Kelta Rose and Kativie Lusp walked side-by-side through one of the many corridors running the length of the wreckage of the Cathleen. Lights flickered off and on in the deeper sections of the ship, the systems not fully restored. The air was stale, too; many fans and ventilation systems were still offline or, at best, not working well.
“I don’t understand him,” Kelta murmured. “What’s happened to him since…well, since Endor?”
Kativie offered a slight shrug. “War.”
“Which one?” Kelta asked honestly.
Kativie offered a small, pained smile. “As near as I can tell, pretty much every one.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Kelta said, shaking her head. “He left the Alliance after Endor to find some peace.”
“Yes, he did,” Kativie agreed. “As near as I can tell, he failed to find it.”
That brought Kelta to a stop. “What do you mean?”
The Zabrak Jedi studied Kelta for a long moment. “I only know what I can put together. There are so many things he won’t talk about, won’t tell anyone—not even me.”
Kelta waited patiently.
The youngest of the three Sanshir siblings was contemplative when she spoke. “I know he left the Alliance and tried to give up on fighting, on war. He spent a year or two as an honest trader, and then as a smuggler. Then he got dragged into the fight against the Empire on some backwater worlds, did some soldiering. He got himself out again after helping kick the Empire out of the Rim, and was down on his luck for a few years.” She blew out a sigh. “Then Thrawn came in.”
Kelta listened patiently, not interrupting.
“Halyn was struggling to get by when he was dragooned into service for the New Republic, with a group that called itself Zealot. He did some flying and shooting, and when Thrawn was killed at Bilbringi, he got himself out again.” Kativie smiled a little. “During the reborn Emperor crisis, and the warlords that followed that, he did some honest work as a freelance captain. He’d actually captain ships for rich tourists and the like who had bought a ship but knew nothing about flying.” Her smile spread. “He told me about it once, after a lot of drinking. He’d use these rich tourists—usually Imperial loyalists—to smuggle rebel operatives and resistance members onto Imperial-held worlds.”
Kelta tried to reconcile Halyn in such a role with the general she knew. To her surprise, it wasn’t that hard. It’s just like him, in many ways. Use the enemy’s strength against him. Rely on wile and wit and guile instead of force of arms. It’s like all the strategies and tactics he used back during the Civil War, except scaled down instead of up.
“He did all sorts of stupid things during that,” Kativie continued. “Until the war really started to wind down with the Empire. With fewer worlds crying out for oppression, and most of the remaining worlds in the Empire actually wanting to be there, well…” she hesitated. “I think he got bored.”
“Bored? Halyn Lance got bored?” Kelta couldn’t contain her surprise at that statement.
Kativie nodded. “He spent a year or two here on Iridonia, helping Argus defend the military budget. See, a lot of people saw the peace and thought it was time to disarm. Both my brothers were convinced that allowing our guard to drop would end poorly.” Her face twisted, her expression unreadable. “Whether they succeeded or not, well, I think that’s yet to be decided. If it wasn’t for them, Iridonia would probably already have fallen. As it is, we’re on the brink.”
“So where was he after the peace treaty was signed?” Kelta prompted.
Kativie shook her head. “There’s six years of Halyn’s life that he won’t tell me about. He’ll always deflect me, no matter how hard I pry. There’s a year gap starting six months or so after the battle of Endor, and there’s no information at all from a few months after the signing of the peace treaty between Bastion and Coruscant, and three months before the Vong invaded the Outer Rim.”
The red-maned Jedi Knight considered Kativie’s information. “Any idea where he was either time?”
“No,” Kativie said with a shake of her head. “He’s given me absolutely no clues about it. All I know is that he was really grim after the first year, and he seemed a lot more…I don’t know, jumpy after the second time.”
“Jumpy?” Kelta asked.
“I don’t know how else to describe it. He was just on edge for months after he showed up here, and it only got worse as the invasion progressed.” She shuddered. “I think Argus knew something about it, but he wouldn’t speak about it, either.”
“You couldn’t sense anything?”
Kativie shook his head. “I’m not like you, Kelta—I’m not good at feeling other people’s emotions. I can pull some surface stuff from most people, but sometimes I think it’s easier to read a Vong warrior than it is to figure out what Halyn’s thinking.”
“What about…” Kelta was interrupted as both their comlinks chimed simultaneously. The Jedi dropped their hands to their comlinks, freeing them together and twisting them on. They were both surprised to hear Halyn’s voice from the tiny speaker.
Triak Kraal and Ret Kraal were in deep discussion about the overall strategy for conquering Iridonia when the villip keeper interrupted.
“Commander,” she said, “my life in forfeit, but the infidel leader is transmitting.”
“Bring me the villip,” Triak ordered.
It took only moments for the visage of their enemy, the Zabrak leader called Halyn Sanshir, to be staring out from the villip at Triak. The villip tender confirmed that Sanshir was transmitting on a broadcast, and could not see Triak in return.
“Look at these Yuuzhan Vong cowards,” the general was saying as Triak took the villip in his hands. “They sit in orbit after using a dishonorable tactic to break our defensive fleet. It is not the conduct of warriors, but of sniveling creatures who know not the honor of battle, of the shedding of blood.
“So I offer a challenge!” Triak growled at the villip as his hated enemy spoke. “Let the Yuuzhan Vong come, here to Rak’Edalin! Let them show themselves to be honorable, as they claim to be, or cowards who hide behind false honor, as all of Iridonia can see them to be!”
Ret Kraal was silent, staring at the villip in utter disbelief. “A toolmaker calls us honorless?” he half-whispered.
“Let the Yuuzhan Vong come and embrace life or death as warriors! Let them prove they are capable of even lifting a weapon against the Zabrak! I call on you, Vong scum,” the villip relayed, “to quit hiding behind your false gods and fight us as warriors, not with the conduct of vermin!”
Triak tensed at the insult of his enemy calling him “Vong”—such a being was childless, without the favor of the gods—and the tone of his enemy left him little doubt that this Halyn Sanshir understood well the insult he was offering. He studied the villip intensely, memorizing every feature, every scar, every tattoo of his enemy. “I will crush your skull and grind your bones into dust,” Triak swore. “Your death will be without a scrap of honor, and your entire clan will be cursed by your own people!”
Sanshir continued. “Fight us, Vong scum! Fight us here, at Rak’Edalin!”
Triak stabbed the villip with his coufee. He looked down at the weapon in his hand as the villip writhed and died, not remembering drawing the short bladed weapon. “Launch the yorik trema,” he said in a trembling snarl. “We shall purge this world of this infidel scum who dares insult the chosen children of the gods.”
“You need merely point the target, Commander,” Ret said with a deep bow, “and our warriors shall destroy it. Where shall we strike?”
“Rak’Edalin,” Triak snarled. “Where we can find our enemy and utterly destroy him.”
Ret was slow in speaking. “It is where the enemy expects us to strike,” he said cautiously.
“Yes,” Triak agreed, “which is why we know we can find the enemy there. Land our forces—every warriors, every slave, every living being who can hold an amphistaff or coufee.”
“To the north, then,” Ret speculated. “Where the fall of their warship has weakened their defenses.”
“No,” came the contradiction. “To the south, where the enemy does not expect us. We shall smash through their walls, their gates, and in the confusion we shall run them out of their own city.”
“Sir,” an officer said tightly. “We’re seeing coralskipper traces at the edge of the atmosphere.”
Halyn nodded. “As expected.” He glanced over his shoulder at Kryi Rinnet. “Ready for your part?”
Kryi returned the nod. “As always, General.” She smiled. “Ul’Akhoi.”
Yorik trema, often called “crates” by the natives of the galaxy, were lightly-defended, unarmed vessels designed to move large numbers of soldiers quickly from space to ground. Like almost all Yuuzhan Vong vessels, their hulls were comprised of yorik coral and they relied on dovin basals, using gravitic manipulation, for propulsion.
Because of their unarmed nature, they were escorted in combat by coralskippers, known to the Yuuzhan Vong at yorik-et. While the coralskippers engaged enemy defenses, the sturdy yorik trema would rely on their defenses to insert successfully into atmosphere and deploy troops on the ground. Once the warriors had departed, it wasn’t uncommon for yorik trema to hurl themselves at enemy defenses to weaken shields or structures, particularly if the vessel had taken damage and wasn’t capable of returning to orbit.
However, yorik trema relied first and foremost on air superiority having been achieved before entry into the battlefield.
As hundreds of the Yuuzhan Vong transports descended into atmosphere, they were beset upon by Zabrak fighter squadrons. The coralskippers, an even match for the defenders in space, found their un-aerodynamic designs severely disadvantaged in combat where drag, altitude, and gravity became factors. Still, they battled the Zabrak pilots to a standstill, sacrificing Yuuzhan Vong lives to keep the marauding starfighters from reaching the yorik trema.
But here at Iridonia, the coralskippers found themselves in a battle situation unlike any the Yuuzhan Vong had encountered during their long march from Helska to Coruscant. No veteran invader was prepared for the nature of this fight, for the New Republic had never forced it upon their foe.
The Yuuzhan Vong were outnumbered.
This had been a critical element of the defense, devised and revised by Argus and Halyn. The defense of Iridonia, they had both agreed, would not rely on establishing superiority in orbit; the Zabrak simply had too few capital ships to manage that. Instead, they would play to their strengths, and establish aerial superiority, using their starfighters to intercept and destroy the Yuuzhan Vong between orbit and the ground.
Squadron after squadron of Zabrak craft joined the battle. Battered coralskippers found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of lasers and proton torpedoes and concussion missiles, found a foe so numerous that despite their best efforts, they couldn’t keep the Zabrak fighters away.
Coralskippers fell away from the fight in droves as dovin basals were stunned or killed; yorik coral hulls splintered and fell to the ground in a coral hail; yorik trema hid behind gravitic void defenses, trying desperately to survive until they could deploy their precious cargo of warriors, of slaves, of weapons. Formations crumbled, and transports began to burn as the defenders reached them. More and more surviving Yuuzhan Vong found themselves descending towards the planet without a ship when hulls erupted like overripe fruit, with no hope but a short death as they met their end kilometers below.
It was impossible, of course, for the Zabrak defenders to destroy the entirety of the drop force. Ordinance was expended, fuel exhausted, and fighters had to return to base before the job was complete. Any other landing force, having lost nearly a third of their supplies, troops, warriors, and weapons in the opening minutes of a battle, would likely have turned away from the fight.
But these were the Yuuzhan Vong; they would fight their enemy to the death, for their glory, and for their gods.
Two-thirds of the force made landfall to the south of Rak’Edalin, with surviving coralskippers setting up a combat air patrol over the battered invasion army. Unharmed yorik trema returned whence they came, clawing away from the mad world with impossible defenses. The wounded yorik trema chose instead to hurl themselves at the defenses of Rak’Edalin, to weaken them for the assault to come.
“General,” an officer said tensely, “the shields can’t take much more pounding. They’re throwing entire ships at the city’s defenses, and the power grid is on the edge of failing.”
Halyn nodded. “As expected. Order all forward units to stand ready, and then pull the coverage back on the shield dome. Only shields overhead—pull back forty degrees of coverage.”
Nisia glanced over at him, shock riding freely on her face. “Jess, you’re opening the door for them?”
“Well, they did knock,” Halyn said dryly. “Do it. All forward units are to hold their position—don’t advance out from under the shields.”
Halyn watched the tactical hologram grimly. It wasn’t the detailed model compiled from sensors of dozens of warships that he would have had in orbit, nor was in the strategic data he’d used from the orbiting satellites and ground-based sensor stations. This was crude by comparison, updated with reports flowing in from the city’s edge, from the limited data the crippled Cathleen could provide, and from the city’s sensors and alert system.
As the shields fell back, the Yuuzhan Vong charged into the city. Based on the tactical hologram, Halyn guessed there were perhaps a single Yuuzhan Vong warrior for every twenty slaves in the attacking force. “This is going to get brutal,” he muttered. “Down in the mud and wrestling for control.”
“Not your style of fight, sir,” Kryi Rinnet spoke up. With the Zabrak squadrons regrouping and the surviving coralskippers withdrawn to orbital positions, she had idle moments now to watch and speculate.
“No,” Halyn agreed. “But it’s not the Vong’s, either.”
“What do you mean?” Nisia asked with a frown.
Halyn shook his head. “Doesn’t matter yet.”
“Sir, our squadrons are starting to come ready again,” Kryi announced. “Your orders?”
“Keep them on alert, standing by,” Halyn instructed. “Watch for any more reinforcements from orbit. If the Vong try to send any ships down the well, dispatch squadrons to intercept and destroy. For now, though, hold them in reserve.”
“Yes, sir,” Kryi said quietly.
Another figure entered the bridge, and Halyn turned by reflex. His eyebrows rose when he recognized the newcomer. “Sandarie? Sandi? What are you doing here?”
The blue-skinned Twi’lek looked a little worse for wear. Her dark jumpsuit was dusty and torn. Blood trickled from a variety of scrapes and minor cuts, and purpling flesh revealed bruising over her right eye. Her walk was slow and limping, favoring her right hip. She looked tired, battered. “Hi, Halyn,” she said slowly. “You dropped a building on me.”
“Sir,” another voice said. “Sir, we just received a signal from the Council. They are demanding to meet with you immediately.”
“That can wait,” Halyn said, waving off the call. “Sandi, what happened? Why aren’t you on the Dauntless and clear of this mess?”
“Well,” the Twi’lek said slowly, “Ryian and I had a fight, and I decided to come down here to Rak’Edalin to meet with Kativie. I parked my ship in a hangar half a klick from here, and when the Cathleen came down, it collapsed.”
Halyn grimaced. “You look like the Vong got ahold of you.”
Sandi shook her head. “No, I don’t. My ship does, though.” Her expression twisted. “Ryian won’t be happy.” She glanced around the battered remains of the command center. “What happened?”
“Vong came up with a new toy,” Halyn said grimly. “The fleet’s been pushed out of orbit, and we’re under blockade. The Vong are at the edge of the city now, fighting with our forward elements.”
“And what are we going to do?” another voice asked from behind Sandarie.
A moment later, Kativie and Kelta both stepped into light. Halyn flinched at that, and Kelta refused to meet his eyes. “We’re going to fight them,” Halyn said. “Unless you think surrendering would be a better idea?”
Kativie shook her head and tried to form a joke, but the wisecrack died on her lips. “No, we’re not going to give up.”
Halyn glanced at the tactical hologram, then sighed. “The Council’s braying for my blood,” he said. “Orders before I go to meet with them.” Around the bridge, Zabraks straightened to listen and receive orders. The Cathleen might have fallen, but it hasn’t broken us. The Vong are at our gates, but they’re willing and able to fight.
“The Vong are going to concentrate their push on the south.” He gestured at the tactical hologram. “I want every Zabrak who hasn’t received a jato to be pulled back here to the Cathleen. We’ll protect them here, if they haven’t already evacuated out of the city. Everyone who can hold a blaster or zhaboka will need to prepare to fight.” He glanced at the hologram again. “We’ll need to setup strongholds at major intersections and open areas throughout the city,” he continued. “Volunteers from the city’s citizens are preferable.”
“What about evacuation?” Kelta asked.
“No evacuation,” Halyn said firmly. “We need every single body we have to fight. Anything less than our full effort, and Rak’Edalin will fall. The Vong are going to be stopped here.”
“But what about…”
“No evacuation,” Halyn repeated. “Kativie, Sandarie, Nisia…” he looked around the bridge, “…and Ceikeh, with me.” He looked down self-consciously at his uniform and was acutely aware he hadn’t changed, hadn’t bathed, hadn’t eaten since the Cathleen’s spectacular entry into the city. “We’re going to meet the Council.”