The dark sliver of a distant starliner crept into view, a blue needle of ion efflux pushing it across the immense sweep of a brilliant orange sun. Like a million such suns in the Core region alone, this one lacked any world with a civilization or even a sapient species, and it was too inconsequential for any name except an obsolete Imperial survey number. With so much emptiness, so many planets untouched, it seemed to Jaina Solo that there should have been no need for fighting, that there should have been room for all. But comfort was always easier to steal than to earn, peace easier to break than to keep -- as her mother so often said -- and so the Yuuzhan Vong had invaded a galaxy that might have welcomed them with open arms. It was a mistake the aliens had yet to understand, but one day, Jaina knew . . . one day the Jedi would teach them.
R2-D2 chirped an inquiry from the droid station at the rear of the Jade Shadow's flight deck.
"Stay connected, Artoo." Jaina did not turn around. "They still haven't sent the signal, and Mara needs her rest."
The droid whistled a lengthy objection.
Jaina glanced at the interface readout, then threw her hands into the air. "Fine. If that's what she said, go wake her up."
R2-D2 unplugged and whirred off toward the passenger cabin, leaving Jaina alone on the flight deck of the Jade Shadow. Even in a standby orbit, with all systems powered down and the ion drives resting cold and quiet, the vessel felt more like a suit of formfitted battle armor than a seventy-ton starship. The flow-form seat, drop-deck helm, and full-view canopy gave her the sense of floating in open space, while a new retinal tracker kept the heads-up status holos centered just below her plane of vision. Communications and countermeasures could be controlled from an array of glide switches on the throttle; a similar set on the stick managed sensors, weapons, and shields. Even the life-support system could be regulated by voice with an astromech unit plugged into the flight deck droid station. It was the perfect cockpit, and when the time came to have her own ship, Jaina intended to duplicate every detail -- especially the seating arrangement, with the pilot alone down low in the front and the navigator and copilot seated side by side behind her. She liked that part the best.
Jaina's reverie was interrupted by a sudden sense of deep disquiet, an unexpected stirring in the Force that soon built to a strange feeling of frenzy. She opened herself to it further and experienced an instant of terrible longings and ravenous hunger, not quite evil, but dark and feral -- and brutal enough to make her gasp and withdraw from its touch.
A cold sweat running down her brow, Jaina slid the throttle comm switch to intercom and called Mara to the flight deck. While she waited, she studied the sensors. There was nothing unexpected, but Jaina knew better than to place too much faith in the instruments. They had put the Shadow into orbit around the orange sun's closest planet, a rubble-ringed magma ball little more than twenty million kilometers from its star. Without R2-D2 at his station making constant resolution adjustments, all she could see was electromagnetic blast.
Catching a glimmer of movement in the canopy reflections, Jaina glanced at an activation reticle in the front of the cockpit. A small section of plexalloy opaqued into a mirror, and she saw the willowy form of Mara Jade Skywalker slipping onto the flight deck. Mara's cascade of red-gold hair was a tangle of sleep snarls, but her complexion was no longer quite so ashen nor her green eyes quite so sunken. Jaina stood and, feeling a little like a child caught with her hand under the candy dropper, turned to vacate the pilot's station.
Mara waved her down. "Sit. You're entitled." She dropped into the navigator's chair, sweetening the filter-scrubbed air with a hint of talc and stericlean that seemed to cling to her even with her new baby thousands of light-years away. She lifted her chin toward the distant starliner. "That our two troublemakers?"
"The transponder identifies it as the Nebula Chaser," Jaina said. R2-D2 plugged back into the droid station and confirmed the identity with a chirp. "But there's been no rendezvous signal, and a moment ago I felt something, uh, strange in the Force."
Mara nodded. "It's still there. But I don't think it's our passengers. It doesn't feel right."
"Nothing feels right about this," Jaina said. A thousand-meter Corellian cruiser with a customized Hoersch-Kessel sublight drive, the Nebula Chaser had already traversed half the face of the orange sun. It was now the size of Jaina's finger, with a blue efflux tail three times that long. "They still haven't signaled. Maybe we should give them one more orbit, then duck behind the planet and blow ions."
Mara shook her head. "Luke's right about these two; they're getting people killed with their saber-flashing. We'd better snag them while they need the ride." She pulled her crash webbing over her shoulders and clipped the buckle. "But let's be ready. Power up."
"Me?" Though Jaina had piloted the Shadow before, her aunt had done all the flying on the way out -- perhaps because it had been Mara's first real chance to fly her beloved vessel since giving birth to Ben, or perhaps because she had simply needed to keep her mind occupied on her first trip away from her new son. "It's your ship."
"I want to sleep some more anyway. You won't believe what a luxury that is until you have a baby." Mara was silent for a moment, then added sternly, "And that's not a suggestion."
"Check!" Jaina's laugh was a little wistful. At nineteen, she had certainly been on dates, but the war had kept her too busy to pursue any serious relationships. Even now, she was only on temporary leave from Rogue Squadron -- until the anti-Jedi sentiment in the senate faded. "Like I'd have time."
Jaina reached over to toggle the ion drives active, but stopped when R2-D2 whistled an alarm. The heads-up display holo contorted through a maddening array of colors and shapes, then settled on the image of a tiny, tube-shaped craft swinging toward them well beneath the luminous haze of the sun's orange corona.
"That explains their silence," Mara said. Though the navigator's station lacked a heads-up holo, the seat was surrounded by a complete set of conventional displays. "Can we can take it, Artoo?"
A message appeared on both displays, sternly informing Jaina and Mara that the representation was not to scale. A series of sensor readouts began to relate the craft's true size, velocity, and probable hull composition. Jaina whistled softly and glanced through the tinted canopy, where the new arrival's speckish silhouette was streaking up behind the Nebula Chaser.
"Looks like a frigate analog," Jaina said. "What do you want to do?"
"The only thing we can." There was a note of caution in Mara's voice that would have seemed foreign to her before Ben's arrival. "Damp down all systems and wait."
In Captain Pollux's private quarters aboard the Nebula Chaser, the Rar sisters stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the offbridge vidconsole, their long head-tails -- lekku -- writhing nervously as they watched a large piece of yorik coral detach from the frigate and start toward the Nebula Chaser. Pocked and lumpy, the smaller craft looked more like a mined-out asteroid than a boarding skiff, but the sensor displays showed the heat signatures of at least a hundred warriors inside. There was also some other creature, larger and colder, but the sisters needed no sensor readings to know this. When they reached out with the Force, they could feel the same hungry presence that had touched them as the frigate appeared from behind the sun. Whatever the Yuuzhan Vong were bringing across, it was attuned to their galaxy in a way its masters would never be.
Alema isolated the creature's heat signature and asked the computer to find a match, then turned to see Numa already at the captain's bunk laying out their disguises: a pair of diaphanous dancing shifts, some face paint, and not much else. Having spent the last year leading a fierce resistance movement on the occupied world of New Plympto, the sisters were certainly the object of the boarding party's search. Fortunately, their enemy would be searching for a single human woman instead of two Twi'lek dancing girls; in their role as the resistance leader, they had taken the precaution of never appearing together and always in disguise, with their lekku hidden beneath the cowl of a Jedi robe.
By the time the sisters changed out of their jumpsuits and returned to the vidconsole, the Yuuzhan Vong were disembarking in the docking bay. With bald sloping brows and saggy eyes rimmed underneath by drooping blue membranes, they were half a head taller than a typical human and much heavier. Their brutal faces had been reshaped into leathery masks of disjoined cartilage and torn flesh, and their powerful bodies were adorned with religious tattoos and ritual disfigurements. Most wore shells of living vonduun crab armor, and all carried the ubiquitous Yuuzhan Vong amphistaff, a serpent that could change on command into a cudgel, razor-sharp polearm, or poison-fanged whip. The most hideous of the warriors, a stoop-shouldered brute with only dark cavities where there should have been a nose, pushed arrogantly past the guards surrounding Captain Pollux.
"You have Jeedai aboard?"
"No," Pollux lied smoothly. "Is that why you stopped us?"
The warrior ignored the captain's question. "You come from Talfaglio . . . or Sacorria?"
"You can't believe I would tell you that," Pollux said. "The last I heard, our whole galaxy was at war with you."
The retort drew a grudging sneer of respect. "We are only a picket ship, Captain, and you are carrying refugees. You have nothing to fear from us . . . provided you tell me now if you have Jeedai among your passengers."
"We have none." Pollux did not look away when he answered, and his voice did not crack. Even civilian starship captains knew the Yuuzhan Vong were blind to the Force. "Feel free to search."
The warrior cracked a smile. "But I do, Captain. I do." He glanced toward his boarding skiff and, in his own language, ordered, "Duwin tur voxyn."
A seam appeared near the back of the craft and began to open, the yorik coral puckering outward like a set of pursed lips. A pair of yellow oval eyes appeared in the darkness, and Alema felt the hunger in the Force grow more distinct. Then, when the aperture had opened a half meter, an ebony streak shot from the portal and clattered to the deck in a ripple of darkness.
"Clouds of fire!" Numa gasped.
The creature -- the voxyn, Alema guessed from what she had learned of the Yuuzhan Vong languagebegan to pad around the deck on eight bandy legs. Though it stood no higher than a human waist, it was more than four meters long, with a flattish head and an undulating body covered in black scales. A line of coarse sensory bristles ran down its spine, and a white barb protruded from its flickering whip of a tail. The beast circled the captain and his wary guards only once, then went off toward the rear of the docking bay.
In the vidscreen, Pollux fixed his gaze on the Yuuzhan Vong warrior. "Why have you brought that . . . that thing on my ship?"
The warrior knocked Pollux to the deck with a backhand slap. "You can't believe I would tell you that," he laughed.
Though Pollux's guards did not appear in danger of attacking, the captain signaled them to stand down and returned to his feet with as much dignity as possible.
Alema rotated an idle narrow-beam antenna toward the dark planet where their rendezvous craft would be waiting, then keyed in a secret Jedi comm channel and began to broadcast what they were seeing. The proximity of the orange sun would interfere with the signal, but signals could be enhanced -- and it would be better than nothing if she and Numa failed to escape.
The voxyn circled away from the shuttles and wandered the docking bay for a few minutes more, then exited into an adjoining passage. The sisters lost sight of it until Alema found the right scanner, and by then it was padding down the main boulevard as though it had been riding slidewalks all its life. Along one side of the passage raced a company of Yuuzhan Vong, their distrust of lifeless technology keeping them on the stationary band at the edge of the broad corridor. Eventually, they gave up trying to keep pace and spread through the ship in small groups.
Alema activated a surveillance lock on the voxyn, and for the next hour she and Numa watched it roam the Nebula Chaser's primary activities deck, occasionally circling a petrified refugee or cocking its head at some eruption of machine noise. Finally, it leapt into a decorative water fountain and began to circle the statue of a Calamarian star-urchin, its sensory bristles on end and its yellow eyes fixed on the ceiling. With a drooping feeling, Alema turned to the holopad and called up a three-dimensional schematic of the Nebula Chaser. After a few adjustments, it grew clear that Captain Pollux's cabin was directly over the creature, ten levels above.
"Unpleasant," Numa said. The tips of her lekku flicked sharply. "It seems to have an idea of our location."
"That makes no sense." Alema reached out with the Force and felt the same hungry stirring as before, but now much stronger and distinctly below. "Unless it's using the Force to track us."
A shudder ran down Numa's lekku, and she glared at Alema out of the corner of a slanted eye. "You do have a way of springing to the most alarming explanation, sister."
"Alarming, but no less likely." Alema pointed to the vidscreen, where the voxyn was bounding down the corridor toward the nearest lift tube.
Numa studied the image for a moment, then said, "You seem to have a point. Perhaps we should shut down."
They took a moment to meditate, then began to pull in on themselves, shutting down their presence in the Force. When they could not even feel each other, Alema looked back to the vidscreen. The voxyn had just reached the lift tube. It slapped the activation pad with a front claw, then pushed its foresection into the cylinder and allowed the repulsor current to pull its long body up into the shaft. She traced the lift to an officers' deck outlet less than a hundred meters away, perhaps twice that distance by the time the creature found its way through the corridor grid.
"No good, sister. It still senses us." She turned toward the satchel holding their jumpsuits and lightsabers. "We can catch it as it steps out of the tube."
"Then what?" Numa asked. "The scarheads will know Captain Pollux was lying to them."
"They'll know anyway when it comes scratching at his door." Sorry there was no time to change back into her jumpsuit, Alema pulled her lightsaber from the travel satchel and activated its silver blade. "And I'd just as soon take a few Yuuzhan Vong with us."
"No." Numa reached over and shut down Alema's lightsaber. "I won't have that, not after New Plympto."
Frustrated by the planet's stubborn resistance, the Yuuzhan Vong had released a life-destroying plague that wiped the whole world clean. The sisters and a few thousand others had waited out the destruction inside a small fleet of intrasystem ore freighters, then sneaked into space after the enemy abandoned the dead world.
"They're Yuuzhan Vong, sister," Alema said. "Do you think they'll just forgive the captain's lie?"
"Hardly." Numa returned to the console. "We must make them think their creature is wrong."
She called up a hologram that showed the Yuuzhan Vong frigate floating half a kilometer beyond the Nebula Chaser's docking bay. At only two hundred meters, the enemy craft was a mere fraction of the starliner's size, but the weapon nodules bristling along its flank left no doubt about its destructive capabilities.
Alema saw at once what her sister was thinking. "We'll pick our escape pod on the way."
She returned her lightsaber to their travel satchel and tossed the bag to Numa, then grabbed a datapad from the captain's bunkside table and comlinked it to the offbridge vidconsole. The sisters left the captain's suite and scurried toward the opposite end of the officers' deck. At the lift tube, Alema consulted the datapad and found the voxyn splashing through a Damp Deck basin two levels below. Its yellow eyes were fixed on the ceiling, tracing their path.
"It knows we're moving," Alema said.
"But its sense of distance is poor." Numa was ever the optimist. "Where are we going?"
Alema called up a display of midship escape stations, then chose the one most directly opposite the Yuuzhan Vong frigate.
"Engineering deck, Bulkhead Forty-two." She performed a sectional security scan and found a team of Yuuzhan Vong smashing a droid in gravitational control. "We'll have to trick a squad of scarheads."
Alema checked the other escape stations, then shook her head. "Nothing, unless we leave the Chaser's sensor shadow."
"Out of the question." Numa's lekku curled inward at the tips. "We'll have to go bare."
"Bare?" It was the term they had used on New Plympto for caching their weapons and disguising themselves as slaves. "You must be brightsick. I'm not leaving my lightsaber behind!"
"You would risk the lives of everyone aboard?" Numa pulled her lightsaber from their travel satchel and twisted the handle open, then plucked the Adegan focusing crystal from its mount and secured it over her navel with a few drops of fleshglue. Through her filmy shift, the golden jewel looked like a dancer's decoration. "Do you think such selfishness worthy of the memory of Daeshara'cor?"
Alema coiled her lekku, then let them slap against her back. Though not exactly their Master, Daeshara'cor had certainly been the sisters' deliverer. During one of the Jedi's rare visits to Ryloth, she had recognized the Rar sisters' innate Force talents and rescued them from one of the darkest ryll dens in Kala'uun, then arranged their transport to the Jedi training academy. Alema sighed and held out her hand.
"If we must."
Numa placed Alema's lightsaber in her palm. Alema removed the Adegan crystal and secured the silver jewel over her own navel. They tossed their Jedi robes and the remains of their weapons into a disintegration chute, then stepped into the lift, descended twenty levels to the engineering deck, and left their satchel on the floor halfway across the tube threshold. Though a far less obvious act of sabotage than smashing the actuation panel, it was just as effective. A collision override circuit would hold the tube static until the safety hazard was removed.
"Time to look flighty," Alema said.
She called up a banal emotidrama on the datapad, and the sisters started toward Bulkhead 42. As they advanced down the corridor, they peered into each room they passed and called loudly for someone named Travot. When they reached inducer control, a Yuuzhan Vong warrior stepped out to confront them. With only three long scars on each cheek and a single disfigured ear, he was clearly a warrior of low rank. The sisters pressed themselves against the corridor's far wall and, doing their best to look shocked and repulsed, started to ease past.
He blocked their way with a lowered amphistaff. "Where do you go?"
"To s-see Travot?" Numa made her voice sound frightened and tentative. "He works in the coil room." "The coil room?" the Yuuzhan Vong echoed.
Alema shrugged and glanced back to her datapad, as though unable to resist the emotidrama. "His workstation."
A second Yuuzhan Vong with the crooked nose and scar-laced face of a minor officer stepped into the corridor. He scrutinized the sisters briefly and, seeing there was no place beneath their dancing shifts to hide a lightsaber or anything else, pointed back the way they had come.
"This ship is under seizure. Return to your berthings."
Numa and Alema put on looks of fear and confusion and remained where they were.
"Obey!" the subordinate said.
"We c-can't," Alema said.
"They sealed off the staff deck," Numa said. "And they closed our lounge."
"See?" Alema called up a schematic of the ship and shoved the datapad at the officer. "We don't have anyplace to go."
"Do not pollute me with your profane devices!" The officer knocked the instrument from Alema's hand and smashed it beneath his heel, then motioned to someone inside the room. "Bring the infidel machine shaper."
A third Yuuzhan Vong appeared in the doorway with a bruise-mottled human female. One eyelid had split open and covered the side of her face in coppery-smelling blood.
"You have one called Travot in your squad?"
Numa saw her sister catch the engineer's eye and give a barely perceptible nod, using the Force to plant the suggestion that the woman knew Travot. Taking full advantage of the Yuuzhan Vong's insensitivity to the Force, Alema reached out and felt the presence of more than a hundred beings in the immediate area, most of them frightened, a few angry or in pain. She did not feel the invaders, of course; the Yuuzhan Vong were as invisible to the Force as it was to them -- but she did feel the voxyn's hungry presence descending toward them. It had found another lift tube.
After a moment of confusion, the engineer finally said, "There's a Travot in engineering, but he's not on my crew."
The officer considered the two sisters, no doubt trying to puzzle out the proper procedure for dealing with them. Alema decided to help him along by simply assuming the answer she wanted -- a subtle means of enticement both she and her sister had put to good use in the ryll dens of Kala'uun.
"Engineering is just down there, isn't it? At Bulkhead Forty-two?"
"That's right," the engineer said. "Bulkhead Forty-two."
Alema stepped to her sister's side and eyed the amphistaff blocking their way. The subordinate looked to his officer, who scowled and waved him down the corridor.
"See to it and return."
Not waiting for the warrior to lead the way, the sisters slipped past his amphistaff and started down the corridor. The bulkheads appeared to be simple structural arches that spanned the passage every ten meters, but each one contained a thin durasteel door that would descend automatically at the first sign of a pressure drop. The doors could also be triggered by voice, but the crew had wisely refrained from using the code to seal off the Yuuzhan Vong search parties.
As they scurried down the corridor, Alema reached out with the Force again and felt the voxyn behind them, on the same level and coming fast. They were at Bulkhead 33, still ninety meters from the escape pod.
"I'm cold, sister." Alema rubbed her bare arms. "Do you feel that chill?"
"Quiet," their guard ordered. "Your complaints are an insult to the gods."
Alema's palm ached for her lightsaber.
The faint clatter of claws on metal echoed down the corridor behind them. She looked over her shoulder and saw a distant ripple of darkness bounding down the sterile tunnel.
"What's that?" she gasped, finding it difficult to pretend she did not know. "What's it doing?"
Numa glanced back, then let out a convincing shriek and raced down the corridor flailing her arms. Alema screamed and started after her, leaving their astonished guard to stomp after them yelling for them to stop. As they passed Bulkhead 38, he cried out in astonishment, then yelled something angry in his own language as the voxyn bowled him off his feet.
Alema did not even glance back. "Close Bulkhead Thirty-eight!" she yelled. "Authorization code: nebula rubantine!"
The bulkhead door clanged down behind her and sealed itself with a hiss -- then tolled deeply as the voxyn slammed into it. Alema knew that closing the door would draw attention from the Yuuzhan Vong commander -- but so would allowing the voxyn to catch them. She hoped that the thing had broken its neck, but there was no such luck. It was up and slamming itself into the durasteel almost instantly.
They passed Bulkhead 42. Numa turned toward the outer wall and slapped her palm against the escape bay door-pad.
"Attention: You have requested entrance to an escape pod launching bay." The computer spoke in the same cheery female voice it used to announce dinner seatings. "Are you sure you wish to proceed?"
"Yes!" Numa said.
"If you proceed, an alarm will sound in the security --"
"Override alarm, code: Pollux eight one six!" Alema called. "Confidential departure."
As the launching bay's iris hatch swirled open, a soft pop sounded from Bulkhead 38, and Alema knew the hermetic seal had been broken. Her first thought was that someone on the bridge was raising the door, but then she heard the muffled voice of the female engineer.
The door rose, and the voxyn came scurrying down the corridor, sensory bristles on end, white tail whipping back and forth. The creature's yellow eyes were fixed on the floor and it was licking the air with a long forked tongue, and Alema's hand ached more than ever for her lightsaber.
"Ready the escape pod," Numa ordered, pushing Alema into the launching bay's bluish light. "Now, sister."
Alema found herself looking into the nozzle of the escape pod's primitive rocket engine. It was barely a meter across, just large enough to start the hundred-person capsule toward the nearest habitable planet.
In the corridor, Numa called, "Close Bulkhead Forty-two! Authorization code: nebula rubantine!"
"The bulkhead emergency code is temporarily suspended," the computer returned in its sweet voice. "Please report valid emergencies to any engineering supervisor."
"Override!" Numa ordered. "And disarm safety sensors! Code: Pollux . . ."
As Numa finished the authorization code, Alema slipped past the rocket nozzle to the side of the pod. A sickening crunch sounded out in the corridor, but she could no longer see what was happening outside the bay. She pressed her palm to the escape pod's activation pad. The hatch slid open, revealing a starkly lit interior crammed with ten cramped rows of acceleration chairs. There was no cockpit or viewport, only a droid pilot stationed at the craft's single control panel.
The droid pointed to the chair farthest from the door. "Welcome to Escape Pod Four-twenty-one. Please take your seat and wait for the other passengers. There is no need --"
"Prepare for a cold launch." Alema would have preferred the speed of a hot launch, but the flare of rockets would be noticed on the bridge -- and however faint their fast-dwindling hopes of escaping unnoticed, she still had to try. "On my command. Authorization code: Pollux --"
"The override authorization code has already been given," the droid said, turning to its duties. "There is no need to repeat the override authorization code once the launching bay is entered."
A wet burping noise sounded from out in the corridor, then Numa screamed. Alema stepped out of the escape pod and saw her sister staggering into the launching bay, arms raised to cover her face. She missed the center of the hatch and stumbled over the rim, then fell with her feet across the threshold. Her face and chest were covered in sizzling brown mucus, and her lekku were thrashing against the durasteel floor.
Alema did not experience Numa's pain, as she had heard sometimes happened between Force-sensitive siblings, but she did receive a heightened impression of her sister's thoughts. Numa was afraid of being blind, but more than that, she was frightened they would be unveiled as Jedi and cause the deaths of yet more innocents. And she was angry -- angry at her own carelessness in letting the creature surprise her.
Alema sprang toward Numa and saw the voxyn pinned beneath Bulkhead 42, struggling to pull itself forward. Though its torso was pressed almost flat, she was astounded to see it moving at all. Bulkhead doors had safety sensors precisely because they closed with so much force; they had sensor overrides because it was sometimes necessary to crush anything beneath them to save the ship.
As Alema neared her sister, the creature swung its broad snout in her direction and sprayed a jet of brown saliva through the hatchway. Prepared by the attack on her sister, she opened herself to the Force and, with an almost unconscious wave of her fingertips, sent the stream washing back toward her attacker. The voxyn, fast as a blaster bolt, closed its eyes and turned away before the mucus struck.
Alema hardly cared. Numa's thoughts were growing disorganized and distant, her cries fading to groans. Alema grabbed her sister beneath the arms, smearing her own fingers in the burning mucus, and tried not to think about what the stuff was doing to Numa's face and eyes.
"Find your center, sister." She pulled Numa into the launching bay. "Let the Force flow into you."
Numa fell completely quiet, her mind alarmingly calm -- and then the calmness vanished, leaving in its place only a lingering peace and a vague sense of emptiness. Alema cried out and started to look down, then felt the mucus burning into the bones of her fingers and knew she did not have the courage.
Alema carried her sister's body around to the escape pod hatch and glanced back toward the door, where the voxyn, still trapped beneath the bulkhead, continued to watch. One side of its head was covered in the residue of its acid mucus, the scales beneath pocked and smoking as they continued to dissolve. The heads of several amphistaffs appeared in the narrow gap next to the creature's head and began -- hopelessly -- to pry.
A part of Alema -- the part not mourning her sister, the part that was still a Jedi Knight-- realized her last faint hope of slipping away unnoticed had vanished. The Yuuzhan Vong would hear the whir of the closing hatch and feel the thump of the pod's separation. Still, she could do nothing but go on. Pollux's life was forfeit -- even if she surrendered, she knew the Yuuzhan Vong better than to think the commander would forgive his lies -- but it would take time to destroy a ship as large as the Nebula Chaser. Perhaps, if she launched quickly, the frigate would be forced to pursue the escape pod instead of attacking the starliner. It was her best hope -- her only hope.
She looked back toward the hatchway. "Close launching bay --"
The voxyn's snout -- all of the creature Alema could still see -- turned toward her and opened half a meter. A deafening shriek filled her ears, then the fist of a powerful compression wave slammed her in the stomach. She suddenly felt dizzy and sick, and in the next second she was slumped against the escape pod, cradling her sister's dead body in her arms. She felt something warm trickling out of her ear and touched it with a fleshless finger; when she lowered her hand, the tip of the bone was red with blood.
Alema tried to rise, nearly retched, then dropped back to her haunches, head spinning and stomach churning. Still holding Numa in her lap, she kicked her way through the escape pod door.
"Launch!" Alema gasped. "Launch right now!"
The pod hatch closed, the lights dimmedand that was all. The capsule remained eerily silent and still. Puzzled, Alema dragged herself past a row of acceleration chairs and looked forward. The droid pilot was facing her, vocabulator flashing rapidly as he endeavored to explain proper launching procedure. Alema could not hear a word.
"Override!" she yelled. "Authorization code--"
The escape pod shot forward, hurling Alema into a durasteel chair-mounting. She had already given the authorization code.
Jaina missed the launch. She was staring at the heads-up display, trying to bring the Shadow's comm array into perfect alignment with the Nebula Chaser's tight-beam antenna. With the starliner drifting dead only twenty million kilometers in front of an orange sun, the task would have been difficult under the best circumstances. With the presence of a Yuuzhan Vong frigate limiting them to air thrusters, it was nearly impossible.
After several minutes of trying, Jaina finally aligned the comm pip inside the targeting reticle and matched the Shadow's rotation to the Nebula Chaser's progress across the face of the orange sun.
R2-D2 scrolled a message down the heads-up.
"No, I don't think I can," Jaina snapped. "If you're getting anything at all, put it on!"
Half a dozen fuzzy two-dimensional vids appeared inside the canopy, neatly arrayed in a row across the plexalloy. Half the displays showed Yuuzhan Vong warriors being Yuuzhan Vong warriors, smashing droids, throwing electronics down disintegration tubes, beating helpless refugees. One screen showed some sort of eight-legged reptile -- maybe it was a reptile -- pinned beneath a bulkhead door, its head badly acid-burned and one eye burst from sudden decompression. Another display showed an empty escape pod bay, but it was the last screen that caught Jaina's interest. It showed the Nebula Chaser's bridge, where Captain Pollux and his entire flight crew stood surrounded by Yuuzhan Vong warriors.
Even had Jaina known Pollux personally and the vid display been better than it was, she would not have recognized him. His face had been reduced to a misshapen lump.
A Yuuzhan Vong with no nose cut the captain's ear off his head. "I ask the last time: Where did you pick up the Jeedai?"
Somehow, Pollux found the strength to laugh. "What Jedi?"
The Yuuzhan Vong chuckled. "You are a funny man, Captain." He folded the dismembered ear into the captain's palm, then turned to his subordinates. "Kill the crew."
Heart sinking, Jaina turned to Mara. "Can we do anything?"
Mara kept her attention fixed on her navicomputer. "Not for the crew. But look at this."
She keyed a command, and a golden trajectory line appeared inside the canopy. It ran from the Nebula Chaser more or less across the Shadow's bow, then curved sharply toward the planet.
"An escape pod?" Jaina glanced back to the starliner and found the Yuuzhan Vong frigate still sitting idle off the Chaser's docking bay deck. "They endangered thousands of refugees, then snuck away in an escape pod? Jedi did that?"
"That's how it looks, doesn't it?" Mara began to plot an interception course. "Let's pick 'em up before they do any more damage."