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Timothy Zahn

Vision of the Future

The Hand of Thrawn, book 2

TO THE STAR LADIES, THE WILD KARRDES, THE CLUB JADERS, AND MY BOTHAN

SPIES. AND ESPECIALLY TO TISH PAHL, MINISTER OF FORMATION: BOTH IN-

AND DISIN-

CHAPTER

1

The Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera slid through the black of space, its only companion the silent gas giant world of Pesitiin far below.

Admiral Pellaeon was standing at the forward viewport, gazing out at the dead planet, when Captain Ardiff arrived on the bridge. 'Report from Major Harch, Admiral,' he said briskly. 'All damage from that pirate attack has been repaired. Your ship is back to full fighting readiness.'

'Thank you, Captain,' Pellaeon said, carefully hiding a smile. In the thirty hours since the failed attack on the Chimaera, Ardiff had gone from believing it to be a raid by New Republic General Garm Bel Iblis, to suspicions that it had been engineered by dissident Imperial elements, to similar suspicions involving similarly dissident Rebels, and was now apparently convinced that a pirate gang was responsible.

Of course, in all fairness, Ardiff had had the past thirty hours to cogitate on his theories. The techs' preliminary report on the debris from that destroyed Kaloth battlecruiser had certainly influenced his thinking, too. 'Anything new from the patrols?' Pellaeon asked.

'Just more negatives, sir,' Ardiff said. 'Still no indications of activity anywhere in the system. Oh, and the sensor- stealthed assault shuttle you sent on the attackers' escape vector also just checked in. Still no trace.'

Pellaeon nodded. As expected, really—anyone who could afford to buy and fly a battlecruiser usually knew a few tricks about hiding it. 'It was worth a try,' he told Ardiff. 'Have them try one more system; we can transmit that far without relays. If they haven't picked up the trail by then, order them back.'

'Yes, sir,' Ardiff murmured.

Even without looking, Pellaeon could sense Ardiff's hesitation. 'A question, Captain?' he prompted.

'It's this communications blackout, sir,' Ardiff said. 'I don't like being so completely out of contact this way. It's like being blind and deaf; and frankly, it makes me nervous.'

'I don't much like it myself,' Pellaeon conceded. 'But the only ways to make contact with the outside universe are to either transmit to an Imperial relay station or punch our way onto the HoloNet; and the minute we do either, everyone from Coruscant to Bastion will know we're here. If that happens, we'll have more than the occasional pirate gang lining up to take potshots at us.' And, he added silently, it would be the end of any chance for a quiet meeting between him and Bel Iblis. Assuming the general was indeed willing to talk.

'I understand all that, Admiral,' Ardiff said. 'But has it occurred to you that yesterday's attack might not have been an isolated incident against an isolated Imperial ship?' Pellaeon cocked an eyebrow. 'Are you suggesting it might have been part of a coordinated attack against the Empire?'

'Why not?' Ardiff said. 'I'm willing to concede at this point that it probably wasn't the New Republic who hired them. But why couldn't the pirates have set it up on their own? The Empire has always come down hard on pirate gangs. Maybe a group of them got together and decided the time was right for revenge.'

Pellaeon stroked his lip thoughtfully. On the surface, it was a ridiculous suggestion—even on its deathbed the Empire was far stronger than any possible aggregate of pirate gangs could hope to defeat. But that didn't mean they wouldn't be foolish enough to try. 'That still leaves the question of how they knew we were here,' he pointed out.

'We still don't know what happened to Colonel Vermel,' Ardiff reminded him. 'Maybe it was this pirate coalition who snatched him. He could have told them about Pesitiin.'

'Not willingly,' Pellaeon said darkly. 'If they did what it would take to make him talk, I'll decorate Bastion's moon with their hides.'

'Yes, sir,' Ardiff said. 'But that brings us back to the question of how long we're going to stay here.'

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