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There was no word from General Khamar.
Ice-cold prickles of fear shot up the back of Reija Momen’s arms to her scalp and then down her spine. She shivered, then shifted uncomfortably. This is no time to panic, she thought.
Everyone else was looking to her to remain calm. So she’d come out into the garden early, to relax, to gather her thoughts and compose herself before meeting with her staff. But it wasn’t working. The carefully tended little garden nestled peacefully in a courtyard protected from the elements by the surrounding buildings and a solar dome that could be opened in good weather. Today the dome was open, letting in fresh air that should have been invigorating, but her nerves were strung too tight. Her staff were afraid; they thought no news from the south boded ill.
Eyes closed, Reija tried thinking of home. In five more years, her contract would be up, and she would head back to Alderaan. Maybe. A breeze wafted in through the dome. It carried with it the aroma of the native grasses that grew in such profusion on the mesa where the Intergalactic Communications Center was located. During the first months of her contract she had thought she was allergic to the sagebrush, coughing and sneezing profusely whenever she emerged from the control complex to inspect the outlying facilities, but gradually she had become accustomed to the pervasive scent. Now she found it pleasant. Physically, at least, she’d never felt better. It had become a pet theory of hers, not yet verified by medical science, that prolonged exposure to the grasses of Praesitlyn was good for human physiology.
Reija Momen had accepted the job as chief administrator of the Intergalactic Communications Center on Praesitlyn because she liked the work—the handsome salary counted only as a nice bonus. Someone else in her position would likely have been thinking of the end of her contract, comfortable retirement back on Alderaan, perhaps even starting a family. Though middle-aged, she was still young enough to think about settling down someday, and she was attractive enough in a handsome, matronly way. But she was content in her job. With her warm heart, good sense, and solid managerial skills, she had quickly established a fine rapport with her mixed staff of human and Sluissi technicians. She was the type of administrator, rare in any gender or species, who exercised her authority as a matter of responsibility, not out of any sense of pleasure. She worked hard and well because she enjoyed work as an end in itself, and she treated the people under her more as partners in a joint enterprise than as subordinates. And unlike so many busy bureaucrats, consumed by their sense of self-importance, she knew when and how to relax.
Start a family? Well, for all practical purposes, her staff on Praesitlyn had been her family for the past seven years; they loved her and they called her “Momma Momen.”
Go home? She was already home! I’ll renew my contract, she thought. If I live that long.
A labor droid, modified to tend the trees and shrubs in the garden, rooted among rumsy bushes nestled under the stunted kaha trees imported from Talasea years earlier by a previous chief administrator. Ordinarily the sound of the droid’s rustling about in the foliage would have been comforting, but not to- day. Reija shifted her position again. She opened her eyes and sighed. Relaxation was out of the question. Members of her staff were already filtering into the garden and finding places to sit—not to enjoy the informal midday luncheon that had become a tradition in the years she had been chief administrator, but to get the news, to get their orders. Reija felt a brief flash of anger that their routine was being interrupted. Not that their luncheons were anything special—just friends and colleagues enjoying each other’s company and engaging in easy conversation over their food—but they were as enjoyable to the staff as their regular off-duty trips to Sluis Van.
Today everyone spoke in worried whispers, all ears for any news from the south. What could she tell them? Not knowing what was going on there was worse than bad news. Several standard hours earlier an invasion fleet had landed approximately 150 kilometers to the southwest of the center.
“Mistress,” General Khamar had said in his last report, “two of our starfighters on a routine patrol over the ocean just off the coast have engaged a large number of hostile craft. The airborne control ship that was monitoring the patrol has been shot down, but before we lost contact with it, the crew reported a large droid army landing. The invaders don’t appear to be as numerous as my own command, but they may be just an advance party preparing a foothold for a larger force. Either way, we have to destroy them without delay. I’m taking my main force overland to attack them.”
“How big is their fleet?” she had asked.
“Several transports and capital ships, nothing we can’t handle. Should we need reinforcements, which I doubt, Sluis Van will supply them.”
“Wouldn’t it be prudent to call for them now, just in case?”
Khamar grunted. “We shall if we need to, but it wouldn’t be good tactics to call for reinforcements before we know the extent of the enemy threat. I’ll leave a detachment here under Commander Llanmore to provide security for the center.” A gruff Corellian, Khamar was a professional soldier, and Reija trusted his judgment. The young Commander Llanmore she especially liked; she couldn’t help smiling at the air of military punctiliousness he adopted when in her presence. She saw right through him, of course. To her he was one of the many sons she had never had.
But for the past hour she had received no word from General Khamar. If this was an all-out attempt by the Separatists to seize the communications center, her comfortable little world on Praesitlyn was coming to an end.
The solar dome that roofed the garden slammed shut without warning. There was a bright flash and a deafening roar. Heart in her throat, Reija jumped to her feet and ran back inside the main control room. Slith Skael, the Sluissi chief of the communications staff, sidled up beside her. She had never seen the methodical creature move so quickly or look so worried.
“Is Khamar returning?” Reija asked hesitantly. She glanced about the control room. Normally it was a place of quiet confidence, technicians working intently at their stations, droids quietly going about their tasks. But not now.
“No, Mistress,” Slith answered. “It is strangers.” He swayed nervously. “I believe it is another invasion force. I ordered the dome closed when the first ship landed. I beg your forgiveness if you were startled. What are your orders?”
Reija had grown very fond of Slith over the years they’d been together on Praesitlyn. Under his calm, unruffled exterior lived a devoted and compassionate being. And she knew she could count on him now. The control room was in chaos. Technicians babbled among themselves, working their instruments frantically. A deep-throated roar rumbled through the facility. She could feel the vibrations in the floor panels.
“A large number of ships are landing below the mesa,” a technician said with an edge to his voice that told Reija he was on the verge of panic.
“Quiet, everybody! Listen to me,” she called loudly and firmly. It was time to make order out of this confusion. “Everyone take your places and listen.” Her calm, controlled demeanor had the desired effect. People stopped babbling and took their seats. “Now,” she said, turning to Slith, “send an alert to Coruscant and—”
“I already have,” the Sluissi answered. “The transmission was blocked.”
“That’s not possible!” she said, startled.
“Evidently it is,” Slith answered matter-of-factly. He was just reporting the fact, not debating it. “What are your orders, please?” he repeated.
Reija was silent for a moment. “Commander Llanmore?”
“I am here, Mistress.” Llanmore, wearing his body armor and fully armed, stepped up and drew himself to attention beside her.
“What is happening out there?” The control room had gone completely silent, all eyes staring intently at the two.
“A large droid force has landed below the mesa,” Llanmore answered in precise, clipped tones. “We cannot hope to hold out against them without immediate reinforcement, and—” He hesitated. “—that will not happen.”
“Any word from General Khamar?”
“No, Mistress, and—” Llanmore’s voice caught. “We must assume that he is—he has been defeated.”
Reija considered for a moment. “Very well then. Somehow the invaders are blocking our transmissions. General Khamar cannot help us. We cannot resist. Listen to me, everyone! We cannot let this complex fall into the invaders’ hands.” She paused for a moment to gather herself before announcing an order she’d never dreamed she’d have to give. “Destroy your equipment.” Quickly she began instructing individual technicians, directing them to disable specific pieces of equipment first. But it would take time; they had never prepared for such an emergency, nor did they have the means to ensure the rapid and total destruction the situation now dictated. “Commander.”
The only sign that Reija was at all nervous was a small rill of perspiration slowly escaping from under her hair by the side of her right eyebrow. “Can you delay the invaders? All we need is a few minutes.”
“I can try.” Llanmore was also perspiring faintly, but he turned sharply on his heel and left the control room. The last she saw of him was his ramrod-straight back as he marched steadfastly back to his command. She was afraid she’d just sent the young man off to his death.
“Get busy!” she ordered the technicians, many of whom had stopped to listen to her conversation with Llanmore. Why, she thought, had no one ever made any emergency destruction plans for a contingency like this? The Intergalactic Communications Center was vital to the Republic, and its facilities could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
From outside on the mesa came the crashing roar of weaponry. Llanmore was engaging the invaders. Reija felt a rising sense of despair. Her comfortable world was at an end.
From the Hardcover edition.