The Council building seemed to rock like an ancient sea-going vessel as coralskippers flashed by overhead, pounding it with plasma fire. T-wings screamed past in hot pursuit, the shrill screech of engines vibrating Nisia’s teeth. She grimaced at the pain as the snubfighters tried to keep the Vong assault off, but even their best efforts were no longer enough.
Yuuzhan Vong warriors advanced against the Council, picking their way through burning mounds of their own dead. They never stop, Nisia observed distantly. We kill them and kill them and kill them, but they never seem to get the hint. E-web repeating blasters started hammering away at the approaching forces again. Vong warriors began to fall, even their best vonduun crab armor unable to protect them from laserfire capable of taking down unshielded starfighters.
Still they advanced onward, wasting slave troops and their own lives in yet another assault on the fortified position. Nisia shook her head at the waste. If they were Zabrak, I’d call it a sad loss of life. With these scarheads, though, it’s just stupidity. If their own people want to throw away resources like this, they can feel free to keep doing so.
More Vong fell to concentrated fire. The corpses were starting to pile up again, and she grimaced. No way we can send out scouts to knock down the piles again. Not with the skips overhead, and the Vong keeping more pressure on us. She frowned and lifted her macrobinoculars to her face, watching the advancing troops. They’re not going to give up this time, are they?
Sure enough, the Vong continued to pour forward, even as dozens more fell to the concentrated defensive fire. The former pirate frowned, trying to understand their strategy, when she felt a tremor in the ground. What was that?
Through the haze that seemed to be a constant in Rak’Edalin now, she caught a glimpse of movement well behind the Yuuzhan Vong assault lines. She refocused the macrobinoculars, trying to get a good look. The smoke from burning all those buildings is making it harder to get a good look at anything, she mentally griped. Little downside to Halyn’s strategy I bet he never considered.
A gust of wind blew away enough haze for Nisia to finally get a clear view, if only for a heartbeat, of what was moving. The ground trembled again, and she swallowed hard. Wonderful. A range. She tried to ignore the fear gripping her heart. Unless we get a lot of fighter cover here right now, we’re going to die.
She unclipped her comlink and brought it to her lips. “Cathleen, this is Nisia at the Council chambers. We need evac immediately.”
“Say again, Nisia,” a distant comm officer answered her.
“The Council chamber is about to be overrun by Yuuzhan Vong,” she said bluntly. “We need transports here in ten minutes or there’s not going to be anyone left alive.”
“Please wait,” the comm officer said calmly.
Nisia gritted her teeth. Bloody military types never understand urgency, she thought harshly. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. C’mon, Jess, come riding to the rescue.
As though her words had summoned him, Halyn spoke on the comlink a moment later. “What’s your status, Nisia?”
“We’ve held out so far,” she said bluntly, “but the Vong are moving in with the heavy artillery. They’re bringing ranges down on us right now, and throwing away warriors to keep our guns tied up. We need evac from your Muurians right now, or you’ll be picking up corpses. How soon can you get us out of the fire?”
“You can’t hold if I eliminate that range?” Halyn asked.
Nisia hesitated, not expecting the Ul’akhoi’s question. She considered carefully, but the tremors were becoming heavier and more frequent. “Jess, I don’t think anyone can knock it out in time.”
“If Argus would’ve let me bury those baradium bombs under the streets like I wanted to,” the distant Zabrak grumbled. “Alright. Stand by.”
The comlink went dead, and Nisia’s nervousness continued to rise. Jess, don’t leave me hanging, she yelled inside her own mind. Don’t let us die out here.
The Ul’akhoi returned to the channel a moment later. “We’re dispatching the Muurians now—they’re just turning around from pulling out one of our strike teams. Hold fast as long as you can, and they’ll pull your feet out of the fire.”
“Thanks, Jess,” Nisia said with a wave of relief washing over her. “I owe you one.”
“Yeah, like you’ll ever deliver.”
“Well, I would if you weren’t the one who put me into this situation in the first place,” Nisia retorted. “I don’t know why I ever let you drag me into this war in the first place.”
“See you soon, Nisia.”
“Roger, Nisia out.” She was secretly guilty at the relief she felt as she clipped her comlink to her belt. Halyn no doubt had intended some secret use for the Council chambers, and now she was forcing him to abandon it. Still, they had killed a good many Vong attackers, and they had forced the invaders into committing a far larger force than they’d likely intended for the Council.
At least that damned Lusp will be off my back, she thought wryly. I’m sick of him pestering me abo—
She had no time to finish the thought, as the world around her seemed to explode into fire.
Kelta stormed onto the Cathleen’s bridge, her robes soaked in blood. “Halyn,” she called sharply. “Need to talk to you, right now.”
The Ul’akhoi glanced over his shoulder at her, then returned to the officer he was speaking to. “Three transports should be enough,” he was saying. “Tell them to leave the E-webs behind; there’s no time to evacuate the heavy equipment. Blaster rifles and troops, and every member of the Council they can cram on board. Got it?”
The officer nodded, and Halyn turned to Kelta. She irritably waved him over to a relatively quiet corner of the bridge, where the Zabrak general joined her.
“What is it?” he asked a bit sharply. “We’re trying to take advantage of the chaos your team’s ambush caused, but time is critical here.”
“You didn’t tell me it was an assassination,” Kelta said bluntly. “Who was that? The Vong Commander?”
Halyn rocked back on his heels. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
The Jedi Knight leaned forward, keeping him off balance. “The Vong you sent Abi after. It must have been one of the Vong higher-ups here on Iridonia. He was scarred head to foot, after all.”
“You saw him?” Halyn asked in astonishment. “He actually was there?”
“Yes, he was there,” Kelta snarled. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know. After all, you knew you couldn’t send me or Anishor after him directly—neither of us would’ve accepted a hit mission. We’re not assassins, so you sent the best one you could find, and she paid the price.”
Halyn shook his head. “No, I didn’t know the Vong commander would show. I was trying to draw him out so we could find him and take a shot at him, but this was a recon and disruption mission. I didn’t intend to assassinate anyone. At least not yet.”
Kelta’s rage lessened. “Then who…?”
“Me,” another voice answered.
Kelta turned to see Kativie Lusp, the Zabrak Jedi Knight with a very un-Jedi-like glint in her eyes. “I knew Halyn was trying to draw him out. I asked Abi to take the shot if she had a chance. The bastard deserves to die and die screaming, but I’ll take a quick and painful death at the hands of one of the New Republic’s best operatives. It would have blunted the Vong’s assault as well.”
The Zabrak unhooked Kelta’s lightsaber from her own belt and offered it to her colleague. “I’ve retrieved my own. Thank you for letting me borrow this.”
Kelta accepted the hilt wordlessly. Kativie…have you fallen to the dark side? She reached out with the Force and felt darkness in the Zabrak Jedi’s aura. Her pain and desire for revenge colored her perceptions red, and Kelta felt for a moment as though she could lose herself in the depths of Kativie’s rage. It’s the anger of a mother who has lost children. She wants revenge for what was taken from her. Kelta was a Jedi Knight, but she found herself unable to condemn her old friend. Would I be in any better shape, if it had been Adreia who was assassinated?
She swallowed, the righteous anger she’d felt with Halyn starting to fade. It wasn’t him at all. He might have enabled it, but that wasn’t his intent. Another dark intention touched her perception. If he had known the Commander was going to be there, he would’ve taken the shot himself. Kativie would too, actually…but I bet Halyn forbade her from accompanying the strike team.
“Wait,” Halyn said slowly, “what do you mean, Abi paid the price?”
Kelta swallowed. “She took a shot at the Vong and lost.”
Halyn’s face was ashen. “She…”
“She’s alive,” Kelta said. “She lost part of a lekku in the attempt. I don’t know if she’s going to make it, or what will be left of her if she does.”
Halyn closed his eyes.
Kelta could almost see his thoughts in the Force, broadcast in clear text. Twi’lek lekku were more than limbs, more than decorative bits of the head like human hair or even a Zabrak’s horns. The cartilaginous tentacles housed large chunks of a Twi’lek’s brain. Kelta wasn’t absolutely certain on Twi’lek anatomy, particularly brain structure, but she was fairly certain the lekku largely housed memory—some of it passed on from mother to child.
A Twi’lek with damaged lekku was said to be an outcast from her own kind.
Kelta shoved the idea away. Worrying or speculating won’t help Abi now. She glanced at Kativie. I don’t know if she will allow me to help her now, either. She’s tainted by the darkness, but she hasn’t fallen. If I try to help her now, I’ll only push her further and faster along that path.
She took a deep breath. “What can I do?” she asked.
Halyn shook his head. “Stay here on the bridge with Kativie,” he said. “Just make sure nothing else goes wrong.” He turned and headed swiftly for the turbolift at the rear of the bridge.
“Where are you going?” Kelta called after him.
“Where do you think?” he retorted as the lift slid open for him. He turned inside it to look back at the two Jedi. “I don’t like friends of mine dying, but if she doesn’t survive, I won’t let her die alone.”
Nisia was surprised to find herself alive. Fires burned around her, but they were starting to die out. I couldn’t have been out long—maybe a few minutes at worst. She glanced down at her skin, saw the burns, and grimaced. Shock and adrenaline must be keeping me going, she thought. This is going to hurt like blazes when I start to feel it again.
She slowly sat up. Rak’Edalin spun around her, but she refused to give an inch of ground. When the city finally stabilized, she carefully rose to her feet. The ground shook beneath her, and she nearly collapsed again. No, no, no, I will not fall. The Vong can’t kill me.
It wasn’t until she started to walk that she realized the tremors she felt weren’t from her injuries. They were from the Yuuzhan Vong rakamat thundering its slow way to the Council.
She looked around the rooftop, saw several holes melted clear through it. That range must have let loose with the Vong version of artillery, she observed distantly. Now it’s clearing a path to the Council.
The E-webs chattered constantly now, raking reddish laserfire across the Vong creature, but it deployed defensive voids to intercept the damage. Behind it, she could see dozens, maybe hundreds of Yuuzhan Vong warriors clustering in closely to the beast’s legs, depending on it for cover against the defending Zabraks.
Why aren’t they just blowing us to pieces with the rakamat’s weapons? she asked herself. A moment later, the answer surfaced with crystal clarity. Because they know who’s hiding here. The Vong are coming for the civilian government to try to use them as leverage to force us to surrender. But that’s not going to happen.
The distant shriek of repulsorlifts was music to her ears. Here comes the evacuation, she told herself cheerfully. We’ll get out from under the Vong yet.
The rakamat turned and opened fire with its plasma cannons, sending balls of fire out at the approaching transports. That’s not good, Nisia thought dumbly. I’d better get below and get the evacuation started. If we take too long, we’ll get chewed apart.
Li Coden swore as the Muurian transport bucked. “Sithspawn, why did I let anyone talk me into flying one of these buckets?” he griped as plasma splashed over his forward shields. “Two and Three, squeeze in—if we don’t overlap defenses, we’re going to get ripped apart.”
“Sir,” the second Muurian pilot responded, “these aren’t exactly starfighters.”
“I’ve noticed,” Li said sharply. “That doesn’t mean we can’t use the same tactics. Overlap defenses and we have a much better chance of surviving this run.”
Reluctantly, the other two Muurians slid into tight formation with him—one flying directly above him, one directly below. “Remember,” Li joked, “don’t pull back on the stick. Or push forward. Rudder pedals only.”
The other Muurian pilots were grimly silent as they focused on maintaining the formation. Transport pilots aren’t use to this kind of precision flying, Li realized. I’ll be lucky if one of them doesn’t get us all killed.
Another plasma ball splashed over the overlapping defenses of the three transports, deflected away by the energy shields. <Well done,> Anishor commented from the copilot’s chair. <I haven’t seen this kind of precision flying with ships this big and slow since…well, ever.>
Li grunted as he focused wholly on the flying; a salvo of magma missiles crashed into the shields and were similarly repulsed. “That’s why you talked me into this, right? You wanted to see some precision flying that even a Jedi wouldn’t be stupid enough to do?”
<I suspected your skills may be necessary to evacuate the Council,> Anishor allowed. <Besides, this transport’s regular pilot was drunk.>
“Drunk?” Li asked in disbelief. “How did you…?”
The Wookiee chuckled. <Acute sense of smell. Not all of you furless deal well with the stresses of war.>
“All of your people do?” Li asked, sweating as more plasma thundered against his forward shields. “Three, you’re lagging—move back up, or we’ll lose our defense advantage.”
The transport promptly throttled up, tightening up just in time for another salvo of fire to wash across the forward shields. The Vong really don’t want us getting in.
<Not all of our kind do, no,> Anishor admitted. <Some become madclaws, others exhibit cowardice.>
“Got any tips on landing?” Li asked, leading the three transports into a shallow banking loop over the Council. Below, the rakamat was against the Council chambers now, and the Vong warriors were pouring out from behind it to rush into the building which had been breached by one of the creature’s massive claws.”
<Straight down,> Anishor advised.
Li smiled at that thought. “Sounds crazy enough to work.” He flicked his comm back on. “Two and Three, break left and right, and then go straight down,” he ordered as he leveled off and pulled the throttle back, cutting in repulsorlifts.
The two transports obediently swung into position. “Sir,” the third pilot spoke up, “I’m pretty sure the Council’s roof won’t hold one Muurian, let alone three.”
“I’m counting on it,” Li replied with a smirk.
Nisia was starting to feel the distant touch of pain from her burns when the Vong started pouring in. Zabrak soldiers were abandoning their E-webs to rush forward, zhabokas rising to meet a tide of amphistaffs.
I’ll get cut to pieces in there, Nisia observed. Instead of joining the rush, she moved past the warriors, heading towards one of the now-abandoned E-webs.
Achick Lusp was at her side before she was halfway to the heavy weapon emplacement. “Captain, surely you have ordered an evacuation,” he said grimly. “We can no longer hold this position.”
“Is that your expert political opinion?” Nisia snarled over her shoulder, never breaking stride. “Or is that merely the amateur warrior?”
“It’s not opinion, it’s fact,” Achick said bluntly.
“Good thing I’ve got three Muurians coming to bail your ass out of this fire,” Nisia replied.
“Oh.” Achick seemed momentarily taken aback, though he continued to follow hot on her heels. “The Ul’akhoi agreed to the evacuation, then?”
“The military situation was not lost on him,” the pirate said dryly. “Now, if you’ll be so kind as to get out of the…”
Her chiding was interrupted by a roar. The building shook again, harder than it had while the rakamat was pounding away at it. What the…?
The roof gave way, collapsing in great chunks as a Muurian transport crashed through. It caught itself on repulsorlifts, settling smoothly to the now debris-cluttered Council floor. Two more transports, repulsorlifts similarly screaming, followed suit, landing ramps dropping even before they could set down on their landing struts.
“That’s something you don’t see every day!” Nisia shouted to no one in particular over the roaring engines.
She rushed to the E-web emplacement, ignoring everything else around her. The clashes of combat, the war cries of the Yuuzhan Vong, the shouts of Iridonian warriors were all drowned out by the deep bass howl of the transports’ engines. Need to buy time for our people to get out, Nisia thought as she reached the E-web.
The weapon was still powered up and ready to go, its barrel protruding through a hole cut in the wall for just that purpose. She heaved against the weapon, trying to pull it back inside. It seemed an impossible task; nothing happened as she threw her weight and muscle into her efforts.
Abruptly, it started to move, nearly sending her sprawling. She looked up and was shocked to see the Council member, Achick Lusp, straining against the weapon with her. With their combined efforts, the heavy E-web slowly retracted into the building.
The moment the barrel cleared the inner wall, Nisia quit pushing against the E-web and straightened. A moment later, she swung the barrel around towards the skirmish between the Yuuzhan Vong and the Iridonian defenders.
The Zabraks were beginning to break toward the transports. Councilors were already boarding the Muurians, rushing aboard for sanctuary.
Nisia grabbed ahold of the weapon’s controls and jammed both thumbs into the firing studs. The E-web thundered, sending fiery death into the crowded Vong. Two Iridonian warriors went down to friendly fire, but the pirate allowed herself no moments of remorse as she raked blaster bolts across the crowd. Don’t need much time, just to buy enough for the politicians to escape the grasp of the Vong.
The thought embittered her more than a bit—the knowledge that dozens, maybe hundreds of Iridonians were dying to save the lives of a bunch of good-for-nothing politicians, people who had done nothing for the war effort except trip up those who were fighting it.
She was so intent on firing she never saw the Yuuzhan Vong attack from behind.
The strike was mercifully swift; the pirate never felt the blow, had no pain as the amphistaff swept through her neck, separating her head from her spine and sending her sprawling bonelessly to the Council floor.