A Mysterious Mission Begins
Here’s the latest from: StarWars.Com
THE ROOK, E’RONOH
For the first time in five years, the sky over E’ronoh’s capital was clear of fighting ships. When errant debris pierced the atmosphere, it was little more than ash by the time it settled over the stone arches dotting the landscape like great giants of the planet’s dawn, frozen against the red morning.
The war was not over, but life went on as life always does. Though parts of the city still smoldered, mourners hurried to inter their dead. As news of the latest cease-fire attempt with Eiram spread, the market of the Rook, E’ronoh’s capital, flooded with citizens anticipating the promise of the day’s water shipment.
Among them, Serrena, a slender figure dressed in a gray cloak, slipped through the haggling crowds. Tip-yip ten pezz a kilo! Thirty per barrel! Bargain asterpuff—dream the dream of the dead!
A mother bargained for a carton of eggs while keeping an eye on the sky. A girl, days short of the draft, shouldered her hungry baby brother on one side and cheap fatty cuts from the butcher on the other. A beggar waved an empty cup. A vendor shooed flies away from his spoiled fruit. A palace guard jumped at the resounding crunch of metal—only to turn and find that a speeder hauling scrap had overturned.
Serrena tugged at the hood of her cloak, but nothing, save for a breath mask, could stop anyone on the forsaken planet from eating a mouthful of dust, even when the winds were still. Snaking through the market and down a narrow underpass, she stopped at the fringe of the hangar bay. Here the canyon’s natural archways made it the perfect architecture for the royal launch pad. Locals liked to say the cavernous opening was the petrified yawning mouth of an old god. To Serrena it was just another place, another opportunity to serve the only entity truly committed to keeping the galaxy in balance.
As crewmembers flitted back and forth, readying a squadron of starships for flight, Serrena crept along the undulating walls of the canyon, invisible as the pilots huddled almost protectively around their captain. The young woman’s face was half cast in the canyon’s shadow, but Serrena could just make out the calm intensity on her regal features. The promise in her fist she pounded over her heart. Words that cut through the cacophony like E’roni gems as they all shouted—“For E’ronoh!”
“Thanks for the rousing pep talk, Captain A’lbaran,” Serrena muttered as she crouched behind one of the astromech droids and inserted a slender program chip into its front panel. A sharp thrill of victory coursed through her, but the moment was short-lived.
A soldier with an eye patch rounded the corner and halted. Confusion, then alarm twisted his face as he closed their distance in long, swift strides. “You’re not authorized to be here!”
Serrena cowered, let herself sink toward the floor, but he yanked her upright and shoved her against a stack of crates. There was the hard plunk of an empty canteen hitting stone. Dust, always so much dust, lodged between her teeth, the back of her throat.
“What are you—”
“Please,” Serrena whimpered and coughed. “Spare a pezz for a poor farmer? Some water . . .”
“There’s a ration distribution at high noon,” the soldier said, releasing her with a frustrated huff. His medals boasted the rank of lieutenant, though she hadn’t noticed him at his captain’s side. Pity, then frustration flitted across his scarred face as he reached into his pocket and fished out a bronze coin. “Now get out of my sight.”
Serrena clasped the coin then sprinted away from the launch pad, merging back into the sea of dusty cloaks in the market where a fight was breaking out. The desperate citizens of E’ronoh shoved one another to secure a better place in the queue for water rations, which had doubled in size in the time it took her to fullfill her mission. Serrena pushed harder, shielding her face against the current of sweaty bodies, until she broke through the throng. Tossing the bronze pezz into a beggar’s tin cup, Serrena straightened and made for the road leading out of town.
“It is done,” she spoke into a short-range comlink.
A worried voice crackled back, “Are you sure . . . it was . . . the right . . .”
“Yes, yes, I’m certain.” She bit back the ire at being questioned. She had been chosen for this mission.
“Hurry back. Got a . . . perfect spot to see . . . the fireworks.”
As Serrena broke into a jog, thirty starfighters rocketed into the sky. Serrena let her hood fall, welcomed the heat of the rising sun, and smiled in anticipation of the will of the Force—because if the Force willed it, none of those starfighters would return.
BEYOND E’RONOH’S GRAVITY WELL
Captain Xiri A’lbaran was tired of waiting. For the ice hauler to drop out of hyperspace. For the enemy to break their tenuous cease-fire and attack. For her world to go up in flames again and again, and know that this time, despite everything she’d fought for, it would be all her fault. And yet Xiri waited, because in the outer reaches of the galaxy, the dregs of better-known worlds and sectors, waiting was all she could do. The helplessness of it all tore through her, though she kept her chin up, eyes locked on the chasm of space. She was the captain of E’ronoh’s fleet. She had to set an example for the batch of new recruits, every wave of them younger and younger than the last.
Xiri’s Thylefire Squadron had held sentry over the planet’s atmosphere since daybreak. Before the war, E’ronoh’s monarch might not have deployed a naval squadron for what was supposed to be a simple escort mission. But as drought ravaged her world, and hyperlanes crawled with pirates, the safety of the cargo was a matter of life and death.
Under different circumstances, Xiri would have marveled at the awe-inspiring view of their curious pocket of the galaxy. Her world, with its red mountains and sleek canyons, and neighboring Eiram’s turquoise seas mottled by constant storms. Locked between them were a belt of debris—remnants from years of battle that cluttered the corridor like asteroids—and the Timekeeper moon. Her own grandmother used to say that, billions of years before, E’ronoh and Eiram were two cosmic beings that emerged from stardust, and the moon was their shared heart, vital to E’ronoh’s winds and Eiram’s tides. Xiri had loved that story once. Whether in peace or war, the planets and their moon were irrevocably bound, not simply by the pull of their gravity, but by a long past and an ever-murky future. A future Xiri would dedicate her life to making right.
Now the restlessness among the young pilots was beginning to show as one of them nudged out of formation, then back.
Captain A’lbaran and Lieutenant Segaru had selected an unprecedented thirty pilots for the mission: safely escort an arriving ice hauler to the capital’s docking bay and ready the ice for immediate distribution. A hauler that was late. The previous shipment had been destroyed amid the most recent clash with Eiram. The one prior had mysteriously disappeared in the maze of new hyperspace lanes. The one before that—or what was left of it—had been found, likely ravaged by pirates and stripped to the wires, half the crew drifting dead in space. No, the only way to secure this haul was to intercept and escort it the instant it dropped out of hyperspace.
“Captain, we can’t stay out here much longer,” Lieutenant Segaru said, the steady tenor of his voice fringed by the hum of their private channel’s static.
“It’ll come,” she clipped back.
“It will come.” She worked her tongue against the dry roof of her mouth. She’d given her water canteen that morning to a child begging in the market and tried not to think of her own thirst. “It has to.”
Xiri turned to her left where he always was in their chain-link formation, his bronze helmet obscuring most of his bearded face. She imagined the scrutiny in his storm gray eye, the way the scars under his eyepatch turned red when he was frustrated and angry. She also knew that he was likely squeezing the pommel of the ceremonial bane blade every E’roni soldier had strapped at the hip, a habit she shared. That a part of him would never forgive her for being promoted instead of him. That he resented her, even as he turned in her direction, like he could feel her stare.
“Captain.” Then softer. “Xiri.”
“Don’t.” She snapped her attention straight ahead, past the blue of Eiram, and at the pinpricks of distant stars. “We’re lucky to have secured this shipment after Merokia reneged on their promise of relief.”
Merokia was the latest on their list of former allies. What could she or the Monarch have expected? With every passing year, every broken cease-fire, every failed attempt at peace, even their closest trading partners had turned their backs on E’ronoh. Few dared to intervene in the conflict, and most simply waited for a victor to arise to choose a side.
“I am aware of our predicament, Captain A’lbaran. It’s . . .” He paused for so long, Xiri moved to toggle her channel to see if her comm had fritzed again. “We agreed to clear the corridor between the two planets for Eiram’s military escort. They could take our prolonged presence here as a breach of the terms. I’m always ready for a fight, but this cease-fire, clearing the corridor—all of it was your plan.”
Your plan. Jerrod Segaru always knew how to get under her skin.
It had taken years off her life to convince her father to agree to this in the first place. He’d been convinced the circumstance was an elaborate plan for the enemy to catch E’ronoh with their guard down and attack, hence the thirty starfighters. The conditions were simple—Xiri would lead an escort mission in at daybreak and clear the space for Eiram in the afternoon. No weapons would be engaged. Previous cease-fires had been broken over less, but she counted on Eiram being equally desperate for relief, so they would understand.
Xiri knew quite well where the blame would fall when—if— something went wrong.
“Thank you for reminding me, Lieutenant. But we can’t go home empty-handed, and I won’t have another one of our shipments destroyed or raided because our backs were turned fighting a war. I’ll handle Eiram. We’re staying.”
“I hope Eiram’s general is as—understanding—as you would be,” he said, then switched his comm channel.
She followed suit, the restless chatter from the pilots filling the time. Every moment they remained in open space, they seemed to forget their captain was listening. She didn’t mind. It was how she got to know them, during rare moments of stillness, listening to the rhythms of their voices.
“Look at all this junk,” Thylefire Ten said.
“That’s not junk,” Thylefire Nine piped up, his voice breaking on the last word. The youngest of them all, Thylefire Nine had been dubbed Blitz on his first day of training.
The fresh recruits were mostly a result of the draft, but Blitz had begged for permission to enlist early, in honor of his fallen sister, Lina. He’d been weeks away from the conscription age. Xiri had done the same after her brother’s death, and perhaps that was why she had signed off on the request.
Xiri had seen hundreds of soldiers fall, but Lina’s death had been a turning point for E’ronoh. What should have been a routine recon mission to Eiram’s western isles ended in destruction when her starfighter’s thruster malfunctioned moments after lift-off, and she plummeted from the sky—the third malfunction in consecutive days, but the first to result in a casualty. It felt like everyone in the Rook collectively held their breath as they watched the ship crash into the Ramshead Gorge.
It was Lina’s tragic end that had sent civilians rioting into the streets. How many others had they lost, not to Eiram, but to their own fleet of outdated starships? What would the Monarch do to ensure it didn’t happen again? What would he do to finally win this war? Where were the food and water rations promised? Xiri couldn’t—wouldn’t—fight her own people and Eiram at the same time, but the dissidents propelled the Monarch to lease a plot of the mountains in the southern hemisphere to Corellia in exchange for three dozen devilfighters. Xiri had cursed the bargain. But she knew it was the most strategic solution. Their fleet was stretched too thin. E’ronoh was stretched too thin. But what would the Monarch sell off next? What would be enough? Questioning the decision, especially during a time of war, and especially by one of E’ronoh’s own captains, would have been treason. Even for the Monarch’s own daughter.
Xiri’s only form of rebellion had been giving one of the new ships— assigned to her—to Blitz, fresh out of basic combat training. She’d opted to remain in the ancient clunker she’d been flying since she enlisted. Besides, no matter what the ship, she’d get where she needed to go.
“It’s not junk,” Blitz repeated. His ship wavered, likely toggling his controls with trembling fists.
“Easy, Thylefire Nine,” Lieutenant Segaru growled low into the comm. “Get ahold of your ship.”
Blitz stilled and whimpered an apology.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Thylefire Ten muttered. “It’s just— look at it.”
The belt of debris was unavoidable. Remnants of starships and people floated in a river of scorched metal and frost-covered limbs. At first, Xiri had run salvo missions and turned cargo holds into reaper barges, if only to give closure to those waiting on the ground. Now it was nearly impossible to tell the wreckage apart. If the cease-fire held, she would try again.
People just want something to bury, Lieutenant Segaru liked to remind her. They might never be friends again, but she could never call into question his loyalty and ability to get his hands dirty for the cause.
“No, he’s right. It’s not junk. It’s a graveyard,” Thylefire Six said, his somber words followed by a strange yowl.
“Is that your stomach?” someone asked.
“Ah, he’s just nervous,” Lieutenant Segaru said amiably. “It’s his first flight.”
Or he’s hungry, you giant fool, Xiri thought. The words were on the tip of her tongue. But Lieutenant Segaru had a way of smoothing out the moods of their soldiers. Take it easy, kid. It’s just a tiny explosion, kid. There’re casualties in war, kid. We will make Eiram pay for their crimes and sink their glass palaces to the bottom of the seas, kid. Segaru could be their friendly lieutenant, while Xiri was the one who made them run drills until their bodies ached. The one who had to worry about whether or not they had the rations promised to the new recruits and their starving families. The one to fight with her father about prioritizing water over fuel, which was why that ice shipment needed to appear and it needed to appear intact and it needed to appear now because after five years of fighting, their homeworld had decided it had had enough.
The old gods are angry, cried the temple elders. The old gods are angry at the Monarch’s war and have stopped the rain.
Xiri couldn’t blame the old gods or new for the worst drought in her recent memory. All she could believe in was herself and do everything in her power to get aid to her people. E’ronoh would require every fiber of her being, and she would give until there was nothing left of her.
As the planets crept along the moon’s orbit, Xiri scanned Eiram for movement, but saw only swirls of clouds over turquoise oceans. No escort ships, but there would be.
“My wife’s going to kill me for missing supper again,” Thylefire Three murmured. The woman she knew as Kinni was among the eldest members of Xiri’s squadron and had been a retired mechanic when she’d reenlisted a couple of years prior.
“I miss my mum’s pilafa stew,” Blitz added.
Kinni chuckled softly. “You’re all welcome, of course.”
“Now that the war’s over—” Thylefire Six began but was cut off by a grunt.
“Don’t let your guard down,” Thylefire Thirteen snapped. “Nothing’s over. Not until they return everything they’ve taken. Our colony, our prince, our lives. Eiram should never know peace.”
Thylefire Thirteen was Rev Ferrol, son of Viceroy Ferrol, one of Xiri’s father’s most trusted advisers. Rev was repeating the same acidic words the Monarch spoke from his balcony whenever he felt morale was low. There was a mutter of assent, and Xiri tried to swallow the knot in her throat, but her mouth was dry. She could feel Lieutenant Segaru’s stare on her, but she only gave a shake of her head. Her people were frustrated, and she would be failing them as not just their captain, but their princess, if she shut off her comm simply because of her own guilt.
“We’re just catching our breath is all. The barnacles are, too,” Lieu- tenant Segaru added.
“M-my gran used to say when she was small, they measured time not by the moon, but by when Eiram’s ships flew over the city.” Blitz chuckled nervously. “I—I think she was exaggerating but it was ages ago.”
“Was it now?” Kinni scoffed. “Then I’m ages old.”
There was a string of laughter.
“Well, when it’s over,” said Blitz in his boisterous way, “I’m taking a pleasure barge to one of them resort planets.”
“There’s no pleasure barge coming out here,” Rev muttered.
“I hear that on some worlds you can pay to have simultaneous—”
“Simultaneous what, Ten?” Xiri spoke into the comm, crackling as others snickered at the embarrassed pilot.
The younger boy swallowed his words, then stuttered, “P-princess!
I mean, Captain. Captain A’lbaran.”
“All right, Thylefire, stay sharp,” Lieutenant Segaru commanded in his easy drawl.
Xiri allowed herself a small smile. She liked when they spoke of their dreams, their plans. That they imagined a when and an after. Their hope was a fragile thing, but it was there, and she couldn’t allow herself to forget it, not for a second.
A sensor blinked on her control panel. A dozen of Eiram’s ships emerged from their cloudy atmosphere. Their starships had a bulbous quality, outfitted for underwater submersion first and spaceflight second.
“They’re here!” Blitz said. His ship lurched forward, then staggered to a stop.
“Easy does it,” Lieutenant Segaru warned.
“I-it’s these new ships,” Blitz stuttered, his breathing heavy. “The controls are too sensitive.”
“Riiiiight,” Thirteen muttered, and the others took the easy shot and laughed at their nervous friend.
“Remember,” Xiri said, commanding silence, “Eiram is receiving cargo, too. We’re both escorting deliveries home. Wait for my orders.”
“Captain,” Lieutenant Segaru said. “They’re hailing you.”
Xiri licked her front teeth. She tried not to think of her thirst, her own pounding heart. Her squadron needed her to lead. E’ronoh would need her to lead.
“This is Captain Xiri A’lbaran.” Her words were steadier than she felt.
“Captain, this is General Nhivan Lao.” His clipped voice came in warbled through her ancient starfighter’s comm. She punched the panel hard to clear it. “We agreed the corridor between planets would be clear. Those were your terms, I believe.”
“I understand that, General,” Xiri said. “But our shipment is delayed. We would afford you the same courtesy in the same position.”
“Would you?” the general all but scoffed.
Xiri wouldn’t take the bait, and so their silence stretched heavy in the space between until the general cleared his throat and said, “Very well. See that you don’t cross your side of the corridor.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” She switched over the comm.
Xiri updated her squadron, then squeezed her controls and watched the empty field of space as if she could split open a black hole and wrench out the ice hauler from hyperspace.
“We should take whatever cargo they have, plus ours,” Rev growled. “I bet they’re planning the same thing. I bet—”
“I wouldn’t trust the Eirami, even if I had two good eyes,” Lieutenant Segaru interrupted. “But we stay put for now.”
“Didn’t you lose your eye in the first battle, sir?” Blitz asked.
“I want this channel clear,” Xiri said. “Is that understood?”
One by one, they signed off that they did.
Her sensor suite blinked. A coil of anticipation tightened in her gut as she said, “A ship’s coming out of hyperspace.”
Hidden among the pinpricks of light that surrounded them was the exit zone for the hyperspace lane the Republic had opened a few years back. It turned out that E’ronoh and Eiram were in the middle of nowhere, but on the way to everywhere.
When the ship emerged from hyperspace, Xiri stopped breathing. She had taken her squadron flying over the glittering spires of the Modine Valley, seen the first desert roses bloom, and yet, right now, nothing had ever been as beautiful as that rusty old ice hauler.
She sat forward in anticipation, smiled so hard her chapped lips cracked and bled. Even as she watched the hauler glide through the corridor between E’ronoh and Eiram, Xiri made a mental note that every bit of ice aboard was already spoken for, and they’d have to figure out a way to get more even before the last drop was distributed. It was a worry for later that night.
Xiri was a breath away from hailing the hauler when her fighter’s sensor suite chirped, this time flagging an anomaly.
“Captain,” Segaru said, worry and confusion in the single word. “There are two more ships dropping out of hyperspace. We must clear—”
Segaru’s words were lost as one gargantuan ship blinked into dead space after the other, narrowly missing a deadly impact. Xiri had only ever seen their likeness from newsfeeds on the holonet, and by the chatter instantly filling the comm channel, so had her squadron.
“Is that an Alif-class Longbeam?”
“Aren’t those Republic ships?”
“Dank farrik, what’s the Republic doing here?”
Star Wars: The High Republic: Convergence arrives November 22 and is available for pre-order now. Check out an extended excerpt.
Visit Lucasfilm’s official hub for all things Star Wars: The High Republic at StarWars.com/TheHighRepublic.…
…Read the Full Article @ StarWars.Com
Thank you for reading this post.