Gilad Pellaeon, captain of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera , receives word of a successful information raid on the Obroa-skai system. A retaliatory strike by an Obroa-skai task force is easily defeated by Pellaeon's superior, Grand Admiral Thrawn. On Coruscant, Obi-Wan Kenobi approaches Luke Skywalker in his sleep to say farewell, sending Luke into depression. Leia Organa Solo, three months pregnant with twins, senses Luke's depression and sends C-3PO to speak with him. On Tatooine, Han Solo and Chewbacca offer legal work to Dravis and his smuggler allies in an attempt to solve the New Republic's shortage on cargo ships despite the objections of Bothan councilor Borsk Fey'lya.
On Myrkr, smuggler Talon Karrde and his subordinate Mara Jade help Thrawn and Pellaeon obtain several creatures called ysalamiri. Afterward, the Chimaera travels to the Emperor's storehouse on Wayland. On the planet, Thrawn and Pellaeon encounter Joruus C'baoth, the guardian of the storehouse. Thrawn's ysalamiri prevents C'baoth from using the Force within a short radius; with little choice, C'baoth offers his services in exchange for two prospective students: Luke and Leia. Thrawn sends a group of Noghri to capture Luke and Leia on Bimmisaari, but the attempt fails; Thrawn convinces C'baoth to seek Luke while the Empire focuses on capturing Leia. Han decides to suspend negotiations with the Bimmisaari leaders and return to Coruscant; Admiral Ackbar, commander in chief of the New Republic fleet, agrees with Han's decision, while Fey'lya feels that the departure will generate negative attention. Meanwhile, Thrawn launches his first offensive: a series of hit-and-run attacks into New Republic territory.
After another failed kidnapping on Bpffash, Han and Leia keep a low profile; they decide to visit Lando Calrissian on Nkllon. Noghri aliens once again attempt to capture Leia. On Dagobah, Luke discovers a metal cylinder and decides to bring it to Lando for investigation. When the protagonists meet on Nkllon to visit Lando, 51 of his mole miners are stolen by the Empire.
Han and Lando discuss plans to visit Talon Karrde as part of the smuggler recruitment operation. The Chimaera intercepts a message coming from the Millennium Falcon in Leia's voice, but Thrawn knows it is merely a recording; through logical reasoning, he determines that Han and Lando are the only ones aboard, and adjusts his plans accordingly. Thrawn nearly captures Luke in a space ambush; Luke escapes but becomes stranded in his X-wing fighter with R2-D2 until the Wild Karrde discovers them.
Luke guesses that the Wild Karrde is either a smuggler, a pirate, or a disguised warship. Still, he takes his chances and goes aboard as he has no other option. Luke wakes up and realizes that he is no longer on the freighter. When he finally wakes up, he notices Mara is in the room with him. Karrde is undecided as to what he wants to do with Luke. Han uses C-3PO to transmit a message to Coruscant in Leia's voice. Han interprets the response to mean that Fey'lya is gathering forces to possibly push Ackbar out of the New Republic Council. In the meantime, Han and Lando leave the Falcon to meet with a fellow smuggler who is supposed to tell them the location of Talon Karrde's base.
Karrde alerts Mara to Han and Lando's arrival and has Luke brought to a secure area before the two arrive. Karrde meets the visitors and is intrigued by the New Republic's offer. When Thrawn hails Karrde, he says he needs more ysalamiri and wants to have a talk. He tells Karrde that he is in the market for some new warships. Thrawn insists on sending stormtroopers to aid in a search and rescue mission. Karrde discovers that Han and Lando know about the Imperials' visit. They sneak out to the storage sheds to snoop on the prisoner that Karrde is reportedly holding. When they get to the storage room Luke was in, they notice that the door opener was tampered with; unknown to them, however, Luke and R2 have escaped with Mara chasing them. Mara, Luke, and R2 fight off predators in the forest and camp for the night. Posing as Jade, Luke surrenders Mara and R2 the next day to an Imperial patrol that brings them all to the Myrkr spaceport. There, Han, Lando, and Karrde's men ambush the Imperial soldiers and rescue Luke and R2 before leaving the planet.
With the strain of the recent Noghri kidnapping attempts, Leia and Chewie flee to his homeworld of Kashyyyk. However, another Noghri attacks Leia in the middle of the night. She successfully defends herself but the alien stops his attack. Chewbacca and Ralrracheen burst into the room immediately and Leia tells them not to kill the alien. Using her lightsaber she disables their ship so they are forced to leave.
On board the Chimaera , Pellaeon confirms that there are 112 transient warships available at the Sluis Van shipyards. They activate a cloaking shield and head toward Sluis Van for their attack. Thrawn plans to send stormtroopers to hijack the ships using the stolen mole miners from Nkllon. Wedge Antilles, who has just arrived at Sluis Van together with Rogue Squadron, notices a bulk freighter without escort and launches his fighters to inspect it. The Rogues are stunned to see the ship explode and see swarms of TIE fighters strike from the wreckage. The Falcon arrives in the middle of the battle and Han notices several Imperial Star Destroyers in the area. Remembering how the Empire stole the mole miners, Lando activates them all by remote control; his move results in many captured ships disabled. Believing that the sudden outcome is simply a temporary setback, Thrawn withdraws the Empire's forces.
As Han and Luke rest after the battle, Leia calls from Coruscant to tell them that Admiral Ackbar has been arrested on charges of treason.