"Major Nihls to the ready room" came the call over the tinny PA system. The tension in the squad bay ratcheted up instantly as the pilots unconsciously looked up at the speaker. The Major set his data pad down and started towards the Invictus’ interior. "Maybe that is the new assignment we have heard about" Gamma flight leader Nihls mused to his squadron. "If it is, I am volunteering your squad for it" the Major said, trying to break the tension. A ripple of low laughter was the reply. He knew morale was dangerously low. Not only had the filthy Rebels destroyed a second Death Star, but now all types of miscreants decided it was the perfect time to take advantage of the chaos. A new assignment would give his men a chance to get back in the action.
"I trust your pilots are ready for some revenge, Major?" The flight boss, typical of the Imperial Navy, wasn't actually a pilot. He was a political officer, maintaining “moral discipline” in the ranks. "Of course they are, sir." The Major was happy he didn't have to lie to this functionary sycophant for once. "Excellent and your crews are all up to speed on the TIE Advanced?" asked the Colonel, working off the checklist of someone more important than himself. "Yes sir, it is a fantastic machine," again, the Major happy to not be lying. "Good, then let us discuss your next assignment"
Back in the squad bay, the flight leaders gathered around in a small circle around the Major. "Escort duty?" whined Dae, leader of Alpha flight, "That is us getting back in the war?" Everyone else noticed the smug look on the Major's face, as they waited for some good news. "Imperial Intelligence expects no hostiles and classifies this as honor guard duty." Instantly everyone keyed up. No Hostiles may as well be code for furball. "Taking advantage of the TIE Advanced Hyperdrive capabilities, four of us will travel along with the Pontiff and will then be supported by the TIE squads already assigned to Scree Fron, the rest of us will be coming in on the Invictus shortly after." Now the major had the hardest part of his job, picking which three bloodthirsty bastards that got to go with him.
Later that day.
"Latest combat reports for you, Major." The sudden appearance of the intelligence officer caught Major Nihls by surprise. "Oh, thank you Captain. Anything of note for the upcoming mission?" He asked, looking for something specific. "No sir, Central has minimal rebel activity in the target system and all surrounding sectors. Everything points to a cakewalk" he said smugly. The Major took the data slate and almost offhandedly asked "What about the rumors of Rogue Squadron or those damned Raiders? It would be just like them to be inconsiderate and make you all look like mentally malformed buffoons… again." The young captain looked obviously rankled by the barbed attack. "If you don't feel up to it sir, I shall inform the colonel and perhaps he can find something more suitable to your wing's abilities. Targets for turbo-laser practice perhaps?" The captain's weak riposte had failed to get a rise out of the Major’s legendary steely calm. Without even giving the captain a courtesy glance, the major places his boots on his desk, giving the captain a clear look at the blood stripe he had earned many times over. "My abilities Captain are not in question. Dismissed!"
Looking over the latest reports, the wing had done well. Not as well as he would have liked, but they had spent too long out of action. Fighting against the odd mercenary group and pirates was a good way to keep a fighting edge, but they needed to test themselves against professionals. The escort was coming up and it was exactly the kind of situation the Rebels enjoy capitalizing on.
Somewhere in the outer rim territories
"Rho 1, this is CIC. We track 16 D-22s coming from Mark 4 below zenith, vector 045 tagged as Tangos 1 through 16. You are weapons free to engage. Happy hunting."
"Rho 1 acknowledges. Out." As the Major switched to the squad channel the white dots on his HUD were replaced with angry red numbers. "Theta 1, take your flight and follow Rho flight in. Double up on them, by the numbers. New guys, don't forget your missiles, and stick to your wingman. Accelerate to attack speed, they haven't noticed us yet."
16 on 16, good old fashioned dogfighting. If the Major ever smiled, this would be one of those times. He hoped the D-22s were properly trained; his pilots could use the workout. They were common fighters in this part of the rim, in this case likely used by organized crime protecting some mistaken belief that this was their turf. They haphazardly turned, more or less, towards the rapidly approaching TIE Advanced fighter craft, indicating poor training and no cohesive battle plan.
"Rho 2, engage, I will cover. Earn your Stripes today." The Major dropped behind his wingman to give him first chance at a kill. Almost immediately a flurry of missile fire erupted from the line of TIEs. Over the radio the Major heard the calls as the closest D-22s erupted into flames. "Tango 2 down." "Tango 4 and 5 down." The Major called out his wingman's successful engagement "Tango 1 down." Just like that, 8 fighters down with no losses. The surprised and overwhelmed foes were doing their best to turn tail and run.
Not on the Major's watch.
"Break and engage. Theta, you are the anvil. Make it happen."
"Sir, the intelligence captain told me you served on the Majestic under Colonel Kyan" and the glare from the Major froze the blood in the poor man's veins. Every man in that room would have sworn that before that moment Major Nihls was chiseled out of solid obsidian. Everyone had heard the rumors that the Major's old CO defected to the Rebellion. Only a couple knew it was true, and they all knew better than to bring it up. The poor Lieutenant was a pawn in the growing proxy war between the Major and the Intel Captain. Captain Dae was the first to regain his wits, "Sorry sir," was all he managed to stammer out as he interposed himself between the LT and the Major.
In reality the pause lasted only seconds, but every man in that could have sworn it was days. "The answer to your question is yes. I did." The last few moments had proven far more stressful than any combat they had faced, but they were all hanging on the Major’s every word. Nihls had regained his normal stoic composure, and continued his story. "Half my wing was away, attached to an assault group, so we were gone when it happened. While Kyan has never been 100% confirmed to have defected, the man was a tactical genius and those damned Raiders have his fingerprints all over them. If he didn't survive, someone he trained did." An air of normalcy had returned to the room. "The next man to speak of it goes out the airlock." Truer words have never been spoken followed by an emotionless and final "Get. Out." an order they were all too happy to follow.
As the wing preps for the escort mission.
"All flight leaders to the ready room, this is not a drill" rang out on the flight deck, and the sound of boots on steel came swiftly after. The Major was the second man in the room by a couple steps, and within seconds all the leaders were seated. Only then did they realize there were no warning alarms. About the time they all came to the conclusion this was not combat related, the Colonel strolled to the center of the room. "Gentlemen, I apologize for the theatrics, but this is big news!" He seemed to be elated, which probably meant bad news for the Major, and possibly the entire wing. "Your new orders have arrived." "New orders, sir?" the Major asked. "Are we not to escort the governor to Skree Fron?" The Colonel smiled as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. "On the contrary, it seems your trip will be one way. Your wing has been transferred to be the new instructors at the academy we have constructed on Scree Fron." Predictably, the Major didn't visibly react and all his men did their best to keep the shock and outrage bottled up. "May I inquire as to who ordered this?" The Colonel simply handed over a data slate. "Major, I will leave the rest of the briefing to you, it is all there. Enjoy Skree Fron."
In his quarters the Major was trying to digest the new developments. He had often vocally disagreed with high command about methods and tactics. He had his enemies, his detractors, and those who questioned his loyalty because of Kyan Ichijyo. But these orders came from Grand Admiral Thrawn himself. That is a powerful enemy to have and as a result may mean the end of his career, and likley those of his men. He mulled it over a few more times.
Nihls heard the telltale beep of the comms unit on his desk. For a moment he considered not answering, but his officer’s professionalism stopped him from attempting the petty act of insubordination.
“Yes”, answered the Major with an almost unnoticeable hint of agitation.
The frightened Yeoman replied, “I have a high priority encrypted comm for you sir. It’s tagged Alpha Omega Urgent.”
Alpha Omega? The beginning and the end. That code was only used for highly sensitive comms from high command. The Major paused, “Put it through Killik.”
As the screen flicked to life, the Major noticed Admiral Thrawn sitting alone, in quarters remarkably similar to his. The Admiral cut to the chase, "Major, let me put you at ease. This is not the punishment you probably think it is. I have a specific need for you, and all of this is off the record for now."
This was not one of the possible scenarios the Major was prepared for, and all he could do was lean forward and listen. "Of course, Sir."
New orders were sent to Nihls data slate. "These will be your orders after you deploy to the academy. Your belief in better training and more advanced equipment will be the new reality, and the Empire needs it. I needed to get you out from under that idiot Colonel Farane first. Then we will need to greatly increase our presence on Skree Fron and the surrounding systems, but the first steps will be your next generation of pilots and our next generation of fighters leading the way." This definitely was not the outcome the Major expected.
"There is one more issue we must handle, and unfortunately you are likely in the middle of it. There is a spy in your midst, but we do not know who. When we find him, it will be your last assignment on the Invictus to deal with the traitor."
The thought of a traitor almost made him clench. "My pleasure, Admiral." Thrawn turned like he was going to end the call, but as if an afterthought said "I would ask you to stay on the Invictus for the escort mission, but I know that is not your command style. All I ask is that you stay alive, Colonel Nihls." Then the screen went black.
As the Invictus reaches its jump point.
Klaxons blared as Nihls walked steadily from his quarters to the lift that lead to the bridge of the Invictus. Stormtroopers marched in unison as squad by squad as they prepared for the jump to that followed the Pontiff into the outlying systems of Skree Fon. As Nihls walked onto the bridge he was immediately met by the communications officer who held 2 data tubes and his new rank insignia. As they were being handed over, Admiral Farane, from his position on the command deck, looked down at him in disgust and continued with the preparations to make the jump.
Colonel Nihls looked at the data tubes. Usually the tubes were marked by Imperial Command, however, the marking on these tubes were much different. With his new orders Nihls silently retreated to his ready room to review his new orders. “Guard… I wish to be left alone for the remainder of the jump. No one is to come in until I say so… Is that understood?” The Imperal Security Guard nodded with agreement and stood guard at Nihls door.
As typical Imperial fashion, his office was dressed in a minimalist fashion. The cold durasteel plates that made up the floor and the walls were chiseled and made to feel like razors as the simple white lights illuminated the room. In the center of the room was his desk that consisted of his data and communication console. Nihls walked around the sterile room to his chair and inserted the curious looking data tube into his console. To his dismay, an image of Ysanne Isard and the crest of Imperial Intelligence filled the monitor. “Colonel, congratulations on your promotion.” Any other man would have shuddered in fear at the sight of the woman’s deep red eyes, but Nihls gave little more than a nod at his concern. He realized it was a direct link to Coruscant.
Almost whispering, “Director… what do I owe the honors of this communiqué?” Isard in her crimson uniform sat motionless on the screen. “I am aware of your current mission which Thrawn has assigned you. However, I have another mission for you, a mission that is far more valuable to the Empire.” Nihls began to run the scenarios in his head. He had to be cautious, he was in the spider’s web between a black widow and a tarantula.
What would the Director of Imperial Intelligence want with him? What would happen if he refused? He had heard stories and rumors about what happened to people who defied her. All the stories about mental reconditioning and becoming her puppet… these puppets would return to their old life and on a whim would be activated to carry out her will. Grabbing a hold of himself, he sat up in his chair, straightened out his uniform and replied candidly back to the emotionless figure on the monitor.
“Director, my services are at your disposal.” Isard casually pulled back the snow white streak in her hair and tucked it behind her ear as an assistant pushed over a data pad across her desk. She pressed a few buttons and images began to flutter over the data console’s screen as familiar images and profiles began to stack up from right to left.
“Agent Nihls, you are being chosen for this mission due to the familiarity of defectors that are currently listed on your monitor. It is my assessment that these people must be eliminated to thwart the Rebel advance. Thrawn has you flushing traitors amongst our midst; take this opportunity along with your new post to complete your mission. You have been issued new command codes and security clearance. You will have Intelligence assets to help you with your objective… However… do not take my charity lightly.”
Nihls acknowledged. “Understood Director. Any specific target you would like me to begin with?” The Colonel thought he saw Isard give a wicked smirk but the image was blocked by the snow white streak of hair falling from behind her ear. “Yes... you may have the opportunity to take out two for the price of one…” Nihls did a double take of the two profiles images that were enlarged from the rest. “Agent Nihls, these two targets are your top priority. Governor Harn, in route to Scree Fon and the rebel scum, Zebulon Akarimas.”
The Director continued, “You are to engage the Rebel Akarimas with extreme prejudice. Intelligence feels that he is the social hub of the defections and without him that thorn in our sides, the Ichiban’s Raiders would fall apart from within. Kyan is the military stratagist and the reason they have been so successful against our forces, but without Akarimas their resolve will fail.”
Nihls remembered Akarimas. He had a natural style of leadership and was genuinely likable. He and Nihls may even have been friends at some point. But the Colonel had no need for friends now. Betrayal had taught him that lesson. Isard was crafty and knew where to strike at the weakest point.
Isard sensed the wheels turning in Nihls head, but carried on. “We are also certain that either Harn, or someone in his inner circle is responsible for certain security leaks. We have ensured that the Raiders have been assigned to assault the Pontiff and kidnap Harn and his aides de camp. We believe that this is an attempt to extract their asset since they suspect he has been compromised. We will make sure that Thrawn is given data that will lead him to believe that the traitor he seeks was killed in that Rebel shuttle.
You will allow them to take Harn and then destroy the vessel he is being taken in. There will be disciplinary action taken against you of course, but you have my personal assurance from the Empire that your status will not suffer in the long run. It is of vital importance that this entire situation be kept absolutely secret.
I understand that this may chafe against your personal honor and loyalty to the Empire, but with the Emperor no longer with us, as far as you’re concerned I AM the Empire. Are we understood?”
The Colonel sat there expressionless. “Understood Director.”
Under the gaze of the Director, the new Colonel was unsure which puzzling fact to address first. After a brief moment’s consideration, he decided which can of worms to open first. "Governor Harn, a Rebel agent? The man seemed like a pampered idiot to me, barely able to dress himself, and gifted only with parents of wealth and influence. I was under the impression he was given Scree Fron because the heavy military influence essentially makes him a figurehead."
"That is the going opinion, Colonel, but a preponderance of evidence points to him being an intelligence leak of some magnitude. Where he gets sensitive information is a more vexing concern. Either way, he is to be considered a target of opportunity." The Colonel nodded at that, while focusing on the other name on his pad. That was a much larger issue.
"This other name, you have proof he survived?" The Director nodded. "We have concrete proof that they all survived. Officially, we have never acknowledged it, but the rumored Ichiban's Raiders are in fact led by Kyan. It also seems they have taken an interest in Governor Harn." Isard was disappointed that the Colonel's legendary stoicism wasn't broken by that revelation. "We have somewhat reliable intel that they will make a move on the Governor to extract their asset. You are to prevent that at all costs. Agent Nihls, you have your orders."
"Colonel Nihls, Thrawn’s agenda to increase training and improving equipment is in earnest. I understand your concerns, but your assignment to Scree Fron will not be a permanent one, I assure you. Enjoy your vacation, Colonel." With those words, Director Isard had effectively closed the matter. Colonel Nihls had no other options left. "We will not fail." After the screen blacked out.
Ten Minutes to Zero Hour.
The rattle of storm troopers marching on the flight deck reverberated through the mostly empty hall. With the escalating flight ops against the organized crime elements, the Admiral decided to fill up the vacant space with every spare body he had to give the Governor a decent send off. While the shuttle awaited its passengers, Colonel Nihls and his flight took their positions. Moments later the Governor, his bodyguard, and some other hangers-on approached the shuttle, and one of them separated from the pack and headed towards the Colonel. It took a few seconds for the Colonel to recognize Captain Strye, Intelligence officer, and Nihls nemesis. He seemed pleased. This was not a good thing in the Colonel's eyes. "A little overkill perhaps, Colonel? With the current hostilities, this much experience in one place seems like a misuse of Imperial resources." The Colonel did not take such obvious bait. "I do not share your optimism. Why do you choose to darken my doorstep today, Captain?" Strye's eyes twinkled with delight, "Admiral Farane didn't tell you? I have been reassigned as the Governor's military liaison. It seems you won't be rid of me like you had hoped. See you on the surface, Colonel."
Shortly after the shuttle departed, the four TIE advanced escort took up positions around the CR-90. "Pontiff, this is Rho-1. Ready to jump on your mark." Shortly after came the scratchy reply "30 seconds Rho-1. We will be right behind you."
As they dropped out of light speed, the Rho squadron was urgently scanning for threats, but the scopes looked clear. Just as the tensions started to ease, four new objects rapidly appeared from hyperspace, the Colonel didn't bother to identify them. "Pontiff, get your shields up and turbo-lasers tracking, marking four new unknowns as Tangos 1 through 4. Make best speed and change heading to 225 mark 3. Scree Fron Control, scramble all ready fighters, there will be more. Weapons hot Rho group, watch yourselves, there will be a second wave before the bombers. Stay in-between them and the Pontiff." As the Colonel banked to engage the targets, he could see they were A-Wings. If the Director was right, Zeb would be leading this flight. "They are trying to draw us off, keep it tight." Finally, a worthy opponent.