There was white noise in my head.
There was only white noise all around me.
The room spun violently and I lost my sense of balance. Ged moved quickly, his hand warm around my waist, anchoring me to his side as gravity twisted bringing the floor up to meet with me with a sickening blur.
“Okay, you’re okay.” He spoke quietly, gently, as he eased me backwards to sit on the small couch near the wall. He put his hand on the back of my neck and guided my head down between my knees. “Breathe deeply and push back against my hand.”
I did as he instructed. When I no longer felt as though I would pass out I moved his hand off my neck but I gripped his fingers tightly. He looked at me for a moment then he let go of my hand and turned around.
“What happened?” Ged, suddenly all business, asked Captain Pellaeon.
“It was Rukh.” Pellaeon replied, “He stabbed the Grand Admiral with his knife, through the back of his command chair. The blade punctured the heart. The Grand Admiral was dead in seconds. There was nothing we could have done.”
I shook my head slowly. I heard his words and I watched his lips move but nothing he was saying made any sense. I had seen what he was describing in my dreams but I couldn’t grasp the reality of it at all. “No.” I said quietly because saying this word would undo what I had just been told.
Ged looked at me, touched my hand to still my voice and then turned back to Pellaeon. “Captain, when I ask what happened I am requesting a full report not an obituary or a litany of excuses.” He ordered coldly. “Where is the rest of the fleet? What the hell went wrong?”
“Yes sir, of course.” Pellaeon nodded, collecting his thoughts, “At the Grand Admiral’s command we arrived at Bilbringi to set a trap for the enemy. Thrawn had instructed the Interdictor Cruisers and Interdictor Star Destroyers to activate their gravity well projectors in anticipation of their arrival. As he predicted the New Republic assault fleet jumped out of hyperspace outside the system perimeter. Once he saw this, he had the Interdictor Cruisers Constrainer and Sentinel, who were stationed the farthest from the main fleet to prevent anyone from escaping the trap to return to the demarcation line, where they would be protected. Then, the Grand Admiral gave the word and we engaged the enemy.”
“Go on.” Ged ordered.
“We had them sir, we had them hemmed in and we were winning the battle but suddenly an entirely new fleet of ships jumped in and began an offensive against us.”
“A new fleet? Who were they?”
“I believe they refer to themselves as the Smuggler Alliance, sir.” Ged nodded and Captain Pellaeon continued.
“They turned the tide, managed to overwhelm and breach the defensive line. I thought we should retreat but the Grand Admiral assured me that the battle was far from over. Perhaps he might have been right, sir, but we’ll never know because he was murdered before he could give any further orders, just as I received word that the cloning facility on Wayland was also being attacked.” He swallowed, “That alien, Rukh, struck the back of my neck before he stabbed the Grand Admiral; I was incapacitated, unable to do anything to stop him.” The Captain paused to catch his breath. He shook his head in denial, “It was chaos, complete and utter chaos, so I did the only thing I could think of to keep as many of our ships from being destroyed as possible. I ordered a tactical retreat and we jumped to a secure location. We locked down the bridge and I’ve tried to keep the news of his death contained but it’s a difficult secret to lock down, word will get out that he’s gone and I’m afraid I don’t know what to do about it.”
He stopped speaking and the sudden silence in the room pushed at me, taking the place of the white noise in my head. I looked up at both men who were staring at each other in an almost hostile manner. “How...why?” I struggled with my words. I couldn’t think straight.
Ged turned to look at me as if suddenly remembering that I was also in the room and the hardness around his demeanour fell away from him like rain off a stone. “Oh Merlyn.” He murmured and sat beside me. “I am so sorry.”
His words hit me like a sharp backhand to the face and I reeled inwardly from their impact, shaking my head I just kept saying, “This is not...it’s not possible.”
Captain Pellaeon looked at me. “I assure you, Miss Gabriel, it is. Grand Admiral Thrawn is dead. He was stabbed through the heart from behind by his bodyguard, Rukh. I saw it with my own eyes. There was nothing I could do; there was nothing anyone could do. It was over so fast. He is dead and I am so very sorry.”
His words made me angry, “Shut up!” I hissed through clenched teeth. “Just shut up!” I could feel the force shift around me as my emotions began to spin out of control.
“Shhhh, Merly.” Ged said gently and it was enough to bring me back from the brink, the touch of his hand on my shoulder grounded me.
“Why?” I demanded again, “Why would Rukh do this? He swore to protect Thrawn not murder him!” I could not wrap my head around what I had just been told. I had trained with Rukh, learned to even like him in spite of his fierce warrior nature. I could not imagine what would make the Noghri turn against the man he had sworn to give his life to keep from harm. “Thrawn trusted Rukh!” I cried.
Pellaeon shook his head. “We don’t know yet. The Noghri was killed before we could get any immediate answers.”
“Rukh is dead too?” I asked in utter disbelief. Tears blurred my vision and coursed down my face. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know what to do. I had never imagined for one moment that it would be Thrawn’s trusted body guard who would kill him. I had not seen this coming. My head swam, I couldn’t catch my breath and my stomach rebelled. I clapped my hand over my mouth and tried to recall how to breathe but that wasn’t working suddenly I needed to vomit.
“Fresher?” I heard Ged ask urgently and then he all but carried me to it just in time. I made it to the toilet where I violently threw up the contents of my stomach which thankfully wasn’t much. I knelt there, trembling, trying to remember what my lungs were for while Ged poured me a glass of water.
“Here.” He said placing it in my hand as he crouched down at my side. “Drink,” He ordered, “slowly.”
I did as he instructed, rinsing out my mouth a couple of times before drinking the rest. When I was sure that I wasn’t going to vomit again I let him help me up. I know he wanted to comfort me, to hold me but I stepped back from him. I didn’t want his kindness or his pity. These things would break me, make me even more useless than I already was. Drawing a deep, shuddering breath, I washed my hands and face in the small sink. He wordlessly handed me a towel which I used then handed back. He tossed it on the counter and watched me without a word. I braced myself against the sink fighting to keep from falling apart, my knuckles turning white from the effort of it.
“Merlyn...?” There was a question in Ged’s voice but he didn’t finish it.
I turned around to look him in the eyes, shaking my head as I did so. “Don’t.” I said raising my hand in a gesture to keep him back, to keep him from getting to close to me. “Please.”
There were a myriad of expressions that flashed across his face, but the one that cut me to the core was compassion. He nodded and swallowed down whatever words he wanted to say and stayed where he was letting me have my space. We stood like that a few moments until I couldn’t stand the silence any more.
“This isn’t real.” I said with my heart aching. I was freezing cold and I couldn’t stop trembling. “It just can’t be real.”
Ged didn’t answer me instead he just wrapped an arm about my shoulder. When I didn’t fight him this time he led me back to the couch. “You’re in shock.” He said. “Sit.”
I kept waiting for someone to tell me this was a sick, cruel joke but all Ged did was to ask if the Captain had anything to drink that was stronger than water.
“Brandy.” Captain Pellaeon said and he poured a glass from the small bottle he had procured.
“This will help a little.” Ged offered me the glass.
I gulped the drink down but it didn’t make me feel any better. I set the glass down on the table shaking my head when a refill was offered. Captain Pellaeon paced the room, he was uncomfortable and also mourning the loss of his mentor and friend but he didn’t know what to do with his own grief let alone mine.
“There are instructions, he left … well he was prepared. You know the Grand Admiral always ready for any contingency.”
I looked up at him, frowning. “Instructions?” I asked dumbly.
The Captain stopped pacing and looked at me directly. “Yes Miss Gabriel, for you, which is why you are here.”
“What instructions?” Ged asked.
I laughed and cried at the very same time as I looked from one man to the other. I felt as though I had suddenly been transported into a mad house. “He left instructions? He died and left instructions?” I sounded hysterical.
“Yes, very precise orders in which he made it clear that you and only you are to return his body to his home world.” Pellaeon placed a large sealed courier pouch on the table in front of me. I just stared at it. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to see what memories it held. Ged, understanding this, picked it up for me. “It was his last request.” The Captain said. “There was a file; it was activated after his death stating that this was to be given to you.”
“He what?” I whispered, wiping away the tears that would not stop rolling down my cheeks. “Give this to me?” I asked stupidly. I stared blankly at the Captain. His mouth was moving but all I heard were sounds I couldn’t decipher.
I felt as though someone had eviscerated me. The news of Thrawn’s murder left me empty and breathless in the worst possible way and I shuddered under its weight. Looking up at Ged and then back to the Captain I despised the pity I saw in their faces. I knew that I was not the only one reeling from this terrible loss but how could either of them understand mine?
Captain Pellaeon watched me for a moment, reading my face and then he said more gently, “I am so sorry to bring you this terrible news. He was such a private man, he rarely spoke of anything personal but I do know that he cared for you.”
I blinked at that statement in surprise. “Cared for me?” I asked, “He cared for me?” My jaw clenched as I gritted my teeth as hard as I could. Suddenly, amidst the terrible shock and emptiness, I knew an anger so ferocious it threatened to choke me. “Cared for me?” I asked for a third time shaking my head in utter disbelief. “If he had cared for me he wouldn’t be dead.” I growled.
“I don’t think he could have known....” Captain Pellaeon started to say but I didn’t let him finish.
“No!” I snarled through tightly clenched teeth, “No, he did know, he did!” I shut my eyes tightly, fighting it because part of me wanted to simply let this fury go, to give in to its madness and destroy everything around me. I wanted to tear the world apart. It was a rage unlike anything I had ever experienced before and it was terrifying.
Ged crouched down in front of me, “Merlyn look at me.” He spoke gently.
I shook my head unable to meet his eyes. He used gentle fingertips to raise my chin, bringing my focus to his face. “Look. At. Me.” He commanded as he took my hands in his. His touch was warm and I could feel it as he drew the fury out of me. His eyes met mine, holding my gaze. His handsome features were made hard by the new weight upon his own shoulders and I had an overwhelming desire to reach out and offer some comfort but instead I stayed very still on the couch. He was worried, worried for me and worried for the Empire.
I shook my head and took a deep breath, “I’m okay now.” I said even though it was very far from true. “I’ll be okay.” He needed to hear this from me even though we both knew it was a lie.
He nodded, accepting my answer with a squeeze of his fingers. I pulled my hand from his, wiped the tears off my face angrily and then I stood up. Ged mirrored this action and stepped back from me, waiting.
“I want to see him.” Both men just looked at me as though I had just spoken in a foreign language and no one moved so I repeated my request.
“I hardly think...” Captain Pellaeon started to say clearly uncomfortable but I cut him off.
“Where is he? I want to see him now, right now!” I snapped with as much command in my voice as I could muster.
The Captain looked to Ged who nodded slightly. I might have been insulted but I understood. Ged was Pelleaon’s superior officer so he had the final say in this matter, not me.
“As you wish.” He said quietly after a moment’s hesitation, “His body is being held in cold stasis under lock and guard. I’ll take you both there myself.”
I knew that the word had spread and as we left the ready room all eyes turned to watch us. Curiosity mingled with uncertainty was starting to spread around the ship like sand in a storm. I walked stoically, never glancing left or right. I dared not look anyone in the eye; I did not want to know their sorrow because my own was so great I had no room left for more. I needed strength not kindness or sympathy because those things would break me into a thousand shattered pieces. Only hardness would get me through the next moments. After that it was anyone’s guess.