Dark Tide 2: RuinMichael A. Stackpole
MICHAEL A. STACKPOLE
A Del Rey® Book
THE BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP • NEW YORK
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Also by Michael A. Stackpole
To Star Wars Fans
Your knowledge and dedication makes
writing these books a challenge.
Your passion for the universe makes
writing them indescribably rewarding.
Until we meet again . . .
This book could not have been completed without the efforts of a legion of people. The author wishes to thank the
following people without whose effort this book would not exist:
Sue Rostoni, Lucy Autry Wilson, and Allan Kausch of Lucas Licensing Ltd.
Shelly Shapiro of Del Rey.
Ricia Mainhardt, my agent.
R. A. Salvatore, Kathy Tyers, Jim Luceno—Nice handoff, Bob; here’s the baton for you, Jim.
Peet Janes, Timothy Zahn, Tish Pahl, and Jennifer Roberson.
And always, Liz Danforth, who tolerates my vanishing into the galaxy far, far away for months at a time.
Gavin Darklighter: Rogue Squadron colonel; human male
Corran Horn: Jedi Knight; Rogue Squadron; human male
Traest Kre’fey: New Republic admiral; Bothan male
Deign Lian: Yuuzhan Vong warrior; male
Gilad Pellaeon: Imperial Remnant admiral; human male
Shedao Shai: Yuuzhan Vong commander; male
Luke Skywalker: Jedi Master; human male
Anakin Solo: Jedi Knight; human male
Jacen Solo: Jedi Knight; human male
Jaina Solo: Jedi Knight; Rogue Squadron lieutenant; human female
Leia Organa Solo: New Republic ambassador; human female
Wedge Antilles: Rogue Squadron general; human male
Mara Jade Skywalker: Jedi Master; human female
Shedao Shai stood in his chamber, deep within the living ship Legacy of Torment. Tall and lean, long-limbed with hooks and barbs at wrist, elbow, knee, and heel, the Yuuzhan Vong warrior had pulled himself up to his full height and held his open hands out away from his sides. A slender, fleshy umbilical connected his ship to the cognition hood he wore. The tiny cable snaked up and out through the cabin’s yorick coral wall where it was grafted into the ship’s neural tissue.
Shedao Shai saw what the ship saw and knew what it knew, there, orbiting Dubrillion. Only the void of space surrounded him, with Dubrillion being a blue and green ball slowly spinning beneath his feet. The system’s asteroid belt stretched over him in a mobile arch, and the distant brown world Destrillion hovered away in the near-empty darkness like a cowardly suitor.
This is what it feels like to be a god. Shedao Shai hesitated for a second, barely a heartbeat, letting fear of having blasphemed run through him. He smothered the fear, knowing that Yun-Yammka, the god known as the Slayer, would allow him his conceit as a reward for having successfully taken so many worlds from the infidels. The priests had told the Yuuzhan Vong that their new home was here, in what the infidels called the New Republic; and to Shedao Shai fell the hideous responsibility of leading the attack that would make the priests’ prophecy a reality.
Using the ship’s senses as his own, Shedao allowed himself to slip the bonds and concerns of his body and spread his intellect over all he saw. The Yuuzhan Vong had traveled far, in great worldships, seeking this new home. Scouts had located this galaxy over fifty years before, and the report of the survivors had brought reality to the Supreme Overlord’s prophecy: a new home was at hand at last. Later, agents had been infiltrated into it. Intelligence had flowed back to the worldships, and a whole generation had been trained to cleanse the galaxy of the infidels.
Shedao Shai smiled as he gazed down at Dubrillion. One truism of war was that even the most careful plan could shatter against the opposition; and so it had here. Nom Anor, a Yuuzhan Vong agent provocateur, had conspired with his brethren in the intendant caste to usurp the role of the warriors. A premature attack had been launched and repulsed by the New Republic, though not without losses to the infidels. Shedao Shai’s initial assaults had to be shifted to the worlds where the Yuuzhan Vong had been driven off, so their conquest could be completed and the shame of defeat effaced from Yuuzhan Vong honor.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander closed his right hand, his smile broadening. Were your throat in my grasp, Nom Anor, my pleasure would be boundless. Though the warrior did not deign to imagine how the priests or other intendants would explain away Nom Anor’s action, Shedao felt certain the gods would punish him. When next you come to Changing, Nom Anor, you will find your perfidy rewarded.
Shedao Shai reached his mind into the memories stored within Legacy of Torment. He plucked one from a slave that had been employed as a soldier in the ongoing pacification of Dubrillion. The short, stocky, reptilian humanoid Chazrach had served the Yuuzhan Vong well in their wars, with some of them being celebrated enough to be allowed into the warrior caste at its most basic levels. As Shedao Shai pulled the memory to himself and donned it like an ooglith masquer, it felt odd, since the creature was much smaller than he was. It took him a moment to accept the discomfort of wearing the creature’s flesh, then he pushed through and began to live the Chazrach’s mission on the planet below.
As missions went, it was not very challenging. This Chazrach and his squad had been assigned to clean out one of the warrens the infidels had created amid the rubble of Dubrillion’s main city. The Chazrach each carried a coufee—a large, double-edged knife—and a breed of amphistaff that was shorter than that employed by Yuuzhan Vong warriors. Not only was it more suited to the Chazrach’s shorter stature, but it remained largely inflexible, since the slaves seemed genetically incapable of mastering the whip skills needed to use an amphistaff to its full capabilities.
Shedao Shai shifted his shoulders, still poorly suited to the alien flesh he wore, but allowed his mind to plunge into the memory. Through Chazrach eyes he saw the soldiers move into narrow, dark recesses. A sour scent assaulted his nostrils and the Chazrach’s heart quickened. Two of his compatriots jostled and moved forward as their passage broadened. The Chazrach fingered his amphistaff and raised it out of the way as another slave slipped past him.
A red energy bolt exploded from the darkness, momentarily dispelling shadows, then burned into the Chazrach formation. Clutching hands to its blistered and smoking face, a screaming
slave spun away. With his amphistaff still raised, the Chazrach Shedao wore sidestepped his wounded companion, then looked up as the scrape of metal against stone and a spark alerted him to new danger.
On a ledge above the passage’s mouth an infidel had hidden himself. He swung a heavy metal bar, which sparked against the chamber’s ceiling. The bar whistled down toward the Chazrach’s head, but the slave parried it with the amphistaff, then lunged up with the amphistaff’s sharpened tail. The staff punctured the meaty part of the man’s leg, allowing salty blood to spurt out when the slave yanked the amphistaff free.
The man came with it, spinning through the air and landing hard on his back. Bones cracked and the lower half of the infidel’s body went limp. Blood still pulsed from the hole in his leg, and his hands grabbed for it. The infidel looked up into the slave’s eyes, fear widening his own orbs until the white balls looked as if they would rattle around in the skull. The mouth formed words that came with piteous tones, but a quick whirl of the amphistaff brought the flattened tip down to slash through the man’s neck, silencing his voice and ending his life in one stroke.
All around Shedao’s Chazrach other soldier-slaves attacked and fought. More energy bolts lit the further recesses of the warren. Slaves went down, writhing, hands clawing at leaking wounds. Infidels, shrieking out their last moments, collapsed in bloody heaps. Slaves stepped over bodies—both those of other Chazrach and of infidels—pushing themselves to get at more of the enemy. The ambush had become a rout, with the infidels seeking escape, but the flood of Chazrach made that impossible.
Then Shedao Shai felt the soothing sting of pain. It entered his back just above his right hip and cut toward his belly. He felt the Chazrach try to suppress the pain as he spun away from it, to the left. This allowed the weapon that had stabbed him to slip free of the wound, minimizing the pain a bit, but doing nothing to stem the panic rising as the Chazrach realized he’d been seriously wounded.
Coming around, the Chazrach brought his amphistaff up and almost missed killing his foe. The infidel that had stabbed him was female and certainly juvenile. The stroke that would have taken an adult across the throat slashed her face at eye height. The weapon crushed bone and ripped through the braincase. The infidel jerked as the weapon came free, spraying blood against the broken ferrocrete of the warren’s walls. She fell to the ground like a discarded wet cloak, yet the vibroblade she’d used to open the slave’s side remained clutched in her hand, buzzing in an abominable imitation of life.
Shedao Shai arched his back and tore the cognition hood from his head. He did not fear the Chazrach’s reaction to the wound, his going into shock and collapsing. Shedao Shai had lived through that sort of thing many times before. This time, though, he would not have himself sullied by the impressions of a coward. I will not be tainted.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander opened his arms and breathed deeply there in the cavity at the heart of Legacy of Torment. He knew others would find his fastidious rejection of the Chazrach’s final impressions to be an affectation. Deign Lian, his immediate subordinate, certainly would, but then Domain Lian had a more glorious history than Domain Shai, at least until recently. A history of successes allowed them to become sloppy and weak. Lian has been given over to me so I may instill in him the proper passions of a warrior.
Shedao Shai knew that what he had sensed in the Chazrach would be seen as a minor thing by many, but it was not the Shai way to allow himself to be tainted. The pain the slave had felt when the vibroblade—a blasphemous weapon that corrupted an innocent and injected her into the war—had been met with rejection. The Chazrach had been given a clear path to salvation, yet had turned from it.
Pain was not to be rejected, but embraced. As Shedao Shai saw it, the only true constant in reality was pain. Birth was pain, death was pain, all change required pain. To reject pain was to deny the very nature of the universe. Personal weakness distanced people from pain, which was not to be worked past, but woven through one so a being could become transcendent and be transfigured into the very likeness of the gods themselves.
Shedao Shai walked to one of the pitted chamber walls and caressed a pearlescent orb embedded in it. As if it were black beach sand being washed away, color drained from the wall, rendering it transparent. Behind it, arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy, lay relics of Domain Shai. Only a fraction of them had been stored here. By no means would so valuable a collection be entrusted to one person, and certainly not placed on a vessel like Legacy of Torment. The relics had been chosen by the domain’s elders specifically to inspire this one of their scions.
Shedao Shai played a hand over the barrier between him and the bones therein encased, pausing only at the open spot in the lower left corner. He intended to enshrine there the relics of Mongei Shai, his grandfather, a valiant warrior who had perished on a scouting mission to a world known to the infidels as Bimmiel. Mongei had arrived there as part of a scouting mission preparatory to the invasion. He had courageously remained behind to send information to those of his party who were flying back to the waiting fleet. His sacrificial death resulting from his attention to his duty had brought great honor to Domain Shai and had, in very large part, made it possible—no, vital—that Shedao be chosen to lead the invasion.
Shedao had dispatched two of his kin to recover the relics, but they failed in their mission. Neira and Dranae Shai had been slain by jeedai—the most perplexing of the infidels that Nom Anor had sent information back about. These jeedai, they claim kinship with and mastery over life, yet their emblem is a lightsaber—a weapon that can destroy both life and abominable mechanicals with ease. They set themselves as above and outside life, using this mythical Force to hide their wallowing in mechanistic blasphemy.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander shook off a shiver, then turned away from the relic wall and crossed the chamber. There he stroked a red bar on a wall. That end of the chamber began to transform itself, with the yorik coral wall flowing down into a platform. Triple-jointed appendages, six of them, unfolded from the wall. Turning again to face the relics, he held his arms up and out.
The upper two appendages each exuded a leathery tentacle that encircled his wrists and snugged tight. The lower four similarly produced straps that trapped his ankles and thighs. He felt himself lifted by his wrists, with the lower arms resisting. Joints popped and little explosions of pain shot down his arms, making his fingers tingle. His feet then left the floor. They came up above the height of his head, forcing him to crane his neck back so he could study the relics in the golden glow from above.
The light rendered the uppermost skull’s eye sockets into black pits. Shedao Shai stared at the left one, the more irregular one, his gaze tracing the concave edge of the orbit. Though he had never seen this female alive, and could barely keep straight the number of generations back she had lived, he could imagine her cold gaze being as merciless in life as her shadowed stare was now.
Firmly settled in the Embrace of Pain, Shedao Shai began to struggle against his restraints. The creature’s limbs contracted, twisting Shedao’s arms and arching his spine. The pain slowly began to build, so Shedao Shai fought harder, pulling and pushing, trying to tug his arms free. The creature that was the Embrace of Pain wrenched his limbs and shifted so his shoulders turned one way and his pelvis another. Glancing back over his left shoulder, he could see his right heel. But I cannot see enough of it.
He wrestled with the Embrace more and harder, letting silver agonies replace the red traces of pain working up and down his body. He sought the pain, tasting it, savoring it, trying to quantify it and describe it, yet secretly luxuriating in the fact that it was too much, too great for him to possibly ever do. Even knowing that this task was beyond him, he forced himself to push against the Embrace, mustering himself for one more explosive act of resistance.
The Embrace shifted again, cranking his wrists up to where they all but rested on the back of his neck. Stretching his fingers out, he caught at the fringes of his hair and tugged
his head back so he could stare at the relics. Sheer torment raced through him, igniting every nerve fiber in his body. He could not begin to catalog everything he felt. It came too much, too quickly, overwhelming him with pain until . . .
. . . until all I am is pain.
His true goal achieved, he let his lips peel back from jagged teeth. The infidels did everything they could to save themselves from this sort of pain. They divorce themselves from all reality. This is why they are an abomination that must be cleansed from this galaxy. It did not matter to him that the infidels had been here first; it mattered only that the gods had given the Yuuzhan Vong the galaxy and the mission of ridding it of these unbelievers.
Wrapped in agonies all but unimaginable, Shedao Shai again dedicated himself to the sacred mission given the Yuuzhan Vong. We have come to give them the Truth. Shriven in the crucible of pain, the fortunate will know salvation before they die. The others—He paused as a hot jolt curved up his spine to burst in his skull. —The others will become as lifeless as the machines they embrace, and the gods will rejoice at the fulfillment of our destiny.
The hiss-crack of lightsaber smashing against lightsaber drowned out the sharp intake of Luke Skywalker’s breath. He watched as the blow that had been struck drove Mara Jade Skywalker back and had her stumbling. Luke could feel the way the Force flowed around her and through her. Jagged, precipitous lines seemed to attack her, to trip her up. He reached out with a hand, ready to smooth sharp lines into gentle curves.
Yet even before he could do that, Mara used the physical momentum of her retreat. She rolled down onto her right hip, then came around, slashing wide and level with her blue lightsaber. Her red hair shone with reflected highlights as it lashed from one shoulder to another. Her green eyes blazed with another sort of light, one that matched the feral snarl on her face, betraying no sense of weakness from her debilitating illness.
The foe leapt above the slash, though not as high or as gracefully as other Jedi might have. Corran Horn landed and shifted his silver lightsaber to his left hand and stabbed it toward the ground. It sparked as it caught Mara’s return cut. Corran then pivoted on the ball of his left foot and snapped a side kick at Mara’s head. She ducked back, rolling through a somersault, then came up on her feet.