Grand Admiral Thrawn may not yet be Grand Admiral in Timothy Zahn’s latest trilogy of novels featuring his most iconic Star Wars creation, but even before his time in the Empire, it’s clear that Thrawn has always had a knack for guiding himself through the most dangerous strategies to get what he wants—and his latest adventure is proving to be no exception.
Lesser Evil, the third and final chapter of the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, picks back up in the time before Mitth’raw’nurodo—Thrawn, to his friends and enemies alike—left behind the Unknown Regions of the Star Wars galaxy’s edges, and the Chiss Ascendancy that lay beyond it. The young military Captain finds himself at the heart of a plot that threatens to not just disrupt Chiss rule over the sector, but tear the Ascendancy apart altogether. As the Nine Ruling Families draw closer and closer to an unprecedented civil war, Thrawn must bear the burden on his shoulders of saving his people from doom against a foe as clever, conniving, and calculating as he is. And, in true Thrawn style, he finds that the answer to the Ascendancy’s future might lie in its ancient past.
Before he can find those answers though, Thrawn has to navigate his way to them in any way he can... even if it means piloting his cruiser Springhawk into the heart of his enemies’ operations to play a deadly game of probing his foes’ knowledge and defenses. Read on for io9's exclusive excerpt from the book below—or, if you’d prefer to hear it in audio form, listen to it from Marc Thompson’s reading of Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil’s audiobook, also making its debut here on io9!
Generalirius Nakirre gazed out the viewport of the Kilji war cruiser Whetstone at the dozens of trading ships orbiting the planet Zyzek. “Conquest.”
“An interesting concept, is it not?” the being known as Jixtus suggested.
Nakirre eyed his guest. It was unsettling having to deal with a being whose garments of robe, hood, gloves, and veil wrapped him in total concealment.
Especially given that such complete anonymity gave him a serious negotiating advantage over Nakirre and his Kilji vassals. Once Jixtus learned how to read the emotional responses reflected in the patterns of ripples and stretches that moved through the dark-orange Kilji skin, he would gain insight that went far deeper than Nakirre’s words.
But Nakirre had agreed to travel here with the alien, and the Kilji Overlords had affirmed his decision, and so here they were.
And truth be told, Jixtus did have some intriguing ideas on how the future of the Kilji Illumine could be shaped.
“People who would otherwise ignore the wisdom and guidance of the Kiljis would be encouraged to listen,” Jixtus continued. “People who would otherwise scorn and scoff at your philosophy could be silenced or sent where their rantings would not disturb or disrupt.”
“It would allow us to bring order,” Nakirre agreed, images of unprecedented stability running through his mind. Conquest.
“Exactly,” Jixtus said. “Order and enlightenment to billions who currently struggle and flail helplessly in darkness. As you well know, encouragement and persuasion—even passionate persuasion—can move a culture only so far. Conquest is the only way to bring Kilji insight to the whole of a region.”
“And you believe these beings are prepared to receive such insight?” Nakirre asked, sweeping his hand across the viewport at the merchant ships floating placidly in their orbits.
“Is there ever a time when enlightenment would not be beneficial?” Jixtus countered. “Whether they realize it or not, whether they accept it or not, the Kilji path is what will ultimately bring them prosperity and contentment. What purpose delay?”
“What purpose, indeed,” Nakirre agreed, gazing at the ships. So many merchants, so many nations, all standing helpless before the might of the Kilji Illumine. Which should he choose first?
“As I promised, we will guide you as to the nations most quickly and easily conquered,” Jixtus continued. “There are representative traders here from each of the four the Grysks feel are the most promising. We’ll speak with them in turn, perhaps sample the goods they’ve brought for sale. You will then—”
“Generalirius?” Vassal Two called from the sensor station. “A new ship has arrived. Unknown configuration.”
Nakirre looked at the visual display. The newcomer was indeed unlike any of the other ships already in orbit. Representatives of some new nation, no doubt, here to join in barter and trade.
Or perhaps not. The design of the craft was not that of a merchant. Its shape, the systematic groupings of bulges along its sides and shoulders, the distinctive sheen of a nyix-alloy hull . . .
“These are not traders,” he said. “That is a warship. Is it not?” he added, turning to look at Jixtus.
Only to find the Grysk silent and unmoving. The veiled face was turned toward the visual display, the robed figure as still as if the being hidden beneath the robe had turned to stone.
Usually Jixtus had a comment for everything. For once, he didn’t.
“If you’re concerned, you need not be,” Nakirre reassured him. The newcomer was about two-thirds the size of the Whetstone, probably no more than the equivalent of a Kilji picket cruiser, with a comparable ratio of weaponry. Should they choose to initiate combat, he had no doubt the Kiljis would win.
He could only hope they wouldn’t be so foolish. The destruction of their ship would mean those aboard would never hear the Kilji philosophy and thus could never achieve true enlightenment.
“Generalirius, the warship is broadcasting a message,” Vassal Four said. He touched a switch—
“—to all assembled merchants and traders,” a smooth, melodious voice came over the Whetstone’s bridge speaker, the Minnisiat trade language words articulated with clipped precision. “I am Senior Captain Thrawn of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet warship Springhawk. I have news for any Watith who may be present. Are there any of that species to whom I may speak?”
“Are there?” Nakirre asked, looking back at Jixtus.
Jixtus stirred, breaking whatever paralysis had overtaken him. “Are there what?” he asked, his voice odd.
“Are there any Watith?”
Jixtus seemed to gather himself together. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice any of their ships when we arrived, but I also wasn’t looking for them. I suggest we hold here and see if anyone answers him.”
“If no one else stands forth, I will speak with him,” Nakirre declared. “I would learn what news he bears.”
“I would advise against that,” Jixtus warned. “The Chiss are a devious species. He is likely asking that question in the hope of drawing you out into the open.”
“Drawing me out?” Nakirre asked. “How would he even know I’m here?”
“I didn’t mean you specifically, Generalirius,” Jixtus said. “But be assured he’s hunting for information. That’s what this particular Chiss does.”
“If no one wishes news,” Thrawn continued, “perhaps someone will give us the location of their world, so that we may return our prisoners to their people.”
Nakirre looked at Jixtus with surprise. “He has prisoners?”
“No,” Jixtus bit out. “He doesn’t.”
“He says he does.”
“He lies,” Jixtus said. “As I told you already, he’s hunting for information. This is a trick.”
“How do you know?” Nakirre persisted.
Again Jixtus fell silent. “Tell me how you know, Jixtus of the Grysks,” Nakirre repeated, making it an order this time. “If the Chiss mounted a raid, there would of course be prisoners. If there was a battle, even the most fearsome often leaves survivors. Tell me now, or I shall ask him.”
“There was a battle,” Jixtus said reluctantly. “But there were no survivors.”
“How can you be certain?”
“Because I was the one who sent the Watith against the Chiss,” Jixtus said. “Twenty-three Watith went into that battle. Twenty-three Watith died.”
“I see,” Nakirre said, pretending he was satisfied.
Only he wasn’t.
Because an observer who had spoken of Watith deaths would also have warned that the Springhawk had survived that battle. Yet Jixtus had clearly been surprised by the Chiss warship’s arrival. Was it merely the Springhawk’s appearance here at Zyzek, and not the simple fact of its survival, that had startled him?
And how did he know that this Chiss was seeking information? Did Jixtus know him personally?
For a moment Nakirre considered asking those questions. But there would be no gain. Jixtus was withholding information, and would undoubtedly continue to do so. That was the way of those who lacked enlightenment.
No matter. There was after all another source of information close at hand. “Vassal One: Yaw rotation to face the Chiss ship,” he ordered. He waited until the Whetstone was lined up precisely on the incoming warship, then keyed his mike. “Senior Captain Thrawn, this is Generalirius Nakirre of the Kilji Illumine warship Whetstone,” he called. “Tell me how you come to have Watith prisoners.”
“I greet you, Generalirius Nakirre,” Thrawn said. “Are you an ally or trading associate of the Watith?”
“Sadly, I am not yet either,” Nakirre said. “But perhaps soon.”
“Ah,” Thrawn said. “You have come here to initiate new trade relationships, then?”
Nakirre’s skin stretched in a wry smile. Jixtus had been right: This Chiss was on the hunt for information. “Not specifically,” he said. “We of the Illumine travel the Chaos teaching others the Kilji way of order and enlightenment.”
“A noble undertaking,” Thrawn said. “Have the Watith been among your students?”
“Again, not yet,” Nakirre said. “We are newly arrived in this part of space. But such things are for the future. Tell me how you come to have Watith prisoners.”
“For the moment, those details must remain confidential.”
“No matter,” Nakirre said. “I will accept your prisoners and return them to their home.”
“Do you know where that home is?”
Nakirre hesitated. If he said yes, Thrawn would likely ask for the coordinates and take the prisoners there himself. If he said no, Thrawn would probably refuse to hand them over. “I have already made many contacts among the traders here,” he said, choosing a third option. “One of them can surely provide that information.”
“I appreciate your offer,” Thrawn said. “But I cannot in good conscience accept it. If there are no Watith here to receive the prisoners, we will take our search elsewhere.”
“I would not have you go to such trouble.”
“That is my choice to make, not yours.”
“Enlightenment requires that I serve others.”
“You serve here best by permitting me to go my way,” Thrawn said. “Or does your enlightenment require you to take away my freedom of choice?”
“Let him go,” Jixtus murmured. “Just let him go.”
Nakirre felt a ripple of anger. Anger at Jixtus; anger at Thrawn.
He needed Jixtus and the Grysks to show him which nations were most open to conquest and thus enlightenment. He didn’t need Thrawn. “You should learn of what you speak before offering judgment,” he said, keying his board to begin the Whetstone’s ramp-up to combat status. “Someday soon I shall bring the Kilji philosophy to the Chiss.”
“I fear you will find little interest,” Thrawn said. “We have our own ancient paths.”
“The Kilji path will prove superior.”
“No,” Thrawn said, his voice flat. “It will not.”
“Again, you dismiss our wisdom without even hearing it.”
“In my experience, superior wisdom can stand on its own merits,” Thrawn said. “It does not require a warship to force acceptance.”
“You also bring a warship to this place.”
“But I do not claim to offer others superior wisdom,” Thrawn said. “Nor do I intend to impose my wisdom upon others.”
“He’s trying to goad you into attacking him,” Jixtus warned quietly, his voice sounding strained. “Don’t let him.”
Nakirre felt a stretch of contempt. Why shouldn’t he let the Chiss build his own destruction? The Whetstone was far mightier than Thrawn’s Springhawk. It would be the work of a few minutes to destroy him.
“He’s trying to obtain data on the Whetstone’s capabilities,” Jixtus went on. “And on your abilities as its commander.”
And why shouldn’t he demonstrate the might of a Kilji war cruiser? Whatever knowledge Thrawn might gain would be lost in the abyss of his death.
Still, there were others here who would witness that battle. Perhaps it would be unwise to show them the full might of the Kiljis before the Kilhorde visited their worlds to show them the path of enlightenment.
But to even look as if he was allowing the Chiss to dictate his course of action . . .
“Warships, this is Zyzek System Defense.” A new voice came over the bridge speaker. “You are both requested to stand down.”
Nakirre felt a ripple of cold amusement. The four patrol craft that had risen from the mass of merchant ships and split into pairs to confront the Whetstone and Springhawk were smaller and even more pathetic than the Chiss warship. Should they demand battle, it would take only a single laser volley to send them beyond all chance of enlightenment.
“The Kiljis cannot enlighten them if they are dead,” Jixtus reminded him.
He was right, of course. More important, perhaps, it gave him a legitimate excuse to refuse combat with the Chiss.
“Zyzek System Defense, I comply with your request,” he said. “Senior Captain Thrawn, you may keep your prisoners. I will see you again when I arrive among your people to change the ancient paths of the Chiss to the fuller enlightenment of the Kiljis.”
“I will look forward to our next encounter,” Thrawn said. “Farewell.”
Thrawn Ascendancy’s third and final chapter, Lesser Evil, releases November 16.
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