That, Kativie decided, was too close. The Jedi slowly, painfully picked her way out of the rubble of the New Horizon Designs tower. That was also not one of Halyn’s better plans. She checked her belt, found her lightsaber clipped securely with its snap-ring. I don’t even remember extinguishing it or putting it on its hook, she thought distantly through the haze of pain.
The dust was slowly starting to settle now from the collapse. She had been forced to wait for agonizing hours in the rubble, drawing on the Force to keep herself safe. Kativie hadn’t dared try to move out after finding a safe hiding-hole, instead settling in to meditate until the wreckage of the building had largely settled in place. Only once the tumbles and crunches and crashes and slides had seemed largely finished did she venture forth.
The hours of meditation had been put to good use. She had set her broken forearm back in place with the Force and splinted it with her emergency medkit. She had forgone the painkillers, though—they would dull her concentration and make the Force harder to access. Drawing on the Force itself gave her most of the pain control she needed, but occasionally she slipped and her aches would start to rise to the surface.
Beyond her broken arm, she knew she was battered and bruised. Precognition had always been one of her gifts in the Force—the ability to sense what was about to happen and react accordingly, a gift some Jedi referred to as their “danger sense.” In the collapsing tower, it had allowed her to keep herself from dying, crushed by massive durasteel girders, but she doubted Master Skywalker himself could have walked out of that rubble without some bruises.
Of course, Master Skywalker wasn’t in there. You were. She sighed, drawing on the Force for strength as well as pain control. Doesn’t matter now, though. You need to keep moving, link up with some friendly forces.
She retrieved her comlink from her pocket, but was unsurprised to find it did not respond to her attempts to activate it. The internal components were probably all shattered by the rocks that hit me. So, I’m out of comm contact for now.
Kativie stopped walking to draw on the Force more heavily. The effort was painful—every Jedi had her limits, and she had long since exceeded them. Now she was paying the price. After she’d rested and mended her wounds, she’d be able to draw on the full power of the Force, but now…
Let your control of the pain slip, she decided. Let the pain take control for just a little bit. Just long enough to find some friendly forces.
As she plunged deeper into the Force, she felt like a swimmer struggling against a current. The Force was as warm and buoyant as ever, but the harder she stretched for her goal, the harder it seemed to push her senses out. She felt the pain rise, distantly, as she continued to reach out.
To her surprise, she found friendlies nearby—less than a kilometer from the smoking remains of the New Horizon Designs tower. Hanging onto the contact only long enough to find the direction, she let go of the Force and gasped as the pain overwhelmed her. Kativie had to fight for several minutes to get her battered body back under control before she could rise to her feet and start walking in the right direction.
Gone was her Force-assisted sprint across Rak’Edalin; now she hobbled along at the fastest walk she could manage, trying to juggle her pain, her strength, the sensations of the Force. Several times she failed, and would find herself flat on the ground screaming in pain, or staring up aimlessly at the dusky skies overhead.
The Jedi spent the better part of an hour reaching her destination. She had to search her memory to identify the structure, but the elusive knowledge finally surrendered: it was a proton torpedo factory, owned by New Horizon Designs. To the best of her knowledge, it was still pumping out proton torpedoes for the Zabrak defenders.
That’s why there’s defenders here, she thought as she stretched her limbs and freed her lightsaber from her belt. They’re trying to keep this place from being overrun. As long as they can hold, it’s a supply line that stays open for the aerial defenses.
Kativie considered igniting her lightsaber and rushing in with the weapon blazing, drawing the Yuuzhan Vong attackers’ attention to herself and providing the Iridonian defenders with much-needed relief. After a self-deprecating chuckle, she rejected the idea: Kativie wasn’t capable of running right now, and drawing the Vong down on herself would end with her death.
She opted instead to slip quietly inside the factory to see the battle raging inside.
The factory was large and open. The defenders were clustered on the upper level, depending on ranged fire to keep the Vong from charging up either of the ramps leading to the upper level. The Vong were constantly prodding the defenses with flurries of attack bugs, apparently attempting to draw the Zabraks into an open confrontation of hand-to-hand combat, or exhaust their supplies of power packs and tibanna gas.
Kativie hunkered in the shadows, trying to decide on a path of action that would help the defenders and not end in her own death. She was still considering her options and trying to work strength and energy into her arms and legs when someone else intervened.
A Muurian transport crashed through the middle of the wall nearest the Yuuzhan Vong, opposite the Zabraks. Braking thrusters fired and repulsorlifts whined as the transport slowed itself to a stop, its underside quad laser hammering down at the Vong. The shots failed to connect with the Vong warriors, but that seemed to be just fine with the pilot as the transport dropped like a stone to land on all four struts with the scream of stressed metal. Even as the Muurian began to fall, the boarding ramp was descending to deploy reinforcements.
To Kativie’s surprise, the reinforcements weren’t Zabraks; a group of Anishor’s Wookiee berserkers thundered down the ramp, rykk blades in hand and roaring challenges at the Yuuzhan Vong warriors.
The Vong responded in kind, sprinting forward to meet the berserkers. As they did, the topside turbolaser opened fire on the charging Vong. The weapon was designed for combat between capital ships; in the tight confines of the warehouse, against Yuuzhan Vong warriors, even near-misses were putting two or three of the warriors down from the intense heat.
The remainder did not seem to realize their numbers had been depleted; five survivors met six Wookiee berserkers in personal combat. Two more of the Vong went down to well-placed shots from the slender, blue-skinned, purple-armored Twi’lek now descending the Muurian’s boarding ramp.
Kativie limped out from cover to meet the strike team. The last Vong fell to a berserker’s blade before she could even leave the shadows cast by the walls of the factory and the quickly-fading sun. No sense risking getting shot, she decided. She loosed her lightsaber from her belt and held it up, igniting the blade.
The distinctive snap-hiss-hum of the blade brought heads snapping around to track her. She continued to walk forward slowly, making no threatening gestures.
“You!” the Twi’lek shouted.
Kativie felt the warning through the Force. Her tired muscles screamed in protest, but she dove away an instant before a blast from the Twi’lek’s weapon—a scatter pistol, she observed distantly—occupied the space her head had just vacated.
She instantly doused her lightsaber blade, plunging herself back in shadows.
“It’s the traitor!” the Twi’lek shouted.
Abi Ocopaqui couldn’t believe her luck. Came here to make sure the Vong didn’t take the factory, and stumbled across the traitor. What are the odds?
She forced herself to slow down and think. Stop and think. Don’t do anything rash. She’s carrying a lightsaber and working with the Vong, so she’s a dark Jedi. Now’s a great time for sonic weapons. She looked down at her limited arsenal. Of course, that would be great if I had a sonic weapon right now. Didn’t expect Hal’s traitor to be a dark Jedi.
She’s probably been tampering with minds from the beginning. Using the Force to steal secrets to turn over to the Vong.
Okay, what do I have for assets on hand. The Twi’lek glanced around the factory. Six Wookiee berserkers who love hand-to-hand combat who may or may not be up for engaging a Force user at close range—none of them are Anishor, that’s for sure. A squad of Zabrak defenders who are exhausted and out of ammo. A slightly-battered Muurian transport that’s armed to the teeth. And one very good ex-bounty hunter and New Republic agent, armed with a scatter pistol which is hard for a lightsaber to block.
This is going to get ugly.
The Twi’lek stared out at the shadows, searching for any trace of the dark Jedi lurking in cover.
Abi realized very abruptly that the Wookiee berserkers were staring at her, not looking outward. Did she already get to them? Abi wondered in dismay, tightening her grip on the pistol as her heart sank. The odds of surviving an assault from six Wookiee berserkers were not very high—even with her initial ranged advantage, she doubted she could drop all six before they entered hand-to-hand range. And grappling with a Wookiee is suicide.
But none of the Wookiees moved—they just stood and stared.
Oh. No, the dark Jedi hasn’t gotten to them. “There’s a traitor,” Abi explained quickly. “We’ve known about her for some time, but we haven’t been able to find her. I met her in person when I was undercover with the Peace Brigade. And now she’s here!”
Understanding began to dawn in the Wookiees’ eyes. One of them barked a question at her in Shryiiwook.
“No, I don’t want to take her alive. Kill her if you can. But watch out—it looks like she’s a dark Jedi. If she gets in close, she’ll carve you up.
The Wookiee berserkers chuffed in laughter before raising their rykk blades in unison. The blades began to glow with a low, internal light. I don’t even want to know, Abi decided as she settled into her hunter’s mindset. Doesn’t matter. We’re all after the same prey. We find this traitor and take her down.
Abi turned back to watch the shadows, looking for movement. The Twi’lek allowed a predator’s fanged smile to stretch her lips back, baring her teeth. Li will be sorry he missed all the fun.
The Wookiees were dispersing now, spreading out to comb the factory. They left nearly ten meters between them, enough space for their superior reflexes to be covering each other in a heartbeat.
“Stay there!” Abi shouted to the Zabrak defenders when they began to descend the ramp. “Stay there, and if that dark Jedi approaches you, you shoot her!”
She turned back to watch the Wookiees began to carefully work their way across the factory. Abi watched in satisfaction. When they kick her up, she’ll go hand-to-hand with them. I’ll take a shot with the scatter pistol if I get an opportunity. If I don’t, the Wookiees will take her to pieces. Easy as shooting scarheads in a vacuum box.
The Wookiees were moving steadily now, but even to Abi’s sharp eyes there was no trace of movement. Something’s not right here. Her senses tingled. No, not my senses—I’m no Jedi. That’s just my experience. This dark Jedi slipped the trap. Where did she go, then? Abi looked around the warehouse with a casual expression plastered to her face, her eyes darting as quickly as they could. Then…up.
She went up when she faded out of sight. She knew we’d search the factory floor, but with the Force she could’ve climbed. That means she’s…
Abi swung her scatter pistol up to point towards the ceiling, but the dark shape was already falling towards her. “Look out!” Abi shouted as she pulled the trigger.
The dark Jedi was already twisting, though, and the shot slipped by the traitor. Abi tried to bring her blaster pistol into line, to bring it to bear on the Zabrak’s head, but it was all happening too fast. The traitor landed in a crouch on the Muurian’s boarding ramp and lashed out with her foot, throwing Abi’s scatter pistol back out of line. The Twi’lek snarled a wordless curse but refused to let go of the weapon, spinning all the way around to bring her pistol back up, to aim.
The Wookiees were reversed now, sprinting towards the Muurian, but they seemed a galaxy away. Halfway through the spin, Abi knew it would take too long. Before she could finish the turn, she heard the snap-hiss-hum of the lightsaber again, knew it would skewer her even through her armor.
The tone of the lightsaber changed as Abi completed her spin. She leveled her weapon at the traitor’s face and registered, even as her finger was tightening, that the dark Jedi had dropped her lightsaber.
The scatter pistol fired, seemingly of its own volition. The dark Jedi was no longer in front of it, though, as she collapsed to the Muurian’s boarding ramp. The Twi’lek cursed as her shot disappeared into the Muurian, drawing sparks and flames and the hiss of escaping gas as a coolant line ruptured. She dropped her scatter blaster down point at the traitor now lying on the ramp.
Here comes the kick, Abi thought in an eternally long heartbeat, knowing the dark Jedi would be lashing out to throw the New Republic agent away before she could fire.
Abi stared as the dark Jedi laid on the boarding ramp, breathing shallowly, her eyes rolled back in her head. “What?” was all she could manage to say; it didn’t make any sense. Was she playing possum?
The Twi’lek shook her head. Time to end this, before she pulls some new trick from her sleeve. The barrel of the weapon steadily pointed at the dark Jedi, Abi smoothly pulled the trigger.
A rykk blade interposed itself before her barrel and took the blunt of the attack. Abi snarled angrily at the Wookiee. “What are you doing?!”
The Wookiee howled, long and low, in Shryiiwook, and Abi’s blood ran cold. “This is…Halyn’s sister?”
The berserkers were all gathering around now, groaning their assent.
Abi shrugged. “Better to kill her now, then. Halyn won’t be able to do it.” She leveled her scatter blaster at the fallen traitor again.
This time one of the Wookiees closed his huge hand on her pistol, wrenching it from the Twi’lek’s hands.
“Fine,” Abi said shortly. “We take her back and show Halyn, and then I execute her.” She glared down at the dark Jedi. But what, she asked herself very quietly, made her collapse?
Halyn, Anishor, and Kelta stood together on the bridge of the Cathleen as the sun plunged below the horizon and light faded from the sky. “Try it again,” Halyn ordered, his voice very low.
The comm officer sighed very quietly and began to work at his equipment again. After a few minutes, which the three warriors endured without word, he leaned back. “No signal from Jedi Lusp’s comlink,” he said again. “I can’t even get a location or an echo from it.”
“Halyn,” Kelta said quietly, “you know it’s likely her comlink was destroyed in the collapse. She’s just fine.”
“Can you tell me that with absolute certainty?” Halyn replied coldly, turning to meet Kelta’s gaze.
The Jedi met his eyes unflinchingly. “Halyn,” Kelta said, even quieter, “you know Kativie is fine.”
“Can you tell me that with absolute certainty?” Halyn repeated icily.
The Jedi held his gaze. “You know I can’t,” she said, her voice not moving an inch.
Shortly after the survivors had returned to the Cathleen, Kelta had lost her sense of Kativie in the Force. She had assured Halyn that his sister was fine—she hadn’t died, but the Yuuzhan Vong had moved into the area around the collapsed New Horizon Designs tower. The presence of so many Vong had made the area murky, as Kelta described it—she lost the clarity the Force usually provided her.
It hadn’t helped Halyn’s nerves that the comm officer had been unable to raise Kativie at all since their return.
<Coatrack, we should discuss strategy,> Anishor said.
He’s trying to keep my mind off it, Halyn thought. Trying to distract me from worrying about Kativie. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
Anishor gestured to the officer responsible for maintaining the tactical hologram on the bridge. <Get some rest, friend,> Anishor rumbled. <You will be needed again in the morning.> The Zabrak looked to Halyn for confirmation, then hastened from the bridge at the Ul’akhoi’s curt nod.
The Wookiee took over the station then, his claws dancing across the control with surprising grace. <The collapse of the New Horizon Designs tower killed several hundred Vong, but opened a hole in our lines,> the Wookiee said reprovingly. <You traded the larger tactical situation for a single victory.>
“We won’t beat the scarheads by holding the line,” Halyn retorted. “We need to kill them.”
<You need to quit sacrificing position to do so,> Anishor said calmly. <You’re letting them beat you back. Slowly, with a lot of warriors spent, but they’re eventually going to overwhelm you by sheer numbers.>
“So what’s your professional opinion,” Halyn said slowly, more than a little sarcasm in his voice, “about what the Vong are going to do next?”
<Make a move on the Council,> Anishor replied immediately. <With the troops they moved in after the collapse of NHD, they’re well-positioned to do it.>
“Ah. Good thing I, you know, planned for that,” Halyn retorted. “I sent Nisia there with a squad to defend the place. It’s all low structures and flat ground around there—a perfect killing ground. Nisia’s group will tear them to pieces. If they do manage to take it, they’ll have lost a thousand troops for the forty Zabraks there.”
Anishor shook his head. <It would be better if no one was lost there at all.>
“I don’t doubt it, but that possibility of a bloodless resolution was lost the moment a Vong ship decanted in our space.”
Anishor sighed. <Halyn, unless you come up with something clever, the Vong will be knocking on the Cathleen’s hull in two weeks.>
“That far away, huh?” Halyn said. “We’ve got lots of time to reverse that trend, then.”
Anishor sighed in exasperation. <Kelta, talk to him. I don’t know what to do with him when he gets like this.>
When the Jedi didn’t reply, both Halyn and Anishor turned to look at her. Her eyes were distant and unseeing, as both warriors had seen her when she was concentrating on the flows of the Force. “Kelta?” Halyn asked.
“Something’s not right,” she said at last.
Whenever a Jedi gets nervous, get ready to fight, Halyn thought. He pulled open his dusty, bloodied duster and checked by feel to ensure the Wookiee-forged sword was still in its place. The hilt was warm and comforting in his grip, and he released it only with reluctance.
<Where?> Anishor asked. <Is it Kativie?>
“Yes…no.” Kelta’s voice trembled with uncertainty. “She’s in danger again—I can sense that—but there’s something closer. Something…wrong.”
“Where?” Halyn repeated Anishor’s question.
“Close,” Kelta said again. “It’s…” she shuddered. “I think…” she shook her head, and suddenly her eyes were her own again, filled with fire and panic. “The Vong are here.”
“Here?” Halyn asked with a frown.
“On the Cathleen,” she hissed.
“I thought you couldn’t sense them.”
“I can’t,” Kelta said, starting to pace. “But my senses close in, here on the Cathleen, are all murky—I can’t sense things with the clarity I should.”
<Where?> Anishor asked again.
Kelta’s face flashed with pain that was not her own, pain relayed to her by the Force. It was the pain of someone dying.
Without responding, she turned and sprinted towards the turbolift.
Cold dread filled Halyn, and he knew.
“I’m sure Uncle Halyn will be here,” Edlin said cheerfully. “These are his quarters, after all.”
“Just a quick visit,” Sandarie said sternly. Then maybe it’ll be easier to keep them confined again. She blew out a sigh as the door slid open. Okay, it won’t be. And you can’t begrudge them wanting to see their family, with Argus dead and Allanna out scouring the galaxy for the New Republic fleet, Hakk only the Force knows where, and Kativie spending so much time on the front line her own kids never see her. A quick visit to Uncle Halyn to show them everything’s okay, that they still have family safe and sound, and it should at least make the Cathleen a little more tolerable.
The Sanshir and Lusp children were bickering again. Durul Sanshir and Bluth Lusp, normally the best of friends due to their closeness in age, were nit picking at each other with small obnoxious comments. Nop carried Kadrol in his arms, the youngest of Allanna’s children tired from the long walk through the twisting corridors of the ship. The twins Sash and Sylvyi walked on either side of Vyshtal, holding his hands. Allanna’s seven-year-old boy, Triv, clung protectively to “Aunt Sandi’s” hand.
“Brats,” Edlin said warningly as he tapped on the door leading into Halyn’s quarters, “If you don’t settle down Aunt Sandi and I will take you back to our quarters. You have to behave. Remember, everyone here is working hard to keep us all safe, and we don’t want to distract them. Including Uncle Halyn.”
A less-than cheerful “Okays” assented to his statement. Sandarie shook her head. This really is like herding cats. Flith bumped into her leg, and she glanced down. Okay, the nexu’s better-behaved. So it’s worse than herding cats.
No one answered the door. Edlin frowned and tapped the release. The door slid open without protest, revealing a somewhat darker chamber within.
Edlin led the way into the chamber. Halyn’s tactical hologram glowed in grainy blues, providing most of the light for the room. “Look,” he called to the kids. “It’s a map of Rak’Edalin.”
“I wanna see!” Triv called out, releasing Sandarie’s hand. Before she could stop him, he started pushing his way through his siblings and cousins, trying to reach the tactical hologram before the rest could. The Twi’lek sighed in exasperation. There’s no stopping these kids, she decided wearily.
Triv successfully navigated his way through the group, using his smaller size to slip between the shoving Zabrak children. Laughing in delight, he broke forward and rushed to join Edlin at the tactical hologram.
Sandarie and Flith were last through the door, herding all the kids into the room. Best to keep them out of the corridors, so they don’t get in anyone’s way, she decided. The Twi’lek glanced over her shoulder as the door hissed shut, and turned back to the tactical hologram just in time to see the Yuuzhan Vong attack.
The warrior fell from the ceiling in a rush, an amphistaff hissing in his hands. Edlin fell back from the attack, his face slashed open from the razor-sharp serpentine weapon, blood flowing freely. Before he could draw his zhaboka, still firmly in place over his shoulder, the Vong swept Triv’s legs out from under him. Sandarie’s mouth dropped open in a wordless scream of terror and surprise and warning, but before a sound could emerge the Vong pivoted and pinned the Zabrak child to the floor with the butt of his amphistaff, the weapon sliding through his chest like bantha butter.
Edlin had freed his zhaboka, was swinging it to attack the Vong warrior, but two more Yuuzhan Vong dropped down to join the first, leaving a trio against the young Zabrak.
Sandarie’s scream was finally given voice, joined by the shrieks of the terrified children. The universe seemed to slow to a crawl, and Sandarie felt she had long hours to study every detail of the scene unfolding. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Yuuzhan Vong, the intruders in the one sanctuary on Iridonia.
They did not wear the usual vonduun crab armor, she noted distantly. Perhaps these were not true warriors, but assassins—and given their location, they must have been sent to kill Halyn Sanshir, the Ul’akhoi and Zabrak leader. Instead, I led his nieces and nephews into the slaughter in his place. He’s sacrificing so much to save Iridonia. Is this a sacrifice he would have been willing to make, too?
The universe abruptly resumed its normal pace, but Sandarie felt rooted to the floor.
Flith roared a challenge, throwing herself at one of the Yuuzhan Vong assassins. The Vong and the nexu went down in a flashing pile of fur and claws and fangs and amphistaff and blood. It was impossible to see which was winning; the battle flashed faster than her eye could follow, obscured in a haze of red.
There was so much blood.
Edlin was falling back now, trying to keep his zhaboka up, trying to defend himself. The second warrior disengaged, leaving the untried Zabrak to his partner, and turned back to the children.
Sandi screamed again, threw herself forward. Even unarmed, she could not let the children fall without a fight.
The Twi’lek was too slow, too far away. The Vong assassin lunged, his amphistaff’s head burying in Nop’s stomach. Whether by intention or reflex or a dying spasm, the eldest of Kativie’s children threw the young Kadrol away from the assassin, towards Sandarie. Kadrol went down in a crying heap on the deck, scared and not sure of what was happening.
Bluth and Vyshtal both rushed the warrior, completely unarmed. The Yuuzhan Vong, his amphistaff still twined in Nop’s stomach, swept his foot out and sent both Zabrak children crashing down. The assassin finally jerked the bloodied weapon free of Nop and brought it up above his head, preparing to swing it down on the children.
Young Sash snarled wordlessly, rage in her six-year-old eyes as the warrior attacked her family. She thrust both her hands out.
Sandi could only gape at the movement as she was tripped by the still-tumbling Kadrol. Even as she fell, though, she recognized the movement—a mirror of Kativie’s own gesture when the Zabrak Jedi reached out with the Force to push.
Impossibly, the Vong warrior staggered back, as though caught in a rushing wind. The Force! Sandi managed to think as she scrambled back to her feet, leaving Kadrol crying in a ball. She threw herself forward, but the Vong warrior had already recovered and was lunging forward, his amphistaff a spear aimed at Sash’s throat.
Sandarie caught the little girl in her arms as the child staggered back. Sash’s eyes rolled back in her head, and the Twi’lek knew she was already gone.
The Yuuzhan Vong kicked her with a taloned foot, sending her sprawling again. The assassin ignored her, raising his amphistaff to slaughter both Bluth and Vyshtal, preparing to sweep his staff through both of them in a single blow.
Then a bloodied, snarling Flith leapt over the fallen Zabraks and Twi’lek, taking the Vong full in the chest.
The nexu went for the Vong’s throat, but was swept aside by a desperate amphistaff slash. The nexu hit the deck, rolled, and came up on her feet all in one motion. She leapt again for the Vong warrior.
The Vong was prepared this time, however; the amphistaff slashed open the nexu’s side, and one of Flith’s legs flopped uselessly as a tendon was cut. Before the nexu could attack again, the Vong chopped down with his staff, severing the nexu’s spine and ending her life.
The Vong grunted something harsh and guttural. He spared barely a glance for his fellow standing warrior, who had backed Edlin into a corner with amphistaff and zhaboka battling for supremacy but the Zabrak slowly losing ground; then at the fallen Vong warrior, who was slowly rising to his feet in spite of the shattered wreck Flith had made of his face.
Then the door fell to the floor with a boom. Sandi barely turned her head and saw the new arrivals: emerald eyes under a dark jato, promising bloody vengeance for fallen kin; a wall of fur and muscle, preceded by a shining blade; and red hair highlighted by the purple fire of a lightsaber.
The world seemed to grow dimmer, and pain started to flicker at Sandi’s nerves. She glanced down at her bloodied hand, and detachedly observed: I’ve been bitten. The amphistaff must have bit me when I caught Sash.
The noise in the room rose into a wordless, crashing crescendo, and none of it made sense. Darkness ebbed at her senses, and she knew no more.