The bridge of the Cathleen wasn’t really a bridge anymore.
Most of the flat panel displays had been shattered by the crash. Chairs, built into the floor plating, had been similarly damaged and now were scattered around the area. Whole panels of the wall had fallen away to reveal naked wiring and circuitry underneath. The smoke had mostly been dissipated by the Cathleen’s still-functioning life support systems, but the stink of burned wiring and plastics remained.
Halyn Sanshir was grateful that there were no bodies on his bridge.
“Another report from the lower decks,” Kryi Rinnet said. She looked as exhausted as Halyn felt. Her normally bright blonde hair was dirty with soot, and though she had no tattoos, her face was striped with streaks of ash that made her look more Iridonian than Halyn could ever recall. “Casualty totals…we’re at one thousand and seventeen,” she finished wearily.
Halyn closed his eyes. It could have been worse, he repeated to himself. If we’d hit Rak’Edalin in free fall…well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, that’s for sure. And there wouldn’t be a city left.
Not that the city’s in that good of shape after this, anyways. “Any report from the scout team?”
Kryi nodded, and Halyn was appreciative of what she was doing. The regular comm officer was now in an intact medical bay with a concussion. “Between the impact of theCathleen and the activation of the gravity well generator, well, there’s no intact building for a half kilometer in any direction. What we didn’t land on was generally knocked over or at least damaged. There’s a lot of damage within a klick of us, but beyond that the damage seems to be fairly isolated. No worse than what a lot of those buildings would weather in an earthquake.”
“That’s something,” Halyn said wearily. “What about the Vong?”
“They didn’t immediately follow up with a full-scale landing force,” Kryi said after a moment of checking her datapad. “Last report from our recon fighters was that they were taking up full blockade positions to make sure the fleet couldn’t help us.”
“Make sure we’re ready to go when they do start the invasion,” Halyn said slowly. “The less of those transports that hit the ground, the better.” He looked around the wreck of the bridge. “Any word on the hangar?”
“Not much left of it,” Kryi said. “Structure around the hangar is never as tough because of the open space it requires. It was pretty much crushed like a tin can when we hit the ground.”
Halyn winced. Abi’s Y-wing was still in there. She’s never going to let me forget it, either. “Engineering crews reported lately?”
“Last report was twenty minutes ago. The reactor is stable and contained,” Kryi said. “They were preparing to shut it down.”
Halyn shook his head. “Inform them immediately that I want at least twenty percent power from the power system at all times. If we’re going to finish the recovery efforts and get every living crew member off the Cathleen, we can’t have the lights going out. Once they’ve confirmed that, I want them to head aft and check what’s left of the engines. Last thing we need is hyperdrive coolant leaking all over the place.”
Kryi didn’t even bother questioning it, just throwing a salute before starting to tap on her comm board.
Halyn leaned down wearily and rested his forehead on the back of his own broken command chair. This is what I get for thinking I had the Yuuzhan Vong figured out. There’s always another trick, another creature, something I hadn’t thought of or planned for.
A knock sounded from the bridge door. The few Zabraks left on the bridge all turned to look. Halyn waved them back to their tasks and stepped over to it himself. Getting his fingertips into a depression, he heaved hard and forced the door to slide open. With all the damage the Cathleen had taken, many of the simple systems like automated doors were offline.
He was nearly barreled over by a smaller Zabrak, who wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. “Halyn,” Kativie hissed in his ear, “don’t you ever do something stupid like this again!”
“Well, I was planning on a repeat performance, but if you say no…” Halyn smiled a little in spite of the disaster.
His little sister pulled back and smiled up at him, her emerald eyes gleaming even in the dim light of the wrecked bridge. “And here I thought you were smarter than that.” She shook her head. “Whatever will Iridonia do with you in charge of the defense?”
Halyn reached down and unsnapped something from Kativie’s belt. “That’s what you Jedi are for,” he deadpanned. “Cleaning up the messes people like me make.” He ignited the lightsaber, and green-white light flooded the bridge.
Flooded the bridge, and the hallway Kativie had just come through. Halyn saw the second figure standing there and nearly dropped the lightsaber in spite of himself. It had been years—Kativie’s wedding, in fact—but Halyn could no more forget the individual standing there than he could his own face, or his older brother Argus, or his longtime friend Anishor.
They had been friends, allies, lovers. She had been one of the few people he had trusted completely in the galaxy. She had been utterly reliable, completely committed, and had saved his life on several occasions. He had joked about her lack of skill as a starfighter pilot, but he’d far more valued her skill in deception, her ability to read emotions and thoughts, and her loyalty. And her love.
“Kelta Rose,” he breathed.
Kelta stared at the Zabrak. Years had passed since the last time she had seen him outside a spaceport on some dingy little world, and even more years since she had last spoken to him, shortly after the battle of Endor. She knew him, though, even after all the intervening years, after her marriage, after the birth of her child, after turning her back on the Force and then eventually training as a Jedi Knight. After everything, two decades fell away and she knew him.
His face was still strong-jawed. His dark tattoos were as familiar to her as her own hands, even half-masked by trickles of blood still dripping from some small wound atop his head. His brilliant green eyes she sometimes saw in her dreams, or even when she closed her own eyes.
He was more muscular than she remembered—the definition of his chest, his arms, was visible even under the general’s uniform he wore. Scars she didn’t remember nicked his face, his neck, his hands—anywhere his flesh was visible. Vaguely she wondered what he had been doing in the intervening years, what conflicts he’d seen and what battles he’d fought.
And in the Force…
She opened herself to its flow, and she could sense him—so very familiar. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve sworn he was a Force-user. His presence glowed, filled with life and vibrancy and strength. Weariness tugged at his spirit, a dark shadow, but still he brimmed with the sort of energy she only felt from children, like her daughter Adreia in her younger years.
“Halyn Lance,” she murmured.
“Great,” the Zabrak general muttered. “Now my life can take on all the aspects of a personal hell.”
Even Jedi discipline cannot match the fury of a woman scorned.
“Where the hell did you run off to?” Kelta half-shouted, stepping forward towards Halyn.
Halyn released the hilt of Kativie’s lightsaber; the emerald blade vanished, plunging them both into darkness. Kelta continued to stalk forward, not waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim emergency lighting. “I did what I needed to do, for both of us,” the Zabrak said coolly. “Just like I knew you couldn’t face that truth.”
“Truth? Truth? What, that you abandoned me after Endor, that you decided to just gallivant off into the galaxy?” Kelta didn’t bother trying to restrain the anger welling up; it was an old, familiar hurt. “Tell me, how was it better for you to leave all of us behind? Not just me, but all your friends and officers and pilots who were looking to you for leadership and direction! And Kativie, too!” She reached through the darkness with her hands, trying to reach the Zabrak who was backpedalling. “You left all of us when we needed you the most!”
Halyn’s hands met hers in the darkness, fending off her attempts to grab him. “You knew it wouldn’t work! You wanted a life of peace, and that’s not me. It’s never been me.” She tried to grab him again, but he deflected her again, and she was too incensed to use the Force to her advantage, even as he kept talking. “Everything I’ve heard says you’ve had a damned good life without me, so I don’t know what…”
Kelta finally got a good grip on his uniform and jerked him forward. “You could’ve at least talked to me,” she snarled. Then she slapped him, hard, and reveled in how good it felt.
<Am I interrupting?> a very familiar Wookiee rumbled.
Kelta released Halyn then, let him pull back from her. The Force flooded into her then, the sensations rushing over her, through her, as she turned to the luminous presence she’d felt. “Anishor!” In a heartbeat, she launched herself at the Wookiee, squeezing him in a tight hug. “What are you doing here?”
<I came here to help the coatracks,> the berserker said, embracing Kelta tightly so her feet dangled a half-meter above the dark decking of the Cathleen’s bridge.
For a moment, Kelta pondered that hugging a Wookiee while being suspended a half a meter off the ground was probably not a very Jedi-esque thing to do, but decided she didn’t care and buried her face in his fur for long moments. “It’s been way too long, Anishor.”
Anishor rumbled an assent and then returned her to the deck. <How are you? How is Adreia?>
The elation Kelta had felt collapsed in on itself. “Adreia went missing after Coruscant,” she said softly. “She was acting as an advisor during the battle, and disappeared. I’m sure she’s not dead, but beyond that…” Her shrug was helpless.
<The Great Tree will take care of her,> the Wookiee said with bedrock confidence.
“Anishor,” Halyn said from behind her, “what’s the status on your berserkers?”
<They stand ready now,> the Wookiee said.
“Berserkers?” Kelta asked.
<Forty of my warriors,> Anishor said. <They have trained and prepared for battle against the Yuuzhan Vong; this will be their proving ground.>
“Why are you here, Kelta?” Halyn asked after a long, silent pause.
Words fell from her lips automatically. “I came here to find out why the Zabraks have disappeared from all over the New Republic. When Kativie vanished as well, Master Skywalker wanted to know if something was happening here.” She hesitated. “He also wanted to know if Iridonia was still Jedi-friendly space.
“Well, you have your answer, then.” Halyn’s voice wasn’t precisely cold, but it was detached. “If there’s nothing else, than the Jedi probably have use of you somewhere else.”
Kelta’s conversation with Luke Skywalker flooded back to her, and with utter certainty borne of conviction and the guidance of the Force, she replied. “No. I’m staying here to fight.”
Ret Kraal found the Commander of Domain Kraal in a private chamber, with only the hum of blaze bugs to keep him company.
“Honored One,” he greeted the other, arms snapping in a salute across his chest.
Triak Kraal did not look up; his eyes were intent on the blaze bugs. “Tell me, tactician, what you have learned of the enemy’s commander.”
“He is honored among his kind,” Ret spoke slowly. “He is a native of this world, Iridonia. He rose to become a general among the armed forces of the Rebel Alliance, and it was the efforts of both him and his brother, Argus Sanshir, which overthrew the Empire’s hold on this world. He vanished for many years after the downfall of the Empire, only returning after our invasion of this galaxy.”
“Where is this brother?”
Ret frowned. “He was among the forces at the place called Reecee which were crushed during the warmaster’s drive toward Coruscant, and is believed dead.”
Triak’s eyes never left the blaze bugs. “Tell me, tactician: how skilled is this Halyn Sanshir?”
Ret considered his words carefully. “Perhaps as much so as those in higher authority in the New Republic. Studies of what information I could find of his previous commands indicated he prefers tricks and traps, finding ways to outmaneuver an enemy to defeat him. He shows little taste for the combat of warriors, of strength against strength. He fears to be blooded, and strikes hard against those he opposes in efforts to shorten conflicts.”
“The seers told me as much,” Triak said dismissively. “And yet it does not match what we see before us.”
Triak finally turned to look at his subordinate. “Tell me, tactician: when the infidels lose the position of strength, what do they do?”
“They retreat,” Ret answered without need for thought. “They do not stand and fight; they chose instead to preserve their forces, as we have seen at countless battles from Ithor to Coruscant.”
“And yet,” Triak said, “the infidels do not retreat from here.”
Ret frowned. “Honored One, when the infidel defenders lost their largest capital ship, their fleet scattered to the darkspace paths and vanished. Even now, we hold their world in a taloned grip because they chose to leave instead of fighting us to the death, as is the custom of warriors.”
“Their defensive fleet, yes,” Triak said. “But the civilian population does not. We created a weapon of attrition against the enemy; our advances generated fleets of refugees stumbling from world to world, weakening the infidels as they attempt to protect their noncombatants. But here, and only here, do they refuse to leave.”
Ret’s frown deepened. “Perhaps they await rescue; perhaps they believe they cannot escape the fleet now orbiting them.”
The Yuuzhan Vong commander shook his head. “If they believed that, their ships would be prepared for departure. Even now, our spies indicate there are no preparations to leave, only to stand and fight.” He met the tactician’s eyes. “Does this Sanshir know something we do not?”
“This is why you have not ordered the attack,” Ret stated in understanding. “Why our warriors wait, rather than descend in yorik-trema to crush the defenders.”
Triak nodded once. “At all stages in this invasion, when the ships in orbit have failed, the infidels retreat. Their fleets scatter, their civilians flee, and the remainder are crushed beneath our heels. Here, their fleet has scattered, but they prepare to fight instead of flee.”
“They act as warriors should,” Ret risked.
“Indeed.” Triak turned back to study the blaze bugs. “For the first time since we entered this galaxy, an enemy opposes us without faltering.”
“If they intended to fight us to the death, why would their fleet retreat?” Ret asked.
“You tell me, tactician.”
Ret hesitated as he spent a moment ensuring his reasoning was sound. “To bring more forces, perhaps,” he said slowly, “or to prepare another ambush.” His head came up. “With this Halyn Sanshir as their commander, an ambush seems likely. They are the foe who waits for us to be fully committed to the battle here, stretched out to envelop the world, and then stage a treacherous attack.”
“How do we defend against such an enemy, then?” Triak asked.
“By attacking swiftly and subduing this world, ensuring their reinforcements do not have time to arrive. We obtain victory before their ambush is prepared.” Ret thought for a moment about the battle. “With the damage their fleet received in our engagements here, it will take time—weeks, most likely—before they would be ready for such a venture.”
“Which leaves,” Triak stated, “the only question of target.” He gestured at the world represented by blaze bugs. “Our shapers tell me that worldshaping will not be effective; the planet is too rugged, too varied, for their techniques to work swiftly. Their methods would take months to see any difference.”
“Then it is up to our warriors,” Ret said.
“Where, then, do we make our amphistaff’s venom first felt?”
“The head and the heart, Honored One,” Ret said with a small smile stretching his flayed lips over his teeth. “Their capital.” He pointed at the blaze bug representation of the world. “Just as their fleets lost courage and fled with the destruction of its head, so too shall the world capitulate with the fall of its capital. Rak’Edalin should be our target, Commander.”
The bridge of the Cathleen was brighter now. Power had been restored in some sections of the ship, as per Halyn’s orders. Shattered displays had been either removed or replaced now, and continual status updates on the defenses of Rak’Edalin and on the disposition of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet continued to stream over the monitors.
Comlinks were in use again. Dozens of Zabraks moved in and out of the bridge, sometimes checking displays, sometimes reporting, and nearly always with a comlink to ears or lips.
In the center of it all was the Ul’Akhoi: Halyn Sanshir, the defender of Iridonia, and the man on whom all the defenses of Zabrak space depended. It was a heavy burden, but he refused to bend beneath the pressure of it all.
Kelta watched it all, somewhere between amused and irritated and frightened. In many ways, he’s not the Halyn I knew, she concluded. Halyn hated command, hated war itself in some ways…even though he was so good at it. All those years that have passed. Now he’s comfortable with it, at least.
Halyn had summoned a meeting of high-ranked advisors and commanding officers. Kelta wasn’t sure yet whether she was actually supposed to be here—Halyn had never invited her, but he hadn’t protested her entry, either. Through the Force, Kelta could sense the moods of the gathering officers: determined, tired, some edging on despair with the loss of the orbital battle. Those who had been fighting in space, Kelta could sense, were all nearing exhaustion after days of constant fighting. Of those, only Halyn himself seemed energetic and rested. She could sense no pain or physical weariness from him at all.
“Final tally of the Cathleen’s crew?” he asked.
One of the bridge crew swallowed hard before answering. “Twelve hundred and ninety-seven dead,” he said grimly. “Another fourteen hundred and thirty-three wounded or injured. Most of them have been treated and released.”
Kelta could feel Halyn’s emotional pain through the Force.
“Over half the crew,” the General said grimly. “And what about the ship itself? How did she fare in the impact?”
“She won’t ever fly again,” another crewman answered. “A quarter of the hull is completely crushed. There’s more structural problems than we can count running through the hull from bow to stern. The armor and outer hull has been shattered in places—at last count, there was something like seventy different places where someone can walk from inside the ship to the dirt outside.”
“The ship systems?”
“Reactor’s holding steady at eighteen percent output. Chief Dalek doesn’t want to push any more power out of it yet—the crew’s still ensuring the whole damn thing is stable. No one’s bothered with the engines. Eighteen of the turbolasers have been brought back online. Life support systems are restored for light and ventilation through forty percent of the hull.”
Halyn nodded, but his thoughts were spinning too fast for Kelta to get more than a distant impression of his planning. “The Rak’Edalin squadrons?”
“Twenty-two squadrons are combat ready,” Kryi Rinnet spoke up. “The other six will be combat operational within two days.”
“The rest of the Iridonia squadrons?”
“Eighty percent combat ready,” Kryi reported dutifully. “We also have several wings of extra fighters we weren’t prepared for—the Fleet left us a number of fighters behind. Maintenance crews are a bit swamped trying to service them, and there’s hangars all over Iridonia that are overfull.”
“Rak’Edalin’s defenses?” was the General’s next question.
“Shield generators are operational. The ground units are at full readiness and are ready to attack.” The officer making the report winced. “The Cathleen destroyed most of the power grid and targeting systems for the city-based turbolasers when she came down. There’s no realistic estimate on repairs available, because the crews will have to basically build a whole new network for power and data.”
The Zabrak turned to face one of the few non-Zabraks in the meetings. “The berserkers?”
Anishor rumbled in a low throaty growl, a sharp contrast to Kelta’s sense of him in the Force as a brilliant beacon of light. <We will be ready to fight when we are needed,> he said. <While our fleet has returned to Kashyyyk, those Wookiees remaining here are eager to do battle on behalf of Iridonia against the Yuuzhan Vong.>
Halyn stroked his chin. “Any word from the Council?”
“They’ve demanded to speak to you,” Kativie spoke up. “Pretty sure they wanted to speak to you immediately after the Cathleen came down, but we’ve been busy and comm was disrupted by, well, everything.”
“They can wait,” Halyn grunted. “The Vong?”
“Still holding their orbital positions,” Lenn Kaman said. “We’ve done some recon on them, and they appear to have landing craft all prepped and ready to go, but they’ve made no effort to launch. We’re not sure what they’re waiting for.”
“How tight is the blockade?”
Lenn considered for a moment before answering. “We can slip light freighters and a few fighters here and there through it—they don’t have the number of ships they’d need to really lock us down. Anything bigger, though, like troop reinforcements or major supplies would get shot to pieces, even with a good fighter escort.”
Halyn turned to a quarter-sized hologram that was laced with static. “Status of the fleet?”
Allanna Saret’s image was broken with static, and her voice was a bit hard to hear. “Successfully withdrawn and disengaged from Iridonia. We’re going to attempt to make contact with Bel Iblis and bring part of the New Republic fleet back here to break the blockade. We’ve left a relay satellite on the very edge of the system, so we should be able to get HoloNet transmissions to and from Iridonia, at least until the Vong find it.”
“Very good.” Halyn’s voice held a note of approval. “Everyone with a combat role, ensure your troops are ready to fly or fight within the hour. The Vong will be coming very shortly.”
“How do you know that?” Kelta spoke up, fingering both lightsabers she wore at her belt. Her sense of Halyn in the Force was of utter confidence and certainty. In a way, his attitude scared her.
“I have a way with people.” Halyn’s smile was pure pirate. “Dismissed!”
Halyn Sanshir strode down the hangar, taking in the seemingly endless rows of starfighters. The time was short before the Yuuzhan Vong would strike, and he wanted to review the state of at least one of Rak’Edalin’s hangars before the fighting broke out.
This was his legacy—the consequences of the liberation of Iridonia. Alliance forces, coupled with the Iridonian resistance, had smashed the Imperial blockade using starfighter forces. After driving away the Star Destroyers overhead, the squadrons of Rebel starfighters had provided aerial support for the Resistance’s operations. It was only after the orbital tracks were clear that friendly capital ships—stolen, Clone Wars-era Venator-class Star Destroyers, had made an appearance.
Iridonia had learned its lessons from its liberation. Instead of investing in a defenses balanced across capital ships and starfighters, it had invested in a minimal number of warships while buying and maintaining one of the largest starfighter forces in the galaxy. Only four major capital ships, plus a handful of smaller ones, protected all of Zabrak space. Tens of thousands of starfighters littered the same area.
The ever-reliable X-wing starfighter comprised the first squadron Halyn walked past. Personally, it was one of Halyn’s favorite craft he had ever flown; it was a dogfighter and a killer in purest form. There was a reason it comprised the backbone of New Republic starfighter operations all across the galaxy.
The next squadron in line was filled with B-wing assault starfighters. The heaviest-armed fighter in any military in the galaxy, B-wings gave Zabrak fighter wings the punch necessary to knock out capital ships without a mighty fleet of their own. Halyn’s wing during the Galactic Civil War had received some of the first of the deployed B-wings, and had put them to good use. They were still surprisingly agile for their size and firepower.
A dozen T-wing interceptors rested easily on the permacrete next. The fighters had not been popular when they were designed and developed. Hoerch-Kessel had sold the craft to the Alliance as the successor to the A-wing, and the resource-strapped Rebellion had hoped to retired the maintenance-intensive A-wings. Performance of the early models had been lackluster, so the finished units were shunted off to “unimportant” starfighter wings. During the Galactic Civil War, in the months leading up to Endor, Halyn’s wing had made good use of them. When Iridonia began acquiring starfighters, he had personally negotiated a contract with Hoersch-Kessel on the Zabraks’ behalf.
Xg-1 assault gunboats hung from racks overhead. Halyn shook his head at those. Developed by Cygnus for the Empire, the single-pilot, heavily-armed starfighters had been underutilized in the Imperial Navy. Hyperspace-capable and equipped with shields, they were outside normal Imperial starfighter doctrine. As a result, many of the Imperial starfighter commanders didn’t know how to utilize them and effectively chose to leave them in the racks. They were cheap to acquire on the secondhand and black markets because of an undeserved poor reputation.
Only four A-wings rested beneath the Xg-1s. Halyn suppressed a shudder as he walked by. He’d always hated the things, and they seemed to return the favor. Still, the value of a high-speed interceptor and reconnaissance craft was undeniable. The old Rebel had grudgingly approved his older brother’s proposal to purchase and equip the craft.
An old Incom X4 gunship filled the entire berthing space for a squadron’s hangar. Relics of the Galactic Civil War, the vessels were a rare sight in the spaceways. The gunship was still armed to the teeth, refitted in the last few months with weapons designed to combat the Yuuzhan Vong. Equally capable of both atmospheric and deep space operations, it was usually used to support a starfighter screen, acting as a mobile anti-starfighter flak platform.
A trio of TIE Defenders hung in launching racks in the next hangar; nine TIE Hunters filled out the squadron. The TIE Defender was infamous for its prowess in combat—fast, maneuverable, well-shielded, and armed to the teeth. Though, to Halyn’s knowledge, no new Defender had been produced in decades, they were still ridiculously expensive…and still in demand.
The TIE Hunters were a design Seinar had experimented with and deemed a failure; subsequently, Seinar claimed the craft were only testbed for new technology and never intended for full-scale production. Halyn was fairly certain the craft had been an early attempt to integrate technology from Incom’s X-wing—shield generators, class 1 hyperdrives, s-foils—into a TIE Interceptor design. The resulting starfighter was more akin to an X-wing in speed and a TIE Interceptor in protection, though Iridonian ingenuity and refits had turned the craft into something more frontline-worthy.
Halyn stopped and stared into the next hangar. “No…it can’t be…”
But it was. He’d recognize the curves of the Gallofree light freighter anywhere. There hadn’t been many of them produced—Gallofree had gone bankrupt and out of business before more than a few thousand had been manufactured. But this particular YKL-37R Nova Courier had the slightly expanded, more blocky forward hull. No new coat of paint could hide that from the man who had flown the Starwind for four years of bloody warfare.
“That’s my ship,” he said aloud, somewhere between confusion, surprise, and anger.
Closer examination revealed the truth of the freighter’s state. While she gleamed with fresh paint, wiring hung from open panels in clumps. The lower quad turret was missing a barrel, and the gunner’s canopy was cracked. As Halyn continued to circle the vessel, he spotted creases in the armor, an out-of-alignment sublight engine, unrepaired damage to the sensor pod. Stepping up the boarding ramp revealed a shattered interior: almost all of the access panels were open, or the covers missing entirely; he could see outside light visible in several places in the forward hold; coolant lines were ruptured and completely drained; the navicomputer was missing circuit boards.
“How in the hell did you get to Iridonia?” Halyn muttered. “Doesn’t make any sense.”
But it’s a puzzle that’s going to have to wait, he knew. The Yuuzhan Vong will be coming, and it’s time to do my part in making sure they dance to our tune.
A small smile crossed his face. Seems fitting to do the deed from here. He pulled his comlink from his pocket and held it up to his lips. “Cathleen, this is General Sanshir. Patch me through to the widecast.”