Sandarie was the first to enter Halyn’s quarters, which was what he had expected. The normally lively, energetic Twi’lek looked exhausted instead—even her lekku hung limply, with no perk and no extra motion.
“Halyn, why did I let you talk me into this?” she said in a low voice.
“Because you know, in your heart, that you really wanted to.” Halyn let a smile touch his lips. “You know you didn’t belong in a fighter cockpit or firing a blaster rifle or swinging a zhaboka. This is something that allows you to make a difference and do something that you know is important.”
“This is worse than anything I did for you during the Galactic Civil War,” she said flatly.
“Doubtful. I mean, it’s not like I’m asking you to infiltrate an Imperial base to check on a captured officer.”
Sandarie snorted. “You didn’t ask me to do that. You were the captured officer I was checking on.”
“I’m sure I asked you to do similarly stupid things.”
The Twi’lek hung her head. “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.”
“It won’t be forever,” Halyn promised. “Just for a while longer. Besides, I don’t have anyone else I trust that I think could do it better.”
Sandi turned a dark eye on him. If looks could kill, he thought, I’d be in a lot of trouble right now.
“Fine,” she said. “But just remember, you owe me for this. You owe me big, Halyn. I’m thinking pleasure yacht big.”
“These Star Cruisers were built as luxury liners,” Halyn pointed out. “Tell you what, after we beat the Vong off, the Cathleen is yours. A little hull work, patch together the engines, and you’ll be cruising the stars in absolute style. I mean, I think the only thing bigger in private ownership would be Booster Terrik’s Errant Venture, and that wreck of a Star Destroyer couldn’t hold a candle in luxury to a Star Cruiser.”
“So, what, then? I just swing by and pick it up at my convenience?” The Twi’lek’s tone had lightened a bit now.
“Well, you’d be responsible for damages done by the previous owner that are still outstanding,” Halyn deadpanned. “So once restitution has been paid, you’re free to tow it into orbit and take it wherever you want. No matter how many trips it takes you to get all the pieces out of Rak’Edalin.”
Sandi snorted. “Yeah, I heard some bad things about the Cathleen’s last commander. He did some stupid things, like belly-flopping a warship into a planet.”
“Anything else?” Halyn asked.
The Twi’lek sighed and shook her head. “No. Just…get me some backup, would you?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Halyn watched as the Twi’lek departed. It’s amazing she sticks around and does things like this for me, the Zabrak thought. Blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but she’s one of the few utterly reliable people I’ve known for a long time. Of course, she’s about as close to family as a non-Zabrak could possibly get without being adopted into the clan. As the door slid shut behind the ex-dancer, another thought occurred to him. Maybe I should fix that. After all, it’s not like we haven’t adopted others into the clan, like Kelta and her daughter.
He leaned back in his chair, wondering which of his old friends would talk to him next.
The holocomm whined for attention. Halyn turned and answered the call. A hologram slowly focused from a blur of blue-tinted static into a mostly-clear hologram of Allanna Saret. “Ul’akhoi,” she greeted him.
“Lora,” he greeted her.
She smiled in return, and greeted him in Ul’Zabrak. “Lori. I take it you’re alone?”
“For now,” he said tightly. “The Yuuzhan Vong are trying to tighten the noose around Rak’Edalin. We are fortifying positions and preparing for the long siege ahead.”
“Do you have a tactical update?”
Halyn glanced at the comm board to ensure the transmission was encrypted, plugged a cable into his datapad, and started transferring data. “Uploading our current tactical situation and general strategy to you now.” He hesitated. “Where’s the fleet?”
Allanna’s voice was grim. “We’re still trying to hook up with one of the major New Republic fleets. We’ve been receiving word that Wedge Antilles at Borleias is putting up a terrific fight against the Vong, but we don’t want to get dragged into someone else’s heroic last stand.”
“Aye. If we wanted to sacrifice the fleet, we could’ve done it here.” He shook his head. “What word on the New Republic government?”
“Chief Fey’lya died in a blaze of glory on Coruscant,” Allanna reported. “Took out a bunch of crack Vong drop troops with a suicide bomb. His Advisory Council has tried to usurp power, but there’s a lot of discord about it. Councilor Pwoe has declared himself to be Chief of State and is trying to setup a government at Kuat, but a lot of the surviving Senators are dragging their feet at joining him there.”
Halyn snorted. “A good number of those surviving Senators escaped Coruscant by commandeering New Republic Defense Force warships and fleeing. They’re afraid their toys are going to be taken away if they follow Pwoe.” He shrugged. “It’s probably for the better if he remains illegitimate; he hates the Jedi, and he’s heir to Fey’lya’s failures.”
“I’m not in position to comment on that, sir.”
“Not trying to make you.” Halyn shook his head. “Best to keep your nose entirely out of politics, particularly as the fleet admiral for what’s left of the Zabrak Defense Force.”
“Do you have orders for me, sir?” Allanna asked.
“Just keep your head down and continue to try to link up with the New Republic. And by the way, I swear, if I find that you’ve had the fleet sitting just outside the system this entire time, I’m going to demote you to deck officer.”
Allanna laughed. “I take it you found out about the gift I left behind?”
“Yeah, Li and Abi’s squadrons ran the blockade while we were engaged. They told me exactly how you disobeyed orders.”
“Nothing you wouldn’t have done, sir.”
Halyn mock-glared at her. “You know, I think I liked it better when you were a quiet, meek little thing that was afraid to say anything for fear she’d offend her hero.”
“You may have liked it better then, but I wouldn’t make much of an admiral if I were still that way.”
The Ul’akhoi snorted. “One promotion, and it goes straight to your head.” The door chimed for attention. “Anything else, Admiral Saret?”
“Nothing officially, Ul’akhoi,” she said solemnly.
“Off the record, then?” he asked.
She hesitated. “Are my children…?”
“Safely here on the Cathleen,” Halyn reassured her. “Along with Kativie’s whelps.”
“Thank you, lori.”
Halyn smiled. “I could do no less for my lora. They’re my kin, too.” His smile faded. “Stay safe out there.”
The hologram faded into a wash of static as Halyn hit the release for his door and pivoted his chair around to see the next visitor.
Abi Ocopaqui stood outside the door as Sandarie exited. She granted the other Twi’lek a slight smile and nod, then turned back to Li Coden.
“So,” she said slow and low. “What the hell is Hal up to?”
Li shrugged. “I don’t know. He always plays things on several levels—that’s how he’s always planned and fought battles. But he usually lets his commanders in on the game so that they have some confidence in him, particularly when some things go wrong.
Abi nodded in agreement. I remember that time on Zephyr Base after Resurrection Squadron got hammered while following his battle plan. Josh Arands and Lucas Benoit-Stark both took a swing at him, in part because their commander hadn’t been in on the plan. That wasn’t the last time, either.
“On the other hand,” Li continued, “he’s hardly infallible. Remember that disaster at Karthakk?”
“Hard to forget,” Abi said dryly. “Trying to impress some corporate bigwigs into manufacturing the new A-wing design for us with that big demonstration run, only to get the deck kicked out from under him by that Imp specialist group, Omega Squadron, and the rebuilt 121st Imperial Fighter Wing. Landed his ass in an Imp hotbox on Talus that we had to spring him from before the Imps could ship him out for proper interrogation.”
Li nodded. “He didn’t anticipate it, didn’t expect the possibility of betrayal, and had the rest of our fighters completely out of position for support. We lost most of the prototype A-wings and our best chance of getting them manufactured at that time.”
“I remember now,” Abi said slowly. “After that disaster, and that string of defeats Omega handed him, no company on the Rim wanted to touch the A-wing design. We wound up building them piecemeal in garages and shops all over the galaxy until Incom finally took the design on after Endor.”
“Exactly. That whole period was one defeat piled on top of another.” Li grimaced. “Hate to say it, but Iridonia’s looking a lot more like that than any other point in his career.
Abi turned that possibility over in her mind. Lost the orbital battle and let the Vong put up a blockade, put the Rak’Edalin wings out of position to intercept the Vong’s resupply force, allowed the Vong to take a quarter of the city. And, from the look of it, has let a traitor run loose inside his own Council. She shook her head. He’s got the necessary ruthless streak he’s going to need to win this war, but he’s not handling details well and it’s piling up. Much more of this and the Defense Force is going to lose respect for him. Once that happens, the Vong will walk all over him.
“He needs a big victory, doesn’t he?” Abi said at last. “Something to show everyone that the Vong are beatable. Something to show that the war hasn’t been lost from the moment the Vong setup the blockade.”
Li nodded. “He also needs to root out this traitor.”
“Which you don’t think he’s doing.”
“Not effectively, no. I’ve been talking to a few people, asking questions. Reading between the lines, I’d guess he has Sandarie working to identify whoever his traitor is.” Li shook his head. “I mean, she’s smart enough and pretty enough and definitely loyal, but something like that isn’t her speciality.”
“No,” Abi agreed. “Hal told me a couple of times that she did a bunch of intel gathering for him, but she’s never gotten far into the cloak-and-vibroblade stuff. She’s no Intelligence operative, no matter what she did during the war.”
“And there’s no one else here who can do it,” Li pointed out. “I mean, we have people like Anishor, who’s a tremendous warrior, and the Jedi, and a bunch of regular military officers from either the past or the present. One thing Iridonia is short on is people like us.”
Abi’s mood darkened further. “Yeah, it’s like Hal’s forgotten that defense involves intelligence, not just waiting for the enemy to show up at your doorstep and then shooting at them.”
“Which means we’re going to have to root the traitor out,” Abi concluded. “You and me.”
Li nodded. “And it could be anyone. Even the people that Hal says he trusts.”
The Twi’lek curled her hand around the grip of her scatter pistol reflexively. “And he very well may not believe us when we tell him.”
The too-thin man’s expression was grim when he nodded. “He may never forgive us.”
But when we find this traitor, we’re going to have to remove her, Abi thought silently. Li knows it, too. Halyn may just be too close to the traitor to find her, and I don’t think Sandi has the skill to do it.
“So, what do you think?” Li asked. “Do we tell him what we’re doing?”
Abi shook her head. “No. Beg forgiveness afterwards, if we need to. But it doesn’t pay to tell him—we’ll do it, and deal with the consequences afterwards.”
Li tapped the button on Halyn’s door for admittance, but it didn’t immediately open. “Huh. Wonder what he’s doing?”
“How are we going to do this?” Abi asked tightly. “We both agreed to take up some slack positions in Halyn’s elite teams. Those are going to require a lot of time.”
“Did you look over the information he sent us?” Li asked.
The Twi’lek shook her head. “I haven’t had time.”
“He’s still calling in every member of his little war council ever three days,” Li said. “To get rotating status reports and make modifications to his strategy. When we’re here, we maximize our time here to investigate. As far as I’m concerned, finding the traitor is even more important than any the jobs he’s asking us to do.”
Abi turned back to the door to tap the open button again, but before she could react a female Zabrak brushed past her and straight into the suddenly-open door. The Twi’lek opened her mouth, but before she could speak the door hissed shut again.
“Who was that?” Abi asked.
Li shook his head. “No idea.”
“Jess, you wanted to see me?” Nisia Eisweep asked.
Halyn frowned at her. “Where have you been?”
“Sleeping.” She returned his frown with one of her own. “You should try it, Jess. You look like hell.”
He shrugged. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“So what did you want to see me about?” Nisia asked.
He studied her for long moments before answering. She had, long ago, been one of his lieutenants when he was a pirate chieftain, a trusted second who was capable in battle and loyal to his position. Nisia had been no more bloodthirsty than his other lieutenants, though hardly any less. Her skill and dedication had allowed him to place confidence in her, daring to turn his back on her activities while resting assured that she wouldn’t slide a vibroblade into it.
That Nisia seemed, in some ways, to be long gone. Her expression was as tired as every other face he’d seen this morning, save perhaps the two Jedi. Nisia’s eyes, though…
Red-rimmed and bloodshot, but not just from sleep deprivation and weariness. She almost looks like she’s been crying. But why would she…? Lenn? It’s hardly Nisia’s style to become attached. Maybe she’s just been afraid she’s going to die here.
“I have a special task for you,” he said carefully. “One that’s important for Iridonia’s immediate and future survival.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Sure that’s something you want to assign to me and not little Kat or the big Wookiee?”
“No, I think you’re especially suited for it,” Halyn riposted as he leaned back in his seat. “It may not be robbing someone blind, but you’re more comfortable with galactic scum than anyone else I have available here, except maybe Abi. And make no mistake, this mission will have plenty of scum to deal with.”
“What do you want me to do?” Nisia asked, leaning forward in interest now. “You’ve definitely got my attention, Jess.”
Halyn smiled sweetly. “I want you to hand-pick a team from the troops we have guarding the Cathleen—no more than twenty or thirty—and raid one of our armories. I’d advise going heavy on E-Web heavy repeating blasters and don’t waste time with light arms.”
Nisia smiled. “This is sounding fun already. Where do the scum come in?”
“Then you’ll take your equipment and team, and hole up in the Council meeting chamber. I want you to turn that building into a fortress that the Vong can’t penetratrate.”
The pirate’s visage twisted in shock.
“When you hole up, I need you to pin the Council down there, too. I don’t doubt that the damned Lusps are plotting some way to remove me from power right now, and I can’t afford that. So lock it down tight, keep the politicians under guard there, and don’t let them leave. The Vong will be hitting the Council soon, I’m sure, and I don’t want any possibility of them getting killed.”
Nisia shook her head disbelievingly. “You always come up with the weirdest plans, Jess.”
“The Council chamber should be easy to fortify,” Halyn continued. “There’s nice big open spaces around it that should let you set up kill zones. We’ve got plenty of starfighters to keep the Vong from strafing you to death, and they can’t get any of their big artillery that far into the city.” He smiled. “So when the Vong come, just keep cutting them down.”
She snorted. “Sure. Here I was hoping you were sending me off to Hutt space or someplace fun, but instead you’re stick me in a room with a bunch of politicians that’ll make me look like a saint. Next time you call, Jess, and promise me interesting work, I’m going to say no.”
“If I hadn’t called you, you’d be asleep in some freighter bunk somewhere. You have to admit, Nisia, I’ve made your life way more interesting.”
“Yeah, of the ‘We’re all going to die’ persuasion.” Halyn leaned forward. “Can you do it?”
Nisia nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Can I shoot the politicians?”
“Only one or two. We’re going to need the rest after we’ve driven the Vong off.”
“I’ll make sure I pick my targets carefully, then.”