Cato Neimoidia was a world of mist.
High above that mist, cliffs and branches poked through, carved at all angles into immense mountainous spires. The thick stone of the planet’s largest rock arches and peaks loomed, casting shadows in a seemingly infinite stretch before being absorbed into the dense vapor below. Between, over, and on top of these natural wonders hung gilded cities with ornate towers and reflective sidings, structures suspended as bridges between massive colossal ridges.
But Cato Neimoidia did have something beneath all of that, a foundational layer at the base of the thick fog. On normal days, taking the journey from Cato Neimoidia’s bridge cities to the surface meant a gradual descent into an ever-thickening blanket of white.
Today, however, was not a normal day.
Because today, something had gone terribly wrong. And the lower the shuttle flew, the more the milky hue of the mist darkened as harsh streams of blackened ash mixed in.
Ruug Quarnom had seen destruction all her life. As an elite commando of the Neimoidian Defense Legion, she’d dealt with explosives and blasterfire, rockets and shrapnel. And death—so much death, most of it by her own doing courtesy of the custom sniper rifle that felt like an extension of her own limbs.
Murder and destruction. That was her life for so many years, doing the will of her government to carve out a better place for Neimoidians in the galaxy. Even now, in her new “assignment” as a royal guard for Cato Neimoidia’s capital city of Zarra, her goal remained the same: the protection of her people.
Ruug had taken the assignment in good faith, even though she knew it had been for questioning the judgment of the Trade Federation, a perspective considered dissent by those who held much more sway than a military grunt. Such good faith was being challenged right now, in a time when the galaxy dared to rip itself in two.
“Look at that,” said the voice of her young partner next to her. Ketar Nor’s mouth opened, holding a thought in limbo as a thick dull gray began to envelop their craft, visibility coming and going from the cockpit of their patrol ship. “It’s worse than I imagined.”
A steady hand. And open eyes. That was the only way to approach this. Not only for the flight to the surface, but to understand just what had occurred—and why. The call for all available security to go beneath the mist came so fast that Ruug piloted their craft on a direct downward path, leaving the port of a neighboring city and abandoning a scheduled prisoner transfer to plunge through the mist. They hadn’t even been informed of what they were investigating, just that an emergency so catastrophic had occurred that everyone within a two-hundred-kilometer radius was requested—no, ordered—to drop their tasks and go.
Details filled in over comm chatter. A bomb. No, several bombs. A building collapsed—no, an entire plaza.
No. Despite the speculation on the comms, the reality of the situation became clearer with each passing second.
And it was far beyond what anyone could have ever guessed.
An entire portion of the bridge city, the neighborhood known as Cadesura. Blocks and streets of Neimoidian civilization severed within an instant, the structural supports that fastened the district to the rest of Zarra evaporated in a blink.
All those people. All that life, dropped straight downward through the mist of Cato Neimoidia to a sudden violent fate, dirt and rock mashing into alloys and flesh.
Cato Neimoidia is neutral, Ruug thought. Despite the recent chaos of Geonosis, despite the use of Trade Federation battle droids, the war stayed an arm’s length away. Viceroy Nute Gunray led a splinter faction to ally with the Confederacy of Independent Systems; the Trade Federation proper was free from the influence of Count Dooku and his Separatist ideals. Senator Lott Dod made sure of that with his place within the heart of Republic politics.
But here, on the surface, Ruug’s eyes told her everything she needed to know. The twisted shrapnel of once-elegant structures now reduced to cracked and broken material, scattered into countless pieces. As their shuttle approached, the devastation amplified with each passing second. What appeared as a lump of rubble gradually formed into the jagged debris of buildings and bridges; closer still, as Ruug maneuvered the craft for a flat place to land, details came to life.
Not just the destruction of structures. But within the fallen wreckage, bodies. So many bodies, of so many ages, from so many walks of life. Bodies bent into impossible positions, thrown into places they shouldn’t have been due to the chaos of gravity.
And through it all, so much smoke, the massive plume of gray from above breaking down into individual currents of black the farther down they went, streams feeding a river of death. Ruug stepped out, flecks of ash landing on her dark-green skin, and even amid the cool air of the planet’s base, heat poked through in every direction from the endless fires entwining in and through and over what used to be mighty structures.
“Who . . .” Ketar started, swiveling his view all around. He blinked as he took in the horrific possibilities, his mouth open. “How . . .”
Ruug had seen Ketar driven by emotions on the job before, sometimes anger and sometimes fear—fear that he tried to hide, but she knew better. It came with an innocence, the type that only shattered after killing someone. For better or worse, such actions callused over fear, layers thickening with each successive murder. Yet the frozen expression on his face right now displayed his mix of emotions clearly, a grief stemming from a deeper well than he’d ever let on.
“Steady, Ketar,” she said, moving next to him. From a mound of rubble above, arms waved, along with a cry that someone had been found alive. “They need our help.”
“The Republic,” Ketar growled, his long fingers bending into a single shaking grip. “The Republic did this. They’re blaming us for Nute Gunray.”
“We don’t know that. And right now, it doesn’t matter.” Which was wrong, of course. The culprit behind this did matter, and whoever they were, they needed to be brought to justice. But there was a time and place for retribution. “Focus. They called us here to help people. That’s what we need to do.”
Though Ketar faced the team screaming for help above, their pleas seemed invisible to him. Instead, he stared blankly ahead, like everything was a hologram glitching in and out.
But it wasn’t. This was real, any doubt erased by the harsh burns entering her smell glands beneath her eyes. “Ketar,” Ruug said quietly.
“You’re right,” he said, suddenly nodding. His demeanor shifted, his catatonia abruptly swapped for movement with a very swift and direct purpose. The young guard grabbed his bag of medical supplies and ran off, as if a single person with a small case of bacta and synthflesh might make a difference.
Ketar’s youth carried an expected naïveté, an earnest desire to do right by his people. Ruug knew better; an individual had limitations, no matter how dedicated they were. She pulled out a small metallic circle, then clicked a button to generate a holographic map of the region. Around her, other transports landed: medical personnel, security officers, government officials, and people who simply wanted to help. So many of Ruug’s fellow Neimoidians zigged and zagged—some lifting up debris, some screaming into comms for help, and some pacing, head buried in hands. Droids of all sizes soared, a mix of small surveillance units flying in between larger rescue droids that dropped extinguishing chemicals, fire by fire.
No matter which direction she turned, her vision filled with devastation, all on a far greater scale than she could ever remember. She understood Ketar’s urge to dash off with bacta, the feeling that one person might be able to somehow fix all of this.
In a way, Ketar was right. They had to start somewhere.
Because even though Cato Neimoidia was neutral, it had been gravely wounded. And someone had to pay.
Copyright © 2022 by Mike Chen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.