There were days Sandarie Coron hated Halyn Lance. They had been friends for years—only a handful of people outside his own family had known him longer by any significant amount of time. In those years, when he had been around and active in her life, she had known immense joy, blood-chilling fear, and nova-hot anger. The Zabrak had always been a man of extremes, in her eyes: never stable, never conservative, but always in trouble, always in an adventure, and never, ever boring.
But sometimes, he managed to take her off-guard, like when he gave her the special “assignment” she now found herself undertaking.
Damn you, Halyn Lance. You know I don’t do this sort of thing.
Reluctantly, she could admit—to herself, at least—that he had good reason for giving her this task. She was hardly the warrior that Halyn himself or Anishor or the Jedi were; she was not a tactician like Kryi Rinnet or Nisia Eisweep; she was not an Intelligence spook like Abi Ocopaqui or Li Coden.
But, she thought as a stuffed animal bounced off a lek, being reduced to babysitting is not what I had in mind when I came here to help.
“Duck, Aunt Sandi!” one of the Zabrak children yelled belatedly. The blue-skinned Twi’lek released a long-suffering sigh.
“Durul Sanshir,” she said, low and slow, “you can’t possibly tell me that was an accident.”
The twelve-year-old Zabrak boy looked at her with a very serious expression. “That was an accident, Aunt Sandi.”
The Twi’lek stared down Allanna’s child. “Really, Durul?”
A soft rubber ball bounced off the back of her head. “That wasn’t!” Bluth Lusp’s voice called cheerfully.
Sandi spun on the eldest of Kativie’s daughters. “Hey!”
“Aunt Sandi? Can’t we go do something?” Vyshtal Lusp asked. Kativie’s third child was tapping his foot restlessly, leaning against the bulkhead beside the chamber’s only door. “I hate just sitting here all the time. We should be out fighting, too!”
“We’re too young to fight,” Kadrol Sanshir, Allanna’s youngest child, spoke up. Five years old, she was solemnly clutching a stuffed animal, seated cross-legged next to Nop, the eldest of Kativie’s children. Sandarie was surprised to note the pairing—Nop was eager to get out and fight and earn his jato and adulthood.
“You are, yes,” Nop agreed and patted her head. “Not all of us are too young, though.”
Sandarie rubbed her eyes. Eight Sanshir kids are about seven too many for one Twi’lek to take care of, she thought in dismay. I always expected Kativie’s children to run wild, but I thought Allanna and Argus would have more…disciplined…kids.
“Exactly!” Vyshtal shouted. “And I’m a Jedi—they need me out there!”
“You’re not a Jedi,” Nop retorted. “Mom says you’ll be as old as she is before you’re a Jedi.”
“Kids!” Sandarie said sharply, almost snarling the word. That got their attention; eight pairs of eyes looked up at the Twi’lek. “You’re staying here, where it’s safe, until it’s your turn to fight. And it won’t be your turn for a long time,” she added, glaring at Nop and Vyshtal in return.
Sylvyi and Sash, twin girls and Kativie’s youngest, were conspicuously quiet. Sandarie turned to see them, saw the door hiss open as they attempted to make their escape. They bounced off the legs of a much larger Zabrak in their haste, falling back into the room on their butts.
“Don’t you brats know you’re supposed to listen to Aunt Sandi?” Edlin Sanshir asked.
Sandi smiled gratefully at the eldest surviving Sanshir of his generation. “Thank you, Edlin,” she said. “Good to see you.”
“You, too, Aunt Sandi,” he said as he crossed the room to give the Twi’lek a hug.
Sandarie frowned at his expression. He looks tired. No, not tired. Weary, maybe. And…disappointed?
“Can we talk?” Edlin asked her. He glanced around at the Zabrak children. “Away from the brats.”
“We’re not brats!” Vyshtal protested.
“Yes, brats,” Edlin repeated. “All of you, shoo. Into the other room!”
With half-hearted grumbling and protests, the Zabrak children picked up and moved into the adjoining chamber. Sandi was grateful for the move—there was only one hatch into the spacious quarters that’d been given over to the Sanshir and Lusp children, and they’d have to get past Sandi to reach it.
When the children had cleared the room, Sandi looked back at her “nephew”. She had watched him grow up with the rest of Allanna and Kativie’s children and saw him through the eyes of an adult watching a juvenile. It was almost shocking to see his jato; she had not seen him since before his trials, and the very adult markings were a stark contrast to his youth.
He looks so very much like both Argus and Halyn, she decided. The nose, the darkened skin were very much Argus. The intense emerald eyes, the dark jato pattern—those were pure Halyn. For a moment, Sandarie wondered if it would be his destiny to carry on the family tradition of war and service that his father, uncle, and aunt had all been called to—the path of a Zabrak warrior and hero.
She nearly laughed aloud at the thought. I’ve been spending too much time with the Jedi and Anishor, she decided. I’m almost starting to sound like them.
“There’s no secret assignment, is there?” Edlin asked quietly.
“What?” Sandi asked with a frown. “What are you talking about?”
“Uncle Halyn just maneuvered me out of the way,” Edlin said disgustedly. “I asked him for an important assignment, and he shuffled me off.”
Sandi’s eyes widened in realization. “He sent you to help me?”
“Yes,” the Zabrak said in irritation. “He told me that he had an important, secret assignment that you needed help with. He made it sound like it was critical to the survival of Iridonia.”
The Twi’lek sighed and rubbed her cheeks wearily. “Well, as far as he’s concerned, this is critical to the defense of Iridonia,” she suggested.
Edlin frowned. “How so?”
“Why do you think Halyn is out there, fighting this war?” she asked gently.
“Because he’s the hero,” the young Zabrak said gruffly. “It’s what he and Dad and Aunt Kat have always done. They fight and keep everyone else safe and make themselves famous.”
Sandi shook her head. “Maybe at the beginning, that’s why they did it. But by the time I met your uncle during the Civil War, he was past that point.”
“What do you mean?” Edlin’s voice was curious, and Sandarie found herself wondering how much the Sanshir kids really knew of their family’s exploits during the heyday of the Galactic Civil War.
“I actually met him at a party,” Sandi admitted.
“Uncle Halyn. At a party.” Edlin’s jaw was dropped. “Really?”
“Really.” Sandarie barely restrained a laugh. “Back then, he was a fighter pilot, and he knew as well as anyone that he was one engagement away from death at any given time. Most of the pilots I knew then were the same way—they understood that they could die at any time, so they were going to live while they could.”
Edlin shook his head. “I just can’t imagine…” his voice trailed off.
“I didn’t know who he was then,” Sandi continued her story. “I spent most of the night talking with one of the pilots under his command, and he didn’t identify Halyn to me then either. Probably because of the price on Halyn’s head by then—until they knew who I was and knew I could be trusted, none of his people would risk accidentally putting him at risk.”
“So Uncle Halyn was already a General by then?”
Sandi nodded. “Though he hated wearing the uniform. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to really meet him until several weeks later. He’d been shot down and captured by the Empire, and the Rebels needed to get someone inside to find out if he was still alive. I was a civilian with no ties to the Rebellion and solid credentials, so they asked me—who they barely knew—to find out what I could.”
“And you got him out of prison?”
“No. I just found out that he was still alive and holding out against the Empire’s interrogators.” An involuntary shiver ran through both lekku as she remembered those dark days: Imperial Inquisitor Paige Avion and his apprentice, Suuzanne Crazton, who would later play a much larger role in the Sanshir famly’s struggles. But of that, she said nothing—some things weren’t her place to explain. “After I confirmed he was still there and still alive, his starfighter wing and a ground squad launched an attack to break him out.”
“And succeeded,” Edlin added.
“And succeeded,” Sandi confirmed. “As he was recovering at Zephyr Base, I got to meet him for the first time. Well, not really the first time, but it was the first time we were both capable of coherent speech.”
Edlin laughed as he bent down to pick up a discarded toy. Without looking, he flicked it into the adjoining room’s doorway, drawing a surprised squeal from one of the kids trying to eavesdrop. “So what does that have to do with this critical assignment?”
“I learned a lot about Halyn in those early days,” the Twi’lek said softly. “At the time, he never thought he’d see his family again, never thought he’d step foot on Iridonia. Back then, we thought fighting the Empire would be a generational battle. So, for him, his pilots at Zephyr Base were his family. And he did everything he could to protect them.” She remembered too-vividly his expressions after disastrous missions, even sometimes after successful runs. “Like any commander, he never could bring them all home alive, and sometimes he was forced to issue orders he knew would kill some of his own people. But…” she shrugged. “There was a reason he never rose past the rank of general and the role of starfighter wing commander.”
“Why?” Edlin asked, his full attention clearly on the story.
“He had lots of reasons for it,” Sandi admitted. “He thought it had to do with his race and homeworld—after all, Iridonia had been a perennial enemy of the Republic whenever war broke out with the Sith. Sometimes he thought it had to do with position—the commander of an Outer Rim fighter wing isn’t a prestigious role. But I always thought it was because of how he commanded.”
“Meaning?” the Zabrak prompted.
“Meaning he sacrificed objectives for people,” Sandi explained. “His concern was for lives, not military objectives. If the objective overlapped with lives, he had no problem fulfilling it, but if an objective was going to cost lives for no gain, he wouldn’t hesitate to throw the objective away if he thought it wasn’t worth it.”
Edlin’s voice was tinged with suspicion. “Was that really the way it was?”
“Yes,” Sandi confirmed.
“Then why is Uncle Halyn fighting so differently now?” he asked. “We’re losing hundreds or thousands of warriors every day fighting the scarheads face-to-face. I’ve seen the deployments—Uncle Halyn is grinding down our own people as much as he is the Vong. He’s sacrificed every opportunity to retreat and save lives.”
The Twi’lek arched an eyebrow in surprise. “You’re very perceptive.”
“I’m a Sanshir,” he said, as thought it explained everything.
And in a way, it does, Sandi thought. A family doesn’t become a major player in a world’s politics for generations if only a few of them can think ahead and anticipate and see the bigger pictures. “Yes, you are.”
“So why, then?”
“We haven’t talked about it directly,” Sandi hedged. “But I think I know why.”
“The Yuuzhan Vong are different than the Empire,” she said, not able to stop a shiver from running through her lekku, sending them twitching and swaying. “They’ve never shown any willingness towards mercy, or any capability of anything we’d call good. They target and kill refugees, sacrifice millions to their gods, destroy and remake entire worlds. If they win here, they could wipe out Zabraks entirely as the galaxy knows them.”
“So the sacrifice is necessary for the victory,” Edlin said in a low voice.
Sandi nodded. “That’s my perspective on it.”
“Then why is he holding me back?” he asked. “If what you’re saying is true, he should be letting me out on the front lines to do my part.”
The Twi’lek shrugged. “That, I don’t know. So, will you stay and help me watch the kids?” She gave him a smile. “They’re a bit much for one Twi’lek to manage.”
Edlin nodded slowly. “Yes, I’ll stay, Aunt Sandi. At least until I can convince Uncle Halyn to assign me to the front.”
“Good. Go look after them,” she said with a smile. “I just need a few moments to breathe before I go in there.”
“Alright,” Edlin said with a small smile. “Hey brats!” he yelled into the other room as he walked forward. “Who’s up for a game?”
Sandi’s smile faded as she watched as Edlin was rushed by the Sanshir and Lusp kids, unable to completely banish a terrible thought that haunted her. She tried to push it away, but it clung tenaciously to her mind. Halyn’s been willing to make the hard sacrifice. Is he keeping his own family here, out of the way, so they don’t bear repercussions for the sacrifices he’s making? He could very well destroy himself to keep Iridonia free, if his family wouldn’t bear the responsibility—Is that his plan? That could be why he sent Kativie out to the front lines, too. If she’s there, their enemies can’t claim she had a hand in his decisions, no matter how things proceed. If he’s planning on sacrificing himself, he’s done a very good job of getting his family clear of the aftermath.
Li tried to hide a wince as he and Anishor walked into the Cathleen’s command center. The big Wookiee had assumed a predator’s stalk. He’s probably not even aware of it, Li decided. Even though it clearly marks us. Halyn would have to be blind to miss the fact that we’re up to something. Somehow I doubt New Republic Intelligence will ever recruit him for work.
The starfighter coordinator’s post was on the far side of the bridge, surrounded by multiple tactical displays and holograms, along with complex communications equipment. The role of starfighter commander was critical—in the past forty years of warfare, the value of a handful of pilots in the right place at the right time had turned routs into victory, while mistakes by even a single squadron had cost fleets heavy losses.
Their target was indeed there, surrounded by floating holographic indicators of Rak’Edalin’s fighter wings. The Zabrak female’s hair was woven into a single tight braid on the top of her head; much of her scalp was bare save for a crown of vestigial horns.
Li squinted at her as he and Anishor approached her. That…doesn’t look like the traitor Nylah. Not even a little. I mean, she’s a female Zabrak, but…
“Anishor,” he hissed. “Abort run.”
The Wookiee turned off flawlessly and approached Halyn, who was sitting—for the moment—in the command chair in the center of the Cathleen’s bridge.
“Furball,” Halyn said without looking up from the datapad in his hands.
<Coatrack,> Anishor rumbled. <How does the battle proceed?>
“As it has every day,” the Zabrak griped. “They attack, and we hold the lines. They attack over mounds of their own dead, and erode our positions.”
<They worry away at your defenses as a river cuts into a riverbank,> Anishor observed.
Li wondered briefly how long he could stand beside Anishor before Halyn or, worse yet, Kryi Rinnet would ask him why he wasn’t strapped into a starfighter screaming over Rak’Edalin exchanging fire with coralskippers. He hadn’t had time to work on an answer yet when Halyn abruptly rose from the command chair and started walking towards the turbolift from which Anishor and Li had come.
“Walk with me,” Halyn said in a low voice.
The New Republic Intelligence agent fell into step beside his old friend, Anishor immediately following them like a furry boulder.
The Ul’akhoi was silent until the door to the turbolift hissed close. The lift had barely started to move when Halyn hit the stop button. The lift squealed in protest at the abuse, but the he ignored it.
“What the hell are you two doing?” he asked without preamble.
“Is there a reason you were making a beeline for my starfighter coordinator?” Halyn asked sharply. “In case you haven’t noticed, Kryi’s role is a bit important in this. You know, keeping the Vong from getting steady resupplies, aerial support for our troops, that sort of thing.”
Anishor sighed. <Coatrack, we…>
“No, Anishor, let me,” Li interrupted, drawing a surprised look from both Halyn and Anishor. “I’ve been investigating the traitor since I arrived,” he explained. “I don’t know what you’ve got Sandi doing, but this is well outside her area of expertise. And dammit, Hal, you should’ve asked me and Abi to do it as soon as we told you there was a traitor.”
Halyn’s expression was unreadable. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I asked you to or not.”
“If you knew we were going to investigate, then why not just give us the assignment?”
“Because I had other things for you to do. Other important things.” Halyn sighed. “So tell me, what did you find out?”
“We know the traitor is a female Zabrak, and we’re pretty sure she’s in your inner circle given the information she gave to the Vong, and what she said when we escorted her in.” Li recounted the information methodically. “I know your methods pretty well, even after all these years. The people you trust, you trust absolutely, with information you probably shouldn’t.”
“It’s hard for my people to do their jobs when they don’t understand what’s going on,” Halyn answered.
“I’m not trying to argue your methods,” Li countered. “After all, they’ve worked for you pretty well up until this point.”
“Pretty well?” Halyn repeated.
“Now’s not the time to get into your military record,” Li said in exasperation.
<Please, listen, Coatrack,> Anishor said. <You know this is important.>
Halyn waved a dismissive hand, but quieted.
“There’s a small possibility that it could be a spouse or a close friend of someone inside your inner circle,” Li continued, “but your inner circle’s pretty small. There’s no one married to a female Zabrak among those Abi and I figured you trust, so your information isn’t likely leaking that way.”
Halyn waved his hand in a circle impatiently, as though prompting Li to get on with it. The Intelligence agent wouldn’t be rushed, though. If he’s going to understand why we’re reasoning the way we are, he has to hear this all.
“That leaves three likely candidates for your traitor. Allanna Saret, Nisia Eisweep, and Kryi Rinnet.”
“My fleet admiral, my oldest living friend outside of my family, and my starfighter commander,” Halyn said dryly. “It’s amazing we’re not all dead yet, or that I haven’t been killed in my sleep.”
“Not funny,” Li growled before he restrained himself. “Abi and I both had face-to-face contact with the traitor, so I felt confident in my ability to identify her.”
“Felt?” Halyn repeated.
“Abi and I met Allanna Saret aboard the Cyclone. I’m fairly certain she wasn’t the traitor. Abi and I both agreed her demeanor and features were too unlike Nylah to consider her a possibility. Given her history with the Rebel Alliance and Sandarie Coron, as well as,” Li coughed into his hand, “her family, we’re believed the chances of her being a traitor were extremely low.” He shrugged uncomfortably at the pointed stare from Halyn. “Sorry, I had to do my job.”
“You’re not forgiven.”
Li winced at that. He doesn’t like anyone digging at anything involving his family. Of course, back in the war when we flew together, there wasn’t any family around for him to be protective of. “Of the remaining two, there’s Nisia Eisweep, who’s a known criminal and pirate, and the other is a decorated Alliance ace pilot from the Civil War.”
“Given that, why aren’t you chasing Nisia down right now and trying to get a confession out of her at blasterpoint?” Halyn asked irritably. “After all, I clearly can’t pick my own friends and allies.”
Anishor cuffed Halyn with a huge furred paw. <Listen, Coatrack. You know better than to become defensive. Li speaks out of necessity, not spite.>
“Abi and I made visual contact with Nisia,” Li continued, a bit defensively now. “Of Nisia and Kryi, we believed her to more likely be the traitor given her background. Visually, though, she wasn’t Nylah—both Abi and I agreed on that.”
“So, you came onto the Cathleen’s bridge to execute Kryi?” Halyn asked, his voice hard and unyielding as durasteel. Or Iridonia itself, Li thought with a faint bit of humor. They’re sure not yielding to the Yuuzhan Vong.
“Not execute, make a visual identification,” Li corrected. “I didn’t want to kill anyone. I only want to root out the traitor.”
“So what did you find?” Halyn asked.
“Kryi doesn’t look like Nylah, either,” Li said with a helpless shrug. “But I wasn’t sure if she could be a Yuuzhan Vong infiltrator in disguise.”
<She’s not a Yuuzhan Vong,> Anishor contradicted. <Her aura is that of a Zabrak. I can smell it on her.>
“But is she Kryi?” Li asked. “I mean, you knew her during the Civil War after I transferred out of Zephyr Base.”
Anishor grimaced. <It is difficult for me to say,> he said slowly. <I did not know her well. She briefly flew a B-wing under my command, but she also spent time flying both A-wings and X-wings for other squadrons in the wing. She didn’t truly come into her own as a pilot until after she transferred to the fleet after Endor and started racking up kills.>
“You just admitted she wasn’t a Vong,” Halyn stated flatly. “And her features haven’t changed that much since Endor.”
<She may not be a Vong, but she could still be in an ooglith masquer,> Anishor pointed out. <Perhaps her identity as Nylah is her true self, and she has taken Kryi’s place.>
“Except she’s a damned good starfighter coordinator,” Halyn protested. “You can’t fake skills like that.”
“Maybe it is the real Kryi, but she wore the masquer when meeting with the Vong,” Li suggested. “That would explain the appearance difference.”
“That would mean any of the three could still be the traitor,” Halyn said in exasperation. “So really, you’re telling me right now you have nothing.”
“Not nothing,” Li said irritably. “There’s possible motivation for all three.”
The Zabrak rolled his eyes up towards the ceiling. “What motivations would those be?”
“Money and love,” Li said. “The reasons for any crime.”
Halyn raised an eyebrow.
“We know whoever the traitor is will be paid, and well-paid, by the Vong, as long as she’s smart enough to keep her distance and not let the Vong execute her.” Li shrugged. “I can’t imagine that a traitor in your inner circle would be so dumb as to let the Vong kill her easy.” He rolled his shoulders, trying to work out some tension. “Nisia was a pirate, and they’re not known for much motivation beyond profit. It’ll also do for Kryi.”
“She’d sell out her race for money, when she spent years fighting for them?” Halyn asked skeptically.
<She’s hardly wealthy,> Anishor said. <She may also harbor some resentment towards you and other heroes of Iridonia’s rebellion against the Empire. You’ve become famous, where she is still little-known among even her own people. She also has no family, so her ties to you and to this world are weaker.>
“And Allanna?” Halyn shook his head. “Can’t imagine she sold out for money.”
“For love,” Li said. “What if Argus is still alive?”
That speculation brought a look of shock to Halyn’s face. “What did you say?”
“No, hang with me on this,” Li said. “If Argus was still alive, Allanna would do pretty much anything to save him, wouldn’t she?”
“I thought you said when you and Abi escorted her to meet the Vong that she indicated she was interested in money.”
“Yes, but I think that might have been smokescreen.” Li shook his head. “There’s something weird going on with the Vong.”
“Weird? How so?”
“I’m sure you’ve been watching their movements as much as you can, haven’t you?”
“So were we, when we were waiting for an opportunity to set down.” Li hesitated. “In that time, we never saw any Vong reinforcement or supply ships arrive from outside the system.”
That seemed to grab Halyn’s full attention for the first time. “Really?”
Li nodded. “I think there’s some kind of internal politics at play with the Vong right now. So if there’s two different factions, and Allanna’s working for one, they could easily insert her into the other as a plant by promising Argus’s life.”
The Ul’akhoi seemed to withdraw as he considered this new information. “Alright,” he said at last. “Li, I still need you running my special operations squadron, but I want you and Abi to work together with Anishor to try to dig out any information on the traitor.” He paused for a moment of reflection before nodding. “Yeah. I might as well have you do it under my instruction, since you’re bound and determined to do it anyways.” There was a hardness in his eyes as he reached over and slapped the turbolift button to return them to the bridge. “If you figure out who the traitor is, come talk to me first before you do anything rash. And if there’s any chance Argus is still alive, I want to know, because you can be damned sure we’ll go get him back.”