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Somewhere between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, a ship carrying three Corellian traders has a hyperdrive malfunction and ends up far outside of Republic space. They are taken into the custody of Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet, and from them he learns how to speak Basic and about the Republic, potentially a threat to his people. Thrawn is currently testing/fighting an entirely different set of aliens, the Vagaari.
At the same time, the domineering Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth seeks to approve Outbound Flight, an ambitious expeditionary project that sent a mission of six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights and 50,000 men, women and children beyond the borders of the Galactic Republic into the Unknown Regions where they hoped to pierce the edge of the galaxy and seek out extragalactic life. Unwittingly with a little help from Darth Sidious, who is all too happy to get as many Jedi out of the way as possible, he succeeds and they launch.
Sidious's agent, Kinman Doriana, is sent with a Trade Federation battle fleet to intercept and destroy Outbound Flight some time after they leave Republic space. They encounter Commander Thrawn, who curbstomps them despite having a much smaller force, and captures the survivors, including droids. Doriana gets Thrawn in contact with Darth Sidious, who tries to convince him that Outbound Flight is a threat to the Chiss. Thrawn is cautious, but when Outbound Flight shows up and Thrawn uses it to destroy the Vagaari forces, Jorus C'baoth karks up everything and Outbound Flight is destroyed. Fifty-seven people and one Jedi survive, and Thrawn's brother aids this Jedi in a Heroic Sacrifice, causing Outbound Flight to crash in such a way that the survivors keep surviving, to no one's knowledge.
Forty-seven years later comes Survivor's Quest, set between the Hand of Thrawn duology and the New Jedi Order. Newlyweds Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade are contacted by the Empire of the Hand with a message from the Chiss, who invite them as New Republic representatives to come visit the wreckage of Outbound Flight, and reclaim the remains. They feel responsible for that rogue Commander's actions. Things are complicated when they are accompanied by a faux New Republic ambassador with his own agenda, and when the pair find that representatives from the Empire of the Hand, Commander Chak Fel and four stormtroopers of the Five-Oh-First, were sent along as their escort. Things are complicated more when some aliens show up claiming that the Jedi of Outbound Flight saved them from the Vagaari, and they want to pay their respects.
Things are complicated the most when everyone arrives to discover that there were survivors, who left descendants. They don't like Jedi at all. And the Vagaari are back.
Both novels have a Zahn short story included in the paperback edition. Outbound Flight has "Mist Encounter", about how the exiled Thrawn came into Imperial service; it was originally published in the Star Wars Adventure Journal. Survivor's Quest has "Fool's Bargain", about the Empire of the Hand's 501st before the events of the novel.
These books provide examples of:
- Always Someone Better: How Dean Jinzler saw his always-absent Jedi sister. And how his Jedi sister felt when she saw her Master praising Anakin.
- Attack! Attack! Attack!: The downfall of that Trade Federation taskforce. They were a fairly large taskforce, a tiny alien force showed up and asked who they were and what they were doing so close to Chiss space, and then they attacked the alien force. What could this Mitth'raw'nuruodo do to them, anyway?
Mara Jade (in Vision of the Future): So...just how badly did Thrawn slaughter them?
- Attack Its Weak Point: Thrawn finds weak points in all of the larger Trade Federation ships.
- Badass Crew: The four 501st units in Survivors Quest. They are awesome.
- Batman Gambit: How Thrawn handles the Vagaari.
- Also, Kinman Doriana is told to kill Thrawn so that no word will get back about what happened to Outbound Flight. He almost does, but at the last minute thinks "Mitth'raw'nuruodo, brilliant tactician. Equally brilliant strategist. A being who could take on Republic warships, nomadic pirates, and even Jedi, and win against them all. And Doriana was actually considering killing him?"
Doriana: *puts blaster down* "Don't be absurd, Vicelord. I would sooner shatter a thousand-year-old crystal as kill a being such as this.
Thrawn: "So I was indeed right about you."
- Call Back: There are calls back and forwards between the two books, of course. Survivor's Quest also has the young Force-Sensitive Evlyn. She wants to go with Luke while he's about to do something dangerous, and something about her eagerness and frustration reminds him of him on the first Death Star, when Obi-Wan went alone and to his death. Luke's spent a lot of sleepless nights fervently wondering if Obi-Wan would have lived if Luke had gone with him. Logic says he shouldn't take her, but his instincts say he should. And he does.
- Bittersweet Ending: Outbound Flight has either this or a Downer Ending, from a certain point of view.
- Chekhov's Skill: In a way. The captured Trade Federation techs are ordered to program the remaining droid starfighters according to Thrawn's plan, and the captured Federation commander puts in a second layer so that he can take over. Thrawn has the second layer removed and casually drops that fact later, but thanks the commander for showing him this second programming layer, which he uses in a Plan.
- The Chessmaster: Thrawn was this from the beginning of his career. Palpatine is a less prominent version, at least in this story.
- Jorus C'baoth wants to get Outbound Flight approved. Palpatine wants this so he can destroy Outbound Flight and get rid of eighteen Jedi quickly, but he doesn't just want to jam it down the Senate's throat, not yet. As Palpatine, he sends C'baoth to resolve a dispute. As Sidious, he sends an operative to build up and supply some fanatics on one side of this dispute, giving them a missile that's supposed to track down where the people meeting for the dispute. The missile is sent, C'baoth intercepts it, and then, while everyone is thoroughly shaken up, he slams down a compromise that makes him look like a hero, leading to Outbound Flight's approval.
- Cloning Gambit: Sort of. Jorus C'baoth dies, but from The Thrawn Trilogy we know that Palpatine decides he can still make good use of those genes.
- Divide and Conquer: Ultimately how Thrawn handles both the Vagaari and Outbound Flight, though he seems to regret that the Genghis Gambit didn't work out.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The crew of the light freighter Bargain Hunter are a cynical smuggler, his idealist female love interest, and a callow but intelligent youth. Basically, they're a darker version of Han, Leia, and Luke.
- Don't Shoot the Message: In-universe example: C'baoth leaves Thrawn with a very bad impression of the Jedi.
- Draco in Leather Pants: There's kind of an in-universe example, with Ferasi always seeing Thrawn as completely noble and honorable. He's a morally complex character, and nothing like a Card-Carrying Villain, but he's still not what she thinks.
- Evil Mentor: Jorus C'baoth to fourteen-year-old Anakin Skywalker. C'baoth likes Anakin, and Anakin thinks C'baoth is awesome because he doesn't try to appease people, he just gets things done, unlike Obi-Wan or most of the other Jedi. There are clear parallels between this and Joruus C'baoth to Luke.
- Fantastic Racism: In Outbound Flight, Doriana knows about his master's kneejerk distaste for nonhumans, but he thinks that Thrawn just might be impressive enough to make Sidious overlook species. In Survivor's Quest, Mara Jade is told that the stormtroopers are from the Five-Oh-First, thinks back to her time working with them as Emperor's Hand, and remembers that the Emperor's xenophobia rubbed off on them. The Empire of the Hand's 501st is not the original 501st remaining in the Imperial Remnant, but if they decided to take the name they might also have taken the attitudes. Then she and Luke discover, to their shock, that at least one of the stormtroopers isn't human.
- Also, the Survivors of Outbound Flight almost uniformly hate and fear the Jedi, and they lock away any children who show signs of being Force-Sensitive. One of the stormtroopers is angry about this. Locking up and 'disappearing' people who hadn't done anything happened on his homeworld, before the Empire of the Hand came.
- The Fundamentalist: Jorus C'Baoth is the closest we've seen to a fundamentalist Jedi so far in the EU. He believes that the Jedi connection to the Force makes them superior to other beings, and therefore they deserve to lead. He is confronted by some non-Jedi members of the Outbound Flight crew who call him out for his attitude, but before he can respond the project encounters Thrawn's forces.
- Gambit Pileup: The first third or so of Survivor's Quest.
- Glowing Eyes of Doom: All Chiss have these.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Thrass and Lorana.
Thrass: "It appears we will both be giving our lives for your people."
- Hyper Awareness: Luke and Mara can rewind their memories to take another look at what they saw.
- In the Blood: Admittedly, Joruus C'baoth was already crazy from being a flawed clone, but it's pretty easy to see where he got his... well... everything from.
- And like father, like son. Anakin and Luke were both fascinated by Jorus and his clone, respectively. But the clone was more obviously unhinged, and Luke has always been more good, so unlike his father, Luke rejected whatever C'baoth was trying to teach him.
- It Has Been an Honor: Thrass and Lorana.
- Last Kiss: Well, last hand-holding, anyway. Possibly a Hold Me; it depends on who you ask.
- Last-Name Basis: Early in Outbound Flight, Thrawn uses Jorj Car'das's full name. Car'das tells him to use his last name, since in his culture first names are reserved for friends. Thrawn asks if Car'das doesn't consider him a friend, and Car'das sarcastically asks "Do you consider me one?" Thrawn, thoughtfully, says "No, not yet. Perhaps someday." At the end of the book, saying goodbye, Thrawn says "Farewell... Jorj."
- Last Starfighter: Thrawn's tiny force of three small cruisers and seven fighters takes on two huge Trade Federation split-ring battleships and all the droid starfighters on board, six armed Techno Union Hardcell-class transports, and seven escort cruisers. Without a single Chiss casualty. This is what happens when you fly remote-controlled fighters against someone who can adapt to that and find weak points in all the larger ships.
- Law of Chromatic Superiority: As of Survivor's Quest, Booster Terrick's Star Destroyer has finally been painted red. Doesn't change the fact that it's a Star Destroyer and needs a ridiculous amount of maintenance and an enormous crew complement, and Booster can't keep it in anything like military shape.
- Martial Pacifist: The majority of Chiss. Thrawn is the exception.
- Modern Stasis: Star Wars Tech Stasis is averted here. In Outbound Flight, we see that both Republic and Chiss forces think of a gravity-well generator as purely theoretical until they see one in action. Droids are unknown to the Chiss, and the Corellian traders are shocked to see that the Chiss ships can perform microjumps, very short and precise hops through hyperspace.
- Military Maverick: Thrawn, particularly to his own people. They don't believe that preemptive strikes are moral, and don't have a word or phrase for the concept. He does them all the time. Unusually for this trope, they actually take offense to his rulebreaking and exile him after the events of Outbound Flight, leading to the Empire picking up their greatest strategist.
- Obfuscating Fawning Idiocy: How the Vagaari got in position in Survivor's Quest. The Chiss knew or at least suspected, but the others didn't.
- Omniglot: Thrawn learns Basic ridiculously fast.
- Prequel: Survivor's Quest actually came out two years before Outbound Flight, and they can be read in either order.
- Promoted Fangirl: Ari Roselani, cosplaying as Grand Admiral Thrawn, met Timothy Zahn in 2002, and apparently they became friends. Outbound Flight has a female Chiss admiral, dressed all in white and aiding in Thrawn's convoluted plans, named Ar'alani.
- Punctuation Shaker: Chiss full names, with the exception of Ar'alani, always have two. Apparently they're glottal stops. Car'das mangles Thrawn's name into Mitthrawnurudo, Doriana manages to get it right, and Kav doesn't even try.
- Sherlock Scan: Thrawn, art, you know how it goes.
- Shoot the Dog: Thrawn shot down ships with living shields, saying that those hostages were already dead.
- Tested On Slaves: When the Vagaari commander gets his hands on the droids stowed away in Car'das's stolen shuttle, one of the first things he does is test their firepower on Geroon slaves.
- Sparing the Aces: Complete with The Princess Bride reference.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: No one ever learns what Thrass and Lorana did.
- This whole story was originally one of these. In The Thrawn Trilogy Thrawn tells us that he destroyed the Outbound Flight Project and killed the original C'baoth (and his vehemence then is now explained) and in Hand of Thrawn Soontir Fel and Voss Parck give more details about the way Thrawn was outnumbered.
- The Ishmael: As always, Thrawn's viewpoint is a mystery. We also never see Jorus C'baoth's thoughts, and it's a given that Darth Sidious is like that too.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Maris Ferasi
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Jorus C'baoth isn't as bad as his clone, but he's still not the stablest of beings. You can see why he and Palpatine get along...
- The Woobie: Lorana Jinzler. Aside from Obi-Wan, she's the single most unambiguously "good" character in the story.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: How Thrawn takes down the Trade Federation task force.