Chapter Four: Escape

"Leave an avenue of escape to a surrounded enemy. When he takes it, strike."- Sun Tzu

"Captain, this is insane! This will never work!" Captain Ruk's first officer slammed his first into the table in frustration, and showed no signs of backing off.

Captain Ruk's scales shimmered as he drew himself up to his full, imposing two metre height. "Athon's fleet is gone, Kerenos Four is gone ... if we go into hiding, it's over. There aren't enough rebel ships left to take on a single sector fleet, never mind Kanos and his armada. Don't you see? We're the only ship left in a position to strike one last blow against the Empire. We're the only ship left in a position to do anything!"

"A pointless suicide mission is not the way to strike a blow against the Empire, Captain. We still have our contacts. We still have safe havens in the outer rim. Disgression is the better part of valour, Captain. What are we going to accomplish by getting ourselves vapourized?"

Chang listened to the two reptilian creatures as they continued to argue. The command structure of this vessel was surprisingly informal- aboard a Federation starship one would not see such a vehement disagreement between two senior officers played out in front of the crew, and from what he'd seen of Imperial starships, such shenanigans would not happen aboard those vessels either. But the crew of this ship seemed to exist with an extremely loose set of protocols, and the crew seemed to be ignoring the debate as they went about their rounds. In fact, everything about this ship was alien, from the technology to the interior appearance, and the astonishing variety of bizarre aliens. He had already seen everything from humans to huge caterpillar-like creatures and terrifying giant insects. More than once, he'd forcibly suppressed reactions of revulsion or fear when encountering yet another incredible new life form. But the bickering between Captain Ruk and his first officer was anything but alien, so Chang decided to say a few words on behalf of the Federation.

He listened to them argue for a few more minutes, and then finally interjected. "Gentlemen, if I may speak, I would like to point out that it's been a full day since we learned about the Empire's plan to attack Earth. They will be coming, and my people are totally unprepared. I implore you to help us. Without your help, I can't even send a message to warn the Federation! But if you do help us, we can prepare. We can hit them first and hit them hard, when they're not expecting it! We have more than fifty thousand starships, ready and armed for war. With fair warning and your technical information, we can smash an assault before it begins. Just think about what effect that might have on the Empire- it might weaken them enough to help your cause as well as mine."

Captain Ruk's first officer glared at Chang. "It isn't that simple. The plan has an extremely low survival probability. Our latest intel reports indicate that Kanos has the bulk of his armada arrayed around the wormhole. We have to fly through them to get to your Federation, and we'll have to get past any ships he's got on the other side. The only way to get anywhere near that wormhole is to perform a hyperjump which is so carefully timed that we drop into realspace right on top of it. The timing must be absolutely precise. If we drop out a fraction of a second too soon, we'll be so far away from the wormhole that we'll be cut to shreds by Kanos' ships before we can reach it. If we drop out a fraction of a second too late, we'll run into the wormhole while still in hyperspace, and that'll scatter us into a cloud of subatomic particles from here to Endor! It's no small feat, to get through a blockade of thousands of ships with two corvettes and a light cruiser."

Chang chose his words carefully now. "I need to speak to my crew, but I sincerely hope that you will agree to help us. If you help us, you'll be helping yourselves. If we fall, the Empire will have access to our technology and resources. But if we stand, you will have a new ally. You can save two galaxies, gentlemen. Think about it." He walked away, hoping that his words would have the desired effect. He could feel a tickle in the back of his mind, as if his own conscience were grilling him for the truth. Of course, he knew that the Federation did not have anywhere near fifty thousand starships, and he knew that they would be unable to stop an all-out Imperial assault. His real agenda was to get back to Federation territory and find a way to shut down the wormhole before Kanos could come through. He knew he was using Captain Ruk and his ship as a means to an end, but he wasn't about to lose sleep at night worrying about a few thousand lives when the lives of billions hung in the balance. He headed off down the hall toward the rear of the ship where his crew had hastily found quarters. Quarters vacated by this vessel's deceased crewmen and pilots, his conscience reminded him. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and marched off.

Captain Ruk and his first officer watched Chang walk down the hall, and waited until he was out of earshot. Ruk chose to speak in low tones, using a gutteral tongue rather than Basic. "B'Rom, speak Arajkic. The Federation universal translators aren't programmed to handle it."

"Of course, Captain. But why?"

"The Earther is lying, B'Rom. I could see it in his mind. His Federation has a few thousand ships at most, not fifty thousand. They are a pitifully small organization- they only have a few hundred member planets! They are weak, and he has no intention of helping us once he gets back to his own territory. Instead, he plans to summon reinforcements, find a way to close the wormhole before Kanos comes through, and rid his Federation of a problem. He hopes that they will be able to assimilate our technology once we are trapped in their galaxy, but what happens to us is no concern of his. In other words, we are just aliens, and alien lives are expendable in light of his larger goals."

Commander B'Rom knew about his captain's latent Force sensitivity, and he knew that he was never wrong when he had a flash of intuition about someone's motivations. Confusion quickly became comprehension, and comprehension quickly became rage. "That filthy mammalian slime! I will crush him with my bare hands, and tear his throat-"

"No, Commander. We may yet derive some benefit from helping this human. He has no chance of destroying the Imperial tunnelling equipment anyway. He doesn't know it, but they would need to destroy the equipment on both sides of the wormhole and then set up their own equipment to destabilize it. Kanos is no fool; he undoubtedly has a powerful fleet on the other side. A fleet we'll have to escape once we get through that wormhole, if we survive that long."

"Sir, I still don't see how this is going to help us, or hurt the Empire."

"B'Rom, the Emperor's control is not as unbreakable as it seems. He has the population of the galaxy convinced that only his authority can maintain the peace. Many of the people think we're terrorists! Some are dubious, but not enough to make a difference. But if the Emperor starts yet another war for no reason, his carefully constructed public image as peacemaker will fall apart. People will see that he wants power and territory, not peace. And if the Federation or their allies are capable of retaliating with sufficient force to cause bloodshed in our galaxy, the Emperor might lose his grip entirely. I know it sounds far-fetched, but it can work, B'Rom. We can give the Federation enough information to make it work. I must ask that you trust me, old friend."

B'Rom bowed deeply, knowing that the debate was over. "As always, this is your ship, and I am your first officer. We will prepare."

"B'Rom, I have one more request. Although I would like you here, the captain of the Arajkon Avenger was killed in the last skirmish. The Avenger and the Indomitable are the only escorts we have, and I want you to take command of the Arajkon Avenger for this mission. It's going to be risky, B'Rom. I don't know if either corvette will survive, or indeed, if any of us will survive. But I need an experienced officer in command of that corvette."

"Of course, Captain. Good luck. Good luck to us all."

Coruscant. Beneath vast swarms of starships, defense platforms, satellites, and sky hooks, Imperial City sprawled over the surface of the planet. Unimaginable wealth and power was concentrated in this place- even lowly bureaucrats wielded power in excess of some planetary heads of state. And in the centre of this vast city, amidst its trillions of inhabitants, Emperor Anakin Solo meditated in his private chambers. A slowly blinking light on his dais reminded him that Admiral Kanos had been patiently awaiting his convenience for the better part of an hour, and he decided not to keep him waiting any longer. He depressed a button on his chair, and Kanos' image flickered into view.

"Admiral, I understand that the Earthers are now firmly in the custody of the rebels." The Emperor was not a man to waste time on pleasantries.

Kanos knew full well that the Emperor could kill him with a thought, in spite of the thousands of light years that separated them. He had seen other officers perish in this manner, and he had no doubt that the Emperor would not hesitate to execute him in similar fashion if he so desired. But he saw no point in quivering at the possibility, and answered in a matter-of-fact fashion. "Yes, my lord. The rebels seized the prisoners. We inflicted heavy casualties on them, but they escaped."

"Do you offer any explanation for your failure?" The Emperor's voice took on a thinly veiled sinister tone.

"The Rebels found out about the prisoners through an intelligence leak. I failed to anticipate this event, but I can turn this situation to our advantage. We have sifted through the wreckage and determined that the Rebels failed to discover or penetrate the underground portion of the complex. Our special operative is safe, and has been retrieved. My humblest apologies for allowing the Rebels-"

The Emperor silenced him with a wave of his hand. "It is of no consequence, Admiral. In truth, I had foreseen that this would happen. You will proceed with the plan."

The Emperor switched off the connection, and Admiral Kanos' holographic image faded from view. He turned to look at his galactic map, now accompanied by a preliminary map of the new galaxy that Kanos had discovered. Alone among the countless trillions in the Empire, the Emperor knew about the difficulties of mobilizing for another war. As always, the forces of anarchy threatened to incite thousands of scattered uprisings across the galaxy, and most of the Empire's vast military machine was dedicated to the suppression of this activity. Kanos could probably subdue the Federation without assistance from the rest of the Imperial war machine, but his absence would weaken the Empire's perceived strength.

Unlike his predecessor Palpatine, Emperor Solo knew about the importance of maintaining high morale among the population. Galactic history clearly indicated that apathy and material contentment suppressed rebellion as effectively as any fleet or superweapon. The promise of order and security had propelled the Emperor to his position, and he did not want to risk suffering Palpatine's fate by pushing too hard at this critical moment. Not now, when the populace was finally reaping the benefits of the peace and prosperity that he had promised them.

Emperor Solo was determined that his reign would be different from his predecessor. Palpatine had been arrogant, and perhaps quite mad. Emperor Solo felt that madness on occasion. He could feel it crawling under his skin; he willingly gave himself to the Dark Side of the Force at the moment he learned of his mother's death, and he had used it to exact revenge against those responsible. In Palpatine's case, the Dark Side had virtually consumed him. Palpatine's very body was literally eaten away by the corrosive influence; too much power in one body, hollowing it out from within and leaving only a gaunt, terrifying shell. He could only imagine whether a similar fate awaited him. Would his mother be horrified to see what her son had become? Perhaps. But the end justifies the means, and Anakin Solo knew that he had brought order to the galaxy after decades of conflict. Now, an alien influence threatened the galaxy again. It had to be crushed before it could undo all that he had wrought, and the people of the galaxy had to understand. They had to believe that this war was necessary. And they would- he had foreseen it.

Three ships streaked through hyperspace, toward the Kerenos system. Captain Ruk's light cruiser and its two diminutive escorts had almost no hope of surviving their impending operation, but it is often said that the gods smile upon fools. And so the fools and their ships hurtled toward almost certain death, in the vain hope that they might somehow strike a blow against their enemies.

"Approaching the Kerenos system, sir. Sublight in three, two, one-" the helmsman was interrupted in the midst of his countdown by a physical shock that reverberated throughout the ship. It was an unmistakable shock; the ship had been violently wrenched out of hyperspace by an interdiction field. Just a split-second before reaching the target!, Captain Ruk thought bitterly.

"Weapons free! Repeat, weapons free! All ships concentrate fire on the lead Star Destroyer! Flank speed toward the wormhole!" The 1200 metre long ship's engines flared brilliantly, and it shot toward the wormhole like a bullet. Its two escorts fell in behind it, but they had no hope of survival. Even though Kanos' armada was dispersed throughout the system in such a manner that only three Imperial warships blocked their way, they were still totally outgunned. The wedge-shaped Star Destroyers approached in a phalanx formation, unleashing a deadly hail of turbolaser fire from their forward batteries.

Aboard the lead Star Destroyer AR-512, Captain Tyrian calmly directed the battle. "Enemy shield status update?"

"The cruiser's shields are down to fifty percent, sir. One of the trailing corvette's shields are almost gone, the other one might be able to take a couple of good hits."

"Excellent, Commander. Maintain fire, but remember that Kanos wants the cruiser captured, not destroyed." Captain Tyrian intoned. This was entirely too easy, but it was still curious that Kanos had not concentrated more ships near the wormhole. It was almost as if he wanted the rebels to have a fighting chance to escape, but no matter- escape was impossible now. The rebel captain was skilled, and he was carefully maneuvering his ships to stay out of the firing arc of the AR-512's heavy dorsal gun turrets. He toyed with the idea of ordering his two trailing ships to invert, but their heavy weapons might destroy the rebel cruiser rather than merely disabling it for capture.

Aboard his cruiser, Captain Ruk gripped the armrests of his command chair and clenched his teeth as a generator failure rocked his ship with internal explosions. Screams could be heard from the next room. His crewmen, clearly rattled, were barking status reports in an increasingly strident tone.

"Shields down to twenty five percent, sir! The Indomitable is almost-" the crewman's report was cut off by a brilliant flash from the starboard side. He bravely regained his composure and continued. "Captain, we just lost the Indomitable, and the Arajkon Avenger is badly damaged. Fifteen seconds to the wormhole. Lead Star Destroyer down to forty percent shields and their bridge tower shields are badly damaged, but our shields will fail before theirs do."

Another explosion rocked the ship. "Main reactor just went off-line, switching to backup ... shields at fifteen percent ... we're not going to make it, Captain!"

From the Arajkon Avenger, a grim voice cut into the intercom. "You'll make it, old friend." The tiny, 400 metre long corvette was far too badly damaged to survive. Its weapons had been shot away, and great gouts of flame were shooting out of gaping wounds in its hull. It was slowly spinning out of control, but it still had one critical system left: its hyperdrive. On its bridge, a gloved hand pulled a lever, and the Arajkon Thunder seemed to elongate for an instant. Then, it flashed into hyperspace, and hurtled directly into the lead Imperial Star Destroyer.

Aboard the AR-512, Captain Tyrian did not even have time to scream as the Arajkon Avenger crashed headlong into his vessel's bridge tower at incredible speed. With a violence that defied description, the Star Destroyer's entire bridge tower was shorn away. In its place was a tangled maze of piping, structural supports, and twisted remnants of armour plating. Flames poured uncontrollably from the great open wound, and the crippled vessel spun violently to port. Panicked crewmen in its primary hull frantically tried to regain control. Now, the tight phalanx formation worked against the Imperial ships. Alarm klaxons blared as the other two Star Destroyers banked to avoid the uncontrollable, crippled vessel. And in the confusion, Captain Ruk's ship slipped into the wormhole.

As he gazed out his window at the flickering lights of the wormhole, Captain Ruk whispered to the void. "Farewell B'Rom, old friend. I will avenge you."

Chapter Five