Lieutenant Jaina Solo rolled her X-wing fighter up on its port S-foil and shoved her throttle forward. A seed-shaped Yuuzhan Vong coralskipper had been harrying her wingmate. As it went evasive, a minuscule black hole appeared just off its tail and gulped down every splinter of laser energy Jaina poured into it.
She matched her X-wing's speed to the skip's and pursued. There'd been dozens of battles since Colonel Gavin Darklighter invited her to join Rogue Squadron. Her pride hadn't faded, but the thrill sure had. Too many midnight scrambles. Too much death, too little sleep.
But I'm in Rogue Squadron, she reflected, feathering her throttle, not because of who my parents are, and not because the Force is strong in my family.
But based on her own piloting skills. Besides, Rogue Squadron ought to include at least one Jedi Knight.
The skip she was chasing swooped toward the Bothan Assault Cruiser Champion. Champ was flying cover for another refugee convoy. Kalarba's industrialized moon, Hosk, already wobbled in its orbit. The situation was hauntingly similar to Sernpidal's last hours, almost ten months ago. There would be even greater losses, here -- to the Kalarbans. But to Jaina, like her dad, Sernpidal had been a tragedy that might never be matched.
Vaping these skips wouldn't bring back Chewbacca, but it helped deaden Jaina's bitter memories. Keeping one finger on her stutter trigger, she showered the coralskipper with crimson laser splinters. Multiple bursts of low-power energy tired and distracted the skips' energy-sucking dovin basals. As the colonel once put it, "Tickle its teeth, then ram a fist down its throat."
Her sensor showed the vortex draw back slightly, a little closer to the enemy ship that projected it. On her primary screen, a Chiss clawcraft swooped in from behind. "Covering you, Rogue Eleven."
Now! Jaina tightened her index finger on the main firing control, loosing a solid burst from all four of her lasers. The skip's tiny, projected gravity well bent her laser blast, but she'd shot high to compensate. The anomaly sent two of her shots wild. It focused the other two exactly where she wanted them, painting the crystal-paneled cockpit with flaming sheets of light.
We've got the tactics to beat them in an even fight, now. But it's never even. They keep killing us and keep coming. Their ships even heal themselves! The Yuuzhan Vong had converted whole worlds into coralskipper nurseries and blasted one of the New Republic's biggest military shipyards, at Fondor. Surviving major yards -- Kuat, Mon Calamari, Bilbringi -- had gone to full alert, with carrier groups deployed to defend them.
Crystal shards and hot gravel blasted off the coralskipper, propelling it into a slow spiral out of the fire zone. The Yuuzhan Vong pilot didn't eject. They all died with their ships -- by choice, it seemed.
And still they kept coming, while New Republic pilots were pulled home to defend their own systems.
"You're clear, Ten," Jaina exclaimed.
"Anytime." Jaina pulled to starboard and spotted a catastrophe in the making. "Rogues, more skips coming in at 349 mark 18. They're headed for Champ's drive nacelles."
"Copy that." Major Alinn Varth, commander of Jaina's flight, put an edge on her voice. "Time to make coral dust. Eleven, Twelve. On me."
Jaina double-clicked her comm to acknowledge the order, then pushed her throttle forward. She inverted her X-wing, following Rogue Nine over Champion's ventral surface, so close and so low she could almost count rectennae and rivets.
Brevet Admiral Glie'oleg Kru, a Twi'lek, commanded Champion. Since Fondor, Jaina heard about a newly made captain or admiral at almost every engagement. Other worlds recently lost -- Gyndine, Bimmiel, and Tynna. Here at Kalarba, Jaina's intelligence briefer had speculated that the aliens were trying to cut the Corellian Run, a vital hyperspace route to the Rim. Druckenwell and Rodia had just gone to full alert.
Another convoy of Kalarban ships, including dozens fleeing the ruin of Hosk Station, had just jumped. Despite all efforts to find and destroy a huge dovin basal the Yuuzhan Vong had obviously dropped on Kalarba, Hosk was losing altitude with each orbit. Its Hyrotii Zebra fighters were long gone, all ten of its turbolasers disabled. Enemy vessels that showed on her screen as many-legged creatures pursued the metal-sheathed moon, gobbling up shuttles that lagged behind the convoy. Hosk's polar cluster of towers was already skewed more than thirty degrees from its normal orientation. Soon Kalarba would be another dead world, useless even to the Yuuzhan Vong.
Jaina rounded Champion's starboard fighter docking bays into a blazing free-for-all. Three coralskippers jumped her, flinging brilliant plasma bolts. Her pulse pounded as she went evasive, juking in all directions without thinking, keeping her right middle finger tight on the secondary trigger.
"Sparky," she ordered her astromech droid, "I need one hundred percent shields at thirteen meters."
Letters flashed on her heads-up display as the R5 unit, her companion ever since joining Rogue Squadron, complied just in time. Static buzzed in her headset. A dovin basal grabbed for her shields.
Another new skip vectored low and to port. Jaina feathered her etheric rudder and shoved the stick over, chasing while stars spun. Just that much closer, Vong. Just that much closer . . .
Her torp brackets went red with a lock-on. Triumphant, she squeezed off a proton torpedo. As it rode blue flame toward the alien fighter, she held course, squeezing off more scarlet splinters, distracting the dovin basal --
"Eleven," a voice cried in her ear. "Break starboard!"
Hutt slime! Jaina goosed her throttle and broke, pitching against her flight harness. The X-wing shuddered. "I'm hit," she cried. Adrenaline made her clench the controls. She eyed her primary board. "Still got shields, though." She feathered stick and rudder, bringing the X-wing about. "And maneuvering."
But now she was mad. Coralskippers, designated scarlet on her heads-up display, swarmed Champion and its defenders. But one, swooping back toward Champion, had to be the skip that just put scorch marks on her S-foils.
She rammed her throttle forward.
Now she saw the big enemy ship astern of Champion. Just smaller than a Star Destroyer, its configuration reminded her of some weird marine creature. Its thickest arm pointed forward, probably command and control. Two thinner arms stuck out dorsally, two ventrally. From the ventral arms, blinding plasma was already pouring out at Champion.
Two flights of New Republic E-wings swooped in to hit the new arrival. Staying hot on her skip's tail, Jaina squeezed her stutter trigger.
"Rogues." The colonel's cry caught her off guard. "Somebody just sucked Champ's shields. Get clear!"
What had they done, brought in another big one just out of Jaina's line of sight? She wrenched her stick and punched for full speed.
She was passing Champion's port nacelle when light broke through from deep inside. Slowly, with an eerie, fatal beauty, a seam opened on Champ's glossy side.
"Sticks," a voice shouted in her ear. "Eleven, get clear!"
"Full power, Sparky!" Jaina called. "Go--" The blast flung her against her instrument panel. Rudder pedals seemed to crush up through her legs. Her cockpit's sides buckled, then vanished. A siren shrieked in her ears, blaring in rhythm with a synthesized voice.
She flailed down into the Force, grasping desperately. Almost . . .
A white explosion of pain washed awareness away.
Joined through the Force even before they were born, he and Jaina had
always been able to tell when the other was hurt or afraid. But for him
to sense her over the distances that lay between them now, she must've
been terribly-- The pain winked off. "Jaina!" he whispered, appalled.
He stretched out toward her, trying to find her again. Barely aware of
fuzzy shapes clustering around him and a Ryn voice hooting for a medical
droid, he felt as if he were shrinking--falling backwards into vacuum. He
tried focusing deep inside and outside himself, to grab on to the Force
and punch out--or slip into a healing trance. Could he take Jaina with
him, if he did? Uncle Luke had taught him a dozen focusing techniques,
back at the academy, and since then.
A voice seemed to echo in his mind, but it wasn't Jaina's. It was deep,
male--vaguely like his uncle's.
Making an effort, Jacen imagined his uncle's face, trying to focus on
that echo. An enormous white vortex seemed to spin around him. It
pulled at him, drawing him toward its dazzling center.
What was going on?
Then he saw his uncle, robed in pure white, half turned away. Luke
Skywalker held his shimmering lightsaber in a diagonal stance, hands at
hit level, pointed high.
Jaina! Jacen shouted the words in his mind. Uncle Luke, Jaina's been
Then he saw what held his uncle's attention. In the dim distance, but
clearly in focus, a second form straightened and darkened. Tall,
humanoid, powerfully built, it had a face and chest covered with sinuous
scars and tattoos. Its hips and legs were encased in rust-brown armor.
Claws protruded from its heels and knuckles, and an ebony cloak flowed
from its shoulders. The alien held a coal-black, snake-headed amphistaff
across its body, mirroring the angle of Luke's lightsaber, pitting
poisonous darkness against verdant light.
Utterly confused, Jacen stretched out through the Force. First he sensed
the figure in white as a respected uncle--then abruptly as a powerful
depth, blazing in the Force like a star gone nova. But across this
slowly spinning disk, where Jacen's inner vision pre-sented a Yuuzhan
Vong warrior, his Force sense picked up nothing at all. Through the
Force, all Yuuzhan Vong did seem utterly life-less, like the technology
The alien swung its amphistaff. The Jedi Master's lightsaber blazed,
swept down, and blocked the swing, brightening until it washed out
almost everything else in this vision. The Yuuzhan Vong's amphistaff
seemed darker than any absence of light, a dark-ness that seemed alive
but promised death.
The broad, spinning disk on which they both stood finally slowed. It
focused into billions of stars. Jacen picked out the familiar map of
Luke dropped into a fighting stance, poised near the galaxy's center,
the Deep Core. He raised his lightsaber and held it high, near his right
shoulder, pointing inward. From three points of darkness, beyond the
Rim, tattooed assailants advanced.
More of them? Jacen realized this was a vision, not a battle unfolding
in front of him, with little to do with his twin sister.
Or maybe everything to do with her! Did these new invaders symbolize
other invasion forces, more worldships--besides the ones that were
already beating back everything the New Republic could throw at them?
Reaching out to Jaina, maybe he had tapped the Force itself--or maybe it
broke through to him.
The galaxy seemed to teeter, poised between light and darkness. Luke
stood close to the center, counterweighing the dark invaders.
But as their numbers increased, the balance tipped.
Uncle Luke, Jacen shouted. What should I do?
Luke turned away from the advancing Yuuzhan Vong. Looking to Jacen with
somber intensity, he tossed his lightsaber. It flew in a low, humming
arc, trailing pale green sparks onto the galactic plane.
Eyeing the advancing horde, Jacen felt another enemy try to seize him:
anger, from deep in his heart. Fear and fury focused his strength. If he
could, he would utterly destroy the Yuuzhan Vong and all they stood for!
He opened a hand, stretched out his arm . . .
The Jedi weapon sailed past him. As anger released him, fear took a
tighter hold. Jacen flailed, leapt, tried stretching out with the Force.
Luke's lightsaber sailed on, shrinking and dimming with distance.
Now the galaxy tipped more quickly. A dark, deadly tempest gathered
around the alien warriors. Disarmed, Luke stretched out both hands.
First he, then his enemies, swelled to impossible sizes.
Instead of human and alien figures, now Jacen saw light and dark-ness as
entirely separate forces. Even the light terrified him in its grandeur
and majesty. The galaxy seemed poised to plunge toward evil, but Jacen
couldn't help staring at the fearful light, spellbound, burning his
A Jedi knows no fear . . . He'd heard that a thousand times, but this
sensation was no cowardly urge to run. This was awe, it was reverence--a
passionate longing to draw nearer. To serve the light and transmit its
But compared to the forces battling around him, he was only a tiny
point. Helpless and unarmed, besides--because of one moment's dark anger.
Had that misstep doomed him? Not just him, but the galaxy?
A voice like Luke's, but deeper, shook the heavens. Jacen, it boomed.
The horizon tilted farther. Jacen lunged forward, determined to lend his
small weight to Luke's side, to the light.
He misstepped. He flailed for Luke's hand, but missed again. And again,
his weight fell slightly--by centimeters--toward the dark enemies.
Luke seized his hand and held tightly. Hang on, Jacen! The slope
steepened under their feet. Stars extinguished. The Yuuzhan Vong
warriors scrambled forward. Whole star clusters winked out, a dark
cascade under clawed enemy feet.
Plainly, the strength of a hundred-odd Jedi couldn't keep the galaxy
from falling to this menace. One misstep--at one critical moment, by one
pivotal person--could doom everyone they'd sworn to protect. No military
force could stop this invasion, because it was a spiritual battle. And
if one pivotal person fell to the dark side--or even used the ravishing,
terrifying power of light in a wrong way--then this time, everything they
knew might slide into stifling darkness.
Is that it? he cried toward the infinite distance.
Again, Jacen perceived the words in a voice that was utterly familiar
but too deep to be Luke's. Stand firm, Jacen.
One of the Yuuzhan Vong leapt toward him. Jacen gasped and flung out