When the last Yuuzhan Vong warrior fell to Anishor’s rykk blades, Halyn paused for a moment to draw himself up. Around him he could see his allies—Kelta, her burning lightsabers held high and ready; Anishor, his fur matted with blood and grime, the twin rykk blades shining with their own light; Ceikeh, his arm slashed open and still bleeding freely, but on his feet with zhaboka in hand; Nisia, blaster pistol in hand and still firing; Sandarie in a crouch, her blaster rifle firing.
With the Yuuzhan Vong down, the reptoid slave troops broke and fled. The Wookiee berserkers made parting blows, killing yet more of them. Some of the Wookiees were down, either badly wounded or dead; those still on their feet were splattered with blood and gore, though it was impossible to tell if its origins were Yuuzhan Vong or Wookiee. A few of the berserkers began an impromptu pursuit, but Anishor’s commanding roar brought them to a stop.
Halyn was still looking at the Twi’lek. I didn’t tell Sandi to come. Did I?
For a moment, the hasty plans he’d improvised aboard the Cathleen seemed a lifetime ago.
<The Yuuzhan Vong retreat,> Anishor observed, interrupting the Zabrak’s thoughts.
The Ul’akhoi turned. “For now. Without the Vong warriors, their slaves aren’t exactly brave. We’ve blunted this attack, but we’re losing ground to do so.”
<How much?> Anishor asked.
Halyn flicked his comlink on and brought it to his lips. “Katie, what’s the status of the major battle?”
The younger Sanshir answered a moment later. “The Yuuzhan Vong are inside the defenses now; there’s no holding them back. We took a fair number of casualties, but the Vong paid for every meter of territory they hold with their blood. We’re at a stalemate for now; they’re not making any harder pushes yet.”
“They’ll consolidate their hold inside our defenses before they try anything else,” Halyn grunted. “What’s the status of our shield generators?”
Kativie’s voice was grim. “The matalok overloaded everything. The on-site technicians said that there’s no quick fix for this one; the generators will need to be completely stripped down to the cores and rebuilt. The surge that hit the system cooked so many circuits that diagnostics can’t make sense of what’s left.”
Halyn clicked his comlink off. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he muttered.
“It always seems to,” Kelta offered. Halyn turned, saw her lightsabers were clipped to her belt now. Her Jedi robes were torn and cut in a half-dozen places, though she seemed relatively unharmed.
“The coldest hour is the one before the dawn,” he murmured. “But I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Anishor nodded. <It is time to evacuate the remaining civilians.>
Halyn shook his head. “There are no civilians here,” he said firmly. “The children are protected aboard the Cathleen; anyone else on Iridonia can and will fight.”
<Coatrack, not everyone is like us. That is why we exist—to fight, so others don’t have to.>
It was a familiar argument stemming from the Wookiee berserker tradition. Anishor was born of a tradition of Wookiee warriors, berserkers who committed their entire lives, their full beings, to warfare. Every one of the Wookiee’s skills revolved around some aspect of war—flying and gunning aboard starships, using bowcasters as ranged weapons, training with melee weapons that had traditionally been used against slavers and the vicious creatures of Kashyyyk, even forging new weapons for himself. Halyn suspected that even what little recreation the Wookiee indulged in was based around war.
The berserker philosophy boiled down succinctly. We become slaves to war, so others can have freedom.
Halyn understood the philosophy well, and believed it effective. On the other hand, Iridonia is at risk. This battle affects us all. The Yuuzhan Vong aren’t interested in traditional conquering, and merely controlling territories. They want to destroy our very civilization, our traditions that trace back millennia, and remake our species, our worlds, our galaxy in their image. No one should be forced to fight, but we can’t afford anything less.
“Check on your berserkers,” Halyn said aloud. “Let’s regroup, because we’ll likely need them again soon.” Deliberately he turned away from the Wookiee, ending the discussion. Instead, he looked at Kelta squarely. “You and I,” he said calmly, “need to talk.”
Halyn stepped away and Kelta fell in beside him. He knew without looking that Anishor was frustrated with him, his willingness to sacrifice civilians to slow the Yuuzhan Vong advance. But I don’t view it as sacrifice. This war is for all of us—if they don’t fight, we’ll all fail.
“What do you need, General?” Kelta asked.
Halyn was hit by a thousand memories when Kelta said General. He pushed them away with an effort. “How long will you stay?” he asked instead.
“As long as you’ll have me,” Kelta said hesitantly. “I wasn’t sure how welcome I was.”
“Your daughter was adopted into our clan,” Halyn pointed out. “You participated in Kativie’s wedding. You made a passable Zabrak, by the way.”
“You were there,” Kelta said incredulously. “I thought…but I wasn’t sure.”
Halyn nodded. “That was then, this is now,” he said quietly. “Kelta, I’m looking for every advantage I can get against the Vong. We’re holding our own—barely—but I know that won’t last. So, I need to know if the Jedi Academy trained your battle meditation.” More old memories flickered through his mind as he said it. He ignored them as well.
The Jedi hesitated. “I’m capable of it,” she said slowly. “But I don’t use it.”
“Feedback.” Halyn waited patiently for explanation, and Kelta finally relented. “Halyn, you remember how sensitive I was to the Force. I could feel my friends’ pain. I could feel when someone died nearby, even when I had no connection to them. I sense everything so clearly it’s distracting.”
“Which is why you were capable of the battle meditation,” Halyn pointed out.
“Yes, and no. I only used it once, when we fought the Imperial blockade here, at Iridonia. And the feedback from it was enough to make me numb. Halyn, I can feel every injury, every death around me. In battle I can shield myself from it to some degree—the concern for my own survival, drawing on the Force to defend myself, all insulate me from the sensations. But if I’m attempting battle meditation, I can’t cut myself off—I have to feel it in order for the meditation to work.” The look on her face was frustration and shame. “In an actual battle, I can’t take in all that feedback and still make the meditation work.”
“Ah,” was all Halyn could say.
“In a way,” she continued, “fighting the Yuuzhan Vong is better than fighting the Empire. I can’t feel them in the Force, so I can’t feel their pain or death, either. I still feel my allies…but it’s half the sensation I used to feel.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you that way.”
So much for that weapon, Halyn thought glumly. It was still worth asking, though.
“Halyn,” Kelta said quietly, “what are you going to do? The war is going to destroy this world. If the New Republic couldn’t defend Coruscant, how are you going to save Iridonia?”
The Zabrak found he had nothing to say.
Kelta frowned at Halyn, realizing for the first time that the dark leather of his duster was tinted crimson. “Halyn, you’ve been hurt.”
The Zabrak shook his head. “It’s nothing—just a few scratches.”
“No, it’s not.” Kelta reached out with the Force and started to probe his injuries. “You haven’t been poisoned, but you’ve been cut in a half-dozen places. We need to get you cleaned up or you’ll get infected.”
“I’m fine, Kelta. That’s what bleeding is for—it’s the body’s natural way of flushing out debris from wounds.”
One of the Iridonian military’s Muurian transports settled onto its landing struts, and Halyn marched aboard it without pause. Kelta followed closely. “You’re just as stubborn as always, aren’t you?” Kelta asked in frustration.
Halyn whirled abruptly to face her. “And you’re still getting worked up over nothing,” he snapped. “Always pushing when you could just let things be.”
During the Galactic Civil War, she would likely have wilted when his temper rose. Years as a parent and as a Jedi Knight, though, had added a layer of durasteel that she’d never had. Or maybe, she pondered to herself, it forged and tempered the steel that was already there. “I’m pushing,” she said, her voice low, “because I didn’t come here to watch you die. I chose to stay here to defend Iridonia and, whether I like it or not, you’re the best chance the Zabraks have at holding out against the Vong.” She pointed to the small medical alcove—not even a separate room in the light freighter. “Sit.”
Halyn stared at her, and Kelta could feel defiance in his gaze. Unexpectedly, it cut off. “Alright,” he said agreeably.
Kelta stripped off the leather duster, and was more than a little surprised to see it relatively intact. Amphistaffs were razor-sharp and capable of filleting most armor; only the Yuuzhan Vong’s own vonduun crab armor and a Jedi’s lightsaber could reliably stop the living weapons in combat. However, Halyn’s leather duster had apparently turned aside more than a few of the attacks. “What kind of leather is this?” she asked disbelievingly.
“Trade secret,” was all Halyn would say.
She stripped off his shirt, revealing the striped scars running down his back. Fresh cuts crisscrossed them in places, as well on his chest, but they were relatively shallow. Kelta shook her head and found an antibacterial cloth, and started to wipe away the blood and dirt that clung to his torso.
Halyn was silent while she worked. At last, she asked, “What happened to you, Halyn? You didn’t used to have scars like this.”
A faint smile touched the Zabrak’s lips. “I led an interesting life after Endor,” he commented.
“Is it going to be like this until I leave?” the Jedi asked in exasperation. “You just refusing to give a straight answer? You used to trust me, you know.”
Halyn was silent for long heartbeats—long enough for Kelta to regret the words. She could feel the faint sting of pain and regret that had nothing to do with the shallow cuts the amphistaffs had inflicted on him.
“The Hutts caught up to me,” he said at last. “After the peace treaty between the Remnant and the New Republic.”
Kelta raised an eyebrow. “And what, they just beat you and let you go?” She winced at the glib remark. “Sorry.”
The transport—now loaded with Wookiee berserkers—whined as the repulsorlifts lifted it clear of the ground. Whether it was the noise of the engines or the vividness of the memories Kelta could feel bubbling up in Halyn’s mind, it seemed like he hadn’t heard her. “They decided executing me was too swift for what I’d done, and freezing me in carbonite wouldn’t cause enough suffering. They wanted to make a proper example out of me, and get some entertainment in the process.”
“What did you do?” Kelta asked.
Halyn again didn’t seem to hear the question. “There’s a lot of Rim worlds beyond the reach of the New Republic—just like they were beyond the Empire, and the Old Republic before it. On one of them, the Hutts had built, or taken over, a gladiatorial arena. They were using it in the traditional way—after all, battles between gladiators are great betting material.”
“They made you fight?” Kelta asked quietly.
Halyn finally turned and looked her in the eyes, then nodded. “They were using slaves, smugglers who’d dropped cargoes, bounty hunters who had failed to take marks, political enemies—whoever they could get. And they pitted every fighter against each other. There were no allies or friends in there.”
“How long were you in there?”
“About two years,” Halyn said distantly. “In a way, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Kelta stared at him in shock. “What?” she managed.
“There were no blasters, no laser cannons, no starfighters,” he said, his voice as distant as before. “I had to fall back on the training of my youth. I re-learned the zhaboka, melee fighting, reading an opponent’s stance and grappling. I had forgotten so much that I needed to know.” His eyes returned to Kelta. “It was everything I needed to know to fight the Yuuzhan Vong. Without that knowledge, I’d already be dead.” He glanced down. “Are you done yet?”
Kelta looked down and blushed. “Oh. Yes,” she said awkwardly, pulling away the blood-soaked cloth. The shallow cuts were already sealing themselves; small amounts of blood still seeped through, but he was clearly in no danger. “How did you get out?” she asked.
“Argus,” was the Ul’akhoi’s response. “One of the spectators at the gladiatorial games recognized me and got word to Argus. He and Kativie came and pulled me out.” His smile was faint. “I’m pretty sure if the Hutts ever catch up to me again, they’ll go straight to execution. Of course, they’ve got other things to worry about right now, with the war between the Vong and the Hutts.”
Halyn shrugged his leather duster back into place sans a shirt. He turned away from Kelta then, withdrawing his sword from its sheath and frowning at it. “You took a beating,” he said aloud at the notched blade. “Need to get you fixed up before I need you again.”
Kelta shook her head. He told me, but I have more questions than answers. Halyn, what’s happened to you?
The Cathleen’s bridge was just as loud and busy as when Halyn had departed it. Orders and information flowed freely; tactical holograms, now properly adjusted for the scope of a city-wide battle instead of the depths of space, filled the open air; repaired data screens were filled with casualty reports, supply information, reconnaissance data on the Yuuzhan Vong’s movements. Zabrak officers moved from station to station, sometimes at a run.
Kativie sat in the big command chair in the center of the battered bridge. Halyn had to smile at that. “Getting used to command, Katie? I’m sure we could arrange something.”
She snorted at him. “You know exactly how military I am. I’m better off as a Jedi than a general…or Vysht’akhoi. Or Ul’akhoi.” She smirked at her older brother.
Halyn snorted. “Keep the seat. What’s the status?”
The Zabrak woman’s expression lost its mirth. “The Vong are well inside the city now. Their advance, and the retreat you ordered, means they control about ten percent of the city. It’s by no means a large amount, but they have a beachhead we’re going to lose a lot of people dislodging. They’re taking full advantage of it to get supplies moved inside, according to our recon pilots. More troops, supply transports, and some of their war beasts.
“Last report from our on-site technicians says the shields aren’t going to be repairable with what they have on-hand. They said there’s nothing bigger than freighter shield components on planet, and those won’t handle the power needed to generate a city-wide shield.”
“What about components from the Cathleen?” Halyn asked.
Kativie’s face darkened. “Hadn’t even thought of that. I’ll get a comm line open between them and whoever is left of the Cathleen’s engineering crew.” She glanced at the tactical hologram. “Your counterattack scattered the scarhead ambush force, but we’re getting sporadic reports of Yuuzhan Vong and their reptoid troops in places of the city that should be secure. They’re going to do some damage before we can hunt them down.”
“You can’t hunt them down,” Halyn said with a shake of his head. “To do that, we’d need to pull troops off the line between the city and the Vong. Any weakness and we’ll lose ground quickly, and we can’t afford that right now.”
“City supplies are in place now,” Kativie continued with a touch of impatience. “We’ve got enough food and medical supplies to hold out for three months, give or take—calculating for expected casualties. If we do better than expected, we’ll run out of supplies more quickly.”
“Good reason to lose,” Halyn said dryly.
“The Vong in orbit haven’t done anything interesting since they sent that cruiser down the well that hit the shields. They’re still trying to get transports down with heavy coralskipper escorts, of course, but Rinnet’s squadrons are only letting a handful through.” She shrugged slightly. “Nothing unexpected, I think.”
Halyn nodded. “The Vong are taking a moment to catch their breath and prepare for the next phase. With their beachhead in place, they’re going to start pressing into the city much harder. This is going to get ugly.”
“How so?” Nisia asked, breaking into the conversation between the two siblings.
<This is the worst kind of fighting,> Anishor spoke up. <It is brutal, disheartening, and destructive for all involved. The campaign will move to house-to-house fighting, in the streets, in the air. There will be extreme casualties on both sides, and even if we win, there may be nothing left of Rak’Edalin by the time we have beaten the Yuuzhan Vong back.>
“Correct,” Halyn said. “This works to our advantage.”
Every person in earshot turned to give him an incredulous look, including several of the Cathleen’s officers going about their duties.
“The Yuuzhan Vong have never fought this type of battle,” he clarified. “Look at what’s happened since the invasion. At Belkaden they took the world without a fight. At Dubrilion, they dislodged the naval defenders and promptly took the planet. Ithor was almost entirely a naval engagement; the ground battle was nothing but a distraction. Obroa-skai, Fondor, Duro—after removing the space-based defenses, the worlds fell quickly. There was resistance, sure, but nothing organized, no difficult ground campaign.
“Here at Iridonia, they’ve driven off our fleet. They expect our ground forces to fall away. Instead, we’re going to engage them in the most brutal fighting they’ve ever experienced since they entered our galaxy, bar none. We’re not going to break—we’re going to stand firm.”
“You have a plan, then?” Kelta Rose asked.
Halyn turned and smiled at the violet-eyed Jedi. “Of course.” He turned back to the tactical hologram. “Give me the entire city, please.”
Rak’Edalin shimmered in the air, ethereal in the blue-white holographic light. Halyn stepped into the hologram. “The Yuuzhan Vong,” he said, “hold a fraction of the city. If they maintain true to form, they will first spread out in waves and attempt to overwhelm our forces in all directions. They’ll be using reptoids to soak up blasterfire, of course.” He gestured expansively around the Yuuzhan Vong beachhead. “Our forces are going to be drawing back, using every bit of cover. They’re going to intentionally draw the Vong into building-to-building, room-to-room combat.”
<Your losses will be heavy,> Anishor said grimly.
“So will the Vong’s.” Halyn turned back to the hologram. “Their commander isn’t an idiot—he’ll adjust appropriately as the pain from his lost forces hit him. So he’ll adjust.”
“What sort of adjustment?” Nisia asked.
Halyn smiled faintly. “Not yet, Nisia.”
“You’re a tease, Jess.”
“One stage at a time. If we’re going to beat the Vong, we need to get them dancing to our tune, and this is the first step in manipulating them.” He closed his eyes. “Make no mistake about it. A lot of people are going to die, probably including some of us.” When his eyes opened, they were green ice. “I won’t think any less of you if you leave, or choose the safety of the Cathleen over close-in combat with the Vong. I’m going to be on the front lines with those who are fighting.”
“Who will take command if you fall while fighting on the front lines?” Ceikeh Alari asked. “There’s a reason Generals aren’t strapped in a starfighter cockpit or firing a blaster.”
Halyn smiled faintly. “Keep me alive, so you don’t have to find out.”