“They’re trying the only defense they know against a Marg Sabl,” Thrawn said, and there was no mistaking the satisfaction in his voice. “Or, to be more precise, the only defense they are psychologically capable of attempting.” He nodded toward the flashing sphere. “You see, Captain, there’s an Elom commanding that task force…and Elomin simply cannot handle the unstructured attack profile of a properly executed Marg Sabl.” —Heir to the Empire
“Captain Pellaeon?” a voice came from behind Pellaeon’s shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but we’ve just received a message from the sentry line. The scoutships have finally come out of lightspeed.”
Returning from their reconnaissance mission at Ord Pardron. “Thank you, Lieutenant Tschel,” Pellaeon said, straightening up from where he was leaning over the engineering station and the young man seated at it. “Did the wing commander encounter any trouble?”
“None that he reported, sir,” Tschel said, standing stiffly at attention in front of Pellaeon. “They were pursued for a short time by a couple of A-wings, but the wing commander thinks he lost them.”
“Put the sentry ships on yellow alert, just the same,” Pellaeon instructed. He cast a look around the bridge. “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?”
“The Admiral is in his command room, sir. Would you like me to inform him about the scoutships?”
Pellaeon nodded. “Please. And have the wing commander report to the ready room for debriefing as soon as he’s aboard.”
Tschel saluted, then scurried off back to the communications station. Pellaeon watched him go before turning back to the young man at the engineering monitor. “Keep tracking that line,” he ordered. “Let me know when you’re finished.”
The other acknowledged, and Pellaeon started down the portside crew pit, glancing at the row of similarly young men stationed along the way. No, he corrected himself, looking out at the sea of identical faces. Not just similar. Grand Admiral Thrawn hadn't limited his clones to stormtroopers and TIE pilots.
Pellaeon reached the aft stairway and headed up to the command catwalk. Outside he could already see beyond the bridge viewport the aforementioned scoutships, bearing on their course toward the Chimaera’s hangar bays. Behind them, almost invisible against the dark backdrop of space, were the gray pinpricks of the sentry ships. And behind them—
The klaxons went off only a heartbeat before the exclamation from the sensor officer. “Captain Pellaeon!” he called. “We're picking up Rebel ships exiting hyperspace.”
“I see them, Lieutenant,” Pellaeon answered, staring out at the silhouettes that had just appeared beyond the sentry line. “Do we have any identifications?”
“I count four ships, sir,” the sensor officer reported. “Two Assault Frigates accompanied by two Mon Calamari Star Cruisers. Coming in along the scoutships’ vector.”
So much for not being followed, Pellaeon reflected. “What about starfighters?” he asked.
“None yet—no, wait,” the sensor officer corrected himself. “The Assault Frigates are launching two squadrons of X-wing starfighters. Symmetric pattern, cloud-vee formation.”
So they meant business. “Go to red alert,” Pellaeon instructed, moving to his command chair and pulling up his sensor display. “And inform Grand Admiral Thrawn that his presence is needed on the bridge immediately. Lieutenant Tschel, how far away are the Judicator and the Relentless?”
“At least thirty minutes, sir,” Tschel responded. “But the Mon Cals are already jamming our long-range communications. We couldn’t get a message through even if we tried.”
“Captain, those X-wings are moving to intercept the scoutships,” the sensor officer added.
“Instruct the sentry ships to engage the X-wings,” Pellaeon ordered, studying his screen. The sensor officer was right: he could see the flashing dots of the Rebel X-wings bearing down on the scoutships. “Lieutenant, where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?”
“He’s on his way, sir,” Tschel said stiffly.
“He better get here soon,“ Pellaeon gritted. On his display, the three blue dots of the sentry ships started shifting into intercept positions along the X-wings’ main attack vector. Pellaeon watched, feeling almost helpless as the nearest of the dots came into contact with the X-wings. The blue dot winked out—
“We just lost one of the sentry ships, sir,” the sensor officer reported.
But Pellaeon wasn’t listening. A memory had suddenly clicked: only a few months ago, standing in Thrawn’s command room and watching as that Rebel task force from Obroa-skai engaged the Chimaera’s sentry ships. An Elomin Rebel task force… “That’s an Elom commanding that ship,” Pellaeon realized.
“Excuse me, sir?” the sensor officer asked.
But Pellaeon didn’t hear him. It was definitely an Elom, he decided; even the symmetric cloud-vee formation was the same. “New orders,” he told Tschel. “Instruct the sentry ships to disengage. And scramble the TIE fighters.”
“Sir?” Tschel frowned.
“Just do it, Lieutenant,” Pellaeon said. If he remembered that last attack correctly… “Helm.”
“Yes, sir,” the helm officer responded promptly.
“I want a twenty-degree port yaw rotation, with the superstructure aimed at those Star Cruisers. Lieutenant Tschel: instruct the TIEs to launch on my command.”
“Ah, yes, sir,” Tschel stammered.
Pellaeon watched on his screen as the Chimaera began to rotate toward its attackers. “That’s far enough, Helm,” Pellaeon decided. “Stop rotation and hold position here. Lieutenant Tschel: order the TIE commander to launch. His squadron is to head directly away for two kilometers, then sweep around in an open cluster formation.”
“You mean a Marg Sabl?”
Pellaeon looked down the portside crew pit. “Lieutenant.”
“Yes, sir,” Tschel said quickly as he began relaying the order. On Pellaeon’s display a new series of dots appeared as the TIE fighters accelerated away from the Chimaera’s hangar bay for two klicks before sweeping back around like the spray from some exotic fountain. The nearest Frigate shifted to respond—
“Um, sir?” the sensor officer called, and there was no mistaking the confusion in his voice. “The Rebel ships appear to be turning…”
“I see it, Lieutenant,” Pellaeon assured him, feeling a smug sense of satisfaction as he watched. The Rebel ships were indeed turning, moving to face the incoming TIEs—and exposing very-vulnerable flanks to the Chimaera’s turbolasers in the process. Smiling to himself, Pellaeon turned away from his display—
To find Grand Admiral Thrawn standing behind him, a satisfied smile of his own plastered on his face. “Captain Pellaeon,” he said, his red eyes glancing out the viewport at the flashing laser fire outside. “I understand my presence has been requested. Would you care to report?”
“Yes, sir,” Pellaeon nodded. “Our scoutships have returned from their reconnaissance of Ord Pardron. They were followed by a small Rebel task force, but we have the situation under control.”
Thrawn raised an eyebrow. “A Rebel task force…”
“Excuse me, Admiral,” Pellaeon corrected, and now he was feeling very satisfied. “An Elomin task force.”
“Hence the Marg Sabl,” Thrawn nodded. “I am most impressed, Captain.”
“Thank you, sir,” Pellaeon said, basking in Thrawn’s praise…and paused. There was something in the Admiral’s look just now. “You knew,” he realized suddenly. “You knew an Elom was in charge of the Ord Pardron base.”
“I did, indeed,” Thrawn confirmed. “Delta Source confirmed that an Elom had been assigned to the Ord Pardron garrison almost two weeks ago.”
“So all this…” Pellaeon waved a hand out the viewport, “…it was a test?” He didn’t know whether to feel irritated, or flattered that he had passed.
“An exercise,” Thrawn clarified, his glowing red eyes boring into Pellaeon’s. “The Empire is about to launch its primary campaign against the Rebellion. We do not have the luxury of men who can't learn from the benefit of prior experience.”
“Yes, sir,” Pellaeon said, suppressing a shiver as he thought back to the fate of crewman Pieterson. He straightened. “Orders, Admiral?”
“This is your attack, Captain,” Thrawn pointed out.
“Yes, sir,” Pellaeon repeated, turning back toward his sensor display. “Helm,” he called, “bring us up to flank speed. All units: engage.”