Chapter 1

Obi-Wan Kenobi stood perfectly still. He sensed no movement in the darkened room, yet his muscles were tensed, ready for attack. The only light came from the glowing blue blade of his lightsaber. The only discernable sounds were the hum of the blade and the Jedi’s almost undetectable breathing. Obi-Wan had been standing in the same position, balanced on a thin rail, for nearly an hour. Still, he waited.

Suddenly Qui-Gon’s voice penetrated the silence, breaking Obi-Wan concentration. A message from his Master over the comlink was not what Obi-Wan had expected. Momentarily distracted, he almost missed the stealth-training probe moving rapidly toward his head. That was what he had been waiting for.

Obi-Wan turned awkwardly on the slim rail and sliced the probe out of the air. Leaping high to another unseen rail, he knocked out two more probes. A moment later the lights in the room came on and the young Jedi deactivated his lightsaber.

Obi-Wan shook his head. The exercise was complete, but the seventeen-year-old Jedi was not pleased with his performance.

“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan replied to Qui-Gon over the comlink.

“We’ve been summoned by the Council. Meet me there.”

“Of course,” Obi-Wan replied. Hope sprang within him. Perhaps the Council had at last summoned them for a mission. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had spent the last two months at the Temple. It was always a relief to come home when a mission was complete, but Obi-Wan did not like to stay too long.

Being a Jedi was constant work. And somehow the dedication, energy, and patience it required seemed to intensify when Obi-Wan was at the Temple, when he wasn’t working toward a mission’s specific objective.

Jedi never stopped learning. But after endless training exercises, Obi-Wan could feel his focus begin to slip. He should not have been so clumsy with the training probes. He should have been prepared for anything. He was growing bored, and that was dangerous.

Outside the Council Chambers, Obi-Wan spotted his Master’s large frame. Even with his back turned, Obi-Wan could sense that Qui-Gon shared none of his eager anticipation, his anxiety. As always his Master exuded calm. Qui-Gon was almost always content with training and meditation alone. Why did Obi-Wan crave action?

Qui-Gon smiled and nodded at his approaching Padawan before activating the door and entering the chamber. A half step behind, Obi-Wan followed as Qui-Gon strode to the center of the room and acknowledged the seated Masters.

Obi-Wan’s pulse quickened slightly. But it was nothing like the nervousness he used to feel when summoned to appear before the Council.

Mace Windu leaned back in his chair, his arm draped across the back. “We’ve received a message from Vorzyd 4,” he said plainly. “They report that they are being sabotaged by Vorzyd 5 and have requested mediation. The planets in the Vorzyd system have never been engaged in war of any kind. But tensions have been brewing between the fourth and fifth planets. All of the planets are interdependent and a dispute between two could trigger a chain reaction, disrupting the whole cluster. Clearly this is something we wish to avoid.”

“So the situation is delicate,” Obi-Wan finished Master Windu’s thought and immediately regretted it. It would not do to reveal his impatience to the Council.

“Very,” Mace continued, appearing to notice neither Obi-Wan’s eagerness nor his interruption. “And to make matters more complicated, Vorzyd 5 denies any wrongdoing.”

“Before you can bring these planets together to talk you will need to assess the matter carefully,” Master Yarael Poof added. “There may be more at stake here than meets the eye.”

Obi-Wan saw Qui-Gon nod slowly, and knew that their work would begin before they even left the Temple. He had heard of the Vorzyd cluster before, but only in passing. The next step was a visit to the Temple archives. Mediation required a good deal of research and background knowledge. The Jedi would have to be prepared for any possible conflict.

Jocasta Nu was ready when the Jedi arrived. She spent most of her time pulling research for Jedi missions. Although she was regularly briefed by a member of the Council as to what planets or systems might soon require Jedi assistance, her ability to access just the right time was uncanny. She could almost always sense the moment when a brewing problem was about to boil over.

The viewsceen in the archives was playing a recorded communication from Chairman Port, the leader of Vorzyd 4, when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon entered the room. Jocasta quickly shut it off.

“Sending you to Vorzyd 4, are they?” she asked with a chuckle. “I’m sure that will be a productive trip.” Obi-Wan did not get the joke. But as Jocasta told them more about the Vorzyd 4’s, he began to understand.

The small planet was best known for its amazing production and sale of goods. Alone, Vorzyd 4 produced almost all of the food and hard goods used by the five planets in its system.

“All of the inhabitants of Vorzyd 4 work,” Jocasta explained. “Children begin working at the age of ten, when their school cycle wanes. Instead of attending school seven days they attend six and work one. Each year thereafter they gain another day of work until the age of seventeen, when they begin to work full-time. From then they work seven days a week.” Jocasta narrowed her eyes. Obi-Wan thought he sensed disapproval. Even Jedi rested sometimes.

“At age seventy, laborers are required to retire,” Jocasta continued. “Vorzydiaks fear that the elderly will not be able to keep up with the work pace. Sadly, most of the retirees die within a few weeks of being forced out of their jobs. The cause of these deaths is unknown. Most retirees are in good health until they are forced to stop working.”

Obi-Wan glanced at his Master to see what he thought of this practice. Qui-Gon was in his fifties, and Obi-Wan could not imagine that anyone would think of him as anything other than productive. And Master Yoda was over eight hundred years old. It was unthinkable that he be asked to retire. His wisdom was one of the Council’s most valuable assets.

The thought of someone asking these Jedi to step down made Obi-Wan smile, but Qui-Gon shot him a stern look and he quickly checked himself.

Of course, Vorzydiaks on Vorzyd 4 were unique beings with unique life cycles and cultural practices. Although they looked mostly human — their bodies were humanoid but they had a pair of long antennae and slightly larger eyes — Obi-Wan knew better than to judge them by any other beings’ standards.

“What of Vorzyd 5?” Qui-Gon asked. “And the tensions between the two planets?”

“Vorzyd 5 produces less than half of its planetary needs and depends largely on trade with Vorzyd 4 for its subsistence. In the past they struggled and were often in debt to Vorzyd 4, though relations between the two have remained peaceful and friendly. Debt did not matter to the 4’s because they had a constant surplus. Neither were the 5’s troubled that they owed so many credits to their neighbor. But now things have changed.”

“How so?” asked Obi-Wan.

“Vorzyd 5 had begun building casinos. The profit they’ve made has allowed them to pay off many of their interplanetary debts.”

“And they are no longer beholden to Vorzyd 4,” Qui-Gon said softly.

“Exactly. Vorzyd 4 claims that Vorzyd 5 now wants to be the planet in power. That they are sabotaging Vorzyd 4’s production in order to appear stronger to the rest of the galaxy. Vorzyd 5, of course, claims this is nonsense. And the continued accusations are making them very angry.”

Handing Qui-Gon a stack of disks, Jocasta replayed Chairman Port’s message. The large man on the screen looked uncomfortable, but his plea was direct.

“I am contacting you to request mediation. We are being attacked. Vorzyd 5 is to blame. All diplomats and suspected spies have been expelled. The sabotage continues. Please contact us at once.” As he talked, the ends of Chairman Port’s antennae moved about like birds looking for a place to land.

“It is unusual that the chairman has contacted us,” Jocasta said once the image had disappeared from the screen. “In the past Vorzydiaks have had little contact with the galaxy outside their cluster. They were even reluctant to have representation in the Senate. The fact that they have requested outside help can only mean that they feel their situation is desperate.”

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan thanked the archivist and left with stacks of additional information to review on their own. Obi-Wan did not relish the task. This mission, he realized, would not provide the action he craved. The Vorzyd system sounded dull, and diplomacy was often a long and tedious process. Obi-Wan sighed and inwardly scolded himself. He knew he should be grateful for any mission. At least it was a change.