22. I saw no point in continuing this boring conversation
"So what was the point of Starflare's broadcast, if she wasn't your captain's girlfriend?"
Captain Sansevi, standing next to commander Piett at the tac station while Chief Engineer Bron's techs worked on the command chair, bombarded Piett with pointed questions on the Empire's Revenge's procedures, having brushed aside his offer to step down immediately. "You know the situation and I need a first officer. Mordon's blasted report can wait. With a bit of luck, your captain will be in good enough shape to write it himself."
Privately, Piett thought with a sinking feeling that nothing could ensure his demotion faster; but there was no time to ponder the future. Sansevi had ordered a dozen gunnery noncoms transferred from the Judicator to the Empire's Revenge to assist Lieutenant-Commander Janred's depleted troops; had put Bron in charge of a team of extra techs from the larger ship after a five-minute interview conducted at machine-gun speed; and in general had taken over the running of the Revenge with the kind of energetic competence Piett had for months despaired of finding in a superior officer. This had emboldened the commander to produce his own drill and shifts rota schedules, shelved by Corlag, from the recesses of his private databank in the ship's computer. Harrumphing, Sansevi had logged them and transmitted them to the new comm officer with an "effective immediately" tag. Now the Revenge's new captain wanted the lowdown on their most daring move, and Piett felt he deserved the full answer.
"We'd lost the initiative against the pirate fleet, sir, and there were eighteen capital ships pounding us. One of my officers had devised a microjump tactic to hide us behind the red dwarf until you could join us with the Judicator, but for that we needed the pirates to let up for a moment. The idea was to make them think we were in worse shape than was the case, and ripe for boarding. So we lit up smoke flares at strategic places, and Starflare gave her little performance. It worked, too. They had to stop shooting to allow their boarding craft to get to us."
"And did they?"
"Yes, sir. Colonel Typhas's troops were ready for them. We've still got a few dozen in one of the brigs."
Sansevi looked impressed. "Bloody clever. Your idea?"
Here's an opening to introduce young Thrawn's presence with minimum negative connotations. Piett shook his head. "We've got an unusual junior officer, recommended by Imperial Intelligence, very bright. Sort of an experiment. It was his idea."
"A frelling spook?"
There was no mistaking Sansevi's disgusted scowl. Kreth. "No, no, nothing like that. Just an appointment recommendation, from II, not ISB. Fact is, he's a non-human. I don't know the species but—"
He was interrupted by a discreet cough from Bron, stepping away from the half-repaired command chair. "They're called Chiss, sir, pardon me for interrupting."
Sansevi looked from Bron's reticent, grizzled face to Piett's obviously intrigued one. "Never heard of 'em. Tell us more."
Bron wiped the engine grease from his hand on the leg of his overalls before running it through his short-cropped iron-gray hair. "I don't know much more, sir. Met some of them in the Rim in my time, and they were a rarity even there. Come from some place in the Unknown regions, keep to themselves, don't like traveling outside their systems. Cold buggers, sorta formal, but very quick on the uptake, sir. Their ship had broken down on—well, you wouldn't know the place, but they were stuck, and I helped them rig up an engine. Knew nothing of our hyperdrive theory, but they cottoned on to it real quick. This one's younger than the ones I met, and he's a sort of odd fish. Saved my gullet all the same."
So that's why Thrawn's "the kid" to Bron. "How do you mean, an odd fish?" Piett asked at the same time that Sansevi said: "Saved your gullet?"
The captain gave a short laugh. "Hadn't pegged you for someone who'd let questions go unanswered on his watch, Piett." He considered the chief engineered with an appraising eye. "Go on, man, out with it."
Bron's ice-blue eyes flickered from one superior officer to the other. The chief engineer prudently chose to answer the captain first. "Some of the pirates took hostages, me and a cadet. Lieutenant Thrawn negotiated us out. And—I'd say he's an odd sort because all the Chiss I've seen were in groups, don't seem to like taking decisions alone, defer to their elders all the time. This one's a loner."
Defer to their elders, do they? "Would that be why Lieutenant Thrawn addresses you as Ta Chuba, chief? Because you'd met older Chiss?" Piett asked.
A flicker of surprise crossed Bron's guarded features. "You speak Huttese, sir?"
"Never mind that."
"Well—yes, sir. Rather, because I'd taught elder Chiss. Teaching's pretty respected in their culture, didn't matter that it was all informal at the time."
"Well, well!" Sansevi said. "And where's your odd fish now, Piett? He sounds like an interesting addition to the staff."
That he certainly is. "Sickbay, sir. He got wounded in the last attack, but I imagine he'll be back soon enough. I had to order him there. In fact the chief here pointed out he was injured—he'd managed to hide it from me. Chief, d'you have any idea why Lieutenant Thrawn didn't want to get treatment for his arm? Afraid our Emdees wouldn't know what to do with him?"
Bron shook his head. "I wouldn't think so, sir. From what I've seen, the lieutenant would have felt responsible for what happened in the attack, and their tradition doesn't allow them to get any kind of help before they've corrected their mistakes."
And we think we're tough. Piett exchanged a look with Sansevi. He never knew whether the new captain shared that opinion. At the end of the bridge stairs, the main turbolift doors opened, revealing the bandaged head of captain Corlag.
"Well! Captain Corlag will hear of this!"
Dismayed at Per Theel's unwelcome appearance, Wynssa tried to snatch her hand away from Thrawn's own. With a comforting squeeze, he held onto it, cutting short what she was about to say. Amazing, really, how little it took to dissolve her apprehensions into this strangely safe feeling. She knew she shouldn't let herself get used to it—surely it would all explode in her face soon enough. This guy has his work cut out already; he doesn't need my battles to fight in addition to his. Still, it made her all buoyant and—happy. And stupid, my girl.
"Really?" Thrawn interrupted, his voice cold as space. "I fail to see how this will help your defense."
Wynssa nearly jumped—she'd never heard such icy contempt in his tone. Theel turned on Thrawn like an enraged reek. "My what? Who do you think you are, you sub-human scum—"
Thrawn's voice cut like a cryo-lash: "You deserted your station under fire, Theel. That's a court-martial offense—if Admiral Mordon feels like wasting a firing-squad's power packs on you. He may just leave your fate up to Lord Vader."
"I came here to save our ship from traitors like bloody Piett and trash like you! Your alien-loving tramp tried to stop us, but Captain Corlag is on his way to the bridge as we—"
Wynssa barely felt her fingers being released: a blue stun bolt from Thrawn's blaster, fired unerringly with his left hand, cut Theel short, and the lieutenant fell heavily to the ground, unconscious. She stared open-mouthed at the inert body, then at Thrawn.
"I saw no point in continuing this boring conversation," he said lightly. "Doctor, I suggest you keep Mr. Theel heavily sedated when he comes to. I don't have time to have him taken to the brig, and our troopers are rather busy. The battle isn't over yet."
The Too-OneBee was already clucking over Theel's prostrate form. "This is extremely irregular. The sick-bay is not a detainment center—"
"Neither is it designed to accommodate another few hundred wounded in addition to the ones you treated earlier today. The presence of this imbecile anywhere near the bridge would make it a lot likelier."
Having summoned a repulsor stretcher, the chief med-droid proceeded to slide Theel's body onto its hovering platform. "He was here earlier, and gave signs of agitation when he saw me treating a non-human prisoner, a Dug," he said somewhat prissily. "Very well, I'll keep him here, but please rid me of him as soon as possible."
Wonders'll never cease. Thrawn must have glimpsed something of Wynssa's awe at his easy management of the Too-OneBee, because he smiled. "Ah, yes, the Dug. Where is he now? Back in the lower-level brig with the others?"
"No, I kept him under observation. He wasn't in too bad a shape, but he was making himself useful here. You should find him in the second ward."
The blue-black eyebrows briefly froze. "Thank you, doctor, I believe I'll collect him now. I might have a use for him in a few moments."