HETZAL SYSTEM. ABOVE THE FRUITED MOON.
70 minutes to impact.
Three Jedi Vectors and a Republic Longbeam whipped through space, slingshotting around the orange-and-green sphere that was the Fruited Moon of Hetzal, legendary throughout the galaxy for its bounty. Four billion people resided there, farming and growing and living their lives. All would be dead in less than thirty minutes if the four Jedi and two Republic officers could not destroy or somehow divert the object headed directly for the moon.
The anomaly was on the larger side, bigger than the Longbeam, and on a collision course with the moon’s primary landmass. Due to its velocity, a significant portion of the moon’s outer layer would be instantly vaporized on impact, surging into the atmosphere. Then would come the heat, the flames, scouring the surface clean of all life, plant and animal and sentient alike.
That’s assuming the whole blasted moon doesn’t just shatter when the anomaly hits, Te’Ami thought as she banked her ship smoothly, following a precise curve with the other two Vectors piloted by her Jedi colleagues, performing the maneuver as much through her connection to the Force as her hands on the control sticks.
Total destruction of the Fruited Moon wasn’t impossible. The amount of energy transferred upon the object’s impact would fall like a hammerblow on the little planetoid. Worlds seemed unbreakable when you were standing on them, but Te’Ami had seen things in her day . . . the galaxy didn’t care what you thought couldn’t be broken. It would break things just to show you it could.
The little fleet was moving at incredible velocity, headed directly for the anomaly. Master Kriss back on the Third Horizon had designated this as a high-priority mission, which Te’Ami understood. Four billion people—a high priority indeed.
She could feel Avar at the back of her mind—not in words, more of a sense of the woman’s presence. Master Kriss had a skill set rare among the Jedi: She could detect the natural bonds between Force-users and strengthen them, use them as almost a sort of communications network. It was inexact, best for transmitting sensations, locations, but it was still a useful ability, particularly in a scenario when a hundred Jedi were all trying to save a system at once.
Not just useful, though. It was comforting. She was not alone. None of them were. Fail or succeed, the Jedi were in this together.
But we will not fail, Te’Ami thought. She reached out a long, green finger and flipped one of the finely wrought switches on her console. Her comm toggled open.
“Republic Longbeam, it’s time. I need you to transfer your weapons systems to my control,” she said.
“Acknowledged,” came the reply from the Longbeam, spoken by its pilot, Joss Adren. His wife, Pikka, was in the copilot’s seat. Te’Ami didn’t know them personally—only that they weren’t part of the Third Horizon’s crew, and had volunteered their help immediately when the cruiser dropped into the system and the scale of the disaster became clear. Admiral Kronara assigned them a Longbeam—better to put another ship out there to help instead of leaving it sitting idle in its hangar. The little bit of non-task-oriented chatter on the way out to the Fruited Moon had suggested Joss and Pikka were contractors of some kind—workers on the Starlight Beacon hitching a ride back to the Core now that their job was done.
They seemed like good people. Te’Ami hoped they were skilled as well. This would not be easy.
An amber light flashed on Te’Ami’s display, then went steady.
“Weapons are under your control,” Joss said.
“Thank you,” she said, then flipped another few switches before quickly moving her hands back to the sticks. Vectors could be tricky craft—the fluid responsiveness of the controls meant they could accomplish incredible maneuvers, but only if significant focus could be maintained.
“All right, my friends,” she said. “Are we ready?”
The replies came in across the Jedi-only channel.
The low voice of Mikkel Sutmani rumbled from her speakers, immediately translated into Basic via the onboard systems. “Good to go,” he said. Mikkel. The steadiest Ithorian she had ever met. He never said much, but the job always got done.
“We’re ready as well,” said Nib Assek, the third and final Jedi Knight in their little squadron. Her Padawan, Burryaga Agaburry, didn’t say anything. No surprise there. He was a young Wookiee, and spoke only Shyriiwook, though he understood Basic. Nib spoke his language well—she had learned it specifically to take him on as her apprentice. It wasn’t easy for a human throat to re-create the warbling growls and whines that composed Wookiee speech, but she had made the effort. Te’Ami and Mikkel, though, could not understand a word Burryaga said.
Regardless, if Nib Assek said she and her Padawan were ready, they were.
“Reach out,” Te’Ami said. “We’ll do it together. As one.”
She stretched out her senses through the Force, seeking the deadly meteor—or whatever it was, the scans remained inconclusive—hurtling through space toward them. There. She could feel it, distorting gravity along its path. She considered, thinking about where the object had been, where it was, where it would be.
More specifically, where it would be when the full power of the weapons systems on the Vectors and the Longbeam hit it all at once.
This shot could not be calculated using computers. It had to be done by feel, with the Force, by all the Jedi at once in a single moment.
“I have the target,” she said. “Are we good?”
No answer from the other Jedi, but she didn’t need one. She could feel their assent through the link Master Kriss maintained back on the surface of Hetzal Prime. It was faster than speaking, more effective.
“Let us become spears,” she said, speaking a ritual phrase from her own people, the Duros.
Not wanting to take her hands off her control sticks at such a crucial moment, Te’Ami spared a tendril of the Force and used it to lift her lightsaber from its holster on her belt. Its hilt was dark cerakote with a heavily tarnished copper crosspiece. The blade, when lit, shone blue. The thing was scratched and gouged with use, and had an unsightly blob of solder up near the business end where she’d welded one of the components back on when it fell off. If there was an uglier lightsaber in the Order, she hadn’t seen it.
But it turned on when she wanted it to, and the kyber crystal that powered it remained as pure and resonant as the day she found it on Ilum so long ago.
Could Te’Ami have refreshed the blade, if she wanted to? Absolutely. Many Jedi changed their hilts regularly, whether due to adjustments to fighting techniques, technological innovations, or even, on occasion, just . . . style. Aesthetics. Fashion, you could call it.
Te’Ami had no interest in any of that. Her lightsaber, ugly as it was, served as a perfect reflection of the great truth of the Force: no matter what a person was on the outside . . .
. . . inside, everyone was made of light.
The lightsaber moved through the cramped cockpit. It placed itself against a metal plate on the Vector’s control panel with a soft, very satisfying click, staying in place via a tiny, localized force field. A low hum vibrated through the ship’s hull as its weapons systems activated. A new set of displays and dials went live, glowing with the bright blue of her saber blade. Weapons on a Vector could only be operated with a lightsaber key, a way to ensure they were not used by non-Jedi, and that every time they were used, it was a well-considered action.
An additional advantage—the ship’s laser could be scaled up or down via a toggle on the control sticks. Not every shot had to kill. They could disable, warn . . . every option was available to them. In this case, though, the settings would be at maximum. They needed to disintegrate the hyperspace anomaly, turn it into vapor, and that would require all three Vectors at full power plus everything the Longbeam had. One huge blast.
It would work. It had to work. Four billion defenseless beings on the Fruited Moon hung in the balance.
Te’Ami reached out again, checking her colleagues’ readiness. There was something . . . from the thread leading to Nib Assek’s ship. Fear . . . almost . . . panic.
“Nib, I’m sensing—” she began, and the reply came before she could finish.
“I know, Te’Ami,” came Nib’s voice. Calm, but perhaps a bit embarrassed. “It’s Burryaga. He’s having a hard time locking down his emotions. I think it’s the stress of what we’re doing. All the lives at stake.”
“It’s all right, little one,” came Mikkel’s gravelly tones, translated across the comm. “You are but a Padawan, and we are asking a great deal of you. Te’Ami, can we free him from the burden of helping us calculate the shot?”
“Yes,” Te’Ami said. “There is no shame in this, Burry. Only an opportunity to learn.”
Te’Ami reached out with the Force, gently curving the connection away from Nib Assek’s Padawan. The Wookiee was silent. She could still feel the roil of emotions from him. Well, no shame, as she had said. Every Jedi found their own path, and some took longer than others.
“Let’s go,” Nib said, perhaps trying to make up for the delay caused by her student. “We’re running out of time.”
“Agreed,” Te’Ami said.
She moved her thumbs up on her control sticks, first rolling them along the toggle wheel to tell the weapons system to fire at full power. Then she settled her hands on the triggers.
The object, speeding toward the moon. Where it had been. Where it was. Where it would be.
The other Jedi were ready. They would fire the moment she did, as would the linked systems in Joss and Pikka’s Longbeam, every blast heading to precisely the same location in space.
Four billion people. It was time. Te’Ami tightened her grip on the triggers.
A squeal from the comm system, loud and insistent. A scream, or a yell—forceful, almost panicked. It startled Te’Ami, and if she were not a Jedi Knight, she might have inadvertently fired her weapons. But she was indeed a Jedi Knight, and did not fire.
It took Te’Ami a moment to understand what she was hearing—not a scream, but words. In Shyriiwook. Burryaga, saying something she could not understand. Loud, insistent, desperate. His emotions strong again through the Force, that same mixture of fear edging on panic.
“Burryaga, I’m sorry, I don’t understand Shyriiwook. Are you all right? We’re running out of time. We have to fire.”
“No,” Nib Assek said, her voice sharp, insistent. In the background, the whines and growls of Burryaga’s voice, coming over her comm. “We can’t attack.”
“What are you talking about?” Mikkel said. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Burryaga is explaining it to me. The emotions we were getting from him—they weren’t his. He was sensing them. He had to tune in a bit, overcome his own fear before he could understand.”
“Please, Nib, just tell us what he means,” Te’Ami said.
A long, whistling, mournful bit of Shyriiwook, and then a pause.
“The object,” Nib said. “The one we have to destroy, to save the moon. It’s not just an object. It’s debris, part of a ship.”
Te’Ami let her hands fall from the control sticks.
“It’s full of people,” Nib finished. “And they’re alive.”
AGUIRRE CITY, HETZAL PRIME.
65 minutes to impact.
The Force sang to Jedi Master Avar Kriss, a choir that was the entirety of the Hetzal system, life and death in constant, contrapuntal motion. It was a song she knew well—she heard it all the time, everywhere she went. Here, the melody of the Force was off, a discordant jangle of death and fear and confusion. People were dying, or felt the dread of their imminent demise.
Threaded through that song—the Jedi, and the brave personnel of the Republic, and the heroic citizens of Hetzal itself, using the resources they had to try to save the people of these worlds.
The Third Horizon had landed not far from the Ministerial Residence in Aguirre City, the capital of Hetzal Prime. The Republic was coordinating its efforts with the Hetzalian government to try to stem the tide of the disaster—ensuring the evacuation proceeded in as orderly a fashion as possible, tracking the incoming projectiles, helping as they could.
Avar Kriss was still on the ship’s bridge, still serving as the point of connection for the Jedi in the system, letting them sense one another’s presence and location and emotional states. Sometimes words or images came through unbidden, but only rarely. It was all just a song, and Avar sang and was sung to.
Still, she was able to gather a great deal of information from what it told her. She knew that fifty-three Jedi Vectors were currently active in the Hetzal system. She knew which Jedi were working on the planet—for example, at that moment, Bell Zettifar, Loden Greatstorm’s promising Padawan, was approaching the surface of Hetzal Prime at extraordinary speed.
Elzar Mann, her oldest, closest friend in the Order, was in a Vector of his own, flying a single-person version of the ship near one of the system’s three suns. He was almost always alone. Avar was one of only two Jedi he worked with regularly—it was just her and Stellan Gios. This was mostly because Elzar was . . . unreliable wasn’t exactly the right word. He was a tinkerer, if that term could apply to Jedi techniques. He never liked to use the Force the same way twice.
Elzar’s instincts were good, and he didn’t try anything too unusual when the stakes were high. Usually, his experiments in Force techniques did expand the Order’s understanding, and occasionally he accomplished incredible things.
But sometimes he failed, and sometimes he failed spectacularly. Again, never when lives were on the line, but even that bit of uncertainty, coupled with Elzar Mann’s general unwillingness to take the time to explain whatever he was trying to do . . . well, some in the Order found him frustrating to deal with. Avar believed that might explain his continued status as a Jedi Knight rather than a Master. She knew that bothered Elzar. He thought it was unfair. He didn’t care about other Jedi’s paths through the Force—why should they concern themselves with his? He just wanted to follow his road where it led.
Avar didn’t understand Elzar’s explorations any more than most of the Jedi, but the key to their relationship was that she never asked him to explain. Anything, ever. That arrangement had powered their friendship since their days as younglings together in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. That, and she just liked him. He was funny, and clever, and they had come up together through the Order, Stellan and Elzar and her, the three of them inseparable through all their years of training.
She pulled her mind away from Elzar Mann, listening to the Force. She sensed Jedi on the system’s worlds, Jedi in Vectors, and still more on stations or satellites or ships, all around the system, helping wherever they could, usually in conjunction with the twenty-eight Republic Longbeams deployed by the Third Horizon.
The chain of connection through the Force even told her that others of her Order were on their way, doing their best to respond to Minister Ecka’s original distress call despite being so far from Hetzal. Closest was Master Jora Malli, future commander of the Jedi quarter on the just completed Starlight Beacon, along with her second-in-command, the imposing Trandoshan Master Sskeer. Stellan Gios was powering in from his Temple outpost on Hynestia as if summoned by her thoughts of him a few moments before, whipping through hyperspace in a borrowed starship. And more besides.
Avar sent out a note of welcome, and called to every other Jedi she could reach, near Hetzal or not. Distance was nothing to the Force. Who knew how they might help?
So far, the death toll from the disaster was low, barely above the baseline churn of life and death constantly at work in any large group of beings. She was worried that could change at any moment—they didn’t have a good understanding of what was happening here. Nothing about it felt natural. She had never heard of anything like this—
a huge spread of projectiles appearing in a system, popping out of hyperspace with no notice.
She could not imagine what would have happened here if the Third Horizon was not in transit nearby after a refueling stop, or if their inspection tour of the Starlight Beacon wasn’t interminably delayed by the project’s overseer, an officious Bith named Shai Tennem. She had insisted on showing her Jedi and Republic visitors every last obscure element of Starlight Beacon’s construction, pushing back their scheduled departure and irritating Admiral Kronara immensely. But if they had left on time, the Third Horizon would have been deep into hyperspace when Minister Ecka’s evacuation order went out, too far to get to Hetzal in any reasonable amount of time.
If not for an overzealous Bith administrator, Hetzal would be dealing with this apocalypse on its own.
The song of the Force.
Between what it told Avar directly and the chatter she heard around her from the Third Horizon’s deck officers, she was able to maintain an up-to-date picture of the disaster, in all its moments large and small.
Above Hetzal Prime, a Republic technician completed repairs to an evacuation ship that had lost power on its way offplanet, so it could continue on its way to safety.
Near the second-largest gas giant, two Vectors fired their weapons, and a fragment was incinerated.
A Longbeam pushed past its limits as it raced to reach a damaged station at the system’s outer edge. Its engines failed, catastrophically. Avar gasped a little at the cold, dark sensation.
And above the Fruited Moon, one very clear impression, as close to a message as could be sent through the Force under these circumstances—
a sense from a Jedi Knight named Te’Ami that their understanding of what was happening here was utterly, tragically incomplete.
“No,” Avar said, disturbed at the urgency of what Te’Ami was trying to pass along. Her emotions roiled, and the song of the Force shimmered in her mind, becoming quieter, less distinct.
Focus, she told herself. You are needed.
Avar Kriss calmed her emotions and listened. Now, thanks to Te’Ami, she knew what to look for. She called the other Jedi’s face to her mind—green skin, high domed skull, large red eyes—and it took her almost no time to find what Te’Ami had tried to show her. In fact, now that she was looking, it was obvious. Avar spread her awareness through the system, pushing herself to the limit.
I can’t miss one, she thought. Not a single one.
She opened her eyes and unfolded her legs, setting her feet once again upon the Third Horizon’s deck. Bridge officers looked at her, surprised—she had not spoken or moved in some time.
Admiral Kronara was speaking to Chancellor Lina Soh, who had called in via a high-priority relay from Coruscant. Her delicate, sweeping features were displayed on one of the bridge’s commwalls. She looked fragile—which she absolutely was not. Kronara, in contrast, had a face that looked like a hammer would break against it. He looked hard—which he absolutely was. He wore the uniform of the Republic Defense Coalition, light gray with blue accents, the cap tucked under his arm in respect for the chancellor’s office.
The resolution on the display was low, with sharp lines of static crossing Lina Soh’s face every few seconds—but that was to be expected. Coruscant was very far away.
“Thank the light your ship was close enough to Hetzal to respond, Admiral,” Chancellor Soh was saying. “We sent out aid ships as soon as we could, but even receiving the distress signal from Hetzal took time. You know how choppy the comm relays are from the Outer Rim.”
“I do, Chancellor,” Kronara responded. “We appreciate anything you can do. We’re making progress here, but there will definitely be a large number of wounded, and I am sure a variety of essential systems will need repair. I’ll relay word to Minister Ecka that you’re sending assistance. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“Of course, Admiral. We are all the Republic.”
Avar walked across the deck, passing Kronara as he ended the transmission to Coruscant. He glanced over at her, curious, as she stopped before the display screen showing the status of the disaster mitigation effort—all the ships, people, Jedi, Republic, locals. Red, green, blue, worlds, lives, hope, despair.
She tapped certain of the red anomalies on the screen with her fingertip. As she did, they were highlighted, each surrounded with a white circle. When she was done, about ten of the projectiles were indicated.
Avar moved back from the display, then turned to look at the bridge crew. They were confused, but polite, waiting for her to explain what she had done.
“I hate to say this, my friends,” she said, “but this just got a lot harder. We have a new objective.”
Admiral Kronara’s weathered features twisted into a scowl. Avar did not take it personally.
“Does it replace the existing mission parameters?” he said.
“That would be nice,” she said. “But no. We still have to do everything we came here to do—keep the fragments from destroying Hetzal—but now there’s something else.”
She gestured at the display, with its highlighted red dots, racing sunward.
“The anomalies I have indicated here contain living beings. This is no longer just about saving the worlds of this system.”
Realization dawned on Kronara’s face. His scowl deepened.
“So it’s a rescue mission, on top of everything else.”
“That’s right, Admiral,” Avar said.
A chorus of dismayed voices rose up as the officers realized that all their progress thus far was just the preamble to a much greater effort.
“How is that possible?”
“How many people? Who are they?”
“Are they ships? Is this an invasion?”
Admiral Kronara held up a hand, and the voices stopped.
“Master Kriss, if you say some of these things have people aboard, then they do. But how do you propose we mount a rescue? These objects are moving at incredible velocities. Our targeting systems can barely hit them as it is, and now we have to . . . dock with them?”
“I don’t know how we’ll do this. Not yet. I’m hoping one of you might have an idea. But I will say that every one of those lives is as important as any life on this world or any other. We must begin by believing it is possible to save everyone. If the will of the Force is otherwise, so be it, but I will not accept the idea of abandoning them without trying.”
She moved her hand in a broad circle, encompassing the entire display board.
“This is all you have to work with—what we brought with us. Every Hetzalian ship is occupied with the evacuation effort, so all we’ve got are the Vectors and the Jedi flying them, plus the Longbeams and their crews. Find a way. I know you can. I’ll send word to the Jedi. The Force might have an answer for us.”
The bridge officers looked at one another, then scrambled into motion with a new surge of activity, as they began to plan ten utterly impossible rescue missions.
Avar Kriss closed her eyes. She stepped up into the air. The Force sang to her, telling her of peril and bravery and sacrifice, of Jedi fulfilling their vows, acting as guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy.
The song of the Force.