Nisia Eisweep’s expression was serious as she barked orders. “E-webs here and here!” she shouted. “Get those power cables run!”
She stalked along the edge of the Council chamber as her team hastened to get the heavy repeating blasters setup. Some members of the team were hacking open crude firing ports in the walls with vibroblades and fusion cutters, while others were stringing power cables across the open chamber to supply the energy necessary for the emplacements.
The other six E-webs were already in place; volunteers were even now running them through test-fire sequences, testing ranges of motion, sighting the weapons in. At Nisia’s orders, they’d already ranged the weapons out to six hundred meters. Against fully-armored Vong warriors, the powerful E-webs would be ineffective at ranges past one hundred and fifty meters, but the reptoid proxy troops could be shot to pieces at much further ranges.
The old pirate repressed her smile. Jess is still as crazy as ever. And, of course, he’s got more than one purpose for me being here, only one of which is to command the defense. If all he needed was someone to order troops to pull the trigger, he’s got plenty of lackeys.
No, I’ve got a pretty good idea why he sent me here.
“Miss Eisweep, you need to put me in contact with the Ul’akhoi,” Achick Lusp said insistently, trailing in her wake. “The Sanshir could not have meant to keep the Council here with the battle moving in our direction. It’s basic warfare—a distraction, a decoy to draw the Vong in. You don’t leave the actual target sitting at the site of the battle to come!”
“Councilor, as I’ve told you before, I have no way of contacting Jess,” Nisia said through gritted teeth. “His orders were for me to fortify the Council building and protect the Council—including you. In spite of your attempt to get him removed,” she added irritably. Not the most diplomatic thing to do, but no one expects me to play nice. Besides, if Jess wanted someone to talk pretty to these scum, he wouldn’t have sent me.
“I’m not sure who you think you are, Miss Eisweep…”
“Captain Eisweep,” Nisia corrected him haughtily. Well, I would be captain if I’d asked Jess for the rank. So close enough.
“Captain Eisweep, then,” Achick snorted. “General Sanshir may indeed be the Ul’akhoi, but he serves at the pleasure of the Council. As such, the Council’s representative—me—needs to speak to him immediately about this battle plan.”
“I’ve read the laws for the Zabrak coalition,” Nisia countered with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Including the rules for appointment of an Ul’akhoi. At this point in the game, he doesn’t need to listen to a damned thing anyone has to say. And he certainly has no reason to listen to you, after that stunt you pulled.”
Achick was silent for a long moment as Nisia continued to walk the outside wall of the Council chamber. Finally, he said, “I’m no traitor to the Zabrak—I did what I did in pursuit of the survival of our race, and defeating the attacks by the Yuuzhan Vong.”
“By removing the most capable person from command?” Nisia snorted. “There’s not a soul on Iridonia better capable of commanding the defense.”
“I doubt that,” the elder Zabrak said derisively. “Yes, let’s reward command to the Zabrak who swore off our customs, left Iridonia instead of standing to fight when we were crushed under the Galactic Empire, and yes, he broke the Imperial blockade—but abandoned us again for the Rebel Alliance while we fought to throw the Imperial occupiers off-planet, and never bothered to come back after the battle of Endor.” Achick’s tone was dismissive. “Argus Sanshir may have been a hero of the Zabrak people, but his younger brother fell far from the tree.”
Nisia laughed aloud. “Everyone’s a hero in their own mind, Lusp,” she said. “And in your own mind, I’m sure Jess is the worst scum to walk on Iridonia. But that doesn’t make you right, or even remotely on the right path.”
“Are you blind?” Achick snarled. “How can you not see what he is? Who he is?”
“Why can’t you?” Nisia countered. “He’s fully committed to fighting this to the last.”
“Yes, until the last one of us dies,” Achick growled. “Do you want to die here?”
“No, I don’t,” the pirate admitted. “I don’t plan on dying, either. I’m sure Jess has something in mind.”
“That’s it, then,” Achick said. “You’re loyal to him completely, blindly. That’s why he sent you here. Are you his plaything as well?”
Nisia spun with an outstretched hand to slap the older Zabrak. Achick’s hand was already raised to block, so she kicked his knee instead. She was already withdrawing her foot when the joint locked, preventing a break, but Achick was tossed off-balance and fell to the floor.
The Zabrak pirate glared down at the Councilor. “Listen, and listen well. I’m here, following orders and defending Jess, because he’s the best chance of winning this war. You, you’re just a dilettante who’s never been in a real fight in his life. Now, if you have such a problem with me, keep it to yourself. If you can’t find a way to keep your tongue inside your head, I’m sure the Vong will love to have a Councilor’s head on a pike.”
“Are you threatening me?” Achick gasped from the floor.
“I don’t threaten,” Nisia spat. “I warn. So consider yourself warned.”
She stalked away from the Councilor, letting her anger start to cool. Okay, tossing a Councilor onto the floor probably wasn’t quite what Jess had in mind by sending me here. He wanted me to keep them under control, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “at blasterpoint.”
Still, if I didn’t stop him now, he’d keep undermining me even when the Vong are trying to beat the walls down.
Time to focus. If I don’t do my job, the Vong will get through and kill off a big chunk of our government. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but Jess seems to think it is, so I play it by ear for now. I can definitely see now why Jess hasn’t wanted to talk to them, though. And there has be plenty of support for Achick given what he’s already tried to do.
Jess always gives me interesting assignments. Can’t fault him for boredom.
Anishor growled in dissatisfaction as he gripped both rykk blades. It should be me going, he thought. I should be out fighting, not these few. <You six will accompany Colonel Ocopaqui as part of her strike team. Follow her closely, protect her against the Yuuzhan Vong, and follow her lead.>
<Why is a Twi’lek leading a special operations team of Zabraks, here on Iridonia?> one of the berserkers asked.
<General Lance only trusts a few people,> Anishor said reluctantly. <Those he trusts and have proven themselves loyal he puts in positions of authority. That Twi’lek, as you described her, was an officer with the Rebel Alliance and a warrior while you were still in the nursery rings at Kachiro.>
The berserker nodded contritely at the gentle scolding.
<This team will be conducting special operations outside the normal line of command. Expect to engage in unconventional warfare and tactics. I doubt the colonel’s orders will involve direct engagements against Yuuzhan Vong patrols and lines.>
A roar echoed around the small chamber from the six assigned berserkers. Anishor allowed himself a fanged smile. <You have all been trained well; the Yuuzhan Vong are no match for you. Do not allow yourselves to be overconfident, watch each other’s backs, and you will no doubt prevail.> The big Wookiee looked from face to furred face. <May the Great Tree guide and protect you.>
The berserker team roared again in assent, a wordless cheer that made Anishor’s blood boil in desire to fight, to join the battle, to find himself in the pure release of the Force and battle.
As the team dispersed to join the other members of the elite team Abi Ocopaqui had assembled, Li Coden fell into step beside Anishor’s uneasy pacing. “Problem, big guy?” he asked.
Anishor growled wordlessly, then shook his head. <Even after all these years, I don’t always understand Halyn’s strategies. Keeping me here, along with my berserkers, has meant we have contributed little to the defense of Rak’Edalin. We’d still be sitting here on the Cathleen if Abi had not recruited a small number of us to join her strike team.>
“Hal’s tactics don’t always make sense to anyone, including himself,” Li said wryly. “How many times did different pilots take a swing at him? Arands and Stark that one time after Resurrection Squadron got chewed up, Ryian Coron after his command took bad losses…and I was tempted once or twice.”
<Still…he allows others to fight without restriction. You, Abi, many of his friends and allies, the Jedi. But we Wookiees he holds in reserve.>
“Maybe that’s what he’s got you for,” Li said with a rolling shrug. “A reserve he can count on.”
<Maybe. If he’d put us into battle, though, he could allow some of his frontline units to rest and recover and reprovision.>
“Don’t take it so personally,” Li advised. The two had moved into the Cathleen’s twisting corridors now, away from prying ears. “So,” the Intelligence agent said quietly, “we checked out Nisia Eisweep. She’s not the one we escorted to see the Vong’s commander.”
Li nodded. “Pretty enough, but the tattoos and the face were wrong.” He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure she’s older, too.”
<Well, that eliminates her as the traitor. Kryi Rinnet, then, or Allanna Saret.> Anishor twisted and ducked around low-hanging debris in the corridor.
“Where can I find Rinnet?” Li asked, barely having to slouch to bypass the obstacle.
There are times my size can be a disadvantage, Anishor noted distantly. <She is usually on the bridge during the day, coordinating starfighter operations during the daily combat. She usually makes morning meetings, too.>
Li nodded, loosening his blaster pistol in its holster. “Well, Abi and I met Saret on the Cyclone briefly before she took the Zabrak fleet and fled,” he commented. “She wasn’t the traitor, either. So, that leaves this Rinnet.”
Anishor nodded briefly. <Once you have confirmed she is the traitor, we’ll take her into custody if possible. I would rather take her alive than execute her.> Perhaps Halyn was wise in putting Abi in charge of the commando team and giving Li the one with more flexibility here. Abi would put a blaster bolt between Rinnet’s eyes without a second thought if she identifies her as the traitor.
Is that why Rinnet missed this morning’s meeting? Did she identify Li and Abi first, and is avoiding them?
Anishor closed his eyes briefly, feeling the flow of the Force around him, through him. He drew upon its power for strength and wisdom for the conflict to come. If she is the traitor, the Yuuzhan Vong must have some hold over her. I thought she didn’t have a family or clan, though—Halyn told me after Endor that she was the sole survivor of a colony the Empire ground to dust. From what he’s told me, she’s never had a family or close friends—she served in the Rebel Alliance’s starfighter corps, then the New Republic fleet, and then the Zabrak Defense Force after she retired from the New Republic military. She just doesn’t seem to be the traitor type.
Could the Vong have killed her and replaced her with a spy in an ooglith masquer? That’s a possibility, I guess, but an infiltrator would have to have intimate knowledge of Rinnet to pull off impersonating an officer Halyn has known for twenty years.
Of course, he hasn’t known her for twenty years—he knew her twenty years ago, and knows her now. If she didn’t have friends or family, she would’ve been an ideal target to eliminate and replace with a loyal spy.
He pondered that for long moments. If she is an imposter, she won’t go down without a fight.
Without further words, Li and Anishor continued to push towards the bridge, each preparing for a fight.
Kativie Lusp sat cross-legged in the cool morning air as the sun tinted the morning sky amber. Shadows fell around her as she breathed in and out, meditating on the flow of the Force.
The Force: the greatest source of power in the galaxy. With it, ten thousand Jedi Knights had kept watch over an entire galaxy. From their watchtower on Coruscant, their abilities had allowed them to see trouble in the furthest regions of the Old Republic. In the field, their powers had allowed them to overcome even the mightiest of foes, striking down the enemies of civilization, of law and order, of the light.
And in the hands of a single Sith Lord, the Force had been used to overthrow the Republic and establish an Empire of a single man—the dictatorial rule of a single Force user. It had plunged the galaxy into darkness, allowing the wicked to thrive and the followers of the light to fall.
Now, the threat of the Force in the hands of less than a hundred Jedi was considered so great that the Yuuzhan Vong had directed massive efforts to eradicate them: fleets of warships, Vong-shaped hunting beasts called voxyn, armies of warriors. Some of their efforts were more insidious: credit payments to traitors, threats and bribes to betray the Jedi Knights, false promises of leniency in return for the heads of Force users.
Even with all that history, all that knowledge, in many ways Kativie still felt like a child. She certainly was not—she had spilled blood for more than twenty years, had been a Jedi for ten, was a wife and mother to five children. Yet in many ways, she felt like she still stood in the shadows of giants. Her brothers Argus and Halyn were both respected and feared military commanders, Zabrak warriors who had proven themselves on the field of battle while she was still a child.
As she pondered the currents of the Force, she also indulged in imagination. What would Argus have done with her gifts? Would he have thrown down the Imperial occupiers more quickly, led Iridonia to freedom while the Rebel Alliance struggled in the greater war? Would he have bided his time more patiently, leading Iridonia to participate more closely with the Rebellion?
What about Halyn? Would he have still left Iridonia at an early age, or would he have stayed to fight the Empire at home? Would he still have joined the Rebel Alliance, fought and sacrificed so much in those years leading up to Endor? Would he still have gone into his self-imposed exile, leaving behind his family and friends?
Would he have fallen into darkness? some part of her whispered. Would he have used the power of the dark side to fight the Empire?
She banished the thought, as she always did. The dark side spoke to her, as it did to all followers of the light. It offered quick and easy power, solutions to a three-year war against an extragalactic invader. She had heard—quietly, in hushed tones—as some Jedi discussed tapping into the dark side to fight the Yuuzhan Vong, to use fire to fight the power and tactics of their enemies.
The sun finally began to pierce the shadows around her. Distantly, Kativie could hear fighting. The Yuuzhan Vong offensive had resumed, she assumed, while the Iridonians fought to hold their capitol against the invaders.
The Jedi Knight slowly stood, unclipping her lightsaber from her belt. The Force thundered through her now, power as pure as the early morning sun. Just as the dawn pushed aside the shadows, the energy flowing into her banished her fears, her doubts, her dreads. When the Force filled her fully, she stretched out with her senses to the damaged cityscape around her.
Even while fully in the grip of the Force, Kativie could not feel the presence of the Yuuzhan Vong. As always, they remained outside her senses, the only indications of their positions vague murkiness in the Force, like clouds of dust and mud in a crystal clear pool.
She wasn’t looking for the Vong, however; instead, she felt the Iridonian forces scattered around the battlefront. She felt for the areas of greatest need, where the Yuuzhan Vong threatened to break the defensive line.
The knowledge she sought materialized in her mind’s eye, crystal clear: the Yuuzhan Vong assault on a side street, the defenders holding on with only a handful of blaster rifles and zhaboka. There, there is where the Vong will break through.
Or would, if I don’t go there.
Lightsaber in hand, she turned to orient herself. Then, with a swiftness that could only be granted by the Force, she began to run towards the already-engaged battle.
Kelta Rose stood in the bridge of the Cathleen, her back resting against a deactivated console. As was quickly becoming usual, the crew was swiftly moving about its tasks. Orders floated across the air as officers half-shouted to make themselves heard.
To the Jedi’s eye, however, they were moving slower than they had on previous days. They’re tired, she observed distantly. The constant warfare, dawn to dusk with only a few precious hours to sleep, day in and day out. It’s wearing them down.
She relaxed and allowed the Force to flow through her. With it carried the emotions and sensations of a million sentient beings, information that she would never decipher. I could spend a lifetime exploring just what I feel at this moment and never understand, never comprehend it all.
Still, the flow of information had flavors, commonalities across broad swaths of the Zabraks she could sense. Her mind flashed back to a lesson with Master Skywalker on Yavin IV as she sampled their emotions.
It is easiest to feel the minds and emotions of your own race—their patterns are most similar to your own. Attempting to manipulate another’s mind becomes even more difficult the further their mind is from your own. When I went to Jabba’s palace as a Jedi Knight, I was able to use the Force on Jabba’s majordomo, a Twi’lek named Bib Fortuna, with some difficulty to get me an audience with Jabba. When I tried to use the Force to manipulate the Hutt, I failed outright—his will was stronger and his mind far more alien.
Kelta wondered for a moment why she was able to sense the Zabraks so clearly. Maybe it’s because of my time on Zephyr Base, or my time with the Sanshir clan when they adopted Adreia as one of their own.
The Force carried to her their feelings, as clearly as though they were etched in transparisteel in meter-high letters. The excitement of the early battles was gone, as was the anticipation. In place was a small amount of dread but far larger doses of commitment, of dedication to the preservation of Iridonia. Fear came to her, too, but it wasn’t the primal, heart-wrenching fear she’d felt in the first few engagements. This was a more distant fear, a fear of dying, yes, but of losing friends and family and comrades-in-arms; it was fear set aside to deal with the task at hand.
All of it, though, was flavored with sourness of exhaustion. The Zabrak troops were fighting endlessly against an implacable foe. As they slowly gave ground to preserve their lives, they were wearing down. Commitment and the knowledge of the price of failure kept every Zabrak warrior from backing down, brought blaster rifles to bear and zhabokas to hand. Sleep was in short supply, but rest was not to be found while the Vong threatened their homes and lives.
Even from the support crews, she felt the weariness. Starfighter support crews, responsible for patching up Iridonia’s all-important aerial defenses, worked around the clock to keep their charges in the air; medical crews ran on caf and stubbornness as they dealt with casualties; transport pilots and crews slept at their stations when not on duty, knowing their responsibility to keep supplies moving was critical.
The bridge crew, coordinating Rak’Edalin’s defense, was arguably the best-rested, but even amongst the officers their strength flagged. Kelta had no doubt that many of the warriors on the front line believed the officers were resting easy after the day’s fighting was done, but the Jedi knew better. When sunset brought an end to the day’s fighting, those officers were analyzing the results of the day’s battle, looking for new tactics and strategies, careful to analyze for any changes to the enemy’s own strategies.
From all the sentients she felt, Kelta now only felt a single being whose energy had not flagged. Only one Zabrak was filled with energy, was alert, was ready for the day’s fighting.
How does he do that? she wondered. There’s no trace of weariness in his presence. I know he’s not sleeping any better than anyone else. Everything I’ve heard says he’s been down working on that wreck of a freighter every night after the fighting’s done.
Stims, maybe? If I couldn’t feel it, I’d think it’s some façade he puts on for his officers, but he can’t fool the Force.
She tried to avoid thinking about what was in her heart. You really do still love him. Why? He left you. He wouldn’t say anything last night. He brushed you off again, wouldn’t admit the emotion I could feel rolling off him.
And what Deuce told me, about Halyn talking about me. About his orders to contact me if something would happen to him, and having a message to play for me. Why does Halyn always have to play things so close to his chest that he can’t even admit his own feelings to himself?
Kelta closed her eyes, submerging herself in the Force again, letting its flow flood away her thoughts and fears about Halyn. In its wake, she found peace: the peace of acceptance, of giving up her attempts at control, of trusting the Force to carry her through today and the days ahead.
The peace was short-lived. Death shuddered through her, cold tendrils as Zabrak lives were snuffed out. The day’s battle was clearly on, as fear and anticipation spiked through her.
The moment after, clearly, she sensed a different type of anticipation. It was not the anticipation of a warrior meeting a warrior in combat, as she felt throughout the Zabrak defenses.
It was the anticipation of a hunter stalking his quarry. The anticipation of a predator prepared to spring on its prey, to rip the throat from its helpless victim.
As she wondered whose feelings she sensed now, and why the change, Anishor and Li Coden entered the Cathleen’s bridge.