Jram Lusp tightened his grip on his zhaboka as the battered cityscape began to brighten. I should be in charge of all this, not fighting on the front line. Impatiently, he twirled the bladed staff through a familiar sequence, stretching and warming his muscles for the combat to come. I was born to lead, not follow. If not for the Sanshirs, I’d be at the head of our forces even now, and the Yuuzhan Vong would never have made it this far.
“We’re getting word now,” his sergeant spoke quietly to the twenty Zabrak warriors. “The Vong are starting a serious push again.”
“Orders, sir?” Jram asked, restraining the urge to comment. When my turn to lead finally arrives, it will be easier if I have the loyalty of the common soldiers, like this sergeant. Treat him with respect now, so power is easier to maintain later. Thank you, Father, for your lessons.
“We hold as long as we can,” the sergeant said grimly. “We’ll be going toe-to-toe with the Vong and holding them while our air support and the long-range fire teams take advantage of it to kill as many of them as they can.” He lifted an eyebrow at the young Lusp. “Any questions?”
“No, sir,” Jram gritted. “We all have our role to play.”
“That we do,” the sergeant said philosophically. “Squad, present arms!” he shouted.
The squad snapped into straight lines, zhabokas perfectly parallel at their sides.
A war cry split the air as Yuuzhan Vong warriors, flanked by three times their number in slave troops, charged through the rubble of several destroyed repulsor tanks and the remains of a Yuuzhan Vong war beast. “Do-ro’ik vong pratte!” the leader of the half-dozen warriors screamed, the serpentine amphistaff hissing in his hand as they raced towards the Zabrak defenders.
A wordless battle cry rose up from the Zabrak as they rushed forward to meet the attackers.
Jram was only a half-step behind the sergeant when the two lines met with the clash amphistaffs and zhabokas. The sergeant leapt hard against the Yuuzhan Vong’s leader, tying his opponent’s amphistaff up in a bind. Jram took advantage of the conflict to stab the end of his own weapon straight at the Vong’s eyes.
The leader managed to duck back from Jram’s blow, pulling his amphistaff with him. The sergeant spun his own weapon low, sweeping the Vong’s feet out from under him. Before either the leader or Jram could react, the sergeant flawlessly spun the other end of his zhaboka into the Yuuzhan Vong’s throat.
Blood rained down on the warriors. Blinded by the spray, Jram twisted his staff through a defensive whirl, feeling a coufee slash deflect from the desperate move. He stepped back, trying to clear his eyes, still spinning the zhaboka. Barely able to see, he felt more blows strike his defenses, could barely make out the figures of three reptoid slave troops pressing the attack against him.
He grimaced and lashed out. The reptoids, believing their opponent on the backfoot, were caught off-guard by the attack. One of them fell back with a wordless screech, clawing at its now-missing eye. A moment later, a second fell from a stab through the chest. The third withdrew a half-step to reevaluate, and was struck down by one of the remaining Yuuzhan Vong warriors for cowardice.
Jram managed to wipe the blood from his eyes before the Vong warrior was all over him, raining blows left and right with his amphistaff. Jram swore under his breath, barely keeping up. “Vong scum,” he hissed as he parried madly, “you’ll never kill me. You can’t kill me. You’re not worthy of killing me.”
The amphistaff hissed and spat a stream of poison, but Jram had been training to fight the Yuuzhan Vong for the last year, and had been expecting it since the Yuuzhan Vong had initially charged. The poison disappeared over his shoulder and he countered with a precisely aimed slash at the amphistaff’s head.
The Yuuzhan Vong warrior hissed in disbelief and hurled his dying weapon at Jram. The Lusp warrior batted it away, but it bought the Vong enough time to draw a coufee and close the necessary range to strike at the Zabrak with the short-bladed weapon. “Die, infidel!” the Vong snarled as he rained blows down at Jram.
Jram caught a descending blow, straining against the strength of the alien warrior, a good twenty kilos larger than himself. “You first!” he spat back. A heartbeat later, the Yuuzhan Vong warrior’s head fell from his shoulders as the sergeant’s zhaboka removed it. Jram stumbled and fell to his knees as his balance was thrown.
The sergeant offered him a hand. Jram took it, pulled himself to his feet. “Thank you, sir.”
“You seem to be a good fighter,” the sergeant said off-hand. “Need every warrior we can get.”
As one, the two Zabraks turned back to the fight. Seven of the twenty-man squad were on the ground, wounded or dead; many of the remaining were wounded. Four of the six Yuuzhan Vong were bleeding out or already dead, as were half the reptoids. The remaining Vong withdrew a half-dozen steps to regroup and glare hatred at their enemies.
Jram grimaced as he brought his zhaboka back up to ready position. The survivors of the Zabrak squad clustered closer together, preparing for a rush. “Steady, boys,” the sergeant said grimly. “We can take them.”
The two remaining Vong stepped forward together. One of them barked a harsh order in his guttural tongue to the reptoids, and they reluctantly followed suit. When the Vong took a second step, however, they both took a half-dozen blaster bolts to the head and chest and fell back.
The reptoids screeched in anger or fear—Jram couldn’t decide which. Some of them began to run forward, and the blasterfire shifted to the reptoids and began to cut them down. A moment later, the remaining reptoids began to pull back in terrors, and they, too, were cut down by repeated strikes from energy weapons.
The sergeant turned and offered a salute to the fire support team—five sharpshooters with old T-21 blaster rifles, and a single tripod-mounted E-web heavy repeating blaster. I forgot about them in the confusion, Jram noted in dismay. They hadn’t had a chance to fire because the Vong were too close almost from the beginning of the fight.
Cheers rose up from the tattered Zabrak squad as the last of the reptoids fell to the fire team. Jram joined in the wordless cheer of exaltation. We beat them! We can beat them! We will beat them!
Triak Kraal watched the blaze bug representation of the infidel capital below. Yuuzhan Vong forward elements probed at the enemy’s defenses, seeking a weak point to exploit. Casualties were slowly accumulating on each side as Yuuzhan Vong warriors tested the resolve of their hated foes. The Zabrak line refused to break, though attacks by the Yuuzhan Vong were stretching their defensive lines.
“Victory will require sacrifice, Honored One,” one of the lesser tacticians noted. “These infidels do not break from their lines.”
“Indeed,” Triak murmured. “Their determination remains, in spite of the hopelessness of their cause. They cannot win, yet they fight on.”
“They fight as the wounded beast, trapped in a snare,” another tactician said aloud. “They are indeed trapped in their own den, unable to leave, unable to break the net that surrounds them; yet they lash out and refuse to submit.”
“How much harder will they fight,” Triak pondered, “when they see their efforts are in vain?” He glanced around. “Where is Ret Kraal?”
“Here, Commander,” another voice said. Triak glanced over his shoulder, saw his favored tactician on his knees with bowed head.
“Rise, Tactician,” Triak intoned. “And tell me what you see.”
Ret Kraal took long moments to study the tactical situation presented by the blaze bugs. “The enemy is fully engaged,” he said slowly. “Now is the time to deploy our coralskippers. Then, as the enemy responds, we will land our forces before they can deploy a screen of their fighters.”
Triak nodded. “Send the coralskippers,” he ordered.
All around Iridonia, coralskippers began to descend from space. The pitted hulls of the organic fighters were not well-suited to atmospheric flight or combat, but still they descended. Air bounced the craft around, and the friction from atmosphere heated the yorik coral to the burning point. Fire began to appear as, to the naked eye, hundreds of meteors flashed down all across the besieged world.
Starfighters rose to meet them, in wing pairs and shield trios and half-squads. The suddenness of the assault meant there was little time for squadrons or wings to form up; instead, the intrepid defenders rose in ad hoc groups, meeting the descending enemies with rising attacks. Coralskipper formations were broken by the detonations of proton torpedoes, by slashing assaults of A-wing interceptors, of the overwhelming fire of heavily-armed B-wings, by the lethal precision of TIE pilots.
Here, a trio of X-wings meets fifteen coralskippers in a turning, twisting battle which disrupts the momentum of the attack, allowing slower starfighters to enter the fray. There, coralskippers refuse to break from their attacks and are blown to dust by a few Preybirds. A hundred kilometers south, light freighters rise in a suicide mission to close a hole in Iridonia’s aerial defenses, trading lives in the air for lives on the ground, Zabraks willingly going to their deaths in combat they cannot win to hold the enemy in place long enough for the counterattack to come.
All across Iridonia, fire rages across the skies. Attackers and defenders alike fall away from combat in uncontrolled plunges, in screaming dives, in shattered debris and vaporized coral, all ending in death on the planet below.
And from Rak’Edalin, the battered capital, nearly three hundred starfighters rip through the few Yuuzhan Vong attackers descending toward them, and continue towards the enemy fleet above, determined to strike back at their enemies and disrupt their invasion plans.
“Red Leader to all fighters,” Lenn called tightly, “Follow the battle plan. Remember, no one get caught up in individual combat up here—stay in formation, stay with your leader, and prey on targets of opportunity. If we stop to fight, we die.”
Squadron leaders chorused acknowledgements, and Lenn knew they’d be relaying personal instructions to their squadrons. The squadron he was temporarily heading was clustered in tightly behind him, disciplined quiet filling their comm channel. They’ll follow my lead, he knew. There’s no rookies in this squadron—they’re all veterans from earlier engagements with the Vong.
He grimaced as reports from all over Iridonia scrolled over a secondary monitor in his cockpit. After today, I don’t know if there’ll be a rookie on Iridonia. Anyone who survives this assault is a veteran, as far as I’m concerned.
The General wanted us to strike to disrupt the Vong’s plans, but I think we’re too late for that. They’ve struck everywhere. We’ve got from first strike to counterpunch—and maybe we’re a counterpunch they won’t be ready for.
“Red Leader, Blue Six,” a voice interrupted his thoughts. “I’m reading multiple fighter contacts ahead. It looks like the Vong have already deployed a screen.”
“How many?” Lenn asked.
“Gold Nine here,” another voice chimed in. “I’m picking up at least twenty squadrons of coralskippers ahead, and a whole bunch of bigger contacts—bombers, maybe?”
Lenn grimaced. They’ve already got as many fighters deployed as I brought with me. With the capital ship support, this is going to get ugly. He considered scrubbing the mission for a moment, then shook his head. No, there’s too many people depending on us. If we pull back, the Vong will be free to do whatever they’re planning.
“Lock s-foils in attack position,” Lenn said as the starfighters closed rapidly on the Yuuzhan Vong fleet. “You are weapons free,” he added as they neared maximum firing range. “Watch your proton torpedoes; we don’t want any friendly-fire accidents up here. Save ‘em for the enemy.”
Then his lasers were firing, as if by their own volition. All around him, red and green laserfire, as well as blue ion fire, joined his attack. Waves of deadly energy swarmed towards the oncoming coralskippers, which responded with their own volleys of plasma and magma missiles.
“Tactical data coming in now from the fighter wings,” Kryi announced tersely. “Feeding it to the primary tactical displays now.”
Halyn nodded and flipped the hologram from the grim view of the combat between the Yuuzhan Vong army and the Rak’Edalin defenders to the even grimmer view of space kilometers overhead. This is like a good news-bad news joke, without the good news, Halyn reflected.
Lenn’s fighter wings had broken up into squadrons, with each group of fighters picking out individual targets and hammering them with lasers and missiles. Lenn himself was out in front of the wings with his own squadron, keeping the Iridonian fighters moving at high speed in the same direction. “Tactical analysis, Rinnet.”
“They were ready for us, sir,” she said tightly. “Their fighters were already deployed by the time ours were there. They must have anticipated the strike.”
<They did not,> Anishor interjected. Halyn turned and gave the Wookiee berserker a slight smile, but gestured for him to continue. Anishor pointed at elements of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet with a claw. <See there, and there? They were preparing another drop attempt. Their coralskippers were launched to escort a convoy down the gravity well, not screen the fleet.>
“Which is why they hadn’t built up the speed they’d need to keep up with our fighters in the initial attack,” Halyn finished. “Skips can outrun just about everything we can put in space if they start on even footing, but Lenn had our squadrons accelerating from the very beginning.”
Kryi nodded with a touch of chagrin.
“Does that mean you’ve succeeded in your objective of disrupting the enemy?” Ceikeh asked.
Halyn shook his head. “That remains to be seen. If the Vong realize our fighters don’t have the punch to do real damage to their fleet, they’ll send their elements down the well, and then we’re in trouble.” He studied the tactical hologram, then began pointing out targets. “Pass on these targets to Lenn. His wings should be able to take them to pieces and get him back in position to bounce anything the Vong start to drop into atmosphere.”
Halyn studied the holo for another few seconds before switching it back to the tactical feed for Rak’Edalin. “And tell him to hurry. We can’t afford any more Vong on the ground here.”
Lenn grunted as the new orders flashed across his primary monitor. “Copy, Command,” he muttered into the headset. “The General needs to quit changing his mind.”
“Affirmative,” Kryi Rinnet’s distant voice answered. “I’ll continue to monitor your situation from here.”
Lenn clicked an acknowledgement and swapped back to the command frequency. “Squadron leaders, form up,” he called. “We’re going to punch our way back through the Yuuzhan Vong fleet. Stand by for target designations.”
Acknowledgements echoed in his ears, but he ignored them as he studied his own tactical displays and reluctantly admitted the General was right. The Vong were a half-step ahead of us—it’s enough that they’ll break through if I lead the fighters too far out of position.
He had led four fighter wings—twenty-four squadrons of twelve fighters each, numbering 288 in all—up from the Rak’Edalin defenses. The airspace over the capital was even now being patrolled by squadrons from further out in Iridonia, but it was a much weaker screen than what had previously devastated the Yuuzhan Vong landing attempt.
The Rak’Edalin wings had punched through a weak, slow-moving screen of coralskippers and destroyed a double handful of light Yuuzhan Vong warships—rough corvette and frigate analogs. The skips had struggled to threaten the wing on its first pass through the blockade, but now had built up the speed necessary to pounce on the defenders on the return pass.
“Pike and Blade Wings,” he called, “you’ll be moving into screening positions to keep the skips off us. Everyone else will be concentrating fire on designated targets on our way back through. Don’t break off to dogfight, or you’re dead—we’re not coming back for you. Understood?”
As the acknowledgements again poured in, Lenn glared at his tactical display, as though enough venom directed as it would change the disposition of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet. Unfortunately, the display refused to cooperate with his wishes. On the far side of the coral fleet, the Yuuzhan Vong’s drop fleet began to move away from the cover of the blockading forces and descend towards atmosphere.
We’re out of time.
He took a deep breath as he pulled the nose of his T-wing around onto the appropriate vector. “All wings, press the attack.”
Jram’s face stung as he killed the last of the reptoids pressing him with a clearing swing of his zhaboka. He blinked blood out of his eyes again—his own blood now. He knew his face was caked in it now, Yuuzhan Vong and his own, from the death he’d wrought and from the shallow cuts he’d received in return from the Vong slave troops.
Two Yuuzhan Vong warriors were standing in the center of the remains of the twenty-man squad, exchanging lightning blows with the sergeant and a two other survivors. Jram and the other three still on their feet were holding the reptoids and their shorter coufees at bay, though they continued to press in.
The fire support team on the roof was more reluctant with their shots now, knowing friendly fire would make long odds impossible with even a single stray bolt. The big E-Web repeater was silent; Yuuzhan Vong blast bugs had shattered the weapon and killed two of the fire team. The T-21s continued precision fire, though, dropping reptoid after reptoid with holes burned through heads and chests, spinning them around with less-careful fire to the shoulders or thighs.
Another wave of reptoids pressed in. Jram snarled and thrust hard immediately, spearing the first one through the stomach. Withdrawing the blade was harder than it should’ve been as the Yuuzhan Vong slave folded around the weapon; he barely had it up and around in time to block a pair of coufee slashes.
A second reptoid went down when Jram’s zhaboka opened his chest, but the three remaining pressed in harder than ever, forcing him back into a purely defensive posture. A pair of T-21 shots dropped two of the reptoids in a heartbeat and a moment later he stabbed the final one through the neck, yet more blood spraying up at him.
He spat some of the coppery taste out of his mouth, hoping none of it was his own. When he looked back up, shock and fear gave him the speed necessary to get his staff up in time to block, and the strength he needed to deflect the blow.
A Yuuzhan Vong warrior, fresh and unharmed, hissed something at the Lusp in his guttural tongue. “You know,” Jram said grimly, “I don’t appreciate your tone.”
Apparently, the Vong didn’t care. His overhand chop was lightning-fast and hit like a freighter. Jram went down to one knee from the shock, still fighting to keep the hissing, living weapon away from him. Two of the snipers took advantage of the opportunity to put a half-dozen blaster bolts into the warrior, but whether his living armor was superior to what he’d seen before, or the snipers were merely running low on charge, it only staggered the warrior back a few steps. Jram used the moment to pull himself to his feet, and then leapt forward to press his advantage.
Advantage turned to disadvantage mid-leap. The Vong pirouetted and planted his foot straight in Jram’s chest. The blow threw Jram back a handful of meters and he crashed to the ground amid rock and rubble and bodies.
“Retreat!” Jram heard the sergeant yell. “We can’t hold!”
He looked over and saw the sergeant was now alone on his feet, being pressed back by a Yuuzhan Vong warrior fighting with the speed and ferocity of a madman. Looking back to his own plight, the warrior who’d kicked him was now stalking forward even as more T-21 bolts rained down and glanced off his armor.
“Retreat!” the sergeant hollered again as a shadow passed overhead. The roar of engines rocked the world, and Jram could no longer hear the order over the screech of sublight engines.
A pair of booted feet appeared in front of him, and then the owner of those feet was charging towards the Yuuzhan Vong warrior, emerald fire sprouting from her hand. As the engines faded, he heard her shout: “Hold the line! Hold the line!”
“Fire!” Lenn roared into the comm.
Blue-white trails of proton torpedoes filled space around him. A handful of them multiplied again, then again, as the warheads deployed decoys to help fool the dovin basal defenses of the targeted warship. Only a handful of the Iridonian fighters were equipped with the latest generation of proton torpedoes, but even the small number could tip the balance in favor of the attacking fighters.
I hope. Lenn watched as the missiles flashed across space. They were joined by laserfire, spraying randomly over the cruiser. The yorik coral vessel deployed void defenses to soak up the incoming damage, but laser blasts slipped through to boil bits of coral off the rocky hull. The warship counterattacked, sending plumes of plasma and magma missiles at the attacking starfighter wing.
Lenn glanced over for a moment and saw the other fighter wing in similar position, attacking and being fired upon in return. He turned his attention forward as several starfighters around him vaporized in the firestorm. He grimaced but held course, maneuvering evasively but never so much that his weapons couldn’t fire on the cruiser, waiting for the proton torpedoes to strike.
More fire; more friendlies vanished from his status boards. There were no outcries on the comm as wingpairs were separated, as leaders and wingmates and friends were destroyed. The Rak’Edalin wings were among the best Zabrak space had to offer, and they were too focused on survival, too intent on the kill, to let their attention stray now. We’ll all mourn later, Lenn thought as the warheads breached the Yuuzhan Vong cruiser’s defenses.
Fire filled space, then massive slabs of yorik coral were tossed in all directions. Lenn barely jerked his T-wing aside as a rock the size of a freighter flashed at him. Then he was through, the survivors following him into the cloud of yorik coral pebbles.
Another glance to port saw the other wing in similar position now as their targeted vessel came apart under repeated strikes. Lenn adjusted his course slightly. We’re through. They can’t stop us now.
His astromech whistled at him and overlaid the drop group’s current trajectory and speed, including a time to intercept. The ex-Imperial found his heart in his throat. Dammit, we’re too late. “All fighters, full throttle!” he shouted. “We’re almost out of time to intercept the drop ships!” But it was a reflexive order at best. The Yuuzhan Vong drop ships and their escorts were moving too fast and too far ahead for the Rak’Edalin wings to catch them now.
“Red Leader, Blue Six,” a voice chimed in his ear. “I have multiple Croneau radiation events,” the pilot said.
Lenn almost shrugged the statement away, but the incongruity of it drew his attention. “Come again, Blue Six?” What would be coming out of hyperspace now? Our ships are all committed, the fleet is far from here, and the Vong wouldn’t be bringing in reinforcements now, would they?
“Contacts are small, sir,” Blue Six reported. “My astromech is still screening the sensor data for type.”
“Send me the…” Lenn began.
“’Scuse us,” a new voice chimed on the channel.
“Coming through!” a female added.
Lenn flinched as starfighters whipped past his own accelerating interceptor, still moving at a substantial fraction of lightspeed. “Belay that,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he grasped the situation. That’s insane.
“Sir?” Blue Six asked.
Lenn didn’t answer as he watched the new arrivals on his sensor board with an open mouth. They used a hyperspace jump to ensure they’d have the speed to break through. Not a bad idea when you’re out in open space, but they’re diving towards Iridonia going way too fast. Our fighters have shields, which give us an edge in atmospheric re-entry, but they’re still going to burn up if they don’t slow down.
And finally he could see traces on his sensor board as counterjets fired. His astromech whistled as it finally tagged the contacts with known sensor profiles for New Republic craft. The group was a double-squadron of mixed fighters—A-wings, X-wings, Y-wings. He blinked for a moment as those facts clicked over like tumblers in a lock, until suddenly it all fell into position. “Li Coden?”
“And Abi Ocopaqui,” the female voice said irritably as the newcomers caught up with the rearguard of the drop group and opened fire. “What’s with the second billing?”