STAR WARS: CONVERGENCE
It is a time of great exploration. In an effort to unite the galaxy, the chancellors of the Republic, working alongside the courageous and wise Jedi Knights, have dispatched dozens of PATHFINDER TEAMS into the farthest reaches of the Outer Rim.
But it is also a time of great uncertainty. Communication is unreliable, and tall tales of mysterious planets and monstrous creatures abound. Prospectors and pirates roam the frontier, and the worlds of Eiram and E’ronoh are locked in a FOREVER WAR.
And on the far-off planet of DALNA, a new threat to the galaxy is beginning to emerge. . . .
THE ROOK, E’RONOH
For the first time in five years, the sky over E’ronoh’s capital was clear of fighting ships. When errant debris pierced the atmosphere, it was little more than ash by the time it settled over the stone arches dotting the landscape like great giants of the planet’s dawn, frozen against the red morning.
The war was not over, but life went on as life always does. Though parts of the city still smoldered, mourners hurried to inter their dead. As news of the latest cease-fire attempt with Eiram spread, the market of the Rook, E’ronoh’s capital, flooded with citizens anticipating the promise of the day’s water shipment.
Among them, Serrena, a slender figure dressed in a gray cloak, slipped through the haggling crowds. Tip-yip ten pezz a kilo! Thirty per barrel! Bargain asterpuff—dream the dream of the dead!
A mother bargained for a carton of eggs while keeping an eye on the sky. A girl, days short of the draft, shouldered her hungry baby brother on one side and cheap fatty cuts from the butcher on the other. A beggar waved an empty cup. A vendor shooed flies away from his spoiled fruit. A palace guard jumped at the resounding crunch of metal—only to turn and find that a speeder hauling scrap had overturned.
Serrena tugged at the hood of her cloak, but nothing, save for a breath mask, could stop anyone on the forsaken planet from eating a mouthful of dust, even when the winds were still. Snaking through the market and down a narrow underpass, she stopped at the fringe of the hangar bay. Here the canyon’s natural archways made it the perfect architecture for the royal launch pad. Locals liked to say the cavernous opening was the petrified yawning mouth of an old god. To Serrena it was just another place, another opportunity to serve the only entity truly committed to keeping the galaxy in balance.
As crewmembers flitted back and forth, readying a squadron of starships for flight, Serrena crept along the undulating walls of the canyon, invisible as the pilots huddled almost protectively around their captain. The young woman’s face was half cast in the canyon’s shadow, but Serrena could just make out the calm intensity on her regal features. The promise in her fist she pounded over her heart. Words that cut through the cacophony like E’roni gems as they all shouted—“For E’ronoh!”
“Thanks for the rousing pep talk, Captain A’lbaran,” Serrena muttered as she crouched behind one of the astromech droids and inserted a slender program chip into its front panel. A sharp thrill of victory coursed through her, but the moment was short-lived.
A soldier with an eye patch rounded the corner and halted. Confusion, then alarm twisted his face as he closed their distance in long, swift strides. “You’re not authorized to be here!”
Serrena cowered, let herself sink toward the floor, but he yanked her upright and shoved her against a stack of crates. There was the hard plunk of an empty canteen hitting stone. Dust, always so much dust, lodged between her teeth, the back of her throat.
“What are you—”
“Please,” Serrena whimpered and coughed. “Spare a pezz for a poor farmer? Some water . . .”
“There’s a ration distribution at high noon,” the soldier said, releasing her with a frustrated huff. His medals boasted the rank of lieutenant, though she hadn’t noticed him at his captain’s side. Pity, then frustration flitted across his scarred face as he reached into his pocket and fished out a bronze coin. “Now get out of my sight.”
Serrena clasped the coin then sprinted away from the launch pad, merging back into the sea of dusty cloaks in the market where a fight was breaking out. The desperate citizens of E’ronoh shoved one another to secure a better place in the queue for water rations, which had doubled in size in the time it took her to fullfill her mission. Serrena pushed harder, shielding her face against the current of sweaty bodies, until she broke through the throng. Tossing the bronze pezz into a beggar’s tin cup, Serrena straightened and made for the road leading out of town.
“It is done,” she spoke into a short-range comlink.
A worried voice crackled back, “Are you sure . . . it was . . . the right . . .”
“Yes, yes, I’m certain.” She bit back the ire at being questioned. She had been chosen for this mission.
“Hurry back. Got a . . . perfect spot to see . . . the fireworks.”
As Serrena broke into a jog, thirty starfighters rocketed into the sky. Serrena let her hood fall, welcomed the heat of the rising sun, and smiled in anticipation of the will of the Force—because if the Force willed it, none of those starfighters would return.
BEYOND E’RONOH’S GRAVITY WELL
Captain Xiri A’lbaran was tired of waiting. For the ice hauler to drop out of hyperspace. For the enemy to break their tenuous cease-fire and attack. For her world to go up in flames again and again, and know that this time, despite everything she’d fought for, it would be all her fault. And yet Xiri waited, because in the outer reaches of the galaxy, the dregs of better-known worlds and sectors, waiting was all she could do. The helplessness of it all tore through her, though she kept her chin up, eyes locked on the chasm of space. She was the captain of E’ronoh’s fleet. She had to set an example for the batch of new recruits, every wave of them younger and younger than the last.
Xiri’s Thylefire Squadron had held sentry over the planet’s atmosphere since daybreak. Before the war, E’ronoh’s monarch might not have deployed a naval squadron for what was supposed to be a simple escort mission. But as drought ravaged her world, and hyperlanes crawled with pirates, the safety of the cargo was a matter of life and death.
Under different circumstances, Xiri would have marveled at the awe-inspiring view of their curious pocket of the galaxy. Her world, with its red mountains and sleek canyons, and neighboring Eiram’s turquoise seas mottled by constant storms. Locked between them were a belt of debris—remnants from years of battle that cluttered the corridor like asteroids—and the Timekeeper moon. Her own grandmother used to say that, billions of years before, E’ronoh and Eiram were two cosmic beings that emerged from stardust, and the moon was their shared heart, vital to E’ronoh’s winds and Eiram’s tides. Xiri had loved that story once. Whether in peace or war, the planets and their moon were irrevocably bound, not simply by the pull of their gravity, but by a long past and an ever-murky future. A future Xiri would dedicate her life to making right.
Now the restlessness among the young pilots was beginning to show as one of them nudged out of formation, then back.
Captain A’lbaran and Lieutenant Segaru had selected an unprecedented thirty pilots for the mission: safely escort an arriving ice hauler to the capital’s docking bay and ready the ice for immediate distribution. A hauler that was late. The previous shipment had been destroyed amid the most recent clash with Eiram. The one prior had mysteriously disappeared in the maze of new hyperspace lanes. The one before that—or what was left of it—had been found, likely ravaged by pirates and stripped to the wires, half the crew drifting dead in space. No, the only way to secure this haul was to intercept and escort it the instant it dropped out of hyperspace.
“Captain, we can’t stay out here much longer,” Lieutenant Segaru said, the steady tenor of his voice fringed by the hum of their private channel’s static.
“It’ll come,” she clipped back.
“It will come.” She worked her tongue against the dry roof of her mouth. She’d given her water canteen that morning to a child begging in the market and tried not to think of her own thirst. “It has to.”
Xiri turned to her left where he always was in their chain-link formation, his bronze helmet obscuring most of his bearded face. She imagined the scrutiny in his storm gray eye, the way the scars under his eyepatch turned red when he was frustrated and angry. She also knew that he was likely squeezing the pommel of the ceremonial bane blade every E’roni soldier had strapped at the hip, a habit she shared. That a part of him would never forgive her for being promoted instead of him. That he resented her, even as he turned in her direction, like he could feel her stare.
“Captain.” Then softer. “Xiri.”
“Don’t.” She snapped her attention straight ahead, past the blue of Eiram, and at the pinpricks of distant stars. “We’re lucky to have secured this shipment after Merokia reneged on their promise of relief.”
Merokia was the latest on their list of former allies. What could she or the Monarch have expected? With every passing year, every broken cease-fire, every failed attempt at peace, even their closest trading partners had turned their backs on E’ronoh. Few dared to intervene in the conflict, and most simply waited for a victor to arise to choose a side.
“I am aware of our predicament, Captain A’lbaran. It’s . . .” He paused for so long, Xiri moved to toggle her channel to see if her comm had fritzed again. “We agreed to clear the corridor between the two planets for Eiram’s military escort. They could take our prolonged presence here as a breach of the terms. I’m always ready for a fight, but this cease-fire, clearing the corridor—all of it was your plan.”
Your plan. Jerrod Segaru always knew how to get under her skin.
It had taken years off her life to convince her father to agree to this in the first place. He’d been convinced the circumstance was an elaborate plan for the enemy to catch E’ronoh with their guard down and attack, hence the thirty starfighters. The conditions were simple—Xiri would lead an escort mission in at daybreak and clear the space for Eiram in the afternoon. No weapons would be engaged. Previous cease-fires had been broken over less, but she counted on Eiram being equally desperate for relief, so they would understand.
Xiri knew quite well where the blame would fall when—if— something went wrong.
“Thank you for reminding me, Lieutenant. But we can’t go home empty-handed, and I won’t have another one of our shipments destroyed or raided because our backs were turned fighting a war. I’ll handle Eiram. We’re staying.”
“I hope Eiram’s general is as—understanding—as you would be,” he said, then switched his comm channel.
She followed suit, the restless chatter from the pilots filling the time. Every moment they remained in open space, they seemed to forget their captain was listening. She didn’t mind. It was how she got to know them, during rare moments of stillness, listening to the rhythms of their voices.
“Look at all this junk,” Thylefire Ten said.
“That’s not junk,” Thylefire Nine piped up, his voice breaking on the last word. The youngest of them all, Thylefire Nine had been dubbed Blitz on his first day of training.
The fresh recruits were mostly a result of the draft, but Blitz had begged for permission to enlist early, in honor of his fallen sister, Lina. He’d been weeks away from the conscription age. Xiri had done the same after her brother’s death, and perhaps that was why she had signed off on the request.
Xiri had seen hundreds of soldiers fall, but Lina’s death had been a turning point for E’ronoh. What should have been a routine recon mission to Eiram’s western isles ended in destruction when her starfighter’s thruster malfunctioned moments after lift-off, and she plummeted from the sky—the third malfunction in consecutive days, but the first to result in a casualty. It felt like everyone in the Rook collectively held their breath as they watched the ship crash into the Ramshead Gorge.
It was Lina’s tragic end that had sent civilians rioting into the streets. How many others had they lost, not to Eiram, but to their own fleet of outdated starships? What would the Monarch do to ensure it didn’t happen again? What would he do to finally win this war? Where were the food and water rations promised? Xiri couldn’t—wouldn’t—fight her own people and Eiram at the same time, but the dissidents propelled the Monarch to lease a plot of the mountains in the southern hemisphere to Corellia in exchange for three dozen devilfighters. Xiri had cursed the bargain. But she knew it was the most strategic solution. Their fleet was stretched too thin. E’ronoh was stretched too thin. But what would the Monarch sell off next? What would be enough? Questioning the decision, especially during a time of war, and especially by one of E’ronoh’s own captains, would have been treason. Even for the Monarch’s own daughter.
Xiri’s only form of rebellion had been giving one of the new ships— assigned to her—to Blitz, fresh out of basic combat training. She’d opted to remain in the ancient clunker she’d been flying since she enlisted. Besides, no matter what the ship, she’d get where she needed to go.
“It’s not junk,” Blitz repeated. His ship wavered, likely toggling his controls with trembling fists.
“Easy, Thylefire Nine,” Lieutenant Segaru growled low into the comm. “Get ahold of your ship.”
Blitz stilled and whimpered an apology.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Thylefire Ten muttered. “It’s just— look at it.”
The belt of debris was unavoidable. Remnants of starships and people floated in a river of scorched metal and frost-covered limbs. At first, Xiri had run salvo missions and turned cargo holds into reaper barges, if only to give closure to those waiting on the ground. Now it was nearly impossible to tell the wreckage apart. If the cease-fire held, she would try again.
People just want something to bury, Lieutenant Segaru liked to remind her. They might never be friends again, but she could never call into question his loyalty and ability to get his hands dirty for the cause.
“No, he’s right. It’s not junk. It’s a graveyard,” Thylefire Six said, his somber words followed by a strange yowl.
“Is that your stomach?” someone asked.
“Ah, he’s just nervous,” Lieutenant Segaru said amiably. “It’s his first flight.”
Or he’s hungry, you giant fool, Xiri thought. The words were on the tip of her tongue. But Lieutenant Segaru had a way of smoothing out the moods of their soldiers. Take it easy, kid. It’s just a tiny explosion, kid. There’re casualties in war, kid. We will make Eiram pay for their crimes and sink their glass palaces to the bottom of the seas, kid. Segaru could be their friendly lieutenant, while Xiri was the one who made them run drills until their bodies ached. The one who had to worry about whether or not they had the rations promised to the new recruits and their starving families. The one to fight with her father about prioritizing water over fuel, which was why that ice shipment needed to appear and it needed to appear intact and it needed to appear now because after five years of fighting, their homeworld had decided it had had enough.
The old gods are angry, cried the temple elders. The old gods are angry at the Monarch’s war and have stopped the rain.
Xiri couldn’t blame the old gods or new for the worst drought in her recent memory. All she could believe in was herself and do everything in her power to get aid to her people. E’ronoh would require every fiber of her being, and she would give until there was nothing left of her.
As the planets crept along the moon’s orbit, Xiri scanned Eiram for movement, but saw only swirls of clouds over turquoise oceans. No escort ships, but there would be.
“My wife’s going to kill me for missing supper again,” Thylefire Three murmured. The woman she knew as Kinni was among the eldest members of Xiri’s squadron and had been a retired mechanic when she’d reenlisted a couple of years prior.
“I miss my mum’s pilafa stew,” Blitz added.
Kinni chuckled softly. “You’re all welcome, of course.”
“Now that the war’s over—” Thylefire Six began but was cut off by a grunt.
“Don’t let your guard down,” Thylefire Thirteen snapped. “Nothing’s over. Not until they return everything they’ve taken. Our colony, our prince, our lives. Eiram should never know peace.”
Thylefire Thirteen was Rev Ferrol, son of Viceroy Ferrol, one of Xiri’s father’s most trusted advisers. Rev was repeating the same acidic words the Monarch spoke from his balcony whenever he felt morale was low. There was a mutter of assent, and Xiri tried to swallow the knot in her throat, but her mouth was dry. She could feel Lieutenant Segaru’s stare on her, but she only gave a shake of her head. Her people were frustrated, and she would be failing them as not just their captain, but their princess, if she shut off her comm simply because of her own guilt.
“We’re just catching our breath is all. The barnacles are, too,” Lieu- tenant Segaru added.
“M-my gran used to say when she was small, they measured time not by the moon, but by when Eiram’s ships flew over the city.” Blitz chuckled nervously. “I—I think she was exaggerating but it was ages ago.”
“Was it now?” Kinni scoffed. “Then I’m ages old.”
There was a string of laughter.
“Well, when it’s over,” said Blitz in his boisterous way, “I’m taking a pleasure barge to one of them resort planets.”
“There’s no pleasure barge coming out here,” Rev muttered.
“I hear that on some worlds you can pay to have simultaneous—”
“Simultaneous what, Ten?” Xiri spoke into the comm, crackling as others snickered at the embarrassed pilot.
The younger boy swallowed his words, then stuttered, “P-princess!
I mean, Captain. Captain A’lbaran.”
“All right, Thylefire, stay sharp,” Lieutenant Segaru commanded in his easy drawl.
Xiri allowed herself a small smile. She liked when they spoke of their dreams, their plans. That they imagined a when and an after. Their hope was a fragile thing, but it was there, and she couldn’t allow herself to forget it, not for a second.
A sensor blinked on her control panel. A dozen of Eiram’s ships emerged from their cloudy atmosphere. Their starships had a bulbous quality, outfitted for underwater submersion first and spaceflight second.
“They’re here!” Blitz said. His ship lurched forward, then staggered to a stop.
“Easy does it,” Lieutenant Segaru warned.
“I-it’s these new ships,” Blitz stuttered, his breathing heavy. “The controls are too sensitive.”
“Riiiiight,” Thirteen muttered, and the others took the easy shot and laughed at their nervous friend.
“Remember,” Xiri said, commanding silence, “Eiram is receiving cargo, too. We’re both escorting deliveries home. Wait for my orders.”
“Captain,” Lieutenant Segaru said. “They’re hailing you.”
Xiri licked her front teeth. She tried not to think of her thirst, her own pounding heart. Her squadron needed her to lead. E’ronoh would need her to lead.
“This is Captain Xiri A’lbaran.” Her words were steadier than she felt.
“Captain, this is General Nhivan Lao.” His clipped voice came in warbled through her ancient starfighter’s comm. She punched the panel hard to clear it. “We agreed the corridor between planets would be clear. Those were your terms, I believe.”
“I understand that, General,” Xiri said. “But our shipment is delayed. We would afford you the same courtesy in the same position.”
“Would you?” the general all but scoffed.
Xiri wouldn’t take the bait, and so their silence stretched heavy in the space between until the general cleared his throat and said, “Very well. See that you don’t cross your side of the corridor.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” She switched over the comm.
Xiri updated her squadron, then squeezed her controls and watched the empty field of space as if she could split open a black hole and wrench out the ice hauler from hyperspace.
“We should take whatever cargo they have, plus ours,” Rev growled. “I bet they’re planning the same thing. I bet—”
“I wouldn’t trust the Eirami, even if I had two good eyes,” Lieutenant Segaru interrupted. “But we stay put for now.”
“Didn’t you lose your eye in the first battle, sir?” Blitz asked.
“I want this channel clear,” Xiri said. “Is that understood?”
One by one, they signed off that they did.
Her sensor suite blinked. A coil of anticipation tightened in her gut as she said, “A ship’s coming out of hyperspace.”
Hidden among the pinpricks of light that surrounded them was the exit zone for the hyperspace lane the Republic had opened a few years back. It turned out that E’ronoh and Eiram were in the middle of nowhere, but on the way to everywhere.
When the ship emerged from hyperspace, Xiri stopped breathing. She had taken her squadron flying over the glittering spires of the Modine Valley, seen the first desert roses bloom, and yet, right now, nothing had ever been as beautiful as that rusty old ice hauler.
She sat forward in anticipation, smiled so hard her chapped lips cracked and bled. Even as she watched the hauler glide through the corridor between E’ronoh and Eiram, Xiri made a mental note that every bit of ice aboard was already spoken for, and they’d have to figure out a way to get more even before the last drop was distributed. It was a worry for later that night.
Xiri was a breath away from hailing the hauler when her fighter’s sensor suite chirped, this time flagging an anomaly.
“Captain,” Segaru said, worry and confusion in the single word. “There are two more ships dropping out of hyperspace. We must clear—”
Segaru’s words were lost as one gargantuan ship blinked into dead space after the other, narrowly missing a deadly impact. Xiri had only ever seen their likeness from newsfeeds on the holonet, and by the chatter instantly filling the comm channel, so had her squadron.
“Is that an Alif-class Longbeam?”
“Aren’t those Republic ships?”
“Dank farrik, what’s the Republic doing here?”
The Longbeams had narrow bodies ending in tapered noses. Xiri tracked the path they were on, and it ended in a double collision course with the ice hauler. To prevent a crash, the hauler listed, careening toward Eiram. If it got pulled into the ocean planet’s gravity, E’ronoh could kiss their water supply goodbye. Eiram could claim the ice hauler on the mere grounds that it had entered their space, and everything Xiri had worked for—this tender wound that was their temporary peace—would rupture all over again.
But if she accelerated to claim it, she’d cross the corridor of space and into Eiram’s territory and they would be clear to fire.
“General Lao,” Xiri said. “Come in!”
A crackle of static swallowed his response.
“Captain . . .” Lieutenant Segaru said urgently on their private channel.
Xiri’s fingers trembled on her panel. “I’m trying to flag them!”
A garbled voice came through from one of the Longbeams. “This is the Paxion of the Republic. Who is responsible for hyperlane traffic?”
Xiri couldn’t help but return the question with a bitter laugh. “Pull back, Paxion. You are not authorized to enter E’roni space.”
“Who is this?” asked the affronted party.
Xiri did not answer. The river of debris was moving, picking up speed as the Paxion barreled into the space between worlds. Wreckage pelted her squadron. Something that looked like a helmet smashed against her viewport and left behind a tendril across the transparisteel. The second, unidentified Longbeam broke away from the Paxion and headed toward the moon. But because Eiram and E’ronoh were so close together, the corridor of space was unusually narrow, and ships unaccustomed to navigating their system could easily fall into either planet’s gravity well. The Paxion pilot clearly wasn’t used to such tight maneuvering and was being pulled toward E’ronoh. When attempts to make contact failed, Xiri knew she couldn’t sit here. She had to move and hope that Eiram understood it was to avoid the Longbeam and not an act of aggression.
“Thylefire Squadron, on me,” Xiri said, flying higher and higher. “Get clear of the Paxion, and do not, I repeat, do not cross the corridor.”
“But the ice hauler is still going the wrong way!” Blitz came in, panicked. She could see his devilfighter deviating from their cluster.
“Thylefire Nine, stay in formation,” Xiri ordered. “Lieutenant Segaru, keep hailing the ice hauler and get them to reroute. I’ll deal with the general.”
But Xiri wouldn’t get the opportunity. The rogue devilfighter completely broke formation and sailed through space in sweeping dips and dives.
“Thylefire Nine, if you weren’t endangering the mission, I’d congratulate you on the best flying of your class,” Lieutenant Segaru said. “Now get your ass back here!”
“It’s not me!” Blitz shouted. “The ship’s out of control. I can’t—”
“Nine, that’s an order! Do you copy?” Xiri said, the channel crackling with the sharp note of feedback. Every ship was trying to communicate and unable to get their messages out as a green blur blasted through the debris field and at Eiram’s forces. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make contact. It was a shot fired from Thylefire Nine’s starfighter, from E’ronoh.
A single shot was all it took.
Xiri’s pulse roared in her ears. She tasted the blood on her cracked lips, choked on the helpless cry no one could hear. For a heartbeat, there was finally silence as the comm went dead and every one of Eiram’s forces fired back.
ABOARD THE VALIANT, HYPERSPACE
Moments before the collision, Jedi Knight Gella Nattai was safely aboard the Valiant’s cargo hold, walking on air.
The relief crates of medical supplies destined for Eiram nearly reached the Longbeam’s ceiling, but Gella always made do with the space she had. Stripped down to her sand-colored tunic and leggings, she concentrated on taking one step at a time. The Aerialwalk, which she’d seen performed by a priestess of the Singing Mountain during her last pilgrimage to Jedha City, took every bit of her concentration. Gella’s heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of her deep breaths. Every bit of her body was buoyed by the Force, a contradiction of sensations— adrift yet anchored, steady yet in motion. She was a moment and somehow infinite.
She took another step, now standing completely sideways. Slowly, she extended her arms outward, keeping her palms up, and felt the first tremble in her muscles. Focus, she reminded herself. She kept her eyes trained on the marbled blue and white light from the viewport. Her travels with the Order had taken her to oceanic worlds, across mountain valleys, and into cities hovering in the clouds. But there was something about hyperspace that humbled her like nothing else. Meditating while in hyperspace was like being buried within light, within the Force itself. There, and then gone. A blink of an eye, a star, a life.
She inhaled once more, then felt the presence before the door to the cargo hold hissed open.
“That can’t possibly be comfortable,” said Master Roy’s Padawan, Enya Keen.
Gella grasped at the air, but her concentration snapped. She fell hard on her side, pain ricocheting up her arm and shoulder.
“That looks even less comfortable,” Enya added, plunking down on the crate where Gella had set aside her lightsabers and the rest of her robes.
Gella grunted, pushing herself to her feet. “It was perfectly comfortable before I was rudely interrupted.”
Enya offered an apologetic smile but showed no signs of moving. She tucked one leg under her thigh, absently twirling the tuft of her Padawan braid. She must have been sleeping, because there were creases under her eyes on her deep-brown skin, and her dark hair was coming undone from the two braided knots that ran perpendicular to her spine.
“I’ve never seen anyone meditate standing up,” she said, “or floating upside down. You looked like a Loth-bat.”
“There are many ways to meditate, you know that.” Gella yanked on her brown tabard and holstered her twin lightsabers on either side of her hips, then quickly tugged on her socks and scuffed boots.
“But what’s the function for a Jedi?” Enya pressed in her lilting soprano.
Gella hadn’t exactly thought about the function a Jedi might have for the Singing Mountain’s sacred ritual. She’d simply been eager to understand it. To challenge herself to see if she could.
Enya, however, did not let her explain before continuing, “Can you teach me?”
“I clearly have yet to master the Aerialwalk myself.” Gella didn’t mean to be curt, but she’d hidden in the cargo hold because she’d wanted to be alone, and her room didn’t have a view of hyperspace. She half considered excusing herself and hiding in one of the stationed Alpha-class ships parked in the hangar.
“Right. Weren’t you supposed to be on your way to Jedha before you got in trouble with the Council?” Enya sucked in a sharp gasp. “Oh, I probably wasn’t supposed to overhear the masters talking about that.”
Gella bristled. “Likely not.”
“Well, I’m sure what happened on your expedition to Orvax won’t happen here! I also overheard that Jedi Neverez only bruised his tailbone and the rest are going to make a full recovery.”
Gella pinched the bridge of her nose. Two weeks and the reminder of her failure on her first mission as a Pathfinder team leader was still fresh. At the time of the accident, she’d requested permission from the Council to return to Jedha where she could train with one of the many orders studying the mystical ways of the Force. To center herself. To regain equilibrium and perspective about where her choices had gone wrong. Instead, she’d been reassigned deeper and deeper into the Outer Rim, aboard the Valiant with Masters Sun and Roy, and Padawan Enya Keen. It was hard not to feel like she was being punished.
She might as well know everything Enya had heard. “Is that all Master Sun said?”
“He also said that you are impulsive, but that you’ve got the skills to be a great master one day if you just apply yourself.”
Gella returned Enya’s wide smile with a scowl, though it didn’t last long. She couldn’t remember ever having the Padawan’s levels of energy even though at thirty standard years Gella was only a decade her senior. Still, there was something about Enya that wore anyone down, with her sunny, eager smiles and innocent hope. Even if it was exhausting on long journeys such as these.
“Very well,” Gella said. “I will teach you when we get to Eiram. I need the practice.”
“See? I’m going to tell Aida Forte that you are friendly,” Enya said, touching her finger to her chin. “I wonder how long we’ll be on Eiram. Lately it seems like we’re never in the same place for long.”
“Long enough to get them medical supplies, I suppose.” Gella pulled on her robe and combed her fingers through her long black hair.
“For as long as they need our help.” Master Creighton Sun rounded the corner. He was a stoic man of imposing height; Gella had caught glimpses of him over the years at various summits, but he never seemed to change. She was nearly certain Master Sun was now about forty standard years, but even when he’d been a young Jedi Knight, he’d had the same patches of silver hair at his temples, and fine lines around his eyes, like someone born to be wiser and older. Perhaps that appearance was why Gella always felt the need to correct her posture when he entered the room.
He glanced around the cargo hold like he was expecting to find it set on fire or destroyed. Honestly, that had only happened once, and it hadn’t been Gella’s fault.
Gella and Enya stood to attention. “Of course, Master Sun,” Gella said.
Creighton Sun’s bushy dark brows knitted together as his gaze settled on Gella. He scratched his freshly shaved jawline and gave a long-suffering sigh. “As I’m sure Enya came here to tell you, we’re approaching the coordinates.”
The Padawan rushed out the cargo hold ahead of them. Gella would have, too, if not for the beat of hesitation she sensed from Master Sun.
“I heard what Enya said.”
Gella dispelled his words with a shake of her head. “It’s all right, Master Sun. But it is bolstering to know you believe I might make a great master one day. I had hoped to have time to further my training in light of my last assignment.”
She liked the way he listened, the permanent furrows of his brows deepening. “And you believe you should do that on Jedha?”
“It seems the obvious choice,” she said. “What better way to learn about the Force, and my place in it, than to train with all the religions and groups who live their lives by it? Perhaps it’s safer to learn and train that way . . .”
“Safer?” Master Sun asked softly. “From whom? Or what?”
Gella met his kind eyes, the brown of forests. The first reply that came to mind was Myself, apparently. But when she went to speak, she could not say it out loud.
“I know how deeply you believe in our cause,” he said, noting her silence. “To be a guardian of peace and justice in the galaxy, we must first experience the galaxy. Better understand all the living beings that are connected through the Force. The Council didn’t send you on this mission so you could help deliver medical supplies. They sent you to learn to be part of a team.”
As a Padawan, Gella had done everything she was told. She leapt off a cliff and trusted the Force to stop her fall. She trained at temples across worlds. On Jedha, she learned about the wide spectrum of Force wielders and believers. She trained. For hours. Days months years. She tuned in to the very makeup of her body, meditated until she didn’t know where her physical being began and the Force ended. She’d done everything she was supposed to, but when she was called on for her most important mission as a team leader—she’d failed.
“Perhaps I’m better off serving the Order on my own,” she mused.
Master Sun raised his brows sympathetically. “There are many paths, and I trust, in time, you will find yours, Gella Nattai. But it seems to me that you are only scratching at the surface of what you might be capable of. You must have—”
“Patience,” she finished for him.
“Exactly,” he said, turning to leave the cargo hold. “You have the ability to connect in ways that are not obvious to the rest of us. We will all work in tandem.”
“I appreciate that, Master Sun,” Gella said. She would not fail again.
“Now let’s hurry and buckle in. Our last trip to Eiram was a bumpy drop out of hyperspace.”
She followed Master Sun through the corridor and up to the cockpit, where Master Char-Ryl-Roy was at the helm. Even sitting, the Cerean man towered over the others. He acknowledged Gella with a quick nod, the yellow and white cabin lights gleaming off his smooth, oval head.
“You’ve been to Eiram before, is that right?” Gella asked Master Sun as she strapped herself into the seat behind Enya.
“Oh yes,” Enya said, eagerly cracking her knuckles. “Though last time we evacuated before we could even dock.”
Master Sun’s lips flattened slightly, then he said, “This will be our third time in the last year. Eiram and E’ronoh have been embroiled in a conflict for going on half a decade now. Though I remember hearing about their squabbling when I was a Padawan. I fear the opening of the hyperspace lane in their sector and the tragic circumstance behind the death of E’ronoh’s prince stirred old wounds.”
“Is it wise to still get involved, then?” Gella asked.
Master Sun’s brown eyes were shadowed in deep consideration. “It is our duty to aid those who ask for help. Eiram has asked for aid several times, but E’ronoh has never called on us. Their monarch is wary of outsiders.”
Gella considered this. “And Eiram’s queen is not?”
“Oh, she is,” Master Sun said grimly. “The recent destruction of a military hospital left Eiram desperate. We convinced them the only way to safely get more medical relief was to agree to the cease-fire proposed by E’ronoh’s princess. I do believe it’s been the longest cease-fire since the fighting started.”
“A victory indeed,” Master Roy added from the pilot’s seat.
“How long is that?” Gella asked.
“Three days,” he answered with a pleased smile.
Three days! Gella thought. That was nearly as long as it took them to get to the Eiram-E’ronoh system within the Dalnan sector.
“Speak your mind, Gella Nattai,” Master Sun encouraged her. “I know you have joined us by suggestion of the Council, but I want you to feel like you are part of our team. I can sense you are holding back.”
Gella had never felt particularly eloquent when asked to voice her thoughts. Still, she cleared her throat and said, “To be honest, I don’t think three days is much of a victory.”
Enya snapped her attention to Gella, her large eyes nearly bugging out of her head.
“Perhaps. But it is a start,” Master Sun said confidently. “It is a delicate time for Eiram and E’ronoh. The wounds between these planets go deep, but I am hopeful they will find a way toward true, lasting peace.”
“A start,” Gella repeated. Is that what this mission was for her? A new start after so much trouble? “Right.”
Then the ship jerked in the hyperspace tunnel.
“Hold on to your backsides!” Enya shouted, white-knuckling her harness. Master Sun shut his eyes and grabbed hold of the handlebar above him.
Gella felt oddly steady, moving with the ship as they entered realspace and the blue glow faded to star-speckled black. Master Roy grunted as his head slammed into his headrest. There was a hard thud, and the entire ship trembled.
“What the kriff?” Enya blurted out.
Gella hadn’t heard the Padawan curse in front of her master before, but the situation called for it. Emergency lights blinked and alarms blared as the ship took a hit. At first, she couldn’t understand what they were colliding against. Straight ahead was what looked like some kind of old cargo hauler careening through a field of debris and toward the turquoise planet. Gella knew to expect Eiram’s military escort, but E’ronoh’s forces remained stationed in the narrow gap between worlds. She would have thought it impossible to divide something intangible like space, but these warring planets had found a way.
“Pull back!” Enya shouted.
Emerging from their blindspot was a second Longbeam cruiser. Gella’s insides churned as Master Roy strained to avoid the Republic ship attempting to right its course, but the nose of the Valiant ground into the tail of the other ship.
“It’s the Paxion,” Enya said, reading the control panel.
“Are you sure?” Master Sun asked.
Gella knew that ship’s name by reputation alone. “What’s Chancellor Mollo’s ship doing out here?”
Before anyone could speculate, a green blast shot through the dark. It impacted a bit of wreckage, but the source seemed to be a lone Corellian devilfighter charging through the debris.
“I guess the cease-fire is over,” Gella said, holding on to the copilot’s headrest.
Master Sun’s lips flattened into a scowl, then braced as they took another hit.
“This is Master Char-Ryl-Roy with the Jedi Council,” the Cerean male thundered into the comm. “We are a medical relief transport en route to Eiram. I repeat. We are a medical relief transport. Halt your fire.”
The cockpit’s lights flickered, and everything rattled as laserfire and debris rammed into them from all sides.
“Redirecting auxiliary power to the shields,” Enya said, punching in the directive.
“Erasmus Capital City, come in,” Master Roy roared, but only garbled comm feedback answered. “Eiram, come in!”
“I was trying to respond to the Paxion’s hail, but I think”—Enya’s pointer finger tracked a dish spinning into the debris field—“we took out their receiver.”
“Head toward Eiram,” Master Sun shouted over the alarms. “We can’t wait for the escort.”
“I have good news and bad news,” Enya said over the din. “The good news is that now they’re shooting at each other instead of us.”
“Interesting idea of good news, but go on,” Master Roy said.
“I can’t get in touch with Erasmus to give them our landing clearance. Without that, the city’s defenses might shoot us down as soon as we enter the atmosphere.”
“Well, we can’t stay here,” Master Sun argued.
He had said that it was a fragile time for Eiram and E’ronoh, but what had been enough to trigger an attack when both planets were urgently waiting for much needed relief?
Gella gripped the armrests of her seat, itching to do something. She could sense Master Sun’s frustration, too. “We should get out there.”
“We can’t,” he said, lament thick in his words.
“We can’t choose sides,” Master Roy agreed. “Our mission is to deliver the requested aid to Eiram, not fight their war. For now we’ll head for the moon before we get pulled into E’ronoh’s gravity.”
Gella kept her eyes trained on the dogfighting in dead space. She reached out through the Force to the destruction ahead. Anger and fear tinged every pilot, but one radiated brighter among the rest. A vessel that was out of control. The Corellian model, an older class by the looks of it, red paint splattered over the gray metal in haphazard violent stripes, and a laser cannon protruding from each wing. She watched as the fighter pilot tried, but failed, to regain control of the ship. She could sense the pilot’s absolute fear and panic. It left an acrid taste on her tongue.
Gella pointed at the rogue devilfighter. “There.”
“I feel it, too,” Enya said. “The pilot has lost control and is scared.”
“There’s nothing we can do. We must get to safety first,” Master Char-Ryl-Roy said as the ship took another hit.
They could make it to the moon’s surface, and Gella would have to convince the masters to let her take one of the Alpha-3 Jedi starfighters and help the pilot who seemed to be in distress. But by then it would be too late.
Before the plan had fully formed in her mind, Gella Nattai unbuckled her harness and hurried to the back of the ship, descended the ladder, and boarded one of the two starfighters. The thought of flying alone made the pit of her stomach squeeze unpleasantly, but she steadied her breath. Her own feelings didn’t matter, not when someone was crying out for help. After all, wasn’t that what they were there to do? Help. She punched in the controls to release the magnetic clamps, let the cockpit canopy pressurize shut.
As Gella descended into the fray, her nerves vanished, and her goal was clear. She wasn’t the best pilot in the Order, but she had the Force on her side. Darting past red blurs, Gella pierced into the heart of the battle. Blue metallic ships with rounded tops zigzagged between the larger chunks of debris, chasing down red-streaked starfighters. Chunks of charred metal and what looked like the remnants of a boot were deflected by her shield, the green crackle of energy a momentary comfort as she raced toward the pilot in need.
“Come in, Alpha One,” Master Roy said. He did not sound pleased with her. “Return to the Valiant, at once, that’s an order!”
“I’m sorry, master. But this pilot is in too much distress. They won’t make it out here much longer.”
There was a grunt of disapproval followed by, “We’ll clear your path.”
Gella stayed on course toward the Corellian devilfighter. Up closer, she could see a number painted on its wing. Nine. The pilot was locked in trajectory toward Eiram, forward-facing rapid-fire cannons blasting a path. Eiram’s defenses were engaged with E’ronoh’s forces in an attempt to obliterate the threat.
Gella considered the angle she’d have to fire to clip the pilot’s wing and glide the ship safely. She was certain she had to steer the pilot away from Eiram—landing there would cause another planetary incident.
“One thing at a time,” Gella reminded herself.
Her sensors detected two ships fast approaching her flanks. She took evasive maneuvers and pulled up on the controls to shake them. They sailed in an upward arc, barreling clear of the debris.
An urgent voice spoke through her comm. “This is Captain Xiri A’lbaran. Back off, Alpha, or I will fire. This is your only warning.”
“Oh, Captain,” came the second, bitter voice. “We should have known you were up to something. A liar, just like your father.”
“This is a misunderstanding, General,” Captain A’lbaran said, her words interspersed with static and immeasurable restraint. “I am willing to uphold and resume the cease-fire, just let my pilots reach the hauler safely.”
“You think I care about ice when an enemy ship is bound for my capital?”
“He’s not in control!” the captain shouted.
Gella could sense the situation called for action, not words. By the Force, she truly hated flying, but there was no place for fear in her heart. She gunned her controls hard, jerking against her safety harness as she flew in a diagonal loop, cleaving the space between the enemy ships close enough to drag the edges of her ship’s wings against their flanks. The grind of metal grated against her ears, but now their focus was on her.
“Now,” Gella said, heart pounding, “General, Captain, I’m trying to help you, dammit.”
“Help?” Captain A’lbaran scoffed, still flying in lockstep, trailing after the rogue pilot.
“Yes, help. My name is Jedi Knight Gella Nattai.”
“Jedi,” came a hiccup of surprise from one of the other pilots. It seemed no matter where she went in the galaxy, the word was voiced with the same tone of surprise. Gella focused on that, on the recognition, the weight of it. Nothing as selfish as pride but bolstered by a sense of rightness she could never truly put into words.
“Call off your fighters,” Gella said.
“There is an enemy starship flying toward Erasmus Capital City,” the general spat. “Absolutely not.”
“Eiram called for our help, General,” Gella said. “I can keep them calm while they reset their control systems. Please, trust me.”
There was a beat of silence, the maddening growl of dead air, and then a begrudging, “Do it.”
“I’m coming with you,” Captain A’lbaran said.
Gella wasted no time. She took off, accelerating at maximum speed to catch up with the rogue E’roni devilfighter. One by one Eiram’s forces pulled back, while E’ronoh’s squadron surrounded the cargo hauler. The Valiant and the Paxion coasted along the corridor toward the silver moon between worlds. Gella exhaled a pent-up breath of relief, but she couldn’t celebrate yet.
“Nine, come in,” Gella said, racing at its side as it approached the giant blue planet. “What’s your name?”
She nudged into the ship from the right side, pushing it up and away from the capital city’s trajectory.
“I can’t stop! I don’t know—”
“Listen to my voice.” Gella’s voice was a smooth alto that seemed to cut through the comm and right into his thoughts. “What’s your name?”
“Who are you?” he asked, and Gella heard just how young and scared he was.
“It’s okay. Talk to her, Blitz,” Captain A’lbaran encouraged.
“Bly,” he said, panting. “Bly Tevin, but everyone calls me Blitz.” “All right, Blitz, I want you to listen to your captain.”
His devilfighter veered into hers again, a flare of automatic beams blasting from its forward cannons. It was trying to redirect, to get back toward Eiram. Captain A’lbaran squeezed in from the other side, the three of them locked together in a crunch of metal and sparks. Gella reached out through the Force, letting the weight of it envelop the pilot. If she had time with him, perhaps she could better understand him. Ease the riot of emotions clouding his actions. This would have to do.
“Blitz,” Captain Xiri urged. “Shut it down.”
“I can’t, I don’t—!”
“You can, you will,” Gella said, letting the calm vibrations of her voice reach him. “It’ll be for a moment.”
She felt him spark with anxiety, losing control of himself and the ship again. It rattled against them, and together, Gella and Xiri redoubled their efforts to keep him in place.
“It’s not working,” Blitz shouted. “It’s running an autopilot program. I’m locked out of the controls. You’re—you’re going to have to shoot me down.”
“That is not an option, Thylefire Nine,” Captain Xiri shot back. “I don’t care if you have to open up that panel with your bare hands, find a way to shut it down.”
If Blitz responded, they didn’t hear it. Gella turned her controls as far as they’d go. The Alpha-3 was lighter than the old E’roni starfighter and devilfighter. Gella could fly faster, more gracefully with the Force, but the effort it was taking for her to keep Blitz aloft would physically and mentally split her at the seams. Her grasp on their already tenuous connection frayed as a new guttural voice interrupted their comms.
“Many apologies, Princess,” the stranger said. “But we did not sign up for this. Releasing cargo.”
Gella caught the flash of the hauler blinking out of the sector, the massive crate plummeting toward the debris, as the princess blared a string of curses. In that moment of uncertainty, Blitz broke free, his ship diving back down to its intended target of Eiram. “They dumped the ice and bolted! Lieutenant Segaru, do not lose that haul.”
Then, all at once, the out-of-control devilfighter powered down, drifting into a spin. “I did it. I got it!”
Gella sensed Blitz’s relief, the bitter tinge of his fear scraping against her skin like gravel.
“General Lao . . . Please . . .” Captain A’lbaran began. Blitz was still on a collision course with Eiram, but at least he wasn’t armed.
“I understand,” General Lao said with reluctance. “I’ll personally make sure you both get home.”
“Thank you, Gella,” Captain A’lbaran said, as Gella maneuvered her ship away from the trio, and made for the Valiant.
“Captain,” Blitz’s voice rang with fear. Gella turned to see the captain and general still flying side by side with the pilot. Something was wrong. “There’s a problem. I—”
Before he could finish, before Gella could go back, red-and-white fire bloomed from Bly Tevin’s exploding devilfighter.
BEYOND EIRAM’S GRAVITY WELL
Bly Tevin had always wanted to see the blue waters of Eiram up close, even if it was a place he was supposed to hate. But the boy they called Blitz couldn’t hate anyone, not really. Not the way some of his fellow pilots did, with an anger so deep it was branded into their skin. That day’s mission should have been the first day of a long military career. An opportunity to finish what his sister had started, what his grandfather had fought for as a young man. For E’ronoh. Always for E’ronoh.
When he’d been reassigned to one of the new vessels, he’d reveled in the sensation of breaching the atmosphere into infinite space. It was something no simulator and no practice runs in the Ramshead Gorge could replicate. He’d prove himself. Not Blitz, the fumbling pilot. Bly Tevin, hero of E’ronoh.
But he hadn’t been the hero he’d set out to be. The moment he’d lost control, he’d attempted to steer the devilfighter off course, even if at first sight he could have been branded a deserter. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but the controls wouldn’t respond. They were programmed to fire and his ship was set on a collision course with Eiram’s capital.
It felt like he’d been out of control for hours, screaming into his own sick, before he heard her voice. Felt a pressure against his chest, clearing the clouds of fear until he knew what to do. He remembered the ceremonial bane blade at his hip. Sweaty, shaking fingers worked at the clasp until he freed it from its sheath. Passed down from his grandfather, it wasn’t sharp enough to slice skin on a first try but it would do the trick. He rammed it into the port. A current shorted the navigation and powered down his ship.
“I did it. I got it!”
He could manually restart the ship. He had clearing to land on Eiram of all places. He thought of his mother, sitting in their apartment. She’d promised to make a fresh batch of pilafa stew when he got leave, if the cease-fire held. That’s why he was up there, so far and so close to home. He thought of her then, smiling as he played with other children on the narrow, dusty streets outside the palace. A woman who could stretch a ration for days. A miracle, he thought once, until he realized how thin and sad she was stirring their pot of thin soup. Together they’d watched his sister fall out of the sky, and he thanked his lucky stars she never got to see him struggle during training, struggle as he crashed one simulation after the next until he was branded Blitz. Blitz Tevin. A name he laughed at with everyone else even though he hated it.
When he stopped shaking, and the manual restart began, he shut his eyes and thanked the old gods. The ones his mother still prayed to. Even then, he was certain she was waiting, climbing onto the watchtower where all the families waited for the ships to come home. Because she was why he did this. For her.
As his ship whirled back to life, and a countdown began, he called for help that wouldn’t come. Bly Tevin’s last thought was of his mother. She always wanted to see the turquoise seas of the enemy, too.
THE RAYES CANAL, ERASMUS CAPITAL CITY, EIRAM
When stars fell over Eiram, no one looked up. The citizens of the capital knew there was nothing particularly interesting in hunks of rock from space, not when there were bellies to feed and dwindling rations being distributed. And so, as two objects pierced the mountainous clouds that perpetually clung to the planet’s skies, there was no panic. No fear. No spare wishes or awe. Soon the city’s defense missile towers would lock in on their targets, and in the event the missiles malfunctioned, the electrostatic domes that encased so many of Ei- ram’s major cities would shield the citizens beneath.
Phan-tu Zenn was the first person to spot the ships entering Eiram’s atmosphere. But the boy who’d come from nothing had a habit of gazing toward the clouds.
He had been distributing relief to the people in the Rayes Canal, a narrow waterway that emptied out into the Erasmus Sea. In this sector of the city, squat buildings leaned into each other like rows of rotten, crooked teeth. Drying seaweed and barnacles dotted the walls and waterline, breadcrumbs anyone could follow to the piers. Skinny saltwater birds that flew too close to the dome received a conk on the head and a shock. Though transparent, the protective shield around the city was visible across white electric bands tracing the patterns of cresting waves, marking entry points for ships to come and go, and the steady hum of the shield was ever-present.
Phan-tu shouldn’t have been in the Rayes Canal in the first place, but over the years he’d learned to shirk his security detail. He’d hopped on the back of an agopie and guided the water horse to his favorite pier. Within moments, he’d been swarmed by people—those born and raised in the Rayes and the refugees coming in droves from the western islands, the latest to be attacked by E’ronoh’s forces. Phan-tu should have felt fortunate that the war with E’ronoh had yet to reach the capital, but the destruction of nearby towns meant the infrastructure of Erasmus was eroding as quickly as their coastlines during monsoon season. And it was those at the very bottom who felt that strain the most.
Even as he handed out rations of food, hydration pellets, and anything else he could salvage from the palace’s waste, he knew it was not enough. His cart had emptied and he’d only just started distributing. Pain wedged between his ribs as parents and elders walked away empty-handed. He’d gone as far as to offer the linenfiber tunic off his back, the gold-stitched slippers that made him feel positively ridiculous. But they never accepted. They never cursed him, never let their desperation turn into anger, not toward him.
Phan-tu was, after all, one of them.
He should have been on his way back to the palace. His mothers worried. But his muscle memory carried him to the pier. He made a mental note of how many people had left with nothing. More than he could count. The helplessness of it all was suffocating, and he sought solace from the sight of the sea.
At the southernmost edge of the canal a pale blue scorpion, the size of a pebble, crept along the cracked pier, too young to be poisonous yet and small enough it must have slipped through the dome. He toed it off the ledge.
Along the coast, tiny square houses crowded the shore. White stone washed in bright blues, greens, and yellows. Canvas awnings provided little shade at the height of the sun, but it was home. Once, before the worst monsoon in his lifetime, he’d lived there with his biological mother and Talla, his little sister. Once, when the electrostatic dome hadn’t been strong enough against the waves of a storm, they’d all been carried out to sea. Only Phan-tu had swum back.
As the crowds dispersed, a girl with short brown curls and a dress stitched of some sort of recycled canvas tugged at his pant leg. She looked so much like his sister once had, and so he got down on his knee and pointed to her closed fist.
“What have you got there?” he asked.
She seemed to lose her nerve, but Phan-tu only smiled patiently. The little girl had his same coloring, tawny brown skin, pale-green eyes, and a dusting of green freckles, the distinctive marking of Eirami who had settled on the planet generations before.
“For the queen,” she peeped, unfurling her tiny fingers to reveal a cluster of mud-flecked pearls.
“I know she will love them,” Phan-tu said, pocketing the gift.
As he stood, he caught the first flash of light in the sky and used the flat of his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. No one else looked up at first, used to the safety that the missiles and dome provided—in times of peace only used for storms.
Phan-tu watched the pair of ships falling from orbit, too obscured to be recognizable. He searched the sky for others, but these two were anomalies. The defenses should have been engaged by now, yet the vessels kept free-falling. He had the sinking realization that something must have gone terribly wrong with the escort mission of the Jedi transport.
One of the incoming ships bore the telltale metallic blue of Eiram’s fleet. Its wings were on fire, and in the moment he blinked, it released its cockpit bubble. The transparisteel was snatched up in the breeze and rammed into the dome. A prismatic shimmer rippled from the hit and spread. Someone screamed as the Eirami ship exploded on impact. He couldn’t tell if the pilot had ejected or not, and there was still the second starship obscured by the glare of the sun.
Phan-tu reached for his comm, then cursed himself for having left it at the palace.
The little girl tugged at his pant leg and asked, “Is that a shooting star?”
“No, dear heart,” he said, trying to keep his voice even so as not to scare her. He nudged her back up the pier. “Why don’t you go inside?”
As she took off in a sprint, the city’s alarms wailed to life and every Eirami in the streets finally looked up. They pointed fingers, clapped palms over their mouths. As it got closer, Phan-tu could make out the streaks across its hull like red wounds. An E’roni starfighter.
“All of you, inside,” Phan-tu shouted. “Now, please!”
To make matters worse, his security detail had spotted him and were running down the narrow canal street.
“My lord, this is not the place for you. We must hurry back,” said the leader. His distaste for the Rayes Canal was evident in the sneer of his thin lips.
“Not until everyone is safe inside,” Phan-tu muttered, pushing past the guards to help an elder climb the steps into her home.
“That is not your job, my lord,” the guard said, exasperated.
“You’re right, Vigo, it’s yours.” Phan-tu sidestepped the tall man and picked up a toddler, nose dripping as his cries put the alarms to shame. He scanned the crowd searching for the mother, but there were still too many bodies clustering to get a view of the crash. People climbed onto rooftops and clustered in doorways and windows. Terrible cries came from the refugee camps at the edge of the pier.
“Why aren’t the anti-missile cannons firing?” Phan-tu asked.
“All we know is there’s been some sort of accident and General Lao gave an order to stand down. But that was before—”
Phan-tu handed the baby over to a frantic young mother. She bowed low to him, and he ignored the feeling of discomfort at the deference.
“My lord,” Vigo tried again, clenching his gloved fist. “Might I remind you that you are my charge. The city’s defenses will hold.”
With his arms free, he whirled on his guard, pressing a finger on the man’s decorated vest. “I have been there when the dome failed. Have you?”
“No, my lord.” Vigo’s freckled nose wrinkled as he looked down to find his boots covered in mud. So far from the palace, and even with exploding ships in the sky, Phan-tu’s armed guard cared more about his boots. “But there isn’t anything you can do from here. Put Her Majesty at ease and come home.”
Phan-tu kept his feet squarely on the muddy ground, confusion and uncertainty thick in the air. He fixed his gaze on the remaining starfighter. Black smoke trailed from the wings. The canopy launched, along with a parachute, but the pilot must have been stuck in the cockpit. One of the wings sparked against the dome following the curve of the sphere. Then one of the dome’s panels directly over the Rayes Canal opened. A malfunction? An order? There was no way to tell. A prism of light refracted against the sun. Birds shot out into the clouds as the enemy ship came through the gap in the dome, barreling straight for the sea.
“How unfortunate that we can’t drown them all,” Vigo said with uncanny calm.
Phan-tu imagined the horror of falling from such a great height, helpless and stuck. Alone. No matter who was in there, he could never wish another being such a fate. Perhaps that’s why he ran.
“My lord!” the royal guard blustered. “Where are you going?”
But Phan-tu had already stripped off his sheer shawl and tunic, kicked off his ridiculous bejeweled slippers, and leapt off the pier. The tide was low, so he couldn’t dive. He splashed through the sandy muck of the canal, broken shells digging into the soles of his feet. He thanked the great sea gods for the calluses he’d earned from a lifetime of running barefoot through the streets.
Phan-tu was grateful for the life he’d had, the home he was given after the storm that changed everything. But in his heart, he was still a little boy from the poorest slum in the capital. The people of the Rayes Canal helped one another. His mother had, and it had led to her demise. Even now, fifteen years after her death, after the monsoon, he still heard her voice. Still knew that in the worst moments, in the face of war and death and drought, she would say that there was always someone in need of help. If he could do it, he should.
So it didn’t matter that the plummeting ship was from the planet across a corridor of space. It didn’t matter. If it was a life he could save, he had to.
When he was far enough out, the ship breached the turquoise sea. A huge wave followed and Phan-tu dived. He could hear shouting from the distant shore, and then the pounding of his pulse as he kicked. His eyes burned against the salty brine, but his limbs welcomed the sensation of being enveloped by the warm sea. Like generations of Eirami, Phan-tu could hold his breath for long periods of time. It was a trait that had come about from eras of diving for food. But even his strong lungs had a limit, and he swam for the wreck as hard and fast as he could.
The water was hazy with disturbed silt, though farther out there was less pollution than at the shoreline. For the briefest moment, he was ten years old again, sinking to the bottom of the ocean after that terrible storm.
He wasn’t helpless now.
He spotted the sinking vessel, dragging against the Erasmus Sea. It hit the shelf of a cliff and teetered at the mouth of the trench. If it tipped over, he wouldn’t be able to follow. Phan-tu cut through the water like a krel shark, with only the first signs of pressure on his lungs as he reached the open cockpit.
Phan-tu was startled at the sight of her. Red hair, dark as copper. Fear and distrust in her amber eyes as she struggled to get free of her harness. Streams of bubbles escaped her nose. She was losing too much air, and still she raised her arms as if to block his attack. As if he’d come all this way to hurt her.
He held up his palms and gave a slight shake of his head. Then she pointed to the floor, where she couldn’t reach. There was a glint of metal. A blade. He seized it, yanked it free of its sheath, and cut through the safety straps of the harness. There was a terrible crunch of stone giving way. He felt the shift in the water as the cliff ledge began to crumble under the weight of the ship.
As they sank, he grabbed hold of the second strap and sliced and tore through the fabric. There wasn’t time for her distrust, her fear of him as he grabbed the front of her red uniform. She clung to him as her vessel tumbled into the dark pit of the trench. Pain laced her features, but he tugged on her arm, and they kicked up toward the beams of light refracting under the sea. His insides screamed for oxygen, jaw trembling as he gritted his teeth and fought to not open his mouth wide and inhale.
The E’roni woman admirably kept pace with him, though when he looked back, he could see a trail of blood unspooling like a ribbon. He couldn’t tell which one of them was injured.
He’d swum his entire life, but the final meters put his mettle to the test, thrashing and kicking until he could feel the light on the surface, the fire in his lungs, and then the humid kiss of air as they broke the surface and choked on the ragged intake of oxygen.
The sea, which was never calm during the summer, steered them on rolling waves to the pier. They dragged themselves onto the muck of the canal, and up rickety wooden steps. Phan-tu dropped the dagger and flopped onto his back, coughing the salt water he’d swallowed.
“Are you all right?” He regretted the question the moment he voiced it. Because when he sat up, she was looming over him, water dripping from her hair, a bruise blooming on her forehead, and her dagger resting under his throat.
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Star Wars: Convergence (The High Republic)
It is an age of exploration. Jedi travel the galaxy, expanding their understanding of the Force and all the worlds and beings connected by it. Meanwhile, the Republic, led by its two chancellors, works to unite worlds in an ever-growing community among near and distant stars.
On the close orbiting planets of Eiram and E’ronoh, the growing pains of a galaxy with limited resources but unlimited ambition are felt keenly. Their hatred for each other has fueled half a decade of escalating conflict and now threatens to consume surrounding systems. The last hope for peace emerges when heirs from the two planets’ royal families plan to marry.
Before lasting peace can be established, an assassination attempt targeting the couple tilts Eiram and E’ronoh back into all-out war. To save both worlds, Jedi Knight Gella Nattai volunteers to uncover the culprit, while Chancellor Kyong appoints her son, Axel Greylark, to represent the Republic’s interests in the investigation.
But Axel’s deep distrust of the Jedi sparks against Gella’s faith in the Force. She’s never met such a puffed-up, privileged party boy, and he’s never met a more self-serious, relentless do-gooder. The more they work to untangle the shadowy web of the investigation, the more complicated the conspiracy appears to be. With accusations flying and potential enemies in every shadow, the pair will have to work together to have any hope of bringing the truth to light and saving both worlds.
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