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Dark Tide 1: Onslaught, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  Before she could continue, a hunchbacked, saurian senator representing the various Baragwin communities stood slowly. “If it would please the senate, I would ask the speaker if she is the same Leia Organa Solo who undertook to mediate the Rhommamool-Osarian dispute.”

  Leia’s eyes narrowed as she lifted her chin. “Senator Wynl is well aware that I am the same person who went to try to broker peace in that conflict.”

  “And was it not the action of a rash Jedi Knight that forced the Osarians to launch the attack that embroiled the system in war, killing Nom Anor, the Rhommamoolian leader, in the process?”

  Leia held her hands up. “With all due respect, Senator, the Rhommamool-Osarian conflict has little or nothing to do with the invasion I’m talking about.”

  Borsk Fey’lya turned toward Leia from his position on the dais to her right. “Little or nothing? This would suggest there might be some sort of a connection.”

  She nodded uneasily. “When the invader attacked Mara, he first tried to destroy Artoo—the R2 astromech droid my brother uses. The alien was shouting the same sort of antidroid rhetoric that the Red Knights of Life on Rhommamool used in their crusades.”

  The Bothan blinked his violet eyes. “So you are suggesting that these Red Knights are behind the poisoning of Belkadan, the destruction of Sernpidal, and the attack on Dubrillion? And they had weapons sufficient to drag a moon from orbit, yet were not able to defend their leaders against an attack by the Osarians? Am I understanding you correctly?”

  “No, I don’t believe you are, Chief Fey’lya.” Leia let a hint of iciness enter her voice. “I don’t believe the alien on Belkadan was influenced by the Red Knights, but it is possible that the Red Knights are part of a covert plot to disrupt the New Republic.”

  Another senator, this one a Rodian, stood. “You would have us believe, Envoy, that your effort failed because of a conspiracy born from outside the galaxy?”

  “That’s not what I’m saying.”

  Niuk Niuv, the senator from Sullust, rose to his feet. “I don’t believe it is, either. I believe you are trying to deflect us from the threat the Jedi present to the New Republic. It was a Jedi who raised the tension level of the Osarians, triggering that war. You tell us a Jedi reported to you about this alien, and about what he said. I am not so stupid that I cannot see the effort of a Jedi to turn us away from trouble their order has spawned.”

  “The Jedi on Belkadan was my brother, Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master!”

  “And who would more want to have the errors of his disciples forgotten?”

  Leia forced her grip on the podium to slacken. “I am well aware of the controversy surrounding the Jedi, but I ask you, in all good conscience, to focus beyond that debate and concentrate on what I’m telling you. An invasion has been mounted from outside this galaxy, and it will destroy the New Republic if you do not act to stop it now.”

  A human senator Leia failed to recognize rose to speak. “Forgive me, but it is a well-known and long-established fact that a hyperspace disturbance on the edge of the galaxy makes travel into or out of the galaxy impossible. This supposed invasion could not have taken place.”

  Leia shook her head. “If that barrier does exist, they found a way around it. They were here, and there is ample evidence of their invasion in the Outer Rim.”

  The Quarren, Pwoe, rose and brushed fingertips over his pointed chin. “I am confused, then, Envoy. You told us that you had been part of an effort to destroy the invading force. I was led to believe you had been successful.”

  “We were.”

  “So there have been no more sightings of these invaders since then?”

  “No, but that—”

  “And do you have evidence to link them to the Red Knights other than hearsay about comments by a creature that is now dead?”

  “No, but—”

  “You do have physical evidence of the invaders?”

  “Some. A couple of bodies, a couple of their coralskippers.”

  Fey’lya smiled, flashing sharp teeth. “Coralskippers?”

  Leia closed her eyes and sighed. “These aliens appear to rely on genetically engineered biomechanical creatures. Their fighter craft are, well, grown out of something called yorik coral.”

  The Bothan shook his head. “You’re telling us that they used rocks to kill a Star Destroyer?”


  Pwoe glanced down at his desk, then looked up with a malevolent glint in his black eyes. “Leia, as one who has looked up to you in the past, I beg you, please, stop now. You cannot know how pathetic you appear to be. You chose to leave public life. For you to come here now, with this story, in such a bald attempt to take back control from our hands, is a pitiful thing.”

  “What?” Leia blinked her astonishment away. “You think I came here to make a power grab?”

  “I am given nothing else to think.” Pwoe opened his hands and took in the whole of the chamber. “You want to protect your brother, your children, for they are all Jedi, and I can understand that. It is also clear you do not think we are capable of surviving any catastrophe without you, but the plain fact is that things have gone well since the resolution of the Bothan situation. We all understand the human lust for power, and we have admired you for suppressing it for so long, but now, this—”

  “No, no, that’s not my intention at all.” Leia looked aghast at the senators. “What I am telling you is true, it’s real. We may have thrown back a vanguard, but they’re coming.”

  The Sullustan senator covered his ears with his hands. “Please, Leia, no more, no more. Your loyalty to the Jedi is laudable, but this attempt to make us think they might be useful because of some nebulous threat—it is beneath you!”

  “But very human of her,” the Baragwin sniffed.

  An invisible fist seemed to close around Leia’s heart and squeeze hard. Her elbows bent and she rested her forearms on the podium. “You must listen to me!”

  “Leia, please, do what Mon Mothma has done.” Pwoe’s voice filled with pity. “Fade away quietly. The government is ours now. Let us remember you fondly, as someone who transcended her humanity.”

  Leia looked out at the senators and wished age had dulled enough of her vision so she couldn’t see the looks of contempt being directed at her. They won’t see because they can’t allow themselves to see. They need to be in control so badly they will ignore danger instead of admitting there is a crisis. They will lose everything just because they want to prove they are in control. Their willful ignorance left her drained and speechless, with the weight of their pity and contempt crushing her down.

  This can’t be happening. Everything we have gained to be thrown away so foolishly. Leia’s grip on the podium slackened as she began to back away from it. To lose everything . . .

  A strong, sharp voice cut through the low murmuring in the senate chamber. “How dare you? How dare any of you speak to her this way?” In the middle of the room, a golden-furred alien, long and lean, with purple striping rising up and back from the corners of his eyes, rose to his full height. “If not for this woman and the sacrifices of her family, none of us would be here, and most of us would be dead.”

  Elegos A’Kla opened his three-fingered hands. “Your blatant ingratitude lends credence to the Imperial vision of our being mere beasts!”

  The Rodian senator stabbed a sucker-tipped finger at the Caamasi. “Don’t forget, she was one of them!”

  Elegos’s eyes narrowed, and Leia felt a wave of pain wash off him. “Can you say that without realizing how feebleminded it makes you sound? To lump her with Imperials is pure prejudice—prejudice of the sort that the Imperials flaunted when they oppressed us.”

  Niuk Niuv waved away the Caamasi’s comments with a flip of his hand. “Your criticism would bear more weight, Senator A’Kla, were you not known to have collaborated with Jedi before. Your sympathies for them run deep. Was not your uncle one of them?”

  Elegos drew his head back, emphasizing his height a
nd slender form. “My loyalties to friends and relatives who were Jedi do not blind me to what Leia has tried to say here. You may choose to see the Jedi as a threat—and even I would acknowledge that the activities of some leave me cold—but she is reporting a new threat, perhaps a greater one, to the New Republic. To willfully ignore it so you may pursue your own glory is the height of irresponsibility.”

  Pwoe’s tentacles curled up in anger. “This is well and good for you to say, A’Kla, but your people and their survival owes much to Leia and her family. Many of you died on Alderaan, and it has been human guilt and charity that has protected you for decades. Your rising to her defense is not surprising, akin to a nek battle dog licking the hand of the trainer that beats it.”

  Leia felt that comment sink home and returned to the podium. Her voice remained low and placid, despite the anger spiking inside of her. Though she resented calling upon a Jedi calming technique, she did, allowing her to focus. Her expression sharpened and her gaze swept out over the assembled senators.

  “You will choose to project on me all manner of sinister motives. This is your right. I can even understand old resentments being transferred to me, though I would have thought my history would have shown you where my heart is. Now I don’t even expect you to listen to me, I guess. You see the New Republic as your own, and I applaud your rising to take responsibility for it. Despite what you might think or want to believe, you make me very proud.

  “Where you disappoint me is in turning on yourselves. The New Republic’s strength has always come from its union of diverse peoples.” She shrugged, then straightened up. “I will leave for you all that we have learned about these invaders. I hope you will find the information useful when you find a time to employ it.”

  Borsk Fey’lya regarded her closely as she stepped back from the podium. “What will you do now, Leia?”

  She huffed quietly and stared at him for a moment. Afraid I will stage a coup to get my way, Borsk? Do you think I have that much power? “I’ll do what I need to. The New Republic may have abandoned me, but I’ve not abandoned it. This threat must be stopped.”

  The fur on the back of the Bothan’s neck rose slowly. “You have no official standing. You can’t just commandeer equipment, issue orders, and the like.”

  She slowly shook her head, then smiled as Elegos appeared at her side. “I know the rules, Chief Fey’lya, both those publicly codified and those by which the game is truly played. I have no desire to pit myself against you, so don’t make it necessary.”

  Elegos rested a hand on Leia’s shoulder. “This senator wishes to learn more about the threat. I trust, Chief Fey’lya, there will be no interference with my investigation.”

  “Interference, no . . .” The Bothan’s violet eyes became slits. “Be careful, however. Curiosity will be permitted, but treason will be punished. Do you understand?”

  Elegos nodded and Leia joined him. “Your message is received, Chief Fey’lya. Senator A’Kla and I will be very careful, and so should you be. A judgment of treason in a time like this could haunt you through history, if the invaders leave anyone alive to care.”


  Snug in the X-wing simulator cockpit, Colonel Gavin Darklighter, Rogue Squadron’s commanding officer, flicked his right thumb against the ring he wore on that hand. Apprehension gripped him, but he knew there was no sense in stalling a second longer. He glanced over his shoulder at the R2-Delta astromech droid sitting behind him. “Okay, Catch, run the simulation designated ‘skipchaser.’ ”

  The little gold-and-white droid tootled pleasantly, and the simulator cockpit came alive with lights and data scrolling on the primary screen. Despite the years of refits the little droid had undergone in Gavin’s service—including requisite memory wipes and programming upgrades—it always greeted him with a brief summary of the weather on Tatooine and Coruscant. Gavin appreciated that little bit of pleasantry, which is why he’d not traded the droid in for a newer model—though the Delta upgrade had been most welcome for speeding up navigational computations.

  The biggest change in his relationship with the droid had been its name. In the early days he’d called it Jawaswag, figuring that any Jawa would love to have the droid. Later, after the Thrawn crisis, a group of Jawas had tried to steal Jawaswag, but the droid had fended them off and actually hurt one. From that point forward Gavin had taken to calling the droid Toughcatch, which had just become shortened to Catch.

  The simulator’s visual field filled with stars and then an asteroid belt, into which Gavin guided the X-wing. It felt much like the old T-65s Rogue Squadron used to fly when he’d first joined the Rebellion, but the T-65A3 model was a couple of generations advanced over the original models. While not as slick as the new XJ model, the A3 had improved shields and lasers that boasted improvements in accuracy and power. The peace reached with the Imperial Remnant meant that there were few competent foes to test the new fighters against—and the fighter had proved quite lethal when unleashed on pirates in the Rimward regions of the New Republic.

  Gavin glanced at his primary monitor, but nothing was popping up as a threat. He punched up a supplemental data plug-in that expanded the available target profiles. “Catch, give me biologicals down to the size of mynocks and anything that appears to be moving erratically or on a course that is beyond norm for orbital debris.”

  The droid whistled an acknowledgment, but still nothing showed on Gavin’s screen. He frowned. What is it I’m supposed to be seeing? It makes no sense for Admiral Kre’fey to have given me access to this simulation if there is nothing out here.

  Gavin hesitated for a moment. He knew that his idea of what made sense and a Bothan admiral’s idea of same could be vastly different. Many times he’d had to deal with Bothan manipulation of himself or his command, and most of those times had been a disaster. Yet, despite the Kre’fey clan having a negative association with Rogue Squadron because of events over two decades old, Gavin had found young Traest Kre’fey to be remarkably straightforward in general, and very much more so when dealing with the Rogues.

  The primary console beeped, and a small box appeared around a distant object on the X-wing’s heads-up display. Gavin selected the object as a target and glanced down at its profile and image on the secondary monitor. At a quick glance it could have been mistaken for an asteroid and dismissed easily, but to Gavin it looked far too symmetrical. It reminded him a great deal of a seed—a bit bulbous in the middle, but tapered at both ends. The rear had a couple of recesses in it that could have hidden propulsion exhaust units, and a couple more up front that could house weapons.

  Gavin shivered, then nudged the X-wing’s throttle forward. “Catch, start recording this run. I want to be able to study the playback.” Applying a little etheric rudder, Gavin pointed the X-wing’s nose on a course that would cut behind the seed. Reaching up to his right, he flipped a switch that locked the S-foils in attack position. With a flick of his thumb, he shifted his weapons control to lasers and quadded them up so all four would fire with a single squeeze of the stick’s trigger.

  The seed shifted itself around so its nose swung into line with his approach vector. Sensors gave him no read on energy weapons powering up, which disturbed him less than getting no power readings for propulsion. How is that thing moving?

  Before any answers suggested themselves, Gavin quickly kicked the X-wing into a barrel roll to starboard and leveled out with his crosshairs covering the seed. He triggered a quick blast and waited for the seed to explode, but that didn’t happen. As the quad burst neared the target, the bolts all whirled into an invisible vortex and vanished into a pinpoint of white light.

  Emperor’s black bones . . .

  The seed jetted forward, swinging around to bring its nose to bear on the X-wing. Gavin started to roll port and dive, but something shook his ship. In a heartbeat Catch started screeching and the X-wing’s forward shields collapsed. Something dully red blossomed on the seed’s nose, then shot toward the X-wing. It hi
t hard and splattered a bit, then what appeared to be molten rock started melting through the fighter’s metal flesh.

  Warning sirens blared, drowning out Catch’s panicky tones. Bright red damage flags began to scroll up over the primary monitor, all but one of them moving too fast for Gavin to read. The one he could see reported a premature ignition of a proton torpedo’s engine, which lit up the whole port magazine and tore the X-wing apart.

  Stunned, Gavin sat back in his seat as the screens went black and the cockpit’s hatch cracked open. He glanced at his chronometer and shook his head. “Catch, we lasted twenty-five seconds. What was that thing?”

  A human orderly appeared at the edge of the cockpit. “Colonel Darklighter, the admiral sends his compliments.”

  Gavin blinked and stroked a gloved hand over his brown goatee. “His compliments? I lasted less than half a minute.”

  “Yes, Colonel, very true.” The orderly smiled. “The admiral said he would meet you in your office in an hour and explain why you are to be congratulated on doing so well.”

  Gavin sat behind his desk, idly punching up holographic images on his holoprojector plate. The first picture showed him and his two sons—orphaned boys who had lived near the Rogue Squadron hangar after the Thrawn crisis—all smiles. The next showed the boys two years older, still smiling despite being all dressed up, standing with Gavin and his bride, Sera Faleur.

  She’d been the social worker who had helped him through the adoption process for the boys. Gavin smiled as he remembered squadron mates telling him that their mixed marriage couldn’t last. They were both human, but she came from Chandrila, having grown up on the shores of the Silver Sea, and he was from Tatooine, yet despite the differences in their homeworlds, they easily made a life together.

  The next image showed Sera and Gavin with their first daughter; after that came shots of them with their new son and then another daughter. An image made as a New Year’s greeting card showed all seven of them together. Gavin easily remembered how happy they’d all been together. Prior to meeting Sera he’d pretty much resigned himself to never finding someone to love, but she’d been the balm to heal his broken heart. She’d not made him forget the past and the lover he’d lost, she’d just helped him recapture the joy of life and all its possibilities.