Great, Sandarie thought. Not only do I have to deal with the Sanshir brats, but now I have to deal with their cat, too. She glared at the old nexu lying in the corner, the last surviving pet from Kativie’s stint in the Rebel Alliance. Edlin had brought the old animal in from somewhere, but hadn’t specified where.
“Ow!” she cried as some hands tugged on her lekku.
“Aunt Sandi, tell us a story!” Durul Sanshir pleaded in a child’s whine. He tugged again on her lekku, harder this time. “Please!”
“Please!” more voices echoed around the Twi’lek.
Sandarie sighed. I should’ve made Edlin stay here and watch the brats while I went and got food for them. She was grateful for the Sanshir warrior’s help, though. Before Halyn had sent him to her aid, she had been forced to try to wrangle eight kids to and from a communal meal area twice a day. When those eight kids were lively Zabraks, it was hard to keep even the better-behaved of them in line.
“Everyone sit down,” Sandi said. “And I’ll tell you a story.” She glanced around the room.
“Yay!” little Kadrol Sanshir cheered. “Story!”
“Stories are for little kids,” Vystal said with a superior tone. “Not warriors.”
“It just so happens this story is about two great warriors,” Sandi said smoothly. “Two of the greatest warriors to ever come out of Iridonia.” She smiled. “It’s the story of Flith.”
“You mean our Flith?” Sylvyi asked breathlessly, looking over at the old nexu napping in the darkest corner.
“Yes, your Flith,” Sandarie said. She grimaced in pain as Sash tried to use her lekku as ropes, climbing up the Twi’lek’s back. She doesn’t know better, she doesn’t know better, Sandi kept telling herself as the pain intensified.
Flith rose from the corner and ambled over behind Sandi. A gentle swing of the old nexu’s paw sent Sash tumbling to the ground. The little Zabrak girl cried out in protest, but then contented herself by wrapping herself around the nexu’s neck instead. The big cat laid down by Sandi, her head flat on the ground.
The Twi’lek rested her hand gratefully on the nexu’s head, scratching behind its ears. The cat rumbled in contentment, prompting Sash—now sitting astride the cat—to giggle in delight.
“Well before you were all born, your Uncle Halyn was a general in the Rebel Alliance. He was a great leader with many people who followed him,” she explained slowly. “He was one of the greatest Zabrak warriors in the galaxy, and one of the few who could stand up to the evil Empire. Kativie joined him on Rori at your Uncle Halyn’s fortress, Zephyr Base.”
The kids sat enrapt, listening with wide eyes—even the older kids. Sandi suppressed a smile. I think this is the quietest they’ve been, other than when they’re trying to eavesdrop on Edlin and me.
“The Empire was trying to crush the Zabraks and make them all slaves,” Sandi continued. “Clan Sanshir had been one of their most difficult opponents, so the Imperials decided to make an example out of them. They set up a huge arena and forced Sanshirs to fight against beasts. They thought by doing that they would make other Zabraks lose hope and submit.”
“Mom and Uncle Halyn would never let them do that!” Nop Lusp protested.
“You’re right, they wouldn’t,” Sandi agreed. “So Kativie came back to Iridonia to stop it, even though she knew the Empire wanted to capture her.”
“Why didn’t Uncle Halyn come?” Bluth asked.
“Uncle Halyn was busy fighting the Empire other places,” Sandi explained. “And Kativie didn’t tell him she was leaving.” She shook her head at those dark days and the rash decisions so many of her friends had made—decisions they would regret. “So Kativie came here to unite the Sanshirs and help oppose the Empire. She tried to bring down the Imperial governor, but she was captured instead and forced to fight in the arena.”
“What did she do?” Sylvyi asked.
“She fought and fought for many days,” Sandarie said. “Kativie fought many vicious, wild animals—reek and nexu and rancors and kimogilas! But she always won—and it made the Imperial governor mad, because he wanted to see her die in the arena.”
“And Uncle Halyn didn’t do anything?” Vyshtal asked skeptically. “Even while Mom was fighting and trying not to die?”
“Uncle Halyn was doing something—he was preparing an army to attack the Imperials and free Iridonia.” Sandarie nodded, remembering. “He brought all his pilots and every Zabrak he could recruit from across the galaxy. And his great fleet attacked the Imperial fleet here at Iridonia and drove them off, with the help of his friends.”
“What about Uncle Argus?” Nop asked.
“Argus helped bring together all the Zabraks on the planet,” Sandi explained. “And when Uncle Halyn’s fleet drove off the Imperial blockade, Argus’s army sprung into action. While Halyn’s teams landed in ships, Argus’s army attacked the Imperials, too. Both groups converged on the arena where the Sanshirs had been forced to fight, and they freed Kativie from the Imperials who had tried to kill her!”
“What about Flith?” Sash asked from atop the snoozing nexu.
“When the battle was over, Kativie found a baby nexu in the arena. She decided to keep her and name her Flith.” Sandi smiled. “Flith grew up to become a great friend and guardian for Kativie and her family.”
“Mmm, I love Flith,” Sash declared, squeezing her arms as hard as she could around the nexu’s neck.
Sandi chuckled at the little girl. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the door to the kids’ quarters slid open.
“Hey, brats!” Edlin called cheerily. “I have food for you!”
Cheers floated up from the Zabrak kids, and they quickly abandoned Sandarie and their seats on the floor to swarm their food-bearing family member. Edlin laughed and started passing out small containers of food to each of his kin.
Sandi’s smile faded as she watched the scene. Halyn and Kativie got into so much trouble back then, and so many of their friends and family died in that war. I wonder how they’re doing right now?
“How on Iridonia did you possibly think this was a good idea?” Kativie asked in gasping breaths.
“Okay, I admit it could be going a bit better right now,” Halyn replied between his own gasps. “How could I know the stairs didn’t run all the way to the peak?”
“You didn’t look at the building plans?” Kelta asked, doubled over from cramps. “You intended to come in here, and you didn’t scout it out first?”
“Why do you think I put you in front?” Halyn retorted. “Hang on, here they come again!”
Razor bugs came screaming up through holes in the floor. The two Jedi ignited their lightsabers, striking out at the bugs with their energy swords, trying to protect the group. Halyn, Ceikeh, and the Zabrak defense squad they’d rescued returned fire, sending blaster bolts spraying back through the holes in the floor.
This Yuuzhan Vong squad was two floors down, but the continual fighting had opened so many holes in the floors and ceilings that both sides had decent line-of-sight, leading to another outbreak in hostilities.
A pair of thud bugs came through the holes in the floor next, but they were moving too fast to turn when they emerged. Instead, they smashed into the ceiling above, opening more holes and sending a cloud of dust down to cover the defenders.
Halyn and Kativie had caught up with the rest of their squad at the top of the stairs—the “top” being a mere third of the way up the building. Kelta had led them into a run across the floor that had found another set of stairs, but each ascent seemed to end after only a floor or two. That can’t possibly be Rak’Edalin building code, Halyn thought wryly. Or it wouldn’t be, if we had a building code. Maybe that’s something that should be addressed. Much as I hate Coruscant, there’s a few things they get right.
The attack slowed to a dribble of attacking bugs, then cut off altogether. “C’mon,” Halyn said. “They’re still coming. We need to keep moving.”
“Push, push, push,” Kelta grumbled.
<I am willing to take lead,> Anishor offered.
“I’d appreciate that,” Kelta replied.
<May I borrow a lightsaber?> the Wookiee asked. <It opens doors more easily than my rykk blades.”
Wordlessly, the red-maned Jedi Knight tossed the berserker one of her hilts. Anishor snatched it out of the air, the weapon looking positively tiny in his huge hand. The Wookiee ignited the blade, splashing purple highlights across the room. <A worthy weapon.>
“And a good door opener,” Halyn commented dryly. “Let’s move.”
Anishor plowed ahead with a wordless roar. The rest of the Zabrak squad fell into line behind him, though they had no hope of keeping up with him. Halyn, Kativie, and Kelta fell to the back of the group to provide cover for the rest of their comrades.
“No blaster?” Halyn asked Kelta.
“Didn’t think I’d need one,” she remarked. “Besides, I couldn’t tell you when the last time was I fired a blaster.”
“Here,” Halyn said, freeing his Power5 from its holster and lobbing it to the Jedi.
Kelta snagged the weapon and glanced it over appraisingly.
“It’s not hard,” Halyn offered. “You point and you squeeze the trigger.”
“You always were a smartass,” Kelta grumbled. “What about you? What are you going to do for a weapon now?”
Halyn reached back behind his back under the duster, withdrawing a second Power5. “I long since realized I have to carry a spare when I’m running around with Jedi.
Kativie chuckled at both of them. “Really, Halyn?”
“Well, you two seem so determined to hang onto those antiquated melee weapons of yours,” he said dryly. “And we keep finding ourselves in situations where shooting from range is so much more effective.”
“Yet you’re carrying an archaic weapon or two yourself,” Kelta shot back. “Even more archaic than ours.”
Halyn grinned, not at all rebuked. “Sometimes the most effective solution is to hit something with a big stick,” he answered. “Or a big sharp stick.”
“I’d rather just burn their faces off,” Kativie shot back.
“So violent for a Jedi.”
The three ducked into the next stairway just in time—a thud bug smashed into the wall next to them, drilling a hole through the obstruction but emerging so dazed that Halyn knocked it out of the air with the butt of his blaster. The insect weapon lay on the floor, stunned, until Halyn brought his boot down on its carapace.
More bugs hissed and howled and buzzed through the air. The two Jedi and the Ul’akhoi opened fire with their blasters, filling the doorway with fire. Two of the insects died to lucky shots, but the rest flashed past and smashed into the wall. “Won’t be long now,” Kativie said. “We keep running and pushing them back, but they keep coming.”
Halyn glanced from the doorway and his blaster to check his chrono. “Katie, how far up the building are we?”
“Over halfway now,” his younger sister grunted.
“That’ll have to be good enough,” he decided. “Kelta, catch up with Anishor and tell him we need an exit.”
“An exit?” the Jedi asked with a frown.
“Yes. A hole in the side of the building will do nicely.”
“Why?” she asked, puzzled. “Are you planning on all of us jumping? Kativie and I can’t catch everyone if we do that. Hell, I don’t think the two of us together could save Anishor from that kind of fall.”
“Just trust me,” Halyn said in exasperation. “And quickly. Please, catch up with Anishor and tell him we need an exit.”
“Yes, sir, General, sir, Ul’akhoi, sir, Admiral, sir.” She hesitated for a moment. “Did I miss any?”
Halyn rolled his eyes. “Now, Kelta.”
“Yes, sir!” The Jedi mock-saluted, then sprinted off with Force-enhanced speed to catch up to the Wookiee.
“You have an exit plan, I take it?” Kativie asked dryly.
“Well, I’d intended to be picked up from the roof, but we’ll have to improvise,” Halyn said. Yuuzhan Vong appeared behind them. The siblings opened fire with their blasters, driving the pair of warriors to the poor cover of the railing. “Hopefully our pilot is smart enough to figure it out.”
“You always did love to improvise,” Kativie commented. “Even when it blew up in your face.”
“Especially when it blew up in my face,” Halyn corrected cheerfully. One of the Vong went down to multiple blaster burns across his chest and face. The other retreated back for the stairway. “There’s no challenge to life if everything goes your way.”
“You’re quite the philosopher in combat,” Kativie remarked dryly. “Too bad you’re too busy shooting to write a book. You could make enough money off your musings to retire comfortably.”
“Next time I’ll bring a droid along to take my dictation.” The Yuuzhan Vong warrior peeked back through the doorway, and the shots from both siblings hit him in the throat simultaneously. “Of course, I doubt a droid could keep up with our pace.”
The siblings continued to keep up their fire as they slowly retreated further up the building. “So,” Kativie asked conversationally, “is there some reason you want us to throw ourselves out of the building halfway up, instead of from the top?”
“Yeah,” Halyn said casually. “Mostly because we’ve got, oh, three minutes left.”
“Three minutes until what?” Kativie asked suspiciously. Abruptly, she stopped in her tracks. “You never did give me my thermal detonator back, did you?”
“Nope,” Halyn said cheerfully as he ejected a spent power pack and slammed a new one into the hilt of his blaster. “I needed it.”
“You told me not to use it because it’d bring the building down on top of us!” Kativie protested.
“It would have!” Halyn countered. Brother and sister dropped flat as a trio of thud bugs hummed past at chest-level.
“So what’s the difference when you’re doing it?” Kativie snarled.
“I want to bring the building down when we’re already out, but the Vong are still inside,” the Ul’akhoi said.
Kativie snarled at him as they laid down a fresh volley of suppressive fire. “How long did you set that timer for, anyways?”
“Thirty minutes,” Halyn answered.
“Then we’d better get the hell out of here.”
“That was the idea, yeah. I thought in thirty minutes we’d make it to the top of the building. I’m willing to admit I was wrong in my estimate.”
“Very generous of you,” Kat growled as their blasterfire caught another Vong warrior repeatedly, sending him down in a cloud of crimson smoke. “Would’ve been nice if you would’ve told me about this, you know, twenty-eight minutes ago or so.”
“If I would’ve told you about it, you would’ve told me no.” Halyn’s tone was dry. “Something about not wanting to die, about my plans being terrible—you know, the usual.”
“That’s because I don’t want to die, and this plan is terrible.” Kativie bounded to her feet and ignited her lightsaber as a pair of Vong warriors came charging toward them, completely ignoring the blasterfire deflected by their armor. She met them lightsaber to amphistaff, her blade snarling against the serpentine weapons.
Two more Vong joined them. Halyn freed his sword, stepping forward to take the attention of one of the Vong away from Kativie. This isn’t good. We can’t retreat if we’re tied up with these scarheads.
White light burst into the room, eye-hurting in its intensity. Halyn spun away from the Vong warrior to buy himself space until his vision recovered. The Yuuzhan Vong warriors were similarly stumbling away from the combat, just as blinded as Halyn was. Through the bright light, he could see Kativie pressing her sudden advantage, seemingly not affected by the light. What?
A familiar snarl filled his ears, and then a brown furry wall leapt past him like a starfighter jumping to hyperspace. The light moved with him, seeming to emanate from his hands.
Ah, Halyn thought blankly. Anishor.
The Wookiee berserker was among the Vong, then, his twin rykk blades shining with a brilliance that rivaled the blade of Kativie’s lightsaber. He moved with speed impossible for a being his size, with the grace of a Twi’lek dancing girl, and with blades swinging with the perfect harmony only possible by a being imbued with the Force.
In eight seconds, all four Vong warriors were dead.
Halyn’s vision recovered as the light from the rykk blades died out. Kativie and Anishor stood side by side, covered head-to-toe with soot and grime and blood. Halyn realizing he was similarly covered, wondered when it had happened. If all of Kashyyyk could fight like Anishor, we wouldn’t need a New Republic army—a battalion of Wookiee berserkers could take on the whole Yuuzhan Vong race.
<Kelta has a hole in the wall opened up,> Anishor announced. <Figured I’d come see what was taking you so long.>
Instead of answering the berserker, Kativie turned to Halyn. “How long?”
Halyn blinked. “Right. Uh.” He stole a glance at his chrono. “Fifty-eight seconds.”
Kativie cursed, an Ul’Zabrak expression Halyn hadn’t heard from his sister’s lips since she started training as a Jedi. “Move!” she shouted. “Move, move, move!”
The three turned and started running along the path the others had taken. Anishor looked over at Halyn. <So what did you do?>
“Thermal detonator on the lower level,” Halyn said.
They were at thirty-nine seconds when they arrived at the hole Kelta had carved open with her lightsabers. The Iridonian team was standing around, waiting impatiently. Kelta stood at the gap overlooking Rak’Edalin, one of her violet lightsabers ignited and held aloft as a signal.
“Where’s the ship?” Halyn asked.
Kelta pointed with the tip of her lightsaber. “There. It’s being harassed by skips.”
“Wonderful,” Halyn grumbled. “Thirty-three seconds.”
“Until what?” one of the Zabrak squad’s survivors asked.
“Boom,” Kativie said.
The Muurian transport disengaged as if the pilot had heard the conversation inside the New Horizon Designs tower. Its shields held as plasma splashed down at the Zabrak vessel. The topside gunner returned fire with the dorsal turbolaser. Red fire caught the skip full-on, shattering the coral vessel and sending a rain of now-dead rock toward the street below. Two more coralskippers kept harassing the Muurian, but much more reservedly now, staying at range to keep the turbolaser from lighting them up.
The transport pilot came in hot, its boarding ramp dropping as it slid into position near the hole and its forward deflector shields already down.
Anishor saw the problem immediately. <The boarding ramp does not stretch out in front of the ship. We’re going to have to jump for it.>
“Me, first,” Kelta said. The Jedi extinguished her lightsaber and then leapt for the ship, somersaulting through the air and sticking the landing gracefully.
“Jedi always make it look easy,” one of the Zabraks grumbled.
“Go, go, go!” Halyn shouted. “Twenty seconds!”
One after another, the Zabraks flung themselves through the air with abandon. None of them missed the critical jump; every one of them successfully reached the Muurian’s boarding ramp. Each of them, though, just barely reached the ramp—they were a single misstep or loss of balance from a plunging, screaming death.
For a pilot, it was a disconcerting thought.
At nine seconds, only three remained: Anishor, Halyn, and Kativie.
“Go, furball,” Halyn shouted above the whine of the Muurian’s repulsorlifts. Thud bugs started to buzz through the air again, and he dropped to his knee to steady himself. Anishor didn’t protest, taking the leap with the practiced ease and comfort only a Kashyyyk-dweller could possess. Halyn’s blaster screeched, and three thud bugs dropped as smoking carapaces.
Kativie’s lightsaber hummed as she scorched two more thud bugs out of the air. “Go, brother!”
“Five seconds!” Halyn shouted as he turned and threw himself out towards the transport.
As he leapt, he saw in an instant he wasn’t going to make it. The Muurian had slid a half-meter backwards as the coralskippers continued to pound away at it. Oh, frak! In an eternal moment, he knew he was about to die.
Miraculously, he floated forward that extra half-meter. What?
The Force. He didn’t have time to fully comprehend the thought, to understand its consequences, but he didn’t need to know. Kelta had reached out with the Force to grab him; the Jedi had saved his life again.
Then a thud bug buzzed past his ear. A heartbeat later, he was falling again. But now, he was close enough that his fingers snagged the edge of the boarding ramp, leaving him dangling precariously from the impossibly high ship.
Kelta took a thud bug. Is she…? He didn’t have time for more thought as he swiveled his head around to see Kativie. “Jump!” he screamed, trying to make himself heard over the repulsorlifts’ screech, the thump-thump-thump of the topside turbolaser firing, the answering hiss of plasma balls painting the dorsal shields.
Kativie stood alone at the gap, her lightsaber flashing around her in a green halo as she held the line. She seemed to hear him, turned towards the Muurian.
Then a rumble echoed from below, loud enough to be heard even above the cacophony of combat noise. Kativie met Halyn’s eyes for an impossibly long moment as she crouched to make her own leap.
Before the Zabrak Jedi could straighten, could spring towards the safety of the Muurian, the floor fell out from beneath her. Halyn could do nothing but stare at his sister as the dust rolled up, as she descended into the dusty haze of the collapsing tower.
“Kativie!” he screamed.
It was then that he realized his own fingers were slipping. He couldn’t tell if the transport was rising or falling. Halyn wasn’t sure if he cared at that instant—all he could see were Kativie’s green eyes.
His fingers lost their last bit of purchase, and he was falling.
Massive Wookiee paws wrapped around his wrists, arresting his descent before it could really begin. <Hang on!> Anishor snarled.
The transport was definitely bobbing now as plasma continued to rain down.
It didn’t seem real to the Ul’akhoi. None of it did. Let go of me, Halyn wanted to say as he thought of Kativie trapped in the hell of the collapsing New Horizon Designs tower. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. But all he could do was watch as the tower collapsed in a cloud of duracrete dust. He lost sight of it after a few more seconds, the cloud shooting skyward and completely enveloping the disaster.
I killed Kativie.
He was being hauled up by his wrists, then, and a moment later all he could see was the boarding ramp of the Muurian. Oh. I must be facedown.
“We’ve got him!” Ceikeh shouted. “Go, go, go!”
The boarding ramp was retracting then, and Halyn could feel the ship begin to accelerate.
<Halyn, are you alright? Halyn. Halyn. Halyn!>
“Yeah, I’m here,” he said hoarsely to his honor brother. “I’m here, Anishor.” He forced himself to sit up, to blink away the dirt and dust stinging his eyes. “Is Kelta alright?”
“I’ll live,” the red-headed Jedi grunted from the chamber. “The thud bug cracked ribs, I think, but I’ll live.” She was silent for a moment. “Where’s Kativie?”
“Katie…” Halyn’s voice failed him, but he forced it back. Can’t collapse. If I collapse now, we lose it all. “Katie didn’t make the jump in time.”
Kelta’s voice was puzzled. “I can still feel her. She’s reaching out to me.”
“I saw her fall, Kelta,” Halyn said hoarsely. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not,” the other said in puzzlement. “She’s…she’s alright.”
“How could she be alright?” Halyn whispered. “I saw her fall. No one could survive that.”
Anishor laid a massive paw on his shoulder. <Easy, coatrack. Kelta wouldn’t lie to you.>
Kelta’s voice was no less pained, but the confusion lessened. “Kativie’s not good at trying to communicate like this, but she’s in one piece. She’s already on the ground and moving.” Kelta’s tone became more speculative. “I’d bet she used the Force to get herself clear of the building, used it to slow her fall like I did when we arrived. With the Force, she could’ve anticipated where the debris would fall.”
Halyn slumped back flat on the boarding ramp. “She’s really okay?” he asked, allowing himself to feel a touch of hope for the first time.
“As near as I can tell, yes,” Kelta assured him.
<She’s a Jedi and a Sanshir. You really think a falling building would kill her?> Anishor joked. <You’ve survived worse than that, and you’re not even a Jedi.>
Halyn closed his eyes, wishing for darkness but still seeing Kativie’s green eyes, so distinct even through the dust and haze and smoke of the collapsing building. “Okay,” he said hoarsely. “Okay.”
“We’ll be back at the Cathleen in five minutes,” Ceikeh announced over the transport’s comm.
<You can raise her on the comlink when we get back,> Anishor assured him. <She’s fine. You’ll see.>
That, Halyn decided, was too close.