Ruk moved the instant Eman threw the lightning. There was no way he could get there to shove Halron out of the way, but he could stop the blast from killing the man. Sprinting to the edge, he launched himself at the Sith on the other side of the pit.
Landing behind Eman, Ruk started in surprise. Halron was untouched. Filling the air around the man was a yellow-brown energy field. This was blocking Eman’s lightning attack. Ruk recognized the energy.
It was a shield belt.
How Halron even had one, since only the Vor nobility actually used them, Ruk didn’t know. Right then, he didn’t care.
Eman turned the moment Ruk landed beside him. The Sith reached for the lightsaber at Ruk’s belt at the same time Ruk hammered for the Bothan’s floating ribs. Eman grabbed the lightsaber but Ruk was a second faster.
The Sith doubled over in a fit of dry retching. Ruk snatched the lightsaber back, then tried to use it as a club against Eman’s head. The swing missed as Eman stumbled to his left, out of reach. Ruk closed the gap but remembered too late who he fought.
A bolt of Force lightning hit him in the center of his chest.
Every nerve was on fire. The snap of electricity was everywhere. It had become his world. Somewhere, he heard screaming. Then he realized that was coming from him. Somewhere among the pain, Ruk heard voices. Urgent, alarmed and calling his name. Pala? Mira? He wasn’t even sure if it was Halron. It almost sounded like one of the Jedi Masters. Ruk couldn’t focus. There was too much agony.
Then the pain shut off like a switch.
Ruk blinked through tears and at a sea of sand-brown energy around him. Kneeling in front of him was Halron Cote, using his force belt and himself as a living shield against Eman’s lightning. Ruk tried to talk but it tame out a toad’s croak.
“I don’t know what is happening but I know the stories and what you might be, Doctor Griqat! If that’s actually your name,” Halron snapped.
Burned and slightly stunned by both Force lightning and Halron’s unexpected burst of bravery, Ruk almost missed the call over his sputtering comlink.
“Ruk! I saw that! Heading your way!”
Blaster shots interrupted Pala’s next few words, then the signal cleared.
“And I’m coming in hot with the crystal! Oh, I also found the Tleilaxian. All right, no. She sort of found me!”
Ruk groaned, then coughed. If there was a way this could get any worse, he wasn’t sure what that could be.
Lightning crackled around Eman’s hands as he called upon the Dark Side of the Force. At least that’s how Ruk translated what he saw.
Vor shield belts were tough. He’d seen them deflect lightsaber blades and most kinds of energy. They didn’t stop slowly moving objects, which wasn’t a problem right now. However, shield belts had limits. They could be disabled or beaten down like any other shield device. Worst of all, if beaten down, there was a small chance that the power would turn back on itself into its power core.
Then the shield belt would detonate with the force of a photon torpedo. Ruk was betting Force lightning might cause just that result.
“Halron,” Ruk croaked.
Every inch of his throat felt raw, but he wasn’t done yet. No. Not now. Something inside him refused. He slid his hand into a compartment of his utility belt and gripped a small cylinder. He had a few tricks left.
Lightning cracked again, playing over Halron’s shield. The brown energy danced in time with the Force lightning. Behind it, he heard Eman screech with rage.
“My shield belt is holding,” Halron explained rapidly. “But I don’t know its tolerance levels against mystical lightning.”
Ruk nodded, but regretted the motion. Pain danced over every nerve, squeezing a gargled cry out of him. Clenching his jaw, Ruk pushed past the pain and shoved himself upright. Confused, Halron helped out of instinct. Beyond Halron, Ruk saw Eman stalking across the width of the catwalk toward them. The next bolt of Force lightning would be at point blank range.
“When I say ‘move’, dodge left,” Ruk explained. “Pala get ready,” he continued.
Lightning danced around Eman’s fingers.
Halron answered with a quick nod.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“Something new. Pala! Drop Trooper Two-step!”
Ruk heard Pala chuckle. The sound was like a balm to his nerves. Meanwhile, through the faceplate of his rescue squad helmet, Halron shot Ruk a puzzled look. The clone shook his head at the man as the comlink crackled.
“Ready!” Pala replied with a backdrop of blaster fire.
To his right, Ruk saw Pala racing toward them. Five yards behind her, Rhia was firing rapidly, filling the air with blaster shot.
Ruk let out a slow, burning breath. It felt like the galaxy had folded in on itself to focus on this one point in time.
Behind Halron, Eman was not even a meter away. The Sith strolled with short, methodical steps. Lightning snapped and writhed around the end of the man’s arms like starving, deranged snakes.
Ruk coughed. He just needed two more seconds.
“Just a little closer, you murderous bastard,” Ruk muttered in a hoarse voice. “Fifteen people died here because of you. This is for them.”
“I gave you a chance, Ruk.”
Eman’s voice was unnaturally calm. Icy.
“But since you turned it down, I can’t let you or anyone else here talk.”
“Eman?” Ruk croaked.
This stopped the Sith short. Eman hesitated.
Eman’s face turned dark, his eyes shifting from yellow to blood red as Force lightning leaped around him.
“Halron, now!” Ruk ordered.
Halron threw himself to the side. Ruk staggered forward, hefting the small cylinder up to point one round end at Eman.
It was Ruk’s tactical glowrod.
Flicking the ‘on’ switch, he pointed the high-intensity beam directly in Eman’s face. The Bothan shrieked at the light streaming into his eyes. He staggered back a step.
The pain from moving was intense. Ruk felt both lightheaded and sick from the attempt. But he wasn’t done. It wasn’t over. Not yet. Ruk let out a roar and slammed a kick into Eman’s mid-section.
The Sith dropped to the catwalk like a stone from orbit, gasping.
Still, Ruk continued to yell, pushing through the pain. Everything hurt. It all hurt so much. But his yell had turned into his war cry against an uncaring galaxy.
Ruk spun toward Pala, took aim, then fired the whipcord from his gauntlet. Pala was there to meet the end after it crossed the pit in the catwalk.
Grabbing the end of the line, she let the device yank her up and forward. With the grace of a dancer, she arced through the air. On the catwalk, Eman reached over and yanked the lightsaber off Ruk’s belt. The Sith stumbled to his feet and ignited the blade.
Pala landed on Eman’s back with the force of a meteor.
The Sith was barely face down on the catwalk before Pala went to work. Years of combat training erupted into a tempest of pain for the Sith. Eman tried to roll over to bring his lightsaber into the fight, but Halron joined in, yanking the weapon away. The thin scientist stepped back, holding the device at a distance from himself by two fingers, and grimaced.
Across the pit, on the other section of catwalk, Rhia opened fire. Halron’s shield lit up as it soaked the blaster shot.
“Pala! Crystal!” Ruk said.
Pala tossed the khyber crystal to Ruk. He spared it a single glance. Such a small thing that had caused so much pain and death. But it also represented such a huge advancement in science. Especially if Eman hadn’t been lying that the khyber crystal had somehow recorded any part of the ‘hyperspace rift generation’ device design.
The possibility of opening and maintaining a stable hyperspace rift for any ship, possibly going anywhere. A hyperspace gate. Time crawled for Ruk as the crystal glittered in his hand.
It could change the galaxy forever.
He hurled the thing into the path of the mentat’s next shot.
The instant the blaster bolt struck, the crystal erupted with the force of a thermal detonator. Hot energy flashed through the test chamber. No one was left standing.
Flat on his back, Ruk watched the sputtering sensor feed in his battered armor. The Force lightning had shorted out several systems, but his tactical display was reliable as always. Pala and Halron were already slowly moving. Eman and Rhia? They registered as alive but were semi-conscious.
Now that the device was powered down, and without the khyber crystal or the persistent hyperspace rift, the cronau radiation bands dissolved like warm fog. Ruk’s tactical display sputtered once, then registered a dozen figures rushing down the hallway toward the test chamber. At their head was Mira Vorwan, the no holds barred heir to House Vorwan.
Ruk relaxed, easing back until the back of his helmet touched the brutalized catwalk that somehow had remained intact.
They had survived.
They had won.
Now, it was over.