The Last Of Their Kind
Gilad Pellaeon tends the last Ithorian orchid of its kind while preparing the Empire for the final battle that will determine its fate in this original short story; the first in a free monthly series.
The Ithorian orchid stood two metres above the other varieties, its rigid stem parting at the apogee into a spiralling pattern of interweaving green shoots. Soft pink flowers shot out of each end, opening out to the bright morning light glistening through the transparisteel greenhouse. The Bastion sun shone its blueish-white beams across the thirty metres of rare blooms contained within, and their dark shadows moved upon the ground. Craning his head up at the intricate orchid stood Gilad Pellaeon, leader of the Empire, white-haired and weary. He wore a light grey tunic with no mark of rank or status, aside from a simple black broach in the shape of the Imperial crest. He lightly traced its shape before kneeling to the ground and turning his hands to the soil. He cut the earth with a basic metal trowel, the type of ancient implement that farmers on his native Corellia would have used for generations before the advent of space travel, or hyperdrive, long before wars raged across the stars. He lifted up the earth, motion after motion, until there was a mound of topsoil dislodged, and he paused to mop his brow. He was no stranger to exertion over the course of his long life, what a weaker man might have called a hard life. And now it was catching up with him. He tired now and then, where even a few years ago he would not. But there was no time to rest.
He came at last to the root, strangely bright, like the flowers of the plant, and he salved it with the mineral-infusion that simulated the Ithorian soil it craved: which he could not recreate, which could never be found again. For Ithor was burnt. The last survivors had fled in their herdships, the flying forests that evacuated the last of the Ithorians’ civilization from their stricken homeworld.
The Herdsman of one such had given Pellaeon this treasured orchid, the last in his possession, as a parting gift for fighting in their defence: Just three months ago Pellaeon had led a flotilla of Imperial and New Republic ships in defence of Ithor. But the invaders had been merciless: a duel fought to decide the battle was set aside, and the Yuuzhan Vong had destroyed the world regardless of its outcome. In the chaos following the battle the Council of Moffs had ordered the Imperial Navy back, putting the Empire’s last Star Destroyers into a defensive posture. Pellaeon shook his head, even now the decision brought him to contemptuous anger. The foolhardy withdrawal would do nothing but delay the inevitable: the Yuuzhan Vong sought the complete conquest of the entire galaxy, the Empire could not hope to remain unnoticed, even hiding as it did on the fringes of space, confined to a mere 8 sectors. Pellaeon thrust his trowel into the mud and began turning it back into the hole.
At any moment, maybe months away, perhaps years from now, a vast armada would be turned against the Empire’s last strongholds, to vanquishing all that Pellaeon had fought for, finally ending the noble enterprise to which he had devoted his life.
“And all I can do is tend the garden.” Pellaeon had finished his work and stood, looking now beyond the orchid, through the transparency, far into the sky above. He squinted to make out the barely perceptible triangular shapes of three Victory-class Star Destroyers. They were in high orbit, an endless spiral around the Imperial capital world. Waiting, waiting, waiting. He sighed in exasperation.
If he ordered the fleet to depart, to wage an active war beyond the Empire’s borders, perhaps there was a hope; but he could not hope to do so without the Moffs’ personal fleets; more than half of the Navy’s strength was under their command, squandered for the politicians’ own aggrandisement. All he could do was wait, and prepare. He had resolved on the long voyage back from Ithor to do as much: the Navy would be ready. If the Empire was to perish, they would sell their lives at an incredible price, one would that the enemy would never forget.
“Sir, excuse the interruption.”
Pellaeon turned to find his aide de camp, Captain Ardiff, walking towards him, stood between the bows of two Myrkri conifers. The younger man looked trim in his dress uniform; a requirement for all ranking officers on Bastion in the presence of the Supreme Commander. Pellaeon turned away and smiled privately; what would his younger self have said, the ambitious Republic officer determined to make a name for himself, constantly thwarted in the forlorn Judicial Forces, running down pirates and smugglers?
“What is it Ardiff?”
“Well sir, he’s back.”
An honour guard of Stormtroopers closed ranks around their leader and escorted Pellaeon and Ardiff to the Grand Admiral’s private study. A single window arced around the circular room, offering generous views of the garden beneath. A few droids tended to some low maintenance tasks: Pellaeon was loathe to delegate anything more than the most basic hydration. The soldiers stopped outside, perceptibly more alert than normal. Their guest warranted nothing less.
Ardiff nodded curtly, and from the lift at the far end of the corridor came the yellow-armoured bounty hunter. Two Navy Troopers flanked him, their carbines held tightly in their arms. The bounty hunter had declined to remove his helmet. Ardiff rolled his eyes at the theatrical gesture, but Pellaeon looked on impassively as the arrival approached. No other visitor would have been suffered to sit in the Supreme Commander’s presence with his face hidden. It was on Pellaeon’s own specific order that an exception had been made to the strict security protocols that otherwise governed every aspect of his life.
“You acquired the item?”
He produced a simple strap-bag and held it forward. The Stormtroopers instinctively raised their weapons.
“At ease,” Pellaeon said.
Ardiff repeated the order.
The bounty hunter opened the bag and produced its contents, which spilled out along with a terrible smell.
“What is it?” Ardiff said in disgust, holding his nose.
Pellaeon stood to examine it. “Skin?”
“Yes. From a dozen different species. The spikes underneath are yorik coral. They’ve treated the flesh somehow to prevent the spikes actually cutting through it. I am told each work is unique.”
“Sir? What is the purpose of this… device?”
“No purpose Captain. I believe it is art.” Pellaeon picked the vellum scroll up and held it before him, recoiling only slightly at the way it heated under his touch. “It is alive?”
“Yes,” the bounty hunter replied.
“If it is art of some sort, what does it mean?”
“That is the question, Captain Ardiff.” Pellaeon turned his attention to the bounty hunter. “You will be paid in the usual way.”
“No. Not this time.”
“If you want to negotiate a new fee this is hardl…”
“No,” the bounty hunter replied. “No fee. Not this time.”
Pellaeon put the scroll down and looked to the masked man who had found it, killed its creator, and carried it back across the line from deep within occupied space. “Why?”
“I know why you want this. You want to know how they think. You want to know what motivates them. What they die for. What they fear. I won’t charge for that.”
Pellaeon pursed his lips and nodded. “Then thank you for your service to the Empire, Kenix Kil.”
The bounty hunter nodded, looked at the troops as he replaced the bag, and turned on his heels to depart. The escort went with him and they vanished from sight.
Alone, Ardiff turned to Pellaeon. “Will this really help us sir? You know how much respect I have for our former commander, but can it really make a difference?”
“Only time will tell.”
Two years had passed. Two years of death and the end of worlds, of sacrifice and vanity, an age of heroes and legends, of cowards and collaborators. The invaders had swept aside the New Republic; even Coruscant had fallen. All the while the Empire had stayed away, its fleets growing restless, its army of young men – and even women – untested. Fighting fit but inexperienced; disciplined but untried. In those two years Pellaeon had scarcely slept; he had inspected every armoury, commissioned new ships, promoted the best of his youthful officer corp, retired many whose last fighting days had come and gone. Every Star Destroyer in the Imperial Fleet that could fight was ready, everything that could have been done was secured. He had spent little time in his orchid garden in the last few months; little time groundside at all. Instead, he bided his time aboard Chimaera, the Imperial flagship which had once led the retreat from Endor. The ship filled him with pride: Thrawn himself had taken it for his command vessel. Now Pellaeon flew his flag from the venerable old brawler. There could be no finer warship.
He sat in his private command centre, alone in the shadows. A new squadron had just transferred from Dominion, and he was engrossed in the personnel assessment reports. The Presfbelt Naval Academy had produced some of the old Empire’s best aces; he could only hope the quality of their latest graduates would match the legends of the past. Ardiff had protested that a Supreme Commander could hardly involve himself in the individual files of single pilots, but where the Empire’s flagship was concerned Pellaeon could leave nothing to another man, not even his trusted Ardiff. The long-suffering junior had born the frustrations of hosting an admiral onboard admirably; Pellaeon himself remembered the unique pain of not being the master of one’s own command. Ardiff did not grumble or complain, he simply did his duty. He was in every way the model flag captain.
Pellaeon set the pad down and turned around. Mounted on the wall behind his desk was the pulsating artwork which he had studied every day since it had come into his possession. He had traced its every line, even sketched out its strange angular markings with his own hand. The best academic minds in the Empire had examined it; he had even subjected the inexplicable piece to analysis by droids: which would have been blasphemous in the extreme to its creator.
He stood to face it again, his revulsion undimmed by time, but his fascination growing on each inspection. At first he had been confounded by it, the Krayt dragon-like protrusions, the vellum hide, stitched together from victims of many species, the simulacrum of life that its pulsing veins affected. What did it mean? That’s what Ardiff asked, occasionally with a note of disapproval in his voice; it was hardly a fitting object to mount on the wall of an admiral’s office after all. Pellaeon shook his head, as if Ardiff were there with him. “I don’t know,” he said to the silent room. But that in itself had been the lesson: finally he had understood.
He was no Thrawn; and this enemy were unlike anything they had ever encountered – or imagined. They were entirely beyond comprehension or sympathy, or the kind of understanding that a more brilliant man – that a singular mind like Thrawn’s – could use to entirely inhabit their psychology and destroy them. Pellaeon had not learnt much about the Yuuzhan Vong from the strange artefact, but he had learnt a lot about himself. He had done everything he could possibly have done. All that he could do, and he was ready.
He took a deep breath and placed a hand on his rank insignia, tracing the twelve block squares that denoted his Grand Admiral’s rank, the highest office in the Imperial military; to which in days of old only the Emperor’s own power could elevate an officer. Once there had been twelve; now only one: Gilad Pellaeon. He went to return to the personnel reports, but the internal comm interrupted him.
“Sir, the outermost proximity scanners have just gone dark.”
“All of them.”
Pellaeon leapt out of his chair, turning only to look upon the vellum art once more, resuming his march, his personal guard flanking him in the corridor beyond, then breaking out into a run as he stormed back to his command deck.
Ardiff stood at the forward transparisteel window, ready to report. “Sir, there are dozens of enemy signals reverting to realspace.” Distant flashes of light, far beyond the Sartinaynian system’s gas giant, heralded their arrival. “Gilad,” he whispered, “There are hundreds of them.”
Pellaeon surveyed the display. “They’re here. Then the day has come.” He felt the bridge staff turn to him as one for orders. And they came: “Have our Preybird pickets cover those civilian transports, bring them back within the defensive line. Launch all squadrons. Hold Superior and her task force in reserve, tell Captain Dix to keep his ships behind the mass shadow.”
He took a deep breath as his orders were made into action. The surprise attack had come without warning: yet it had long been inevitable. There was nothing to ordain that it would be that day, in that place. Only the treachery of the enemy, and his malice, were certain.
The chaos following the enemy’s reversion to normal space was coming into something like order: the green markers that denoted Imperial capital ships were lining up from the straggled formation of a few moments before, and squadrons were spilling out of the hangars of the Imperial Navy’s fleet to assume a forward defensive posture. The bridge was alive with the bellowing of orders and commands, the checking of instruments and the confirmation of sensor readings, guns were being brought to bear and squadron commanders reported in. At the centre of it all stood Pellaeon, master of his vessel and his fleet. And he was ready.
“Patch me across to all Imperial units.”
“You’re broadcasting now sir.”
“This is Grand Admiral Pellaeon. The enemy has come to us, as we knew he must. All that we hold dear lies on the planet below, and on the worlds we’ve trained to defend. If we falter here, if the Empire is at last to succumb, let it only die amid the howling of our enemies. If we are to fall, let us fall in such glory as the galaxy has never seen before. Not until the last of us has died a thousand deaths shall their warriors land upon our soil.”
How would you react? You can play the Age of Legends: The New Jedi Order to find out: the ‘28 ABY: Remnant Strikes Back’ Galactic Conquest scenario picks up just after the battle, with the Empire driven from Bastion, Grand Admiral Pellaeon missing and feared dead, and the Imperial Navy in retreat.
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Literally so good. Your writting is amazing!