The Emperor was pleased with the outcome. Thrawn sat in his quarters, pondering. Fingers steepled and mind churning, he hoped that Yularen could think of a reason for him to stay instead of making the journey back to Coruscant so soon, but no. He had to return. He couldn’t give the Emperor any reason for doubt. The battle on Batonn, which he had so carefully calculated, had quite literally blown up. The Emperor was pleased. As the governor said, it was likely he would be promoted yet again for squashing yet another attempt at rebellion from the insurgents. But this had been no victory to him. According to the earliest reports there were no survivors, and likely there would be none as the search continued.
If the battle had gone as planned and the insurgents had laid down their weapons peacefully, would he still be receiving accolades? Did the Empire value shows of cruelty over restraint? He thought back to the incident when he’d first met Nightswan: the tibanna gas debacle. He had been proud to save the lives of the Dromedar crew, but Captain Rossi showed scorn at his inability to retrieve the gas. Since then, he’d reluctantly recalibrated his priorities to value imperial resources more equitably with life, but was that not enough?
It seemed the Empire had forgotten the value of mercy in warfare. Mercy is not always a selfless act, for it leads to surrender, and when one side surrenders it means a less costly battle on both sides. If an enemy knows that they will be shown no mercy, they will fight to the end of their lives, but if they know they will be spared, they will surrender before the situation is dire.
There were footsteps outside of his door. “Come,” Thrawn said, knowing by the sound who it was, and not moving from his pensive position.
“Sir,” Commander Vanto said from the door, “We’re just about ready to leave. You said three hours, and Commander Faro is at the bridge. Do you wish to accompany her?” He swallowed, jaw clenched. Had the carnage below been difficult for Thrawn, he could only imagine the toll it took on Vanto.
“Of course.” Thrawn stood and came around his desk. “I should also like to have a word with you once we land on Coruscant.”
Vanto’s eyes contracted, seemingly in pain, but he nodded, “Alright, about what happened down there?”
“Yes,” Thrawn said. He could tell Vanto expected another word, but when met with silence, the Commander departed.
Haste was needed; there were things he must do before meeting Faro on the bridge.
The journey to Coruscant passed uneventfully and soon the glittering planet appeared in view. The Chimaera and its crew arrived at the orbital Coruscant base to all the usual paperwork. This was one of Eli’s busiest times on board, for it was now that he put his primary skills to use, checking on all their supplies and troops, reconciling any damages, preparing reports and ensuring that all was in order. It usually took almost two hours, but since he was only managing the Chimaera and not the entirety of the 96th, it cut the time considerably.
When all was complete and Eli was cleared to leave, most other crew had already left for the ground base. He knew that Thrawn would also be on the last shuttle, so, standing in the shuttle bay, small bag packed, he waited. A bright flash caught his eye and for a moment he saw the explosion on Batonn again, the blossoming plumes of flame rebounding on themselves--no, he was in the shuttle bay, and it was only the arch from a welder. Now the image was in his head again and he couldn’t dispel it. He shut his eyes, but that only made it worse. The picture played again, soundlessly, in the dark of his mind. The quiet made it worse. Unreal. Easy. It was tempting to stay disconnected from the horrors on Batonn. He hadn’t seen anything but fire, hadn’t heard the screams or deafening roar. It had just been an image on the viewscreen.
Eli didn’t have rows of numbers to distract him, so he watched as the techs prepped the shuttle for the trip down to Coruscant. He really concentrated on every move they made. One checked the ion engine, tapping his toe as he waited for the read out. Everything must have been normal because he nonchalantly moved away to a kiosk to enter some data. The second tech squatted down to check the maneuvering jets, her ponytail barely grazing the floor as she looked under the ship.
A hand on his shoulder jolted Eli. Thrawn, of course, stood beside him.
“Your expression is tense,” Thrawn said, evenly.
Eli shrugged his hand away. “I could tell…you…”
Thrawn cocked his head slightly to the side.
The light by the shuttle turned green, indicating they’d been given the all-clear, and Eli hurried toward it instead of finishing his sentence. Their pilot nodded as they approached and Eli realized it was Ensign Pancel. Her dark skin and blonde hair certainly helped her stand out, but it was her opinions that made her memorable.
He’d seen her several times on board, but it was when he spoke with her two nights ago about a shipment of parts, that he became intrigued.
“How are you tonight,” he’d said.
“Pretty pissed.” She snarled. “Lieutenant Greaves implied I’d have trouble making this delivery. People don’t have respect for non-Core-Worlders,” she had said, leaning toward him conspiratorially. That was unexpected. She didn’t seem to recoil from him like so many others onboard did--neither his rank nor his association with Thrawn dissuaded her.
“Yeah, that’s true enough,” he said, the surprise at her candor showing in his voice.
“I’ve heard people whispering about you two. You and the Admiral. Normally no one would speak ill of high ranking commanders--”
“Yes, they shouldn’t,” he raised his eyebrows in reference to her own complaint about the lieutenant, “but it seems like me and Thrawn are always the exceptions.”
She rolled her eyes, checking over one last aspect of the shipping log before handing it to him. “You think you’re the only one? I’m from the Outer Rim, and I doubt I’ll ever get to be a star-fighter.”
“Well, you never know,” Eli had said.
Now, she stood at attention beside the shuttle with a professional smile. “Commander, Admiral, we’re waiting for two others departing for Coruscant and we’ll be on our way.” With that, she gave a salute and went about to make some final checks.
Thrawn nodded to her calmly and then turned to Eli. “You were saying? ‘I…’?”
“Oh, I knew you had a plan for...Batonn. I just. You were acting strange.”
“Yes, I have much to report later. I knew that having unknowns on the ground would be unwise.” He spoke quietly, such that Eli drew close, and in that soft tone he heard a rare tension.
“I wish there was some proof we could get on Pryce.” Eli’s lips twisted with distaste.
“Perhaps there is something we can find,” Thrawn whispered.
The two other passengers who had waited for the last transport off the Chimaera arrived in the shuttle bay, and Eli recognized them as a couple from engineering that he didn’t know well. Thrawn greeted them kindly, Eli nodded as they passed by, and they all loaded up to be on their way. The trip, though short, couldn’t pass fast enough for him. He hoped that Thrawn had more to tell him about what happened, and offer some explanations about Nightswan’s involvement. He needed to think about that. The puzzles, the patterns. That was better than thinking about the reality of it, and his role in that reality.
It was full dark when they disembarked the shuttle and headed out into residential part of the ground base. Surrounded by electric fences and security gates, it was the largest and most populous base in the galaxy, housing all the high ranking officials in the navy and their crews. A self-contained city within the city, it contained neighborhoods, stores, restaurants, and offices. Like the rest of Coruscant, it was made up of towers, weaving streets and skyways. Eli was still in awe of the fact he was here, even after four years. He gazed at the city beyond the base. Coruscant glowed brighter at night, lit by a million stars that were windows, billboards, and traffic lights.
Looking in the direction of his block, Eli felt the tug of home. Since his days in the barracks as an ensign, his house had become a much more comfortable place to go. “This is about where we need to split ways. I live over there, you know? Do we report to the palace tomorrow?”
“We do. At 0700, but you’re coming with me to my quarters tonight.”
Eli widened his eyes. He’d never been to where Thrawn stayed at the base, but he knew, as an Admiral, it must be nicer than his modest, though well-appointed, Commander’s home.
They turned down a street Eli was less-familiar with: the quarter where all the Admirals and Grand Admirals lived with their families. Eli realized at that moment how few families he saw on the base. This was the largest base in the galaxy, yet almost everyone here was a soldier. Few husbands and wives and even fewer children. He felt an uncomfortable twinge in his stomach at the thought.
Thrawn’s house, from the outside, was simple: a metallic dome with tall windows sweeping up the sides. It looked like all the houses on the street, but when they went inside, and he turned up the lights, Eli gasped. The lights were still dim, much like Thrawn always kept his office, and also like his office, there were paintings, sculptures and tapestries all around. There were also collections on display of mechanical items like old droids and blasters. The windows were covered with rich curtains and the functional lighting Eli knew was included in the homes had been replaced with elaborately carved fixtures that glowed softly. Of course everything was neat as a pin.
“Wow. You really like collecting don’t you?” He said, walking up to an especially impressive pre-Clone War blaster rifle.
“I do,” his companion said simply, walking into the kitchen area.
Eli turned to watch Thrawn pour a glass of what he assumed was wine before raising the bottle to ask if he wanted any. “Yeah, sure.” Not usually much of a drinker, Eli felt the need after today.
“Well,” Eli said, walking over to take the glass. “You’ve been sealed tighter than a Corellian clam the whole way here, and--”
“I spoke with Nightswan on Batonn. That’s why I went down. I had hoped to end the battle on more peaceful terms. Nightswan had not given me absolute certainty of his agreement with all my plan, but I told him I would spare as many lives as possible.” Thrawn slowly rotated his glass on the counter, running a fingertip along the rim in...agitation?
Eli sighed deeply. He hoped Thrawn had had something to tell him that would make him feel better. The lost possibility of a nearly bloodless ground-battle made his stomach turn over again. “But you said you thought he’d agree? Why wouldn’t he?”
Thrawn’s eyebrows knotted, and Eli was aware again how much more emotion he showed in front of him than when they were in public. “He had already turned down what I thought was an equally tantalizing offer. He also said, accurately I believe, that though I would accept a surrender, other Admirals would not, and he did not intend to give up the fight. There would be another uprising on Batonn, and if I were not the one to face him the Empire would show no mercy.”
Eli nodded dumbly. “That’s true, I guess. And, well, it would have to be that way. We’ve got to fight the insurgents. We can’t let them destabilize the planets.”
The admiral cut his bright, red eyes to Eli. In the faint light, they glowed. “Yes,” was all he said.
“Riiiight…” Eli was quiet a moment, sipping the wine. “This is good.” When Thrawn still remained silent, deep in thought, he said, “Well, what else?”
“I found out more from Nightswan about the Imperial project that we too have been researching. I offered for him to come with me to research it further. He declined, choosing, instead to stay and fight with the insurgents.
As I was alone before our journey to Coruscant, I compiled more of the data you had found, and did some cross-checks with the information Nightswan shared. I think we have a name: Death Star.”
“Ominous as hell.”
“Indeed. And a location.”
“Yes, remember that ‘planetary ore extractor’?” Thrawn raised an ironic eyebrow.
“The one being built in the Geonosis system?”
“It’s not an ore extractor.” Eli leaned on the counter. “What does this mean?”
“I am not certain.” He paused, considering. “But Eli, I have not been entirely honest with you. Come, sit. I must tell you something important. I regret that you were not the first I told of this.”
Thrawn moved from the kitchen into the sitting area, pausing to enter a code into the security panel on the wall. Suddenly, he turned back to look at Eli. “My apologies. I am not keeping you from anything pressing? There is no one waiting for you at your home?”
Eli rolled his eyes and chuckled. “If only, sir. No.”
With an understanding smile, Thrawn continued ahead and sat on a simple but elegant chair. Eli followed suit. “My primary concern regarding the Death Star is my people on Csilla.” Thrawn said, still slowly rotating his glass. “If this weapon is as powerful as our research implies, it is a threat to the entire galaxy. I was sent here by my people to research the Empire and see if they were a worthy ally.”
Eli leaned forward, setting down his glass. “Wait a second. What do you mean, sent here? Weren’t you…?” Then his mind swam with just how much Thrawn had lied. He pursed his lips and thought back to that long ago day when he and his whole squad had been attacked on that Wild Space planet by a seeming army only to then be boarded by a single man. “You wanted us to come there. It was all a plan.”
“Not my plan alone. The plan of the Aristocra, the Chiss ruling families. I was chosen as the best candidate due to my experience, albeit rudimentary, outside the Chiss borders.”
Eli stood and paced. “You’re telling me that this is all some elaborate spy game?” His voice rose unchecked, and he realized that he didn’t care that he was practically shouting. “That none of it was chance?”
Thrawn sat back, still calm, of course. The bastard, Eli thought.
“Quite a lot of it was chance.” Thrawn said. “I had not predicted my admission to the navy, nor did I know I would be promoted so quickly. I did not anticipate how...valuable my services would be to the Empire.”
“Perfect, even you were surprised by how great you are.”
“Eli, listen.” Thrawn rarely called him by his first name alone, so that was enough for him to cease his rant and stand still.
“None of that is precisely what I mean to tell you now. My past was important for you to understand, but what I am concerned with now is the future.”
Thrawn looked hesitant for the umpteenth time today, and it made Eli increasingly nervous. He sat down again, leaned in, and waited.
“I feel that my path needs to change. I wish for you to follow me, but I cannot require it of you.”
Eli felt his heart thump against his chest. Thrawn had never once questioned whether or not he wanted to go along with any of his unorthodox plans, Thrawn had always done them and then seen if Eli could figure out why he had. “Thrawn, I--”
“I will tell you what I have planned first, and then you may decide. If you decide not to join me, you must promise to never speak of this night to anyone.”
Eli nodded, throat tight.
“I have determined that the Empire as it stands is not a suitable ally for the Chiss.”
“As it stands?”
“Yes. I had been content to wait, and perhaps I will for a while, but I am not certain. I think action is in order. Action before the Empire destroys itself and becomes useless to my people.”
“Destroys itself?” Eli shook his head. “What kind of action?”