Today was going to be a good day for the Jedi.
Jedi Knight Cal Kestis was going to make certain of that.
Sure, it was possible that he was one of maybe only two Jedi left.
But those Jedi? They were going to have a good day.
“Hey, buddy, things looking clear?” Cal asked, his voice reverberating in his ears inside his helmet. From his back, Cal heard two little taps from his droid, BD-1’s way of communicating with him while on a stealth mission. Cal could hear BD-1’s trills via comms, but sound was risky while sneaking and the droid often preferred to communicate by a more rapid and tactile method, knowing the rest of the crew couldn’t understand him anyway. “Thanks, Beedee. Have I told you lately you’re the best?”
A pause. Then:
Cal laughed. “Well, this is me telling you. I won’t slack off on it again.”
A damn good day.
Which wasn’t usually the case, when a guy was crouched on a small, fast-moving space rock hurtling around a large asteroid in the middle of deep space, but Cal’s life wasn’t usual, and he preferred it that way. Kitted out in a full space suit, Cal took stock of his surroundings, breathing in recycled air slowly and steadily so as not to waste it. The orbital debris field circling the asteroid was dense; Cal had to make his way, leaping shard by rocky shard, each one a step closer to the main asteroid at its center, a massive excavated rock, home to the Haxion Brood base Cal and his crew were currently attempting to infiltrate. Ironic, considering the last time Cal had been around a Brood base he’d been trying to break out of it. That time, he’d been captured. This time, the better move was to get someone on the rock first in order to disable the security systems so that nothing would pick up the Stinger Mantis, Cal’s ship, entering from orbit.
And the best way to do that was for someone to hop, from tiny rock to tiny rock, all the way down to the surface of the big rock. From one moving asteroid to the next, flying through space without a tether.
Taking a deep breath, squinting his eyes in concentration, Cal bent his knees before pushing off from the craggy rock beneath his boots.
It didn’t take much out here. One jump, and Cal was—airborne wasn’t the right word, without atmosphere or air to be found. It was more like floating. Different from flying, entirely; when Cal pushed himself into the air with the Force, he always felt that swoop in his stomach, the familiar lurch of his still-very-human body alerting him to the fact that he was far, far too high above land for good sense. But out here in space, this felt more like swimming, forward propulsion, his body with no concept of up or down, right or wrong, too high or too low. Forward, floating, only.
He missed the little swoop.
Cal aimed himself toward the next fragment asteroid, soaring straight for it with purpose. Slowly but surely.
The first time his master, Jaro Tapal, had taken Cal out into space, he’d told his Padawan: Once you set something to motion in space, it will continue to move in exactly that way—the same direction, and at the same speed—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
Today, for whatever it meant, Cal was that unbalanced force.
Arms straight out in front of him, Cal’s hands scrabbled for purchase the second they made contact with the next floating fragment. Cal’s impact sent the little asteroid, and him, spinning. He hung on for dear life until, after what felt like ten minutes but was surely just a few seconds, BD engaged Cal’s gription boots and, magnetically driven, they came slamming forward into the rock, stabilizing the Jedi.
Cal had—in polite company, he would say “rescued”—these boots off a Haxion Brood bounty hunter, part of a kit the hunter would no longer be needing after Cal and Merrin had dealt with him. The boots were one of the best salvages Cal and his crew had made to date.
Shakily, Cal let go of the rock and slowly returned to a standing position. He was glad this was his second-to-last jump. He was used to swinging around from handhold to handhold, making giant leaps of faith first as he worked as a scrapper back on Bracca and then as he infiltrated one shady Imperial facility or another over the years, but for some contrarian reason, the pull of gravity was a comfort to Cal. Did it mean, if he missed a jump or his climbing claws failed him, that he’d go plummeting to the ground in almost certain death? Sure. A little bit, probably. But it also meant that he wouldn’t be condemned to die floating away alone in the void until he became a dried-out but freakishly well-preserved Jedicicle.
That was way, way worse.
“Did you live?” Merrin’s voice crackled to life over Cal’s comms. Her accent and often wry way of speaking made the question come off glib, like she didn’t really care about the answer one way or another.
“Did you hear something, Beedee?” Cal asked his droid rhetorically, knowing Merrin well enough to know that the sound of his voice over comms would be enough of an answer to satisfy Merrin’s sarcastic but still genuine query. “Sounded almost like . . . someone who was worried about us?” he added in a sing-songy voice.
“Must have been your imagination,” Merrin responded contemplatively. There was a beat of silence as though she were deep in thought. “Yes, next time we’re hard up for credits we’ll just drop you in a cantina. You’ll survive.”
“Hey,” a voice interrupted—Greez. “If anybody’s gonna be makin’ tips for their looks around here, it’s me. You quadrupeds don’t appreciate what a catch I am to those with real taste out there.”
A flurry of taps was the response from Cal’s back. He made sure to momentarily turn off his comms before he let out his laughter.
“If we’re done, crew”—Cere’s more cere-ious (Cal’s favorite way of thinking of his mentor and Jedi Master) voice commanded attention, even over the comms—“Cal, how long until you make landfall and can grant us access?”
Back to business, then. Always.
Now on the precipice of entering the Brood base, Cal took another moment to survey the situation in front of him. This wasn’t a typical mission; none of the Mantis crew’s exploits were, he supposed. But even for them, this was a bit of a reach.
He stood on a small, spinning rock in the middle of open space, surrounded by the debris of a ruined planet. What was once, Cal had been told, a verdant, bright home to millions had been chewed up and spit out at the hands of one Empire or corporation or another; it was hard to keep track, after a point. What remained were only the fragments of what once was, shards and dust and islands in the void, orbiting the former planet’s solid-iron core.
It was the core Cal set his sights on now, directly above him—the core, and the Haxion Brood base dug directly into it, surrounded by a hastily assembled outer ring with an assortment of hastily assembled shacks and market stalls, and covered by a vacuum-proof bubble of shielding, with sensors to detect ships of any size.
But not, conveniently, to detect anything human-sized that happened to be equipped with a jetpack.
Or in Cal’s case, equipped with enough foolhardy bravery to float in without one.
Greez had explained the mechanics of the base’s sensor system during a pre-mission briefing. The shield’s sensor field swept the asteroid just fast enough to detect anything bigger than a person, but just slow enough to allow bounty hunters individual access to their base without being monitored.
But the Mantis crew were the best at what they did. And they were doing it right now.
And that’s why Cal was having such a damn good day.
“Eyes on the landing pad,” Cal responded to Cere. “Launching in three—two—”
For the—blessedly—last time today, after what had felt like hours of leaping from rock to rock across the asteroid belt, Cal felt BD disengage his boots and he pushed off from the final rock, launching himself straight up. He experienced a brief moment of disorientation approaching the base headfirst: Up was down and down was up and did anything really matter in space? This was why Cal preferred gravity.
“Greez, you better be right about this,” Cal muttered, mostly to himself, but without turning off his comms, as his head approached the magnetic shield at a rapid pace.
He felt his helmet make contact with the shield bubble and, for just a second, he felt resistance—like when you pushed on Greez’s infamous Gelatin Surprise (the surprise was that it was full of salt) and it kind of, weirdly, pushed back. But it was only for a moment, and then Cal was through.
And suddenly there was his old friend, gravity, to meet him.
Copyright © 2023 by Sam Maggs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.