by S.A. McCaffrey
Without warning, the Death Star orbiting the forest moon of Endor exploded, annihilating everything in its way. Aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Coercer, Grand Moff Randd halted in his steps on the bridge, unable to continue as a million lives were blasted into non-existence before his eyes. Randd—lithe, wiry, unpretentious, the diamond in a sea of arrogant and incompetent Imperial officers—gulped down the bile churning in his stomach.
Emperor Palpatine and the Sith Lord Darth Vader—the leaders of the Empire—had both been obliterated in the destruction of the Death Star. As Randd witnessed this daring act of terrorism through the viewscreen, he realized Imperial morale had just dipped to its lowest point. He groaned as the weight of the Empire fell to his shoulders, the last surviving governor of this great enterprise.
As an A-wing fighter zoomed past the bridge viewport, two ensigns in the starboard pit uttered a groan. Lieutenant Heysla, a heavy-set human from Kuat, reminded the entire pit with calm, "Attend to your duties." The lieutenant huffed as he moved his hands to his waist, waiting for the inevitable.
Randd shook his head at the young lieutenant. Just twenty-two years old—too young, all of these officers are too young—Randd knew the lieutenant had never dreamed he would witness the end of the Empire when he had joined the Imperial Academy a few years earlier. The Coercer was only the boy's second assignment since graduation the year before.
Randd observed the lieutenant taking action as monitors screamed around him.
"Sir, the starboard stabilizer is not responding," Ensign Woodlawr said with a tremor in her voice.
Randd swiveled his head to the even younger officer. He doubted the girl was even eighteen. This was her first cruise—and it may be her last.
Heysla opened a communication channel to engineering. "Elskel, what in blazes is going on down there? Get that stabilizer responding now!"
The squat engineer with dark eyes, dark hair, and even darker skin appeared on the viewscreen. "Lost our aft shields, sir! All personnel are on—"
The viewscreen switched from engineering to a damage report. The rear quarter of the lower decks had been blown away by a heavy missile from a Rebel frigate.
Lieutenant Heysla's mouth dropped as the connection broke. "Captain, engineering's gone."
Captain Deontah, a tall human from Ondoron, hurried to Heysla's display, smoothing her uniform and dark hair when she arrived.
The ship quaked once more, causing those in the pits to lose their balance. With a practiced tranquility in the midst of chaos, Captain Deontah said, "Activate fire control systems. Shut the blast doors from section E-41 onward. Open all hatches in the affected compartments. Scramble auxiliary crews to what is left of engineering."
"Yes, ma'am!" Heysla turned back to his pit crew. "You heard the captain. Let's get those blast doors secured and open those hatches." Ensign Shartrem said, "But, sir, any survivors will be sucked into space."
Heysla growled as he observed the frightened youth. "If I have to activate the controls myself, you will join them, Shartrem."
The ensign shuddered and returned to her station. "Yes, ma'am."
When Captain Deontah left the pit, she approached Grand Moff Randd. "Sir, the Rebels are not retreating." Her tone increased in strain as yet another TIE fighter crashed onto the hull. "If we do not pull out soon, there will not be a fleet left."
As she spoke, another A-wing careened past the bridge and blasted fire. A TIE fighter pursued the snub fighter, but a B-wing came from behind and took him out in a ball of fire. The battle between the snub fighters continued, as small ships dodged between the capital ships.
The Rebels had broken formation, with squadrons milling throughout the Imperial fleet. The Calamari cruisers continued their barrage at point-blank range. The Star Destroyer Coercer shuddered with each hit from the heavy guns. Klaxons sounded as yet another compartment lost hull integrity.
The Grand Moff from Coruscanti drew his brows together and tapped his forefingers on his lips as he weighed his options. In his twenty-three years of service to the Empire, he had never taken so much damage to a ship he commanded. He looked around him at the squealing alerts. Some of the displays reported the Coercer's damage, while others showed the damage to the rest of the fleet, with too many star destroyers ghosted out as lost vessels.
Realizing that his decision would probably end his career, Randd opened a communication channel to the entire fleet. "This is Grand Moff Randd. I am in command now. All craft, retreat. Again, all craft, retreat. TIE fighters, dock on the nearest Imperial vessel immediately. Disengage from the battle. Rendezvous coordinates transmitting. Randd out."
Randd breathed a sigh of relief as the hyperdrive engines activated. Long live the Empire.
Those vessels that were capable of lightspeed headed to the naval shipyards on Kuat. The others . . . well, their crews would be much older by the time they reached home, if they ever did.