All beings begin their lives with hopes and aspirations. Among these aspirations is the desire that there will be a straight path to those goals.
It is seldom so. Perhaps never.
Sometimes the turns are of one’s own volition, as one’s thoughts and goals change over time. But more often the turns are mandated by outside forces.
It was so with me. The memory is vivid, unsullied by age: the five admirals rising from their chairs as I am escorted into the chamber. The decision of the Ascendancy has been made, and they are here to deliver it.
None of them is happy with the decision. I can read that in their faces. But they are officers and servants of the Chiss, and they will carry out their orders. Protocol alone demands that.
The word is as I expected.
The planet has already been chosen. The Aristocra will assemble the equipment necessary to ensure that solitude does not quickly become death from predators or the elements.
I am led away. Once again, my path has turned.
Where it will lead, I cannot say.
The hut was small, apparently made from local materials, situated in the center of the forest clearing. Surrounding it were eight tall, rectangular boxes with two distinct sets of markings. “So this,” Captain Voss Parck said, “is what you brought me all the way down from the Strikefast to see?”
“Yes, Captain, I did,” Colonel Mosh Barris said sourly. “Turns out we may have a problem. You see those markings?”
“Of course,” Parck said. “Bogolan script, isn’t it?”
“It’s Bogolan script, but not Bogolanese,” Barris said. “The translator droids can’t make top or bottom of it. And the two power generators behind the hut don’t match any Imperial designs.”
Standing to the side, watching his captain and the Strikefast’s senior troop commander discuss the mysterious settlement they’d found on this unnamed world, Cadet First Class Eli Vanto tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.
And wondered what he was doing here.
None of the other ten Myomar Academy cadets had been ordered down with Parck’s shuttle. Eli didn’t have any particular expertise in unknown artifacts or tech. It wasn’t like he needed planetside experience, anyway— he was on track to become a supply officer. There was no reason he could think of why he’d been singled out this way.
“Cadet Vanto?” Barris said.
Eli wrenched his mind back from his musings. “Yes, Colonel?”
“The droids said there are half a dozen trade languages out here that use Bogolan script. You’re our expert on obscure local languages.” He gestured to the crates. “So?”
Eli moved closer, wincing a little. So that was why he was here. He’d grown up on the planet Lysatra in this part of Wild Space, pressed up against the so-called Unknown Regions. His family’s shipping company worked mostly in and around their homeworld, but they did enough business in the Unknown Regions that Eli had picked up proficiency in several of the local trade languages.
But that hardly made him an expert.
“It could be a variant of Sy Bisti, sir,” he said. “Some of the words are familiar, and the syntax is right. But it’s not standard.”
Barris snorted. “Hard to imagine a standard for a language so obscure that even the droids don’t bother with it.”
Eli held his tongue. Sy Bisti was actually a perfectly well-defined and eminently useful language. It was the people who still used it, and the worlds they lived on, that were obscure.
“You said you can read some of it?” Parck prompted.
“Yes, sir,” Eli said. “It seems to be mostly tracking information and the name of the company that supplied the contents. Also a short bit proclaiming the grandeur and honor of that company.”
“What, they engrave promotionals right on their shipping crates?” Barris asked.
“Yes, sir. A lot of small business out here do that.”
“You don’t recognize the business name, I assume?” Parck asked.
“No, sir. I believe it’s Red Bype or Redder Bype. Possibly the owner’s name.”
Parck nodded. “We can see if there’s anything in our records. What about the second script?”
“Sorry, sir,” Eli said. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“Terrific,” Barris muttered. “So whether it’s a smuggler base or the survival camp from a shipwreck, it still comes under UA protocols.”
Eli winced. The Unknown Alien protocols were a relic from the glory days of the Republic, when a new species was being discovered every other week and the Senate wanted every one of them contacted and studied. The modern Imperial Navy had no business handling such chores, and even less interest in doing so, and the High Command had repeatedly said so.
Rumor at the Academy was that Emperor Palpatine was working to revoke the protocols. But for the moment they were still standard orders, and far too many of the senators supported them.
Which was going to put a crimp in the Strikefast’s schedule. The ship’s officers and crew weren’t exactly thrilled at having a bunch of cadets underfoot anyway, and Eli could tell they were looking forward to dumping them back on Myomar. This was going to delay that happy send-off for at least a couple of extra days.
“Agreed,” Parck said. “Very well. Have your troops make themselves comfortable while I have a tech analysis team sent down. Keep an eye out in case your smuggler or castaway comes back.”
“Yes, sir.” Barris’s comlink signaled, and the colonel pulled it out. “Barris.”
“This is Major Wyan at the crash site, Colonel,” a taut voice came. “Sorry to interrupt, but I think you’d better come see this.”
Eli frowned. He hadn’t heard anything about a crash. “There was a crash, sir?” he asked.
“One of the V-wing starfighters went down,” Parck said, nodding across the clearing where distant lights could be seen flickering through the tendrils of evening mist wafting through the trees.
Eli nodded silently. He’d noticed the lights earlier, but had assumed they were just more of Barris’s survey team.
“I’ll be right there,” Barris said. “With your permission, Captain?”
“Go ahead,” Parck said. “I’ll stay here with Cadet Vanto and see what else he can tell us about the writing on these crates.”
Eli had gone through nearly all of it when Barris and a black-uniformed, black-helmeted navy trooper returned carrying a V‑wing pilot’s flight suit.
A flight suit stuffed with grass, leaves, and strange-smelling red berries.
“What is this?” Parck demanded.
“This is what we found near the crash site,” Barris said grimly as they set the suit on the ground in front of the captain. “The body’s gone. Nothing left but this—this—” He waved a hand.
“Scarecrow,” Eli murmured.
Parck sent him a sharp look. “Is this something you people do out here?”
“Some farmers still use scarecrows to keep birds out of their crops,” Eli said, his face warming. You people. Parck was letting his Core World prejudices peek out. “They’re also used in festivals and parades.”
Parck looked back at Barris. “Have you looked for the pilot?”
“Not yet, sir,” Barris said. “I’ve ordered a troop perimeter set up around the settlement, and I’m having another platoon of troopers sent down.”
“Good,” Parck said. “Once they’re here, expand your search and find the body.”
“Yes, sir,” Barris said. “We might want to wait until morning, though.”
“Your soldiers afraid of the dark?”
“No, sir,” Barris said stiffly. “It’s just that we also found the V-wing’s survival pack. The blaster, spare power packs, and concussion grenades are missing.”
Parck’s lip twitched. “Primitives with weapons. Wonderful. Very well. Search until dark, then resume in the morning.”
“We can keep the search going all night if you’d like.”
Parck shook his head. “Hard enough to navigate unfamiliar terrain in the dark. I’ve seen too many night patrols get disoriented and start jumping or shooting at one another, and the mist you’ve got rolling in will just make it worse. We’ll keep aerial surveillance going, but your troopers would do better to stay in camp until daybreak.”
“Yes, sir,” Barris said. “Maybe whoever took the grenades will be considerate enough to blow themselves to pieces before they get to us.”
“Perhaps.” Parck looked up at the darkening sky. “I’ll head back to the ship and arrange for a wider starfighter cover pattern.” He lowered his gaze to Eli. “Cadet, you’ll stay here with Colonel Barris’s team. Study the settlement, and see if there are any more inscriptions. The sooner we learn everything we can, the sooner we can leave.”
It was nearly full dark by the time Barris’s men finished creating their perimeter. The tech team had set up an examination table protected by a transparent weather canopy where they could study the grass and leaves they’d taken from the flight suit. They’d started their work when Major Wyan and his search party returned empty-handed from the forest.
So they hadn’t found the V‑wing pilot’s body. Still, there were no indications of wounded or dead among his team, either. With grenades and a blaster in the hands of primitives or a castaway of unknown species, Eli was privately willing to call it a draw.
“So that’s what was in the flight suit?” Wyan asked, walking over to where Barris was watching as the two techs spread out the scarecrow’s stuffing.
“Yes,” Barris said. The breeze momentarily shifted direction, and Eli caught a whiff of an odd aroma he’d smelled earlier. Probably from some of the berries the techs had crushed for analysis. “So far it seems to be just local flora. Maybe the whole thing was some kind of religious ritual—”
And without warning there came the flash and thunder crack of an explosion from behind them.
“Cover!” Barris shouted, spinning around and dropping to one knee as he hauled out his blaster. Eli hit the ground behind one of the big crates, then peeked cautiously around its side. Halfway to the edge of the clearing, a patch of grass was smoldering with the afterburn of the explosion; beyond it, navy troopers were running toward the closest part of the sentry line, blasters drawn and ready. Someone flicked on a searchlight, the brilliant glow sweeping across the forest and lighting up the mist flowing between the trees. Eli followed the spot of light with his eyes, searching for a glimpse of the enemy who was attacking them—
And instead watched as Barris was slammed flat on his face by a second explosion.
“Colonel!” Wyan shouted.
“I’m all right,” Barris shouted back. Behind him, the collection of grasses and leaves on the examination table was burning brilliantly, the table itself canted half over by the blast. On the table’s far side, the two techs were shakily getting back up onto hands and knees. Swearing under his breath, Eli stayed flat on the ground, bracing himself for the inevitable third explosion.
The inevitable failed to happen. One by one, he heard the perimeter troops check in with Barris, confirming the defenses were secure. Wyan conducted a search of the first twenty meters of forest outside the clearing and reported that the unknown attackers had fled.
Though considering that no one had apparently seen anything in the first place, the fact they didn’t now didn’t strike Eli as being very comforting.
The explosions themselves were equally mysterious.
“They definitely weren’t concussion grenades,” Wyan said. “Not nearly powerful enough. Our best guess is that they were blaster power packs with the sturm dowels pulled out.”
“That doesn’t sound like something ‘savages’ would be able to figure out,” Eli said, frowning.
“Very well deduced, Cadet,” Wyan said sarcastically. “Colonel Barris thinks our castaway has come back.” He gestured to the hut. “I didn’t call you over here to get your opinion on our tactical situation. I called you to see if you’d found anything in the hut or storage crates that would give us a hint as to his appearance or tech level.”
“Not really, sir,” Eli said. “From the shape of the bed and design of the eating utensils, he’s probably humanoid. But there’s really nothing more.”
“What about the power generators? He has to have some tech skill to work those, doesn’t he?”
“Not necessarily,” Eli said. “They’re mostly automated.”
Wyan scowled into the night. “So why the attack?” he muttered under his breath. “And why such a puny one? If he’s smart enough to figure out sturm dowels, he’s smart enough to pop a grenade.”
“Maybe he’s trying to scare us away without wrecking his home,” Eli offered.
Wyan gave him a sharp look, perhaps preparing to repeat his warning not to offer military advice. But he didn’t. Perhaps he was remembering that Eli had experience in this unimportant part of the galaxy. “And how did he get into the camp?”
There was a small scratching sound near Eli’s feet. He started; but it was only some small ground creature scurrying through the grass. “Maybe he lobbed the blaster packs in with a catapult or something.”
Wyan raised his eyebrows. “Through the weather canopy?”
Eli winced as he looked over at the still-smoldering mass of burned grass. No, of course not—a lobbed-in explosive would have bounced off the canopy and never made it to the table. Stupid of him. “I guess not, sir.”
“You guess not, sir,” Wyan echoed sarcastically. “Thank you, Cadet. Get back to your work, and this time find us something useful.”
“Major?” Barris called, striding across the clearing.
“Sir?” Wyan said, turning to face him.
“Captain’s sending some V‑wings for a grid search,” the colonel told him. “In the meantime, take a squad and set up some floodlights at the perimeter—I want the forest rim lit up like the inside of a spark module. Then fine-mesh the hemisphere sensor screen. I don’t want any more explosives getting through without us at least knowing they’re coming.”
Wyan’s reply was lost in the sudden roar as a pair of V‑wings shot past at treetop level. “What?” Barris asked.
“I was reminding the colonel that there are a lot of birds flying around,” Wyan repeated. “Small ground animals, too—I nearly twisted my ankle stepping on one a minute ago. If we fine-mesh the screen too far, we’ll have alarms triggering all night.”
“Fine—forget the fine-meshing,” Barris said. “Just get those lights—”
And suddenly, directly ahead, the nearest trees were silhouetted by a fireball erupting somewhere in the distance. “What the—?” Wyan barked.
“V‑wing crash!” Barris snapped, keying his comlink. “Rescue team to the transport. Now!”
At least this time the pilot’s body hadn’t been taken. Unfortunately, his blaster, power packs, and concussion grenades had.
And the rumors and speculations were flying.
Eli was out of most of the quiet discussions, working as he was in the castaway’s hut. But every now and then, one of the techs would come in to collect something else to analyze. They were usually eager to talk, to lay out their own thoughts and pretend they didn’t have any fears.
But they did.
So did Eli. The floodlights blazing away at the edge of the forest had succeeded in warding off further attacks, but the masses of insects and night birds the glow attracted were almost as unnerving. The V‑wings flying overhead gave an illusion of safety and protection, but Eli tensed every time one went past, wondering if this would be the next one to be knocked out of the sky.
And on top of it all was the why.
Why was this happening? Was someone trying to scare the Imperials away? Or was the attacker trying to pin them down, or run them in circles? Or, worst of all, was this some kind of macabre game?
And was the grass-filled flight suit a feint, a distraction, or just some native ritual?
That one, at least, received an answer. About midnight, after a comm consultation with Captain Parck, Barris ordered the stuffed flight suit to be thoroughly examined.
Only then did they discover that the helmet’s comlink was missing.
“Clever little snakes,” Barris growled as Eli edged closer to the conversation. “What about that one?”
“The comlink’s still here,” Wyan confirmed, peering into the second downed pilot’s helmet. “They must not have had time to remove it.”
“Or just didn’t bother,” Barris said.
“Because they could already eavesdrop on our communications?”
“Exactly,” Barris said. “Well, that ends now. Call the Strikefast and have them shut down that circuit.”
Barris shifted his glare to Eli. “You have something to add, Cadet? Or were you just doing a little eavesdropping of your own?”
“Yes, sir,” Eli said. “I mean, no, sir. I wanted to report that I found a couple of coins between the inner and outer shells of one of the crates that date to the beginning of the Clone Wars. So it looks like our castaway’s been here at least that long—”
“Hold on,” Barris said. “Coins?”
“A lot of shippers out here put freshly minted low-value coins in with their crates,” Eli explained. “It’s a good-luck thing, as well as a way to make sure the dates on the manifests don’t get altered. They take them out and put in new ones whenever that crate comes back to them.”
“So assuming the castaway got the crates new, it means he’s been here for several years,” Wyan said thoughtfully. “Might explain some of his behavior.”
“Not to me it doesn’t,” Barris said. “If all he wants is a ride back to civilization, why doesn’t he just walk out of the forest and ask?”
“Maybe he was on the run when he crashed,” Wyan suggested. “Or maybe he came here voluntarily and just wants us to go away.”
“In which case he’s going to be sadly disappointed,” Barris said. “All right, Cadet, keep looking. Do you want me to assign a tech to help?”
“There’s not much room, sir. We’d probably just get in each other’s way.”
“Then get back to it,” Barris said. “Sooner or later, our friend’s going to push his luck too far. When he does, we’ll be ready.”
They had five casualties among the sentry perimeter navy troopers that night. Three of them were incapacitated at the hand of the unseen enemy, their chests or helmets slammed by concussion grenades. No one saw anything, either before the attacks or afterward. The other two casualties were accidentally shot by their own nervous comrades, who mistook them for intruders in the misty darkness.
By the time dawn began to lighten the sky, Barris was back on the comlink to the Strikefast. By the time the sun finished burning off the nighttime mist, two squads of stormtroopers had arrived. They consulted with Barris, then headed briskly into the forest, blaster rifles held ready across their chests.
Personally, Eli doubted they would have any better luck finding the mysterious attacker than Barris’s own troopers had. But he had to admit that the presence of the white-armored warriors brought a welcome boost to morale.
He was taking apart the last crate to look for more marker coins when he heard a soft but pervasive screech erupt from somewhere outside the hut, followed instantly by shouts and curses.
A general alert? Snatching out his comlink, he keyed it on.
And just as quickly keyed it off, holding it as far away from himself as he could, as the screech from outside exploded in his ears.
Someone was jamming their comlinks.
“Full alert!” he heard Barris bellow from across the clearing. “All troopers, full alert. Major Wyan, where are you?”
Eli hurried around the side of the hut, nearly getting bowled over by a navy trooper heading toward the perimeter. The woman’s face was ashy under her heavy black helmet, her expression grim, her uniform spattered with dust. Eli came within sight of Barris just as Wyan reached him. “All comlink channels are out, sir,” Wyan reported.
“I know,” Barris snarled. “Enough is enough. There are eighteen stormtroopers beating the bushes out there—send some navy troopers to recall them. We’re pulling out.”
“We’re leaving, sir?”
“You have an objection?”
“No, sir. But what about that?” Wyan jerked a thumb at the hut. “The protocols require us to study it.”
Barris glared at the hut for a couple of seconds. Then his face cleared. “But they don’t require us to study it here,” he said. “We’ll take it with us.”
Wyan’s jaw dropped. “To the Strikefast?”
“Why not?” Barris said, as if still thinking it through. “There’s plenty of room in the transport for all of it. Tell the techs to break out the heavy repulsorlifts and get busy.”
Wyan threw a considerably less-than-enthusiastic look at the settlement. “Yes, sir.”
“And tell them to move it,” Barris called after Wyan as the major hurried away. “The only reason to jam our comlinks is if he’s getting ready to launch a major attack.”
Eli pressed himself close to the hut as he looked around the edge of the forest. He couldn’t see any lurking enemies out there. But then, none of them ever had.
Three minutes later a squad of grim-faced troopers and techs arrived at the encampment and began attaching repulsorlift hoists to the generators and storage crates. One of the techs stayed with Eli as the others began transferring their prizes to the transport, the two of them studying the hut’s exterior and figuring out where to attach the hoists in order to keep the building intact.
They were still discussing the procedure when the first of the stormtroopers began to reemerge from the forest in response to Barris’s orders. The jamming continued as the rest of the troops filtered into the encampment, turning to face the forest in defensive formation for the attack they all knew was coming.
Only it didn’t. Barris’s stipulated half hour ended with the encampment packed aboard the transport, leaving the entire group ready to leave.
Except for one small hitch. One of the eighteen stormtroopers was missing.
“What do you mean, missing?” Barris demanded in a voice that carried across nearly the entire clearing as three of the stormtroopers headed purposefully into the forest again. “How does a stormtrooper go missing?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Wyan said, looking around. “But you’re right. The sooner we get out of here, the better.”
“Damn right I’m right,” Barris said. “That’s it, Major. Get the techs aboard the transport, with your troopers following in standard rearguard formation.”
“What about the stormtroopers?” Wyan asked.
“They’ve got their own troop carrier,” Barris said. “They can stay behind and beat the bushes to their hearts’ content. We’ll leave as soon as everyone else is aboard.”
Eli didn’t wait to hear more. Barris’s order hadn’t specifically mentioned him, but he was more tech than trooper. Close enough. He turned toward the transport.
And paused. One of the stormtroopers was standing rigid guard just outside the hatchway, his weapon held ready across his chest. If he took exception to Barris’s order abandoning him and his companions . . .
Without twitch or warning, the stormtrooper abruptly dissolved in a violent explosion.
Eli was flat on the ground in an instant. “Alert!” he heard someone shout, the voice distorted by the ringing in his ears. A handful of troopers were charging toward the forest, but Eli couldn’t tell if they were on an actual trail or just hoping to randomly catch their attacker. He looked back at the transport—
His breath caught in his throat. The smoke of the explosion was clearing away, revealing that the ship itself had sustained only minor damage. Mostly cosmetic, nothing that should interfere with flight operation or hull integrity. The stormtrooper’s armor, no longer pristine white, was scattered in bits and pieces in a small radius around the spot where the man had been standing.
The armor was all there was. The body itself was gone.
“No,” Eli heard himself mutter under his breath. It was impossible. A blast that caused so little damage to the ship behind it couldn’t possibly have disintegrated a body so completely. Especially not without doing the same to the armor that had encased it.
A movement to his left caught his eye. Emerging into the clearing were the three stormtroopers who’d gone to look for their missing comrade. They had indeed found him.
Or at least, what was left of him.
Eli had half expected the transport and troop carrier would be attacked as they lifted into the sky. But no missiles, laser pulses, or catapulted grenades followed them up. Soon, to his relief, they were safe in the Strikefast’s hangar bay.
Captain Parck was waiting beside the transport’s hatch as the men filed out. “Colonel,” he said, nodding gravely as Barris emerged behind Eli. “I don’t recall giving you permission to leave your position.”
“No, sir, you didn’t,” Barris said, and Eli had no trouble hearing the weariness in his voice. “But I was the commander on the scene. I did what I deemed best.”
“Yes,” Parck murmured. Eli looked back over his shoulder, to see the captain shift his gaze from Barris to the transport itself. “I’m told you brought the alien settlement up with you.”
“Yes, sir,” Barris said. “Everything that was there, right down to the dirt. I can put the techs back to work on it whenever you want.”
“There’s no hurry,” Parck said. “You’ll accompany me back to my office. Everyone else is to report for debriefing.” He turned to face the line of techs and navy troopers.
And his eyes fell on Eli.
Quickly, Eli twisted his head back around. Eavesdropping on officers was very bad form. Hopefully, Parck hadn’t noticed.
Unfortunately, he had. “Cadet Vanto?”
Bracing himself, Eli stopped and turned around. “Yes, sir?”
“You’ll accompany us, as well,” Parck said. “Come.” With Parck in the lead, they left the hangar bay.
But to Eli’s surprise they didn’t go to the captain’s office. Instead, Parck led the way up to the hangar bay control tower, the lights of which had been inexplicably darkened. “Sir?” Barris asked as Parck stepped to the observation window.
“An experiment, Colonel.” Parck gestured to the man at the control board. “Everyone out? Good. Dim the lights in the bay.”
Barris stepped to Parck’s side as the lights outside the observation window faded to nighttime levels. Cautiously, trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible while still getting a good look, Eli eased to a spot just behind Parck on his other side. The transport and troop carrier were prominently visible directly below; beyond them at the other end of the bay were three Zeta-class shuttles and a Harbinger courier ship. “What sort of experiment?” Barris asked.
“The testing of a theory,” Parck said. “Make yourselves comfortable, Colonel; Cadet. We may be here awhile.”
They’d been there nearly two hours when a shadowy, human-shaped figure emerged stealthily from the transport. Silently, it slipped across the darkened hangar bay toward the other ships, taking advantage of the sparse cover along the way.
“Who is that?” Barris asked, leaning a little closer to the transparisteel divider.
“Unless I’m mistaken, that’s the source of your troubles down on the surface,” Parck said with obvious satisfaction. “I believe that’s the castaway whose home you invaded.”
Eli blinked, frowned. One man? One man?
Barris apparently didn’t believe it, either. “That’s impossible, sir,” he protested. “Those attacks couldn’t have been the work of a single person. He must have had some help.”
“We’ll wait a moment and see if anyone joins him,” Parck said.
No one did. The shadowy figure moved across the floor to the other ships, where it paused for a moment as if considering. Then, deliberately, it stepped to the door of the middle Zeta shuttle and slipped inside. “It appears he was indeed alone,” Parck said, pulling out his comlink. “He’s in the middle Zeta. All weapons on stun: I want him alive and unharmed.”
After all the trouble the castaway had created on the planet surface, Eli had expected him to put up a terrific fight against his captors. To his surprise, he apparently surrendered to the stormtroopers without any resistance at all.
Perhaps he was taken by surprise. More likely, he knew when resistance was futile.
At least Eli understood now why Parck wanted him along. The prisoner’s cargo crates were labeled with a Sy Bisti variant. If he spoke the language itself—and if it was the only language he spoke—the Imperials would need a translator.
The group was halfway to the hatchway where Parck, Barris, Eli, and their stormtrooper escort waited when the hangar bay lights came back up.
The prisoner, as Eli had already noted, was of human shape and dimensions. But there the resemblance to normal humans ended. His skin was blue, his eyes a glowing red, and his hair a shimmering blue-black.
Eli stiffened. Back home on Lysatra, there were myths about beings like that. Proud, deadly warriors that the stories named Chiss.
With an effort, he tore his eyes away from the face and his mind away from the old myths. The prisoner was dressed in what appeared to be skins and furs, apparently sewn together from the indigenous animals of the forest where he’d been living. Even marching in the center of a rectangle of armed stormtroopers, he had an air of almost regal confidence about him.
Confidence. That was definitely part of the stories.
The stormtroopers brought him to within a few meters of Parck and nudged him to a halt. “Welcome aboard the Venator Star Destroyer Strikefast,” the captain said. “Do you speak Basic?”
For a moment the alien seemed to be studying him. “Or would Sy Bisti be better?” Eli added in that language.
Barris threw a glare at him, and Eli winced. Again, stupid. He should have waited for orders. The prisoner, too, was gazing at him, though his expression seemed more thoughtful than angry.
Captain Parck, for his part, only had eyes for the prisoner. “You asked him whether he spoke Sy Bisti, I assume?”
“Yes, sir,” Eli said. “My apologies, Captain. I just thought—the stories all say that the Chiss used Sy Bisti in their—”
“The what?” Parck asked.
“The Chiss,” Eli said, feeling his face warming. “They’re a . . . well, they’ve always been thought of as a Wild Space myth.”
“Have they, now,” Parck said, eying the prisoner. “It would appear they’re a bit more substantial than that. But I interrupted. You were saying?”
“Just that in the stories the Chiss used Sy Bisti in their dealings with us.”
“As you also used that language with us,” the prisoner said calmly in Sy Bisti.
Eli twitched. The prisoner had answered in Sy Bisti . . . but he’d responded to a comment that Eli had made in Basic. “Do you understand Basic?” he asked in Sy Bisti.
“I understand some,” the Chiss answered in the same language. “But I’m more comfortable with this one.”
Eli nodded. “He says he understands some Basic, but is more comfortable with Sy Bisti.”
“I see,” Parck said. “Very well. I’m Captain Parck, commander of this ship. What’s your name?”
Eli opened his mouth to translate—“No,” Parck stopped him with an upraised hand. “You can translate his answers, but I want to see how much Basic he understands. Your name, please?”
For a moment the Chiss was silent, his gaze drifting around the hangar bay. Not like a primitive overwhelmed by the size and magnificence of the place, Eli thought, but like another military man sizing up his enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. “Mitth’raw’ nuruodo,” he said, bringing his glowing eyes back to Parck.
“But I believe it would be easier for you to call me Thrawn.”
Copyright © 2018 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.