel he'd been working on with the smuggler, tweaking the Falcon's inner workings aimlessly in the hopes they might be able to come up with some way out of their predicament. The metallic clang of a dropped tool and Lando's fresh curse reminded him that they weren't making much progress.
Another reminder was waiting for him when he reached the cockpit at a jog—a reminder of who the real enemy in the galaxy was nowadays.
Filling the distant starfield was what looked like an asteroid field, similar to the one behind them.
One that hadn't existed when he'd left the cockpit a few minutes ago. "I hope that isn't what I think it is," Luke said.
Leia had moved up to the pilot's chair, with Ackbar standing behind her. She turned to look at him, her expression grim. "It's the Vong," she said quietly. "A lot of them."
As Luke watched, countless specks—resembling tiny asteroids—came into view, hurtling towards them. The Jedi's stomach flipped. Coralskippers. The Vong's equivalent to starfighters, coralskippers were of roughly the same size, but looked like wedges hewn out of stone, with flares to either side resembling wings and a membranous cockpit in which a single Yuuzhan Vong pilot directed the ship through a neural interface.
They were living, organic fighter vessels, and they were deadly.
"I am hard-pressed," Ackbar rasped detachedly, "to imagine how this situation could get any worse."
"It's pretty bad, all right," Leia commented uneasily.
Worse than you might think, Luke thought to himself. Leia had yet to pilot a starfighter in combat against coralskippers, but he had accumulated plenty of experience over the last two years. It was bad enough taking them on with a fully functional craft. To be stuck in a Star Destroyer's tractor beam lock when they showed up was as near to a death sentence as he could conceive.
"You'd better get on the quads, Leia," he said. "Me and Lando will keep working on getting us out of here, but if they start heading this way—"
"Better to have a little firepower than none," Leia finished, already leaping out of the chair. "Right."
Luke caught her arm on an impulse as she passed and spoke without thinking. "We're gonna be okay, Leia."
His sister's eyes searched his. She smiled a little. "Thanks."
She trotted down the corridor toward the laser quads. Luke remained rooted in place for a moment, wondering where the words had come from. Was it just a reflexive attempt to reassure someone close to him? Or had it been the hand of the Force?
Whatever it was, their situation sure didn't look like it would end well.
Commander Guntal Lah smelled blood on the air.
His, and the enemy's soon to be spilled.
He was monstrously tall, standing at over seven feet, all wiry muscle under his dark red uruun cloth tunic and draping black cloak, his corporal form peppered with the decorative deformations that were a core part of the Yuuzhan Vong religion. Long, slender fingers wrapped around the the handle of a short, living blade, dragging its jagged edge across the palm of a gray-white and heavily scarred hand, offering his pain for the favor of Yun-Yammka, the god of war.
His nightmarish face—angular, bony, with a snarling mouth of needle-sharp teeth, lips pierced all along their length, yellowish eyes atop pronounced gray bags of skin, and flat bone where a human's nose might have gone—turned to watch his ship's resident priest address his warriors.
"Many cycles ago, his Terrible Majesty, Supreme Overlord Shimmra, was presented with a vision," the priest, Jentun, cried. Shorter than the warriors by a good head, and much more slender, he was clad in a flowing black robe of organic material; his face, like Lah's, was heavily scarred, to mark his religious fervor. All around him, warriors stood at attention, their own degrees of deformation varied, gray vonduun crab armor gleaming, snake-like amphistaff weapons coiled around their arms, listening raptly. "The gods showed His Exaltedness a distant galaxy, one full of lush worlds and bright stars, a galaxy we might call home! A place that might end our unjust exile in the cold darkness of intergalactic space!
"But this oasis, warriors, was tainted!" Jentun spat. The passion on his face contorted into disgust. "Infidels, with their made-things, with their non-living abominations, infested the galaxy of our salvation, mocking the gods with their ignorance!"
A roar of fury from the assemblage filled the bridge of Guntal Lah's warship, the Deliverer, a vessel of size comparable to the hateful wedge-shaped battleships of the infidel enemy but of entirely different construction; no sacrilegious dead metals formed the ovoid hull, but, rather, the living yorik coral granted the Yuuzhan Vong by their gods, scabrous and black. Great, spindly arms reached out from the surface, housing the yorik-et fighting vessels the infidels had taken to calling coralskippers.
"The infidels live in ignorance of the True Way!" Jentun continued, turning with a dramatic swish of his robe to behold the enemy ships clustered far outside the membranous viewing portal. "They shun pain, the one True Constant in the universe, the purest reminder of what the gods sacrificed to give their children life!
"And so the Supreme Overlord, in his endless wisdom, realized that the gods had not shown him this galaxy merely so that we might find a home at last. No, the gods were giving our people a holy task!"
The priest spun, holding his palms up toward the ceiling, lined with the plant-like lambents which provided the warship's dim internal lighting. The warriors watched him reverently, some of them appearing to hold their breath, more than one muttering prayer. They'd heard this all before—heard something like it, in fact, before almost every battle—but it never failed to captivate them, to stir the fervor of bloodlust within them.
"To prove our devotion to the gods, and claim what is ours by divine right, we must cleanse this galaxy of infidels!" Jentun bellowed.
His audience roared even more loudly than before, uncoiling amphistaffs and stamping them on the floor.
"The honorable task falls on you, warriors!" Jentun looked around at them, the many piercings on his pointed ears swaying. "The Supreme Overlord is the vessel of the gods' will, and you are his righteous blade! Do not waver! Taan Yun-forqana zhoi!"
"Do-ro'ik vong pratte!" Cried the warriors, answering the priest caste's battle cry with their own.
"To your stations," Guntal Lah thundered, and as the warriors dispersed, he beckoned with a curl of his fingers for Jentun to join him. The priest obliged, drawing his robes about him and following him to the blaze bug display—the Vong equivalent of a tactical display, with glowing insects whose changing colors, movements, and various sounds represented the battle situation. Currently, the overwhelming majority of the bugs were colored green, indicating friendly forces, while a pathetic contingent of red-hued insects gave visual confirmation to the dire straits of the infidels.
"Your portents prove true, Holy One," Lah said, his gravelly, sibilant voice falling into a respectful tone. The priests were closer to the gods than any but the Supreme Overlord himself, and were as such to be revered. He had been criticized many times by others in the warrior caste for his overtures to the priests, particularly Jentun; few commanders of his level allowed priests to reside aboard their warships, let alone confide in them so closely. More than once it had been insinuated that perhaps it was not Guntal Lah in command of the Deliverer, but the disciple of Yun-Yammka who hovered, omnipresent, at his side.
Such insults toward his strength would not be forgotten, but for now, Lah tolerated them. Jentun was a conduit to Yun-Yammka, the mightiest of the gods, as far as Lah was concerned, the Slayer who dictated the fortunes of war. And through that conduit, Lah would surely be blessed with eternal victory.
So far, the progression of the galactic invasion had not proven him wrong.
"Yun-Yammka smiles on us this day, Fearsome Leader," Jentun bowed. "As will the Supreme Overlord, I think, once you have delivered the One with Red Eyes and the Jeedai to him."
"Yes," Lah hissed rapturously. The blue infidel with glowing red eyes had earned infamy among the Yuuzhan Vong, and the unique attention of Shimrra himself, for a grasp on matters of war that was rare among the cowardly natives of the galaxy. The obstacle he provided was unacceptable.
And then there were the Jeedai, an insult on their own level entirely. There were two of them, to their knowledge: one human with a green blade of light and, of greatest interest, another, black-clad infidel whose inexplicable, mystical abilities were combined with an insult to creation itself—for this Jeedai was by all accounts a combination of organic and machine, a human integrated with made-things and encased in a cold dead shell. They were on different sides of the civil war which had softened the galaxy for the Yuuzhan Vong, but both were heretics to be exterminated.
And both, by architecture of the divine, had been snared in their trap.
For the time being, Guntal's crèche-brother, Tsavong Lah, served as Warmaster for the entire invasion force…but perhaps, after presenting such worthy prizes to Shrimrra, that would change.
"And when the Supreme Overlord directs his beneficence toward you," Jentun pressed on softly, warmly, "you, in turn, will remember the Order of Yun-Yammka, and its place in your ascension."
"My glory is yours, and Yun-Yammka's," Lah assured him, inclining his head. "As I have long promised."
"You are a great warrior, Guntal of Domain Lah," the priest murmured, leaning in so close that his voice seemed to emanate from the depths of Lah's mind. "Greater, even, than your crèche-brother. Together, we will clear the way for the conquest of this galaxy."
"And pave it with blood for the god of war," Lah whispered, shivering with anticipation.
Jentun's hand offered him a cognition hood. It was the primary means of controlling a Yuuzhan Vong warship, which, when slipped over his head, allowed him to communicate with the ship's warriors and shapers—those who created and maintained their living technology—as well as the ship itself. The infidels believed their despicable made-things to be advanced, but they could never match the connection between a ship's brain and the commander it was shaped to serve.
Lah accepted the hood, donned it, and immersed himself in obtaining a victory about which songs would be sung until the Yuuzhan Vong were as dust in the province of the gods.
"Watch it, Wing Leader, you've got one on your tail."
"I need support over here—my shields can't take another hit—"
"Careful, Thirteen, if you get too close that dovin basal will suck your shields right off—"
"There's—too many of them—"
"I'm hit! I'm hit! Going down, going do—"
Han's fists were clenched so tightly that it hurt, but he was far too lost in his own frustration and anger to care. Every word of increasingly desperate comm chatter from his TIE fighter pilots hammered against his senses like a gong-knell, leaving him wavering between an impulse to give up and run and an equally feverish desire to fight until his dying breath—to make the Vong hurt, as they'd done to so many people he knew.
"All turbolaser batteries, open fire," he snapped, directing the order to the bridge at large.
"But, sir, the enemy ships are not in range—"
"Just do it!"
Almost as soon as the order had been uttered, brilliant green turbolaser blasts began to pour out into the vacuum of space from all over the Executor's hull, reaching for the still-distant but steadily approaching Vong capital ships. Han took a deep breath, feeling guilty for his outburst—the captain of a war vessel set the example for his entire crew; he needed to be calm and reassuring, not give them more reason to be anxious. He glanced at Thrawn, waiting for the mild lecture that would doubtless result from his behavior, but the Chiss was sitting completely still, staring straight out the viewport, his purple lips set in a thin line.
That was worrisome. The predicament had not yet presented itself that could distract Thrawn from performing his role of chiding mentor.
Then, quietly, Thrawn said: "Perhaps I spoke too soon, Captain."
"Admiral?" Han stared.
The Grand Admiral smiled sadly. "I do not think we will live to see this war turned around."
Han's heart froze. Grand Admiral Thrawn—the tactician who had done the impossible, time and time again—was giving up?
No. Han clenched his teeth. They had been too close to gaining a much-needed victory to let the Vong deflate them now.
Throughout his career, Thrawn had pulled him up from the brink of despair more than once. It looked like it was his turn to return the favor.
He took a long stride over to Thrawn's command chair and firmly grabbed his shoulder. "This isn't over yet," he growled. "Come on, you've got the mightiest warship in the Imperial Navy and four Star Destroyers out there. Put that crazy brain of yours to work and get these crewmen back home in one piece."
"There are Imperial forces in nearby sectors that are as yet uncontested," Darth Vader added, earning a surprised look from Han; he'd almost forgotten the Dark Lord was there. "If you call for their aid, they will come."
Thrawn continued staring straight ahead. Han took advantage of the silence to tighten his grip on the Chiss's shoulder. "You said it yourself, buddy," he said quietly. "We've gotta deliver a victory today."
"Don't you understand, Captain?" Thrawn said distantly. "We've been outmaneuvered." He frowned. "I've been outmaneuvered."
Han was so taken aback by the depth of the admiral's defeatism that he couldn't even argue; Vader, apparently having reached the same conclusion, turned on his heel, his black cloak flaring. "Communications," he rumbled. "Hail Imperial Center, and inform them that we have engaged the Yuuzhan Vong and require reinforcements."
"We can't, my lord!" An ensign called back frantically.
"Explain." The Dark Lord's voice adopted an ominous tone.
The ensign swallowed visibly, but plowed valiantly on. "I took the liberty of attempting to send out an automated distress signal, my lord—but nothing is going through. The HoloNet relay in the sector isn't responding."
Han's eyes narrowed. The sudden arrival of the Vong—the HoloNet relay being conveniently out of service at the same time—
"We believed we were springing a trap on the Rebels," Thrawn said, still sounding dreamy. "When all along, the Yuuzhan Vong were springing the trap. On all of us. Outmaneuvered."
Fresh anger surged through Han. He was sick and tired of this whole war, and if he was going to let it kill him out in armpit of the galaxy, he was a bantha herder. "All right then," he snarled, stomping back over to his command station. "Then we're going to run away before they can close their fancy trap. Helm!" He rose his voice. "Take us away from the asteroid field! Communications—get my task force commanders on the line."
The holographic representations of Captains Awler, Hansen, Pellaeon and Trenton had hardly appeared on his console before their panicked babbling started.
"Where did they come from?" Awler shouted. "Admiral, we are not prepared for an engagement with a Yuuzhan Vong fleet—"
"I warned you," Trenton said with so much sanctimonious indignation that it made Han want to puke. "I warned you that the intelligence on this Rebel base might not be what it seemed—"
"Oh, sod off, Ivynn," Pellaeon snapped. "You said nothing of the sort—"
"Our vessels are only mid-range cruisers, Admiral," Hansen said nervously, cringing every so often, probably in response to the fracas outside his viewport. "The Vong's plasma weapons will tear through our shields—"
"Shut up!" Han barked, earning shocked looks and—blissfully—silence. "We're getting out of here. Calculate a jump for Imperial Center and start—"
"What?" Han roared exasperatedly, turning toward the voice.
It was the navigations officer, half-risen from the crew pit, a kind of dull shock in her eyes. "The engines, sir—they're not responding!"
Gee, don't do me any favors, universe. "What d'you mean, they're not responding?"
"Sabotage," Vader spat, making the word a curse.
Han ran a hand agitatedly through his already-disheveled hair, willing himself not to spew the diatribes bubbling up inside him—particularly not with the task force's captains watching via hologram. If he was going to die today, he wasn't going to give them more ammunition to go down thinking he was undeserving of his rank. "Keep trying!" He jabbed a finger toward another ensign standing nearby. "And get a maintenance team down there!"
The ensign dashed off like Han had just prodded him with a hot iron. Grimacing, the Executor's captain turned back around to face his command station and the viewport. The explosions lighting the star-speckled black sky were drawing awfully close.
"This day just keeps getting better," he mumbled.
There was a sour taste in Wedge's mouth. Here they were, in the midst of a massive space engagement, and Rogue Squadron couldn't so much as twist in the right direction to shoot—though, on the other hand, he wasn't sure who they'd be firing at if they could. During the two years of the Vong invasion, some tentative suggestions had been made by idealists on both sides that the Empire and Alliance broker a ceasefire and focus on their common enemy, but emotions were still running too high. They'd been locked in a bitter civil war for so long that Wedge wasn't sure they'd ever be able to see each other as anything other than targets.
So maybe it was just as well that they were trapped. His Rogues were known for pulling some crazy stunts, but Wedge didn't particularly like the idea of taking on an Imperial task force and a Vong armada with just a few X-wings.
Idly, he wondered if he'd be ending the day in an Imperial interrogation room or floating atomized between stars.
"Hand me that hydrospanner!"
Luke blinked at Lando and hefted the aforementioned tool. "You mean the one you just gave back to me?"
Lando glowered at him and beckoned impatiently. "You heard me, come on—"
With a shrug, Luke obliged—but even the reflexes granted him by the Force weren't enough to prevent him from dropping it down the Falcon's hyperdrive service shaft as another nearby blast shook the ship.
"Stang," Luke sighed, moving off to fetch it. Lando, however, tapped his shoulder and shook his head.
"Don't bother," the smuggler said wearily. "Look, Luke, the Falcon's in perfect shape, all of her modifications are working correctly. Fact of the matter is, there's just nothing we can do. We're stuck unless something shakes that Star Destroyer's tractor lock on us."
Deep down, Luke realized he'd known that was the case, but it was still disheartening to hear it said aloud. By all appearances, he should have been panicking by now…but for some reason he couldn't explain, despair hadn't reared its ugly head. He felt, in fact, glacially calm—not exactly a standard reaction while pinned down and surrounded by enemies.
It could have been shock. But Luke thought it was more than that.
"Okay," he said.
Lando stared at him. "Okay?"
Luke nodded. "Okay."
"Not much else to say, is there?" Luke countered. He saw the wary look in Lando's eyes and squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm not ready to lie down and die just yet. But there's no point dwelling on what we can't fix."
Lando still didn't look convinced. Luke pressed on. "Come on. Let's go back to the cockpit and see what happens. Maybe an opportunity will present itself."
Lando exhaled loudly, tossing a tool aside. "Yeah, all right. But for the record, this whole Jedi serenity thing is weirding me out."
The cockpit was exactly as Luke had left it a few minutes earlier; Ackbar was the only one still within, standing behind the pilot's seat and watching the battle raging outside with his flipper-like hands clasped behind his back. A light on the console assured Luke that Leia had indeed gone to the quad laser controls and remained there, ready for trouble.
"So what's new?" Lando asked, sidling into the pilot's seat and flicking a few switches. "Luke told me all about our new friends crashing the party—not very polite, showing up without an invitation."
"There are far too many Yuuzhan Vong ships for the Imperials to handle," Ackbar mused, his large eyes blinking. "They do not retreat, and yet they have not moved into turbolaser range to engage them directly."
Luke scanned the situation as best he could. The Star Destroyers were all completely motionless, locked into their encirclement positions around the trapped Rebel ships, all of them pouring endless waves of turbolaser fire toward the Vong armada; the Vong had by now moved nearly into range on their own, and several flashes of light among their ships suggested that the salvoes were doing some damage, at least. The melee of coralskippers and TIE fighters looked like some hornet's nest stirred, hundreds of glistening specks zipping around almost too quickly to follow, with the coralskippers spraying their blinding golden plasma projectiles and projecting the miniature black holes which absorbed enemy fire, and the TIE fighters stubbornly chipping away at them with green laser blasts and concussion missiles.
And judging from the shrinking number of TIE fighters, those coralskippers would soon be softening the Star Destroyers for their larger counterparts.
"That is weird," Lando mumbled, squinting at the massive shape of the Executor. "You'd think they'd take us and get out of here before it gets too hot."
"Engine problems, maybe?" Leia's voice crackled over the cockpit speakers.
"They were working just fine while they chased us out of the asteroid field," Lando reminded her. "That'd be some pretty bad timing."
"Pretty convenient timing," Luke chimed in. Now that he thought about it, it was pretty unlikely that a Vong armada would just happen on this remote part of space at the exact same time that the Empire and Alliance were locked in their own struggle.
Lando pursed his lips, and then, with a shrug, kicked back in his chair, locking his hands behind his head. "Well, the little Jedi on my shoulder told me that instead of running around in circles and screaming like my gut tells me to, we should just wait and hope for an opportunity, so that's what I'm gonna do. But in the meantime…" he looked innocently between Luke and Ackbar. "Any wagers on who leaves this system alive?"
"Run that by me again," Han ordered through clenched teeth.
"It looks like some kind of—plant, sir," the engineer in front of him said, his voice shaking a little—not, Han knew with certainty, out of any apprehension toward him, but because he was just as aware as the rest of them that their situation was looking decidedly grim. "Spread all over the engine core. Whatever it is, it's corroding the metals, and—" He shrugged helplessly. "This ship isn't going anywhere, Captain. Not without a major overhaul."
"You have a saboteur among your crew, Captain Solo," Darth Vader said darkly.
No kidding. "Why were we able to move until we left the asteroid field?" Han insisted, addressing the engineer. "You telling me this stuff just up and sprouted in a few minutes?"
The engineer hesitated. "I don't know, sir," he admitted. "The sabotage looks pretty thorough. The entire maintenance crew was dead by the time we got down there to check it out—and the surveillance equipment was all smashed up, too."
Information which didn't help them solve the mystery at all. For all their understanding of Vong biotech—and Han was positive it was Vong biotech—the plant-stuff could have been festering for months, hiding somehow from the maintenance crews until triggered by their saboteur—or the whole thing could have happened in the few minutes since they left the asteroid field.
And in the end, it wasn't important.
It was like Thrawn had said: they weren't the ones springing a trap today. It had been the Vong, all along.
With no engines, no ability to call for help, and fighting their way out impossible, they were indeed well and truly trapped.
Han Solo exhaled heavily through his nose and, finally, allowed himself something he'd denied ever since the Yuuzhan Vong had swept into the Battle of Endor and tossed the entire galaxy into confusion.
He gave up.
"Figures," he muttered, trudging over to his command station and resting his hands heavily atop it, bowing his head. "Should've known this whole thing was too good to be true."
The bridge fell silent again, Solo's simple display of surrender drawing everyone's full attention. Thrawn, who had remained utterly stationary for the last five minutes, stirred. The Chiss rose to his feet, straightened his uniform, and faced the crew.
"Forgive me," he said after a moment, his quiet voice barely audible over the dull thunder of laser fire. "In hopes of leading you all to victory, I have led you instead to ruin." He bowed his head. "Forgive me."
The silence seemed, in some paradoxical way, to grow even louder. The muted tones of computer responses seemed to come from far away; the entire universe moved, for an instant, far beyond Darth Vader.
The end comes here?
It was so easy, a teacher had once told him, for intricate plans to fall apart. The irony of the statement had amused Vader greatly later in life, for that same teacher had died in the aftermath of just such an intricate plan…but now, he could see the truth of it.
There would be no coup. He would never teach his son the ways of the dark side, never strike Palpatine down with a vengeful blade, never make the Empire his, as he'd feverishly desired since that day long ago on a planet of fire and ash, before losing himself forever.
Perhaps, he reflected, that was not such a bad thing.
Motion from the holographs of Awler, Hansen, Pellaeon and Trenton caught Vader's eye, and he looked their way just in time to see Hansen's visage disappear—going, no doubt, to take his chances and try to run, with or without the rest of the task force.
"It has been my honor to command all of you," Thrawn said softly, meeting Solo's gaze briefly, and then Pellaeon's. He appraised the Victory-class Star Destroyers' captains. "Your engines are still functioning, are they not?"
"Yes, sir," Awler said warily.
"But I ask that you do not order us to run," Trenton added. "For I have never disobeyed an order before, and I would rather not start now."
The Grand Admiral smiled his subtle smile—tinged with sadness, Vader thought—and inclined his head.
One of the crewmen shot to his feet, sending his chair skidding back violently. His face was set in a mask of defiance. "I don't want them to take us alive, admiral."
A low murmur of agreement rose from the other crewmen. The navigations officer rose, too. "I'm okay with dying today, sir," she said, her voice low and trembling. "But I don't want to be some—sacrifice." She shuddered.
"Fight to the last man!" A voice shouted from the back of the bridge, and several loud exclamations of assent greeted it.
And in that instant, a memory locked into place in Vader's mind.
"There is a way," he said slowly, everyone's eyes turning to him, "to ensure that no one leaves this battle alive."
He told them how they would die, and they listened.
Lando had dropped his veneer of casual detachment pretty quickly once the Yuuzhan Vong capital ships drew into firing range. The massive ovoid yorik coral cruiser analogs opened up first, spewing terrible waves of golden destruction into the cosmos; as the deadly projectiles traveled the distance to the Star Destroyers, they swallowed whole the few remaining TIE fighters whose valiance Luke found himself admiring for the first time in his life.
A life which appeared to be on the verge of ending, one way or another.
He closed his eyes and tried to picture Ben Kenobi, his Aunt and Uncle from Tatooine, the various friends he'd made and lost during the course of the crazy ride that the Rebellion had been…and he felt completely at peace.
So that's what it was.
Not a hint of the future. Not a sign that we're going to get out of this.
The serenity of the Force.
The serenity I saw on Ben's face before Vader struck him down on the Death Star.
"Come on, Vong, baby," Lando muttered nervously, his fingers flexing atop the steering controls. "Just do me a favor and shoot a nice plasma blast at this Destroyer's tractor array…"
"Jedi Skywalker," Ackbar said, now slumped in the communications chair, his flippers clasped over his stomach. "Do you remember what you told me after General Rieekan died?"
Luke frowned at him. Of course he remembered; the General's death had been a tragedy for the Alliance, and the memorial service, held on the beautiful garden world of Ithor, was one of his most poignant memories. "Yes. I told you not to mourn him. That he was one with the Force."
Ackbar's head nodded up and down slowly, a gesture he'd picked up from working with humans for so long. "It sounds nice," he rasped softly. "It has been a great comfort to me for some time now."
"Whoa, there," Lando interrupted, laughing nervously. "Don't go getting all fatalistic on me, admiral, we ain't dead yet."
Luke sensed Leia before she entered the cockpit and sat quietly down behind him. Lando glanced at her, did a double take, and swiveled in his chair. "Hold on, if you're not on the quads, then who—?"
"I don't know," Leia told him, staring straight ahead at the dazzling exchange of destructive power being exchanged between the Executor and the largest Vong ships. "A few people on the admiral's command staff offered to take over, so maybe one of them did." She looked at Luke, her eyes glistening. "But I wanted to be up here."
Luke smiled at her and grabbed her hand; she squeezed it hard. It was such a shame that he hadn't known she was his sister for so long. It was a greater shame still that their entire time since gaining the knowledge had been spent in constant conflict. There was so much more he could have learned about her…
A loud trilling from the cockpit computers broke off his thoughts. Lando leaned in toward his console, eyes widening, and then his head jerked up to look at the Super Star Destroyer whose shields were beginning to flicker erratically under the Vong onslaught.
"Sith me," he breathed. "They're pouring all their power into their reactor."
Guntal Lah bared his pointed teeth in a predatory smile as he watched the infidels struggle futilely against the might of the Yuuzhan Vong. Yet again, the gods had validated their children's belief in them; yet again, the evidence that the True Way was the supreme force in the universe presented itself in the defeat of its enemies.
Their fighting, admittedly, had been spirited. Of course, if their despicable wedge-shaped made-thing had not been sabotaged, they would have tried to run—as one of the vessels was attempting to do even now, turning away to flee back into the asteroid field, showing the ultimate dishonor in deserting both battle and its own comrades—but at least it could be said that not all infidels were completely devoid of warrior's spirit.
All it took to bring it out was to back them into a corner from which there was no escape.
Crush the fleeing cowards, he ordered his armada through the cognition hood clinging to his face, pulsing with the life that flowed through it. And prepare to board the other made-things.
Capture those who do not resist for sacrifice. Take the One with Red Eyes and the Jeedai alive.
Kill the rest.
Han stared out the viewport of the Executor, standing before it with his hands clasped behind his back, just as he had a day ago, when Grand Admiral Thrawn had approached to tell him about a mission whose objective was a mystery.
He found he was not sad about dying. Wistful, maybe. But he figured that was just the usual organic attachment to the familiar.
When they went out, they would do it in a blaze of glory, the kind that had captivated him in holovids as a kid. They would take an entire Vong armada with them, one last act of resistance against the invaders. A nice dose of their own medicine.
He would go out making a difference. Just not the one he'd planned.
The bridge was no longer silent—was painfully loud, in fact. They were overloading the reactor to force the Executor into self-destruction, and the ship's computers did not like that; klaxons blared, lights flashed, and crewmen were dashing about making all sort of final preparations. Many were crying. Others were sending subspace messages out into the cosmos, last words for loved ones who might one day receive them.
But even with the din, Han heard Thrawn's voice from close by. "I suppose I owe you an apology, Captain Trenton."
The hologram of Trenton, still projected on Han's command station, shuffled his feet awkwardly. "As I owe you, Grand Admiral," he said, the bluster gone from his words. "You couldn't have known. It was…my privilege to serve under you. However briefly."
"It is a good death," Captain Awler said, standing with a straight posture that was all Imperial pride—and for once, Han was not annoyed by it. "Let it be an example to the Empire—that we will not bow to these savages."
Thrawn nodded gravely at Awler. He turned to regard Pellaeon's likeness. The two stared at each other, unspeaking. Then Pellaeon simply gave the Chiss a warm smile, nodded at Han, and disappeared.
"He never did like goodbyes," Thrawn murmured with something like fondness.
Han smiled crookedly. It felt surreal, knowing that he was smiling seconds before his death. "You'll have to talk to him about that when we get there."
Thrawn had moved up next to him. His glittering eyes looked at him. "Where?"
"Y'know. Where we're going."
They didn't say anything for a moment.
"We could have done it, you know," Thrawn said. "We could have changed the Empire. Made it better."
Han smiled again and patted his mentor firmly on the back. It was one of their oldest dreams, one Thrawn often mentioned while having idle discussions with his protégés in the privacy of whatever ship's quarters they had available at the time. "I know," he said. "You're the only reason I stuck around, you know. If it wasn't for you, showing me there's some decent people hidden around here..."
Thrawn's lips curled up into his own faint smile. "You're too kind. It was you who showed me that for all its excesses, the Empire still had hope."
Overhead, a dull rumbling sounded. Several conduits fell with a loud crash from the ceiling, clattering to the floor and hissing vapor. Han watched the conduits skitter around violently on the bridge walkway, completely unattended. Maintenance was never where you needed them.
A blue hand extended into the periphery of his vision. He glanced down, and then up to Thrawn, who had turned to face him and was offering the hand. "May warrior's fortune smile on you…Han," the Chiss said.
It was the first time Han had ever heard the Grand Admiral address him by his first name.
Annoyingly, he found that it had grown difficult to swallow.
He firmly accepted the hand, hoping that all of his gratitude and goodwill was communicated through the gesture.
"Reactor going critical!" A crewman bellowed over the general din of the bridge, conspicuously the only one still manning his station. Perhaps he'd decided it was as good a place to die as any. "Massive failure in five seconds—"
The fleeing infidel ship was being swarmed by coralskippers, all of them relentlessly spitting their plasma fire at every inch of its surface; the wedge-shaped abomination was drifting crookedly in the vacuum, the glowing blue of its accelerators flickering, several pieces of the hull breaking off to drift aimlessly into the asteroid field.
The other ships, the ones who had stood fast and fought, had stopped firing. They had accepted their fate, and waited to accept the judgment of the gods.
Guntal Lah would deliver it to them.
He directed his ships, and they all swarmed like some terrible cloud of dark intent toward their victims.
The Executor was venting smoke, and Luke knew most of it wasn't from damage inflicted by the Yuuzhan Vong. He could feel the fear, the sadness, the defeat from everyone in the warship's crew, flooding the Force—but most of all, he could feel their resolve.
"The Empire's always been a sore loser," he commented lightly into the stunned silence of the Millennium Falcon's cockpit.
Everyone turned to look at him incredulously—and then Lando burst into laughter. He turned his chair around, put a hand on Luke's knee, another on Ackbar's shoulder, and smiled at Leia. "I ever tell you—"
"That our luck has to run out sometime?" Leia interrupted, voice dry but a fond smile on her lips. "You might've mentioned it once or twice over the years."
Luke stretched out with the Force, tried to amplify the feelings of friendship and courage in the cockpit—
Darth Vader closed his eyes, prepared to meet his doom, and found he was not surprised that the last face his mind conjured up from memory was not the Emperor, or anyone from his life as a Dark Lord of the Sith.
It was his son.
And for the first time, he truly opened himself in the Force, and felt Luke reach back with a hesitation instantly replaced by unconditional love, and he realized he'd done everything wrong.
Wedge finished sending out a subspace message for his family, took a deep breath, and clicked on his comlink.
"Rogues," he said, "I think we've earned a vacation."
"I'm glad you never tried to make a living in comedy, Wedge," one of his wingmates commented tiredly.
Wedge raised an eyebrow and laughed.
"Reactor critical! Take this, you Vong bastards—"
A roaring filled Han Solo's ears, everything turned black, and he knew it was over.
A/N: And that concludes the 'intro' to the Star Wars portion of this story. Up next: Mass Effect.