Dark Tide: OnslaughtMichael A. Stackpole
MICHAEL A. STACKPOLE
A Del Rey® Book
THE BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP • NEW YORK
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Also by Michael A. Stackpole
To Timothy Zahn
For all the obvious reasons, and a few more.
(Next time weÕre in Tasmania, I want to try driving.)
This book could not have been completed without the tireless efforts of a host of folks. The author wishes to thank the following people for their contributions: Sue Rostoni, Allan Kausch, and Lucy Autrey Wilson of Lucas Licensing Ltd.; Shelly Shapiro, Jennifer Smith, and Steve Saffel of Del Rey; Ricia Mainhardt, my agent; R. A. Salvatore, Kathy Tyers, and Jim Luceno, my partners in crime; Peet Janes, Timothy Zahn, Tish Pahl, and Jennifer Roberson; and, as always, Liz Danforth for keeping me sane through the whole process.
Elegos A’Kla; New Republic senator (male Caamasi)
Lando Calrissian; Dubrillion planetary administrator (male human)
Colonel Gavin Darklighter; Rogue Squadron (male human)
Borsk Fey’lya; New Republic chief of state (male Bothan)
Corran Horn; Jedi Knight (male human)
Danni Quee; ExGal Society (female human)
Ganner Rhysode; Jedi Knight (male human)
Shedao Shai; Yuuzhan Vong Commander
Luke Skywalker; Jedi Master (male human)
Mara Jade Skywalker; Jedi Knight (female human)
Anakin Solo; Jedi Knight (male human)
Jacen Solo; Jedi Knight (male human)
Jaina Solo; Jedi Knight (female human)
Leia Organa Solo; New Republic diplomat (female human)
Standing there, on the bridge of his Nebulon-B frigate, the pirate Urias Xhaxin clasped his cybernetic left hand to the small of his back with his right hand. He stared straight ahead at the tunnel of light into which his ship, the Free Lance, flew. Given the nature of the frigate’s design, with the bridge far forward, he felt as if he were flying there alone, making his way deep into the territory of the Outer Rim where no one in his right mind would be found.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the Twi’lek working the navigation station. “Time to reversion, Khwir?”
The Twi’lek’s long lekku twitched. “Five minutes.”
Xhaxin turned on the comlink clipped to his jacket’s collar. “All hands, all hands, this is Xhaxin. Red and Blue Squadrons, prepare for launch. You will be moving to the outbound vectors and disabling the smaller yachts. Gunners, we will aim for the escorts. Everyone look sharp and this may be the last run we ever need make. In and out, clean and easy. You’ll all do well, I know. Xhaxin out.”
A dark-haired woman stepped up beside Xhaxin. “You really think this haul will earn us enough to retire?”
“It depends upon the quality of retirement you desire, Dr. Karl.” The white-haired, white-bearded man turned and smiled at her. “Your skills will earn you a good living almost anywhere in the New Republic, and your share of this raid should be enough to buy you a new identity or two.”
Anet Karl frowned. “Ever since the peace between the Imperial Remnant and the New Republic six years ago, we’ve been forced to go after smaller and smaller targets. The New Republic never condoned what we did, but they turned a blind eye to it while the Imperials were still a threat. Pickings were good as unreconstructed Imperials fled out here to the Remnant, but that trade has been trickling off. Is this raid going to be different?”
Xhaxin pursed his lips for a moment, then lowered his voice. “It’s a fair question you ask. The answer is yes, I can feel it in my bones. This raid will be like nothing we’ve seen in the last five years.”
Anet smiled mischievously, her brown eyes sparkling. “You’re not going Jedi on me, are you? The Force tells you about this raid?”
“No, I’m far more practical than the Jedi, and more dangerous, too.” He spread his arms. “We’ve nearly nine hundred crew on this ship—nine times the number of Jedi in the whole of the galaxy. And while they have the Force to aid them, I have two powerful allies with me: greed and arrogance.”
“Oh, your plan was good.”
“Correction, my plan was brilliant.” Xhaxin laughed. “We let a couple of ships go free because they’re traveling together, then I set up a guy who says he can organize convoys through deep space to the Remnant. We had people demanding positions in our convoy. In fact, they paid well for the privilege of traveling safely.”
“But no refunds, correct?” The doctor smiled. “The credits they’ve spent are just a down payment?”
“Exactly. They gathered at Garqi, have headed out, and the last of them should be hitting the rendezvous point in ten minutes. We’ll round up what’s already there, then pick off the last one and go.” Xhaxin smoothed his mustache with his flesh-and-blood right hand. “It’s been a grand run. This last raid—it will be remembered. I would have had history recall me in other ways, but this will be good enough, especially if all of you can be rewarded for your hard work.”
Anet Karl looked at the various humans and aliens busy at their duty stations on the bridge. “We had no love lost on the Empire either, Captain. We owe you our thanks for keeping us alive and allowing us to pay them back all these years. We’d keep going, too—”
“I know, but the New Republic has made peace with the Remnant.” Xhaxin sighed. “One cannot underestimate the allure of peace. I think, perhaps, we’ve finally earned some ourselves.”
“Ten seconds to reversion, Captain.”
“Thank you, Khwir.” Xhaxin waved a hand toward the viewport. “Behold, Doctor, our destiny.”
The tunnel of light shattered into countless stars of varying hues. They’d come out into the middle of nowhere, literally—a point in space that had been selected only because gravitational forces made it perfect for speeding the way from Garqi to Bastion in the Imperial Remnant. This place is supposed to be empty.
Empty it was not. Aside from the burning wreckage of a twisted freighter spinning madly, life pods and yachts darting about, a large object hung there in space. Xhaxin thought at first it had to be an asteroid because of its appearance, uneven surface, and torpid pace. Other smaller asteroids seemed to orbit around it, then streaked out on attack runs on the yachts.
And now they’re orienting on us! Xhaxin spun away from the viewport. “Full shields up, now!
Deploy the fighters. I don’t know how some fool managed to fit a hyperdrive core to an asteroid, but he’s not stealing our ships! Gunnery, get a firing solution on that big rock and open it up.”
“As ordered, Captain!”
Even as he issued orders and pondered making a planetoid somehow mobile, Xhaxin knew that that line of reasoning did not explain the smaller rocks that moved like starfighters. “Sensors, what’s going on out there?”
A Duros looked up through holographic displays of data, his long face wearing an expression that was even more morose than usual. “Gravitic anomalies, sir, everywhere.”
“Tractor beams? Gravity-well generators?”
“Different, sir.” The Duros frowned as a wash of data filled his holograph with overlapping spheres of color. “Focused, tighter beams, more powerful.”
The Free Lance’s turbolaser batteries opened up, sending long streams of sizzling red bolts at the asteroid. The shots looked to be on target, then deviated sharply in their flight. The bolts sharpened their angle of attack, coming together nearly half a kilometer before they hit the asteroid. Xhaxin expected the beams to flash through that new focal point and still hit the target, but instead they vanished.
“What happened? Guns, sensors, what happened?”
His gunner, an Iotran named Mirip Pag, shook his head in disbelief. “We had firing solutions, Captain. We were on target.”
The Duros, Lun Deverin, stabbed a quivering finger at a small sphere in a holograph. “A gravitic anomaly pulled the shots in. It’s as if they’re using a black hole to shield themselves.”
Xhaxin turned to look at the data and watched as the sphere in question expanded and moved toward the frigate. At the moment of contact, a jolt ran through the ship. Alarms began to sound, announcing that the starboard shield had collapsed.
“Come about to a heading of 57 mark 12, ahead full. Shear off whatever that beam is.”
“Another one coming in, Captain. It will take the aft shield . . .”
Pen Grasha, the Free Lance’s starfighter control officer, shouted above the warning sirens. “Captain, our fighters are having their shields stripped. Their blasters and lasers are not getting through to the enemy.”
The Duros waved a hand, then grabbed his sensor station in a tight grip. “Brace for impact. They’ve fired upon us.”
Impact? Xhaxin turned toward the viewport and saw a sizzling golden ball of something—plasma?—flash past. It caught the frigate in midmaneuver, hitting just port of center. The port shield caught the blast, but collapsed in seconds, sending a shower of sparks through the bridge and skittering one crewman across the floor. A heartbeat later whatever had gotten through the shield slammed into the Free Lance’s armored hull.
Thank goodness we have extra armor. Xhaxin had devoted a lot of resources to reinforcing the armor on the frigate. It had stood up to shots from an Imperial Star Destroyer before, and they’d lived to tell about it. We also ran away so we could tell about it.
The impact momentarily knocked the ship’s artificial gravity generators out of phase, so Xhaxin flew from his feet and into Dr. Karl. Within a second, gravity returned, dropping both of them to the deck, but neither landed too hard. Xhaxin rose to one knee and helped the doctor up into a sitting position as he turned to look at the Duros. “What was that?”
“I don’t know, Captain, but it’s still eating into the hull.” The blue-skinned alien paled. “I project a hull breach on deck seven in twenty seconds.”
“Evac the area and close the bulkheads.”
“More shots incoming!”
No! This can’t be happening! Xhaxin’s hands, both flesh and metal, convulsed into fists. He pushed aside the despair and panic raging through him. Time to be the sort of man that causes a crew to be so loyal.
“Pen, recall our fighters. Load those without hyperdrives first. Khwir, plot me a jump out of here.”
The Twi’lek’s lekku palsied. “The gravitic anomalies are constantly shifting. Calculating a jump solution is impossible.”
“Are they enough to prevent us from jumping?”
Xhaxin snarled, then staggered to a knee as another shot from the asteroid shook the frigate. “Then jump blind. Send the coordinates to our fighters, but jump blind.”
“Captain, a blind jump could kill us.”
“A blind jump might kill us.” Xhaxin stabbed a finger at the viewport. “They will kill us. Do it, Khwir, do it, now!”
“As ordered, Captain.” The Twi’lek started punching coordinates into the navicomputer. “Ready to jump in five seconds, Captain. Four, three . . .”
Xhaxin looked at the viewport and saw a glowing golden ball expanding to fill it. He didn’t know who his attackers were, why they were there, or how their weapons functioned. As he pondered those things the view of space exploded. In that moment, somehow he knew that while having the answers to his questions might bring him some inner peace, the same would not be said of the New Republic.
Standing near the head of the senate chamber, waiting to be invited to the dais by Chief of State Borsk Fey’lya, Leia Organa Solo found herself a bit nervous. Years rolled back—decades, in fact—reminding her how she had felt when she first entered the Imperial Senate as the youngest person ever elected to such high office. She’d stood as a candidate to help her father, Bail Organa, continue his opposition of Palpatine and the madness that would permit things like Death Stars to be created.
I was young then, very young, and understandably nervous. She looked around at the massive chamber and across the sea of senators filling it. It didn’t have the grandeur of the old chamber, the one in which she had first served, but she felt a rich sense of tradition in it from the New Republic’s days. Back in the Imperial era—after Palpatine had seized full power—there were no more than a handful of nonhumans in the chamber, and then they were just aides to human senators. Now the humans were in the minority, much as they had been in the Old Republic. She could see Senator Viqi Shesh of Kuat and one of her telbuns, and Senator Cal Omas from Alderaan, but beyond them she had a hard time seeing more humans.
And it’s not just age catching up with my eyes. She smiled to herself, not wanting to be reminded of how much of her life had already passed by. Much of it had been spent here on Coruscant, helping form the New Republic into the star-spanning confederation of worlds that had emerged from the Empire’s shadow. Or I was out fighting the Empire, being shot at. In here the attacks were more subtle, but almost as lethal. She shivered as she recalled the old senate chamber even being bombed once.
Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw Danni Quee, the young woman who barely two months ago had survived an attack and capture by an aggressive alien group that had assaulted several worlds on the galaxy’s Outer Rim. Danni had been working at a research site used to monitor space beyond the edge of the galaxy and had collected some evidence to suggest the invaders had actually come from another galaxy. Their ruthless tactics, coupled with the sheer economics of mounting an invasion from a distant galaxy, suggested to Leia that the aliens had to be intent on taking a great portion of this galaxy for their own. She’d come to the senate to apprise the New Republic of this threat and enlist aid for the Rim worlds that would be facing the brunt of the alien onslaught.
Beside the petite, brunette woman stood Bolpuhr, Leia’s Noghri bodyguard. The Noghri were devoted to Leia and her brother, Luke, because of their efforts to repair the damage done to the Noghri homeworld of Honoghr by the Empire. In their gratitude, the Noghri warded Leia and her family with a fierce loyalty that was second only to that of a Wookiee with a life debt.
The pitch of Borsk Fey’lya’s voice shifted out of a deep drone to something a bit higher. Leia remembered how his voice would rise when he felt stressed. It brought her head up, and she focused her attention on what the Bothan was saying.
“. . . And so, it is my distinct pleasure to welcome back to this chamber a woman wh
o has been more at home here than anyone else in the senate’s history. I present to you Leia Organa Solo, envoy from Dubrillion.”
And about time, too, Leia thought. You’ve been giving me the runaround long enough. She’d been trying to get this audience for weeks.
Fey’lya turned away from the podium and waved her forward. The Bothan had chosen to wear a sand-colored robe that was only a shade or two darker than his cream-colored fur. Violet piping that matched his eyes trimmed it. Leia found the robe reminiscent of the simple garments Mon Mothma used to wear when addressing the senate or the people, but somehow it failed to grant the Bothan the air of simple nobility it had given Mon Mothma.
Leia had chosen to wear black boots and slacks, with a cerulean tunic. She also wore her hair up, letting her entire outfit and demeanor hint at the martial encounters that were the basis for her report. She knew it made her distinctly underdressed for the opulent senate, but she also hoped it would make some of those present harken back to the days when battle dress was the order of the day and decisions had to be made quickly.
“Thank you, Chief Fey’lya. Esteemed senators and honored guests, I bring you the greetings and well wishes of the people of Dubrillion. It is their wish I inform you of a grave crisis in the Outer Rim. A previously unknown species has launched a series of attacks in the Rim. They wiped out the ExGal-4 station on Belkadan, attacked the world of Dubrillion, destroyed the New Republic ship Rejuvenator at Helska, and annihilated the world Sernpidal by crashing its moon into it. We managed to locate the alien base at Helska 4 and destroy it, but this does not end the threat.”
Leia looked up at her audience and was surprised at how many senators seemed to be bored, as if she were the narrator for some Kuati manners-play. Well, I’ve not told them anything they don’t already know, but now they have to acknowledge it and deal with it. She cleared her voice and glanced at the datapad on the podium for her notes.
“On Belkadan, Luke Skywalker found evidence of an ecological disaster that radically altered the atmospheric composition of the world. This disaster has been traced to an alien agent who was present on the world and slain there after he attacked Mara Jade Skywalker and my brother. The evidence seems to suggest that the aliens were preparing the world to be used as a base for invasion.”