Kativie grimaced as she clung to the controls of her X-wing, cannons blazing away seemingly of their own volition. In the Force, she could sense only herself and Kelta Rose; her eyes and the snubfighter’s sensors were her warning of the dozens of Yuuzhan Vong coralskippers swarming all around them.
Her astromech whistled wildly at her, but she ignored it. Her lasers flashed and the Force suggested she launch a proton torpedo; she did, her mind no longer an obstacle between what the Force told her and her own reflexes. The torpedo rode across space on a brilliant blue propellant trail, and a void sprang up to intercept it. As almost all warheads were now programmed to do, it detonated when it detected the void, spilling its energy across open space and producing far more than what the void could consume.
Her lasers flashed through the explosion, and a moment later she saw the result—two coralskippers, unable to see or sense her attack, had been shattered by the unseen laserfire.
Normally, Kativie found a sense of peace, even enjoyment in combat. It was a form of pure release, whether it was with a lightsaber in hand or behind the controls of a starship. Now, though, she felt only sick dread. Kelta, I can’t let you die out here. You’re my blood sister. Can’t let you die.
A snap-roll and a blaze of fire sent another coralskipper cometing away on a flat trajectory—either its dovin basal or its pilot was dead, and either way it was out of the fight. Even now, though, Kativie could see the coralskippers lining up to engage Kelta in her crippled E-wing, rather than the fully-capable, if aging, X-wing.
No, no, no! she screamed silently. NO!
From Kelta, she felt a reassuring wave of peace. Kativie shoved it away from herself. I won’t allow her to comfort me in the moment she dies.
The Zabrak Jedi snarled through gritted teeth, hauling back hard on the stick to get a shot on one of the skips lining up on Kelta’s E-wing. Before she could squeeze the trigger, though, she saw.
Turbolasers filled space around her with bloodred fire. Yelping in surprise, she rolled the X-wing out, away from the coralskippers. A glance at her monitor told her just what her astromech had been trying to tell her moments earlier, when she’d elected to ignore it.
Wookiee battlecruisers had arrived.
Starfighters, a design Kativie had never seen, swooped through space, closing on the Yuuzhan Vong coralskippers. Turbolasers thundered from the Wookiee’s capital ships, filling space with fire and forcing the skips to either break off their vectors on the two Jedi starfighters or be overwhelmed and destroyed. Even as she glanced at her scopes, she saw a number of Vong pilots refuse to break, and be reduced to their component atoms by overwhelming firepower.
She slumped in the seat of the X-wing, and only then realized her hands were shaking. “Arthree,” she said quietly, “open a comm channel with General Sanshir.”
A green light lit up on her communication board. “General Sanshir to unidentified Jedi X-wing,” her brother’s voice called firmly.
“It’s me, big brother.”
Kativie could hear pure relief in his tone. “You’re okay? How badly did you get shot up?”
“Not bad,” she said. “I didn’t know I’d be arriving in the middle of a battle.”
“Which I need to get back to,” the distant Halyn said. Kativie realized with a start that her sensors still showed a conflict raging around Iridonia, though she couldn’t see it with the naked eye at the distance. Of course, space near her was still hot, with the Wookiee battlecruisers exchanging fire with the Yuuzhan Vong grand cruiser, though they were already pulling back.
“Halyn,” she said, “you’re not going to believe who the other Jedi is here.”
“It can wait,” Halyn said quickly. “Just take him to my office at the capital. I’ll meet you there as soon as the battle’s over.”
“But…” Kativie protested, but the light on her board went out. Fierfek. Wonder how he’s going to react when he finds out it’s Kelta?
She brought her X-wing around slowly as she searched for Kelta on her scopes. Finally locating the E-wing, she scooted in beside it and noticed to her surprise and chagrin that a half-dozen Wookiee Agr starfighters fell into a protective formation around them.
“Kelta?” Kativie asked over the open channel. “I talked to Halyn, and he asked me to take you to the capital. He’ll meet us there.”
“Alright,” Kelta said, sounding even wearier than Kativie felt from the brief battle. After a pause, she asked, “Is Anishor here, too?”
Kativie paused for a moment, considering. “That would be my guess. I don’t know how else Halyn would’ve gotten us Wookiee battlecruisers and starfighters to defend Iridonia.”
The two New Republic starfighters accelerated towards Iridonia, circling around the battle between the warring fleets. The Wookiee starfighters broke off once the Jedi were well clear of any potential for interception by coralskippers, returning to the battle cruisers. Even as Kativie watched, the Wookiee crafted turned away from the engagement with the Vong grand cruiser and leaped to hyperspace. They weren’t going to fight a battle they couldn’t win, she observed.
Iridonia grew in her canopy, and she could see the specks of light that were explosions now—proton torpedoes detonating, small craft from both the Iridonian defenders and the Yuuzhan Vong exploding, laserfire exchanged with plasma balls. It’s almost beautiful from a distance, she thought. It would be beautiful if every one of those wasn’t a life lost, a death, and a step closer to the Yuuzhan Vong invading Iridonia.
The very thought gripped her throat and squeezed so hard she struggled to breathe. After all the millennia, can we keep them off our world? Or will Iridonia be nothing compared to the loss of Coruscant and the bloodbath the galaxy’s already seen?
Triak Kraal was losing the battle, and he hated it.
The Zabrak defenders had exhibited brilliant tactics. Triak’s opposite, the General Sanshir, had broken his fleet into small task forces which were refusing to stand and fight. Instead, they would isolate a single Yuuzhan Vong craft and overwhelm it with fire, then flee before other warships could pin them in place. The defenders’ starfighters were wielded in numbers Triak had never even heard of during the war with the infidels—whenever he thought their reserves were depleted, more would arrive or launch and tip the battle back in their favor.
The coralskippers were even now overwhelmed. With the yammosk too distant from the fight to coordinate properly, the numbers and tactics of the infidels were slowly eating his force away.
His fist smacked hard against the command throne in frustration. And the infidel’s trap is still potent. The craft had bristled with unliving fighters—droid fighters, the shapers had informed him—which had sprung the first ambush. It seemed to have unique defenses against the grutchin; in spite of its lack of shields and operational weapons, it had blunted that attack as well. The remaining fighters, both piloted and unpiloted, had turned away the few coralskippers he had sent to harass them.
And now, his Kor Chokk was too distant from the battlefield to arrive in time to make a difference. He shook his head as he studied the blaze bugs.
“Your recommendation, tactician?”
Ret Kraal was quick in answering. “The infidels have blunted our attack,” he said without preamble. “Should we continue to fight, we can overwhelm the defenders…but we will be too few to occupy the planet.” He shook his head. “The fleet should be pulled back, and we need to regroup.” He hesitated before adding, “And we must re-evaluate the information this Nylah has given us.”
Triak smiled now, his shredded lips stretching over his teeth. “This battle has made her more valuable to us, not less…if she’s trustworthy.”
The tactician offered a frown in return. “I do not understand, Commander.”
“Immerse yourself in the infidel’s thoughts for a moment,” Triak said casually. “Their kind is not loyal. Treachery is common among them. You need look no further than the efforts of Nom Anor in stirring up trouble, or the treachery of the infidel Senator Viqi Shesh, or the Peace Brigade. Our opponent, the General Halyn Sanshir, is not foolish—a fool could not have blunted our attack.”
Ret nodded now in understanding. “The information he provided Nylah could have been a ruse to test the loyalty of his own officers.”
“Precisely. But now she has proven herself loyal, in his eyes—we defended our flank against the attack by their allies.” Triak smiled. “Now, she must prove her loyalty to us. If she does, we will have a turncoat in the ranks of our enemy that we can use to slaughter them from within.”
He turned to the villip tender. “Bring the fleet back. Our feint is done.” No one but the gods need know that this was not a feint. The warriors may hate it, but they understand its value—and by calling it a feint, they will believe they accomplished their goal. They will not accept defeat by these Zabraks.
“And what,” Ret asked quietly, “shall we do once we’ve regrouped?”
Triak shrugged languidly. “You are the tactician. Tell me what their greatest strength is, so that we may undermine it.”
Ret turned back to study the blaze bugs, watching the Yuuzhan Vong fleet disengage from the infidels and slowly pull back. “Their defense,” he said slowly, “is anchored by their two largest ships. The Zabrak general has broken his fleet into packs to hunt down and destroy our weakest ships. Yet the two largest vessels, and the one smaller,” he explained, pointing to the two largest warships in orbit, “do not leave their orbit. With their overlapping fire, they can destroy any vessel the size of a matalok or smaller before it can threaten them.”
Triak leaned forward in interest.
“We could overwhelm them,” Ret continued, “but that would allow their hunting packs to decimate our smallest vessels.”
“But they must be destroyed for the defenses to be broken,” Triak mused. “Tell me, without those ships, could their defensive fleet hold?”
“Doubtful,” Ret replied. “Even the removal of one of those two vessels would open a hole in their line that they could not fill easily.”
The Yuuzhan Vong commander watched as his vessels traded final parting shots with the Zabrak defenders. Coralskippers and starfighters disengaged, racing to their respective lines, and the two fleets parted again, leaving the Zabrak defenses intact, if not badly battered by this second engagement.
“Bring me the master shaper,” he said at least. “I have need of his skills.”
Halyn watched as the Yuuzhan Vong withdrew, and allowed himself a small smile. If the Vong weren’t fanatical to the point of stupidity, they’d probably go looking for a softer target. His smile faded. Of course, we knew that going into this. The Vong will keep pushing until they either have conquered our space, or they’re dead.
<My ships have withdrawn successfully,> Anishor rumbled. <They inflicted minor damage on the Yuuzhan Vong grand cruiser, and the Jedi have escaped.>
The Zabrak general nodded as he watched the tactical hologram. “Once the fleet’s secured, I’ll need to head down to the capital to meet with them.”
<And what after?> Anishor asked. <The Council will be asking you shortly, I’m sure. They appointed you Ul’akhoi; they’ll want to know what plans you have in place to cover the contingencies.>
“The less people know exactly what I have planned, the better,” Halyn replied distractedly. “The Zabrak Defense Force is flexible enough to respond to whatever I need them to do.”
<What about non-combatants? If we have to evacuate Iridonia, the Defense Force doesn’t have enough ships alone to…>
“There won’t be an evacuation,” Halyn interrupted, turning his attention on the big Wookiee.
<If the Yuuzhan Vong break the defense fleet?> Anishor asked cautiously.
“There won’t be an evacuation.” The statement was bedrock firm.
<If they attempt to use worldshaping materials?>
“There won’t be an evacuation.”
<If they land troops and take the capital?> Anishor persisted.
“Listen to me, Anishor,” Halyn said, his voice colder than it ever was when addressing his friends. “There. Will. Be. No. Evacuation.” He paused between each word, ensuring the meaning was crystal-clear, even for a warrior who did not speak Basic.
“There won’t be an evacuation,” Halyn hissed. “So stop thinking about it.” He turned back towards the tactical hologram. “Besides,” he added, his voice returning to even tones, “the battle’s going better than I expected right now.” He shrugged. “Of course, that’s because I didn’t expect to have the Dauntless here to bolster our defenses. She’s the only ship we have here that outguns the Cathleen, and until the Vong are willing to commit everything to knocking us out of the sky, we can hold them off.”
<And when the Yuuzhan Vong decide to destroy the defenses by climbing over their own dead?>
Halyn’s expression was grim. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
Kryi Rinnet appeared as if by magic in front of the general. “Sir, the leader of the New Republic squadrons that showed up is demanding to speak to you immediately.”
“Patch him through,” Halyn ordered. “Wait. In my quarters in just a minute, please.” He headed aft towards the bridge turbolift without further ado. “C’mon, Anishor.”
As the turbolift descended deeper into the ship, Halyn smiled again. “At least we can be fairly certain no one on the war council is a traitor. The Yuuzhan Vong suspected a trap from your forces the entire time, even though all our high-ups believed they’d been recalled to Kashyyyk.” He left out the possibility of a traitor among the Wookiee armed forces; honor was rated above all, and no Wookiee would dare sell out to intergalactic invaders who’d shown no honor time and again.
Anishor was pensive. <Are you certain, Coatrack? If I were the Vong commander, I’d suspect any traitor’s information until it was proven right.>
Halyn snorted as the turbolift’s doors hissed open. “And if I were the Vong commander, I’d take every opportunity I had to crush the Zabrak Defense Force. Instead he held a lot of his forces in reserve and his forward units took a beating for it. No, I’m certain of my war council.”
Halyn’s quarters were darkened when they stepped through, but the computer automatically brought the lights up. A moment later, the comm built into the desk chirped. Halyn stepped to it and tapped the button, setting it to speaker. “This is General Sanshir, go ahead.”
“Hal, it’s Li Coden,” the veteran pilot said, his voice filled with static but still recognizable. “I called to tell you that you have a traitor in your ranks.”
Triak Kraal snarled at the villip. “You lied,” he spat. “The infidel forces were lying in wait, not pulled back to defend as you told us.”
Nylah’s face twisted unreadably. “That was what General Sanshir told us,” she began.
“Enough lies!” Triak interrupted. “Either provide me with useful information, or I shall have your head removed from your neck.”
The Zabrak traitor snorted disdainfully. “Difficult to do through a villip, Commander,” she sneered. “Besides, I do have useful information.”
“Two Jedi Knights have arrived on Iridonia. I can’t imagine they won’t be meeting with the General soon.”
Triak wished for a moment he could interpret the Zabrak’s facial movements. Her dark tattoos and the limitations of the villip made interpretation impossible. “What do they want? Are the jeedai coming here in force?”
“I don’t know their purpose yet,” Nylah stated. “But I’m endeavoring to find out. No doubt Sanshir will call a meeting of his war council once he knows.”
“Contact me only when you know the purpose of these jeedai.” Triak inverted the villip, breaking the connection. Only then did he look at his tactician.
Ret was still staring at the now inactive villip. “if the jeedai are coming here, it could change the balance of power in favor of the infidels,” he said slowly. “With their allies from Kashyyyk and a contingent of jeedai, conquering the world could be beyond our grasp. Domain Kraal was devastated at Borleias, and our casualties here are mounting.”
“We must destroy the defenders here before more forces can arrive.” Ret’s voice was certain. “We must move quickly to remove the infidel fleet and land our forces. Once we control the planet, even the jeedai will not be able to remove us.”
Triak frowned. “If we move too hastily, we shall lose many warriors; too many, and we will be unable to take the world.” He was silent for long moments, which Ret chose not to fill with any further discussion, as was fitting. “When the master shaper has finished, we will attack, and we will sweep these metal toys from the skies.”
Halyn shook his head as he and Anishor strode across the flight deck of the Cathleen. Away from the Zabrak fighter suadrons, two snubfighters bearing New Republic colors and insignia rested wearily on the deck. One of the fighters was a first-generation XJ X-wing, which had since been supplanted by the new XJ3 model. The other was far older, an old Koensayr BTL-A4 Y-wing starfighter.
“Haven’t seen one of those,” Halyn commented, “since the Thrawn crisis. Hell, we don’t even have any here on Iridonia.”
<You know who has to be flying it, then.>
“Of course.” As the two approached the fighters, both cockpits slid open. The X-wing pilot slid himself out of his cockpit, holding onto the edge of it with both hands to lower himself as far as he could, dropping freely only for the last meter of the fall. Even in New Republic orange and with a concealing flight helmet, the figure was clearly male.
The Y-wing pilot, however, vaulted from the cockpit, using a roll to absorb the shock of falling that far, lekku flashing. A heartbeat later she was before Halyn and Anishor, and the Zabrak general found himself staring down the very intimidating barrel of a scatter pistol from a distance of three centimeters.
“Hello, Abi,” Halyn deadpanned. “You still haven’t gotten over it?”
“Biggest bounty I ever gave up,” the Twi’lek complained, and abruptly the pistol disappeared from Halyn’s face.
The X-wing pilot joined them, pulling off his helmet to reveal a face creeping into middle age but still handsome in its way. “Generals,” he greeted.
Instead of saluting, Halyn offered a handshake. “Li Coden. I haven’t seen you in years. Where have you been?”
Li shook his hand, but his expression was grim. “That’s what we’re here to talk to you about.”
Halyn reflected wryly that his quarters were seeing far more use now than they ever had before. The tactical holograms he had continually relayed there made it nearly as useful as the bridge for plotting tactics and strategies during the battle thus far, and he wasn’t expecting that to change. Of course, right now their discussion wasn’t about the battle raging in the system; it was about treachery in the ranks.
“We’ve been working for New Republic Intelligence since right after the disaster at Fondor,” Li said. “The Peace Brigade’s profile was getting higher all the time, and they were doing some real damage.”
“Enter a couple of old Rebels who were disillusioned with the current state of the government,” Abi added, “and it wasn’t that hard to infiltrate the Brigade.”
<What have you been doing inside the Peace Brigade, then?> Anishor asked.
“Gathering intelligence, mostly,” Li said. “NRI figured we were more useful as long-term assets than we would be if we blew our cover to stop any of the Brigade’s individual plots.”
Halyn frowned. “If you’re neck-deep in an infiltration, what are you doing aboard the Cathleen? Isn’t that sort of blowing your cover?”
The Twi’lek, Abi Ocopaqui, shrugged easily. “The Peace Brigade isn’t exactly a military organization. They’re loose enough we can occasionally slip away like this for rendezvous with New Republic agents to relay information and the like.”
“Except I’m not a New Republic agent.”
“I noticed,” Abi said dryly.
“So,” the general repeated patiently, “why are you here?”
Li cleared his throat. “When the Vong started their push on Iridonia, the Peace Brigade started looking for any members who could be useful for taking apart the defenses here. Someone inside your circle contacted the Brigade and volunteered to relay highly critical information for the war effort to the Vong. Abi and I here were assigned to, uh,escort the traitor to a meeting with the Vong leadership. After all, we’re trusted, long-time members of the Peace Brigade,” he finished with a straight face.
Halyn glanced at Abi. “How many Peace Brigade members have you killed to still be trusted?”
“Four,” the blue-skinned Twi’lek deadpanned.
<Who is this traitor?> Anishor rumbled.
“We weren’t able to grab a holo,” Li admitted. “And we only met her at the edge of the system and brought her into the meeting.”
“What did she look like, then?” Halyn asked impatiently.
“Light-skinned, dark tattoos,” Abi spoke up. “They were almost delicate. She had her head covered in a headwrap, though, like you used to wear back when we were all fighting the Empire. Couldn’t tell you her hair color or horn pattern.”
“Good looking, too,” Li added. “She was wearing lenses over her eyes, though—don’t know what her natural eye color was, but they looked purple with the lenses. She called herself ‘Nylah,’ too.”
“Cute,” Halyn growled. “Really cute.” He shook his head. “So what you’re telling me right now is that we have a traitor in our midst, but we don’t have any real information on her other than dark tattoos and she’s a female Zabrak.”
<If she was wearing a headwrap,> Anishor pointed out, <she might have been a human masquerading as a Zabrak. Unless we have a full bio scan of her, it wouldn’t be possible for Li or Abi to tell the difference.>
“You could do better?” Abi asked with a raised eyebrow.
Anishor smiled toothily and tapped his nose. <Humans and Zabraks smell differently.>
“We do know,” Halyn said, dragging the conversation back on task, “that we potentially have a traitor in our midst. If this Nylah really is one of my inner circle, that limits it down quite a ways.” He shook his head. “In fact, there’s only two female Zabraks on my war council that it could be—Nisia Eisweep or Kryi Rinnet.”
<Or Allanna Saret,> Anishor added.
“It’s not Allanna,” Halyn stated reflexively.
The big Wookiee studied the Zabrak leader intently. <You seem rather certain of that.>
Halyn shook his head, avoiding his old friend’s too-perceptive gaze. “Three potentials, then,” he said. “Assuming it’s someone who really is in my inner circle, and it isn’t someone doing something cute or clever.”
“So, which one do I shoot first?” was Abi’s question.
“None of them.” Halyn’s expression hardened. “Kryi Rinnet is my starfighter operations coordinator, and I can’t just yank her out and replace her with one of you—there’s enough grumbling as it is about the number of non-Zabraks who are participating as officers and commanders in the defense. Nisia Eisweep is only acting as an advisor right now, but I’m going to need her within the week, I’d guess, for some, um, unusual operations. Allanna Saret is commanding the second-largest warship in the Zabrak Defense Force.”
“So, we get some evidence, and then I shoot just one,” Abi suggested.
“So, you never did tell me,” Halyn said, changing subjects, “why exactly you broke cover to give me this information. Couldn’t you have relayed it through New Republic intelligence?”
Li and Abi exchanged glances, and it was Li who spoke up to explain. “With the fall of Coruscant, our chain of command has sort of evaporated,” the veteran said uneasily. “Hal, there’s no one left out there for us to report to. Near as I can tell, our controller died during the battle there, and all our backup contacts haven’t responded. New Republic Intel’s headquarters on Coruscant is now likely buried under tons of yorik coral, and frankly, this was too important to sit on.”
“So now what?” Halyn asked. “You’ve got me the information, and now you’re heading back to the Brigade?”
Li shook his head. “We, uh, sort of had to shoot a few people to get access to ships. And we weren’t able to keep it quiet.” He cast a significant glance at Abi.
“Not my fault the second one started screaming,” was all the Twi’lek would say.
“Where’d you pick up the squadron, if you were in deep cover?”
“A couple of them are Peace Brigaders who grew a brainstem,” Li said. “Most of them were strays we picked up when we tried to make it to Coruscant and found the disaster there. We pulled them together, swung out to a smuggling hole Abi knew about to refuel and regroup, and decided on a course of action. They’ve actually been hanging out on the extreme fringe of the system while Abi and I were in deep cover meeting this Nylah, just waiting for our signal.”
“So you’re with us for the duration?”
Both the old veterans nodded. “Until we get orders from someone in our chain of command, we’re all yours.”
Halyn nodded. “I can use you. Do you have a name for your squadron?” When both shook their heads, the Zabrak smiled. “You’re now Grey Squadron, and I’ll be tapping you as a backup for special operations. My other unit in that role is Skifter Squadron, under Lenn Kaman. I know I had you flying together, but I’ll introduce you in person.”
“What will you have us doing?” Abi asked.
“Whatever’s necessary, just like the old Grey.”
Both Li and Abi nodded in understanding. Halyn’s original Grey had been a unit during the Galactic Civil War and had never officially existed. Unofficially, the members of the Grey were a diverse group who had tested new starfighter tactics and modifications, raided Imperial outposts that Alliance High Command had deemed off-limits for one reason or another, and generally acted as much like pirates as they did like Alliance officers. The Grey had definitely made a difference in the war however, overthrowing several Imperial governors and stabilizing several Alliance-friendly planetary governments under the thumb of the Empire.
“So what’s the plan for the defense?” Li asked, switching to the most important military matters at hand.
“We’re going to defend Iridonia.” Halyn’s tone was flat.
“I’m not a military genius,” Abi commented dryly, “but even I had figured that out. I think the question was more along the lines of how.”
Halyn gestured at the tactical displays. “We’ll continue to rely on our basic strategy. The Cathleen and the Dauntless will continue to anchor our defensive line. Until the Vong commit their grand cruiser, they can’t dislodge us from orbit…unless they’re willing to sacrifice most of their light cruisers. And doing that will mean we’ll wind up with a substantial edge in firepower, which means their ability to maintain a secure orbit around Iridonia will be tenuous at best.”
<And when they commit the grand cruiser?> Anishor asked. <Even the cruisers I brought from Kashyyyk can’t go to guns with it and win.>
“Then we kill it, too.” Halyn’s expression held a trace of a smirk, and the gleam in his eye was pure pirate.
The Rutian Twi’lek named Sandarie had suffered hardship in her lifetime. From her youth as a slave, to an agent for the Rebellion—watching the deaths of many of her friends—to the relative peacetime of the New Republic, and now the two years of warfare against the extragalactic Yuuzhan Vong, she had watched many friends pass out of her life. Beings she had known had been killed or enslaved. She had seen more violence than any sentient should be allowed. She had, on occasion, taken lives as well, though she had never really found peace with it, like her surviving friends had.
Which, of course, was why she was furious with her husband.
“No, Ryian, I’m not going to leave,” she said, her tone sharp.
The Corellian captain of the Dauntless let out a long-suffering sigh. “Sandi, you know how badly the war has gone up to this point. You’ve seen how many people have been killed. I don’t want you to be one of them.”
“I’m not going to run away and hide,” the Twi’lek insisted. “Some of my oldest friends are here—I’ve known Halyn and Anishor longer than I’ve known you. They’re in the thick of it, and so are you. I’m not leaving.”
Ryian Coron threw up his hands. “What are you going to do here, then? Are you going to take command of a ship, or fly a starfighter? Do you want someone to get killed looking after you, when you’re not fighting yourself?”
It was the wrong thing to say. The Twi’lek’s voice dropped in tone and pitch, becoming very cold and deliberate. “I’ll get off the Dauntless, then, since you don’t want me here. But I’m not leaving.”
“Don’t Sandi me,” she said, her voice still low and deliberate. “I’ll take my freighter and head down to Rak’Edalin, so I’m conveniently out of the way.”
“Sandi…” Ryian tried again, but it was to no avail. The doors to his quarters hissed shut as the Twi’lek, still beautiful twenty years after they’d married, stomped away. For a brief moment, Ryian considered calling the hangar bay to deny her freighter clearance to launch. No, that wouldn’t end well, he decided. She won’t leave the system. At least in Rak’Edalin, she’ll be out of the way. There’s no way the General will let the Yuuzhan Vong anywhere near the capital of Zabrak space.
Far below in one of the military hangars skirting Rak’Edalin, two starfighters with New Republic insignia rested on their skids. Zabrak repair crews swarmed over both fighters, repairing heavy damage to both, refueling the craft, and topping off the tibanna gas essential to the weapon systems. The E-wing had taken the worst of the damage, though the X-wing had definitely been battered by combat against Yuuzhan Vong coralskippers.
All of that went unnoticed by the pilots of both craft.
Kelta Rose and Kativie Lusp clung tightly to each other. “It’s been far too long,” Kelta said at last, and their hug loosened.
The Zabrak woman, substantially shorter than Kelta, nodded and smiled. “With the war on, well, there hasn’t been a lot of time for socializing.”
Kelta shook her head, her long red braids falling over her shoulders freely, having been loosened from the confinement of her flight helmet. “No…and with the way the war has gone, I didn’t know if I’d ever get to see you again.”
Kativie smiled. “I didn’t doubt that,” she said. “How is Adreia?”
The older Jedi couldn’t hide her reaction as the blood drained from her face. “I haven’t heard from her since Coruscant fell,” Kelta managed at last.
“I’m sorry,” Kativie said in equally hushed tones. “I didn’t…”
“No, it’s okay.” Kelta forced her fears down. I don’t have time to worry about Adreia. She’s a Jedi Knight in her own right; she can take care of herself. I made sure of that. “How long have the Yuuzhan Vong been here?” she asked.
Kativie’s face was grim. “They arrived here on the heels of our fleet. Halyn had led a Zabrak task force to help defend Coruscant, and he barely had time to return here and get positioned before the Vong arrived. So far, he’s been holding them off, but I don’t know how long he can manage.”
“So he was responsible for the Zabrak military forces disappearing from the New Republic all over the galaxy?”
Kativie nodded. “I’m surprised the Council let him get away with it—the authority to do that is reserved for them. Of course, they also made him the Ul’akhoi.”
“Ul’akhoi? What does that mean?”
The youngest of the three Sanshir siblings paused for a moment to consider her words. “The closest concept in Basic would be ‘Emperor’ or ‘dictator.’ Right now, his word is law in Zabrak space.”
The sheer ridiculousness of it made Kelta raise an eyebrow. “You’re joking, right?”
Kativie shook her head, her long hair whipping back and forth, concealing some of her delicate pink tattoos. “It’s something the Council can do in an emergency situation. As long as the Vong are a threat to Zabrak space, Halyn has pretty much unfettered authority.”
“Isn’t that…dangerous?” Kelta asked cautiously.
Kativie snorted. “Um, do you remember how much Halyn likes command?”
“People change. It’s been twenty years,” Kelta said quietly.
The Zabrak Jedi studied her old friend for a long moment. “You still love him, don’t you?”
“No,” Kelta answered reflexively, not allowing herself to think about it. “It’s been twenty years, Kat. I’m over it.”
“I’m here to meet with Halyn,” Kelta said, switching topics. “Master Skywalker sent me to find out what’s going on; the Zabrak squadrons are really badly needed elsewhere right now. How soon do you think I can meet with him?”
Kativie shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll be down the gravity well as soon as he can. It’ll probably take some time for him to get the fleet situated and prepared for the next Vong push on the planet. He did tell me he’d talk to the ‘Jedi representative’ as soon as he could manage it, though.” She smiled faintly. “He still has a lot of respect for the Jedi, Kelta. Master Skywalker’s Great River project was something both he and Argus agreed on whole-heartedly.”
Kelta sighed. “I’m sure having a Jedi Knight for a little sister made no impact on that opinion.”
“None whatsoever,” Kativie deadpanned. “C’mon, we’ll let the maintenance crews get our fighters patched up. Halyn will probably want to meet us at his office in Rak’Edalin. We can catch a speeder into town and wait for him there.”