Ixi breathed a sigh of relief as he left the medcenter behind. The wounds he had accumulated on the Fate and Luck and his encounter on Suurja had been entirely healed by a combination of Force power and kolto submersion, leaving him refreshed and stronger than he had felt in a long time. It had been about a day since he and his companions had landed on Telos IV, and he had lost track of them as he was being escorted to the kolto tanks. Ojon had no doubt reported their arrival to the Jedi Council already, but he couldn’t guess what Harin and Nocion were doing. Gathering his belongings, Ixi headed for the Jedi Council chambers himself to ask them about his next mission.
After they had been denied the opportunity to return to Coruscant by the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Council opted for their budding order to remain in the polar regions of Telos, where they were well-hidden from the Republic as well as any surviving servants of the dark side. It had been constructed many years ago, during the Jedi Civil War, when it had served primarily as a storehouse for artifacts, documents, and information too valuable to be kept on Dantooine or Coruscant. The Jedi traitor Atris had lived in this place for many years after the war, hiding dark tomes and holocrons for her own personal use.
Although this place had been their sole sanctuary for many years, some older Jedi had argued that they ought to expand to worlds they had once controlled like H’ratth, Dantooine, and Teya IV, or even recapture military installations like Exis Station or those in the Ash Worlds. Ixi wasn’t sure about the benefits of moving beyond Telos, and the Jedi Council seemed to think that such expansion was pointless. In the end, he figured the Jedi could do just as much good from one planet as they could from a dozen.
Ixi ambled into the Jedi Council chamber after receiving permission from the Jedi guards posted at the door. To his surprise, the Council was not there—at least, not entirely. A single Jedi Master sat in the Council seats, his brow furrowed and his hands steepled at his lap. The man was about twenty years older than Ixi was, as the creases near his eyes and his receding blond hairline could attest. He wore a flowing tan-colored robe with a darker cloak as opposed to Ixi’s simple one-piece blue tunic, and his lightsaber rested on his sash, barely visible beneath the folds of his cloak. The Jedi Master opened his eyes as Ixi approached and waved the young Jedi Knight forward.
“Welcome, Ixi. How may I help you today?”
“Master,” Ixi said with a bow.
“We are all Jedi,” the councilor replied, waving his hand dismissively. “When it is only us, you can dispense with all the pleasantries. Mical will do.”
Ixi stumbled on his words. Such geniality between master and pupil was foreign to him. “Very well. Where is the rest of the Council, Master?”
“They have gone off to meditate and see to their Jedi Padawans. I was about to leave and tend to my records, but you caught me just before I finished my meditations.”
“My apologies. If you’d like to, I can wait-”
“Nonsense. I’m here to serve. Let us head to the archives, and we’ll talk on the way.”
Mical bid for Ixi to follow him. The Jedi Knight did as he was told, falling into step behind the elder Jedi. There was a single hallway separating the Council chambers from the archives, but it was a long hallway that was protected by guards—many Jedi and droids were on patrol throughout the area.
“I trust Ojon has already informed the Council about our encounter on Suurja?” Ixi asked after some time.
“Indeed,” Mical said, a few steps ahead. “I cannot speak for the rest of the Jedi Council on this matter, but I for one am concerned. We’re receiving reports that Jedi around the galaxy are being killed by unknown assailants, and you and Ojon could have just as easily met your end against those enemies.”
“It was only thanks to Harin and Nocion that we were able to escape,” Ixi agreed. “With all that’s happened, I’m worried about Dynatha. Have you heard back from her?”
Mical’s expression was grave. “We haven’t. We have sent other Jedi to investigate and bring her back to us, but we haven’t heard from them either. The Force is silent on this matter, and I fear the worst.”
“You don’t think she’s… dead, do you?”
“I cannot say. All we can do is depend on her guardians’ skill and the will of the Force to keep them all safe.”
“You’re right, but I’m still concerned.” Ixi paused for a moment while Mical positioned his hand and an eye against a security lock. “I’d like a mission to take my mind away from worrying about everything, Master.”
“We have considered your next mission, but I can’t promise this one will set your mind at ease,” Mical said, stroking his chin pensively. “There was a military uprising at Gamandar three weeks ago. They violently deposed the king of the planet and his family, all of whom were close friends of the Republic.”
“What? What happened to them?”
“We don’t know. Negotiations broke down after that and the Senate has authorized the use of force to end the rebellion. Unofficially, the Ministry of Defense wants Jedi to accompany the army and aid their efforts. Nocion and his Padawan have already asked to go. You’ve spent some time with them, would you like to be our third Jedi liaison?”
Ixi pondered the idea. He had never been in a military battle before, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to start now. The Senate and the military had distanced themselves from the Jedi Order after Revan and Malak waged their war, mostly because the citizens of the Republic were unwilling to accept the Jedi as the defenders they had once been. Even so, the military brass couldn’t deny the usefulness of the Jedi Knights, and the soldiers under them were very eager to see them on the battlefield again as well.
“I suppose I’ll go. But only if I don’t have to lead anyone into battle,” Ixi said.
“No, of course not. We’re not generals. You’ll be working with the medics and the auxiliaries managing the supplies. You will have to yield to the Republic commander, though. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Very good. I’ll inform the rest of the Jedi Council about your decision.”
“I won’t let you down, Master.”
“I trust that you won’t. Your old master would be very proud,” Mical assured him. The Jedi Councilor waved Ixi farewell as he headed through the final security door to the archives, but he stopped for a moment to add, “By the way, Ojon told me that Dynatha was displeased about the way you handled the situation with Lord Sharzin on the Fate and Luck.”
“She was?” Ixi gasped.
“Indeed. I think some time with Master Raffaan would remedy those complaints.”
Ixi grumbled. Master Raffaan was an old Jedi—the oldest Jedi serving in the diplomatic corps—and he was famed for his eloquence and mastery of negotiation. On one hand, it was an honor to study under him; on the other, he was known for his long-windedness and his pedantic methods of teaching. But there was no denying a Jedi Councilor’s request, so Ixi simply bowed and left him to his business. Perhaps he would feign busyness to avoid seeing Raffaan and escape on his mission.
Such lessons could wait. For the time being, Ixi had to find Ojon and find out about the Cerean’s next assignment. They typically performed missions together, so he had been surprised to learn that Ojon wouldn’t be going to Gamandar with him. How very atypical, he thought to himself.
Nocion Ahasies stood near one of the control boards monitoring traffic to-and-from the hidden Jedi Academy. The traffic control chamber was a room elevated at least two floors above the hangar itself, and anyone looking down could see nearly the entire hangar and anything that was going on down there. Nocion himself wasn’t in charge of and did not attend to any duties here, but Jedi Knights were allowed to observe their more technically-minded brethren as long as they did not interfere with their work.
Since this was a hidden sanctuary, traffic was rare: only Jedi and designated couriers were allowed to berth in this place. Couriers were usually merchants, engineers, or traders who had worked with the Order before and whose trustworthiness and confidentiality could be vouched for by a Jedi. Only one such ship was docked at the moment, and it had been there for several standard hours already. By all accounts, it was a fairly unimpressive bulk freighter, carrying foodstuffs, equipment replacements, and spare parts to be traded for a hefty sum of credits or valuable minerals.
“When does that ship depart?” Nocion asked the nearest Jedi.
“They’re finalizing their last deals now,” the Rodian at the control board replied, “once their automated cargo crates are aboard, they’ll be lifting off.”
“I see. How long does that usually take?”
“Ten minutes or so. Why do you ask?”
“I think I’ve seen that freighter captain before, and I have to thank him for saving my life. Pardon me.”
The Rodian gave him a brief nod before again focusing one hundred percent on his work. After leaving the hangar control room, Nocion walked through the halls of the Jedi Temple alone. Built around the irrigation center that had once provided fresh water for all of Telos IV, the interior was just as frigid and unwelcoming as the icy region beyond it. It superficially resembled the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, but there was no temperature control unit, the transparisteel windows only provided a view into the bleak interior of the plateau it had been carved out of, and even hushed sounds seemed to echo in the emptiness around them. Nocion despised this place and its aesthetics, but he recognized the importance of secrecy in such a time.
Heading north from the central chambers, Nocion found himself at the entrance of one of the primary irrigation rooms. The particle emitters stationed within the room had been used to regulate the flow of water across the planet long ago. Now, these devices served as cages for the prisoners of the Jedi. The Jedi Council had ordered massive slabs of duracrete to be erected between each makeshift force cage, effectively placing their prisoners in solitary confinement. The Jedi did not kill their prisoners, and their official stance was that any prisoner who renounced the dark side and showed evidence of such would be allowed to go free. Nocion had never seen one pardoned criminal during his time on Telos.
“Good day. What can I help you with?” the Jedi at the door, a hulking Yuzzem, sniffed dismissively as he approached.
“If you’d stay where you are, that would be fine for the time being.” With the wave of his hand, Nocion commanded the Force to place the furry humanoid into a catatonic state, depriving the guard of all his senses and briefly blocking his connection to the Force.
Once he was sure the Jedi was frozen in place and wouldn’t be able to alert anyone, Nocion took the guard’s clawed hand and placed it onto the door’s locking mechanism, granting him access. He had to be quick; even if the guard would be asleep for the next hour, the freighter would be leaving soon. Without the freighter, this risky plan would fall apart and he would have to delay everything for at least several months—he didn’t have that long.
Wandering through the duracrete maze that isolated the room around him, Nocion took note of the fact that it was darker here than anywhere else in the temple itself and there were almost no sounds to be heard except for the slight buzzing of the many cages scattered around the room. Unlike the rest of the Jedi sanctuary, which had a notable aura of light surrounding it and keeping it awash with the invigorating power of the Force, there was no such connection here. There was neither dark nor light here, rendering it eerie and seemingly devoid of life. Those who depended entirely on the Force to see, or else were so attuned to the Force they could not function without it, would have been effectively blind in this prison.
Nocion passed by several cages on his way in, taking note of their occupants. After several wrong turns, he found the prisoner he had been searching for. Nocion approached her cage as quietly as he was able and sat down nearby. As expected, she wore the featureless white robes of a Jedi prisoner, and she looked old—all sixty years of her life were written on her face, in her hair, and within her eyes. Nocion looked upon her with pity, despite the fact that he knew all about her evil deeds and folly. Even so, that was what made her so perfect for his plan.
“Excuse me,” Nocion spoke up in a soft voice. “You are Atris, correct?”
She didn’t acknowledge him. She appeared lost in her own thoughts, with listless blue eyes and a mouth slightly ajar. Nocion repeated his inquiry, and this time he noticed a slight flicker in her eyes as she returned from wherever her mind had been. The entirety of her cadaverous frame turned to face him, and he repeated himself once more.
“Yes… Atris… that was what I was called,” she said at last, her words stilted and her voice hoarse. “A time when I knew who I was, and yet every word she spoke made me… question everything. Or perhaps I was already questioning, and she gave me the answer, but I refused to listen.”
“Are you a Jedi, then?” Nocion pressed.
“A Jedi? Even now, I can hear the voices of the Sith. They whisper to me in my nightmares and torment me in my waking moments. I wanted to walk the exile’s path like her, but in the end the Jedi confined me to a physical cage even though I am already a prisoner of my mind.”
Nocion wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but he shrugged it off as mad ramblings. Prolonged solitude was known to damage even the most stable of sentients. “You once condemned the Jedi who assembled on Katarr to death, and you tried to do so again to this very planet. The Jedi suffered because of you, and the Sith caused your suffering. What would you say if I could allow you to exact vengeance upon whomever you wished?”
Atris chuckled bitterly. “Those beings who died then were not Jedi but cowards afraid of the dark. Younglings hoping to join together and face the unknown. I had merely offered them a place to be judged-”
“Just as you received judgment when you tried to condemn the surviving Jedi,” Nocion countered, finding himself angry for reasons he didn’t understand.
“Because I am just like them,” Atris replied, staring at him. “I sought to understand why I had been betrayed, because I was both scared of becoming like her and worried that I could not. But in the end, what does it matter? I am a traitor. So I sit here, wasting away into nothingness.”
Nocion returned to his previous train of thought, “If you seek revenge on the Jedi for incarcerating you here, I can offer it. If you yearn for the Sith to defeat them utterly and finally, I can do that as well.”
“Because no one deserves to be bound in this place. Not even you.”
“You know very little.”
“I know enough,” Nocion countered.
“And yet you approach me first. Do you intend to free every imprisoned being in this place, or is there something more?”
Nocion acknowledged that she was clever, even after her mind had been left to deteriorate. “You are different. You are the only one with the fortitude and the ability to exact any sort of retribution or atonement for your actions.”
“So you are a judge as well,” Atris noted with a hint of disdain. “Shall I play executioner for you?”
“I know where the Sith are hiding,” he said, somehow knowing that she knew what he intended for her to do.
Atris paused for a moment, interested but sane enough to conceal her excitement. “What of it?”
“You and I want the same thing. The darkness binds us. My life is not my own, and I want it back. You can help me.”
“You would have to free me first.”
Nocion raised his hand, bidding for her to wait. A few silent seconds passed, and then the energy field surrounding her faded away into nothingness. The Jedi Knight bodily lifted the prisoner away from her cell before the temporary power surge passed. As soon as she had escaped, its power modulator crackled and the cell’s power returned.
“Listen carefully. I have watched the Jedi in this temple, and I have monitored their movements for months. This datapad will show you a route from here to the hangar that will avoid any Jedi wandering the halls,” Nocion explained. “Once you arrive, there will be a single freighter in the hangar with a large empty container waiting at its loading ramp. Go inside; the freighter captain will take you to the Colonies.”
Atris nodded. “And the Sith?”
“The datapad will point you to the coordinates of one of their hidden outposts. Go there and tell them you are a fallen Jedi who knows the location of the temple. They will accept you. From there, you may join them for revenge or challenge them to avenge your fallen brethren. I care not. Your life is your own now.”
“Perhaps it is. And yet I am also indebted to you. I cannot simply flee into the unknown and escape both Jedi and Sith.”
“Would you even want to?”
“No. No I wouldn’t. So I will go to the Sith, as you intended for me, and I will do what I must. I do not know your plans, and you may not realize what you have done. We are both ignorant, but I will see that your actions are not wasted.”
Taking a few gentle steps to ensure that she could still walk, Atris turned on the datapad Nocion gave her and headed out of the prison. Once she had departed, the Jedi Knight breathed a sigh of relief. With any luck, she would be long gone before the Jedi Council even realized that she had escaped. From here, Atris could live in exile for the rest of her life or go to the Sith. If she fled from galactic civilization, then it was of little consequence to him. If she returned to the Sith, it only helped him. He knew she would not help the Sith again, and anything else she did would only protect the Jedi in the long run—or at least, help him. For now, he just had to assure the prison guard he had never been here and plant misleading evidence to keep the Council off his trail.
Ixi watched in awe as the two blue lightsabers slammed against each other, causing sparks to burst forth every time they made contact. Ojon was nearly five years older than Harin and a fully trained Jedi Knight, whereas Harin himself was a Padawan learner who had only recently created his own lightsaber. For as long as they had known each other, Ixi considered Ojon the most terrific swordsman in their generation, and he could not recall the last time he had beaten the Cerean in a duel.
Despite watching and sparring with impressive duelists like Dynatha and Ojon regularly, Ixi realized that neither of his friends could hope match Harin Sunrider. Ojon trained in the art of Juyo, an unconventional lightsaber style that counted on split-second reactions, ancient lunges mixed with modern footwork, and erratic swings that focused on offense. He was in top form today, and he was moving so fast Ixi could barely keep track of where the Cerean’s blade traveled. But Harin was just as good—no, better—and could follow it with ease. Each of Harin’s attacks went directly for a weakness in his opponent’s form, and every block wasted more of Ojon’s energy than his own. His swings were so simple and controlled that Ixi doubted he was using a particular lightsaber style at all.
It didn’t take long for Harin to find a grievous error in Ojon’s technique. Exhausted, the Cerean Jedi Knight tried to catch Harin’s blade with his own and twist clockwise just far enough to strain the young Human’s wrists and cause him to lose his grip. In the process, he exposed his left side to Harin’s blade, and the Jedi Padawan managed to sidestep away from the bladelock and strike, scoring a clean hit and ending the duel.
“That was great, Ojon!” Harin exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anyone handle a blade with such emotion and maintain control at the same time.”
Ojon nodded grimly and accepted the Padawan’s hand as he stood back up. “A loss is a loss, though.”
“Yeah, but you were really close! Seriously, don’t lose heart. Of all the Jedi I’ve fought, you’re definitely in the top four in terms of skill.”
“And make sure to watch your left side,” Ixi added as he approached.
“Which three would you say are better?” Ojon inquired, ignoring his friend’s jest.
“Hm… Master Ahasies is a bit more practiced than you, but I can occasionally beat him. But I’ve never beat Master Rand or Master Cortes, so those two would also be in that list.”
“You’ve beaten all the other Jedi you’ve fought? Even councilors?” Ixi asked.
“No! Force, no. The Council never fights,” Harin replied. “And some Jedi Masters choose not to either, like Master Marr and the head historian, Brianna, so I can’t test myself against them.”
“It’s for the better. You’d get too cocky if you went around beating the entire Jedi Order,” Ixi teased.
“Maybe they’d make me headmaster like my grandmother and great-grandmother,” Harin noted.
Ixi chuckled at the joke. Many of the changes made by Nomi Sunrider and her daughter, Vima, had been met with chagrin by the rest of the Jedi Council of their day, and they had been seen as mavericks despite their immense popularity within the rest of the Order. After Vima had left the Jedi during the Jedi Civil War, the leaders of the Jedi did all they could to keep her only surviving child, Celes, away from any leadership positions. To their surprise, she wasn’t interested in fulfilling any such roles, but—in true Sunrider fashion—she defied the Order’s tenants on love and had a child with an unknown man. Fortunately, the new order was slightly more lenient when dealing with such attachments, and they had allowed mother and son to remain Jedi as long as she was not directly responsible for raising him.
“Somehow, I doubt they’d welcome you with open arms,” Ixi said.
“That’s why I’d have to beat them!” Harin boasted. “It wouldn’t be too hard. My mom’s undefeated, you know.”
“But you aren’t,” Ojon said.
“I could get better,” he countered. “I’m a Sunrider. I could become so strong no one would be able to stop me.”
Ixi wasn’t sure how much of Harin’s talk was adolescent bravado and how much of it was genuine belief. Either way, he didn’t want to feed the young man’s ego. “Maybe you can show off when we go to Gamandar,” the Frozian pointed out.
Harin shrugged. “Honestly, fighting non-Jedi is a bit of a bore. I haven’t used training droids for years, and those mercenaries back on Suurja were too weak to be a challenge. I suspect those Gamandar rebels will be the same way.”
“Then perhaps it would do you well to fight a stronger opponent?”
Nocion entered the dueling chamber with holocron in hand. Ixi thought he appeared distant, more so than he had been when they met on Suurja. He pointed it out to Ojon while Padawan and Master greeted each other, but the Cerean hadn’t noticed.
“A Jedi knows when to fight and when to flee, young Padawan,” Nocion scolded his pupil. “The Force is ever only used to defend, not to attack.”
“But Master, I’m not seeking out battle! I’m just saying that I believe I can become even better than I am now. Surely aspiration is not forbidden by the Jedi Code?” Harin replied.
“No, but wisdom comes from knowing one’s limits. It is not shameful to acknowledge your present skill, as long as you are willing to struggle and become better as the Force demands. But it is foolish to suggest that great power will come naturally to you based on who your parents are.”
“Every Sunrider before me has been a famous Jedi,” Harin said, obviously agitated. “I would dishonor their legacy if I didn’t do everything possible to become just as famous as they were!”
Nocion sighed. “It’s not about dishonor or fame. You could do just as much good for the Jedi Order and the galaxy serving in the background, training to become the best Jedi you can be and cheerfully tending to your missions. There is no dishonor in performing your duty.”
“… I guess.”
“We will discuss this more later. It is time for your meditations.” Nocion turned to leave.
“Thank you for the duel, Ojon. We’ll talk later about our mission, Ixi,” Harin added before he joined his master and left the two Jedi Knights behind.
Ixi and Ojon stood in silence for some time, a bit uncomfortable having overheard the argument between student and teacher. With no other challengers, Ojon left the duel circle and headed back into the halls; Ixi, having nothing better to do, trotted after him. The halls of the Jedi Temple were empty at the moment because most Jedi Knights were meditating or caught up in their studies. It was an odd silence, but Ixi had never known anything else. He had heard of the warm, inviting halls of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, but he had never been there. Someday, he vowed to see them with his own eyes.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me about your mission now, will you?” Ixi asked after they had walked a bit. “You know, the top secret one?”
Ojon shook his head. “I can’t, Ixi. The Jedi Council ordered me not to tell anyone about it.”
“I won’t tell anyone else. You can trust me.”
“I’ll get in a lot of trouble if I tell you.”
“Who else would find out? It’s not like I’m going to give the Jedi Council my opinion on your mission.”
“Fine. But not a word to anyone else.”
“Have you heard the news about the assassinations on Coruscant?” Ojon asked
“I’ve been in a kolto tank since we got here, so no,” Ixi answered.
“The senator of Onderon was killed in his sleep last week. General Xerro and Admiral Cede of Republic High Command were killed yesterday. The supreme chancellor and the senator of Alderaan were both targeted as well, but they managed to escape.”
“That’s good. Both of them were key to revitalizing the Core Worlds after the wars.”
“That much is true. Anyway, the Jedi Council had some shadows on the ground when Senator Alderaan encountered her assailants. They tracked the fleeing assassins and pinned a tracking device on their ship. The Jedi Council is sending me to investigate.”
“Just you? By yourself?” Ixi asked, perplexed. “That sounds unnecessarily dangerous and stupid, Ojon.”
The Cerean gave him a dour look. “Of course not; Jedi Shadows will be accompanying me. Besides, I’m not exactly going there to accost them. The Council just wants me to find out exactly who is conducting these assassinations. If the planet is too well-defended or if they are too dangerous to observe from afar, we’ll just abandon the mission and inform the Council.”
Ixi didn’t like the sound of Ojon’s mission at all. He had promised that he wouldn’t speak of the details to anyone, but at the same time he couldn’t help but question the Council’s thinking. First they sent off Dynatha by herself with a trained killer—and one whom she was emotionally attached to, at that—and now they were sending Ojon to investigate an assassins’ base of operations. Perhaps he could ask Mical about his opinion on the matter in private; he was concerned that Ojon didn’t know what he was getting into, but he couldn’t find the strength to say anything further.
“You better come back alive,” Ixi said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Ojon replied. “I’m a Jedi Knight now, not some Padawan. I can fend for myself.”
Ixi just nodded. He couldn’t exactly convince his friend that this mission was a terrible idea, and he also couldn’t go back on his word and tell the Council either. He didn’t want to face the possibility of losing his two best friends in the span of a few short weeks, but he had no idea what could be done to save them from what appeared to be certain doom. Although he hated it, all he could do was depend on the Council’s wisdom and the will of the Force.
After a few short lessons, Harin had slipped deep into a meditative trance and would be caught up in the Force for some time, leaving Nocion free to attend to his own devices. Unlike the Jedi Council archives, anyone could visit the sublevel library, but its contents were lacking in comparison. There was no content relating to the birth and founding of the Jedi Order, no information on the dark side or any of its followers, and any atrocities committed by Jedi—no matter the cause—were absent. Further, for the sake of fairness and privacy, personal records on all Jedi were confined to the Council archives. However, this place had enough information for Nocion for the time being. It would have to do; he had no way of getting into the Council libraries, after all.
The Jedi Master Deesra Luur Jada was attending the archives today. He was a middle-aged Twi’lek, one of the few Jedi from Dantooine to survive both the bombardment during the Jedi Civil War and the purge that followed. He had also been the Jedi who found the bodies of the last councilors of the old order—as the story went, they had been killed in a bout with numerous Sith Lords. He was highly regarded, and many younger Jedi aspired to be like him: his tenacity and foresight were respected even among the Council, and his asceticism and discipline were admirable besides.
“Greetings, Master Jada,” Nocion said. “Could you point me to the section on early Jedi history?”
“Ah, well met Nocion,” the Twi’lek Jedi replied in Huttese. “The information you’re searching for can be found on the second floor, third row from the nearest window.”
Nocion headed up the stairs and quickly found the section in question. The majority of the literature from these early dates were written on disposable media, such as flimsy or basic datacards. Since it was impossible to physically handle them due to their age, the information they contained had to be accessed by a nearby terminal. Sliding through the first few screens, Nocion found what he was looking for: the location of all the Jedi fortress worlds used to watch over the Tion Hegemony in the earliest years of the Galactic Republic. Copying the information to a datapad, Nocion turned off the console and headed back downstairs.
“Finished already? That was quick,” Deesra noted.
“I just needed to research the location of a few rarer lightsaber crystals for my Padawan,” Nocion replied affably. “I’ll be back later, though. May the Force be with you, Master.”
“And you as well, Nocion.”
The Jedi Knight left the public archives behind. The Jedi Temple was terribly inconvenient in regards to traveling in and out, possessing a single pedestrian entryway that led to a plateau covered in ice and snow that was large enough to double as an emergency landing zone in a pinch. It made defensive planning and monitoring traffic easy enough, and Nocion supposed that was why they had stayed here for so long.
After assuring the guards he would only be a few minutes, Nocion was permitted to leave the safety of the Jedi Temple. The Jedi Knight was immediately buffeted by gale force winds and blinding snow. He rued the idea that this was technically the northern hemisphere’s summer. Wrapping his cloak around his body for warmth, he traveled as far as he could before assuring himself that he was neither followed nor in range of any listening devices the Jedi Order maintained.
Casting wary glances toward the entrance he had left behind, he removed his comlink from his sash and hit the activation stud. It would be difficult to reach his contact due to the weather around him, but at least there wasn’t an actual blizzard brewing.
“Yes? Who is this?” a voice croaked. Static made it difficult to understand, but at least there was a connection.
“Nocion. Your ‘Jedi’ companion.”
“Ah, Nocion. What do you have for me?” the male on the other end asked.
“I’m uploading information on all of their former fortress worlds,” Nocion explained. “The Jedi will be leaving their hiding place soon, and I believe their destination will be one of the worlds on this list.”
“So you’ve found their current sanctuary?” came the reply.
“No. They alerted me to this news through the Force,” he lied.
“You have done well to acquire this information. However, your mission was to reach the current Jedi sanctuary and report its location back to us.”
“I’m trying my best.”
“You’re not trying hard enough,” the other voice snapped. “You know what will happen to her if you do not complete your orders satisfactorily.”
Nocion felt his blood run cold. “Please believe me. I’m trying as hard as I can, but the Jedi don’t trust me. They’re all very suspicious of outsiders, so I only meet them in passing…”
“Perhaps you ought to ask her where the other Jedi are hiding then?” the other suggested. “She would not doubt know exactly where they are. Unless you want us to track her down for you and ask her ourselves?”
“No! I’ll do it. Just give me more time,” he pleaded.
“Don’t wait too long. Our time is soon coming, and it won’t be long before you must come home and join us in the final destruction of the Jedi.”
The transmission cut off abruptly. Nocion shook his head. This was a fool’s bargain if there ever was one, and he knew it. As a Sith spy, he had served dutifully under his masters for many years. He had been so esteemed, in fact, that he was assigned the most difficult task imaginable: he had to infiltrate the Jedi Order itself, pose as one of their lost Padawans from the time before the war, and locate their base for the sake of the Sith cause.
To his surprise, they had accepted him into their ranks and allowed him to advance and become a Jedi Knight. And yet, the entire time, he had served the Sith cause without question. He had informed his masters about the estimated number of Jedi in the Order, told them about the Jedi Council, and provided the location of some ancient Jedi worlds that had yet to be resettled.
And then something strange happened. During the course of his mission, he had gotten involved with the Jedi Knight Celes Sunrider. The two had worked together for many years, and they had developed feelings for each other during their extended partnership. He hid his inner darkness, if it could be called that, well enough with the assistance of his masters. At first, Nocion intended to use her feelings for him to further the Sith cause. Now, many years later, he couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. He had moved beyond caring for either Jedi or Sith. She had to be safe. He only wanted her.
It was only after Harin was born that Celes convinced him that they could no longer be together, even in secret. The risk was too great, she had said. And she was right. As long as the Jedi and the Sith existed, there was no way he, Celes, and his son could be together. If he betrayed the Sith now, they would track her down and kill her, of this he was certain. But if he betrayed the Jedi, he had no way of guaranteeing either his lover’s or his son’s safety; the Jedi were calculating and far-reaching with their justice. The only solution was to have both factions eliminated while the three of them were away, pitting Jedi and Sith against each other while they fled. Atris was a dangerous and unknown variable, but no matter how she acted, her escape was crucial to making sure that the end of the Jedi and Sith happened on his timeframe.
“Celes…” Nocion clenched his fists as he stared into the storm around him. “It won’t be long now. You, Harin, and I will all be able to live together again. Soon…”
Jhosua took a deep breath and relaxed his muscles as he waited for his opponent to move. Mornings on Ordo were typically hot and dry, keeping Mandalorians from training outdoors until cloud cover rolled in later in the day. For as long as he could remember, Jhosua had been training in the gymnasium located at the center of their camp to escape the early morning’s blistering heat. The walls were insulated with the best material they could afford, the padded floors were softer than the dirt that most Mandalorians trained on, and the facility had an expensive environmental control unit that had been stolen from Hutt merchants years ago. There was no reason to suffer because of the training and the environment chosen to train in, Jhosua figured.
His sparring partner came in with a flurry of punches—which were dutifully blocked—and followed up with a swift kick at his right knee. Jhosua stepped back far enough to avoid the attack and launched his elbow at his opponent’s side. He scored a clean hit, but his attacker was undeterred. She came in twice as fast each time she failed, and Jhosua made it a point to repel her with as little effort as possible.
Rapid punches at full power and indiscriminate roundhouse kicks were favored immensely by Mandalorian martial artists, which meant that they exhausted themselves quickly but often got in several strong blows that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. While highly effective against most fighters, Republic soldiers were trained to defend themselves with what they called ‘reactionary force’—that is, they used their opponents’ strength and momentum against them to find openings and use as little energy as possible. Although Jhosua had had little close-quarter combat training as a Republic soldier, he knew enough to incorporate the principles in his fighting; with his knowledge of Mandalorian combat, he had almost no trouble fighting against opponents like Glacis.
Years ago, he and his wife had made it a routine to spar with one another, but she had since lost interest in such things. Jhosua had taken Verita’s initial refusal in stride, and for some time he had trained with Kerre. However, Kerre was quite older than Jhosua, and he tired too quickly to be an effective training partner. Before Jhosua had a chance to search around for another, his daughter volunteered for the position. She was not nearly as experienced or as strong physically as her father, but she had endless energy and a drive that surpassed any soldier Jhosua had ever seen, and she learned quickly. He knew it wouldn’t be long before he had to seek a training partner weaker than her.
Glacis performed a low jump kick aiming at Jhosua’s legs. Again Jhosua stepped out of the way, allowing her to land with a bit of forward momentum. However, she used that momentum to propel herself into a roll that brought her into Jhosua’s guard; a fast sweeping kick toppled her father. He struggled against her blindingly fast attempt at a grapple, causing her to settle for a sloppy pin that only trapped his arms and left leg. A kick from his free leg knocked her back, and another gave him the freedom he needed to escape and pin her from behind. She realized after a brief struggle that it was a perfect grapple—for the sake of training—and she signaled for him to end the match.
“Not bad,” Jhosua said after helping Glacis to her feet. “You’re getting better. With your speed, I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep up with you in a few weeks.”
“You said that last month,” she replied. “I don’t think I’m getting better.”
“Of course you are. Six months ago, you couldn’t even knock me over. Now you’re seconds away from winning the match.”
“Six months? So I’ll be better than you in about a year,” Glacis mumbled.
“Keep in mind I also have about forty kilos on you, and about twenty years experience,” Jhosua countered. “With that in mind, you’ve had amazing progress.”
“But without the Force, I can never match you in a fair fight like Mom can.”
Jhosua frowned. “Do you really think your mother can only hold her own because she has Jedi powers?”
“Then don’t think like that,” Jhosua cut her off. “Give yourself some time. Learn your own strength and weaknesses. And don’t compare yourself to your mother; you’ll never get stronger that way.”
Glacis wiped the rest of the sweat from her face and hair. “I’ll try. I’m going to stretch and finish my workout in the weight room. Are you going to join me?”
“Not today. I have to go see Mandalore. But remind me to take you to the range later. We’ll finish those moving target drills, all right?”
“I’ll hold you to that, Dad.”
Jhosua bid his daughter farewell and left the gymnasium as quickly as he could. The sun was beginning to climb high over the mountains to the southwest, and other soldiers were flocking to the battle circle and beginning their daily marches through the Mandalorian camp. For some reason or another, most of the warriors were armored; the cooling units in their suits were never quite as fine-tuned as they should have been, and Jhosua silently pitied the armored men and women he walked by on his way to Mandalore’s building.
Fortunately for all of them, they would not be on Ordo for long. Several days ago, Mandalore the Preserver announced publicly what Jhosua had known for months: the Mandalorians would soon reclaim the planet Mandalore for themselves. No warrior in the camp could contain their excitement, and even the civilians were riled up in anticipation. Soldiers marched with added vigor, blasters resounded just a bit louder at the ranges, and starships were becoming a more common sight in the air overhead as they were tested and retested for travel and combat. It had been a long journey for all of them, and now it was nearly over.
From Dxun, the Mandalorians had swept through the frontier, pillaging outlying worlds like Togoria, Contruum Six, Corsin, and the ruins of Taris on their way to their home sector. Other Mandalorian warriors had traveled into Mandalorian space since their exile at Revan’s behest, and the descendants of these exiled warriors met Mandalore the Preserver and his forces on Breshig, Concord Dawn, and Ordo. Although there were some who resisted his claim to the title and had to be defeated, the vast majority of these leaderless combatants joined Mandalore’s camp, swelling their ranks.
The home sector of the Mandalorians had been abandoned in the wake of their last crusade. Officially under Republic military jurisdiction, no being was allowed to enter without explicit permission from the Galactic Senate. That meant only a few vagabonds and smugglers even bothered settling within the sector, and even then only on Mandalore itself. Even so, Mandalore the Preserver knew it was time to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Now nearly six thousand strong, Jhosua honestly believed that they had a chance at reclaiming the whole sector for their own.
Jhosua was waved through by the two guards in front of Mandalore’s building. Although the meeting of Mandalore’s military advisers and civilian leaders was already underway, Jhosua couldn’t just arrive as he was. At least, not without reproach from his superiors; he was already in poor standing with some of his subordinates, and there was no reason to offend the few officers above him. Entering the storage room at the east end of the compound, Jhosua pulled his full-body suit of silver armor over him to conceal his training apparel. Keeping his helmet in his arms, he made haste to the meeting.
The leader of the Mandalorians stood at the center of his war room, motioning toward a large hologram of the Mandalore system beside him. The room was already full by the time Jhosua arrived, with warriors crowded along the walls and in the corners. The glowpanels had been shut off to make it easier to focus on the holographic display, but Jhosua was certain his wife was in here somewhere. With no way to find her, though, he settled for a position near the entrance with a trio of lower-ranking soldiers whispering to themselves about the upcoming mission.
“When does Mandalore intend to begin the mission?” Jhosua asked one of them, wondering if his leader’s plans had changed since they last spoke.
“Nine days,” the warrior replied.
Jhosua nodded. That sounded about right based on the timetable he had received from Mandalore.
“Once our ships are in orbit over Shogun, we’ll jump to Bonagal and establish a forward base on its nineteenth moon,” Mandalore announced to the rest of his soldiers. “From there, we’ll microjump to Mandalore itself and reclaim it for our people.”
Someone across the room from Jhosua gave an elated shout, and then an entire chorus of cheers erupted as the company of beings realized that they would finally be able to return to the homeworld of their ancestors. Jhosua prided himself in knowing that he had been a deciding factor in the many battles that had brought them here, and he couldn’t help but smile. Others could attempt to deny his accomplishments, but he and Mandalore knew exactly how much he had done, and that was enough.
With a wave of his hand, Mandalore bid his chief lieutenant, Kelborn, to come forward and speak in his stead. Like Jhosua, he wore silver armor and had the pauldron of a High Marshal. Kelborn motioned for the noise to cease, and the crowd around him slowly quieted as he switched the holographic display from a detailed map of the Mandalore system to an orbital view of the planet that gave the system its name.
“After our exile, the Republic took it upon themselves to repopulate the planet. According to our scouts, there are three major settlements on the planet, all located on the southern shorelines of the northernmost continent. Republic colonials and merchants make up about three-quarters of the population; the rest are independent smugglers.
“Our initial plan was to bombard the region from orbit, but at the moment, that’s impossible. The planet was given a military-grade shield generator by its Republic backers to defend the region from Hutt incursions. The generator produces a shield large enough to cover all three colonies simultaneously, rendering them impervious—even to our concentrated fire.”
“So we’re going to do this properly,” Mandalore cut in. “Energy readings of the planet show that the generator itself is very likely hidden within the mountain range to the east. I’ve decided that High Marshal Weros will lead a team of soldiers on Basilisks into the mountains to seek out the generator and destroy it. Once its down, we’ll conduct our bombardment.”
“Why does High Marshal Weros get to lead the attack?” Jhosua heard someone ask, and he thought the voice sounded like Captain Garol’s. “I believe High Marshal Bralor is more suited for this mission.”
“He’s currently rallying our forces from Togoria. With the ships at his disposal, he won’t arrive in time for the attack,” Kelborn explained.
“Do you have a problem with me leading the attack?” Jhosua asked, sliding his helmet on and walking through the crowd. “I have the ability and the knowledge to lead this attack, and I already have a team in mind. In what manner am I lacking, Captain Garol?”
Fortunately for Jhosua, he was right; it had been the captain’s voice earlier. Now that he had been challenged before the whole host of Mandalorians, he lost his nerve. “I have no objections, High Marshal.”
“Good.” Mandalore stepped forward and began circling the inside of the crowd. “Are there any other questions?”
“Are we not going to speak to the Republic about their colonists?”
There was a murmur of discontent at that question. Jhosua’s stomach lurched when he realized that it was Verita who had asked it from somewhere in the group of civilian leaders. Jhosua knew a few of his adversaries would be watching him intently and prey on this weakness, but nearly all those present turned to look at the woman who dared raise such a question in Mandalore’s presence.
“Why would we do that?” Kelborn asked.
“They’re Republic citizens who were told they were settling in an uninhabited system. They have no idea they’re encroaching on a world that belongs to the Mandalorians. If we spoke with them—or, better yet, with a Republic diplomat—they would surely leave before we attacked,” Verita reasoned.
“Who cares about that?” a captain near Garol asked. “What has the Republic done but attempt to destroy us? What do we owe a few ignorant settlers? That is our planet, and the Republic and their Jedi allies stole it from us. Bomb them until their skin burns and their organs are atomized, I say!”
Mandalorians whooped and hollered in agreement around the young Mandalorian officer. Jhosua was relieved that Kelborn was quick to silence them, but he feared that this topic would prove disastrous for him and his prospects in the coming battles. What was Verita doing?
“Have the Mandalorians fallen so far that they now hold a grudge against their betters?” Verita asked, ignoring the decrying shouts of the beings around her. “You challenged the Republic with the very best you had to offer, and you lost. Did your defeat mean the whole war was meaningless? Was the glory in battle lost as well?”
“Enough. Verita, if you have something to say, say it,” Mandalore said.
“Send for a Republic emissary to strike a deal with the colonists on the surface. If they were warned, they would evacuate.”
“You don’t know that,” a warrior spoke up.
“Why would civilians want needless fighting?”
“Now fighting is needless?” yet another asked.
“In this case it is! If there is no honor to be gained in combat, why pursue it?” Verita countered. “We may win the battle, but this will do nothing but invite retribution against us all. Although the Republic is weaker now than it was in years past, they are still strong enough to defeat us.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Young Mandalorians jumped from their seats, joining their agitated older comrades until the entire company of warriors had risen. Civilian leaders had to physically restrain younger warriors from charging through the crowd to try and strike down Verita where she was standing. Kelborn and the remaining High Marshals shouted at the maddened warriors to maintain a semblance of order, but no one listened. Jhosua held some of the warriors with weapons back to keep them away from his wife; fortunately for him, they weren’t quite mad enough to strike one of Mandalore’s generals. Verita was unyielding in the face of the violent crowd around her, and she refused to waver to anyone, even her friends in the non-combatant leadership.
“All of you, be quiet!” Mandalore boomed. To Jhosua’s relief, warriors slowly started to disperse and the mob that had formed became a far more manageable crowd. “Whether you like it or not, Verita is right. Do not be so quick to distrust her because of her occupation or her former ties.”
“She didn’t have to rile up the crowd like she did either, though,” a Mandalorian commander noted.
“True. And I take it she will remember that in the future.” Mandalore turned to Verita. “Do you have a recommendation? We have no way of contacting the Republic, and I don’t think they would listen to us even if we did make any effort.”
“I… I have an old friend on Byblos who happens to know several influential senators. I believe he would be willing to pass along a message.”
Mandalore grumbled under his breath. “Very well. If you can guarantee us that the message will reach the Republic within the week and that they will not interfere with our efforts, we will allow their civilians a chance to escape.”
“That’s all I ask,” Verita replied.
The rest of the meeting was significantly less heated. Mandalore, Kelborn, and Jhosua explained the main plan and a few contingencies. Kelborn focused nearly entirely on the bombardment itself, but Mandalore encouraged him to briefly discuss the battle that would likely follow. Very few of those gathered believed that Republic diplomacy and Mandalorian bombs would remove all of their enemies from the planet. After the military commanders had finished, the civilian leadership stepped forward and began explaining how they would evacuate from Ordo. The Mandalorians had a limited number of starships at their disposal, and the majority of the ones they did have were meant for war. It was with some resignation that the civilian population had agreed to leave most of their belongings behind whenever they abandoned one planet for another. Fortunately, Ordo was in Mandalorian space, and the leaders promised that all personal effects would be recovered after their homeworld was captured.
After Mandalore had ensured there were no further announcements or questions, he adjourned the meeting. Jhosua struggled through the crowds of departing warriors and civilians to catch up with Verita. They hadn’t spoken much since he had returned from battle nearly a week ago, and he couldn’t tell if she was angry at him or just busy with evacuation planning. Either scenario was likely, given previous circumstances. He had a hard time shaking the feeling she was avoiding him; even if she didn’t want to talk, ignoring the problem would only make it worse.
“Verita!” he called out to her upon approach.
“Jhosua.” She stopped in a rigid pose and turned to face him. “What is it?”
“What’s going on?”
“I have to help the metallurgists’ guild get their supplies onto the ships. Can we talk later?”
Jhosua reached out and grabbed her arm before she could leave. “Now hold on. What’s wrong, Verita?”
“Then we can talk now.”
“Jhosua, I’m very busy, and-”
“Are you avoiding me?” he asked.
“No,” she said, but not very convincingly. “I’m very busy, Jhosua. The civilian leaders have enough to do as it is, and since Mandalore is insistent on leaving so soon, I have to meet with my contact and convince him to speak with the Republic on our behalf.”
“Who exactly is your contact? You’ve never mentioned him,” Jhosua noted warily.
“Later, Jhosua. I promise.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll meet at that place and discuss everything tomorrow evening.”
“Very well. I’ll hold you to it.”
“I’m going to be home late; don’t wait for me,” she added before disappearing into the crowd.
Glacis had waited for her father at the shooting range until the sun descended behind plains to the northeast, bathing the sky in a picturesque blend of oranges, grays, and blues. Once she realized he wasn’t coming, she discarded her training blasters and returned to camp in a sour mood. He always did this. Her father would make promises only to become so busy that it became impossible to keep them, and then leave her to fend for herself. To some degree, she understood that he couldn’t be with her all the time and that she needed to give him enough time to finish all of his duties; on the other hand, she knew he should have just refused her request in the first place. Her mother was just as busy as her father, and Fier wasn’t typically interested in the same things that she was. With no one to turn to, she found herself wandering through the camp alone.
Unable to summon the will to exercise or train with the Basilisk droids, Glacis found herself nursing a pint of beer in the local cantina before long. The barkeeps and servers had identified her as a regular long ago, so much so that they hadn’t cared about her being here when she had been just an adolescent. She almost missed those days. The least she had to worry about then was being kicked out and scolded by her parents; now she had to deal with drunk—or soon-to-be drunk—males pining for her attention.
The cantina itself was mostly empty tonight. Mandalore’s chief warriors were busy with other tasks, and the new recruits were being trained nearly all day and all night for their first battle. That left Glacis free to drink quietly and observe the few patrons with her at this hour. Most of them kept to themselves and were rather uninteresting, but there was a quartet of Mandalorians sitting across the room from her that caught her attention. Two of them had black hair and a ruddy complexion, the third had light brown hair with a bit of stubble at his jaw and beside his ears, and the last was a shorter man who was balding even though he only looked two years older than her. They were clearly green soldiers, with no scars on their soft features. What irked her the most was that they were being much louder than anyone else.
“Three cheers for Mandalore, and three cheers for his sons!” the shortest man drawled.
“And three more cheers for beautiful Mandalorian women!” the heavier of the two black-haired patrons replied.
They all agreed to this and took hearty drinks from their respective steins. A few nearby drinkers moved away from them as their ruckus continued; sensing the rest of the guests’ discomfort, the four Mandalorians began singing an old war tune as loud as they possibly could. Of course, they didn’t know the lyrics and couldn’t sing in key, but that didn’t bother them in the slightest—only everyone else.
She was about to finish her drink and leave for good when one of them said, “And a curse upon the clanless one, Jhosua Weros, and the plague he has brought to our camp!”
Glacis gripped her glass until her knuckles turned white. She could handle their annoying behavior, but this was another matter entirely. While the four Mandalorians agreed with their companion and shared another round of drinks, she made her way across the bar toward their table. By the time she arrived, they had abandoned all attempts to sing together and began blabbering nonsense amongst themselves.
“Look at this beautiful creature who has descended from the stars to treat us,” the man with brown hair announced with an impressed whistle. “Let’s provide her with drink.”
“I’d rather you’d take your drinks somewhere else. You’re bothersome.”
“What’s she saying?” the shortest man asked, not even bothering to pay attention to the conversation.
“She says we’re all dashingly handsome and she enjoys our company,” one of the twins replied.
“If you’re thinking of charming me, it typically works better if you try one at a time,” Glacis pointed out. “Your combined stench is too much for me to deal with at once.”
“She’s got quite the body. Shame about the sarcastic mouth, though,” the other twin pointed out.
“I’d like to say the same about you, but I haven’t heard anything intelligent or witty from any of you, and your collective bodies look no better than the backside of a Coruscant granite slug.”
The black-haired warrior shook his head, probably to steady himself. “Be kind. I know my companions are oafs, but I guarantee you that if you come back to my side of the camp, I can show you a good time like no other soldier-”
Before he could continue, Glacis lashed out and struck at his face. The punch was a bit higher than she planned, and she made contact with his nose, causing a sickening crunch. He clenched his bleeding, shattered nose with both of his hands, crying out in pain and utterly delirious. The other three warriors were either so shocked by her attack or so drunk, they didn’t seem to understand that they were in equal danger. Glacis kicked out and sent the round table into the chest of the shorter man, causing him to gasp for breath and knocking him over.
“What the hell are you doing?” the heavier twin babbled.
“My parents don’t deserve your insults!” Glacis growled. “They’re just as much Mandalorians as you are!”
The other twin chortled. “But they aren’t even true Mandalorians. They are and always will be clanless.”
Glacis threw her half-empty glass into his face. It shattered into jagged shards and cut deep into his face. He flailed in utter confusion as his vision was engulfed by rivulets of blood. There was so much blood that his twin vomited. Glacis showed the sickened warrior no mercy, knocking him over with several punches to the gut.
She had been so eager to deal with the four Mandalorians that she didn’t even realize that she had caused such a scene. While the patrons and barkeep were used to violence from time-to-time, fights typically were small affairs where nothing was broken and everything ended quickly. Glacis had neglected to realize just how much pain she had caused the four of them and how long she had been fighting them. The barkeep had called the military police to the cantina just in time for them to see her pummel the last of her targets.
“All right, everyone settle down,” the armored chief of the unit growled. “No one leaves until we find out exactly what happened here. No one speaks unless spoken to.”
“It was her!” the barkeep shouted, blatantly ignoring the instructions. “The High Marshal’s daughter did this.”
Glacis thought she saw a grin underneath the MP’s wide T-visor. “Is that so? How very interesting. You are Glacis, correct?”
“I am. Why?”
“Oh, no reason.” The provost adjusted his white rerebrace so it was fitted above his elbow. “But Mandalore will be most displeased to discover that someone in his High Marshal’s family is causing trouble just before our great mission.”
Glacis reddened. She hadn’t even thought of it that way. If she was formally disciplined for her actions—or even worse, if she received a court-martial—before the battle, she would bring unspeakable dishonor upon her family. Even if she was acquitted, the idea itself could bring disaster to her father and his name. She tried to stammer something in her own defense, but her mind had suddenly blanked of any respectable answers.
“We’re going to have to take you to the tribunal,” the soldier noted with some excitement. “I don’t think Mandalore will be available for judgment for several days, but in that time we can broadcast what’s happened here-”
“That’s quite enough, Captain. I’ll handle it from here.”
The military police investigating the scene froze at the sound of Marshal Kerre’s voice. Abandoning their work, the squad of soldiers lined up in front of the bar as quickly and dutifully as they could. Fighting themselves for the closest spot to Kerre, the whole scene looked ridiculous and Glacis couldn’t help but chuckle to herself.
“Field Marshal Kerre! We didn’t expect you. What can we do for you, sir?” the MP captain shouted as loud as he could.
“First, keep your voice down,” the elder Mandalorian said. “I’ll discipline Glacis myself; you deal with the victims and make sure they are given proper care and some time on leave.”
“Sir… is that proper?”
“In regards to what, exactly?”
“Dealing with the young woman in that manner. Begging your pardon, sir, but if you intend to allow her to circumvent the law…”
“You let me handle the judicial matters, Captain. Frankly, this is above your pay grade.”
Glacis could tell that had hurt the warrior’s pride. “I… yes. Very well, sir. We’ll handle things here.”
Kerre simply nodded his approval. Heading out the door, he waved for Glacis to follow him. She acknowledged him with a nod, careful to avoid stepping into the path of any of the military police as they returned to their work. She followed Kerre for some time, out of the bar and beyond the civilian district, until the two of them were walking through the barracks. She wanted to say something to him, but she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. There was no excusing her actions, and yet at the same time she acted in a fit of passion; surely there must have been some sort of justification in that regard. But no matter how hard she thought, she lacked the substantial justification she sought. Before she knew it, the two of them had returned to her home.
“That’s it?” she asked. “You’re not even going to chastise me?”
“What good would it do? You think your actions were right, and there’s nothing I can do to convince you otherwise.”
“Don’t say that. I know what I did was wrong. It was stupid and reckless and ultimately pointless. What good did beating those four senseless do?”
“You tell me.”
“Nothing, really. It made me feel better then, but I feel terrible now,” Glacis admitted.
“But at the same time, they were wrong for speaking of your family in such a way,” Kerre retorted. “Their words were ill-placed and offensive; other Mandalorians would have done the same.”
“Whose side are you on?” Glacis asked. “Isn’t it your responsibility to punish me?”
“I suppose it is.”
“Then why are you supporting me?”
“You’re more stubborn than your father and mother combined. Sometimes I wonder how they put up with you.”
“Come on, Kerre. Don’t say that like I’m invisible.”
“The military police will not speak of this if I tell them not to. Those four men would rather endure dishonor in silence than admit they were beaten by a woman—fellow warrior or no. The drunken types rarely get along with soldiers, so your escapades will not reach Mandalore’s ears until after we reclaim our home.”
Glacis kneaded her brow with her fingers. “I don’t get it. Why are you doing this?”
“We all make mistakes. You just made one at a bad time. You’ll answer for it at a better one.”
Kerre turned around and left Glacis to herself before she could give a reply. Now that her wit had returned, she had all sorts of inquiries and barbed comments for the old soldier, but she understood that he implicitly expected her to return home and stay there. Kerre was an old friend of the family, but he was also a conservative Mandalorian. Using his rank to overturn an investigation was unthinkable. What was his angle? Did he expect something in return? Did he owe someone something?
Confused about the whole incident, Glacis stepped inside. Neither of her parents were home, but perhaps she could discuss the matter with Fier. She never had much going on, and she was a very good listener. She rarely had any answers, but she was helpful in her own way all the same.
“Fier! Fier, are you home?” she called, knowing full well that she never left.
No response. Strange. There was a chance that she was so engrossed in her war games that she didn’t hear her, or else she had been assigned duties as one of Mandalore’s junior tactical officers and wasn’t home. The idea that Fier possibly had work to do while she had been getting drunk in a bar was enough to make her blush. Undeterred, Glacis headed toward her younger sister’s room.
Her door was open and Fier’s personal lamp was on, so she had to be here.
Her younger sister was sprawled out on her bed with a datapad in her hands. Glacis couldn’t help but smile. It was a rare moment to catch her not working on formulas dealing with hyperspace-approach vectors or playing her war games. And she had that distant look in her eyes that meant she was reading something very personal and probably a little embarrassing. Her parents would have given all of their credits to walk in on Fier in a moment like this.
“Hey, Fier. What are ya’ looking at?”
Her younger sister shrieked in alarm. “Glacis! Wha… I thought you would be out for the rest of the night!”
“That was the plan, but I got bored and came home. Is that okay?”
“I suppose. I mean, I didn’t have a preference-”
“So what is it?” Glacis asked, standing over Fier so that her silhouette blocked the light from the lamp. “What do you have there, hmm?”
“It’s nothing!” Fier insisted. “It’s just stuff I’ve been writing!”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Okay. Give me an idea of what it’s about, then.”
“No, Glacis. I’m serious. It’s very personal.”
“Even for me?” she gave her best attempt at an innocent, injured expression. “Even for your big sister?”
Glacis gave her an understanding smile and turned to leave. Counting down in her head and estimating the time it would take Fier to drop her guard—not long at all, considering that she wasn’t prepared for such things—Glacis nearly made it to the door before spinning around and jumping toward her sister. Fier managed to eke out a cry of confusion before her older sister was upon her. Wrestling with Fier was a simple matter; despite their father’s hopes, his youngest daughter simply wasn’t easy to train, had no Force-sensitivity to speak of, and was otherwise frail and a bit sickly. Even more tragic for her, Glacis knew exactly where she was ticklish, making even roughhousing unnecessary.
“Please… don’t… it’s mine!” Fier managed to say between uncontrollable fits of laughter. “You’re mean! You brainless Dug! You slimy cannok!”
“You need to work on the insults. They’re getting better, but they’re still not quite up to par.” Glacis snatched the datapad away with one hand and kept her sister at bay with the other. “So what do we have here…?”
What she saw was not what she had expected. Instead of an embarrassing diary entry or confession of love from some secret admirer, she found herself staring at lines upon lines of poetic verse. The first few poems were recognizably Mandalorian, but the rest were written in either High Galactic or the vernacular. Glacis knew almost nothing about poetry aside from the fact that it overcomplicated writing and apparently had lots of stuffy hidden meanings. However, what she saw certainly looked good.
“Poetry?” Glacis asked.
Fier reddened. “Yes.”
“Why are you embarrassed about that? I thought it was something far more scandalous.”
“Have you ever written poetry? Has any Mandalorian ever written poetry?”
“Point taken.” Glacis returned the datapad to her. “I had no idea you would be interested in something like this.”
“Thertos introduced me to the concept. He once told me poetry is the truest expression of the soul.”
“I hope you scoffed at him and called him a sorry excuse for a soldier,” Glacis interrupted.
“This is why I didn’t want to show you,” Fier countered.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Anyway, we’re going to write a poem together. But first I have to get all the bad stanzas out of me first, right? So that’s what I’m doing.”
Glacis smiled. “If it’s anything like warming up for a battle, you’re probably right.”
“Let’s stop talking about me, though. You had something on your mind, didn’t you?”
“Not really. We can talk about it later.”
“Come on. Why do you have to be difficult? I already played along with you. Now it’s your turn.”
“It’s really not important. Let me sleep on it; if I’m still bothered in the morning, we’ll talk.”
“I’ll hold you to that!” Fier said, accepting the datapad from her sister.
“You better. I’m going to sleep. All this drink is finally making me groggy.”
She stopped on her way out. “Yeah?”
“Don’t tell Mom or Dad about this, okay?”
“It will be our secret,” Glacis assured her with a smile. “Goodnight.”
Captain Belsio Molir had been in his cockpit for the better part of the last standard time part. The captain was hard at work tweaking his inertial compensator to get fewer units of g-force from it than normal. This was his third time checking the device, and only now could he hear his squadron beginning their preflight checks. Over the course of his career, Belsio had had many indolent and otherwise sloppy commanding officers, and he looked back on them with distaste; he only hoped that, over time, his example would inspire a bit of punctuality and readiness in his own pilots.
“Houjix Squadron, you’ve been given the all clear,” the flight controller announced over his comlink a few minutes later. “At your ready.”
“Just like the practice runs, okay?” his assistant added. “Let’s not scare the old-timers too badly.”
He hadn’t quite finished his adjustments, but Captain Molir clicked his comlink to acknowledge and sat up again to begin the final preflight adjustments. His ship’s engines fired soon thereafter, and the rest of his squadron did the same. Their response time was noticeably slower than it should have been, and he couldn’t exactly say he was impressed. Under normal circumstances, he demanded nothing but perfection from his pilots; given the fact they were all still rattled over the incident on the Sith battleship, he was inclined to forgive them. Several members of his squadron had been shuffled around, giving him several new pilots to fly with—most of them fresh from one of the Republic’s military academies. He could only hope that he didn’t have to make such painful choices again. He had been a flight leader for a long time, and he never got used to losing beings under his command.
As expected, Belsio’s Aurek was the first one out. One after another, Houjix Squadron soared from the hangar of the Commencement and flew through space in the tightest single-file formation he could get out of them. Their current task didn’t require any problem-solving skills or combat prowess, depending entirely on showmanship. As far as he was concerned, they were good, but their performance in practice runs wasn’t quite perfect.
Hundreds of kilometers away, Captain Molir could see their goal in his viewscreen. Maglink tethers attached to the largest space station in the Vento system shipyards held a massive ship unlike any he had ever seen in drydock. The ship was about half the length of the ubiquitous Hammerhead-class cruiser fielded by the Republic, but it was nearly two times wider and taller. With such a bulky, compact frame, the ship lacked a visible neck, so its bridge was essentially a vertical dome at the bow of the ship. Its larger surface area allowed it to field more engines and weapons than any other ship in the Republic Navy: proton torpedo launchers, medium turbolasers, quad repeaters, point-defense lasers, and even dual ion cannons could be seen on approach.
This ship had been in development for the past nine years, utilizing knowledge gleaned from reverse-engineered Mandalorian technology and confiscated Sith designs. In technical documents he had been privy to, Belsio learned that the ship had been referred to as the Palatine. Today was the day the ship would be formally commissioned as flagship of the Republic Navy; it was navy tradition that the flagship’s christening was done by her first flag officer on her first day of service. It was odd that Admiral Onasi had yet to appoint the flag officer to the ship, especially considering that he would be obligated to serve on the vessel.
After the strange mission that surrounded the Asylum—as he had learned the Sith vessel had been called—Belsio was glad to be flying in a non-combat situation again. While Republic Intelligence scoured the databanks of the scuttled vessel for anything useful, Admiral Onasi had requested Captain Molir and his pilots to serve as the flight demonstration squadron for the flagship’s commissioning. Belsio had been beside himself with delight. Such an honor was awarded once only a few generations. Even now, with some seventy hours of practice and refurbishments on all the starfighters in his squadron, he only hoped Houjix Squadron was good enough for such a momentous occasion.
The distance between his starfighters and the domineering battleship before them got slimmer with every passing second. They were less than five kilometers away when his two wingmen began converging on his position. A bit late, Belsio mused, but it was better now than never. Houjix Two and Three accelerated until they were flying side by side with him and then began to spin counterclockwise along their longitudinal axes. Their captain followed suit, performing a tight roll in the opposite direction. While they spun about, the remaining nine members of his squadron accelerated past them in groups of three and approached the Palatine at its two, six, and ten positions. Belsio and his two companions broke away from their intended paths mere seconds before they would have collided with the flagship, each one of them approaching one of the trios, who were already performing their own maneuvers.
As Belsio approached Houjix Five, Eight, and Twelve, they stopped performing their intertwining aileron rolls along the perimeter of the flagship and headed in his direction. Forming a small triangle with their fighters, they left just enough room for Belsio’s fighter to fit between the three of them. Once they were less than a kilometer away, the three pilots flipped their fighters upside down relative to Belsio’s cockpit and zoomed by, nearly scraping their cockpits on his hull. Once they were gone, Belsio pulled himself into a vertical climb, ascending at a near ninety degree angle so quickly that his engines whined in protest. When he had decided he had climbed enough, he broke off into a slight turn that allowed him to dive and level out of his starfighter about two hundred meters below where he started.
While Belsio returned to his squadron, three of his pilots met up with him along the way and soared alongside him in a tight diamond-shaped formation. It didn’t take long for the other eight fighters in his squadron to join up with him, resulting in a triple-stacked diamond formation with Belsio front and center of the maneuver.
The twelve of them were all headed directly for the bow of the flagship, where each of them would break away in the twelve military chrono positions at Belsio’s signal. It would have to be incredibly precise, or else some of his pilots within the diamonds wouldn’t have enough time to maneuver away from the flagship. Belsio accelerated so he was just a little ahead of the rest of his squadron, preparing himself for the execution. In proper style, the eleven others with him eased back, keeping formation but positioning themselves in such a way that their captain was obviously leading the way.
With one eye on the rangefinder on his flight console and the other on his acceleration gauge, he quickly calculated just how long he had before he needed to break off his approach. He had about twenty seconds. His hand was already on his control stick, so he reached for the rotational lever that would allow him to pitch away toward the ship’s ventral section. Much to his surprise, his hand missed his target entirely, falling helpless onto the side of his chair. His entire left arm went numb, and there was suddenly a wracking pain near the center of his back. Blinking back tears, Belsio tried to focus; he had to act now, or else his Aurek would smash into the flagship of the Republic fleet. Releasing the guidance stick, Belsio used his still working arm to slam the rotational lever upward, sending his ship in a sickening dive away from the main viewport of the bridge—now less than a few hundred meters away—down toward its ventral turbolasers.
His pilots followed his example despite the fact that he technically should have pulled away a few seconds earlier. Fortunately for the entirety of his squadron, all of his pilots had enough time to properly maneuver away from the Palatine. Captain Molir heaved a sigh of relief. A few seconds later and either he or someone else in Houjix Squadron would have met a terrible end. While he couldn’t help but admire their dedication to following his lead, he reminded himself to advise them to change tactics if something seemed wrong. Dogfights depended as much on instinct as obedience, if not more so the former.
He had passed the turbolasers without incident, and now he was safely drifting away from the flagship and had a few moments respite while the other members of his squadron continued their routines. Releasing control of his rotational lever, Belsio allowed his ship to yaw about for a moment while he reached into the knapsack by his side. Pulling out a syringe, he injected his deadened arm with a mix of hormone activators and chemicals that were much stronger than the dosages used in official military adrenal stimulants. Heaving a sigh of relief, the pain in his spine stopped almost immediately and he could feel both his arms again.
“Captain Molir?” Houjix Ten asked through his ship’s comm. “You ready? We’ve got an approach vector and we’ll be at your position in one minute.”
“Very good,” Belsio replied. “Let’s get on with this, then.”
Houjix Squadron had finished the routine without further incident, ending in a synchronized V-shaped flight across the dorsal section of the Palatine. Belsio’s squadron had returned to the Commencement as the flagship was released from drydock and began drifting toward the central station in the shipyards. Belsio had finished his postflight checklist far quicker than his pilots, giving him a few minutes alone before he had to board the shuttle for the central station. Since he was the leader of the flight demonstration squadron, he had been invited by Admiral Onasi to join the admirals and vice admirals aboard the central station for the official ceremony and the mingling afterward. While he was idle, he tried to contact his wife on Coruscant, but he realized that it would be nearly 0300 there, and he thought better of it.
By the time Belsio had boarded the shuttle, traveled across the system, and arrived at the central station in the Vento shipyards, the official launching ceremony had already ended and the guests were talking amongst themselves in a grand reception room reserved for notable events such as this one. White-walled and brightly lit, the room appeared more like a ballroom than anything aboard a space station. A massive viewport, nearly twenty meters long and about half as wide, dominated one end of the chamber, giving everyone inside a spectacular view of the Republic’s military presence in the system. Tables had been lined up around the room with exotic portions from around the Core Worlds with rich flavors that wafted through the air in a succulent aroma. There was no music of any kind, but that was fine; there were so many people talking Belsio could hardly hear himself think in this place.
The vast majority of those present belonged to the upper echelons of the Republic Navy. Their gray dress uniforms were emblazoned with red and yellow stripes along their sleeves and at the hems. Medals upon medals covered their chests, most from engagements Belsio had either never heard of or else had very few survivors. A few prominent senators, including those on the defense committee, were also present, as was the supreme chancellor himself. However, they were so popular that Belsio couldn’t see them from where he was standing. Before he could decide one way or another where to go, Belsio was informed by a serving droid that Admiral Onasi was expecting him.
Approaching the admiral, the captain quickly realized two things. First, the admirals themselves were quite divided, mingling around the room in large groups of about a dozen or so. It almost seemed as though there were conscious factions assembled, but based on what criteria Belsio hadn’t a clue. The second was the fact that he was significantly under-dressed for such an occasion, still wearing his black jumpsuit and gray flightpack. Despite his embarrassment, Belsio stepped forward into the group talking with Admiral Onasi.
The Admiral of the Fleet’s reputation preceded him. Carth Onasi was one of the finest soldiers in the history of the Republic, with a record of courage and military acumen that few alive could match. He had served in every conflict since the beginning of the Mandalorian Wars, and all forty years of his military service were demonstrated by his medals and his visage. His gray hairline was receding, and his brow was lined with countless creases. His skin was thin under his eyes, along his cheeks, and around his hands, revealing the outline of veins and bone. The fatigue he endured was evident just by seeing him, and yet there was such determination in his brown eyes that Belsio could scarcely believe that they belonged to the same person.
Younger admirals stood near him, beings who must have joined the Navy after the Mandalorian Wars had ended. Although there were many other officers, four in particular seemed more prominent than the rest. To his left, there was a middle-aged Duros male, with a flat, wrinkled face and red eyes with dark slits. Beside him was a female Adarian about the same age, with the typical elongated cranial mass not unlike a Cerean’s, but hers had a gaping hole through the center of her skull. Her dark, beady eyes glanced back and forth at those around her, always alert and expecting some sort of trouble. To his right, there was a Zabrak male with fanciful cranial horns who was nearly as old as Admiral Onasi, and near him a Draethos male, with jagged teeth and sunken eyes.
“You can’t be serious, Carth,” the Zabrak said as Belsio approached. “The Senate will never approve of such an order.”
“They’ve permitted me to send a battle group to Gamandar to assist the army in dealing with the insurrectionists there,” Admiral Onasi pointed out. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t appropriate more funds for fleet construction.”
“You know full well that’s very different,” the other admiral countered. “Those insurrectionists are making it a point to try and separate from the Republic. They need to be dealt with swiftly and harshly. Increasing the military budget at this point is tantamount to preparing for war. No one wants that.”
“I think you’re exaggerating, Opelle.”
“And your connections aren’t as far reaching as mine. You’d be hard-pressed to find any supporters in the Senate. They heeded your warnings in the past, but this has gone on long enough. It’s time for us to focus on peacekeeping efforts, not fueling our war machine.”
“Chancellor D'et would support us,” the Draethos noted. “He knows full well how dangerous our adversary is.”
“The supreme chancellor, with all due respect, is as conservative as you two are.” Opelle waved his hand dismissively. “He’s coming to the end of his term. His unyielding desire to maintain the status quo is starting to alienate others, even amongst his allies. I’ve heard the Heritage faction is rallying around Senator Latona for chancellor.”
“And she’s no love for war,” the Adarian opined. “She’ll convince the Senate to cut the military budget the moment she’s sworn in.”
“And what’s more, she’ll succeed,” Opelle added. “Face it, Carth. It’s over. The Sith are gone. You’ve kept us safe for long enough; now that we can account for the Asylum, we can be sure that the last remnants of the old empire have been swept away.”
“But they’re not, and that is what concerns me,” the Draethos answered him. “Revan’s warnings-”
“Revan has yet to return from the Unknown Regions, Admiral Marathos,” the Adarian replied. “At this point, I don’t think it does us any good to think he will return at all.”
“He will, Xera,” Admiral Onasi assured them. “He’s fighting the Sith as we speak. We have to be ready for him. Would I fight so hard for this if I didn’t know for sure that he would come back to us one day?”
The Duros admiral sighed. “I want to believe you, Admiral, but the evidence is getting bleak. You may be confident in him, but what about the citizens of the Republic? How much longer will they approve of their taxes being appropriated to fighting a hidden enemy? I am worried that we are trying the last of their patience.”
“And what are we going to tell Revan if he does return, Svarsk?” Admiral Marathos countered. “What will we do when he comes back to seek aid against the hundred thousand Sith ships and one billion Sith warriors that arrive at the edge of Republic space, ready for war?”
“What will we do? We will join him in battle, fighting until the last ship in the Republic is destroyed and all of our worlds are annihilated. But until then, I’m not afraid of your ghost stories, Rel,” Xera said.
Admiral Onasi’s attention drifted from the conversation, and Belsio thought he saw his eyes drift to the viewport in the distance. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, staring into the depths of space, light years upon light years away. The admirals continued to bicker amongst themselves while he was distracted, and junior officers were quick to jump into the discussion as well. Belsio himself had no opinion on the matter; if the Sith were still alive, then they were either so few in number that they weren’t a threat or else they had fled known space, never to return. Military cutbacks were nasty business in general, but he knew they were just facts of life.
Suddenly, Admiral Onasi returned his gaze to the crowd around him. “Admiral Marathos, I’m appointing you as flag officer of the Palatine. You may choose your captain as you see fit.”
The officers around him were stunned to silence. What had he said?
The Draethos admiral cleared his throat. “But sir, surely you would want to command the flagship-”
“I will remain in command of the Sojourn for the time being,” Admiral Onasi explained. Looking through the crowd, he spotted Belsio and pointed directly at him. The figher pilot found every eye in the crowd focused on him, and he couldn’t help but jump in alarm. “Group Captain Molir, could I have a word with you? In private, please.”
At his behest, Belsio followed him away from the crowd. The other admirals returned to their discussion in earnest, and even on the other side of the convocation chamber he could still hear Admirals Opelle and Marathos arguing. Belsio had no idea what to say to the Fleet Admiral of the Republic, so he kept quiet during their walk; the admiral himself said nothing, but he stopped a few times to greet senators and soldiers he recognized or who recognized him.
The two reached the viewport and positioned themselves in a quiet area away from most of the other guests. The Palatine itself was very close to the central station now, and the two men could make out details of the ship and its armament from where they stood. Hammerheads and Forays followed in its wake while swarms of Aureks raced around them, demonstrating the full power of the Republic Navy.
“I enjoyed the performance, Captain,” Admiral Onasi said at last.
“Thank you, sir,” Belsio said, humbled. “My squadron and I practiced as much as we could. They deserve as much credit as I.”
“I have no doubt of that. You and your squadron have proven exemplary in your service to the Republic.” The admiral paused for a moment. “You’re quite old for a fighter pilot, Captain.”
“You can’t fool these eyes, Captain Molir,” Admiral Onasi said with a smile. “None of the other guests might have caught it, but I did. I haven’t flown a starfighter in nearly forty years, but I still remember how it feels. I know you nearly botched a part of your performance.”
Belsio winced at the thought of nearly colliding with their new flagship, and he winced again when he realized he hadn’t done well enough to hide it from his superior. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“It’s nothing to apologize for. You can’t apologize for age, but at the same time it hinders us sometimes. You know, you’ve managed to avoid retirement for quite a long time. It’s a hard thing to ask a war hero to retire, because sometimes it brings bad publicity and makes the pilots unhappy. But in this case, it has to be done.”
Belsio knew exactly where this conversation was going, and he didn’t like it. “I’ve been flying starfighters my whole life. I joined just as the Mandalorians were beginning to threaten the Republic, and I’ve only ever stopped flying once. I hated it, sir. It felt like I lost the love of my life. Part of me had gone missing, and I only reclaimed it by entering a cockpit again. Don’t force me to retire, sir. I beg you.”
“I don’t want you to retire. I’ve seen your file on multiple occasions. You’re good, Captain, I recognize that. You’re probably one of the best pilots the Republic has ever seen. I can’t think of anyone whose flown as many missions as you have or received as many accolades for resourcefulness and courage. But the more you fly, the more dangerous it will be—to you and your allies. Young pilots make mistakes because they’re inexperienced; old pilots make mistakes because their body can no longer keep up with their skill.”
“Sir, I don’t care about flying in combat missions. I’ve had my share of combat, and I’m done with it. Rotate me into the Core or somewhere in the Colonies. I’ll stick to patrols and customs. Just let me stay in the cockpit.”
Admiral Onasi sighed. “I can’t. Not in good faith. Not with the lives of men and women who depend upon you flying better than you can possibly fly—and I don’t mean that as a slight, Captain. I don’t want to see you retire. I want to promote you to vice marshal. From there, you can guide the direction of the Republic Starfighter Corps and ensure that her interests are looked out for.”
“Permission to speak freely sir?”
“That sounds terrible,” Belsio admitted. He recognized that such a promotion was an incredible honor, so he added, “I mean, I want to ensure that the pilots under my command are taken care of, but at the same time it just sounds like menial desk work.”
“That’s because it is.” The admiral laughed despite himself. “You’ll be paid three times what you’re being paid now, receive appropriate commendations that your rank affords you, be privy to secret information, and be allowed to speak to the ministry of defense. And you’ll be bored to tears, no doubt. But I’m sure your wife will thank you for taking a safer position.”
She definitely would, the captain agreed. He hated the idea of abandoning his starfighter after all this time, giving up flying at long last for some tedious bureaucratic nonsense that a droid could reasonably accomplish, but at the same time he knew that the admiral was right. There was no way he could continue flying in his condition, as much as he yearned for it.
He glanced at his left arm—it had failed him earlier, as it had many times in the past. Belsio’s body had indeed faltered with age. He had tried to stave off time’s advance with combat stimulants, drugs that were only meant to empower soldiers temporarily. For years, it had worked: his mind had been clear, his coordination perfect, and his reaction time unmatched. But now that he was half a century old, the excessive strain on his body was unbearable. He had a benign tumor in his adrenal gland, and it was difficult for his body to naturally produce adrenaline. His blood pressure was abnormal most of the time, and his immune system was irreparably weakened. What was more, several experimental doses of spice had ravaged his nervous system, which induced temporary paralysis in his limbs and face. He used several varieties of spices and stimulants to lessen his conditions, but they were temporary fixes. No doctor he had seen over the past decade could fully cure his condition, only improve it to the point that he could fly if his superiors asked him. Now it seemed it didn’t matter.
“Not yet, Admiral. Let me do one final tour. Just a few more missions, and then I’ll gladly stop flying. I’ll accept your promotion and won’t make a fuss.”
The admiral shook his head. He looked like he was going to say no, but he paused just before he could say one way or another. “If I told you no, what would you do?”
“Argue once more and then accept it, as is my duty, sir.”
The admiral was obviously amused by his combination of frankness and military professionalism. “Fine. But you won’t be flying with your squadron anymore. I want you leading Palatine Command for Admiral Marathos. I don’t know how you ended up flying out there with such a small unit, but your talents were wasted for too long, Commodore.”
Belsio was about to object, but he realized just what Admiral Onasi had said and immediately stopped himself. Not only had he just been promoted, he had been appointed to lead all the starfighter groups in Admiral Marathos’s fleet. He was the lead pilot in the strongest fleet in the Republic. Stunned, he could hardly muster a thank you to the admiral, who took his embarrassment in stride.
“You will fly three missions in this tour, and then I will send the necessary documentation to relieve you of your command and promote you to work at Coruscant Naval Headquarters as Vice Marshal Molir. In the meantime, promote the most able officer under your current command to squadron leader, and select four of your own to join your new unit. I’ll deal with the transfers. I don’t want any objections out of you when your tour is over. Clear?”
“Of course, Admiral. And thank you.”
“Don’t let me down, Commodore. Now if you don’t mind, I have some things to discuss with Supreme Chancellor D’et. We’ll talk again soon.”
Belsio could hardly believe what just happened. The news made him feel twenty years younger than he actually was, and he had to restrain himself from racing back to the shuttle and waking up his wife to her all that had just happened. All he had ever wanted to do was defend the Republic. Receiving such recognition from Admiral of the Fleet Onasi was worth all the pain and suffering he endured—physically and otherwise. His combat career would soon be over, but he wouldn’t stop serving the Republic. His body had seen enough abuse. It was time to serve the Republic in times of peace.