Star Wars favorite Thrawn faces an unusual threat in exclusive excerpt from Ascendancy Trilogy's 2nd novel
Star Wars continues to piece together the elaborate puzzle that is Grand Admiral Thrawn.
The popular blue-skinned, calculating mastermind returns to the spotlight in the second novel of author Timothy Zahn's Ascendancy Trilogy, and EW has an exclusive excerpt ahead of the book's debut on Tuesday.
Thrawn Ascendancy Book II: Greater Good follows the events of 2020's Chaos Rising in the telling of Thrawn's machinations and missions before he became known as the Empire's Grand Admiral. The novel picks up when an unseen threat is working to sow discord within the ranks of the Chiss ruling families and destroy the empire from within.
The third and final novel in the trilogy, Lesser Evil, has been announced for a Nov. 16 drop later this year.
Everyone seems to be looking for Thrawn these days. Ahsoka Tano was on the hunt for him in The Mandalorian's second season, teasing the character's live-action debut at some point. (In Rosario Dawson's newly announced Ahsoka spinoff series for Disney+, perhaps?) Thrawn has also popped up in animation form, notably in Star Wars Rebels. But Zahn, the prime literary voice when it comes to Thrawn's book adventures, continues to tell his origin story saga.
In the below excerpt, which involves Thrawn's first officer Samakro, his crew is sent to investigate rumors of renewed pirate activity at the edge of the Ascendancy's borders in the hopes of finding a connection to the mysterious assailants working against them. There, they are led into a rather unusual encounter.
There were times, Samakro mused, where something in his life felt vaguely like a bit of personal history repeating itself. There were also times there was no vagueness about it whatsoever.
Today was one of the latter.
Flying the Springhawk into the Paataatus hive-home system of Nettehi. Flying along the same approach vector they'd used during the punitive raid with Admiral Ar'alani. Flying in with no idea of what was waiting for them.
Only this time they didn't have the Vigilant and the other ships of Ar'alani's task force along. This time, they were going in alone.
"Prepare for breakout," Thrawn called calmly from his command chair.
Samakro glanced around the bridge, long experience enabling him to gauge the officers' moods merely by looking at them. They were tense, he could tell, for all the same reasons he was. But he could see no panic or serious doubt. They'd been with Thrawn long enough to trust him to get them through whatever mess he was leading them into.
Distantly, Samakro wondered if they'd had that same confidence back when he'd been the Springhawk's commander.
"Three, two, one."
The star-flares flashed and settled into stars framing the planet Nettehi. "Dalvu?" Thrawn asked.
"Combat range: We've got fighters," the sensor officer announced. "Approximately twenty gunboats within combat and mid-range."
"Check planetary orbit," Thrawn said. "I think I see some larger ships there."
"Checking . . . confirmed, sir," Dalvu said. "I make seven ships: six enhanced cruisers, one heavy frigate."
Samakro eyed the display. The seven ships were flying in a Paataatus guard configuration: the frigate in the center with a cruiser on either flank and two cruisers each in a line in front and astern of it.
"Full magnification and status readouts," Thrawn ordered. "Frigate first, then the cruisers."
The image of a medium-sized ship appeared on the sensor display, blurred somewhat by distance and the tenuous planetary atmosphere it was currently orbiting through.
But it was clear enough to see the standard Paataatus heavy warship design: wide and flat, heavy armor with minimal point defenses on top, main lasers arrayed along the leading edge, missile tubes positioned underneath the bow. It was an unusual design among the various aliens the Ascendancy dealt with, but it fit well with the Paataatus tactic of approaching an opponent with lasers blazing, then pitching up to fire missiles as the attacking ship veered up and away to open a path for the next attacker moving in behind it.
"Mid Captain?" Thrawn invited.
"Looks Paataatus to me, sir," Samakro said. "Certainly doesn't match any of the Vagaari ship configurations in our records."
"Agreed," Thrawn said. "Which doesn't conclusively prove anything, of course, given the Vagaari habit of conquering other aliens and adapting their technology. But it's a strong indicator, particularly since I don't see any major ship modifications."
Samakro shifted his attention to the planetary data now streaming across the secondary sensor display. "I also see no evidence of large-scale damage on the planet's surface," he pointed out.
"Excellent observation," Thrawn said approvingly. "The rumors spoke of an alliance, but they could as easily have been a distorted report of a Vagaari invasion. But the Paataatus would hardly have given up without a fight, which would likely have led to visible planetary destruction."
Samakro nodded. Their joint conclusion didn't address the original rumors, he knew. But Thrawn liked to trim the weeds from the edges of an operation, clearing out the unlikely options before focusing on the main thrust. In this case, they were going to find the Paataatus either alone or in full alliance with the pirates.
Either scenario could be trouble, but both left the Springhawk free to respond as soon as they were fired on without fear of tearing into victims or—unlikely with the Paataatus—innocent bystanders.
"Captain, we're receiving a transmission," Brisch called from the comm station. He touched a key—
"This is the Prince Militaire," a Paataatus voice came over the bridge speaker.
Samakro frowned. Prince Militaire? He'd never heard of that rank before.
If it even was a rank. It could just as easily be a title or name or something unique to these aliens. Chiss diplomats had dealt with Paataatus negotiators a few times, but the inner workings of their government remained a complete mystery. Certainly the Expansionary Defense Fleet had had no interaction with them that didn't involve shooting or being shot at.
"You are trespassing within holy Paataatus space," the prince continued.
"Unusually talky today, aren't they?" Afpriuh commented from the weapons station. "Sir, all enemy ships are holding station."
"Talky and standing their ground," Samakro said. "Not like them at all."
"No," Thrawn said. "It's not."
Samakro looked sideways at him. Thrawn's eyes were narrowed, his attention shifting back and forth between the sensor and tactical displays. "You said we were going to ask them about the Vagaari?" Samakro reminded his commander quietly.
"Yes," Thrawn said thoughtfully. He hesitated another moment, then touched the comm key on his chair. "Prince Militaire, this is Senior Captain Thrawn aboard the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet warship Springhawk," he called. "We come in peace, with a question for you." He keyed the mute.
Samakro frowned. "You're not going to ask the question, sir?" he asked.
"Not yet," Thrawn said. "Call this an experiment."
"Paataatus ships on the move, sir," Dalvu said. "Ten fighters moving toward us; orbiting ships reconfiguring. Remaining fighters holding station."
"Watch closely, Mid Captain," Thrawn said. "Let's see what they do."
"Yes, sir," Samakro said, suppressing a snort. Actually, if the Paataatus followed their standard battle doctrine, what they would do was swarm their target and try to blow it out of the sky. And with the Springhawk out here all alone . . .
"There," Thrawn said, pointing at one of the displays. "The orbiting ships. You see it?"
Samakro focused on them. The seven ships were on the move, shifting from sentry to defense configuration. One of the lead cruisers moved up to a position above the frigate, while one of the trailing cruisers moved beneath it. "Defense configuration," he said. "Which suggests our Prince Militaire is aboard the frigate."
"Correct," Thrawn said. "But did you notice how the cruisers took up their new positions?"
Samakro frowned. "One of the leading ships moved up, one of the trailing ships moved down."
"The first leading cruiser went up to dorsal guard position, while the one behind it stayed in vanguard position," Thrawn said. "But the trailing cruisers did things in the opposite way, with the one directly behind the frigate dropping beneath it in ventral guard position while the one farthest aft moved forward to take its place."
Samakro played the memory back. Thrawn was right. "Yes, sir," he said. "I'm not sure I see the significance."
"Fighters gathering, sir," Afpriuh called.
"I see them." Thrawn keyed off the mute. "Prince Militaire, this is Senior Captain Thrawn. As I've said already, we come in peace. However, if your current situation remains unchanged, I assure you that you'll witness the full might of the Chiss Ascendancy."
"Do you make threats against the Paataatus Hiveborn, Senior Captain Thrawn?" the prince demanded.
"I stand by the precise words of my statement, Prince Militaire," Thrawn said.
"Do you intend harm to the Paataatus?"
"I stand by the precise words of my statement."
"The consequences are yours."
"I am prepared to accept them."
"Then all is in your hands."
"I am prepared."
A tone sounded from the speaker. "He's cut off transmission, sir," Brisch reported.
"Understood," Thrawn said. "Stand ready, all weapons."
Samakro took a careful breath. What was Thrawn doing? "Sir, we have no authorization to initiate hostilities against the Paataatus."
"Nor do I intend to," Thrawn assured him. "Do you see anything odd about those fighters' attack formation?"
Samakro shifted his attention to the tactical, trying to force back the sudden doubts, his own earlier thoughts whispering back to him. To trust him to get them through whatever mess he was leading them into . . .
He frowned. Paataatus fighters typically used a swarm strategy, driving in at full speed from all directions in a horizontally layered attack. But these ships had instead gathered in groups of two and three and were moving warily toward the Springhawk. "That's not the usual Paataatus structure," he said.
"Indeed it's not," Thrawn said, a hint of grim amusement in his voice. "But it is one we've seen before."
An instant later the two nearest groups of fighters opened fire, their lasers blazing at the Springhawk.
"Incoming fire!" Afpriuh snapped. "Response, sir?"
"Hold your fire," Thrawn said calmly.
"Sir, we're being attacked!"
"No, we're not," Thrawn said. "Dalvu? Damage report?"
"Damage—" Dalvu broke off. "None, sir," he said, clearly confused. "Enemy lasers running at . . . one-tenth power?"
"That can't be," Samakro insisted, looking at the sensor readout. Those lasers had been fully as bright as anything he'd ever seen from a Paataatus attack.
But Dalvu was right. The energy blasts had barely even gotten the attention of the Springhawk's electrostatic shields, let alone strained them. "I don't understand."
"Dalvu: Analysis on laser spectrum," Thrawn ordered. "What are they keyed to?"
Samakro felt his eyes narrow. A ridiculous question. Spectrum lasers by definition were designed to quickly shift their energy frequencies to whatever would be best absorbed by the material they were focused on.
"They're not keyed to our hull, sir," Dalvu said, still sounding confused. "They're—" Again he stopped . . . but this time, he half turned in his seat to give Thrawn a wry smile. "They're keyed to the interplanetary dust profile."
For a couple of heartbeats, Samakro still didn't get it. Keyed to the dust profile?
Then suddenly he understood.
Lasers were only visible because the passing energy ionized the tenuous dust and solar wind medium drifting through the otherwise empty space. By keying to the ionization profile of that mix, the fighters' low-energy lasers were making themselves maximally visible. As visible, in fact, as full-power lasers that were instead keyed to a warship's hull.
"You're right, sir," he said, his words and conclusion sounding incredulous in his ears. "It's not an attack."
He looked at Thrawn. "It's a light show."
"It is indeed," Thrawn said.