Thrawn was taller than Samakro had expected, and carried himself with grace and a certain air of confidence. He was also courteous to the officers and warriors, and knew his way around the Springhawk. Aside from that, he really wasn’t that big a deal.
Right now, he was also late.
“Approaching target system,” Kharill reported. “Breakout in thirty seconds.”
“Acknowledged,” Samakro said, looking around the bridge. All weapons systems showed green, including the balky plasma sphere targeting computer that had been giving them trouble for the past few days. All air lock doors were sealed against possible breach, the electrostatic barrier that hugged the Springhawk’s hull was at power, and all warriors were at their stations.
Impressive, but hardly really necessary. As far as Samakro could tell, this whole mission was only a small step above a wargame exercise. The Vigilant was a full-class Nightdragon man-of-war, and Admiral Ar’alani’s current force also included five other cruisers besides the Springhawk. With that much firepower, appearing without warning over the Paataatus homeworld, they weren’t likely to face any effective resistance.
None of which meant that Springhawk and its crew should be anything less than fully professional here, of course. And that professionalism included its captain. If Thrawn wasn’t here by the time they left hyperspace, Samakro would just have to take over—
“Stand ready,” Thrawn’s calm voice came from behind him.
Samakro turned, fighting back a reflexive twitch. How in hell had Thrawn sneaked onto the bridge without him hearing the hatch open? “Captain,” he greeted his superior. “I was starting to think you’d missed the alert.”
“I’ve been here for the past hour,” Thrawn said, sounding mildly surprised that Samakro hadn’t noticed. “I was overseeing the work on the sphere targeting computer.”
Samakro looked over at the plasma sphere console as two techs emerged into sight from behind it. “Ah. I see it shows green now.”
“Indeed,” Thrawn said. “The quality of the Springhawk’s repair and maintenance crews has improved considerably since you were placed in command.”
Samakro felt his eyes narrow. A compliment? Or a subtle reminder that Thrawn was the ship’s captain now?
“Any last-minute instructions from the Vigilant?” Thrawn continued.
“Nothing since the last jump,” Samakro said. Probably a compliment, he decided. Thrawn didn’t strike him as the gloating sort. “Just Ar’alani’s usual warning to be ready for anything.”
“I believe we are,” Thrawn said. “Breakout . . . now.”
Through the viewport, Samakro saw the star-flares flash and shrink, bringing the Springhawk out of hyperspace.
Into a storm of laserfire.“Enemy fighters!” Kharill snapped. “Bearing . . . all around us, Captain. Swarming us. Swarming everyone.”
Samakro hissed out a minor curse. Kharill was right. There were at least fifty Paataatus fighter craft out there, buzzing around the Chiss attack force like angry weltflies, their lasers creating flashes of pale green as they cut through the rarefied interplanetary dust.
And as with weltflies, even though each individual sting was too weak to damage the Springhawk’s electrostatic barrier, a sufficiently massive barrage of such fire could conceivably take down the defenses and start eating into the hull.
“Acknowledged,” Thrawn said calmly. “Sphere One: Fire at nearest attacker on my vector.”
“Sphere One firing.” The plasma sphere blazed away from the Springhawk’s portside launcher.
And missed its target completely.
“Sphere control!” Samakro snapped. “Retune and fire again.”
“Belay that,” Thrawn said. “Helm: Yaw ninety degrees to port and bring Sphere Two to bear. Fire when ready.”
“No, wait!” Samakro snapped.
Too late. The Springhawk was already turning, angling toward the enemy ships on that side.
Turning away from the Vigilant.
And before even the plasma sphere launcher was in position to fire, the enemy fighters were repositioning to take advantage of Thrawn’s mistake, sweeping in to surround the Springhawk as it pulled away from the other Chiss ships.
“Springhawk, get back in formation,” Ar’alani’s voice boomed from the bridge speaker. “Thrawn?”
“No reply,” Thrawn said. “Fire Sphere Two.”
This time the plasma sphere flew true, bursting into its target fighter and unleashing a multicolored flash of ionic energy across the enemy’s hull as it took down the fighter’s electrostatic barrier and scrambled all the electronics within its reach. “Reload and prepare to fire,” Thrawn said.
“Shouldn’t we get back to the main force?” Samakro pressed. “Admiral Ar’alani—”
“Hold course,” Thrawn said. “Sphere Two, fire when ready. Lower barrier strength twenty percent.”
Samakro mouthed another curse, a major one this time. “May I suggest we deploy decoys?” he pressed. “It would at least divert some of the focus away from us.”
“It would indeed,” Thrawn agreed. “Negative on decoys. Yaw another five degrees to portside, then three degrees starboard.”
The Springhawk turned, then turned again. The Paataatus lasers continued to beat against the weakened electrostatic barrier, and through the viewport Samakro could see the Paataatus fighters again re-forming their attack cluster to bring more of their force to bear.“Captain, if we don’t get back to the others, we’re not going to last long,” he warned quietly, wondering distantly what had happened to the Thrawn who’d once brought renown to the Springhawk.
“We’ll last long enough, Mid Captain,” Thrawn said. “Don’t you see it?”
Samakro lifted a hand in a gesture of confusion and futility.
The hand froze in midair as he suddenly understood. More ships attacking the Springhawk meant fewer attacking the other ships. Fewer attackers meant less confusion for the Chiss gunners, targeting computers, and triangulation observers, allowing for an organized, systematic destruction of the attackers who weren’t focused on the Springhawk.
And that systematic destruction meant . . .
From the Springhawk’s starboard side came a sudden barrage of laserfire, breaching missiles, and plasma spheres, ripping into the swarm of enemy fighters. Samakro looked at the display to see the Vigilant and the other Chiss ships charging toward them in full battle-wedge formation.
“Raise the barrier to full power; all weapons: Fire,” Thrawn ordered. “Focus on the enemies outside our other ships’ firing arcs.”
The Springhawk’s lasers and plasma sphere launchers opened up, and the number of attackers dropped precipitously as the Chiss force continued to blast the enemy ships to dust. Samakro watched until the Paataatus force was down to a few fleeing ships being pursued by two of Ar’alani’s other cruisers, then stepped close to Thrawn’s side. “So we play the wounded animal and draw the enemy to us,” he said. “Giving the rest of the force time to regroup and counterattack.”
“Yes,” Thrawn said, sounding pleased that Samakro had figured it out. Even if he’d figured it out a little late in the day. “The Paataatus have a swarm mentality. That thought pattern predisposes them to concentrate their attention on wounded opponents.”
“They start by finishing off the weakest, then work their way up,” Samakro said, nodding.
“Exactly,” Thrawn said. “When I saw the size of the attacking force, I realized the best strategy would be to draw as many of them as possible away from the rest of our ships before they were able to inflict significant damage.”
“As well as drawing them into a tighter cluster that our gunners and targeting computers would have less trouble with.”
“Correct.” Thrawn smiled wryly. “That multi-targeting difficulty is our weakness. I trust the fleet’s technicians and instructors are working to resolve it.”
“Senior Captain Thrawn?” Ar’alani’s voice came over the speaker.
“Yes, Admiral?” Thrawn called.
“Well done, Captain,” Ar’alani said, an edge of annoyance in her tone. “Next time you have a clever plan, kindly share it with me before executing it.”
“I’ll endeavor to do so,” Thrawn promised. “Provided there’s time.”
“And provided you don’t mind tipping off the enemy if they’re eavesdropping,” Samakro added under his breath.
Apparently not under his breath enough. “If you think that’s a legitimate excuse, Mid Captain Samakro, let me suggest otherwise,” Ar’alani said. “I’m sure that in the future Captain Thrawn will find a way to communicate the necessary information without the enemy listening in.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Samakro said, wincing. There was a rumor that flag officers had a special comm setting that enabled them to hear more from their escort ships than was normally possible.
“I think we have the situation under control,” Ar’alani said. “You may continue on to your next mission whenever you’re ready.”
Samakro frowned. There hadn’t been anything about an extra mission in the Springhawk’s orders.
“Thank you, Admiral,” Thrawn said. “With your permission, I’d like to take an hour first to run a check on the ship and begin repairs on any damage we may have sustained.”
“Take all the time you want,” Ar’alani said. “We’re heading in-system to talk to the Paataatus commanders. Hopefully, they’ve learned the folly of attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.”
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