Halyn paced restlessly back and forth across the Cathleen’s bridge. Only a handful of people were present: Anishor, in a restless meditation of his own was sharpening a rykk blade; Kelta Rose, standing in a stillness which bespoke her hard-earned Jedi discipline; Sandarie, seated in a bridge crew chair with exhaustion dragging at her features; Li Coden, dressed in a pilot’s jumpsuit with a blaster strapped to his thigh; and Abi Ocopaqui, restlessly drumming her fingers on a darkened console.
Kelta watched Halyn’s pacing without moving anything but her eyes. Fatigue dragged at her, but she drew on the Force to maintain an alert vigil. A Jedi Knight’s need for rest and sustenance changes as she grows in the Force, Kelta remembered vaguely from some almost-forgotten lesson. A Jedi can also draw directly on the Force for strength, but there is a cost for such actions. We are luminous beings, not crude beasts, but our physical selves have limits. Exceeding them now requires payment later.
She finally stopped watching Halyn to instead turn her eyes to the pair of New Republic operatives: Li Coden and Abi Ocopaqui. She had to search deep in her own memories to recall anything about the two.
Li Coden was a squadron leader and a pilot. He flew as part of the air cover during the battle of Restuss. Halyn was his XO for a time, back in…what was it, Sabre Squadron? She frowned. I don’t remember anything that would’ve put him in the profile of a New Republic Intelligence agent. Of course, that was all twenty years ago, and a lot could’ve happened between then and now. I only met him a few times, too, so maybe I’m relying too much on what Halyn told me about him. She probed him gently with the Force, and bits and pieces of his personality floated to her like a delicate scent on a quiet breeze. He has a fighter’s edge, but he’s not naturally the devious type.
She allowed her gaze to slide to Abi Ocopaqui. I don’t remember ever meeting Abi, though Halyn spoke about her at length a few times. What he told me about her, though…she definitely fits the mold of a spook. She’s deadly as a pilot and as a commando. She’s cunning, too—the only bounty hunter who figured out that Jessik was also Lance, the Rebel pilot and officer. Halyn told me she’s more than a bit bloodthirsty, and didn’t hesitate from frying Imp loyalists during the Civil War. She ran a critical eye over the Twi’lek. Even after all this time, she’s still attractive. She and Sandi really do look enough alike to be sisters. Hesitantly, she opened her Force senses to Abi’s presence. If she were a Jedi, I think she’d be on the dark side, Kelta admitted to herself. If not, she’d be walking the line and pushing it all the way. There’s no mercy in her for her enemies.
Her eyes floated to Sandi and Anishor in turn. They’re both tired. Sandi especially, Anishor not as much. The constant fighting is starting to drag on them.
And me, she admitted to herself. This fighting just doesn’t seem to let up. The Vong keep pushing and pushing, and Halyn keeps pushing to keep everyone fighting back, making the Vong pay for every meter of territory with their blood.
She finally returned her attention to the restless Zabrak. I don’t know how or why, but it’s like he’s not feeling the pressure everyone is. He feels as bright and energetic as ever. Tenatively, she reopened a very old bond, one she had consciously chosen to close off years before.
The suddenness of the connection took her breath away. When Halyn had left her oh-so-many years prior, not long after the battle of Endor, she had closed off the connection the Force had tied between them. Even after two decades of intentional suppression, the intensity of the bond was enough to make her gasp.
Energy and willpower seemed almost a tangible thing. Her own privately admitted weaknesses and doubts seemed flushed away by the surge of confidence and strength.
Halyn’s own uncertainty came to her as a subtle aftertaste, one that soured in her mouth. He’s determined to win this war, but he’s not sure he can do it. She almost laughed at her observation. That’s what every military leader everywhere in the galaxy since the beginning of time has probably thought, Kelta Rose.
What surprised her most, though, was the direction of strength. Her ability to form bonds often allowed her to take another’s pain into herself, offering strength and comfort in return. This time, though, was inverted: his determination flowed into her, and her failings into him. Yet, as near as she could tell, he hadn’t felt it.
“Where are they?” Halyn grumbled aloud, still pacing the bridge.
<Patience, coatrack,> Anishor said. <Don’t you feel it?>
<The exhaustion. You cannot push everyone to fight continually, with every waking moment. You will burn the strength of your troops in the sprint when they should be preparing for the distance.>
Halyn stopped and sighed. “Of course.”
Kelta pondered at the exchange for a moment, wondering what was left unsaid. How is Halyn holding up? Is he shooting up on spice or stims? She felt for him in the Force again, but could find nothing out of place. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was a Jedi and drawing on the Force to keep going. That’s the only way I can continue.
“Who’s missing?” Abi asked. The lithe blue Twi’lek was still drumming fingers on the inert monitor, but her other hand was rested on the butt of her scatter blaster.
“Ceikeh Alari, Kryi Rinnett, and Nisia Eisweep,” Halyn replied.
“The New Republic Zabrak Senator, the Iridonian starfighter coordinator, and a pirate queen,” Kelta translated.
“Nisia’s not a queen,” Halyn snorted.
“Oh? When you were a pirate king, she wasn’t your queen?” Kelta asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Hell no. She’s too much of a thief.” Halyn shook his head. “Force knows if I’d have gone to bed with her and nodded off, I would’ve woke up with all sorts of things missing. Who knows what she would’ve stolen?”
Anishor chuckled and cut off any response from either Abi or Kelta. <I think this is the best you’re going to do, coatrack.>
The Ul’akhoi frowned. “It’d better not be. I need my starfighter coordinator on station when the lasers start flying.”
<I have no doubt she will be,> Anishor said politely. <But that’s still two hours away, and she won’t do a capable job of coordinating if she’s sleeping on her feet.>
Halyn grumbled something under his breath. “Fine, then,” he said. He lifted his datapad up and tapped irritably at it. A moment later, a tactical hologram swam into existence in the open bridge. Halyn stepped back from the massive display to allow the others present to examine it.
“This is the best tactical display the night crew has been able to put together, based on reports from our forward lines and what we can glean from the Cathleen’s sensors. The Vong have knocked out all our remaining satellites, so anything additional we need will come down to starfighter recon flights. Given the size of the area we’re working with, it shouldn’t be hard, but it’ll be additional combat missions and a delay in getting some of the data we’ll need. Fortunately, though, our out-system relay for the HoloNet has remained untouched.”
Abi cleared her throat, drawing Li’s attention—along with the other occupants of the room. “That’s not true,” she said apologetically. “The Yuuzhan Vong knocked it out well before we made landfall. Your Admiral Saret left a frigate out in a far orbit to act as a mobile relay to ensure communication lines stayed open.”
“Very thoughtful of her,” Halyn said dryly. “I take it that’s where you’ve been hiding?”
Abi nodded but refrained from speaking further.
Li Coden studied the city tactical hologram and suppressed a whistle. “The Vong push in has taken that much of the city?”
“Near as we can tell, yes. The actual calculations,” Halyn consulted his datapad for a moment, “suggest that twenty-three percent of the city is directly controlled by the Yuuzhan Vong.”
Li gritted his teeth. If the Vong can keep up that pace, they’ll have overrun the city long before any relief force can arrive. The blue-tinted hologram was tinged with red throughout the Yuuzhan Vong-held area. Too bad we can’t just carpet-bomb the Vong and be done with it, but I’m sure the Iridonians would like something left of their capital when we’re done.
Anishor was studying the hologram more closely now as well. <Are these buildings still intact?> he asked, pointing a claw at the clusters of structures now inside the Yuuzhan Vong’s lines.
Halyn shook his head. “The Yuuzhan Vong hate pretty much everything we’ve built. They’re knocking down whatever they take. Of course, some of our front lines have been bringing down our buildings themselves to slow the Vong’s advance.”
<Is that working?>
“As well as could be expected. As long as they keep it up, though, we’ll continue to have the advantage.”
“What advantage?” Kelta Rose asked. Li’s eyes lifted to her for a moment. What’s a Jedi doing out here, anyways? I know she and Hal were an item way back during the war, but everyone said they split up after Endor.
“We’re denying them cover,” Halyn explained. “The Vong won’t use our equipment or weapons, but they can use a standing structure for cover or as a sniper point just as well as we can. The debris also makes it harder for them to move their bigger creatures, like the rakamats, into play against our troops. We want to keep forcing them into street battles, house-to-house fighting, up close and personal.”
“But isn’t that where the Yuuzhan Vong play best?” Sandarie asked.
Abi interrupted before Halyn could explain. “The Zabraks don’t have a battalion of repulsor tanks or artillery weapons, at least not here,” she pointed out. “What they do have is a lot of people willing to swing sticks at armored Vong warriors. By keeping the fighting in close quarters, they deny the Vong the ability to use their heavy stuff and give the average Zabrak a better chance. Of course, the difference is like twenty-to-one instead of thirty-to-one.”
Halyn ignored the Twi’lek’s jibe. “The more heavily we can tie them up in fighting here, the better chance we can keep them from pulling back or moving out somewhere else.”
Li shook his head. “Boss, this whole thing’s crazy.” He considered whether he really wanted to say his next thought, but forced it out anyways. “I don’t think you can win here.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Halyn said gruffly. “We’ve got some advantages that we haven’t started using yet.”
And the Vong aren’t hesitating to use theirs, Li thought grimly. He forced down a bubble of frustration. Neither of the Zabraks that Anishor identified as potentially traitors are here. Are they doing some task on behalf of their masters right now? Dammit, Halyn has to start taking that part of this more seriously.
<What advantages?> Anishor asked.
Halyn hesitated. Or maybe he has something in play, and that’s why he’s keeping quiet about his actual plans? Li questioned.
“Your berserkers, for example,” Halyn said at last. “I’ve been intentionally keeping them out of combat so we have a surprise ready for the Vong when the right moment comes.”
Anishor studied the Zabrak for a moment, and Li knew something unspoken had passed between them. Have those two been conspiring? He shook his head. All this time as an Intelligence spook is making you paranoid. “So what do you want us to do?” Li asked aloud.
“I’m still working on some orders,” Halyn demurred, “but I’m going to be splitting up our little council of war here. I think we’re going to have better success once I’ve moved some of you into play directly against the Vong.”
“Who are you moving where?” Abi asked warily.
“Well, first it’s about who stays here on the Cathleen. Anishor, I want you and your berserkers here just because we’ve got a half-dozen of our Muurians operating out of a makeshift hangar.”
<I thought the Cathleen’s hangar was crushed when you crashed,> Anishor pointed out.
“Makeshift.” Halyn grimaced. “One of the splits in the hull is large enough to land freighters in. A lot of the Cathleen’s survivors are working out of there to provide support for our freighters.” He turned and looked at Kelta Rose. “Kelta will also be staying attached to the Cathleen as an advisor, or until I can figure out a place to put her.”
Kelta sketched a mock bow. “As you command, Ul’akhoi. We Jedi live to serve.” Her expression lost its sarcasm and took on a more serious tone. “Kativie, too?”
Halyn shook his head. “Katie is staying on the front lines for now. It’s good for morale.”
Li frowned and leaned over to Abi. “Who’s this Kativie?” he whispered.
The Twi’lek shook her head, but Anishor had caught on and smiled toothily. <The coatrack’s little sister, and a Jedi to boot.>
Halyn sighed. “It’s good for our troops to have one of their own, a Zabrak Jedi, fighting on the front lines,” he said with a trace of irritation. “Besides, fighting is her natural talent. Now, can I continue?”
“Now that you have my permission, yes,” Abi replied straight-faced. Li barely suppressed his laugh. So funny, and at such a bad time.
“Kryi Rinnet will also be staying here,” Halyn continued, his tone professional again. “She will continue to coordinate our starfighter defenses here at Rak’Edalin.”
“Is she going to send your fighter wings into the Vong fleet and leave a big gaping hole in your defenses?” Li asked, his mouth engaging before his brain. You moron, he berated himself. Could you have been a little less subtle? He rethought his statement. There’s a damned good chance she’s the traitor. She had perfect opportunity to help the Vong land reinforcements.
Halyn ignored the question. “Nisia Eisweep is going to take a team and secure the Council,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure the Vong will make a move on it sooner or later, and I’d rather she’s dug in with a squad and a dozen heavy repeating blasters before they try it.” As he spoke, the squat structure replaced the large tactical hologram as the primary display. “It’s extremely defensible and, with heavy equipment and a good supply of rations, they should be able to hold out a long time. It will also keep the Council safe from any attempts the Vong might make to grab them and use them against us.”
Anishor chuckled. <I’m sure the politicians will love having armed forces underfoot.>
“I think it’s more likely the armed forces will have politicians underfoot,” Kelta said dryly.
“Li, I need a special operations commander for the air,” Halyn continued. “It’s not a cushy job like the rest I’m handing out, but if you’re willing, I’d like you to do it.”
The old pilot straightened unconsciously. “What’s the assignment involve?” he asked cautiously.
“You’ll get a squadron or two to command. You’re my reserve group for when the Vong are trying to decoy us, like they did to get the landing force down. While the fighter wings follow the Vong’s tune, your group will be responsible for thwarting whatever they’re really after.”
Li mulled that over in his head. If I’m flying an A-wing or X-wing somewhere, I won’t be here, uncovering the traitor. On the other hand, maybe I can make a difference in the air. Or maybe I can do both. “Where will we be based?” he asked. “Here on the Cathleen?”
“No,” Halyn said with a shake of his head. “Our makeshift hangar here might be enough to support the Muurians, but they don’t have the equipment or space to operate a squadron. I’ll have to move you out to one of the hangars outside the city.”
The officer gritted his teeth. Are you doing this on purpose, boss? he wondered. You’re doing a good job of taking me out of play against your traitor. “I’ll do it,” he said at last.
“Good.” Halyn nodded at Sandarie. “You’ll continue your current assignment.”
The Twi’lek nodded tiredly without comment.
“And finally, you, Abi,” he said as he turned to the other New Republic operative, the only other person Li knew could identify the traitor.
The ex-bounty hunter raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“I keep getting complaints,” Halyn said slowly, “about how a general and commander shouldn’t go gallivanting off across the battlefield when he should be commanding his forces from someplace safe, like the bridge of a wrecked capital ship.” His chuckle was self-deprecating. “So as for you, I’d like you to lead a commando team in the coming weeks. You’ll be doing the same thing Li is doing—while he’s leading a team in the air, you’ll be on the ground.”
Dammit, boss! Li screamed silently. Are you trying to let the traitor go free?!
The Twi’lek mulled it over for a few moments. “I’ll do it, on one condition,” she said at last.
“That when this is over, you rebuild my Y-wing,” she said in a low, threatening tone. “From the frame up. I liked that Y-wing, and you had to go park a capital ship on it.”
Halyn snorted. “From the frame up, I promise.”
“Good.” The Twi’lek patted her scatter pistol in its holder. “If you don’t come through, I’ll hunt you down and take it out of your hide.”
“A Zabrak-hide pilot’s couch won’t be comfortable,” Halyn pointed out. “Especially with the horns poking you.”
“I’ll make sure I have a headwrap tied over the horns,” the Twi’lek stated pointedly.
“Does anyone have any questions about assignments?” Halyn asked, switching gears again.
Li shook his head. Boss, I hope you haven’t just made a very large mistake. You’re you, so you have plans in motion that we don’t know about, but this is for Iridonia. If the Vong take the world, they’re not going to be satisfied until every Zabrak is dead or completely broken.
“If anyone has private questions or concerns, I’ll be in my quarters for the next hour,” Halyn said with a faint smile. “Please leave your blasters at the door.”