The minute Ezra Standish was told that the destroyer, Chimaera, had arrived in Cordoba system first, followed closely by the Nimbus and the Phoenix, he was visited by an ominous feeling of great personal danger even though he did not understand why. Ezra who was very much a creature of instinct, knew when to take such feelings seriously and one could not do anything but take three heavy battle cruisers very seriously indeed. Although he tried not to jump to conclusions as to what they were doing in Cordoban space, Ezra knew that he was a fool if he thought it was for any reason other than the Rebel Alliance. Only the Alliance could justify the dispatching of three star destroyers to a remote location as the Territory and Wild Space.
What disconcerted him even further was the fact that he had heard nothing about the trios arrival until they appeared above the skies of Cordoba. Normally the movements of heavy battle cruisers would generate some talk through the ranks, even if it were mere supposition or rumor. However, in this instance, there had been nothing. It was as if the three ships had appeared out of nowhere. Secrecy of this magnitude required planning from the highest levels of power and Ezra wondered who commanded the small fleet. He knew it could not be Vader for the dark lord never traveled without the superstar destroyer Avenger and last Ezra heard it was presently at Coruscant. The whereabouts of most Imperial commanders who would be entrusted this fleet were accounted for which only serve to deepen Ezras anxiety because this whole situation spoke of an unknown player and that was always cause for concern.
"Any idea on who is commanding the Chimaera?" Ezra asked as he studied the trio of ships displayed on the scanner grid. Within his command centre of the Cordoba station, activity was pitched with excitement by the arrival and everyone's attention was focused on the status of the large battle cruisers.
"No." Lieutenant Julia Pemberton, Ezras second in command shook her head in response. "I didnt even know they had commissioned a ship named that."
"The Chimaera has been around for two years," Ezras adjutant, Claire Moseley answered promptly. The young woman always seemed to be a veritable fountain of information. Claire always seemed to know what was going on and had a remarkable talent for gathering intelligence and keeping abreast of everything that would be of importance to him. "Theres not much information on its commission other than its existence. I do know that many of its officers are top Academy graduates. Whomever is in command demands the very best staff."
This did not alleviate Ezras growing concern. All this seemed to prove was someone with a great deal of power and a formidable arsenal was coming to his station. He tried not to think about what implications this could have on the rebel base hidden in the Siraj system since he had no proof whatsoever that it was the reason for the presence of the attack fleet over Cordoba. However, his gut instincts said otherwise and Ezra, who relied on those instincts in almost everything he did, could not abandon them now.
"Send our greetings, Julia," Ezra instructed coolly. His sea colored eyes was fixed on the digital blips on the scanner grid, almost as if he could dissect their purpose here if he stared at them long enough. The fact that he could not and was left with his original speculation left him even more disturbed. "The usual."
"Yes Sir," Julia Pemberton answered, giving him a sidelong glance.
Ezra did not react but he was certain his first officer was trying to discern what he was thinking. Ezra made it no secret that he knew why Julia had been assigned to him. When he had encountered Darth Vader, Ezra had managed successfully to block his thoughts from the dark lord, that coupled with the fact that he had saved Vaders life had earned him the mans severest displeasure which resulted in Julia being assigned to Cordoba. Ezra had no doubt that she was Vaders creature and that her sole purpose was to spy on him and satisfy the dark lords suspicion that he was a traitor.
"Commander," Julia rose her eyes from the communications terminal where she had just offered the orbiting ships the usual salutary welcome. "Ive just received a message from Lieutenant Pallaeon, adjutant to Grand Admiral Thrawn. They will be arriving shortly by shuttle."
"Grand Admiral?" Claire found herself responding with a hushed breath.
Ezra ignored her exclamation. "Inform the Lieutenant that we will be honored to receive the Grand Admiral."
"Yes Sir," she nodded once more and turned to the screen to carry out his order.
No sooner that he had finished speaking, Claire came up to him and asked quietly. "Ive never heard of a Grand Admiral Thrawn."
"Neither have I but that he obviously does exist since very few imposters bearing that title would have the three destroyers to legitimize their claim," Ezra returned dryly. His indifference masked his growing worries that the situation was critical. The number of soldiers obtaining the rank of Grand Admiral in the Imperial fleet could be counted on one hand and they had sent this one here.
"What could he want here?" She asked softly, making certain Julia was not capable of hearing them when she made that inquiry.
"I have some idea," Ezra replied softly, shifting his gaze just enough to make eye contact with the younger woman.
She swallowed thickly, trying not to show that his speculation had frightened her. Unfortunately, it was too late for that. She stepped away from him at that point, in order not appear suspicious. However, as she pulled away, Ezra distinctly heard her mutter under her breath, one word.
The Grand Admiral did not waste any time making his arrival at the Cordoba base. Less than an hour after the Chimaera had settled into orbit around the planet, his shuttle was descending onto the deck of the Imperial outpost. A full honor guard was in attendance, as protocol demanded but Ezra was fairly certain that the man would not be interested in such pageantry. However, as commander of the outpost that the Grand Admiral would be visiting, Ezra was required to show the man the full measure of respect for someone of his rank. In truth, Ezra was somewhat curious to meet a Grand Admiral. Such an entity had been scarce in Ezra's previous military experience. The rank itself was not in the usual military chain of command and was usually handed out when the person in question had exhibited exception military ability. Since Ezra had never heard of Thrawn before this day, he wondered how the man could have distinguished himself to earn such an accolade.
As Ezra awaited Thrawn's appearance, he could not help but feel uneasy, not simply because of the danger he suspected to the Rebel Alliance but also on a more personal level. For months now, he had walking a tight rope between the Empire and the Alliance, trying not to make a choice but unable to deny that his actions regarding the Rebellion had cleared marked his loyalties as being for the latter. Initially, Ezra's reason for aiding the rebels was to ensure that his best friend, Nathan Jackson did not come to any harm since he was one of them. However, Ezra's attachment to the movement had grown beyond those simple parameters. He protected the Rebellion at great cost to himself, not only because of Nathan but also because of Buck Wilmington, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne, Josiah Sanchez and the slew of people that had suddenly come to mean so much to him. They were his friends. There was a time when only Nathan shared that distinction but now he was part of the seven as Mary called the group of men who aided in their own way, the rebel cell under her command.
Ezra could not deny that he liked being apart of the seven.
Ezra enjoyed being with Nathan and it felt like old times, without the memories of tragedy or ideological differences marring their friendship as it had in the years prior to Nathan's membership in the rebellion. When he was with the six men, he felt like he was a part of something, more so than any other point in his life. Despite himself, Ezra was tired of being the loner and carrying out orders that was making it harder and harder for him to sleep at night. Most of all, he was tired of the duplicity, the danger of walking the razor's edge between loyalty and treason, of being neither one thing nor the other. Too much of his life had been spent on the outside looking in, he just wished he trusted enough to let down the defenses that always kept him an outsider.
Such thoughts swirled around in his head and Ezra knew that he could not be distracted like this with Thrawn's arrival on his station only moments away. Returning himself to the here and now, he saw the shuttle had landed and the ramp was lowering from the hull of the craft to the steel deck. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted the collar of his uniform and glanced at Julia who seemed glacial in her preparation to receive the Grand Admiral. For reasons he could not fathom, she looked like she was the lady of the house at his side. The thought made him look at her in away he had never considered before and he wondered whether fear or insanity was making him regard her as a woman and not the thorn in his side she had been. He shook the notion out of his mind and faced front again, deciding he was definitely at a crossroads in his life if he was starting to entertain such notions about Julia Pemberton. Perhaps it was time he started thinking seriously about putting this double life behind him.
Thrawn's emergence from the shuttle immediately forced any other thought from Ezra Standish' mind.
The man who appeared out of the shuttle's hatchway was garbed in a white Imperial uniform, as rarely seen as Grand Admirals. His skin was indigo blue and his eyes were crimson in their color and their intensity. Thrawn's eyes swept across the faces approaching him and in flash of insight, Ezra knew that this man was a greater danger to him than Darth Vader could ever hope to be. The nature of Vader's beast saw the dark lord extracting information through his Jedi abilities; however, this man did not use that technique. His was far subtler and a good deal more damning when proven right. Thrawn was not the Force. He was logic in all its cold, clinical ruthlessness. And the way he was scrutinizing Ezra told the commander of the Cordoba base that Thrawn's high-powered perception was presently aimed squarely at him.
"Grand Admiral Thrawn," Ezra greeted when he reached Thrawn. Behind him, Julia and Claire had followed and stood side by side. "It is an honor to meet you Sir and you as well Lieutenant Pallaeon. It is often nice to attach a face to the name."
Pallaeon bowed slightly in gracious acceptance of that greeting while Thrawn continued to stare, appearing pleasant enough but then most predators did before they struck. Preferring to give the man the benefit of the doubt for the moment even though ever defense mechanism that was in-built into Ezra Standish was presently on full alert, Ezra glanced briefly at Claire and Julia in order to introduce them.
"This is my first officer, Lieutenant Pemberton and my adjutant, Lieutenant Moseley," Ezra said pleasantly, aware that Thrawn had yet to speak and wondered why. The Grand Admiral's penetrating gaze was fixed tautly on Julia now and Ezra could see his first officer starting to flinch.
"Tell me Lieutenant Pemberton, " Thrawn lip's curled into a little smile as he spoke. "Has anyone ever told you that you bear a striking resemblance to one of the Emperor's Hands?"
Julia's eyes widened so abruptly that Ezra knew without a doubt that Thrawn was perfectly aware that she was precisely whom he was alluding her to be. The man had simply wanted Julia to know that. Ezra watched her becoming flustered and she darted her eyes in his direction, confirming even further what the Grand Admiral had revealed to be the truth.
"Not at all Sir," she said quickly, recovering quickly enough for anyone other than Thrawn and Ezra not to notice.
"I've never heard the reference before, Admiral," Ezra remarked staring at Julia for a second longer and realizing that while she was wearing a facade of calm, she was squirming inwardly.
"It's an interesting office Captain," Thrawn finally addressed him. "The Emperor's Hands are assassins trained specifically to infiltrate and spy. Most of the time however, they run his errands although occasionally he arms them out for other duties."
Julia held up impressively well considering what was being said, Ezra observed. She showed no signs of being the least bit perturbed by anything Thrawn was revealing but then that was not the point of the exercise, he was certain. Thrawn was laying down ground rules between himself and Julia and Ezra shuddered to know what part he played in the Grand Admiral's scheme. The woman said nothing, maintaining her mercurial demeanor in the face of her dissection by the Admiral in front of Ezra and Claire.
"Admiral," Ezra faced Thrawn. "How can we be of service to you?"
Thrawn returned his crimson colored eyes to Ezra and responded. "I think you are perceptive enough to guess the reason for my arrival with three heavy destroyers orbiting Cordoba."
"It is not hard to discern," Ezra answered. "I am assuming that a fleet like this is necessary for an engagement with the Rebellion?"
"Hardly," Thrawn chuckled as if the thought was amusing. "Our encounter with the Rebellion is not challenge enough to be called an engagement. Perhaps errand would be a better term."
Now it was Ezra who was struggling to hide his own reaction beneath a veneer of detachment. "I take it you have located their present whereabouts and are moving to take their base of operations?"
"More or less." Thrawn nodded. "However, any capture of the rebels in the Territory requires me pausing at this station first."
Ezra displayed his best face for sabaac and inquired further, putting on his best performance of bewilderment for the man's benefit. "How so?" He asked neutrally.
"Lieutenant," Thrawn glanced at Pallaeon to take the question for him.
"We are holding position over Cordoba because the Shadowstar is also involved in this offensive," Pallaeon answered while Thrawn watched Ezra for reaction. "When the Shadowstar arrives, we will continue to the Siraj star system."
Ezra had no idea where the rebel base was mostly because he had asked specifically not to be told in the instance he was captured and tortured for the information but if the base was in Siraj, it would make perfect sense. It was isolated and deep in the Territory, almost at the galactic rim. Somehow, Ezra could not imagine such a large task force sent out to capture the rebels unless the man before him was absolute about his information. "That is an exceedingly formidable task force," Ezra pointed out. "If you catch the rebels unawares, they will be completely overwhelmed."
"Even if they were somehow alerted to our presence, they are incapable of launching a defense against four star destroyers. Besides, they will not have the time to evacuate. The Shadowstar is due in Cordoban space within the hour and when she arrives, we will be departing. Still, I prefer to be certain about such matters so Ive taken the liberty of blocking all outgoing transmissions from Cordoban space for the time being. "
"I see," Ezra replied, certain that Thrawn was studying him for a reaction. Ezra did not even bother to protest because he knew that it would be a futile gesture. After all the man was a Grand Admiral and Ezra was merely a captain. Thrawn could take over his command and Ezra would be powerless to stop him. It was also at this point that Ezra understood the real reason behind Thrawn's arrival had nothing to do with a rendezvous and everything to do with him.
When the Four Corners Tavern was abuzz with talk about three Imperial destroyers parked in orbit around Cordoba, the first thing Inez Recillos had thought was that it was news that required relaying to the Rebellion as soon as possible. Most of the patrons of the establishment had described the destroyers as being heavy battle cruisers with further murmuring that the reason they were here was because they were waiting for a forth ship. A fleet that size could only have one purpose and as Inez excused herself to contact the Rebellion, she hoped she was wrong. She had never been to the Siraj base herself but even she knew that they were not capable of standing up to an assault of that magnitude. Their only hope lay in being told early enough about what was happening so that they could evacuate the base before the Empire reached them.
It was too dangerous to risk a two way transmission so Inez sent her message through the special scrambler frequency, ensuring that it held a minimum of data but would concisely tell the Rebellion was coming at them. Once she had completed that undertaking, Inez returned to her customers and waited impatiently for news to reach her from the rebellion, telling them that they had received her information and were moving out. Despite herself, she tried not to think about Buck and the peril he might be facing if the Rebellion did not evacuate in time. Although Inez was fairly certain that she was in love with Ezra Standish, she still had deep feelings for her ex-husband and worried about his recklessness at flying in the face of danger.
The afternoon crowd had bled out of the tavern an hour after she had made the transmission and Inez could not help deny that she was grateful for that fact. She would prefer some measure of quiet while she waited for news. A quartet of star destroyers could do a great deal of damage to the small rebel base on Siraj. As capable as she thought Mary to be, Inez knew that there was no way the rebel leader could hope to fight off four ships with just the Purgatory alone. It may have been a while since Inez was actually involved in any military engagements herself, but even she knew this for a fact.
Inez had just retreated into the storeroom when she heard the door open and the sound of footsteps entering the place. It did not take her long to discern that there was more than one new arrival and with the situation the way it was, she proceeded cautiously to the edge of the doorway to see who her new patrons were. She did not need to make the effort because the demand emanating throughout the establishment made their identity unmistakable.
"Wheres the owner of this place?" The stormtroopers voice reverberated through the audio unit on his helmet.
Inez shrank back into the storeroom, feeling her heart pound in her chest as she frantically wondered what they were doing here. The most obvious answer was because of her, naturally but the timing seemed to be a little too coincidental for her liking. Was it possible that they had traced her because she had attempted to contact the rebellion? Despite her concerns for her safety, Inez was more gripped by the notion of whether or not her transmission had actually reached the rebellion. Three destroyers had more than enough range to carry out a planetary blackout. Her warning to the rebellion might not even left the atmosphere. If such were the case, the Rebellion would have no idea what was coming for them.
The demand by the Imperial stormtrooper was followed by the sound of scuffling feet and glasses and tables being overturned as the contingent began searching the place. It would take less than a minute for them to find her here and there was no way out of the storeroom than through the main door which emptied into the bar area. Taking a deep breath, the lovely tavern owner decided that she would have no choice but to fight her way out. Moving immediately to one of the lower shelves, she retrieved a bundle of canvas that had been hidden away in the darkness. She could hear the footsteps approaching the entrance of her hiding place and knew she was out of time as she unwrapped the material from the object it encased.
The first stormtrooper to arrive at the doorway was met with a bolt from a blast rifle square in the chest. The force of the energy beam sent him flying backwards, crashing into the other trooper behind him. Smoke trailed from the dark scorch mark left behind on the melted space on his armor and he remained still and unmoving. Inez wasted no time; the others attracted by the commotion were already raising their guns to fire, when Inez took aim to clear the path before her. She fired on the second closest trooper and immediately took refuge behind the bar as return fire came her way. Blasts of energy impacted on the wall behind her, sending chunks of debris flying in all directions. Inez kept her head down as she moved along the floor, trying for the door but coming to the realization that she would have to settle for the window as her point of escape.
Peering over the edge of the counter, she fired a few more shots at the troopers who had now taken cover in order to avoid being hit by return fire. All her customers were more or less gone now and the stormtroopers were hiding behind tables flipped on their side. Inez fired a dozen or more shots in quick succession, three or four of those discharges actually meeting their mark. There was soon a lot less soldiers than had first entered the place but she was nowhere out of trouble yet. After letting loose a lethal barrage of fire, Inez took advantage of the confusion to make her escape. She could not remain behind the counter much longer for the protection it afforded was waning with each bolt of energy that impacted against it. She could smell its surface burning under the heat of multiple blasts and it would only be a matter of time before those energy beams cut through it and reached her. She was certain that the stormtroopers knew it too and were biding their time.
Aware that she had to get out of here before they called for any further reinforcements or bring more troops into the vicinity, Inez braced herself as she debated what she ought to do next. The window was her only safe avenue of retreat even though she did not relish going through it to get out. Unfortunately, she was left with little choice. Aiming her gun at it, she fired at the plexiglass surface, shattering it with a resounding sound and sending sharp fragments through the air like a spray of water. Inez shielded her eyes to avoid being blinded by splinters and shards but could allow no more time for the eruption to pass before she was running forward. Leaping through the newly created opening, she winced in pain as some edges caught her skin as she passed through.
A barrage of blaster fire followed her as she landed on the ground outside and knew she had only a fraction of time to start running before those stormtroopers took up the pursuit. Inez scrambled to her feet, the blast rifle still in her hand as she bolted forward. She did not even dare to look behind her to see if they were following and hoped the Force was with her because Ezra would have to find her before they did.
It was almost with relish that Julia Pemberton entered Ezras office a short time after Grand Admiral Thrawn had returned to his ship, leaving the commander of the Cordoba base in a state of some anxiety. Ezra was trying to discern how he was going to get word to Inez or the Rebellion for that matter about the star destroyers that would soon be leaving Cordoba for their secret location. Unfortunately, Inez was in no position to make contact with the Alliance any more than he was capable because of the planetary blackout that Thrawn had imposed upon the planet. Nevertheless despite this obstacle, a way had to be through the net if Nathan and any of his friends were going to survive. Unfortunately, Ezra could see no other way of doing this beyond getting into a ship and escaping the planet's atmosphere. However, doing so would mean giving himself away not to mention the risk of being shot down by any one of the destroyers in orbit around Cordoba.
Ezra did not bother to rise from behind his desk as he pondered the situation but the worrisome expression on Claire's face as she accompanied Julia into the room certainly spoke volumes. Julia on the other hand appeared almost exultant, her lips stretched into a little smile while her green eyes seemed almost animalistic. It was an expression of savagery that put Ezra on guard but he revealed nothing of the kind to her, displaying a facade of utmost confidence.
"I do not recall sending for either of you," Ezra replied, easing back into his chair almost casually as he stared at them.
"I thought this couldn't wait," Julia returned silkily, thinking of all the humiliation her assignment to him had engendered. All of it seemed justified for this one moment of savory delight. "I have just had a report from one of our security teams."
"Commander..," Claire started to speak.
"SHUT UP." Julia threw her a look of complete ice and venom.
Claire fell silent immediately and Ezra's hand began drifting.
"You obviously have something to impart to me Lieutenant," Ezra responded with just as much aloofness. "I suggest you forgo the dramatics and get to the point."
"Your lover," she said the word as if it left a foul taste in her mouth. "Inez Recillos has just killed a number of our troops after a scrambled signal attempting to penetrate the blackout was traced back to the Four Corner's establishment. She opened fire with blast rifle on the security team sent to investigate before we could question her."
Ezra rose to his feet immediately. "Who gave you the authorization to sent troops after her?" He demanded in fury, almost dropping the mask of cool detachment entirely. "If there was a question of such an implication, it should have been brought to me."
"Under the circumstances," Julia stared at him triumphantly, taking a closer step to the desk so that she could savor the look in his eyes, "your loyalty is suspect and as your first officer, I have the right to proceed without your authorization. I am sure that when I bring this matter to Grand Admiral Thrawn, he will agree with me."
"Perhaps he will but you still have no proof that I was nothing but misled in my relationship with her. As you should well know by now, women lie, don't they?" He glared at her.
"You are a traitor!" She hissed angrily. "You've always been a traitor! You have been her source while she passes on secrets to the Rebellion. I know I am right."
Unfortunately, the implication was enough and Grand Admiral Thrawn suspected him already. If Julia brought to him the confirmation she now had that Inez was really a member of the Rebel Alliance then both their fates would be sealed. Ezra thought furiously on what he ought to do and realized that there was only one thing he could do if he wished to see another sunrise.
Without giving he the slightest bit of warning, Ezra slammed his fist squarely into Julia's face, sending her reeling away from the desk, stunned. Producing the gun he had been reaching for behind his desk, he took a quick aim and fired. The bolt hit her in the chest and she crumpled to the floor without a sound. Killing her would have probably been the better course of action but Ezra could not find it in himself to be so merciless. The stun blast would ensure that she remained unconscious for quite a while, long enough for him to make good his departure. Rounding the desk, he removed a few things and stashed it into the folds of his Imperial uniform before regarding Claire who was staring open mouthed by the whole proceedings.
"Lieutenant," Ezra turned to her. "If you are coming with me, we had better get moving. Trust me, you do not wish to be around when she wakes up."
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