We reached the rendezvous point slightly ahead of schedule and I was almost sad when we landed on board one of the Virulent’s smaller docking bay. Once we had established boundaries, I had enjoyed getting to know Ged better and having someone to share stories and secrets with. I had forgotten what it felt like to have a friend like him. There were precious few people left who knew what life had been like at the height of the Empire it was almost a relief to be able to share my tales with him.
“Will you be okay on your own for a while?” He asked as he packed his things. I was loitering in the doorway to the small cabin he had used. “I mean do you have something to keep you occupied and out of trouble?”
“Funny.” I made a face, “Yes, I need to sort my ship out.” I told him. “I have learned not to trust anyone when it comes to taking care of my baby.” I patted the hull beside me for emphasis. “I like to give the engines a good looking at after a run like this and the ship needs to be cleaned.”
“This bucket of bolts is not at all what she seems to be.” Ged smiled. “Just like her owner.”
“Everyone underestimates my ship, even I did at first.” I grinned ignoring his dig at me. “She takes care of me so I take care of her right back.”
“I would expect no less.” He nodded, “You’re a damn good pilot. Any pilot worth their salt takes care of the ship first before and after the run. The deck officer will make sure you get whatever you need. If you have any problems just let me know.”
I followed him to the ship’s exit, “Thanks.”
He hesitated for a moment then said, “I will be very busy for the next little while, I’m afraid. I have a great deal to catch up on and I...”
I raised my hand to stop him. “I’m not going to suddenly start acting all clingy just because we called a truce and played cards. It’s okay, I know the fly-boy drill.” I told him. “Anyway, I’m also exhausted. And you should get the ship’s medic to look at the wound.” I gestured at his chest. “While it’s healing okay I’d feel happier if Dr. Pakhia gave you the okay.”
“Aye aye.” He grinned giving me a mock salute. “As soon as I hear anything I will let you know but don’t hold your breath. The Grand Admiral isn’t always very forthcoming about his plans and right now the holonet is not the place to be broadcasting them.”
“I’m used to that as well.” I replied making a face, “Really, I’m fine Ged, stop acting like a mother bantha.” I flapped my hand at him, “Go command something and get off my ship. I have stuff to do!”
He laughed, “Very well, I’ll leave you to it.”
I nodded, watching him disembark, and then got down to business with my ship. We had a good relationship and I wanted to keep it that way so my first order of business was the engine room. Time passed without me knowing it and by the time I was done it was late. I headed back to my quarters feeling at ease but filthy. I was deeply grateful to have peace and quiet to soak in a hot bath and then go to bed. I was more tired than I thought and I slept for nearly thirteen hours straight. If there were nightmares I didn’t remember them, if there were any emergencies I slept through them. When I woke up the ship was well on its way to Bastion, the Imperial stronghold and we were in a communications lockdown with Ged running ship wide drills. Some things never changed and oddly enough I was glad for it.
I spent most of my time in the hanger fixing anything I was allowed to get my hands on just to pass the hours. If there was one thing I had learned it was that time on an ISD passed slowly if a person had no specific tasks. While I had been taught to do many things in my life nothing was more useful than being a certified mechanic and I had Jyrki and my father to thank for this. Working on the ships and being in the pits meant I picked up tidbits of gossip from the pilots and the other mechanics but there was nothing concrete. It was all just supposition and rumours. Ged, true to his word, kept me up to date although, according to him, there wasn’t much to tell but two days out of Bastion we received word that Thrawn’s fleet had come out of hyperspace near Coruscant and the battle for the planet had begun. I learned more details over a late dinner with Ged.
“He has cloaked asteroids in low orbit around the planet, creating a hazard that forced the planet to put up their defence shield. Right now nothing can get in or out.” Ged told me after the steward had poured the stim’caf and discretely left the room.
“A siege?” I asked as I nibbled on a piece of sweet ijnalla fruit. “What does he hope to accomplish by that?”
“Keeps them busy.” He laughed. “The cloaked asteroids are undetectable to Coruscant's sensors, it’s impossible for the New Republic to distinguish an actual asteroid launch from a false one.”
“A false launch?”
“Over two hundred to be more exact.” He replied with a brilliant smile that lit up his whole face.
“Oh,” I grinned. “That’s so clever.” Thrawn’s ingenuity never ceased to amaze me.
“They can’t drop the energy shield around the planet and run the risk that an asteroid might hit any part of the cityscape and they cannot allow space traffic near the planet in case of collisions. So now you see why we had to get the hell out of there when we did?”
I nodded, “So what is next? Do you know?”
Ged shrugged slightly, “My last report said the next move is to head to Bilbringi but we are on a communications black out so I have no idea how that’s going.”
“Why are we not joining them in the fight?”
“We are protecting the rear line.” Ged replied. “Defending Bastion is important.” He added although he didn’t seem very happy about it.
“Because it’s the Empire’s greatest kept secret and it is vital it remains that way.”
“So let me guess, the data you took from the mainframe on Coruscant will now be housed here?”
“One copy at any rate.” Ged acknowledged.
I nodded and sipped my drink thoughtfully. “But what if Thrawn needs more ships?”
“Then we’ll be called to the fray but according to my last briefing with him he has enough ships and he doesn’t expect a large amount of resistance. The New Republic are already stretched thin it isn’t likely they’ll suddenly come up with a new found fleet to add to what they already have. They are already beaten. They just don’t know it yet is all.”
I didn’t say anything to this because it seemed to me that the rebels had been beaten at every turn for the last ten years or more and still they had managed to claim victory against all odds. Those small odds worried me but I kept my fears to myself.
“So when we reach Bastion, then what?”
“Then the really difficult part begins, I’m afraid.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“We wait and there is nothing harder than that.”
“My favourite thing, hurry up and wait.” I sat back against my chair and toyed with my cup.
“It’s the mantra of the navy fly boy.” Ged said with a grin.
“Well at least I can keep busy in the pit.” I replied with a slight shrug.
He leaned back and regarded me with an expression I couldn’t quite read, “You could return to Nirauan if you wanted to, if it’s too dull around here.”
I shook my head, “There’s nothing to do there but sit and brood. Even Syal isn’t there right now and Thrawn must have had a reason for wanting me here. While I don’t always like it, he usually knows what he is doing and when he wants me safe there’s usually a good reason for it. He usually has a plan set in place. He wanted me here with you not on the base and not with him.” I sighed. “So here I am.”
“Well I, for one, am glad of your company.” He said truthfully.
I looked at him and then I gave him a smile, “Me too.” and I meant it. There was a moment of comfortable silence and then we moved on to other less weighty topics. I was grateful for whatever wisdom or reason had made Thrawn send me back to the Virulent. I would have gone crazy on Nirauan and I would have driven everyone there up the wall.
We reached Bastion quietly. There would be an exchange of supplies and information and a dinner with the Moff in charge which I had politely declined to join. I knew the Moff by reputation and I didn’t want anything to do with him at all. Ged had not pushed and I had been grateful. Three days after we had arrived, word came that the Virulent was to head to a set of co-ordinates at the edge of the Unknown Regions to await further instructions. If Ged knew more he wasn’t saying and I didn’t ask.
The journey out to the meeting point at the edge of the Unknown Regions was fraught with tension. Rumours had started flying around the ship that Coruscant had fallen and Thrawn had reclaimed the core world in the Empire’s name, other rumours whispered that he had defeated the New Republic’s fleet near Bilbringi but nothing had been confirmed. When I was able to get some time with Ged I asked him if any of it was true but he just shook his head.
“The orders were short and to the point. Rendezvous at the given co-ordinates and await further instructions. We’ve not heard a thing since and the entire holonet grid in this sector is out. Even if we wanted to learn more long range communications are down.”
So we waited, the hours passed slowly turning into days which dragged by. Ged sensing the general mood of the ship ran surprise drills and spot inspections. He kept everyone so busy that they didn’t have time to think let alone start yet more rumours. I stayed out of his way exhausting myself with work and sport so that I would sleep. Even then, rest didn’t come easily. The nightmares which had left me alone returned with a vengeance and I found myself waking up screaming in terror and shaking with an inexplicable sorrow which left me sobbing for no reason at all. Strangely enough I could not recall what I had been dreaming about but I suspected they had to do with Thrawn and were brought on by stress. I was driven to distraction by the waiting. It made me waspish and snappy so I generally tried to stay out of the way of people. So, I worked in the pits repairing anything I was allowed to touch or I hid in the upper gantries of the ship’s massive landing bays, it was amusing to observe the comings and goings on of pilots and mechanics alike. In an odd way it reminded me of home.
I was under a skiff, trying to sort out its faulty repulsor when the news came that the Chimaera had just jumped out of hyperspace and was on its way to meet us. I scrambled to find Ged.
“Is it true?” I asked after eventually tracking him down in one of the smaller war rooms.
He nodded not looking up from the data-pad he was studying. “I don’t know any more yet, but their ETA is a couple of hours”
“Wow.” I had not been expecting that. I had expected to hear days not hours.
“They came out of hyperspace a lot closer than expected.” He looked up at me and then he grinned. “You have time to go get cleaned up which you really should do because you have grease on your nose and you smell like a pit monkey.”
I wiped at the offending grease spot in annoyance and surreptitiously sniffed near my armpit, wrinkling my nose in disgust. He was right I smelled bad.
Ged chuckled. “See? I think more girl less mechanic is in order.” I scowled at him but he was right, I probably looked like a refugee off a garbage transport. “Go, I’ll send someone for you as soon as they arrive.” He shooed me out of the ready room. He had long given up trying to reach me by comm because I usually had it turned off or I’d forgotten it.
I returned to my quarters and ran a bath. It was a wonderful luxury to be able to soak in a tub full of hot bubbly water and I was deeply grateful that my quarters came with a bathtub. I was excited and nervous and tired all at the same time. Thrawn could still make me quiver like a silly teenager and I marvelled at the sandjiggers which wriggled in my belly as I stepped into the almost too hot water.
I lingered in the water until it turned cool then I got out and dressed in something long, sleeveless and pretty but not too special. I did my hair up with the beautiful Zenji sticks, his first ever gift to me, added one of my favourite ma’arilite pendants and then sat restlessly waiting to hear from Ged but I didn’t need to be told when Thrawn’s ship had arrived because I got a perfect view of her as she slid into formation above the Virulent. It was almost as if he had known I would be watching for him and had approached the Ged’s ship this way to make sure I saw him return to me safe and sound. I gazed in awe at the Chimaera. She was beautiful.
Much to my surprise my heart thumped painfully in my chest setting me abuzz with anticipation. I hoped that we would be able to have even a small amount of time alone with each other and I hoped that he would be happy to see me. While the last time I had been with him had been sweet, this past year had seem him shift moods, becoming distant and strange with me, almost as if he had two different personalities, mercurial and unpredictable. He had blamed it on the stress of running this campaign but I blamed part of it on myself. For a second, my thoughts went to the child we had lost, absently I touched my belly but then I shook the negative thoughts from my head. After all we had been through he had proven again and again that he cared deeply for me. Whatever doubts or worries I had they needed to be pushed away. In the end I was just grateful that he had returned safely.
I hoped that we would finally get to hear about how the campaign was going but as I made my through the ship rumours where whispered that Coruscant was not the great victory it was supposed to be. I ignored them, there had been no confirmation and we were still running on a communications black out. I had wanted to press people for more news but I was certain that if anything had gone wrong Ged would have let me know, so I waited which wasn’t easy.
I knew it would take a while before all the formalities were sorted out and that bugging Ged would only annoy him so instead I made my way to the secondary landing bay and sat in my favourite spot up in the gantry to watch the comings and goings. When Thrawn arrived on board the Virulent it was here where his shuttle would land. It was here I could lose myself in thought without driving myself frantic with the entire constant ‘what ifs’ that ran through my head. I was at home with the sound of engines and the smell of fuel fumes in the air. It was a comfort and it always had been.
The upper gantry perch was my second home and Ged knew this so the crewman he had sent to fetch me found me without a problem. I didn’t need to be told twice to go with the young man and he was hard put to keep up with me as I all but flew to Ged’s ready room. I tried to calm down a little. It was unseemly to feel and act like the skittish young girl I had been when Thrawn and I had first met. We had known each other far too long and far too well but still my heart fluttered and it made me smile.
I allowed for a moment of giddy joy and then fought to calm down a little. I didn’t think that Ged needed to see me act like a love sick bantha but the anticipation of seeing Thrawn again was overwhelming. I marvelled at the sensation and then swallowed it back. While I was certain Thrawn would be amused with my jitters the rest of the people who would probably be in the room did not have to witness this side of me.
“You can go in now Miss Gabriel.” The young officer said.
I grinned, “Thanks!” I said and I walked into the ready room. I expected to see Thrawn and most likely Captain Pellaeon but I was surprised to see only Ged.
“Wow, there’s a real person under all that grease! You clean up nice. “ He said with a slight smile, “However, it seems that any meetings are to be held on board the Chimaera. Apparently the Virulent is not secure enough any longer.”
I smoothed my hands on my dress trying to mask my disappointment. “You could have told me this via comm, you know. I had it with me.” I assumed this meant I wasn’t going with him.
He smiled and shrugged, “I could have but as they wish you to accompany me I figured this was just as easy. It was requested that we use your ship. It is only the two of us so I have no objection although it’s highly irregular. Whatever is going on is very hush hush.”
I rolled my eyes, “This is so typical. Thrawn’s probably planning on sending me to Nirauan or somewhere else which is why he’s insisting on my ship. Why does everything with that man have to be cloaked in secrecy?”
“When you get an answer can you pass it along to me?” He asked as we left the ready room and made our way down to the landing bay to my ship.
“For a small fee, I’ll think about it.” I grinned.
I started up the ship’s engines while Ged cleared us through the Virulent’s traffic control and then contacted the Chimaera to let her know we were on our way. It was a short trip and the Chimaera’s people were ready for us when we arrived. I landed my ship as daintily as I could, showing off, and Ged just shook his head at me. I gave him a smug smile.
“You are incorrigible Merly.” Ged said getting up and brushing imaginary lint off his uniform.
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way.” I retorted back.
“Probably not.” He said as he waited for me to open the ship so we could leave.
I followed him down the ramp from the ship and smirked at the fuss the men waiting for him made. There was a lot of saluting and some curious glances at me before we were escorted swiftly and silently to what I assumed wrongly would be Thrawn’s ready room.
“Captain Pellaeon is waiting inside for you Sir, Ma’am.” The pinched faced young man said as he opened the door.
“Thank you crewman.” Ged said and there was some more saluting. As soon as we walked into the small but comfortable room I knew instantly that this was not Thrawn’s. I looked around expecting him to be there but instead there was only Captain Gilad Pellaeon.
I remembered how kind and warm he had been to me at that disastrous dinner where Ged had pushed and Thrawn had not taken too kindly to it and found it funny how far away that all seemed now. I looked at Pellaeon and smiled as though I were seeing an old friend again but he didn’t return the smile, instead there was a sadness in his eyes that I had not noticed the last time we had met and suddenly I felt a chill run down my spine.
“Admiral Larsen, it is a privilege to meet you again.” The Captain saluted Ged smartly and I rolled my eyes as Ged saluted him back. All this military formality was getting on my nerves. “And you as well Miss Gabriel, it is lovely to see you again.” He said, and then he paused for just a second before continuing with, “I just wish it were under better circumstances. Please, I think perhaps you had both better sit down.”
Ged ignored his suggestion and remained standing so I did the same. I looked from one face to the other trying to decipher what wasn’t being said.
“Where is the Grand Admiral?” Ged asked, breaking the terrible silence.
I watched as he stared at Captain Pellaeon who shook his head almost imperceptibly. My heart started to pound in my ears and my mouth was suddenly dry. Something was terribly wrong.
Pellaeon drew a deep breath, looked at both Ged and me and then said bluntly, “I regret to inform you both that Grand Admiral Thrawn is dead.”