“General, the Yuuzhan Vong drop vessels are approaching their safe zone.” Kryi’s voice was still tight with concern. “The rogue squadrons have done a fair amount of damage, but the Vong haven’t taken anywhere near the losses we need.”
Halyn switched the grim tactical display of the city fighting for Rak’Edalin over to an even grimmer picture of the aerial battle. “What’s the status of Iridonian squadrons planet-wide?” he asked.
“Reports are scattered so far, but generally they’ve repulsed the Vong incursions,” Kryi said. “Heavy casualties in some areas, though—they came in such a wide net we couldn’t get proper coverage in the air in places. Some of our cities and settlements were defended by freighters and last-generation fighters.”
“Sacrificing themselves to buy time,” Halyn murmured. “Time for the regular squadrons to pounce and destroy the invaders.”
Halyn watched the Yuuzhan Vong drop fleet fall like meteors towards the perimeter their ground forces had established days earlier. Lenn Kaman’s wings were in hot pursuit and now nipping at their heels, but pursuit wouldn’t be enough to destroy the Vong. The squadrons belonging to Li and Abi were in the thick of the formation, but were too few to make a difference.
The Ul’akhoi considered his options for a moment. Allowing the Vong to land unhindered would cost them Rak’Edalin. Continuing to press the attack would potentially lead to heavy casualties among the fighter wings—casualties that might cost them dearly in the struggle ahead, whether it be short or long. The third option…
Halyn immediately flinched away from that thought. No, I’m not that desperate yet. Save that for the moment we’ve lost.
“Order Lenn’s wings to press the attack,” Halyn instructed. “Every Vong they kill in the air gives us that much better a chance on the ground.”
“Yes, sir,” Kryi responded, already passing the order along.
Kativie Lusp studied the advancing lines of Yuuzhan Vong and reptoid slave troops. She kept her lightsaber concealed for the moment. The moment I draw it and light it, the Vong are going to come after me. I don’t need that yet.
Blasterfire rained down on the advancing troops, only to be answered by flurries of thud and razor bugs. Blast bugs thundered, echoing the boom of fragmentation grenades and thermal detonators. Kat could see that more than a few of the outlying Rak’Edalin buildings were in flames or collapsed, whether by the design of the defenders, by the attacks of the aggressors, or victims of crossfire she couldn’t tell.
The fighting was growing more vicious, not less, as combatants began to meet on the narrower streets of the city proper. The Vong continued to press forward through the mounting blaster fire, often stepping over their own dead to continue to advance.
Kativie continued to watch the troops, though, her hand straying to the hilt of her lightsaber. I’ve fought dark Jedi and I’ve fought Imperials, her master’s words hummed in her ears. And when I was younger, I always took the fight to the enemy. As I became older and more receptive to the Force, I often found I could make a larger difference in a battle with a smaller effort, if I spent the time to study the enemy and could find a weakness.
The Zabrak Jedi continued to study the advancing troops and asked herself, How can I stop their advance?
More words from her master whispered to her from a memory, this one vivid. She remembered holding her shining green lightsaber blade in an overhead block, taking a blow that bent her elbows and knees and nearly sent her tumbling to the ground. Her master had shook his head at her. When you’re overmatched in strength, Kativie, don’t block. To block is to take the full strength of the blow upon your own blade, your strength against his. It is easier, and a more efficient use of your strength, to parry the attack instead. Turn the blow aside.
So how can I turn the blow aside? she asked herself. How do I turn the enemy aside?
Slowly, she smiled a predator’s grin as she removed her hand from the lightsaber’s hilt and instead reached for one of the grenades clipped to her belt.
Lenn Kaman was in his element now. Coralskippers nipped at his nose, at his heels, but they couldn’t match the speed the Iridonian squadrons had built in their dive. It’s good to be in one of these T-wings, he thought with a smile. A TIE would never have pulled this off.
Very early on in the invasion, New Republic starfighter pilots and tacticians had developed a series of tactics to establish parity with the invaders’ coralskippers. Some had been technological, like using inertial compensator fields to deflect dovin basal attempts to rip away starfighter shields, or using stutterfire to confuse a Yuuzhan Vong craft’s defenses into allowing heavier fire through. Others had been in combat strategies, such as developing the shield trio of overlapping defenses and offensive firepower in place of the wingpair paradigm that had dominated the Galactic Civil War.
Such parity was established because, at the core of it, the coralskippers of the Yuuzhan Vong and the starfighters of the New Republic had similar characteristics, even though they accomplished those characteristics in completely different methods. The New Republic’s starfighters used energy weapons and highly sophisticated missiles to provide offensive capability; the Yuuzhan Vong used organic plasma launchers and magma missile spitters. The galaxy’s natives equipped their craft with ion engines for propulsion and maneuvering; the Yuuzhan Vong grew dovin basals to fling their ships across the stars.
Starfighter designers had created energy shields to fend off attacks; the Yuuzhan Vong relied on gravitic voids generated by dovin basals to absorb enemy attacks. Energy shields had a bonus characteristic: they dissipated heat generated from re-entry into atmosphere, whereas the dovin basal had no similar benefit.
The shielded starfighter wings had built up an amazing amount of speed in the descent, and now were among the Yuuzhan Vong drop fleet. Coralskippers turned to try to engage them, to defend the transports, but were—for the moment—outmatched by the far faster starfighters.
It won’t last, though, Lenn reminded himself as he took potshots at Yuuzhan Vong transports. We have to shed speed or we’ll burn right through here and have nothing left to shoot at. Besides, he added to himself with a glance at his altimeter, we don’t have much time before they start landing.
Rak’Edalin loomed large as he rolled his T-wing to look down at the ground. ”All squadrons,” he said gruffly. “Break and engage by shield trios. Concentrate on the Vong transports, but take down skips if you’re threatened.”
He heard the acknowledgements and washed them from his mind. To his left and right, two T-wings shadowed him closely. It occurred to him that he hadn’t even asked their names. “Red Two, Red Three, stay with me,” he ordered as he kept his throttle to the firewall. “We’re going to try to cut off the head.”
Kativie let out a deep breath as she marched into the largest street leading into Rak’Edalin. The Yuuzhan Vong line continued inexorably inward, pressing back against the Zabrak defenders. Iridonians armed with zhabokas were still charging forward to engage them, but they were fewer and further between, lacking time to group up into effective squadrons. Kativie grimaced as she watched several of her own race cut down by the front of the Vong formation.
Blaster fire continued to rain down on the Vong formation from behind her, mostly from overhead positions. It was answered now not just by flying Vong bugs, but plasma blasts from Yuuzhan Vong artillery beasts. If we could get our starfighters in here, they’d cut those things to pieces, she thought distantly. But they’re tied up.
The air itself seemed to vibrate with the shriek of starfighter engines, punctuated by explosions and the rain of debris as starfighters and coralskippers dueled, with Vong landing craft caught in the crossfire and sent crashing down into the city. Kativie could only see a fragment of the combat above, but by her best guess, the Rak’Edalin wings her brother had sent on the offensive were now fighting the battle above. And losing, she thought as she watched an X-wing fall uncontrolled a half-kilometer away until it was eclipsed by the line of buildings, detonating a moment later. I hope he took some Vong with him. Even if that’s not very Jedi-like.
Speaking of Jedi… She was in position now. Kativie closed her eyes, took a deep, clearing breath, and lowered the hood from her horns. She reached under her cloak and unhooked her lightsaber, extending it in front of her. Then she reached out to the Force, felt it respond and flow.
Your actions determine if the abilities you use are light or dark, her master had taught her. Too many sentients, Jedi or scholars, try to classify the abilities we wield as one or the other. To do so is to miss something important—our powers flow from our actions, not the other way around. As a Jedi Knight who acts as a Jedi should, you won’t call on those dark abilities. You can’t. Just as followers of the dark side struggle with mastering even the most basic of healing abilities, so you’ll struggle with Sith arts. That is, as long as you choose to follow the path of the Jedi.
She could feel it now. She could feel everything. The Force was as vast as space itself, as powerful as a hundred thousand million billion stars, and permeated existence itself. Kativie Lusp didn’t consider herself a particularly powerful Jedi—she didn’t consider herself a Luke Skywalker, or a Kyp Durron—but the Force was with her. Warmth, comfort, strength, and courage flowed into her very bones as the Force flowed through her.
The Yuuzhan Vong were, as always, absent from the Force. Not just absent, she corrected herself. They are like the cloud of mud in the crystal clear pond. That doesn’t mean the water can’t wash them away, however.
She ignited her lightsaber now, the brilliant green-white blade flaring to life with the familiar snap-hiss-hum.
Kativie heard the familiar cries; she had heard them herself on a dozen worlds, had heard of them from other Jedi on a hundred more. “Jeedai!” went up the cry from the Yuuzhan Vong line. Warriors, towering over the much smaller reptoid shock troops, broke from formations, broke their own lines to charge forward at the sight of such a foe.
The Zabrak Jedi stood alone in the street with only her lightsaber to meet the coming wave. She flourished her blade—a salute her master had taught her, which ended with her in her ready stance, lightsaber angled forward to catch the first attack.
Kativie slipped deeper into the Force as she watched. She stretched her feelings further and further out, sensing murky fear and anger and hatred from her fellow Iridonians. Blast fire tracked to follow the charging Yuuzhan Vong warriors, and a few of them went down, but most of the attacks were turned aside by magnificent vonduun crab armor.
The Jedi held her ground, counting the meters as they closed. Four hundred seventy-five. Four hundred fifty. Four hundred twenty-five. Four hundred.
Lenn’s forward shields flared as a burst of plasma splashed over it. He adjusted his throttle minutely, allowing Red Two’s shields to take the forward position for the moment it would take his astromech to reinforce his own defenses. Red Three took the point position a second later, and then Lenn was back in front as his shields came back up to full.
Then the T-wings were over the Yuuzhan Vong lines. More plasma streaked up from land-bound creatures, but they couldn’t track the fast-moving interceptors. And now we strike, Lenn thought.
“Arm torpedoes,” he said sharply. “When we start firing, keep firing—no sense going back to the hangars with a full rack.”
“Yes, sir!” Red Three replied crisply.
“As ordered,” the dour Red Two acknowledged.
Smoke filled the skies now. Lenn forced himself not to think about it, sparing only a moment for the thought, Rak’Edalin is burning, before he was back on the task at hand.
Six transports were ahead of him: the vanguard of the Yuuzhan Vong landing force. A dozen skips covered them. “Target the transports and fire!” Lenn shouted, his thumb covering the launch button.
Blue streaks filled the sky ahead as the warheads launched. He held the button down; more warheads launched as the starfighter’s systems dropped more torpedoes from the rack into the tube, allowing them to fire a half-second later.
He squeezed with his index finger now, too, and orange streaks of laserfire joined the missiles. The two T-wings flanking him similarly opened up with their weapons, the attacks lashing out at the Vong transports now slowing to set down.
Voids sprang into existence to intercept the attacks. Lasers were sucked into nothingness by the intense micro-gravitic anomalies. Lenn hoped for a heartbeat that the distraction would allow the proton torpedoes to slip by. Even a pair of the missiles, detonated in atmosphere among the tight formation, could take down all the transports before they could disgorge their deadly cargoes.
Defending skips accelerated towards the T-wings, and it was only when one of them stopped a proton torpedo by ramming it with its nose—and shattering in the ensuing fireball—that he realized the danger. “Break, break, break!” he shouted.
The triple-engine craft peeled apart, though not in time; Red Three took a coralskipper nose-to-nose, with both fighters lost in the explosion. Lenn glanced back, saw coralskippers closing on Red Two’s tail and turned to cover him. As coralskippers closed on his tail and a glance at the too-close ground showed nothing but Yuuzhan Vong warriors, he allowed himself a thought: Maybe we got a little too deep this time.
Kativie continued to count down meters. One hundred seventy-five. One hundred fifty. One hundred twenty-five.
She forced her grip to relax just a bit on her lightsaber. Not too tightly, nor too loosely, she reminded herself. One hundred. Seventy-five.
At sixty meters, she finally acted. Her mind was so deeply entwined in the Force that she was not sure if it was truly her, or the prodding of the Force like an overconcerned parent. C’mon, child, do you really think that’s a good idea?
She touched the four detonators she’d carefully placed a few minutes earlier with a faint brush of Force energy—just enough to free the restraining pin.
Fifty. Forty-five. She hadn’t quite reached forty when the detonators exploded.
Buildings on both sides of the street swayed as their supporting walls facing the street were savaged by detonations. The groan of overstressed durasteel was music in her ears, and the buildings surrendering to gravity was as gorgeous as any flower her husband, Hakk, had ever given her.
The leading Yuuzhan Vong warriors never saw the unexpected attack as the buildings bowed over them. A few of the warriors further back saw the danger, shouted a warning to their fellows; but it was for naught as gravity exerted her dominance and brought the buildings smashing down.
A hundred Yuuzhan Vong warriors were crushed under the falling duracrete. Kativie never moved as debris fell, the Force protecting her in a bubble as dust and smoke billowed around her. Debris was turned aside without conscious thought, never coming closer than a meter to the small Zabrak woman.
The dust threatened to overwhelm the brilliance of her blade, but it shone through. Kativie felt her lips peel back from her teeth, somewhere between a smile and a snarl.
Then she charged.
The handful of Yuuzhan Vong warriors who had survived the unexpected attack were equally unprepared for the Zabrak Jedi; she cut them down without a hint of danger to herself, but they weren’t truly her target. She continued to charge through the billowing dust and smoke and debris, towards her true target: the reptoid shock troops.
The Yuuzhan Vong had, early on, used organic controllers of sorts to force slave troops to fight on their behalf. The reptoid proxy troops that had first appeared on Dubrillion, however, normally required no such prodding to fight, and the Vong had subsequently neglected to deploy such slave controllers in subsequent engagements.
Now, however, the appearance of an insane Zabrak Jedi with lightsaber blazing through the wreckage that had felled a hundred Yuuzhan Vong warriors was too much for the reptoids to take. Shouts and screams of fear began to rise up, and entire squads began to turn and flee.
Lenn snap-rolled, forcing the coralskipper trailing him to overshoot. Firing as much by instinct and reflex as intent, he stitched it with laserfire. It began to fall away, and his thumb pressed down hard to fire a proton torpedo. He was surprised when no blue trail of fire materialized, no projectile streaked through the air to annihilate the coralskipper.
It took a moment for Lenn to remember why: he had already expended all his missiles against the Vong transports. He hammered the skip again with laser fire, then broke hard to port to avoid another salvo of plasma.
“Red Two,” he said, finally locating his surviving wingmate, “come to two-seventy and push your engines to the firewall. I’ve got your back.”
“Roger, Lead,” the pilot grunted in concentration.
The T-wing turned but didn’t accelerate. Lenn frowned, rolled his craft to avoid another salvo of fire, and adjusted his own course to compensate as he pushed his throttle forward. He opened up immediately with long-range fire, trying to spook the trio of pursuing skips from Red Two’s tail.
They deployed voids to counter his attack instead, continuing to fire on Red Two. Lenn finally realized why: the other pilot’s port engine was trailing fire and listing heavily, barely able to juke out of the way of enemy attacks. “Hang on, Two,” he said through gritted teeth.
One of the plasma balls finally connected, and Red Two’s T-wing turned into a fireball. Lenn would have closed his eyes for a moment in mourning for his failure, but he had no time; the trio of skips that had been pursuing Red Two now turned to attack him instead.
He swore, jerked back on the stick, hammered his rudder pedals. The T-wing slewed wildly, sending plasma fire wide. His astromech whistled at him, chattering about targets and enemies and friendlies, but Lenn had no time for translating. Bloody T-wings and astromech droids. Give me a TIE any day!
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Vong transports now setting down. They were barely a hundred meters off the ground and descending slowly. Red Two and Three died for nothing, he thought as he jerked his craft around. That is, if I let those transports land intact.
He pushed the fighter’s nose into a dive and sprayed more laserfire at the ground. Smoke and dust billowed up in turn, and he held the throttle to the stops. Behind him, the coralskippers were all falling in on his tail. In kill position.
Kill this, you sons of bitches. The smoke cloud obscured his view of the transports, but that was just fine by him. As he juked and jinked, plasma balls flashed past him and into the smoke cloud ahead. And, if this works, into those transports.
His heart was in his throat as his fighter flashed into the smoke; deprived of his vision, he had no idea where the transports would be on the other side. It took less than a second to clear the obstruction, and then he was flashing by a bare dozen meters below the landing transports.
The coralskippers following him weren’t so lucky.
Yorik coral met yorik coral in bloody crashes, spinning transports around and obliterating transports. Lenn’s smile was grim as he pulled back on the stick and started to climb, watching as enemy contacts winked out on his rear scope. Better luck in the next life, Vong scum.
Then a loud bang threw him forward into his controls. The world spun insanely outside his cockpit viewport, and he couldn’t make sense of it. Sharp, jabbing pain filled his face and chest and hands, and he had only a moment to realize it was the shattered remains of the starfighter’s instrumentation before the T-wing smashed into the ground.