"If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny."
"I will not fight you."
"So, you have a twin sister."
"Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."
"If you will not turn to the dark side, then perhaps she will."
"Never!" A cry of rage.
"And now, young Skywalker, you will die."
Vergere was bombarded with sounds and images as she quested through the Force. Lightsabers, green and red, flashing as they crossed. A city suspended in a sea of clouds. A battle in a raging snowstorm, Imperial walkers moving forward, inexorable as an avalanche. They shrugged off the storm of turboblaster bolts raining on them.
Something the size of a moon, but made by human hands, hung menacingly over a lush jungle world. This place was important, she divined: the future of the galaxy would be decided there. Only three fourths complete, but already vast beyond comprehension. She somehow knew this was a monster that would slaughter billions if ever let loose on the galaxy, and within it was something far worse. A presence, so dark and cold it would swallow everything it touched, light, warmth, freedom and life, and only be hungrier for more. Once, this being had hidden its true nature from the Force, but now there was no need to hide. Now that the time for subterfuge had passed it reveled in its might, allowing its darkness to spill into the Force, to pollute the ocean of life.
The Jedi had little time to ponder her visions, as that terrible intelligence had sensed her feather-light touch and turned its eyes cold, yellow eyes they would be, set in a decaying white face in her direction.
Like a startled bird, Vergere took flight as the power she'd disturbed sent searching claws of shadow after her. She navigated through the currents of the Force until she was sure the pursuer had lost her trail in the shifts and tides of energy. In truth, she sensed it hadn't tried very hard to trap the insect that had buzzed about its head. The Sith that was the only thing the presence could be, everything about it had arrogantly
For that matter, so did Vergere. What would happen in that mechanical moon, for good or ill, was far beyond her ability to affect. She would do what she could, help where she could, but no Jedi could carry the weight of the universe on her shoulders. That was not her fight. She returned the Sevac system, where she had been keeping watch until those strange visions had drawn here away. She sensed something new.
Many beings, many ships, and a great hatred kept tightly controlled and focused on the blank spaces that were Yuuzhan Vong. She glimpsed the image of a planet, once a lovely blue- green, now the color of a fresh bruise. Red eyes burning in stony blue faces. Excitement and fear fluttered in her breast.
This was her fight.
Vergere opened her eyes and looked to Stent.
"The Empire is here. Thrawn's fleet has jumped in- system."
The Chiss leapt to his feet, his training kept him from breaking out in a grin and rubbing his hands together, but Vergere sensed his elation. "Finally," his eyes flared in the dim light and the red was reflected off the water sculptures around him.
The other pilots were looking at him, Stent noticed them and raised his voice. "The Grand Admiral has come!" He declared as if the battle were already fought and won. The Imperials, human and Chiss alike, cheered and shook their fists. One young fellow went so far as to pull out his blaster and fire a shot into the ceiling. The bolt fizzled out as it touched the water, but a dead silence fell over the Imperials. All eyes turned to the pilot, who quickly reholstered his pistol.
Then - "You trying to kill us all?" A pilot shouted angrily. He took a step forward, fist raised, but Stent called them all to attention with a sharp command. His red eyes settled on the offending pilot, promising, when there was time, a stern punishment both for disturbing the barrier that kept them from drowning and for wasting a shot that could have been used to kill a Yuuzhan Vong.
The Nesz sat silently throughout the entire fiasco.
Stent spun back to the Fosh. "Well Jedi, do we attack now?"
Oin stood beside him. "We're ready." He said.
"Not yet." Vergere shook her head. "We wait until the battle is joined, when there will be a better chance the Yuuzhan Vong wont notice what we're doing until it's too late."
She felt a stirring in the Force just before Dra's spirit-form materialized beside her, visible to all. Stent started and swallowed nervously, hand instinctively straying to a blaster he knew would do no good at all if this apparition decided to become an enemy.
"We will be ready when time comes." The Eternal promised in a 'voice' the assembled crowd heard only in their heads. "The Yuuzhan Vong will regret ever setting their feet on our world."
On the bridge of the Imperator, Captain Parck watched the Star Destroyers fan out from the viewports and in the computer representations. TIE fighters darted around the wedge-shaped ships like gnats flitting around a herd of bantha. Slowly, the fleet breasted the vacuum.
"Keep the fleet together." Thrawn cautioned. Hyperdrive- equipped TIE Advanced fighters had already jumped in and scouted the outer system for obvious traps, now swarms of TIE Interceptors ranged wide, scouting for possible threats that might lurk just beyond the capital ships' sensor range or in the shadow of nearby planets. "We can concentrate our strength and still cover a lot of space by staying in formation."
"Request permission to send a scouting wing to Sevac III." A group commander asked, his voice slightly muffled by the comm.
"Granted, but remind your pilots not to engage the enemy. If they encounter opposition, withdraw." Thrawn fixed his eyes of the viewports. "We're in no hurry."
Beyin watched the sensor readouts from the scouting TIE fighters. Nothing suspicious so far...but the old soldier felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up straight. Beside him, Raine observed the crew and readings with a calm, collected air. Beyin had to admit, this phalanx wasn't soft and undisciplined as he had expected, being commanded by a female and all.
Another thing: although he had come to appreciate the worth of the Imperial humans, he felt more comfortable back in a Chiss ship. The sounds of the instruments, the smell of the air and feel of gravity attuned to Chiss physiology rather than human standard all combined make him feel secure on an unconscious level.
And of course, instead of having his ears jarred by Basic he was surrounded by the flowing, beautiful language of his own people. Despite being in enemy territory, on a mission of vengeance for desecrated Homeworld, Beyin breathed a soft sigh. He felt as though he had come home.
"Transmition from the Imperator, Commander." A comm officer called Raine and the general to his station and Thrawn's image appeared on his viewscreen.
"Syndic." Raine saluted and spoke Basic, as Thrawn had decreed all between-ship communications had to be.
"Commander," he said, "move the phalanx to the rear of the fleet and drop back about five klicks."
Raine blinked. "Syndic, the phalanx is prepared to-"
"You have your orders, Commander." Thrawn's calm tone brooked no objection.
"Immediately, Syndic." Raine bowed her head, more to hide the rage that flashed from her eyes than out of respect, Beyin suspected.
The Chiss vessels fell back, and the Imperial ship fanned out ahead. Beyin could feel the displeasure of the bridge crew, though they were of course too disciplined to show it. Beyin himself was unhappy at the impropriety: the Imperials would be the first to engage the enemy while the phalanx trailed behind.
He edged closer to Raine. "The Admiral's decisions are always well-thought-out." He said softly. "There is a good reason behind his order."
Raine turned a composed face to the general. Any emotion she might be feeling, she didn't show. "I'm not a child who needs reassurances to accompany every order I'm given, nor is this phalanx. It's enough that my Syndic has issued his command." She replied just as quietly. "If he favors those discolored, dead- eyed pets over his own phalanx, so be it." She shrugged. "At least there are some Chiss on those Star Destroyers. We will need soldiers we can rely on."
Beyin winced a little at those sentiments, which he himself had shared not too long ago.
"Don't discount the humans, Commander." He said. "There are many in the Empire as loyal and worthy as any Chiss."
Raine scoffed a little. "I very much doubt it."
Beyin frowned. Such a close-minded attitude. But really, what could you expect from a female?
Krelt bowed his ancient head as his acolytes ordered the last dozen captives, their movements arrested by Obeyers, to move to the edge of the maw luur.
"Yun Yammka," the voice of the priest carried to the top of the vaulted coral ceiling, "we offer up to you this tribute on the eve of battle. We pray you enter the hearts of your warriors this day and drive them to greater feats, for the glory of your name." He raised his head and turned his yellow olc-its to the captives, a mixed group of aliens captured over the years and held in the worldship's belly for interrogation and experimentation by the shapers.
Krelt gestured and the first prisoner, a Ryn, stepped off the edge. It fell a few seconds before a splash was heard, then shrieking as the acid began to dissolve it.
Krelt waited for the screams to stop before ordering the next slave to walk into the pit. This was a fast and efficient way of sacrificing captives: not only would the pain of being dissolved in the maw luur's acid pool go to strengthen Yun Yammka, but the fear of the other slaves who awaited their turn would feed the great god as well. As an added bonus, the maw luur would reduce the slaves into valuable nutrients for the Long Reach, so their deaths would serve the Yuuzhan Vong in yet another way. Krelt was justly proud of having thought of this.
This was the last of the sentient captives kept onboard the Long Reach of Death. All that remained were a few animals taken from various native worlds for the purpose of experimentation, but a nonsentient's pain and fear would mean very little to the gods, and there wasn't time to evacuate them from the worldship with the rest of the nonessential Yuuzhan Vong, so the beasts were left in their cages to await whatever fate the gods had for them.
Krelt turned away as the final slave died. His three acolytes fell in behind him as he returned to Yun Yammka's shipboard temple.
The other full priests of Yun Yammka had left the worldship at the Executor's orders, along with the shapers and the priests of other deities. Hidden, they waited in other star systems for news of the battle's end. It was necessary, however, for at least one of the Slayer's priests to remain during a battle. A priestess of Yun Harla also remained in the Trickster's temple, to help bring success to Sang Anor's stratagems, and a handful of shapers to repair any damage done to the worldship. By and large, though, the worldship seemed deserted with all of the remaining Yuuzhan Vong either flying coralskippers or manning the plasma cannons, missiles and dovin basals in the outermost perimeter of the Long Reach.
Krelt entered the temple and genuflected before the awesome effigy of Yun Yammka. His acolytes did likewise. He walked toward the rear of the temple and paused, briefly, to glance at the human prisoner.
To Krelt's consternation, Drash Tevock had fallen into a comatose state shortly after Zeld Kwaad had visited the planetside temple. Attempts to rouse him had met with no success. The priest was not pleased at all: the human was hiding from pain instead of learning to embrace it, as Wras had under his care. Krelt might have tried some more drastic measures to get a response from the young human, but there simply wasn't time: the Executor had arrived on the seed world and ordered almost all Yuuzhan Vong back to the worldship, and from there most were put in small ships and sent away with the other noncombatants.
One good thing came out of that confusion though: Krelt now had more time to work with his reluctant convert. With the worldship's damutek deserted and the few remaining shapers busy tending the dovin basals, plasma cannons and missiles, there was no one to take charge of the young infidel.
Krelt studied the human with a critical olc it. Perhaps he should order his acolytes to kill the Imperial now. This comatose state was obviously an attempt to retreat from embracing his pain and finding meaning in his agony. Such weakness of character was not fit for a Yuuzhan Vong. Yun Yammka and Yun Yuuzhan had no use for flawed material, and to attempt to shape such material would be to profane the gods.
He considered Drash a moment, then shook his burned head. No, Krelt was never one to give up and take the easy way out. This was now a matter of professional pride for him: he would bring Tevock to the gods, even if he had to take the human apart and reassemble him to do it.
The priest turned from his infidel and summoned an acolyte. "Bring the provoker," he said, "there is time yet before the attack. We will attempt to stimulate him to consciousness."
Deep within himself, so deep no bodily sensation could touch him, Drash leaned his back against a bare stone wall and sank to the floor.
He knew, of course, that none of this was 'real.' The storeroom, the boxes of supplies, the glowbulbs overhead, even his own body were nothing more than phantoms of his own devising. He could tell by the indistinct look of his surroundings, the way things grew fuzzy and indistinct unless he was looking right at them, how distances and dimensions seemed to change from moment to moment, even the 'wall' he leaned against felt spongy, like a form-fitting gel chair.
In spite of the oddness, he had instantly recognized the 'place' his subconscious had furnished for him: it was the warren of supply and storage rooms under the commune where he'd grown up. The interconnected rooms had been modified from natural cave formations in the rock, and Frae had used them to store necessities.
It was also the place young Drash came to hide.
No one would look here when the adults searched for him. As far as Frae knew, there was only one entrance to these rooms, and it was always well-guarded and blocked by a durasteel door only someone with a special key could open. Drash had found another way in, though: a tunnel concealed in the hillside, just big enough for a child to squeeze through.
Drash had hated that tunnel, as he hated all small and enclosed spaces except a fighter's cockpit, but the feeling of safety he felt in here was worth squirming through the suffocating dark. This was his safe harbor, his fortress where not even Frae could touch him. The feeling was all the more precious for his knowledge that it couldn't last. He couldn't here stay for too long, or else he'd risk unwelcome questions about where he'd been. At all costs this place had to remain his.
Even when the others always 'the others,' he would never think of himself as one of them came for supplies, he could hide behind the stacks of crates that held foodstuffs for the harsh winters, clothes, medicine, and most importantly weapons.
Many of the airtight crates had been full of blaster rifles and pistols, for defense against violent smugglers, pirates or slavers that prowled the Outer Rim and might see Frae's colony as easy prey. There had been times, when Frae had noticed him in spite of these powers Vlu said he possessed, after a particularly brutal punishment when Drash had wanted nothing but to take one of those blasters and kill Frae, to go from house to house while the commune slept and kill everyone, but the crates were plasteel and opened only with a combination.
Besides, the desire had always passed.
Odd that this was the setting his subconscious would present him. He hadn't seen this place in years.
"There is a simple enough answer to your question." Drash turned his head toward the room's other occupant, his head's other occupant, as the Nesz walked into view from behind a crate. The creature looked no different than its living cousins, except in Drash's eyes it seemed wavy, almost transparent, like something produced by a holoprojector with a low power pack.
"Where've you been?" Drash snapped. "You left me for-" he frowned, time was odd here, it flowed like in a dream, "well, you left me here. I thought you were supposed to be helping me?"
"I left you here, as you say, to think. In hopes you would find answers."
"And what were you doing?" Drash retorted, remembering the way Vlu had responded to his thought. "Prying around my head!" It was an accusation, not a question.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking." Vlu said. "I needed to understand you to help you, so I looked through your memories." The wavy shape shuddered at the experience. "I could not believe it at first: Nesz parents would never..." He looked at Drash with pity and understanding. "I'm sorry for you: life has not treated you well."
"I'll kill you!" It was a silly response, considering the Nesz was already dead, but it was the only response that could adequately express his rage and outrage: his thoughts and memories were his own, not even Frae could touch that.
But Krelt could, Drash had seen the truth of that in Wras' eyes. Vlu had promised to save him from that, and instead he was doing the same.
Fear and rage tore though him as he surged away from the wall and hurled himself at the Eternal. His hands were closing around Vlu's throat, he could feel the scales as he pressed his fingers down, then there was nothing in his hands and Vlu was a meter away. "Do you want to know the answer or not?" The Eternal said.
Drash ground his teeth. "I'm listening, lizard. Blow me away."
"You've come full circle, Drash. You've hidden and run all your life, and now all you've found all your running has brought you nowhere but to where you started. You've come full-circle. Back to the place where you hatched. Back to Frae."
"Frae's dead." Drash spoke coldly. "He rotted from the inside out."
"Not here he hasn't." Vlu paced the length of the room, an indistinct shape among the crates. "You've kept him alive in your mind, now you see him in the flesh."
"In the flesh?" The pilot echoed. "Where-?" Then his eyes dulled with understanding and he seemed to shrink into himself. "Krelt."
"It was only natural you would retreat here." Vlu was beside him now, he lay a scale-covered hand on Drash' shoulder, the transparent appendage felt solid enough. This is your last hiding place, but Krelt will find you eventually." He flicked out his tongue and sighed. "These are conclusions you should have drawn, but you wont let yourself see the parallels. You hide from this understanding, as you hide from everything."
Drash shook off the Eternal's comforting hand. He looked into its eyes, full of pity and understanding, so very human in such an alien face, and anger boiled up inside of him.
"You're quick to pick out my mistakes," he snapped, "I guess that's because they're so close to your own."
"What do you mean?" Vlu felt something of what was going through Drash's mind, it made the Eternal sound uneasy. Drash pounced like a predator who saw weakness in its prey.
"And you say I can't acknowledge my mistakes?" He forced a laugh. "Look at you! Hiding from the universe seems to be your specialty. Tell me, what have you done but hide away in your little corner of space and try to pretend there was nothing beyond your own atmosphere? Well, look where hiding has gotten you!"
"We had to protect ourselves," Vlu shot back, his own anger rose to meet Drash's, "we knew the sorts of beings who inhabit the rest of the galaxy: corrupt, corrupting, murderous, deceitful, violent aliens! We had to protect our young ones!"
"Oh, you protected them just fine." Drash sneered. "You kept them children. You sheltered them with your tricks, but your powers couldn't touch the Yuuzhan Vong. What did your kids have to fight with then?" Vlu wilted under the onslaught and something almost like pity stirred within Drash, but the fighter pilot in him couldn't help but move in for the kill. "You couldn't have made this planet a better Vong target if you tried."
The Eternal cringed as though Drash had struck him. He slowly sank to the floor. "You don't understand," he shook his head miserably, "they were innocent. We were innocent: we wanted to stay that way. Our world...our world was a paradise."
Vlu looked at the Imperial then, but where Drash had hoped to see rage and hate directed against him, all he perceived in the Nesz' eyes was pain and guilt, raw as an open wound, and the Eternal didn't even try to hide it.
Why would he show me his weakness? Drash thought. He found it difficult to look the other being in the eye. He felt strange...as though his chest was being crushed by the gravity press in a climbing fighter. To his horror, he realized he was experiencing the Eternal's grief and pain. It must be the result of sharing his head with Vlu: strong emotions 'echoed' from one presence to the other.
Whatever the reasoning behind this, it was horrible. Drash had never had children, a family member he truly cared for or a woman who held a special place in his heart. He'd never even owned a pet, and yet now he felt the pain of losing children, friends, families, everything the Eternals had loved so much and tried so hard to protect. It was terrible.
It was unfair!
And along with those emotions came something like a complete thought from Vlu: how can I expect to get through to this human, an alien even among his own kind: a creature that understood only pain and the threat of pain.
Drash couldn't believe it: after he'd all but torn Vlu open and turned him inside-out the Eternal was still determined to help him!
"What is wrong with you?" The human exploded. Vlu merely looked at him. "No," Drash seethed, "don't pity me. Don't you dare pity me!" He backed away. "I've gotta get outta here. Tell me how to get outta here!" He demanded.
"There is only one way out for you, Drash." Vlu looked to the durasteel door. "Through there."
"No," the Imperial's reply was instantaneous, he turned to the far corner, to the narrow tunnel to the hillside.
"You're not a child anymore." Vlu's voice froze him. "You wont fit through that tunnel. It has to be the door."
Drash rounded on the Eternal. "All right then," he glared at Vlu, "the door."
The pilot walked toward the sheet of durasteel that filled the doorway. He was halfway there when he noticed the icy fingers that played lightly along his flesh, two more steps and those fingers tightened their invisible hold on him. Drash didn't let his stride break, he wouldn't falter in front of that self-righteous little lizard ghost.
After another step the rock walls began to flex and ripple. The floor heaved under him like he was walking on a body- conforming gel-bed. He forced himself to take another step, then another. He had to get out: nothing could be worse than staying in this room with Vlu, than having those eyes of his, so full of sorrow and terrible but gentle wisdom directed at him, than listening as the Eternal delved into his thoughts and memories and saw the things Drash had hidden for so long. Worse, he would force the Imperial to confront those things he'd made himself forget over the years.
Vlu thought Drash was an alien creature. What a laugh. The Eternal was something Drash could never comprehend: a being who would not meet hate and violence with the same, no matter what.
Bands of durasteel tightened around his chest, the cold fingers were now icy claws that tore into his midsection and twisted his innards. The took another step.
This isn't real! He told himself fiercely. None of it! Not the room, not the door, not what I'm feeling. Drash tried to disregard the terror that ran like a wild, starving thing inside him, but though he knew intellectually that these surroundings were all just fantasy, he couldn't convince the primal part of his mind to follow his flight plan.
Then he was a single step from the door, and after he went through...Drash didn't think that far ahead. He never did: overcoming the present hurdle was always his goal. His plan was always how to escape this beating, to vape this ship and allow the future to sort itself out. His instincts would see him through whatever came. They always did. He reached for the door, and could go no farther.
Someone was hunting him.
A presence roamed the rooms and corridors in the upper levels beyond. Waves of terror stronger than any he'd felt before rolled over him, obliterating his resolve. The presence above strode through his brain, secure in its own power. It opened doors, overturned tables, knocked aside pieces of furniture in search of secret doors or alcoves where a child might hide. A disobedient child hiding from his punishment.
It was Frae, come for him at last.
"No," Drash whimpered, then snapped his mouth shut: the cult leader would hear him even through layers of stone and durasteel. He recoiled and was across the room an instant later, crouching behind a stack of crates, his back braced against the stone wall. No, no, no, no please no! In his desperation he offered up something very like a prayer to the uncaring void. "Yes, Drash." Vlu was beside him. "He'll find us soon, even here in the deepest, most hidden part of your mind."
"Hide me," Drash begged, "I'll do anything you want, anything, just don't let him find me!" Anything resembling pride was gone from the pilot's whispered voice.
"There is nowhere to hide." The Eternal shook his head. "This is the last place, and that door will not keep him out once he finds it. The only choice you have left is whether you'll stay here and wait for your tormentor," he looked to the door, "or go out and face him."
Nom Anor paced the length of the command chamber, his hands clasped behind his back. He was nervous, he hated to admit it and certainly wouldn't to anyone else, but he was. The battle with the Imperials was imminent, which meant the Jedi would be coming here soon: Nom Anor didn't doubt she knew where Thrawn's fleet was and how close they were drawing, either through some mechanical means of communication or that strange 'Force' of hers, so she would have to strike now.
Her plan was clear to any half-decent strategist. She had been seen with the infidel pilots so she knew of the focusing tower and the danger it represented to the Imperial fleet, and with the garrison almost entirely gone now was the perfect chance for the natives to rid this planet of the Yuuzhan Vong.
Nom Anor had planned accordingly. The living defenses encircling the settlement were formidable: magma turrets covered every approach, living vines with poison-ejecting thorns were buried in the ground around the settlement as well, and would sprout up to capture and kill anything that tried to cross over them, and dovin basals had raised a ten-meter gravity barrier behind that. There were other traps too, many others, and the routes into the base that promised a hope of safety were really the most dangerous of all.
"Let the enemy fight" was the old proverb Yun Harla had handed down to her followers, and Nom Anor had followed the spirit of that strategy. Yet he was still unsure. Though they might disapprove of aggression, the Jedi were notoriously adept at attack, and this one in particular had a maddening habit of doing what you were most unprepared for when you least expected it.
Nom Anor looked to the display of living light generated by a villip choir and saw the entire base and surrounding area in miniature. Nothing but burnt out wasteland stretched for miles around, the columns of black smoke from the forest fires billowed into the sky at the outermost edge of the visual field, and not a sign of movement. He clenched his teeth and wished he could go out and actively look for the Jedi, but the garrison just didn't have the numbers. Nom Anor didn't like being on the defensive, nor being a target, but there was nothing to be done but wait.
"Brooding?" Nom Anor jumped and turned to find Ceis Grasm two steps behind him. He cursed himself: how could he expect to see the Jedi coming when he couldn't even take note of who was in the same room with him?
"Honing your reflexes, it seems." The subaltern cocked her head to one side, her half-smile as irritating as it was fetching. "I pity the infidel who has to face you. Oh, it should take awhile for them to get your attention, but I'm sure you'll deign to notice them eventually."
Nom Anor pasted an easy smile across his face. He'd been mistaken when he'd thought their time in the swamp might temper this female: she still never missed an opportunity to bait him. Nothing had changed, it seemed. "I have strategies to consider, subaltern. I leave it to the warriors to see nothing more than what is right in front of them."
"Ah, such a wise and cunning intendant, with ploys and stratagems well beyond me." Ceis Grasm shook her head and tisked. "Though I would have thought you would notice me. You certainly had more than a passing regard for me earlier. Perhaps you've tired of me already." She circled him, her scent tickling his nostrils, creeping under his skin. No, things had definitely changed. Their wordplay now had some new and interesting dimensions.
He caught her arm as she made to step away. "I think I should reacquaint myself." He leaned forward and bared his fangs. She snapped her own sharp teeth together in answer.
And they sprang apart when the door-valve irised open, admitting a sullen Ke'Nas.
"The infidel fleet is here, you may be interested to know." The prefect bit the words out as he strode toward them.
"I have other things to hold my interest." Nom Anor said dismissively. He glanced at Ceis Grasm and saw her stifling a smile.
"Jeedai watching, yes I forgot," he said, missing the joke. The prefect didn't attempt to keep the glower from his face as he went on. "And we wait in a focusing tower, cleaning up vermin while the Executor wins glory above."
"This tower will bring us victory." Nom Anor reminded him. "Is the controller in place?"
Ke'Nas blinked. "I suppose so."
"Let's check and make sure." He turned and strode to the far door, Ceis Grasm at his side, leaving the prefect no choice but to follow in their wake. Beyond lay a circular room ringed with dovin basals. A shaper sat cross-legged at the center, he had lain his headdress aside and donned a cognition hood which connected him to the ceiling.
"Satisfied?" The prefect bit out. Nom Anor detected a sour whiff of wine on his breath. "Everything is set up. Now we can kick up our heels and sleep through the battle." He glanced at Ceis Grasm, and his sneer twisted a few more centimeters. "Though I imagine you two will find some way of entertaining yourselves."
The subaltern narrowed her eyes, but said nothing. Ke'Nas might be dense, but he had enough wit to guess what had prompted her to shift loyalties.
Nom Anor's smile was a mere twist of his mouth. "Let's see how close the infidels are." He stepped toward the viewing chamber they had come from, but Ke'Nas quickly spun and took off for the room at a fast walk, so that he would have the appearance of leading the other two.
"Sir, scouts report visual confirmation of Sevac III," a comm officer reported.
"Tactical display." At Thrawn's response, a small hologram of the planet glowed to life above a display screen. The planet had a large, discolored area, obviously the Vong site, over which something the size of a moon hung in synchronous orbit.
"The Long Reach," Parck's voice was grim.
"And an unpleasant surprise," Thrawn pointed out. Around the planet and the worldship, blocking all routes, was an asteroid field. The fighters poked around the edges of the field, transmitting the data to the tactical computers.
"The star charts said nothing about asteroids this close to the planet." Parck frowned, something wasn't quite right here. A moment later he saw it: the asteroids, swarms of them, were in synchronous orbit as well. It looked like there were thousands of them, and all were in a formation, more, they were moving in the exact same rate, to maintain this formation. The worldship sat at the center of the field, and Parck could see it would be a nightmare to bring the fleet through that.
"There were no asteroids." Thrawn said. "Sang Anor has been very busy, it seems."
"He's moved a significant section of the asteroid field to shield him and the planet."
"That he has, Captain, though it's no more than I'd expected, given the capacity of his dovin basals."
Parck was trying to calculate a safe route through to the worldship when another realization struck him. "Sir, those Vong vessels that attacked -" he faltered, "the Chiss Homeworld, they looked like asteroids. They could be hiding in that field, in plain sight," and they can tear through the shields on a capital ship, hung unspoken but understood.
"Indeed, Captain, indeed." The Grand Admiral nodded.
"Sir, wing commander is requesting permission to fly in for a closer look."
"Denied." Thrawn said. "They're to go no further, wait for the rest of the fleet."
"Sir," Parck ventured, "it might be good to scout for those world-killers. There can't be that much danger: TIE fighters are fast enough to avoid asteroids and there can't be many Vong ships hiding among the rocks."
Thrawn turned to Parck. "There is no point to them throwing their lives away, Captain, which is what will happen if they venture any closer."
Atop its pedestal, the yammosk lashed its tentacles. Its many eyes blinked rapidly as it saw the Imperial fighters. Farther off and out of reach, the bulk of the fleet moved ever closer.
"Yes, I see them." Sang Anor sent the coordinator soothing thoughts. Standing beside it, armored in vonduun crabs, he had a clear view of everything represented below in living light. His fed his amphistaff a live ranat that squirmed in his guantleted hand as he watched the fighters, hovering just beyond the asteroid field. "Thrawn is holding his scouts back," he observed as the serpent swallowed the treat. So the Chiss suspected. No matter: he would still need to move his fleet through the asteroid field to approach the Long Reach. But in the meanwhile...he might as well whet the yammosk's appetite.
He sent the coordinator his approval to proceed and felt the yammosk's satisfaction.
The asteroids had each been fitted with a powerful dovin basal and most had hollowed-out sections. In the display below, each rock was a different color, to represent whether it carried grutchin, missiles, coralskippers, explosives or was equipped with multiple dovin basals to act as shields for other vessels. The desk hai were also present, as were the five fully-grown warships.
One of the asteroids began to move slightly off its path, inching closer to the fighters.
"Serve up the first course for Yun Yammka." Sang Anor whispered.
Thrawn was the first to notice the stray asteroid. "Pull the scouts back." His voice snapped like a shocklash. The comm officer hastened to obey, but before he could send the signal a swarm of grutchin streaked from the rock in a single burst of speed. The unshielded TIE Interceptors were destroyed in seconds. The two Advanced ships lasted almost a minute before succumbing to the same fate. Thrawn heard every panicked word of the pilots over the comm in stony silence, right up until the end.
"Another few deaths to pay the Vong back for." He said softly.
"First blood." Sang Anor smiled. "Here I am, Thrawn. You want me? Come and get me."
Stent licked his lips, a nervous gesture no Chiss would ever stoop to in public, but since there was no light even for his eyes to see by, he thought he was safe enough. He wasn't claustrophobic, but crawling through a tunnel so narrow he felt earth brush either shoulder as he moved wasn't a very agreeable experience under the best of circumstances.
Crawling through a pitch-black tunnel, crowded with humans, Chiss and Nesz and full of water besides added new and unpleasant dimensions. He felt the sure weight of his blaster pistol, wrapped in layers of Nesz skin to keep it dry, against his chest and pulled himself forward through the water by finding handholds in the tunnel walls. He pushed with his feet as well. He felt a thick tail brush his forearms and was suddenly glad of the darkness: all he'd have to look at would be a Nesz rump.
Slow, steady breaths, he reminded himself. It was important not to panic: that would be death down here. Well, Stent was a fighter pilot and a Chiss, he knew how to stay cool, as the human phrased it, even with no helmet or breathing gear.
Stent didn't understand how the bubble of air remained around his head, any more than he understood the underwater domes, but like the domes he had no choice but to rely on it. That was another reason for the careful breathing: once the air ran out...
He hoped they were close, even combat was preferable to this.
If I ever again see another Jedi, he thought, I'll shoot first and talk later.
Standing off from the asteroid field, Thrawn ordered volleys of turboblasterfire sprayed into the rocks. A couple dozen were destroyed, but most simply moved back, out of range.
"They're falling back!" One of the group-captains announced via hologram.
"No, they're trying to lure you closer," Raine's image regarded the human coldly. "The asteroids will retreat at one point and surround your ships from the sides as you pursue."
"Correct." Thrawn said. "But Star Destroyers have more than sufficient strength to repel conventional attacks as well as asteroid collisions. We will further divide their forces by striking three points simultaneously." He assigned three strike forces of six groups each, roughly thirty Star Destroyers and their lesser ships, and told them which points to attack. Raine and the phalanx were to wait in reserve. The Chiss female said nothing as the ships took up positions.
"Excellent, excellent." Sang Anor nodded and scratched under his amphistaff's jaw. He picked out the Imperator, Thrawn's ship undoubtably. "The tower will target that group, the one Thrawn leads. The other ships will lose heart, break and flee when they see their comrades vanish before their eyes.
Nom Anor smiled when he heard the yammosk's message from the villip master.
"It begins." Ceis Grasm said. She drew closer to him, her gleaming eyes riveted on the images. Nom Anor's own eyes gleamed when he glanced at her. Warriors were naturally excited by combat: he would be eager to get her alone when the battle was over.
"Yun Yammka feasts well," he agreed as the Imperial ships plunged into the space their barrages had cleared and were set upon at the sides. Turboblasters lashed out at the asteroids while the rocks themselves launched missiles. Asteroids filled with explosive chemicals would latch onto a Star Destroyer with a dovin basal and pull themselves toward the ship with a single burst of speed, expending all their energy at once.
The most valuable asteroids were the Juurgo, what the shapers had dubbed 'shield rocks.' They were equipped with multiple dovin basals, allowing them to move quickly and project powerful singularities.
The Juurgo could move in quickly and shield the their asteroids, then move back when their dovin basals grew tired and others took their places. By the time those tired, the first group was fresh and able to move in again.
Their most useful function was making holes in the infidels' energy shields so the missiles and bomb-rocks could get through. Three Star Destroyers erupted into quickly-extinguished flame. A fourth and fifth followed suit, taken in the side by desk hai, but asteroids were being destroyed too.
Wings of TIE fighters streaked out to engage and destroy the asteroids, and were met by corralskippers and grutchin while the yammosk steered the asteroids' dovin basals to shield the coralskippers with their mass and increase the fighters' chances of crashing.
"Oh, what I could do up there," Ke'Nas said softly, hands clenched.
"Any second now..." Nom Anor looked back to the central chamber, where the shaper sat, then turned back to the display. A second later one of the Destroyers in Thrawn's group vanished.
"Kinless-!" A shocked Chiss forgot himself and half-rose from his seat. He saw the disapproving red stares of the other alien crewers and quickly returned to his station, chastised. Their discipline infected the shaken humans, allowing them to remain calm at their own stations when panic would not only be probable, but understandable: the Marauder, an Imperial-class capital ship, had shrunk into nothing between eyeblinks.
That discipline served them well: the asteroids redoubled their attacks, counting on catching the Imperials off-guard in their moment of shock. Unity Fleet held firm and repelled the renewed assault, two frigates and a cruiser exploded, but scores of asteroids fragmented under the turboblaster barrage as the Imperial fleet continued its push to the worldship.
"Sensors," Thrawn's controlled, authoritative voice didn't give a hint of stress, "I want an analysis of what happened to the Marauder."
"A gravitational anomaly, sir." The officer reported. "The same sort generated by dovin basals, but on a much larger scale and projected within the ship itself. It lasted a fraction of a second before collapsing."
"Long enough to swallow a capital ship." Thrawn said coldly.
"What could do this?" Parck breathed.
"A planetary-based installation," Thrawn said at once, "no doubt the reason Sang Anor chose this battleground."
"What can we do?"
"Send three wings of TIE fighters to the planet," Thrawn ordered, "they are to locate that projector and destroy it at any cost."
Parck hastened to obey, the order was just relayed when another Star Destroyer vanished.
Nom Anor saw Wras walk through a living doorway. He snapped his fists to his shoulders and bowed his head, eyes glowing restlessly. "I have completed my patrol. There is no sign of the infidels or the slaves."
Nom Anor returned the salute, not letting his disquiet show: the fire behind the former Chiss' eyes made him uneasy. Wras was at once so alien and so familiar.
"And now you want to take a coralskipper up to join the battle." Ke'Nas concluded sullenly. "Why not? You have my leave, go."
Wras bowed and made to step away, when a villip perched on the edge of the visual display everted and took on the features of a Yuuzhan Vong. Nom Anor recognized the subaltern commanding the base's outer defenses.
"I beg leave to report." The villip said.
"You have it." Nom Anor answered. Ke'Nas glared at the young Yuuzhan Vong for usurping his authority. Wras reluctantly turned back.
"The smoke clouds over the fires are moving in our direction."
Ke'Nas frowned. "I have no need of a weather report, contact me when you have something more to say than what direction the wind is blowing."
"Your pardon, Prefect, but the smoke is moving against the wind, and in such mass it threatens our visibility."
"What are you babbling about?" Nom Anor snapped.
"It is approaching the outermost sensor field even now, it-" he broke off then, as a coughing fit seized him. Nom Anor spun away from the villip and looked to the holographic representation.
Before his disbelieving eyes, an ebony tide slowly rolled over the base. The thick, black covered first the outer installations, then the fields and inner structures, all the way to the focusing tower itself.
"Gods, it's not possible," Ke'Nas shook his head, "where did that come from?"
Ceis Grasm came forward and adjusted the touch-pad controls. The view expanded in the direction of the smoke, where they saw the fires. The columns of smoke did not billow upward to disperse in the sky, but combined into a single, impossibly thick pillar and curved sharply down, in their direction. Subaltern, prefect and Chiss convert gaped in amazed disbelief, but Nom Anor felt his skin tingle in numb rage.
"It's the Jedi." He said in answer to their unspoken questions. She was responsible, he didn't understand how, but he knew that much.
Villips everted, revealing surprised and angry Yuuzhan Vong faces, either hacking or donning gnulliths and eyeguards.
"Prefect! Subaltern! Infidel blasterfire near the central grashals!" One reported.
"The temple grounds are under assault, unshaped slaves -" another broke off as his villip inverted. Voices overwhelmed each other in the struggle to be heard, but relative peace was established when, one-by-one, half a dozen went silent. Nom Anor and Ceis Grasm glanced at each other, the subaltern nodded: the speakers were being killed, most likely by invaders.
The tenders of the outer defenses chimed in next, reporting they too were under attack, but from behind, by beings that approached from within the base itself. One subaltern got a good enough look to report the attackers were indeed Imperials and slaves, hidden by the smoke, before he too was silenced.
"Seal off the tower," Ke'Nas said to Wras. The once-Chiss hurried to obey.
"No," Nom Anor said, "leave the gates open, for now."
Ke'Nas and Ceis Grasm rounded on him. "Are you mad?" The prefect said. "We don't have the numbers to go out and meet them."
"We wont, but a grashal's walls won't hold back a lightsaber." Nom Anor smiled. "But they wont make their own entryways if the gates are open."
"So?" Ke'Nas demanded.
"The Jedi is coming here, that's clear enough. This is our chance to take her."
"We're in the middle of a battle!" Ke'Nas sputtered.
"I'm aware of that," he turned to Wras, "ready the Sacrifice Protocol." The shaped Chiss bowed and hurried away, red eyes expressionless.
"Now?" Ceis Grasm arched a brow. "Are you sure?" Ke'Nas was too sick with anger to make any response at all.
"We had always intended to destroy all this world's life, native and our own creatures alike, when we abandoned this world. If the slaves are rising against us, now is our last chance."
"If the focusing tower is destroyed it will not be able to project singularities," Ke'Nas glared at him.
"It will keep working right up until the end," Nom Anor said, "it doesn't matter in any case: the infidels will soon lose heart and flee. Now we must prepare to receive the Jedi."
"We must break off the attack and regroup," one of the two holographic commanders said, strain coloring his voice.
"We cannot," was Thrawn's immediate response. "The fleet has gone too far to turn back: if we lose momentum we lose the battle, the Unknown Regions and all the galaxy."
The Imperator rocked around them at a volley of coral missiles, the answering salvo of turboblaster bolts vaporized the offending asteroids. Fast-flying TIE fighters swarmed around a shielding rock and destroyed it.
Parck was nearly pitched to the floor by the assault, Thrawn never budged a centimeter. Conventional attacks were beginning to take a heavy toll on Thrawn's group: his had been the sole target of the singularity-projector. A gruesome pattern had quickly developed: the weapon could destroy three capital ships in quick succession before pausing to rest for about ten minutes, then resuming the assault. Already Thrawn's strike force was at half- strength, less able to repel the asteroids.
"TIE fighters have been dispatched to assault the planetary base," Thrawn said. "Then their weapon will be destroyed. We must hold until then."
"Admiral, we have no choice," the other commander said. "Our soldiers are brave, but this invisible force is taking the heart out of them. To fight an enemy is one thing, but to see comrades extinguished before your eyes in something else." The image glanced nervously over its shoulder and lowered its voice. "It's as if you're telling them to march off a cliff, or fly into a sun. Even the Chiss crewers look doubtful. If you don't give the order the crews will rebel and break away without it, then we will lose."
In his passive face, Thrawn's eyes flashed with a frightening intensity. "Give me an open channel, projected into all our ships," he said. The comm officer licked his lips and complied. Thrawn clasped his hands behind his back.
In all his life, Parck would never forget what happened next. To him, it was the most marvelous event in an ordeal filled with marvels and terrors beyond experience. It was a miracle.
"Men of Unity Fleet," Thrawn said, "you know me, you know my deeds and my worth. I know each of you. I know what you are capable of. That is all the encouragement I need say.
"Humans, retreat now in the face of these creatures and you will soon see them above your worlds and in your homes, come to feed their gods with the blood of your wives and children. There will be nowhere safe to flee.
"Chiss, before you is the man who killed Homeworld. I will not retreat while he lives. Will you?" He made a single, sharp gesture and the comm officer cut the transmition. Nothing had changed, but in a more fundamental way everything had changed.
It was not the words themselves that set fire to Parck's blood, nor the pitch or timber that delivered them, but something more; some power innate to Thrawn himself. His charisma, the force of his will, his...power, for lack of a better description, seemed to envelope all Unity Fleet.
At that moment, Parck would have leapt off a cliff without a second thought if Thrawn gave the word. He suspected the rest of Unity Fleet felt the same. The commanders' eyes gleamed with newfound purpose as they signed off.
The yammosk's anger and confusion infected Sang Anor through their mental link, the amphistaff sensed him tense and perked its head up, looking for danger. The Executor forced himself to relax, to remain calm. He stroked the amphistaff gently.
The war coordinator blinked its bulging eyes rapidly. By its calculations, the infidels should have broken into a confused route by now.
"Thrawn is more persuasive than I surmised," Sang Anor mused. He smiled. "It's of no consequence. Words might stir a man's heart to action, but in the end they are only wind and noise. Reality will win them over, and they will fail you."
The yammosk alerted him to the TIE fighters streaking ahead of the fleet, on course for the planet. He sent a detachment of coralskippers to deal with them. He gave another order and the five complete battleships moved forward to engage Thrawn's diminished flotilla.
Thrawn spun to the comm officer. "Open a channel to the Sentinel." Raine's image flickered to life on the Imperator's bridge, as apparently relaxed as the Admiral himself. "Commander," the bridge shook again, "we are in need of assistance, plot a course for my strike force."
"Syndic." She gave a sharp salute and the hologram vanished. Seconds later the phalanx was fighting through the asteroid cluster, vaporizing asteroids and coralskippers as they went. They more than reinforced Thrawn's ships as they plunged forward, toward the worldship.
"Your phalanx has joined the battle, Syndic," Raine said to the Admiral's image.
"Acknowledged, Commander," Thrawn responded. "I was well to leave you in reserve. I knew I could count on my phalanx in our time of greatest need."
Raine said nothing, but she felt her teeth clench in reflex. Very clever, the Syndic had turned the implied insult of being left behind into a sign of high favor and regard. More, she saw small signs of gratitude, pleasure and even devotion in the Chiss crewers around her. When this battle began the phalanx served Thrawn only out of duty, but brief but rousing speech earlier had won their admiration. Now he had just taken the first step toward winning their hearts.
She felt a flash of resentment. This phalanx belonged to Vraet, who was more to her than any Syndic could be. Guilt joined with anger when she felt some of that warmth herself at Thrawn's compliment.
"We are nearing the planet," Thrawn said. "When we are in range I will send a division of ground forces to assault the enemy base. General Beyin, prepare to join them." Beyin gave his assent.
"We will press on to the worldship," Raine put in. For Homeworld and for Vraet, not for you.
Vergere sliced through an amphistaff, spun and decapitated the Yuuzhan Vong who held it. She peered through the smoke and saw blasterfire bring down another warrior, while eight Nesz bore a third Yuuzhan Vong to the ground and tore him apart.
"Where is this Vong weapon?" A sopping-wet Stent was beside her, blaster ready.
"This way," she pointed with her lightsaber, "to the tower." She continued toward the tall structure at a sprint, her own wet robes swirling around her. The Yuuzhan Vong had guarded the perimeter of their base well: layers of traps, defenders on every route, they had thought of everything.
Everything except the lake they used to flush out waste and bring in fresh water, and how long a Nesz could hold its breath. Vergere and her ragtag army had surfaced in the very heart of the settlement, while the Eternals directed the smoke clouds to cover them. The handful of Yuuzhan Vong that composed the garrison were taken completely by surprise.
So far so good, but she had to hurry, she felt the battle above as human and Chiss death rippled through the Force, and the shock of an entire capital ship full of lives destroyed in an instant. That focusing tower had to be put out of commission or the day would go to Sang Anor.
Oin was beside her as they entered the tower's open gate, while Stent and two dozen Imperials and Nesz followed her in storming the structure, leaving the rest to mop up what resistance remained.
"What's the target?" Stent asked. Lumin bugs flitted above them and the cool, processed air was almost refreshing after the humidity of the swamp.
"Control room," the Fosh Jedi responded, "ground floor, center of the base." They bounded through doorways and down empty halls. At the end of a final stretch of hallway she saw their goal: a tactical observation room complete with displays of the base. Beyond that room she saw a large, domed chamber encircled by dovin basals. Inside, a shaper sat amid images of the battle itself. Aside from that single shaper, there was no evidence of other Yuuzhan Vong.
Vergere ran through the door into the observation room, Oin and Stent at her heels, and the gateway snapped shut. A Nesz screamed as the living door cut her in half, Vergere felt her pain tear through the Force and spun around. A wall of coral cut them off from their fellows.
Stent pounded on the door, then looked to Vergere. "Can you open it?"
She pointed her lightsaber at the seam. "Stand back."
"Don't bother, Jedi." Nom Anor stepped from a side door. "It was a worthy try, but futile."
Vergere raised her lightsaber in a guard position. "You've lost, Nom Anor, and so has your father." Stent aimed his blaster at the extragalactic. "The base has fallen, and your worldship along with it."
Nom Anor merely smiled as he crossed the room. "I think not." Doors around the room opened and ten more Yuuzhan Vong rushed out. Three stood beside Nom Anor. One was a broad- shouldered male with a sneering face and sullen eyes, Vergere had seen him once or twice during her captivity, a junior prefect whose name she couldn't recall. Another was female, a rarity among the warrior caste, she had dark eyes and had a grace of movement that could only be called deadly. The third...was a Chiss. He had the tattoos and scars of a Yuuzhan Vong, but the skin and eyes clearly said 'Chiss.' The other seven moved to surround Vergere and her companions, amphistaffs raised and ready.
"I see you brought your pet." Nom Anor glanced at Oin, who bared his fangs and hissed.
"How long do you think that door will hold them." Vergere could hear the other Imperials and Nesz prying at the seem, it bulged slightly. "It's not armor. Your deaths will mean nothing here, leave now and we won't pursue, you may be able to escape." The shaper continued to observe the battle, oblivious to what went on outside his cognition hood.
"It will hold them long enough." He stroked a control-pad and the image of the base shifted to a view of the hallway they had come from. Vergere saw the Imperials and Nesz at the door, blasting the shell-like iris-cover or prying with teeth and claws. The doorway at the other end of the hall snapped shut and bluish mist began to flood the space.
"Nerve gas," Nom Anor's eyes gleamed. "Drop your weapon, Jedi, and surrender. I will open the far door and allow the rabble in the hall to leave the tower if you do. If not, they die."
Stent seemed not to hear. He pointed his blaster at the Chiss-Vong, eyes burning like hellfires. "What is that abomination?" He demanded, voice low and hoarse.
"The future." The shaped Chiss answered. "Yours and all our races.'"
"You dare do that to a Chiss!" Stent snarled.
The sneering prefect snarled at Nom Anor in their own language. Nom Anor snapped a brief reply. "Your time is running out, Jedi. Surrender now. Coralskippers in a launching bay above wait to take us back to the Long Reach of Death. My father is anxious to see you again."
Stent glanced at the image of his choking comrades, at the seven Yuuzhan Vong surrounding them, at the closed door behind him and finally at Vergere. She turned her violet eyes to his red ones and sent him a thought. "I think we have mission to complete."
"Jedi!" Nom Anor snapped. "Your friends are dying."
"I think you're right." Stent smiled, raised his blaster and fired.
The bolt streaked through the air and burned through the Shaper's cognitian hood. The controller fell backwards to the coral floor, dead.
The shaped Chiss roared. The seven warriors sprang at them. Nom Anor turned to the prefect, probably to tell him to go man the controls, and Vergere made her move.
She threw her lightsaber, not at the Yuuzhan Vong but at the ceiling, and directed it with the force. The blade spun with such speed it seemed a violet, glowing disk. It swept through the swarm of lumin bugs, incinerating them with a touch. The room plunged into darkness.
Confusion. Shouts and curses. She saw the glow of Stent's eyes, his face and that of the shaped Chiss seemed to float in a wash of ghostly, red light. Blasterfire ricocheted off vonduun crab armor, Oin crashed into warrior's legs and bowled the Vong over. Vergere made her lightsaber drop to chest height and continue flying: buzzing disk of violet light killed all it touched. Vergere made it avoid the life-signs of Stent and Oin, but she couldn't sense the Yuuzhan Vong. No matter, it was enough that it confused the warriors.
Now came the hardest part. She needed to maintain control of the saber's flight and use the Force to probe the organs beneath the coral wall at the same time. She could not touch the Yuuzhan Vong structure directly with the Force energy, but she could gather air molecules and ignite them, generating a spark of electricity that would hopefully stimulate the muscles of the door.
The pain and fear of her companions on the other side of the door was like needles pressing into her skin. She had to induce a trance, to find that calm, still point within herself from which everything could be viewed clearly. She quickly probed at the organs, not able to touch them directly but getting a sense of their shape and function all the same. Vergere didn't know where the proper point in the structure was, she had to act on instinct.
May the Force be with me, she thought as the spark ran along the muscle.
As she hoped, it clenched and the door irised open. Vergere was nearly bowled over as two-score Nesz and Imperials rushed inside to escape the gas. The hall's surviving lumin bugs rushed in as well, sensing untainted air. Light flooded the room, dazzlingly bright for a moment before their eyes adjusted. Vergere called her lightsaber back and it flew into her outstretched hand.
"You've won nothing, Jedi!" Nom Anor roared. "Your victory is dust, as I speak it is being done!"
Vergere ignored him and sent another jolt into the muscle. It clenched a second time, closing the door and sealing the gas in the hallway. She staggered to her feet and scanned the room, noting the seven Yuuzhan Vong corpses. There were also two dead Imperials and three Nesz. Oin and Stent were not among the slain, she quickly saw.
"Where is it?" Stent all but screamed. "Where is that abomination?" He hurried around the room, checking all the doors for retreating figures, but the shaped Chiss wasn't to be found. Nor was the prefect, the female, or Nom Anor.
Nom Anor ran as though a pack of starving neks were nipping at his heels, even so, Ceis Grasm quickly passed him and reached the lift first. She waited for Nom Anor, then slammed her palm against the touch pad when he was inside. The door irised shut and the platform on which they stood detached and slid up the shaft.
"Well?" The subaltern said. "What now?" She bound a cut on her amphistaff with a cell-regenerating wraparound of living tissue.
"Now the Jedi dies, along with the slaves and everything else on this ill-fated planet." He ground his teeth. "I wanted to bring her alive to Sang Anor, but this will have to suffice."
"I meant about the projecting tower!" She snapped. "We must retake the control room and continue the assault on the infidel ships."
"There is a blaster wound in the cognition hood," he reminded her, "and neither of us has the skill to regraft a fresh one." That wasn't strictly true: he had learned much of shaping from his mother, his specialty was in spores and poisons, but he could do something as simple as replacing a cognition hood. But that would mean facing the Jedi again, and if his encounter with her in the swamp hadn't completely disabused him of that notion, the confrontation in the control room did. He would never again engage a Jedi in direct combat. "Besides, they've undoubtably destroyed the dovin basals by now. I would have in their place."
The subaltern looked ready to chew durasteel. "We'll have to hope the damage was sufficient then," she said. Nom Anor hoped so. They would see when they joined in the space battle. He wondered what had happened to Ke'Nas and Wras for a moment, then decided he didn't care one way or another.
The door opened into the tower's feeding and launching bay, which housed a few coralskippers for use by command personal. In the exact center of the circular room rose a coral pillar that housed nerve fibers connected to the control room's cognition hood. This antennae was the heart of the focusing tower.
They stepped out and Nom Anor saw one empty cradle in the line of living fighters. The bay mouth had opened, revealing a broad swath of smoky sky. A speck was even now disappearing into that sky, probably Wras, as Prefect Ke'Nas was climbing into another coralskipper even now.
Ke'Nas turned his permanently-sneering face to them. Nom Anor saw his eyes narrow in surprise, then gleam in pleasure as he pulled the cognition hood over his head. The cockpit sealed and the coralskipper lifted from its spot.
Nom Anor caught Ceis Grasm by the arm as she made for another coralskipper. She looked at him, confused, as he pulled her to another door and hit the touch-pad. Ke'Nas' coralskipper was slowly turning in their direction. Nom Anor leapt down the stairs before the door had completely opened, pulling the subaltern after him. They landed in the middle of a flight of stairs, Nom Anor grabbed the handrail as they landed but they still came close to tumbling down. Ceis Grasm began a demand to know what was going on, but was interrupted when Ke'Nas opened fire.
Plasma shots collapsed the ceiling and shattered the coral stairs. They barely made it to the next floor down in time. Nom Anor heard the sounds of firing and coralskippers breaking apart from the floor above.
"That traitor!" Ceis Grasm clenched her hands, then looked to Nom Anor. "How did you know?"
"I'd be surprised if he hadn't made an attempt on us. You betrayed him, and he's already tried to have me killed once. You know that well."
"But in the middle of a battle!" she was outraged, understandably so, but Nom Anor only shook his head. She was a warrior, he reminded himself, not an intendant. Yun Harla taught her sect to never waste a good opportunity to rid yourself of a foe.
He looked out a clear window membrane and saw only a dark sea of smoke a few meters below. "Come on." He ran down the floor's central hallway, past the pillar that dominated its center, toward another flight of stairs. "We need to get to ground level."
"Yes," her whole face shone, "we can still die in battle, offering the lives of the infidels to Yun Yammka."
"No, we can save ourselves and fight again."
"But how?" Ceis Grasm frowned. "Those were the last coralskippers, and soon this world will die."
"I know another way." Now he hoped Ke'Nas survived the battle, Nom Anor would take great pleasure in personally eviscerating him.
The yammosk knew the instant the projector ceased functioning, half a second later so did Sang Anor.
The Executor felt the ice-cold hand of Yun Schaakan, the god of death, clutch his heart. The creatures of the planetary base had just informed him of the slave attack, and now he could get no communication at all from the seed world. The Jedi had struck, just as his son had predicted, and apparently she had gotten the better of Nom Anor.
His son, Lyrra's son, might be dead even now. He clenched his shell-covered forearm, his talons scored the vonduun surface. Beside him, the yammosk blinked its many eyes rapidly at its Partner's distraction.
Sang Anor's distress redoubled when the worldship's sensors told him the Sacrifice Protocol had been initiated. If Nom Anor was alive, his chances of escaping the doomed seed world were all but nonexistent.
The yammosk's mind prodded at his. The Executor's fears were interfering with their link, and with the coordination of their forces. Sang Anor called on all his training and submerged his own will with that of the yammosk.
Sang Anor became the worldship, his body was an ovoid of yorrick coral thousands of miles across, he had countless eyes and ears across the system, dovin basals to propel and shield him, plasma cannons and missiles to destroy his foes.
But more, he was every coralskipper and pilot therein, he was every dovin basal and missile in every asteroid. He was the smallest grutchin in the fleet. They were the cells that made up his body, the worldship's rickyam was the brain, and Sang Anor and the yammosk were its mind and will. Every Yuuzhan Vong creature was a part of the link, they were all one glorious and terrible creature, all of them working together toward a common goal: to destroy these infidels, these lifeless outsiders who attacked them, who attacked him, who threatened them all with their horrible other-ness.
In the face of all this immensity, the fears and worries of one individual were meaningless. Sang Anor permitted his mind to dwell on Nom Anor for one more brief moment before turning his will back to the battle.
I taught him well, he told himself, he knows how to survive.
Vergere prodded a dovin basal with her toe and peered at the spiky, heart-shaped creature. Like its sibling, it was silent. Thrawn would have no trouble from the planet itself during the remainder of the battle.
"The Grand Admiral will not forget this," Stent said from behind her. "You have done the Empire a great service."
Please, don't rub salt in my wounds, she thought grimly. "The Nesz did more than I," she replied instead. And they saved you as well.
"Of course, and once the Yuuzhan Vong are defeated I'm certain the Admiral will make every attempt to relocate the entire population before he razes this world."
"Perhaps he will see no need to raze the planet at all," said Vergere, testing the waters. It would do no good at all to move the Nesz alone: they needed the Eternals and the Eternals needed the planet.
She surveyed the chamber as she waited for Stent's response. The display still showed the space battle. Thrawn had taken loses, inflicted damage in turn, and was pushing his way toward the worldship. A desk hai destroyed another capital ship, and two frigates were swarmed by asteroids, spent of missiles and attacking with nothing but their own mass, but the firepower of the Star Destroyers, supported by numerous smaller vessels and a number of Chiss ships, were winning through.
Vergere wondered about those Chiss battleships. How could Thrawn have convinced the traditional and insular Chiss military to join him in a pre-emptive strike outside their boarders' Perhaps Stent had an idea.
Abruptly, Vergere realized the Chiss hadn't answered her earlier question. The Fosh turned and didn't see him.
"Stent?" She called. Frowning, she left the control chamber. She didn't see him in the viewing chamber, nor the hallway beyond. The mental suggestion was so subtle she wasn't aware someone else was guiding her footsteps until she was out the tower door.
Vergere stopped and shook off the compulsion. "What-?" She looked about in confusion: the remaining Nesz were sitting around the base, looking at nothing in particular. As for Stent and the rest of the Imperials; they were running away, toward the edge of the blank area that marked the Yuuzhan Vong presence in the Force.
She found her voice. "What is going on?"
Oin stepped into her field of vision. The Nesz wore a broad bandolier of shed skin, the kind she had seen him wear when he first stowed away on her craft a lifetime ago. A blaster pistol hung at his side on a borrowed weapons belt. He looked at her sadly. "I'm sorry, Vergere."
Vergere narrowed her violet eyes. "I'll ask this again," she said softly, dangerously, "what goes on?" She did not look at Oin as she spoke: she wasn't asking him.
Dra appeared before her, his shifting image hovering and transparent. Vergere could feel the effort he was expending to reveal himself in this Force-empty place: the Eternal's reserves were exhausted by now and he had to draw on the life energy of Oin, the other Nesz, even Vergere, just to sustain himself.
"We thank you," said the voice inside her mind, "and now we must ask yet another favor."
"Where are Stent and the other Imperials going?" She demanded. "And what have you done to the Nesz?"
"We have influenced the Imperials, yes, regrettably. The aliens are making for the edge of the invaders' settlement. They might have a chance at survival then, and there is no need for them to die."
"I've deactivated all the traps the Vong had set up around their base," Oin put in, "the controls were in the tower. There's no danger to them."
"What is this talk of dying?" Vergere took a step toward the Eternal's wavering image, and terror crept upon her on arachnid's legs. She suddenly remembered Nom Anor's parting words, "you have won nothing...your victory is dust," at the time she had thought he'd meant Sang Anor would win against the Imperials and slaughter the Nesz in retaliation, but now his words took on a more ominous meaning. "We fought so hard to give your people a chance to live in peace."
She felt the ground shudder beneath her, warned by some premonition she spun just in time to see hundreds of missiles launch from the coral fields in the distance. Most sped away in all directions, trailing black smoke, but a good fifty of them simply shot straight up.
"A sacrifice protocol," she breathed. Vergere knew of such things: when the Yuuzhan Vong were driven from a world they'd claimed as their own they did not allow the victors any profit from their conquest. The material the missiles spread would poison every living thing on the planet, while the fifty traveling straight upward would fall back down and explode, obliterating the base itself.
Her mind raced, searching for an escape, seconds later she had found one.
"Tell them to move into the tower," she said to Dra and Oin, "I know a way to protect them."
"No." The Eternal shook his head slowly. Oin made a high, keening sound of mourning.
"No." Vergere repeated stupidly. In the distance, the Imperials had almost made it to the edge of the base. They might get away yet. "What are you talking about?" She asked in a clipped, precise voice. Something inside her wanted to wail the question, but a Jedi was not ruled by her emotions.
"We are sorry, Vergere, but we have deceived you." Dra said. "We lied about our plans, and our intents. You see, from the very beginning we knew there was no chance of survival for us."
"But there is, we can-"
"We have seen the future, Jedi, and there is none for us."
Vergere narrowed her eyes, the missiles streaked skyward. "A wise Jedi I knew had a saying: always in motion is the future. You cannot be certain of your fate. Free the Nesz from whatever compulsion you've lain on them and let them come inside."
"But we do know, Jedi. We have gazed upon all the paths to the future, and we have done nothing to our young but share our own knowledge with them." Dra's shifting face was solemn, the ranks of Nesz behind him nuzzled one another and twined their necks in a final embrace. Many trained their eyes at the missiles, measuring their last moments in these lives.
Vergere might have said more, but Dra overrode her. "There is no time to argue," he gestured with a transparent hand, "behold."
The Jedi's vision swam out of focus, then she was no longer looking at objects of mass, but at the life-energy they projected into the Force. Then the view changed, and she saw not what those beings were doing, but what they would do. She saw how their actions rippled through the Force, and all the possible effects those acts might have, and all the possible effects of those effects. All the paths stretched out before her like tangled yarn, each one leading to a different future.
Vergere glimpsed futures where Palpatine ruled the galaxy for a thousand years of darkness, she saw Sang Anor remaking the all the stars in his own image, she saw Darth Vader ruling the Empire, or Thrawn himself on the Emperor's throne. Most terrible of all, she saw the young man who had comforted Master Yoda, now with the tattoos and burning red blade of a Sith.
But she saw other, better futures, all focusing around that same human. Vergere saw him years older, with a red-haired female and an infant male who shone like a star in the Force. She saw a woman with features similar to his, a sibling no doubt. With her stood a tall human with lopsided grin that promised mischief. She saw three young humans, male and female twins wielding lightsabers. The third was a dark-haired male with a shadow of pain and tragedy over him. This family, and she somehow knew it was a family, would change history. They would be a light to shine bright against the darkness.
But in none of those futures, not one, did the Nesz have a place.
There is a way, though, Dra's voice echoed in her skull. By following our first plan. More of the Eternals' thoughts came into focus. Vergere saw Oin's bandolier, packed with the seeds of bora trees, trees that altered the Force to allow the Eternals to exist.
Oin must find a world like this one, far from any nation, warlord or trade route and of no interest to the rest of the galaxy. A world with no intelligent life. There he must plant those seeds.
We Eternals will gather what energy we have and...sleep, there is no other word for it...until the Force of our new world has altered enough to call us back to puissance. Then, perhaps, we may attune ourselves to some unevolved life form.
You mean supplant some species' life-energy with your own. Vergere's thought-voice was cold and grim. Body stealing was the greatest sin any being could commit against another, the very incarnation of the dark side.
No, Dra answered firmly, we will not supplant their souls, but join ours to them. First we will have to...unmake ourselves, discard our sentience, our past memories, all that we are. Only then could we make the meld and thus begin our life- cycle again.
Then you would be only animal spirits.
For a few thousand years, perhaps, until our bodies evolve into something that can accommodate more. Then we will remember what we were, but we are nothing if not patient.
But you wont be the same, Vergere said. You will not see the world as you do now. You will have different ways, different feelings. The Nesz will never again exist.
We ceased to exist the moment the first Yuuzhan Vong set foot on our world. There was a time when we did not know hate, when we had no words for murder or war. The Nesz were a beautiful dream, Jedi, it cannot stand against the reality of this harsh galaxy.
She became aware of Oin's presence. And you knew about this? She could not say for certain if she asked with her voice or her mind.
For a long, long time, Oin replied.
Now go, Jedi, Dra bade the vision withdraw, save yourself while there is yet time. We beg that you project Oin and see him safely to a suitable world. He carries our future with him.
The vision and the Eternal both vanished, leaving Vergere to stare at the smokey sky and the trails of death bleeding from the missiles. She turned stricken eyes to the Nesz, so few of them, but gathered all together like this there seemed to be multitudes of them. Surely there were enough of them for a breeding pool, to make new generations of Nesz.
They were dead. They might be moving and breathing right now, but they were still dead. Vergere understood that now. She turned and hurried inside the tower, leaving Oin to say whatever farewells he could before following.
Beneath his cognition hood, Ke'Nas' sneer was quite genuine and quite satisfied as he unleashed another volley at the stairwell, then turned to the coralskippers themselves. On the off- chance the traitor and the feenir had survived, they would have no way off the doomed seed world. Coralskippers shattered and bled under his assault.
Finally, he bade his own craft speed through the hanger mouth. He flew into the smoke-black sky, using the fighter's dovin basals to repel the ground below. When he was close enough, he would command it to grasp a body beyond the world and pull the fighter free of the former seed world's gravity.
In spite of all the troubles he'd faced, Ke'Nas felt like celebrating: he had no doubt the Yuuzhan Vong would crush the weak infidels, but Sang Anor would not claim the victory. Not once Ke'Nas took part in the fight. More, he intended to challenge the Executor the instant the battle ended, he even had his pretext worked out. He could use the loss of the seed world against Sang Anor as well as the premature revelation of the Yuuzhan Vongs' existence to the Empire and the time and effort he'd wasted with plagues and stratagems instead of resorting to direct combat.
Now above the smoke, he saw acid-loaded missiles streaking away from all sides of the base. Wonderful, the sacrifices would please the gods, they would give him luck against Sang Anor and bless his reign as Executor. He licked his lips, when the great jihad came he would be well rewarded. High Prefect of the Unknown Regions, perhaps: these sectors were wild, he would be given a free hand in their taming. Ke'Nas could have his own little kingdom out here, under the supreme overlord of course.
The missile tasked with destroying the base itself finished their upward journey and streaked down, so fast he didn't see them and they left no trails, like the other missiles, which made them easy to miss.
Their effects were plain enough: explosions tore through the Yuuzhan Vong structures. In the blink of an eye coral melted, immature villips evaporated, amphistaffs and other weaponry turned to ash and flew in the burning wind. The Yuuzhan Vong had completely obliterated their presence from this world, as the other missiles would now erase the native life.
Ke'Nas was continuing his trek skyward away from this planet that had been so unlucky to him when the column of smoke withdrew from the base. The black pillar was now directly in front of him!
The prefect swerved his coralskipper to avoid flying into the smoke, but the column, an ink-black titan, twisted to place its body in his path. Ke'Nas banked left, right, but the smoke moved in serpentine patterns, cutting him off. Then the top of the column dipped into view, and Ke'Nas felt icy talons dig into his heart.
The smoke had taken on a shape, and despite the massive size and onyx shading it was one Ke'Nas recognized immediately as a native slave's head. Its eyes were windows into oblivion and its jaws gaped wide enough to swallow ten coralskippers whole.
At that moment, Ke'Nas felt fear greater than any he had ever known. Consumed by panic, he banked his coralskipper and swerved, then shot off in the opposite direction. He didn't care where he was headed, so long as it was away from that demon- thing behind him.
As he shot back over the base he saw the top of the focusing tower poking through the clouds and a small part of him that could still reason wondered how this could be, when the tower should have been leveled in the explosion with all the other Yuuzhan Vong structures.
Ke'Nas didn't have the inclination to wonder about this, as a glance over his shoulder showed the great, gaping jaws of the smoke-beast rushing toward him like an endless black tunnel, and before he could think to move they swept over his fighter. If he'd known fear before, it was nothing compared to the moment when the creature swallowed him. Ke'Nas became a wild thing, he made his coralskipper dart and fly and zig zag in any direction and every direction, trying to break through to the sky.
But no matter which way he turned the smoke-demon turned with him, so that he was unable to move out of its body. Soon he lost all sense of direction and was unable even to tell up from down. Had he been in his right mind it would have occurred to him to simply have his dovin basals find and repel the ground below him. Eventually he would have gone so high up the smoke could not follow. But fear was better than reason at making itself heard.
In any case, it was now too late for Ke'Nas.
When the missiles fell and exploded, slaying all the remaining Nesz save one, there was a massive influx of new Eternals into the Force. These beings were not spent and weary, like Dra and the others, and being so recently alive they were assaulted by the memories of their former lives. They were powerful, they were confused, they were angry.
Normally, a newborn Eternal would work through these feeling by shaping water into some expression of them. These Eternals found a more practical use for their rage when they saw a blank space the size of a coralskipper departing the focusing tower.
As one, they seized control of the smoke-column from their elders and shaped it with their collective will.
They also sensed TIE fighters, or at least the life-force of the Imperials piloting them, nearby and few Eternals quickly projected themselves through the Force into the Chiss and human minds. The smoke-dragon might be terrifying, but ultimately it could do no harm to a coralskipper and the Eternals had no intention of letting this invader escape the world it had helped ruin.
The TIE fighters Thrawn had sent to destroy the focusing tower fought in the upper atmosphere with the coralskippers Sang Anor had dispatched to stop them. While Interceptors pitted their superior speed against the coralskippers' plasma balls and projectiles, three TIE Advanced fighters broke away from the fight and sped down to complete their mission. Missiles primed and ready, they shot across the sky toward the spire of yorrick coral.
Oddly, while they flew the sensors on their TIE fighters told them that the plantlife in the swamp was...dissolving, for lack of a better term, and what they saw of the Yuuzhan Vong base itself defied description.
Aside from the unbroken tower the settlement was completely devastated. Nothing but scorched earth remained of the life that had been shaped there. And above the ruins they saw something strange and terrible: a vast, coiled darkness, more like a serpent than anything else, that twisted and writhed as if being consumed by a painful poison. Great jaws openned and it seemed to the pilots that the beast screamed, a sound full of anger and pain and loss that the pilots didn't hear with their ears, but with their souls.
At that moment they would have broken formation and fled, heedless and will no direction. They were loyal to Thrawn and to their fellows fighting above, but all their training and the strength of their orders could not stand against the thing before them, for it seemed to combine the spirits of all who have lived and suffered and died under the Yuuzhan Vong. And in a matter of speaking that was precisely what the smoke-creature was. The pilots were on the brink of abandoning their mission and leaving the Star Destroyers above to be destroyed, so they would suppose, by the intact tower when the Eternals found them.
It was as though an electic current ran through them, that was the only way to describe the shock of having wills other than their own intruding in their minds. While the pilots' minds recoiled in shock their bodies went rigid from the impulses the strange minds sent down their nerves. The Eternals skimmed through the pilots' memories and soon found the information they sought.
To the terror of the pilots, they flew their fighters straight at the smoke-beast. They saw their hands move to the firing controls and depress the missile controls. Six torpedoes flew from the fighters to enter at a point in the serpent's upper midsection and Ke'Nas coralskipper.
Four of the missiles flew wide and missed, one clipped the coral fighter, sending it into a spin, and another struck the rear underside. Half the ship dissolved and the rest, including the cockpit, fell in an uncontrollable dive to the ground. Prefect Ke'Nas' last sight was that of the spinning ground rushing up to smash him.
The smoke demon glared at the coralskipper remains and bared its teeth in a satisfied snarl. Then it looked beyond, at the barren, ash-covered ground and smoke-stained sky. The serpent seemed to sigh. It reared up an the pilots heard a high, keening sound that seemed to vibrate their bones even as the mental intruders abandoned control of their bodies. The two humans felt tears blur their eyes and the Chiss felt something equal to his sorrow when he'd learned about Homeworld. The smoke demon wavered and dispersed into the air.
The TIE fighters fled.
Vergere stepped out of the focusing tower and beheld her vision come true. There was nothing but ruin and destruction as far as she could see, clouds of smoke darkened the sky and the blackened bones of Nesz bodies were strewn across the grounds. Oin had left the tower before her and stood in the middle of all this death, and when he turned to face her she saw in his eyes the same pain he had carried in her dream-vision.
"I can't feel them anymore," he whispered. "Not my people, not the Eternals, none of them. I could always sense them, Vergere, from the day I was born. I even felt them when I stood on those other worlds, faintly, but I felt them." He looked at the bodies. "I'm alone."
"They're not gone," Vergere said, "I can sense the Eternals: they gathered all the energy they could, and now they sleep." She felt the wind on her feathers. "They've made cocoons of life energy around themselves, like Nesz hatchlings. They're waiting...somewhere else. Not here, not in space, but somewhere." She thought it over. "In the Force itself perhaps, or in some other plane of existence joined to this one by the Force the way a layer of frosting joins two cakes."
"They're waiting for me to find them their new home." Oin clutched his bandolier of seed-packets protectively.
"Come on, Oin." She waved him back into the tower. "We've work yet to do."
She had used the power of its dovin basals to protect the tower from devestation. It had been easy enough for her to find a spare cognitian hood and graft it onto the damaged one's place: she had seen Lyrra Anor do such things countless times. Now all they needed was transport off this planet.
Fosh and Nesz hurried up flights of stairs until they came to the wrecked area leading to the launch bay, where the flight of stairs ended in a jagged break. Vergere leapt the distance up to the doorway, Oin gripped the rough surface of the coral wall with the claws on his hands and feet and climbed to the door.
"What happened here?" Vergere looked around the bay and felt her heart sink. The coralskippers she'd intented to use were wrecked, destroyed by plasmafire it seemed. She saw two coralskipper slots were empty, could Nom Anor have guessed her intent and destroyed the only means of escape before fleeing? It seemed a likly enough explanation.
"Look for a usable coralskipper," she started searching through the wrecks, tossing pieces of coral away as she looked for funcioning dovin basals.
"How is this one?" Oin indicated the coralskipper closest to a wall. It was covered in debris and its sides were badly scored by plasma, but when Vergere brushed away coral chunks she saw the dovin basals were undamaged.
"The Force is with us," she sighed in relief. If Nom Anor had done this, he had been unusually careless in missing the fighter. "We'll need to wear ooglith cloakers and gnulliths, but we should be able to make this work."
"We should wait until the battle dies down before trying to flee," Oin suggested.
The Jedi shook her head. "We're not going to leave this system, not yet. There is somewhere else we must first go."
Oin blinked in confusion. "Where?"
"The Long Reach of Death."
"Are you mad?" Oin seemed to gag on his own horror. "That's insane, you're making some kind of joke."
"No, I'm not. If it were possible I would leave you here, it's too dangerous for anyone but a Jedi, but I can think of no place for you that's even close to safe except at my side." She opened the cockpit and inspected the controls.
"But the seeds could be destroyed, and my people with them." Oin's voice was low with anger.
"Yes they could," was Vergere's reply, "but there is more at stake here than your race. The Eternals showed me the future, but I have seen deeper than they intended. Perhaps as deep as Thracia's shade itself when my old Master pointed me on the right path. Thrawn is going to lose this battle unless I intervene, and if Thrawn is defeated then Sang Anor may well conquer the galaxy one day."
"And what if he does?" Oin snarled. "Space is vast, my people can be safe on our new world for thousands of years, perhaps forever."
Vergere felt the urge to strike her friend. She had to remind herself that he was a Nesz: he would fight courageously for his own people, but the battle above wasn't his fight. 'I understand how you feel.' She searched the interior of the coralskipper and soon found the proper compartment. 'You have no reason to care for the welfare of the greater galaxy, but I must.'
"Why?" Oin demanded. "The Imperials wont give you any thanks, they would probably kill you at their first opportunity, and the rest of this galaxy is no different," he was remembering the cruelty, greed and violence he'd seen among the stars.
"I have no choice. I'm a Jedi, and I will feel all the beings Sang Anor tortures and enslaves if he is allowed to do as he pleases." She pulled two ooglith cloakers and two villips from the compartment. "And do not be so quick to judge everyone and everything that isn't you. The Nesz have lived in a paradise until recently. You were isolated from the cares and hardships the rest of us have to face and you knew all those around you were friends and meant you only good. It's easy to be virtuous in a situation like that. You may not believe it, but there is good on those other worlds as well as evil. Beings can be kind to one another, and generous, without the group-sense the Nesz share." Vergere paused. "In fact, that occasional kindness can be more beautiful than your idylic lives: they act out of their own free will, not a compulsion."
Oin was silent, thinking perhaps of how quickly his own people had given in to hate when oppressed by the Yuuzhan Vong, and of how bravely those Imperials fought for their loved ones back home.
"But it's hopeless," he pleaded. "We will never get near the worldship, and even if we succeed, what can we do then but die?"
"We will see, Oin." She tossed him a gnullith. "We will see."