The Cathleen glided through hyperspace like a shark in the oceans of Mon Calamari. The ship was far too large to ever be silent, but it was relatively calm after the horrific, days-long battle at Coruscant.
Halyn’s quarters aboard the Cathleen were the largest available. It still bothered him, after all these years; he’d rather have been down crammed in a bunk, surrounded by dozens of pilots in the same condition. Looking back, his time as a fighter pilot for the Rebel Alliance had been relatively short, but it left indelible marks on him.
The Zabrak stood in the center of his quarters, surrounded by a massive hologram of the galaxy. It stretched in detail from one end of the open space to the other, filling it entirely. The stars were not their natural colors; instead of the brilliant white light, each of them carried their own tones and shades.
The New Republic stood in brilliant blue. The stars and even the space between them glimmered with the friendly color, stretching from the Outer Rim to the Core worlds. Many of these worlds, the Zabrak knew, he’d never visit, couldn’t name, had no connection for him whatsoever; yet he counted them as friends and allies.
The north-western quadrant of the galaxy gleamed golden. They were former enemies of Iridonia. The Imperial Remnant was a fraction of the power that the Galactic Empire had once represented, and politically was nothing similar to the Empire that had stood twenty years before. Even now, though, Halyn did not trust them. Too many deaths, too many battles, too much treachery would ever allow him to count them as friends and allies.
The Hapes cluster, allies of the New Republic and fellow warriors against the Yuuzhan Vong, stood as violet specks. Sixty-three worlds comprised Hapes, but far more star systems stretched between—uninhabited, but claimed and exploited by the Hapans for their wealth and resources. They, too, Halyn counted among those he trusted.
Zabrak space was represented in silver. Iridonia had spread its reach early and quickly. The harsh homeworld had inspired many a Zabrak to look to the stars, and colonies had spread quickly, to the limitations of the early hyperdrives and navigational systems. Officially, Zabrak space consisted of the home world and capital, Iridonia, with another twenty fully-established colonies. Twice that number, perhaps, were not yet self-sustaining colonies, and thus not individually counted.
But through the map cut deep streaks of crimson. The Yuuzhan Vong had entered at the northern quadrant of the galaxy, spreading along the Outer Rim. Hutt-controlled space, once a burning yellow on the galactic map, now was entirely eclipsed by the sea of red.
Then the Yuuzhan Vong had struck towards the Core systems, quickly crossing the Mid and Inner Rim, and striking through the Colonies almost unopposed. They had chosen their routes well, taking advantage of political divisions to chart their invasion corridors, always adhering to the seams of government entities.
The Yuuzhan Vong advance along the Imperial Remnant, just inside the border on the side of the New Republic, had left Zabrak space untouched. Advances from the eastern edge of the galaxy had similarly left the Zabrak nation unmolested. The Yuuzhan Vong had similarly avoided Hapan space, even though a Hapan armada had participated in the battle at Fondor.
The map finally updated, and the crimson of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion stretched all the way to Coruscant, cutting across hyperlanes and strangling trade between the stars.
In a flash of insight, Halyn understood. They left Zabrak space, the Hapans, and dozens of other small bodies alone all for the same reason. We could defend ourselves against an invasion. Sure, if they threw overwhelming forces at Iridonia, at Hapes, at the Corporate Sector, at the Remnant, they could overcome…but it would take time. Time enough for the New Republic to respond in force and fight a pitched battle that meant a conquest wasn’t certain.
Now the galaxy is torn apart and in pieces. Their invasion corridors have bisected our hyperlanes, and with Coruscant fallen the New Republic government is in disarray. The fleets are scattered. They’ll take advantage, now, to strike everywhere against those of us who were strong enough to stand with the New Republic’s backing.
With the New Republic is in disarray, the Vong will take advantage of it to wipe out these small pockets of independent resistance. With the Fleet scattered, a concerted effort could destroy any of us. It’ll take weeks, or months, before the New Republic government is firm enough to take up the reins of power again and direct the fleets.
Iridonia will be attacked, and soon.
The lights rose in the room and hologram shimmered and vanished. “Maybe I’m wrong,” he pondered aloud. But I’m not. I just can’t prove it until the Yuuzhan Vong are knocking at our door.
But that doesn’t mean I just stand by and wait for that to happen.
He moved to the spacious desk that occupied a corner of the room. The terminal there flickered to life when he touched the power controls, and Halyn keyed in a request for hypercomm access. He pondered his options for a few moments. There are lots of old allies I can count on, he considered. Plenty of people who could help me secure Iridonia against an initial invasion attempt without calling on the Zabrak units reinforcing the New Republic Defense Fleet.
A small smile tugged at Halyn’s lips as he made the decision, then entered the hypercomm destination.
Kelta Rose had found a quiet spot in the shadows of the Mon Mothma’s secondary hangar to meditate. She badly needed the moments to focus and find her mental shields. The remaining Jedi X-wings and blastboats occupied the berthing space; Antilles had given the entire area over to the Jedi for now.
The Force strengthened her, and slowly the roar of the emotions of the Star Destroyer’s crew began to fade from her mind. As minutes passed, the Jedi Knight found her mind was completely her own again. She breathed deeply, in and out, carefully maintaining her mental defenses.
It had been years since Kelta had begun her training in the Force. This was the second major war she had fought in, and still she was so…sensitive. It was her gift and her curse. The native of Nam Chorios had always, always been able to feel the emotions of those around her. She had learned to block those unwanted emotions out, locking them away; in times of stress, particularly battle, she couldn’t always maintain the concentration necessary to keep them away and still fight.
Now, even with her shields in place, she could feel the emotions of the crew battering away at her defenses. Raw pain was prevalent in the medical bays of the mighty warship; fighting the Yuuzhan Vong had left crew and pilots injured and maimed. The cloying scent of fatigue permeated the entire vessel, from General Antilles on the Mon Mothma’s bridge to the lowest crewman scrubbing carbon scoring off the deck of the primary hangar.
There was anger among many of the crewmembers. Anger towards the Yuuzhan Vong was understandable, though Kelta did not indulge in it. What surprised her, though, was the anger she felt directed towards the New Republic’s government. Many a member of the crew felt the government had failed them. The three fleets had fought and bled and died, not just at Coruscant but from the Rim all the way to the Core. Mismanagement of the war from the very beginning had cost them the capital of the galaxy.
Sorrow was an undercurrent to everything she sensed. Virtually everyone aboard the Destroyer had lost friends or family in the hours previously. Kelta could sense that many of the other emotions she felt sprung from that sense of loss. She suspected it would strengthen as the enormity of the disaster finally sunk in among the fleet.
And from a handful of people, she felt pure determination. It shone like a beacon among the dark and depressed emotions of the crew. She focused on that, allowing it past her defenses to strengthen her, just as she would allow the Force in for the same purpose. Her mind sharpened and cleared, and she felt a measure of resolve herself.
Finally feeling balanced, the Jedi woman opened her eyes and rose to her feet. Her knees cracked as she did so, and she winced for a moment. Kelta was no longer a young woman; years had passed since she fought against the Galactic Empire, and her daughter was now a woman and Jedi Knight in her own stead.
Kelta shied away from that line of thought. She had a mother’s worry for her daughter, Adreia. Pride, yes—few could become Jedi Knights, and it was a difficult life. Fear tried to edge into her thoughts right beside it. Adreia had been in Coruscant space as well during the fall, acting as an advisor for one of the task force commanders.
And I still haven’t heard from Adreia since the retreat. With that thought, Kelta knew she couldn’t avoid the fear she was feeling; it would eat away at her defenses far more effectively than the overwhelming noise of the crew’s emotion. It was personal, and her own defenses were no match for it.
She released the worry to the Force and closed her eyes again. The Force will bring her back to me. There’s nothing I can do about it now.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw Rigard Matl striding towards her across the Mon Mothma’s hangar deck. His sense of purpose was a beacon in the Force that Kelta grasped for a moment to maintain her focus.
The leader of the Shockers waved the various pilots and Jedi in the hangar together. Kelta was among the first to step forward to form the circle around the heavily scarred man. Rigard Matl had flown for the Empire for years before defecting to the Rebel Alliance. He had survived dozens of battles, though not without personal cost. Kelta idly wondered how many of his limbs and organs were original, and how many were mechanical replacements.
As the circle filled, Rigard started to speak. “I’ve spoken with Master Skywalker and General Antilles. We’re currently on our way to Borleias.”
There were more than a few murmurs at that. The Yuuzhan Vong invasion of Coruscant had launched from Borleias, which was itself an important navigation point for traffic to and from Coruscant. Decades prior, the Rebel Alliance had conquered it for the very same purpose.
“I don’t know what our overall strategic goals will be,” Rigard continued, “but when we arrive in-system, we’re going to crush whatever defenses the Vong have setup. General Antilles wants Borleias held firm while High Command regroups and lays out new strategic objectives. No one expected us to lose Coruscant; now that we have, all the previous strategic plans are out the window.”
“We’re hardly at fighting strength,” someone commented. Kelta couldn’t see who had made the remark.
“We’re going to reorganize. Master Skywalker will have the details, but apparently General Antilles is taking his orders to cooperate with the Jedi very seriously. If any of you who are ex-military want to join one of the regular fighter squadrons, General Antilles will accept the request immediately. His fighter coordinator, Colonel Celchu, is reorganizing most of the squadrons in the Fleet until we can get enough replacement pilots to swell the ranks out to support more squadrons.”
There were fewer murmurs this time, but the concern was greater. Kelta felt it herself. How many people did we lose at Coruscant in our attempt to keep the Yuuzhan Vong off? And…how many people did we leave behind?
And her fear again dredged up the image of Adreia in her mind’s eye. Kelta shut her eyes, then tried to release the fear again. Adreia…oh, Adreia…
The Star Cruiser Cathleen reverted from hyperspace precisely as expected, smartly executing a turn to port that put it into geosynchronous orbit around Iridonia. Smaller vessels made the same reversion and maneuver—corvettes, frigates, converted freighters, and the light cruiser Cyclone. Starfighter squadrons poured from the hangars of many of the ships, and shuttles departed almost immediately for the planetary surface.
Halyn Sanshir stood on the bridge of the Cathleen, overlooking the defenses arrayed around his homeworld. It’s not enough, he told himself. It would never be enough…but it could be more. Better.
The wreckage of an old Imperial II-class Star Destroyer still hung in orbit, further out from Iridonia than the positions the Zabrak fleet had taken up. The vessel had been crippled and abandoned during the a strike by Rebel forces under Halyn’s command twenty-some years prior, a strike that had broken the Imperial blockade around the world and provided an opportunity for Iridonia’s covert resistance to rise up and throw off the Imperial shackles.
He smiled faintly at that. It’s too bad we couldn’t afford to refit it, bring it into service. It would’ve been more powerful than anything else we managed to acquire. His smile vanished. Particularly now.
The defenses of Zabrak space had been built largely by his brother, Argus. While Halyn had become an Alliance officer, Argus Sanshir had chosen to work on Iridonia, building up and leading one of the planet’s greatest resistance groups. When the Alliance starfighter wing commanded by Halyn had broken the blockade, it was Argus who had led the Iridonian Resistance to victory on the planet. It was Argus who had ensured the Imperials would never again hold power.
And when Halyn had left the armed services, it was Argus who had rebuilt the Zabrak military. Not just the defenses of Iridonia; Argus had chosen to defend all of Zabrak space.
Towards that end, the elder Sanshir brother had salvaged capital ships, purchased starfighters, arranged for flight and officer academies, refurbished orbital stations to support the fledgling Zabrak navy. When the New Republic began decommissioning old warships from the Rebellion in favor of new ships of the line, Argus had successfully acquired three Mon Calamari Star Cruisers—luxury liners retrofitted with multiple-redundancy shields and turbolasers. The Cathleen, Maria, and Yali had not begun their existence as warships, but they served the role well.
Zabrak technicians had refitted the ships yet again when they entered their new service. Turbolasers and shields were refitted, hyperdrives and sublight engines were upgraded, life support systems and entire control consoles were tuned for Zabrak standards, and the Cathleen was refitted with gravity well projectors. The curves of a Mon Calamari cruiser were well-suited to hide the tell-tale domes of the projectors, and a pocket interdictor would certainly give the Zabrak navy more options.
Halyn pressed his lips together in a firm line. The Yali had been destroyed early on in the invasion; Obroa-skai had begged for defenses, and Iridonia had responded. In the wake of the disaster, the civilians governing the Zabrak territories had become far more cautious about lending any outsiders military firepower.
As the Yuuzhan Vong began pressing into the Core worlds, Argus—the commander-in-chief of the entire Zabrak military—had led a task force consisting of nearly half the capital ships in Zabrak space to reinforce the Republic at the military base at Reecee. Aboard the Maria, Argus was confident that the Yuuzhan Vong would be stalled there long enough for the New Republic to reinforce against any incursions.
Reecee had fallen in the weeks before Coruscant. Using new organic jammers of some sort—Halyn didn’t pretend to understand the Yuuzhan Vong’s biotechnology—the defenders had never been able to call for help. Only the Errant Venture had escaped from Reecee, to the secret Jedi stronghold, to carry word of the fall of one of the routes to Coruscant.
Now Halyn stood aboard the last remaining Star Cruiser in all of Zabrak space, in Argus’s position as commander of the Zabrak navy. Perhaps a third of Iridonia’s naval strength remained from the outbreak of war several years previously. And now, if I’m right, every world, every colony in the Zabrak territory is depending on me to stop the thrust of the Yuuzhan Vong.
He turned his gaze from the drifting wreck of a Star Destroyer to the vessels sharing the Cathleen’s orbit. “Open a channel to the fleet,” he said quietly.
While he waited, Halyn wished silently. I wish Argus were here. This is his fleet, his battle. He died and left his duties to me, to the person he could trust to pick them up and fight. And this is a fight I don’t think we can win. Of our three cruisers, the weakest remains. Our best and most experienced pilots have died fighting the Yuuzhan Vong from the Rim to the Core. Our navy isn’t shattered, but it’s been reduced. Coruscant is fallen, and help is not coming from the New Republic.
The only thing standing between the Zabrak nation and oblivion are these few people.
The Zabrak woman manning the comm station looked up at him and nodded a go-ahead.
“This is General Sanshir aboard the Cathleen,” Halyn said evenly. “And the Yuuzhan Vong are coming.
“Several years ago, these invaders entered our galaxy as warriors and conquerors. The New Republic was caught off-guard, unprepared for an invasion in force from beyond their borders. In the years since the peace treaty with the Imperial Remnant, the Republic had lost its military edge. It had become complacent.
“Zabrak blood has been spilled across a thousand worlds, from one of our squadrons aboard the Rejuvenator, to the frigate Mireth at Ithor, to the Yali and the Maria, and even defending the capital of Coruscant. Our race has fought and been blooded in trying to turn these invaders aside.
“Now, they will come here, to Iridonia! The New Republic has failed, the Jedi have proven too few, and they will come to destroy us here. Because we are a threat to them! And we are a threat to them because we are warriors! We will not let our worlds fall without a fight. We will not concede our homes, our lives, our children’s lives to satisfy their blood lust. We will fight them to the last Zabrak, be it with broken zhabokas or bare-hands.
“Prepare yourselves for what is to come. It may take hours, or days, or weeks, but they are coming. And we will not allow our world to fall.”
Kelta fed power to her X-wing’s four fusial thrust engines, following her shield trio leader out of the main hangar of the Mon Mothma. She was already deeply in tune with the Force, feeling its ebb and flow, carrying the emotions and instincts of her wingmates to her. Neither of them were sensitive to the Force, but she could feel enough for all three of them.
Ahead of her trio, Luke Skywalker blazed like a beacon in the Force. Tucked in on either side of him, dimmer presences but nonetheless powerful, were Mara Jade Skywalker and Corran Horn, Jedi as well. Kelta forced herself to focus only her wingmates, afraid that the sharper, clearer presences of her fellow Jedi would distract her.
Far ahead of them, hanging in space like a brilliant jewel, was Borleias: one of the keys to Coruscant, occupied by the Yuuzhan Vong. And we’re going to take it back.
On instinct she tucked in close to Rigard Matl, leading the trio. The third X-wing, piloted by Cheriss ke Hanadi, slid in neatly, all three starfighters overlapping defenses. Kelta hadn’t flown with Cheriss before today; while Kelta and Rigard had flown with the Shockers, Cheriss had flown with the Jedi’s Saber Squadron before the battle of Coruscant.
Now the shattered squadrons had been melded together into a new unit, Twin Suns Squadron. The formation of X-wings was looser than Kelta was used to after the intense drilling the Jedi had undergone before the battle at Talfaglio; it would take time for the pilots to become acquainted with new wingmates.
Kelta felt her wingmates’ alertness and checked her own scopes. Two coralskippers were maneuvering to intercept the X-wing squadron. “S-foils to attack position,” Master Skywalker said from the front of the formation. “First and third trios, take the leader, the rest on the wingmate. Fire at will.” Kelta’s hands functioning without conscious thought, the fighter’s stabilizers locking open as her craft slipped out just far enough around Rigard to fire without hitting him.
“They’re not engaging,” Twin Suns Eleven called. “Turning to pursue.”
Rigard led his two wingmates around to chase the trailing coralskipper down. All three X-wings opened fire, but the skip positioned a void to start drinking in the incoming damage.
“Negative, break off,” Skywalker ordered. “Do not engage. Twin Suns, turn to original course and form up on Record Time. Mon Mothma, these skips are yours.”
Rigard led the trio around. “Wish he’d make up his mind,” the former TIE pilot grumbled. The trio of X-wings moved into position over the Record Time, a medium freighter loaded with troops for the ground assault. The shield trio took the high station over the Record Time as the Skywalker’s trio took point, and the other two trios moved low to port and to starboard.
Kelta remained as quiet as Cheriss, watching her sensors as coralskipper squadrons rose from the surface of the planet to meet the attacking New Republic forces. Further out, other starfighter squadrons—X-wings, A-wings, E-wings, A-9s, even TIE fighters—formed up to cover other transports and the smaller warships in Antilles’ fleet.
Only seconds remained before they would be fully embroiled in starfighter combat. Skywalker’s voice came over the comm again: “Break and engage, cover the transport.”
“Looks ugly,” Cheriss commented from Twin Suns Six.
“At least I’ve got the best-looking wingmates in the Fleet,” Rigard joked. “You two can burn down any ugly we run into.”
Then the coralskippers were on them, and Kelta found herself hanging tightly with Rigard. Molten projectiles slammed into the combined defenses of the three X-wings but failed to penetrate, and the return laserfire was similarly swallowed by the skip’s defenses.
The starfighter combat of the war was an entirely different exercise than the X-wing vs TIE fighter battles of the Galactic Civil War. Those fights had pitted the durability and firepower of Alliance starfighters against the nimbleness and speed of Imperial TIEs.
Coralskippers could be as swift and agile as the old twin ion engine fighters, but their defenses—based around projecting miniaturized black holes, which pilots derided as “voids”—far surpassed anything the New Republic starfighters could manage. The coralskipper’s dovin basal, which was responsible for both propulsion and defense, tired out like any creature. Protracted battles tended to favor the New Republic’s X-wings, though the Yuuzhan Vong had learned in turn to force New Republic pilots to squander fuel, energy, and munitions on ineffective attacks.
“Break,” Rigard said evenly.
Kelta’s hands were again on automatic as both she and Cheriss kicked out port and starboard from Rigard, sacrificing their shared defenses to gain better firing angles. The skip managed to absorb Kelta and Rigard’s shots, but Cheriss’s fire burned clean through the coralskipper.
With the skip tumbling to pieces, Kelta slid back in to overlap her defenses with Rigard. Cheriss was slower in doing so, juking to avoid a stream of plasma fire from a Yuuzhan Vong pilot attempted to avenge his wingmate. Kelta shook her head as Cheriss fired. As the skip brought a void into place to protect itself, the Jedi fired a proton torpedo.
The blue-white projectile flashed across space. As expected, the coralskipper broke out of Cheriss’s line of fire to bring its void into place to intercept the torpedo. Kelta narrowed her eyes and reached out in the Force. In a moment she had them both in her senses—the coralskipper’s void defense, and the proton torpedo she’d fired.
She’d heard that Luke Skywalker had once used his full power in the Force to take such a void and turn it back onto the dovin basal that had projected it—using the enemy’s strength against it. Rumor had it that the technique had wearied him to the point of collapse…and she had nothing like Luke Skywalker’s strength.
Fortunately, that wasn’t her tactic.
A moment before the void could capture the torpedo, she tapped it hard with the Force, an exertion of telekinesis that took all her concentration for a moment. The torpedo, in an instant, skipped right over the projected void and smashed into the coralskipper, detonating in an argent explosion. The pair of skips following it were caught in the detonation and reduced to coral pebbles.
“You and your Jedi tricks,” Rigard Matl commented.
“It worked. Don’t knock it,” Kelta croaked in return, shaking her head as she tried to bring her concentration back to the battle.
The Record Time was far below, well inside the planet’s atmosphere. “You let us fall behind, Bucket,” Kelta commented.
“I was just making sure you could keep up with me, Red. Let’s go.”
The trio of X-wings dropped towards the planet like meteorites. Around them, New Republic starfighters clashed with Yuuzhan Vong coralskippers. Starfighters killed coralskippers, and coralskippers vaporized starfighters. The Yuuzhan Vong were clearly outmatched by the overwhelming fleet Antilles had brought to bear, and part of Kelta rebelled at the slaughter. But to another part of her, it wasn’t real. The Force carried to her clearly the pain and death and fear and triumph of the New Republic pilots, but there was absolutely nothing from the Yuuzhan Vong. In the Force, it seemed to her to be nothing but some insane simulation.
She shook her head as their fighters shook, again bringing her focus down to herself and her two wingmates. Atmosphere buffeted the X-wings as their descended rapidly towards the combat zone on the ground.
Her sensors told her the full story: the Record Time had already unloaded its troops. The freighter was still on the ground, under fire from a giant Yuuzhan Vong war-creature she’d heard nicknamed “ranges.” The shield trio led by Master Skywalker was enough now pouring fire into the giant creature, which sported its own dovin basal defenses which were soaking up everything the trio of X-wings could throw at it.
The trio, but maybe not what a half-squadron could do. Rigard slid them in neatly into formation behind Skywalker’s fighters.
“Good to see you,” Skywalker’s voice rang across the comm. “Split off and approach the base from the far side so that you reach the edge of the canopy half a second after we do. They’re only expecting three of us. Ready, break.”
Kelta hung in tightly behind Rigard as the jungle canopy flashed below them. She could feel holes in the Force, places where she knew she should be sensing life. Those holes were the Yuuzhan Vong, she knew.
It only took the X-wings a few seconds to reach position. Skywalker’s X-wings took the first pass, all three of them pouring fire into the war-beast’s flank. Voids sprung up to defend it from the attack, but it was far too slow to defend itself against the second attack. Rigard led the three X-wings full-speed past the creature, reddish laserfire burning into the creature’s flesh as the fighters screamed past.
“Break for north-south,” came Skywalker’s order. Rigard merely clicked his comm to acknowledge, and then the X-wings were strafing the rakamut again. This time the creature was prepared for the one-two punch and opened fire on both groups of X-wings with the plasma cannons it carried on its back.
Plasma fire licked Kelta’s X-wing, and her rear shields failed. “Bucket, I’m hit,” she said tensely.
“Get to ground,” Rigard advised.
“Negative, I can hold it,” the Jedi said as she followed him through a loop to setup for another pass. Her R5 astromech started bleating at her, but she ignored it. No sense listening to some piece of machinery that will only tell me what I can’t do.
“Get to ground,” Rigard ordered again. “No sense risking…”
Ahead of them, an explosion rose above the jungle canopy. Pieces of rakamut were hurled into the air, and Rigard was shouting “Break, break, break!”
Kelta broke away from Rigard, the trio of X-wings scattering. And in her senses, she could feel the other trio—Masters Skywalker, and Jedi Knight Corran Horn—doing the same thing. Her boards lit up red as systems failed, the plasma burrowing further into her fuselage.
Then an X-wing was in front of her, having broken around the explosion just like her flight. And for Kelta, there was no choice at all as she instinctively pushed her stick down.
And her X-wing hit the jungle canopy.