Anishor led Kelta, Li, and Abi through the corridors to the carbon-freezing chamber aboard the Cathleen. Such equipment was not standard aboard a warship of any navy, but when the Zabraks had refitted the old Star Cruiser for their purposes, they had included it. Fortunately, it had survived the freefall from orbit. Why would they have carbon freezing equipment? Were they planning on freezing any enemies they captured? Kelta wondered.
As if he had heard her thoughts, Anishor spoke up. <The coatrack once told me that several of Iridonia’s capital ships are equipped with equipment for extracting and storing tibanna gas.>
“Why would they want their warships to be carrying mining gear?” Li asked with a frown.
<If the Zabraks were conducting long-range operations and were cut off from resupply, they could extract their own tibanna gas from any gas giants that had a deposit,> Anishor explained. <That would allow them to continue to conduct long-range combat operations. It takes up some internal hull space, but if they actually needed to use it, having it on hand would be invaluable.>
“Hal always liked to cover contingencies,” Abi commented. “I mean, it’s not like he could anticipate everything, but he would occasionally have some weird ideas about backup plans and what was needed.”
<Call them weird,> Anishor replied, <but remember that his contingency plans have saved all of us on several occasions.>
Kelta shook her head at the banter. She knew why they were all indulging in it: it was easier to joke and talk about the past than it was to talk about the present, when one of their old friends was nearly dead and they had no way to save her—only a way to possibly preserve her life a little longer. That, and it’s easier than thinking about the hordes of Yuuzhan Vong warriors trying to kill us all right now, Kelta thought wryly.
The Cathleen’s carbon freezing chamber was less impressive than it sounded. Several Zabrak technicians were finishing work on it as they arrived, climbing in and out of all its various components.
The freezing chamber was a flat affair, rather than a deep chamber. From what Kelta understood of the process, in a regular chamber a durasteel frame was dropped into a chamber, then sealed either by a physical plug or with a magcon field. The chamber was subsequently vacuumed free of all gas, then flooded with pure tibanna. A carbon-based liquid alloy was then injected into the frame, trapping the gas and forcing it into an inert state until it would later be thawed in a controlled environment.
The process of freezing something living was more complicated, as the regular carbon alloy would scorch away all of the victim’s skin. Kelta had never bothered to learn the details of what was necessary, but for the first time in her life she wished she’d researched it further.
The freezing chamber looks far too much like a funeral casket, Kelta observed with a shudder.
Unhesitating, Anishor carried Sandarie over and laid her flat in the freezing chamber. The Zabrak technicians finished their various tasks as the four veterans gathered around the chamber to look down on their fallen friend.
“There’s a chance,” one of the technicians was saying, “that she won’t survive the process. It’s never a safe process, and even the best rigs designed for this occasionally kill someone.”
“How often?” Kelta asked distantly.
“With healthy subjects? Perhaps one in a hundred.”
“What about people in her shape?” Li asked.
The technician hesitated. “Well, the body can only handle so much,” he hedged, “and a weakened or comatose subject is less capable of handling the stress.”
“How many people who are comatose survive the freezing process?” Abi asked coldly.
The Zabrak seemed to wilt. “One in three, statistically.”
That statement got Kelta’s attention. She looked at Anishor steadily. “Can you keep her alive?”
<If it is the will of the Force,> Anishor said. <Though I will need your help, young one.>
Kelta smiled a little. “I’m no healer, but I’ll help however I can.”
Anishor nodded and stepped back from the carbon freezing chamber. As the technicians starting locking it shut, he slowly knelt down and began to draw in the Living Force.
Kelta joined him as Abi and Li fell back to watch. She looked at the Wookiee for a moment through the Force.
The berserker was luminous in her perceptions. Kelta felt for a moment like she was standing next to a supernova, with the oncoming shockwave threatening to consume her entirely. Instead of burning her away, though, the energy from the big Wookiee flowed into her, through her, reinforcing her where she was weak.
Kelta wondered at the sensations for a few moments. The Wookiee’s understanding of the Force, his relationship with it, was so much different than a Jedi Knight’s. In moments like this, he felt more powerful than any Jedi Kelta had ever known, aside from Luke Skywalker himself, who always kept his power hidden under the tight bonds of Jedi control. When Anishor’s blades were at play, he was a duelist capable of defeating dark Jedi and Sith in single combat. Yet he could not reach out with the Force to move an object, nor could he sense distant happenings with the clarity of a Jedi. He was not granted visions of the past or future by the power he wielded. Nor could he touch and twist and manipulate minds, as the Jedi and Sith alike were wont to do.
She submerged herself in that power, and then reached out to the dying Twi’lek lying unconscious in a freezing chamber.
The casket where she may very well die, some dark voice whispered to her. She’s the prelude of what’s coming for all of you.
She ignored the voice, pushed it away. Kelta had neither time nor concentration to spare on hopelessness or doubt. She instead enveloped her friend with the power of the Force, trying to anchor her spirit more firmly within her wounded body.
Anishor’s tactic was different, she could sense—his power was focused on keeping her heart beating, her lungs breathing, her mind whole. His power succored her body even as the carbon alloy began to flood the chamber around her. The Wookiee focused to keep Sandarie’s physical self alive, while Kelta fought to keep her spirit intact.
Abruptly, Sandarie was gone from the Force. Between one moment and the next, in the span between heartbeats, the Twi’lek vanished from her perceptions. No! Kelta screamed in her own mind. Her eyes snapped open, and she scrambled to her feet.
The carbon freezing chamber was already sliding open. Kelta forced herself to look down on the Twi’lek’s frozen features. Sandarie’s face was relaxed, her body not responding to the pain of its final moments.
“I’m sorry,” Kelta whispered.
Two of the Zabrak workers stepped up and muscled the frozen Twi’lek out of the chamber. “She survived,” the one commented. “You owe me ten credits,” he added to his partner.
Kelta had the Zabrak held by his collar with both hands. “You’re betting on my friend living or dying?” she snarled. “She just died in that hell, and you’re trying to make money off it?”
<Kelta,> Anishor said, laying a paw on her shoulder. <Sandarie lives.>
The Jedi dropped the Zabrak. “What?” she asked, disbelieving. “Anishor, I felt her die!”
<You felt her absence,> Anishor corrected. <When a life is forced into hibernation, it can feel like a death. But Sandarie survived. Check the life support display for yourself.>
Kelta numbly looked at the display over her shoulder, saw all green lights on the display. Her head dropped. “Sorry. This war is getting to me.”
<Not just you,> Anishor answered. <We all suffer. Exhaustion threatens our clarity of mind and spirit. You need to rest.>
Kelta looked over her shoulder one last time. I just hope you survive in there long enough for us to get you a cure, she said silently to the Twi’lek. But we have to win this war first.
Ceikeh Alari was hesitant when he approached the only lit hangar in the long expanse of bays. While repair crews were still working around the clock to keep the fighter squadrons combat-capable, they had focused their efforts on hangars closer to the facility’s egress. Virtually all the fighters far back in the facility had either been moved up or lost in the seemingly endless combat.
This particular hangar, though, hadn’t housed fighters since before the long siege had begun. Instead, it was home to a single, battered light freighter.
Steady ratcheting sounds filled his ears as he walked through the dark. Occasionally it was punctuated by curses or mutters as the sole mechanic working on the old Gallofree transport stopped to examine his work.
“Ul’akhoi,” the former senator called aloud. “Can I speak to you for a few moments?” He winced at his own phrasing. That sounds way too formal for a meeting between old friends. After all, with Coruscant fallen, there might not be a New Republic anymore, which means I may be out of a job and have no official standing anymore.
Fortunately, Halyn Sanshir didn’t seem too off-put by the question or its phrasing. “That’s fine, as long as you bring me that binder,” he said, gesturing vaguely towards a table full of tools.
Ceikeh allowed himself a small smile. That’s Halyn. Not much for formalities. He picked up three of the six binders on the table, guessing at which ones he needed.
Halyn scowled at the three options Ceikeh presented him, but picked the largest one and said, “Well, I guess that’ll do.”
“It was the biggest one on the table,” Ceikeh advised him.
“That’s because the regular maintenance crew keeps coming by to steal their own tools back,” Halyn complained. “I mean, seriously, they don’t need all of those, do they?”
“Only if you want fighter cover,” Ceikeh deadpanned.
“Bah.” Halyn was silent for a few moments as he used the binder to hook up several of the port sublight engine’s relays. “What do you need?”
Ceikeh hesitated before asking. “I don’t normally question your military decisions, Halyn. I’ve known you for too long, and have too much respect for your capabilities as a tactician.”
“But…” Halyn prompted through gritted teeth as he struggled with a stubborn relay.
“But I don’t understand why you’ve ordered our front line to fall back,” Ceikeh said quietly.
“Ah. Didn’t expect anyone to see that until tomorrow, when the front had already moved,” Halyn commented.
“Well, I have seen it,” Ceikeh said. “So what are you doing?”
Instead of answering his question, Halyn finally dropped the binder to wipe sweat and grease from his brow. “Ceikeh, have I ever answered questions about my tactics to you in the past?”
“Why do you think I’d start now?”
“Because you screwed up,” Ceikeh said quietly. “And I’m pretty sure you don’t want to screw up again.”
Halyn closed his eyes, and Ceikeh wished he could suck the words back into his mouth. Idiot, he berated himself. He’s hurting badly, and you just kicked him when he’s down. The last thing he needs right now is someone standing over his shoulder questioning every decision he’s making, because he’s already questioning every decision he’s making.
To his surprise, Halyn answered. “Yes, I made a poor decision, but it wasn’t made solely by me.”
Ceikeh thought back to the scene in the med center, replayed it in his mind. Kativie had to be the one who leaked the information to the Vong, he reasoned. She had to have been the traitor the entire time. So she was giving them the information he wanted the Vong to have. But if he was making decisions with someone else, that would mean…
“Kativie wasn’t just your agent, was she?” Ceikeh asked in surprise. “She was your partner.”
Halyn nodded. “When Argus and I prepared for the defense of Iridonia, we agreed that any plan we made needed to have a failsafe—a backup plan, I guess. We also decided that includes the leadership role. Argus was the one who was supposed to command the defense of Iridonia, but we planned it all together. When he disappeared, it wasn’t a stretch for me to step up and take command because I already knew the details. But that meant I now needed a backup. That included someone not just to take over the role as turncoat, but as a decision-maker.” He shrugged. “Circumstances have dictated our primary plans haven’t worked, so we resort to secondary plans. Sometimes the secondary plans are no longer applicable, and we’ve had to come up with new plans.”
Ceikeh shook his head. “So Kativie is prepared to take over if something happens to you?”
“She was,” Halyn said grimly as he picked up the binder and started working on the portside thruster again. “I’m not sure she is now.”
The Senator thought back to the blood-curdling scream he’d heard in the med bay. She just lost a large part of herself. Even if she can recover, it will be a long time in coming.
“So,” he asked again, “why did you pull the frontline troops back? You know the Vong will advance to take that space again.”
“Ceikeh, Ceikeh, Ceikeh,” Halyn said chidingly. “You’re not listening to me. I already told you why.”
The other Zabrak frowned and opened his mouth to reply, then shut it and began to think it over. Okay. He told me he and Argus planned backup plans for all their primary plans. What was their primary plan for the ground defense of Iridonia? From what I’ve heard from the others and gathered myself, their idea was to draw the Vong in and stalemate them until the New Republic could launch a fleet to assist them. But there’s no fleet coming—with Coruscant gone, and our own fleet gone this long, there’s likely no help coming at all.
So he must have a plan to beat the Vong here, on Iridonia soil, without outside help. But what could that be? And how is retreating going to help it?
He forced himself to think it through. When we give ground, the Vong take ground. He must be trying to maneuver them into the right position for…what, exactly? Did he and Argus order baradium bombs built and buried in Rak’Edalin or something? He shook his head. Doubtful. Whatever it is, though, I don’t doubt the Vong are going to hurt when it’s all over.
“What is this bucket, anyways?” Ceikeh asked aloud.
“This was my ship, a long time ago,” Halyn explained as he slid the repulsor-creeper under the central engine and began working on the relays there. “Back during the Galactic Civil War.”
“Never saw this ship in all the time I’ve known you,” Ceikeh commented.
“I left her behind at Zephyr Base when I resigned from the Alliance,” Halyn explained. “There were a lot of people I didn’t want following me, so I had to leave a few things behind.”
Like that Jedi, Ceikeh noted. I’ve seen the way she looks at you.
“What make and model is she?” the Senator asked.
“Gallofree,” Halyn replied, “which is why you don’t see many of ‘em. Gallofree had retooled a bunch of their industrial line to produce these light freighters—they call ‘em Nova Couriers—right before they went bankrupt. The Alliance wound up with a bunch of them when they purchased the bigger GR-75 medium transports. The GR line was horrid for maintenance, but these little Novas were good ships.”
“Interesting,” Ceikeh murmured.
“I don’t know who brought it here, but this one’s definitely the one I flew during the Civil War. I’ve been fixing her up during the night hours. It’s nice to have something to fix, rather than just destroy.”
Ceikeh smiled. “There will be plenty of fixing and building to do when this is all over.”
“More than you know,” Halyn said dryly.
The phrase gave Ceikeh pause. Now I really want to know what he’s planning. Instead, he looked over at the starboard engine. “Mind if I start on the third drive?”
“Feel free,” Halyn said. “Though you’ll have to find another repulsor-creeper and a bigger binder if you’re serious.”
Ceikeh nodded and headed to one of the adjoining hangars to look for tools.
The medical bay was very dark when Kativie silently slipped through the door. She was dressed again in the plain brown and white robes of a Jedi Knight, and a lightsaber hung at her belt. It wasn’t her blade, though—it was one of Kelta’s curved hilts. The Twi’lek Abi had given the lightsaber to one of the Wookiees she had left behind to hold the missile facility, and while the berserkers had been forced to pull back and burn the facility to prevent its capture, they had not yet returned to the Cathleen with her weapon.
The Zabrak woman called upon the Force for strength as her grief tried to collapse her knees. Only the steady flow of the warm, life-giving energy kept her from collapsing to the cold durasteel floor. The Force, and the knowledge of what she needed to do.
If I try to rejoin the fighting now, I’ll fall to the dark side, she admitted to herself plainly. A Jedi doesn’t attack, nor does a Jedi seek revenge. If I go out right now, it will be for blood—Yuuzhan Vong blood in return for the blood of my children. No, I have to find some semblance of peace first, or I’ll become what I’ve battled my whole life.
Images of her first mentor, the disciple of the dark side whose name she still refused to say, to think, flashed through her mind, but she forced them away. No. Mourn your children now.
Her children. The very thought squeezed at her heart, a pain so sharp she felt as though a lightsaber had been plunged through her chest. She knew they were gone now, one with the Force, but the thought was just as painful as when she’d felt their deaths the first time, battling Abi Ocopaqui on the boarding ramp of a Muurian transport.
Kativie forced herself to approach the first sheet-covered table. It was, in many ways, the least painful of the three—the body there was Triv, Allanna’s child. The pain still squeezed through. I’m so sorry, Allanna. You don’t even know yet. You don’t even know that one of your children is dead, and that your brother-in-law and sister-in-law are responsible. The thought shook her. When I met Allanna at Zephyr Base, I never imagined we’d become friends. She was too quiet, too focused on waging war, and she idolized Halyn. Who’d have thought she and Argus would find love, would marry, have kids that carry the Sanshir name?
If I’d have known, I’d have done things differently. I’d have befriended her even then. It would’ve made those early years so much easier. Now she’s my sister, and I’ve wounded her in a way I don’t know I can ever make amends for.
That thought ached—the possibility that one of her best friends, the woman now her sister—would never forgive her for her actions on Iridonia. I couldn’t blame her for it.
Kativie took a deep breath and moved to the second table. The accumulated pain brought her to her knees, and even the Force was unable to bring her to her feet as she wept on the cloth covering Nop.
My eldest. Hakk’s pride and joy. The boy who should’ve carried the Lusp name, made it great. He would’ve been the one who could truly make peace between the Sanshirs and the Lusps. Oh, Nop. Kativie found she struggled to breathe as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. You would’ve been a great warrior, and you were a wonderful son. Halyn and I struck you down as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. Forgive me, my son—I never wanted this for you. I only wanted peace.
I wanted you to know a life without war. I wanted you to have the peace that Argus, Halyn, and I never had. You should’ve never had to fight in this war or make this sacrifice. I’m so sorry, Nop, forgive me. “Forgive me,” she whispered aloud, her voice so quiet it would be inaudible to anyone listening. “Forgive me, Nop. I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
The Jedi Knight found herself unable to rise to her feet as she turned away from Nop’s still form. Without the strength to stand, she crawled over to the third table, the smallest sheet. There she collapsed on the floor, sobbing.
“I know you can’t forgive me,” Kativie rasped to young Sash’s still form. “You were too young to know it was my fault. You were too young to see your mother could fail you, that your family could betray you. I’m glad you never knew what that betrayal was.” She felt as though an impossible weight crushed her to the ground, and she was unable to even rise to her knees. “I’m so sorry I failed you, Sash. You were the most like me—the one who could’ve become a Jedi Knight. You could have surpassed me. When the storm came, I…” She choked on her tears, struggling to say the words she needed to say. “I exposed you to the storm. Like a delicate flower, you were crushed by the storm. And it’s my fault that I didn’t protect you. It’s my fault you were vulnerable. I’m so sorry.”
Tears blinded her now, and she couldn’t see anything but the blurry covered forms of the three bodies. “Forgive me,” she croaked. “Forgive me for failing you. Forgive me for my mistakes.”
Her head rested flat on the cold floor, and Kativie felt like she would never again rise to her feet. She wanted to fade away then, like the great Jedi Masters, to become one with the Force and leave the bloody, painful, horrid galaxy behind her.
Then she felt it, through the Force—the touch of a mind against hers. Her pain was so great it numbed her senses, and she struggled to identify the touch.
Vyshtal, she realized at last. His touch in the Force was uncertain—he was never as strong as young Sash, and he focused his efforts on learning uses of his talent more appropriate for battle—but Kativie had the sensation of a small, warm hand wrapping itself around hers. Even through her pain, she found comfort in the gesture—it was a moment of reassurance for a heart shot through with pain and death and mourning.
Somewhere, deep inside, she found she had the strength to squeeze his hand in return.
It was as though the Force itself had whispered in her ear. Perhaps it had; Kativie was not experienced in visions, or the more subtle prompting the Force sometimes provided a Jedi. But the meaning to her was crystal-clear, even through the haze of her pain. Mourn your losses, yes, but your living children need you now.
Somewhere within, she found the strength then to rise to her feet. Slowly, step by unsteady step, she stumbled to the door. With tear-streaked cheeks and red eyes, the Jedi Knight looked back at the three sheet-covered bodies. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the dead. “I can’t atone for what I did to you three. But your siblings need me now.” She closed her eyes and leaned heavily against the doorframe as her legs threatened to collapse again. “I promise you this, though—I won’t allow another of you to fall. Not again.”
The door hissed shut behind her, plunging the room into darkness.