The bridge of the Cathleen was quiet in the predawn hour. The fighting was already heating up, with skirmishes between the Yuuzhan Vong’s scouts and the entrenched Iridonian defenders. The usual bridge crew was largely absent, getting a few desperate hours of sleep before full-scale combat erupted again.
Halyn stood at the tactical hologram, watching blotches of red appear as reports of contact with Yuuzhan Vong forces filtered in. The comm officer was present and handling the tactical updates, but he was the only one of the regular crew present. The few others in the battered command center were those he trusted most: the Wookiee berserker Anishor; the Jedi Kelta Rose and his own sister, Kativie Lusp; Kryi Rinnet, now acting as the planetary starfighter coordinator; Ceikeh Alari, the Senator; and Lenn Kaman, who now headed up one of Halyn’s special operations squadrons.
“What will the Yuuzhan Vong do now?” Halyn asked aloud to the room. “What will their strategy be now that we’ve devastated their landing forces?”
“The force they landed at Rak’Edalin is going to have a tough time taking the city,” Kativie spoke up. She was dressed in light combat armor with a cloak thrown over it. Her lightsaber hung prominently at her belt, advertising exactly who and what she was. “They landed a lot less forces than they expected. Assuming they don’t try to pull their army back out—and they won’t, because the Vong don’t retreat—they have to be thinking there’s a chance they will fail to take the city.”
<So they have to change the equation,> Anishor confirmed. <Either by bolstering their own forces, or reducing ours in some way.>
Halyn nodded. “So what are our likely scenarios?”
“Another landing attempt,” Ceikeh offered. The Senator was dressed in dark clothes, military-cut but without rank or adornment. “Perhaps by bringing more of their heavy ships down into atmosphere this time; after all, they traded a large part of Rak’Edalin’s defenses for the destruction of one capital ship. Given the Vong’s willingness to self-sacrifice, that wouldn’t be out of the question. It’d definitely get more boots on the ground.”
“Not that the Vong wear boots,” Lenn muttered.
“I think it’s more likely the Yuuzhan Vong will attempt to reduce our defenses,” Kelta spoke up. She had forgone armor for a simple brown cloak over loose clothing, both her lightsabers clipped on her belt and mostly-concealed. “They are stubborn and prideful, but not stupid. They wouldn’t attempt another landing if they haven’t been able to reduce the effectiveness of the aerial squadrons.”
Halyn swung around to focus solely on Kelta. “How would they do that?” he asked, his bright green eyes unreadable.
The Jedi shrugged uncomfortably. “The Vong prefer a straight-up fight, but they’re not above deception in warfare. They’ve done it in at dozens of places—feint somewhere, land the real blow somewhere else.”
“What’s the feint and what’s the blow?” Halyn asked.
“Am I saying what you already know?” Kelta asked suspiciously.
The Ul’akhoi snorted. “I’ve long since learned that I don’t know all the answers. I have a pretty good idea of what the Vong will do, but I need to hear other viewpoints. And you don’t need to hear mine until I know yours.”
Kelta sighed wearily. “Our strongest defense right now, judging from yesterday’s action, are the starfighter squadron reserves. You’ve kept a lot more firepower in reserve than the Vong would have guessed—enough so that you severely weakened their landing force before it ever set down. They need to land troops, but not only that—they need to get supplies down, too. And the only way to get supplies is via aerial support.”
“And…?” Halyn prompted.
“I’d guess they’ll try to divide the squadrons,” she stated flatly. “Send in a lot of forces, maybe even using some empty or old ships to make their assault forces look larger than they are. Send drop groups in all over Iridonia, force us to divide the defense squadrons, and once they’re all committed…” She trailed off with a poignant shrug. “Then they either overwhelm one of our defense groups, land more forces, or do something else.”
Halyn nodded. “And what do you suggest doing, then?”
“Don’t fall into the trap,” Sandarie spoke up from the bridge’s hatchway. “Do something else.”
Halyn smiled faintly at the Twi’lek. “Naturally I was interested in a little more detail than that.”
“Naturally,” Sandi repeated.
<Keep forces in reserve,> Anishor rumbled. <A reserve strong enough to react to whatever the Vong choose to do.>
“Logistics problem,” Lenn pointed out. “Let’s say we keep six squadrons in reserve as a reactionary force. What if the Vong choose to strike a city halfway around Iridonia, rather than land more forces here at Rak’Edalin? We’d have seventy-two fighters sitting somewhere where they can’t do any good.”
Halyn watched the tactical hologram as the front between Zabrak defenders and Yuuzhan Vong aggressors continued to grow red, still silent. Kativie finally spoke up again. “The Vong are most likely to strike here, at Rak’Edalin,” she said. “They’ve already got a large army in place, and I doubt they’re willing to sacrifice it in its entirety, no matter how committed they are to their cause.”
“I think Kelta’s right,” he said at last. “They’re going to try to divide the squadrons while they achieve their objective. But we’re not going to play their game,” he said.
<What’s your plan, then?> Anishor asked.
“We strike first,” Halyn said firmly. “We send four wings to launch a preemptive strike on the Yuuzhan Vong fleet, before they can dispatch another attack group.”
“Four wings against a Vong fleet?” Lenn asked in disbelief. “That’s suicide.”
“It’s not a committed battle,” Halyn assured him. “Harassment—a strike to disrupt whatever they’re planning, throw them off-balance, and attrite their forces. We definitely don’t want to commit to a full-scale battle at this point.”
“And the ground forces?” Kryi Rinnet asked. “Four wings will deplete most of our fighter defense around Rak’Edalin, which means our troops will be fighting on even footing against the Vong without the benefit of air support.”
“Here I thought you didn’t care about the troops,” Ceikeh said dryly. “Being the starfighter coordinator, after all.”
Kryi snorted. “I just don’t want to hear the whining afterwards when the forward units take heavier losses than they’re expecting right now.”
Halyn raised a forestalling hand. “Neither the fighter defense nor the troops on the ground can win this without the other,” he said calmly. “No different than the Fleet’s inability to keep the Vong off. We can’t pin our hopes on any single force.” He lowered his hand. “Remember, our ground forces have only to hold the Vong at bay, not push them back. I don’t doubt they’ll launch a renewed, full-scale attack to try to distract us, but our forces can hold without air cover for a little while.”
“When do you want our fighters to launch?” Lenn asked.
“As soon as you and Kryi can assemble the force,” Halyn said. “Nothing slow—tap our TIE squadrons, our A-wings, our X-wings. The assault fighters should stay here.”
<Do you have assignments for us?> Anishor asked.
Halyn nodded. “Anishor, I need you and your berserkers standing by—we’re going to need you as a reactionary group if the Vong manage to break our lines somewhere.”
The Wookiee nodded and bared his teeth, unsheathing both of the rykk blades hanging from his back. <Understood, General.>
“Lenn, you’ll be leading the starfighter attack. Kryi, you’ll be coordinating from here. You’ll also want to have squadrons on standby all over Iridonia in case the Vong manage to get coralskippers through.” Both pilots nodded in acknowledgement at the orders.
“Kativie, I want you out on the front lines with our defenses. It’ll be good for them to see a Zabrak Jedi leading the way.”
The woman nodded, pulling her hood down to reveal her horns. She bared her teeth, not unlike Anishor, as she lifted her unlit lightsaber even with her face. “Of course, Ul’akhoi.”
“Ceikeh, Kelta, I want both of you here for now. You’re part of our reserve if it comes to that. Ceikeh, I need you helping me coordinate our ground units. Kelta, any insight you can provide would be invaluable.” The senator and the human Jedi both nodded in silence—they were content with being off the frontlines for now.
Halyn turned at last to look at Sandarie. “I have a special assignment for you,” he said to the Twi’lek woman.
Sandarie raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that? I’m not a pilot or a soldier.”
“No, but when I leave you alone, you tend to get yourself in trouble,” he said dryly.
“So what do you have in mind, General?” she asked.
Kativie was at the foot of a Muurian transport when she heard running steps, followed by a voice calling, “Kat! Wait a second!”
The Zabrak Jedi sighed and turned. “What is it?” she asked.
Ceikeh Alari skidded to a stop before her. “Kat, what’s Halyn doing?” he asked between gasps for air.
“What are you talking about?” the Jedi asked impatiently. I don’t have time for this, she thought. There’s open skirmishes going right now, and I’m still standing outside the Cathleen instead of fighting.
Ceikeh’s voice dropped in pitch and volume. “Anishor told me about the traitor.”
Kat felt as though she was struck by lightning. “Traitor? What?”
“Two New Republic agents told your brother that there’s a traitor in the ranks,” Ceikeh said in a hushed whisper. “One of his inner council. Anishor said it was one of the Zabraks.”
Kat’s eyes narrowed. “I hadn’t heard anything about this.”
Ceikeh shook his head. “The big Wookiee said it was Allanna, Kryi, or Nisia.” His voice was barely audible. “Nisia wasn’t present this morning. Do you know where she was?”
The Jedi shook her head, her dark braid swinging back and forth across her back. “No. I just thought she hadn’t gotten out of bed yet.”
“You’re closer to him than anyone,” Ceikeh continued. “What’s he doing about this traitor?”
“I don’t know,” Kat said quietly in return. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. He hasn’t said anything about a traitor being reported.”
“If Nisia is a Vong agent, she could be sabotaging us right now,” Ceikeh said urgently. “She could be relaying…” he paused, his expression dark. “She could be telling the Vong everything.”
“Maybe,” Kat allowed tightly. “But she wasn’t on the bridge, so she couldn’t be telling the Vong what we’re doing. She wouldn’t know.”
The former Senator slumped. “Of course.”
“Why did Anishor tell you about the traitor?” Kat asked.
“He said he was concerned that Halyn wasn’t taking that seriously, so he asked me to make some inquiries to see if he had anyone working on it.”
“If he does, I don’t know who it is,” the Jedi replied. “It’s certainly not me, and apparently it’s not Anishor or you. Sandarie, maybe? The assignment he gave her would give her the freedom to root out anyone who’s not on the level—not a lot of accountability with that job.”
“Maybe,” Ceikeh acknowledged. “I didn’t think that’d really be her specialty.”
“According to Hal, she spent a lot of the Civil War gathering intelligence,” Kat said slowly. “Not working for Intelligence the organization, but gathering info for use by the Alliance. She’s probably better at rooting out the truth than what you’re thinking.”
“Maybe,” Ceikeh repeated, not sounding convinced.
“I’m sure my brother has someone working on it, even if it’s not Sandi,” Kativie reassured him. “He’s got people specializing in certain parts of the battle. I doubt he’d completely neglect Intelligence—wars have been won or lost on less.”
Ceikeh shrugged. “Maybe I’m chasing shadows here. But…”
He was cut off by a chirp of his comlink. He frowned and brought the device up between himself and the Jedi and flipped it on. “Alari here,” he identified himself.
“Senator, this is Elibet Dav,” the speaker identified herself. “Do you have contact with the Ul’akhoi?”
“Yes,” Ceikeh answered with a puzzled frown. “Why?”
“He’s refusing to answer calls from the Council,” the other said, clearly irritated. “We’ve been trying to meet with him again, but my calls keep routing to automated answering systems. He never seems to reply.”
The senator shrugged helplessly at Kativie. “I doubt I can change that, Councilor,” he said slowly. “He asserted after the last meeting that he no longer answers to the Council, given his title and powers as Ul’akhoi.”
“That may or may not be true, Senator,” Dav said irritably. “But that doesn’t mean the Council can just be ignored, especially with what happened with the Lusps.”
“Councilor, I think the Lusps are the reason the Ul’akhoi is ignoring you.”
“Possibly, but we have to persuade him from this course of action. He refuses to evacuate Rak’Edalin; hundreds of thousands are in danger even now from this Yuuzhan Vong invasion,” she insisted. “He may be Ul’akhoi, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to the people here. He risks all their lives in our battle against the Yuuzhan Vong.”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing I’ll be able to do about that,” Ceikeh said helplessly. “He refuses to allow any evacuation of civilians beyond the noncombatants he’s had brought aboard the Cathleen.
“Does he intend to use it as an escape craft?” Dav asked dubiously. “I was under the impression it was not flyable.”
“It’s not,” Ceikeh confirmed. “The entire internal support structure was shattered in the crash. It’d be like a Zabrak with every bone in his body broken attempting to get up and walk.”
A long-suffering sigh emerged from the comlink’s tinny speaker. “Then why bother housing them there?” she asked at last.
“Defensibility,” Kativie offered. “It’s easier to protect children and non-combatants inside the armor of the Cathleen.”
“Jedi Lusp, is that you?” Dav asked.
“It is,” Kat said with a bow of her head, even though the Councilor couldn’t see it. “I’m just preparing to head to the front lines.”
“I suppose you, too, cannot talk sense into your brother?”
“I suspect what makes sense to my brother has its own logic,” she said dryly. “I understand what he’s doing, though, and I won’t support any attempts to evacuate, either.”
There was stunned silence from both Ceikeh and Dav. “Jedi Lusp, I thought the Jedi fight to preserve life,” Dav said after a few moments. “By refusing to evacuate, we are responsible for the blood of all those Zabraks who will die in the bloodbath we’re set for.”
“Councilor, if we retreat, those same Zabrak will die—in vaporized ships, in starvation, or gasping for air. The Vong have proven over and over they’ll chase down anyone who flees. If we stand and fight, united, we have a chance of beating them.”
“A chance,” Dav repeated. “Jedi Lusp, you truly are cut from the same cloth as the Ul’akhoi, aren’t you?” She didn’t wait for Kativie to answer. “I understand your reasoning, and the Ul’akhoi’s. However, I can’t keep the Council at bay forever. The failure of the Lusps’ challenge has polarized the Council between those who support the Sanshirs, and those who believe your brother may destroy us all. I don’t know how long I can keep them under control.”
“You support the Sanshirs, then?” Ceikeh asked with a smile.
“I think we don’t have anyone else qualified to lead the defense,” Dav said coolly. “Thank you for your time, Senator.”
“And you, Councilor,” Ceikeh acknowledged before the comlink channel went dead. He looked up at Kativie. “I’m going to trust you and Halyn for now,” he said shortly. “But if he doesn’t flush the traitor out soon, well…” he left the threat unspoken.
“Trust,” Kativie advised as she turend and marched up into the waiting transport. “My brother’s got a plan. He wouldn’t let a traitor just float around, sending our most valuable secrets to the Vong. He’s got it under control.”
“I hope so,” Ceikeh muttered as the landing ramp retracted.
Lenn Kaman strode confidently across the hangar deck towards his starfighter for this operation: a rebuilt Hoersch-Kessel T-wing interceptor.
During his time as an Imperial pilot, he had fought pirates flying the craft in the Outer Rim, and had nothing but disdain for the starfighters at the time. The design had been an Alliance castoff, deemed inferior to the fragile but faster A-wing. He had three kills on T-wings from two separate engagements, and had spent years believing the craft were one more inferior craft in a galaxy littered with them.
It wasn’t until the General had recruited him that he’d actually flown one of the craft. Granted, the T-wings filling Iridonia’s hangars were a far cry from the early, cobbled-together versions he had destroyed years prior. Hoersch-Kessel had refined the design under their exclusivity contract with the Iridonian military, making the craft faster, more hardy, and better-armed.
The fuselage was not dissimilar to an X-wing’s hull, but it was a mere two-thirds of the length. Three engines provided the craft with propulsion, each mounted on a stub s-foil. An astromech droid barely managed to slot itself between the cockpit and the top engine, providing an extra edge in combat flexibility.
It still wouldn’t hurt if it were a bit sleeker, Lenn thought as he approached the fighter. Even with all the improvements, it doesn’t have the sleek lines of an X-wing or TIE Interceptor. Still, it’s faster than the X-wing and can take a lot more beating than the Interceptor. And for the kind of disruption mission we’re launching, the classic hit-and-fade, this will work better than almost anything else Iridonia can field in numbers.
He let his hand trail across the smooth underside of the hull as he ducked under to reach the ladder leading up to the cockpit. His hand slid through the grooves of the missile alleys, carbon-scored black from successful launches. The maintenance crew has better things to do than worry about a little discoloration.
Lenn was surprised to note another figure seated on the cockpit ladder. “Hello, Nisia,” he said.
The Zabrak woman smiled sweetly. “Off on another mission?”
“Of course,” Lenn said firmly. “General’s orders. We’re going up topside to disrupt whatever it is the Vong are planning.”
“Just leaving without saying goodbye?” Nisia asked coyly.
Lenn raised an eyebrow. “You were tired.”
She laughed aloud. “Of course I was. I’m surprised you weren’t, too.”
The ex-Imperial pilot finally smiled. “I wasn’t spiced up, too. That takes a lot more out of you.”
“Makes it more enjoyable,” Nisia winked. “You really should try it, Kaman. Makes the sensations far more…intense.”
“I thought they were plenty intense the way it was,” Lenn said dryly. He hesitated for a moment before asking, “Last night…I didn’t…”
“Take advantage?” Nisia asked. She laughed again. “Not at all. I thought I’d made that abundantly clear last night.”
“You did, yes,” Lenn admitted. “Just wanted to make sure you still thought so after your head had cleared.”
Nisia watched as Lenn zipped his black flightsuit up tightly to his throat, then picked up the battered flight helmet sitting a step above her on the ladder. “So does the General have a plan to win the war today?”
“If he does, he’s not letting the rest of us in on it,” Lenn grunted. “Feels like we’re just buying time, not winning the war.”
Nisia shrugged, then turned the motion into a back-arch that drew Lenn’s eyes. “Does Jess have any orders for me, or am I free to find…other ways to make myself useful?”
Lenn laughed. “If he had orders for you, he didn’t give them to me. Of course, I doubt he thought I’d be seeing you before I left.”
Throughout the hangar, and the hangars adjascent, shrill whines began to fill the air. Starfighter engines roared to life, repulsorlifts shrieked, and hangar doors began to slowly rumble open. Nisia smiled. “And here I thought he would be, after his spy saw us on top of the Cathleen.”
“His spy?” Lenn cocked his head for a moment. “Never thought of her that way. Maybe that’s why the General asked her to come here.” He shook his head, then raised his flight helmet up to pull it on. “Besides, it wasn’t like it was just the two of us up there.”
“Nope.” Nisia leaned in and stole a quick kiss before Lenn could pull his flight helmet on. “But Jess isn’t dumb. If he doesn’t know already, he will soon enough.”
Lenn smiled and pulled his flight helmet down. “You’d better get clear,” he said as she moved to allow him to ascend the ladder. “I’ll see you when we get back from turning some coral into pebbles.”
“You fighter pilots are always so romantic,” Nisia said with a snort. She softened it with another smile. “See you soon, flyboy.”
Lenn tossed her a salute as the canopy descended around him. The T-wing’s astromech, an R3 astromech painted in greens, had already managed most of the preflight checklist, but the pilot turned his full attention to the task anyways. No time for distractions, he told himself. Good way to get yourself killed.
The T-wing’s engines screamed to life, adding their distinct howl to the shrieks filling the hangar. He watched as Nisia ran for safety, then flicked his comlink on. “This is Red Leader,” he said into the command channel, identifying himself with his designation for this operation. “Squadron leaders report in by readiness.”
A veteran of a hundred battles, he barely listened to the reports—he already knew what they would say. Iridonia had been blooded, with the enemy at the gates and pressing hard. The Zabrak squadrons would be raring for battle and eager to shed some blood in return. They may be distracted, but it won’t be for long. Once we’re in the air and moving, their heads will be where they need to be.
“Red Leader, this is Control.” Kryi Rinnet’s voice betrayed no emotion.
Lenn pondered that for a moment. She was, by all accounts, an incredible fighter pilot. The General told me once she was even better than he was, but she didn’t have the discipline for command. Wonder what happened between then and now?
“You are cleared to launch,” the starfighter coordinator finished smoothly, interrupting Lenn’s brief musing. “Good hunting out there.”
“Thanks, Control. Launch by squadrons. We’ll assemble over Rak’Edalin, and then head up to the black.”