Lenn Kaman never felt more alive than those precious hours he was strapped in the cockpit of a starfighter.
His career had begun long ago, and most would call him too old for starfighter combat. He had trained in the Imperial Navy and flown TIE fighters during the Galactic Civil War. Exhausted by years of fighting the Rebellion, he had retired shortly after the disastrous defeat at Endor with dozens of kills to his name and a certification for the TIE Avenger—an advanced TIE model that had suffered from its status as the in-between model of the widely-deployed TIE Interceptor and the legendary TIE Defender.
A little over a year after his retirement, he had been recruited by a Zabrak who he would have once considered his enemy—an ex-Rebel general named Halyn Lance, himself a starfighter pilot and a master tactician. After spending some time training in the slower, but heavier-armed and defended starfighters the Alliance preferred, he had participated in dozens of operations staged by Halyn.
He shook his head at the remembrance. Only Halyn Lance would recruit retired Imperial officers for attacks on the Empire. And only Halyn Lance would pull it off.
Lenn was now strapped in the cockpit of a TIE-series craft, an offshoot model that had never achieved widespread use. How Halyn managed to get ahold of these TIE Hunters, I’ll never know. The fighter was better than most Seinar designs in atmosphere: the vessel was streamlined, with Seinar’s own adaptation of the s-foil system made famous by the X-wing. The folding radiator panels were even now locked open, causing more drag but maximizing agility. A glance at his system boards showed the fighter’s twin laser cannons were ready to fire.
“Hunter Leader, we have another wave dropping,” Kryi Rinnet’s voice echoed in his ear. “Sending you vectors now.”
“Roger,” Lenn confirmed as data streamed over his screens. “Vectors confirmed, we are moving to intercept.”
“Affirmative. Red and Blue groups will be providing air support for the ground forces.”
Lenn pulled back on the TIE’s yoke. The vessel responded with the agility familiar to all pilots who’d trained on a TIE. A moment later he fed more power to the engines, and all he could see was blue sky.
Around and behind him, the few other TIE Hunters deployed by the Iridonian military followed his maneuver. Not far behind them, the more heavily-armed B-wings and X-wings spread out. We’re the spearhead, Lenn thought to himself. We break up the defenses so the heavy-hitters can take down the real danger.
Above him, he could see the faint contrails of descending Yuuzhan Vong coralskippers. He gritted his teeth. “Hunter group, break and engage,” he called. “TIEs and pointers on the skips, crosses on the transports. Let’s not let anything through, people.”
His actions suited his words as he opened fire at maximum range. He knew it was unlikely he’d do any real damage at this range, but forcing the skips to deploy voids defensively could tire them out more quickly.
Plasma burned down through the atmosphere towards him. In response, he sent the TIE into a spiral. The sky was filled with fire, but he refused to relent. His TIE screamed upward toward his foes and, a moment later, he was past.
Other fighters in his unit were not as lucky. One of the TIE Hunters was targeted by several of the coralskippers, and dissolved into a fireball. Another was struck by a precise shot through the viewport and sent tumbling uncontrolled towards the ground. The remainder continued evasive actions as the slower X-wings, now reaching their own maximum firing range, began filling the air with reddish laser fire. Coralskippers that turned to engage the TIE Hunters were now caught off-guard by the X-wings’ attack. Proton torpedoes began to detonate across the invasion zone, as much a danger to the faster Zabrak starfighters as they were to the Yuuzhan Vong.
“Hunter Lead, be advised,” Kryi’s voice crackled again, “we are reading a larger contact with the transports.”
Lenn had thought the skies had been filled with plasma before, but the coralskippers’ attack was like a light rain compared to the thunderstorm of fire now. “All units, evade!” he shouted as plasma poured down. He jammed the throttle forward and nosed the craft over, using gravity to increase his acceleration. “Get clear!”
A glance at his rear scopes showed the threat: a Yuuzhan Vong light cruiser analog, a matalok, was now screening the wave of troop transports. He gritted his teeth as below he saw the rising B-wings catch the brunt of the attack, shattering their formation and sending pilots into uncontrolled descents. Not to their deaths—they’re likely already dead.
The X-wings had scattered in time and, even now, were regrouping in trios. Coralskippers continued to harry them, but to Lenn’s surprise, there were far less than he’d been fighting moments earlier. That cruiser…they destroyed their own fighters to get a shot at our bombers. Of course, with the X-wings scattered and the B-wings destroyed, we don’t have the firepower to stop the transports before they hit the ground.
“Rinnet, we need more firepower up here,” he said tersely.
“Status, Hunter Lead?”
“The Vong are dropping transports down the well,” he said bluntly. “We don’t have the firepower to stop them. Three quarters of our bombers are gone, and our fighters are scattered. If you don’t get me more firepower right now, we’re going to have a whole bunch more Vong on the ground.”
Rinnet was silent for long moments. Lenn used the time to gather his TIE Hunters together and begin harassing the transports now in the matalok’s wake. A few coralskippers tried to intercept them and were promptly blown to coral dust.
It’s too late now, Lenn thought grimly as he watched his altimeter tick down. Even if we had a wing of B-wings come in, we’d never stop them all in time.
Ahead, the matalok shuddered in its descent, and then began to fall faster. Lenn frowned, and then raised his eyebrows in surprise as the craft slowly rolled over. Proton torpedoes had ripped open its belly. As its fall quickened, he realized they’d likely killed the dovin basals as well.
“Yes,” he hissed. “Hunters, stay on them. We can do this!” Friendly fighters joined them in the sky now, needling the descending transports with laserfire or ripping them open with missiles. Transports began to fall uncontrolled, streaming fluids into atmosphere that no pilot wanted to contemplate.
Then the already-dead matalok hit Rak’Edalin’s shields.
Halyn found the Cathleen’s command center in chaos.
Kryi Rinnet was the first to see his entrance and ripped her headset off. “General,” she said breathlessly, “a Vong cruiser hit the city’s shields. The entire shield grid is offline.”
The general blinked in disbelief. “What?” he asked, dumbfounded.
“Vong transports are landing troops inside Rak’Edalin,” she continued. “Crews are already out trying to get the shields back up, but the early reports are that all the relays fried from the overload. It could take hours before the shields are back up.”
Halyn shook his head. “Get every squadron within a thousand klicks in the air and covering us,” he ordered. “As much air support as you can muster—I don’t want anything else getting through.”
“Already done,” Kryi said. “Some transports are still managing to penetrate—they’re throwing a lot of skips at us.”
Halyn growled and looked around. “What’s the status of the battle at the edge of the city?”
Anishor answered from a station he’d taken over. <The Yuuzhan Vong continue to engage the ground defenses,> he rumbled. <They are being held at bay, but their attack does not seem very intensive, either. They are likely moving the newly-landed warriors…>
“…into flanking positions,” Halyn finished. “Right. Issue the order to fall back from the walls there, and scatter into squads. Begin falling back towards the city center. I want every one of our people out there fighting a delaying action.” He glanced at Kryi. “Do we have an estimate on how many troops they’ve managed to land?”
“Maybe three hundred of the slave troops, and a few dozen warriors?” Kryi speculated. “Just a guess by the number of transports we’ve confirmed got through our fighter screen.”
“Right.” Halyn paused for a moment to compose himself. “Alright. Kativie, you’re in charge here—I need you to coordinate the withdrawal to maximize its effectiveness. Anishor, Kelta, Nisia, you’re with me.”
“And me,” Ceikeh interjected from near the door.
Halyn turned. “No offense, but I don’t think politics are going to do us much good against the Vong.”
“You’re getting forgetful in your old age, General,” the Zabrak Senator said. “What was I when we first met?”
“Right.” Halyn shook his head. “If you get killed, your wife is going to kill me. Alright, let’s suit up and get moving.”
“Where are we going?” Kelta asked. Her expression was surprised, and tinged with suspicion.
She’s wondering why I chose her to come and leave Kativie here, Halyn guessed. She doesn’t need to know the reasons yet. “Hunting,” he said aloud.
Halyn had, from long habit, maintained his own armory aboard the Cathleen. A small officer’s cabin was registered to a lieutenant who did not actually exist. Fortunately, the quarters had survived the Star Cruiser’s fall from orbit, though the door lacked power to open itself automatically. As was common on starships, the lack of power meant the door was sealed tightly—vacuum proof in case of a hull breach in battle.
Even a star cruiser’s door couldn’t stand up to a Wookiee berserker’s strength.
Kelta and Anishor stood dumbfounded as Halyn rummaged through the racks and cabinets lining the quarters. Ceikeh was utterly unsurprised, taking the opportunity to choose a set of light armor with ballistic shock inserts, strapping on the dark red armor over his clothing.
Halyn, on the other hand, ignored the armor in favor of a dark, floor-length duster of black leather. He stripped out of his uniform jacket and shirt, replacing them with a simple, tight-fitting sleeveless tunic. He wasn’t quick enough for his old friends to miss the striped scars running up and down his back.
“Halyn,” Kelta breathed as he shrugged the duster on. “Oh, Halyn, what happened?”
The Zabrak ignored the question as he tightened a gunbelt beneath the duster. A blaster pistol rode his right thigh in a tie-down holster, and a trio of thermal detonators bounced over his left hip. He selected a short-barreled blaster rifle from the rack of energy weapons covering four meters of wall, then crossed to the rack opposite filled with melee weapons.
Instead of choosing a zhaboka—and there were a dozen of them, varying in lengths and weights—he chose a meter-long sword with a curved blade. Wordlessly he hefted it, flicked it back and forth twice, and clipped its sheath to his duster before sliding the weapon in.
Ceikeh, on the other hand, had forgone both the blaster pistols and rifles for a slender flamethrower. He carried the weapon in his hands, with its support sling over his shoulder and several cartridges of gas already clipped to his belt. Over his shoulder he had slung the traditional Iridonian zhaboka. All trace of weakness or cowardice were gone from his expression as he clicked open the feed valve on the flamethrower. “I’m ready,” he said.
Halyn finished tying a dark blue headwrap in place around his horns. “Let’s do this.”
“What, exactly,” Kelta said when she had found her voice, “are we going to do?”
“The Yuuzhan Vong are trying to spring an ambush on our squads holding the initial landing party at bay,” Halyn explained grimly. “We’re going to ambush the ambushers.”
“Just four of us?” Kelta asked, dumbfounded.
“You have any ally,” Halyn said dryly. “It’s really big. So does Anishor.”
The Jedi Knight snapped both lightsabers from her belt and ignited the blades, filling the room with a purple glow. “The Force isn’t very useful against the Yuuzhan Vong,” Kelta said at least.
“So Kativie keeps telling me,” Halyn replied. “We’re still going to do what needs to be done.”
The hum of a blaster powering up was familiar to every one of the combatants. Kelta turned, her blades rising defensively. Their glow revealed the source: Nisia Eisweep.
“I don’t have anything else to do,” the Zabrak woman said with a shrug. She was already armed with a pair of blaster pistols and the rifle in her hands. “So we’ll make it a party of five.”
“See?” Halyn said to Kelta. “There’s five of us. We’ll be fine.” His expression lost any trace of amusement, leaving cold fire burning in his eyes. “Let’s kill some Vong.”
<Are you planning on walking?> Anishor asked as the five defenders exited the Cathleen’s wreckage via a still-intact airlock.
Halyn shook his head and pointed. “Kativie called for a transport.”
A light freighter was settling to the ground on its struts even as he spoke, its boarding ramp dropping to the broken pavement. A full-fledged turbolaser worthy of a warship was mounted above, while a pair of lighter turrets covered the belly. Proton torpedo launcher alleys were clearly visible under the vessel’s central cockpit. The vaguely wedge-shaped craft boasted two oversized sublight engines and triple hulls, with lighter connecting segments between.
“I’ve never seen a freighter like that before,” Kelta commented dubiously.
“They’re not as common as the Corellian junk that everyone likes,” Halyn said dryly. “These are Muurian transports. They’re not as flashy as a YT-series craft, but they’re heavily armed from the factory, easy to maintain, and better in a fight. Smugglers love Corellian freighters because they’re great at running away; militaries like Muurians because they’re great at fighting.”
Kelta hid her smile. Halyn hasn’t changed. Twenty years later, and he still hates Corellian freighters. It’s almost pathological. She recalled how, years ago, he’d told her—privately—how much he disliked Corellian vessels. A number of his pilots and officers swore by them, though, including Ryian Coron—now commander of the Dauntless—who had spent several years of the war engaging Imperials in his Spinning Cloud. Halyn had bit his lip through it all to keep the peace.
Of course, given he’s in charge here now, I shouldn’t be surprised that the Zabraks aren’t using YT freighters.
The five members of the party walked up the loading ramp but not much further in. The ramp had not fully retracted before the pilot was lifting, sending dust and debris swirling away as the light freighter took to the skies. This will only take a few minutes, Kelta thought.
“So, Jess,” Nisia said conversationally. “Why are we fighting this war if we can’t win?”
Kelta turned and raised both eyebrows. “What?”
Halyn shrugged loosely. “Because the Vong need to be fought.”
“Don’t feed me bullshit, Jess,” Nisia warned. “I know you better than that.”
Through the Force, Kelta could feel Halyn’s reluctance to answer. All these years later, even with his closest friends and allies, and he still keeps his cards close to his chest.
“We don’t have to win,” Halyn said at last. “We just have to not lose.”
“Explain the difference,” Nisia shot back at him.
There was a long delay before Halyn spoke. “The Vong have been virtually unstoppable since they entered our galaxy,” he said slowly. “They crushed the New Republic’s defenders everywhere. Even at Ithor where they lost the engagement, they still managed to destroy the planet. They’ve been willing to throw away ships, lives, materiel as if it were nothing. You can’t beat an enemy like that conventionally—you’re never going to win a war with them the way the Rebellion did with the Empire, or the Republic with the Confederation forty years ago.”
Kelta heard echoes of Jedi debates over the war with the Yuuzhan Vong. How do you defeat an evil like the Vong without becoming evil yourself?
“Even with our fleet and our starfighter squadrons, I knew we could never keep the Vong from landing on Iridonia.” Halyn’s voice was calm and certain. “Argus and I knew that after the debacle at Ithor, and we were proved right up and down the invasion corridor. We simply didn’t have the firepower, and there was no way to acquire it in time to make a difference. Every shipyard in the galaxy is turning out warships for the effort; there’s not exactly a bunch of ships that are purchasable. Hell, the New Republic has been pulling out old Star Cruisers from the days of the Rebellion and refurbishing them for the effort. I don’t doubt that if we hadn’t have bought our three MC80s before the war broke out, they’d have wound up serving in the New Republic fleet.”
Nisia’s eyes narrowed. “So how do you intend to win?”
Halyn shook his head. “You don’t understand. I meant it when I said we can’t win.”
Nisia’s sigh was exasperated. “So how, Jess, do you intend to not lose?”
“By maintaining a viable resistance,” Halyn answered promptly. “We knew that we couldn’t keep the Vong out of orbit because we had too few capital ships and too many starfighters. On the other hand, if we conserved our strength—and Argus and I wargamed this a thousand ways before he died—we could use our starfighters to ensure the Vong couldn’t establish air superiority. The most vulnerable time for any invading force is when it transitions from space to ground. The weakest point for an invading army is its supply lines, which require transit from space to ground. Our starfighter squadrons can and will ensure that the Vong can’t get their reinforcements through to the ground that they need. Their supplies will be similarly crippled.”
“So, it all comes down to starfighters anyway?” Nisia asked with confusion.
Halyn shook his head. “Wars are won by boots on the ground. If we lose air superiority, the Vong can land troops and supplies with impunity, and they’ll eventually overwhelm us by sheer numbers. With our squadrons keeping their supply chains cut, though, we have a chance of going toe-to-toe with their ground forces and beating them back.”
“And by beating them back you mean…?” Kelta asked.
Halyn’s voice was even, and he looked Kelta straight in the eyes. “We’ll kill every Yuuzhan Vong who is walking on Iridonia right now,” he said.
A voice spoke over the internal comm for the ship. “We’re approaching the drop zone. The Vong have a couple of skips here harassing us, so this will be a touch-and-go. Once we’re pulled out, you’re on your own.”
Halyn slapped the comm switch. “Roger that, and thanks. Status on the other two drop ships?”
“They’re right behind us,” the pilot said. “And from the sounds of it, they’re ready for a fight.”
“Good, because they’re about to get one.” He flicked the switch off and turned to face the boarding ramp.
The ship bounced once, twice as plasma blasts and magma missiles ate away at its shields, but the pilot held it steady. There was a sickening sense of vertigo as the ship abruptly dropped, one that even the inertial compensators and the artificial gravity couldn’t fully dissipate. Then the ramp fell open to the dust, and Halyn led the way, charging out with the short-barreled blaster rifle in hand.
Kelta shook her head, freed both lightsabers from her belt, and followed him down the ramp and into a swarm of thud bugs.
Sandarie clung tightly to the blaster rifle she’d appropriated from the Cathleen’s armory. In spite of the black armor clinging to her from the neck down—there was no helmet on Iridonia that would accommodate a Twi’lek’s head-tails—she felt oddly vulnerable. I was never the warrior, she reminded herself. That was always all the others—Ryian, Halyn, Jascen, Airek, even Allanna. I was the one who gathered information, ran supplies, helped make plans.
She also knew she’d been in her share of battles during the tumultuous years of the Galactic Civil War. She had always preferred to avoid fighting, but when called upon, she had picked up a blaster or vibroblade like everyone else. I might not have been a member of the Rebel Alliance’s military, but I’ve not backed down from a fight when I’m needed.
The Twi’lek did take comfort from the warriors around her. They were mostly silent, some even peaceful, as they prepared themselves for the battle to come. It wasn’t a matter of if for these brave warriors, either—it was only when. Each of them, as near as she could tell, was content with that fact. They’re willing to fight and kill and die so others don’t have to. It’s their purpose for living. She found the only way she could honor their choice was to respect their silence; she spoke only when spoken to.
The drop ship rocked from a blow to its shields, nearly throwing Sandarie from her feet. Coralskippers aren’t giving up, she thought.
“Drop point in fifteen seconds,” the pilot’s voice called. “Evac immediately; it’s too hot for me to stick around.”
There were roars of acknowledgement and approval. Sandi felt nothing but slightly nauseated, both at the rocking of the ship—now continuous as the Yuuzhan Vong fighters apparently strengthened their attacks—and at anticipation for the battle to come. She glanced down, checked the charge on her rifle, ensured her vibroblade was still in its sheath, and closed her eyes. Goddess protect me.
There was a final sickening feeling of falling, and the engines fell silent. The boarding ramp fell to the ground with a thud, and Sandarie followed twenty armed and battle-ready Wookiee berserkers from the Muurian transport’s hold.
Smoke and dust filled the air outside the transport. The drop ship’s engines whined to life and it lifted away, but the Twi’lek could barely hear it over the battle roars of the Wookiees. Through the wall of fur in front of her, she could see glimpses of Yuuzhan Vong warriors screaming their own battle cries as they charged the berserkers.
To her left, she could see a third transport disgorge more Wookiee berserkers. The transport was still under assault by coralskippers. Late-arriving X-wings swooped down to engage the skips, but the Yuuzhan Vong continued their intensive attack on the transport. The last of the Wookiees had barely stepped foot on the ground when the landing ramp retracted and the transport began to lift.
The shields were aglow as plasma balls and magma missiles bounced off them, denied their destructive potential. One coralskipper, either intentionally or by vice of too-slow reflexives, smashed into the transport on a pass. The shields failed, and the coralskipper crushed itself against the transport’s hull. Crippled, the vessel began to list, until another salvo of plasma consumed the vessel.
The shockwave of the explosion hurled the nearest Wookiees from their feet, and the flash of fire blinded Sandarie for a moment. She felt the shockwave pass over her, hurl her to the ground. When she could see again, she could see blood and hair.
Half-deafened, she staggered to her feet and picked up her blaster rifle again. To her right, she could see a smaller group engaged with the Yuuzhan Vong—the friends that had brought her to this world. Halyn Lance was fighting a warrior a head taller than himself, the sword in his hand madly parrying the attacker’s amphistaff. Mighty Anishor—I’ve still never met a Wookiee bigger than him—had a giant rykk blade longer than Sandi’s legs in either hand, moving so fast her eyes couldn’t follow his attacks and blocks. Violet-eyed Kelta Rose held twin flames of purple, her lightsabers keeping three Yuuzhan Vong at bay as she fought defensively.
Sandi finally became aware of someone talking to her. She turned, found the Zabrak woman there she had brought to Iridonia—Nisia Eisweep. Sandi squinted and read the other woman’s lips.
“Yes, I’m alright,” Sandi shouted. “Can hardly hear.”
Nisia pointed with her blaster pistol, then started firing. Sandi turned back, saw one of the reptoid slave troops take several bolts to the head and fall. The Twi’lek blushed at her moment’s distraction, then raised her blaster rifle and sighted on one of the Yuuzhan Vong warriors trying to penetrate Kelta’s defenses.
At forty meters distant, it wasn’t a difficult shot with a rifle, but the warrior’s vonduun crab armor turned it aside. He turned towards Sandi and Nisia as fire from Nisia’s less-powerful blaster pistol bounced off him in quick succession. The moment’s distraction cost him dearly; Kelta’s off-hand lightsaber cut his legs out from under him, and he went down thrashing.
Sandi nodded grimly and kept firing. Nisia’s blaster pistols whined behind her, joining the chaos. My hearing’s coming back, Sandi noted distantly. That’s a good sign.
Kelta’s violet blades flashed in a faster pattern yet, and first one, then the other of her opponents fell. She was breathing heavily as she turned towards Halyn and Anishor. Sandi swung her rifle over and, in spite of the years of warfare, was shocked at what she saw.
Halyn’s sword took his opponent’s head off at the neck even as she watched. The Vong warrior toppled impossibly slowly, a striking contrast to the one who replaced him, leaping forward with his amphistaff raised high to smash down on the smaller Zabrak. Halyn rushed forward into the attack, plunging the blade deep into his belly before the Vong could strike.
Anishor had dropped one of his rykk blades. With the remaining blade he was parrying away strikes from four Yuuzhan Vong who were trying to outflank him. Sandi’s heart caught in her throat. He’s lost one of his weapons already!
Then the massive Wookiee snaked out with his free hand, impossibly fast, and caught an attacking warrior’s wrist. The Yuuzhan Vong dropped his amphistaff, perhaps as a result of a Wookiee paw’s squeeze. Anishor twisted, his muscles bulging under his fur, and swung the warriors into all three of his fellows. All four went down in a heap, and abruptly Nisia’s blasterfire was burning into the mound of fallen Yuuzhan Vong. Sandi was surprised to find herself shooting as well.
I hate war.