Jram Lusp stared up at the night sky. The stars were as familiar to him as his own hands; he had grown up on Iridonia, had seldom been off-planet, and had learned to navigate his way across the planet using only those same stars above as his guide.
Tonight, they seemed utterly alien.
“There’s been no word from Achick,” his comlink said softly. “When the Council building fell, no one ever saw him board a transport.”
“What do you believe, Mother?” Jram asked distantly. Father, gone? I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it. He wouldn’t just vanish.
“There are rumors the Vong took him, that he defected to work with them to help them conquer Iridonia,” Alyce’s distant voice said. “Even more rumors that he’s been working with them all along. Rumors that you and I are traitors as well.”
“Foolish,” Jram scoffed.
“Obviously. We would never betray Iridonia to these invaders. But there are quieter rumors that Sanshir ordered Achick left behind, that his soldiers intentionally ensured that he couldn’t board a transport to make it back. One of his personal agents, and the Wookiee berserker, were responsible for evacuating the Council. Another one of Sanshir’s pets was responsible for defending the Council as well, and we see how well that worked out.” Alyce’s voice held a trace of bitterness.
Jram hesitated before responding. “Mother, I don’t think the Sanshirs would order Achick left behind. Even if they did, a Wookiee would never go along with it—it would violate his honor.” He shook his head, even though his mother could not see it. “Besides…”
“What? You think Halyn Sanshir would hesitate to kill Achick?” Alyce’s voice dripped with venom. “He practically promised to kill him on the Council floor!”
“Yes, but that’s his style! He wouldn’t hesitate to run Father through with a zhaboka, but he wouldn’t arrange to have him killed.” Would he? He hesitated. “The Sanshirs haven’t been killing indiscriminately. After all, they allowed me to live even when I personally fought and tried to kill Halyn.”
Alyce’s reply was reluctant. “Perhaps you are correct,” she said slowly. “Still, what could have happened to him?”
Jram shook his head at himself again. If he wasn’t evacuated, he’s either a prisoner of the Yuuzhan Vong or dead. If he’s a captive, he likely wishes he were dead, and there’s almost no chance we’ll get him back.
“I’m working to get you removed from the front line,” Alyce said, changing the subject. “It would do no good for you to be lost in this war. When it is over, you’ll be needed to help rebuild Rak’Edalin. What the Sanshirs destroy, we Lusps will be called upon to rebuild.”
“No, Mother,” Jram said grimly. “No special favors for me. I’ve been out here fighting because I’m needed here. If I die, there’s always Hakk.”
Alyce was silent for long moments before snarling, “Yes, the son who took up with a Sanshir girl. The Jedi. She has addled his mind with those Force tricks and illusions. I need you to survive, Jram.”
He thought of Kativie and her shining emerald lightsaber, the unstoppable wave of green fire that turned back the Yuuzhan Vong and saved him during the early pushes. I can understand why Hakk fell for her, even if she’s an enemy. She’s a superior warrior and fought without losing her honor. Aloud, he said, “Then I will survive fighting on the front line, Mother, if that is necessary.”
“Lusp,” a voice interrupted him, “it’s time to move out.”
“We’ll speak again later, Mother,” Jram said and shut the comlink off without waiting for her answer. He wondered, briefly, if her mistrust of the Sanshirs would be considered paranoia by any of the better doctors on Iridonia or Coruscant.
“The Sarge is ordering all our gear packed up for another fallback,” the soldier, barely sixteen years old, told him. “We’ve got fifteen minutes before we need to move out.”
Jram nodded. “Then I’d better pack.”
He returned to the camp and spent a few minutes packing up the few belongings of a frontline Rak’Edalin warrior: his sleeping mat was tightly rolled and tied, the tent he shared with one other soldier broke down and split between them, the little food he carried returned to a watertight pack, his spare power packs attached to a bandoleer and his blaster rifle shouldered. When he was done, he leaned heavily on his zhaboka as the rest of his unit finished similar tasks.
“What are we doing?” he mumbled aloud. “We fight all day to hold the line. Our warriors bleed and die and don’t give a centimeter of territory to the Vong, but night falls and the Ul’akhoi orders us back. Why do we keep falling back during the night, and only fight to hold in the day? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Perhaps it keeps our defenses more concentrated and harder to break through,” another soldier suggested.
Jram shook his head. “Falling back and shrinking the line allows the Vong to concentrate their forces as well. It doesn’t change much, other than giving them control over more and more of our territory, which means we have less and less supply sources to draw on. I’ve been running the numbers already—we’re pretty much at the breaking point. If we give much more ground, our supplies can’t keep up anymore.”
His pronouncement was met with shrugs and weary sighs. Most of the warriors fighting on the front line were exhausted; their concerns were day-to-day combat and fighting to survive. More abstract concepts weren’t important enough to enter their psyche while the Vong were at their doorsteps.
What is the Sanshir up to? he asked himself silently again. He has to know that he’s allowing the Vong to concentrate. He also has to know he’s hurting his own supply lines by doing this. So what does he, or Rak’Edalin, or Iridonia benefit by these nightly fallbacks?
He fell into step with his squad as they began falling back. The usual retreat was somewhere between fifty and a hundred meters, but tonight his sergeant did not stop after the usual retreat. When they had covered two hundred meters, Jram’s nerves felt on edge. Okay, so we established a pattern of nightly retreats. Tonight, we’re retreating even further. Why? What are we doing? He shook his head. What could the Ul’akhoi be doing?
The warrior carrying the other half of his tent fell into step beside him. “What’s going on tonight, Jram? This isn’t the usual fallback.” he asked in a low voice.
Jram shrugged. “I wish I knew.”
“C’mon, don’t give me that,” the other warrior said. “We all know your father is Council, big-time. You have to have the inside line on this.”
Jram forced a smile. “I’m just as ignorant as everyone else here,” he said. “Believe me, I wish I knew what was going on. I was on the comlink with my mother when we started packing up, and she didn’t tell me anything.”
“And your father?”
Jram couldn’t stop his smile from vanishing. “Missing since the Council was evacuated. No one’s heard anything from him, and he wasn’t on any of the transports.”
“You sure nobody threw him out an airlock?”
“Now you sound like my mother.” Jram shook his head. “Everyone knows there’s no love lost between the Lusps and the Sanshirs, but we’re all pulling together against the Vong. No one would take the time right now to stab someone else in the back.”
The march was over five kilometers long; the ravaged hull of the Cathleen was visible even in the darkness when the sergeant finally called a cease to their retreat.
“We’re practically inviting the Vong to take the whole city,” Jram muttered to himself. What is he doing? Is he trying to surrender the whole city?
It had become an open secret that, during the night, Halyn could be found in one of the subterranean hangars dotting Rak’Edalin. Virtually all the officers whom had a history with the Ul’akhoi had found him there during the darkest hours, working on an old battered Gallofree light freighter.
Kelta was surprised, then, to find him absent when she walked through the restored hallways of the little freighter. It looks just like it did during the Civil War, she observed as she walked through it. The cockpit had its two extra chairs restored, with all four of the seats reholstered. The panels had been closed up, the displays all in functional order, blinking slowly in standby. I bet she could be started and underway in five minutes, Kelta thought distantly. She always had a fast start-up sequence.
The forward hold had an old overstuffed couch bolted to the floor, a holochess table within reach of the center of the couch. On the opposite side were two heavy-weighted chairs, their bases solid durasteel. The chairs were common in starships across the galaxy, a design intended to stay in place even during turbulence in flight. Elsewhere around the forward hold were similar bits and pieces Kelta remembered from the old days—a lizard-skin rug, a workbench lined with tools, a couple of depowered R-series astromech droids.
The crew quarters were just as she remembered as well—a second workbench, a small galley, and four crewman bunks. She spent a moment to check the refrigeration unit and was amused to note it was stocked with several bottles of alcohol. Just like the old days, she thought wryly. He never did skimp on his booze.
The bunks looked just as she remembered as she stepped over the battered, but recently re-cleaned orange rug that dominated the small chamber. She blushed at her own memories, chiding herself for the embarrassment. You loved him then, and you love him now. It’s hard not to remember when the ship looks just like it used to.
The aft section of the ship had also been restored; the engine panels had been restored, wiring bundled, grounded, and safely tucked away. Two cabinets of tools were bolted to the wall and filled with their usual array of hydrospanners, calibers, laser welders, and other tools. She hooked her finger in a small hole in the decking and heaved; it lifted away to reveal the hidden storage compartments Halyn had installed sometime before she had met him.
As she walked back down the boarding ramp, she saw the sublight thrusters had been cleaned and aligned, the hull patched and repainted, the scorch marks scrubbed away. The Starwind looks ready to fly.
But that doesn’t answer the question: where is Halyn?
Kelta was reluctant to tap deeply into the Force. She was more sensitive to its flows than most Jedi, and intimately felt the pain and anger and fear and hope of those around her, Force-users or not. In a warzone, if she couldn’t maintain her mental shields, she could rapidly be overwhelmed by the sensations. In the past, she had feared such powerful outside emotions could drive her mad.
If she wanted to find Halyn now, though, she suspected that the Force was the only way to do so. Reluctantly, she allowed her shields to ebb. At the first breach in her defenses, the Force flowed into her like a river filling a dam; within moments she felt like she was filled up entirely, the excess energy sloshing over into the flow of the Force around her.
With the Force came the waves of emotion from Rak’Edalin: the physical suffering of the warriors who had been injured in the fighting, the emotional pain of nearly every Zabrak she could sense—all of them had lost homes, family, friends in the long siege.
She felt like she was drowning in the Force.
Kelta stretched out harder, fighting to hold onto her identity under the barrage of others’ emotions and thoughts. It was hard, so hard to concentrate as she felt everything.
Then she found him, touched his mind, and felt like a swimmer breaking the surface after a long dive.
The Jedi slammed her shields back into place, felt the emotions of the ravaged city fall away from her. She spent a few moments breathing, a Jedi calming exercise, and took refuge in the calm clarity of mind she’d felt from Halyn.
“He’s on the Cathleen’s bridge,” she said aloud in wonderment. “In the middle of the night. That’s not like him.”
When she felt she could walk, she ran towards the hangar’s exit, and towards the Cathleen.
Halyn paced the Cathleen’s bridge. The chamber was dark, red-lit from the few battle alert indicators which still functioned.
The survivors of his war council were gathered there with him: Li Coden, the starfighter pilot; Anishor, the mighty berserker warrior; Ceikeh Alari, the Zabrak Senator to the New Republic; Kryi Rinnet, the starfighter coordinator; Kativie Lusp, his sister and Jedi Knight. Edlin Sanshir, Allanna’s eldest son, stood with his back to the wall, clearly uncomfortable with his inclusion in the elite group. Only Kelta Rose, the other Jedi Knight, was still missing.
Too few survivors, he thought bitterly. This war has cost me too many friends and allies. But no more. His thoughts turned to Lenn Kaman, killed when his starfighter was shot down; Sandarie, poisoned and held in hibernation in the hope of getting her to a medical facility capable of saving her; Allanna and Kativie’s children, three of them dead from an assassination attempt aimed at himself; Abi Ocopaqui, heavily medicated in the medical bay with a damaged lekku; and just hours previously, Nisia Eisweep, dead from the Yuuzhan Vong attack on the Council.
I don’t deserve such friends. They fought and died because they are my friends, and I asked them to fight. So many lives lost on my account.
“So, why did you call us all here?” Li asked conversationally. “You usually like having your meetings in the early morning, not late at night. That whole sleep thing most of us need and all.”
Halyn pulled himself away from his dark thoughts. “All of you have fought and bled on my behalf,” he began hesitantly, “and on behalf of Rak’Edalin and Iridonia and perhaps all of Zabrak space. Some of our friends have died or been badly wounded during this war.” He tried to force a smile, but it failed to materialize. “I wanted all of you to know how much I appreciate it.”
“We’re giving up our sleep for that?” Ceikeh asked dryly. “You could’ve sent a thank-you note.”
Anishor roared a wordless assent.
Halyn did manage a smile at that. “I guess I could have. I prefer to show it, though.”
“Show it how?” a new voice asked from the turbolift.
Halyn turned and nodded to red-haired Kelta Rose as she stepped out of the lift. “By making sure you’re here to see the end of the war.”
Kelta shuddered involuntarily. “Does that mean…?” she asked, unable to completely verbalize her question. Does that mean you’re going to surrender?
Halyn shook his head. “No, my rules remain the same. No retreat, no surrender. We fight until the battle is over, one way or the other.”
“Then what…?” Kelta asked, confused.
Halyn smiled just a little. “This is the end, Kelta. What I—we—have been planning since the Cathleen landed in Rak’Edalin.”
<Landed?> Anishor asked. <Only you would call that a landing.>
“Didn’t you see some of his students back when he was running the Rara Avis flight academy?” Li asked sardonically. “Compared to what happened to some of those Y-wings, the Cathleen settled in like a downy feather.”
Laughs circled the bridge, just enough to take the edge off the nervousness. In spite of Kelta’s mental shields, the edginess everyone seemed to be feeling bled through with enough strength to keep her off-balance.
“So what have you been planning?” Ceikeh asked. “And who is ‘we’?”
“Kativie and I,” Halyn said, drawing a deep breath. “She’s the only one who knows everything I’ve done in the defense of Iridonia—whether she agreed with it or not. Kativie knows every plan I made, every step I took, every tactic we deployed. It was necessary to have someone ready to step in should I have fallen.” Halyn took a deep breath. “I didn’t know if I’d survive to see the end of this war.”
“So, how are you going to end the war?” Li asked.
The sense coming off Halyn was so cold for a moment that Kelta shivered.
“We established a new pattern for the Vong recently,” Halyn explained slowly. “Our warriors fought them to a standstill during the day—our Iridonians gave no ground nor quarter during the battles. After nightfall, our warriors fell back, giving the Vong ten meters, fifty, a hundred—enough to safely keep their distance. At daybreak they defend their new positions.”
“This benefits us how?” Ceikeh asked.
Kativie answered. “The Vong won’t think anything of it when our troops pull back from the battle line, as they did tonight.”
Kelta could see that Anishor’s expression was pensive, even through all the hair. <Where did your troops fall back to?> he asked.
“To the Cathleen herself,” Halyn said grimly. “To give us the room to execute this.” He looked over at Kativie. “Are we in position?” he asked.
The Jedi Knight closed her eyes, and Kelta could feel her drawing heavily on the Force. Its currents seemed to bend around her, flowing into the Zabrak Jedi like light into a black hole. At last Kativie nodded, her eyes still closed. “All our troops have fallen back to their proscribed positions.”
“Good.” Halyn closed his eyes, and Kelta could feel the weariness of his spirit even as his body seemed to blaze with strength. “Cathleen gunnery crew, this is the Ul’akhoi. Open fire.”
Kelta’s eyes widened as she began to grasp the significance of his order.
The Cathleen had been badly damaged when the Yuuzhan Vong pulled it from orbit with a dovin basal. Its skeleton was shattered, leaving it incapable of ever flying again. Its engines had been crushed beneath the vessel’s hull when it smashed into the city. Entire decks of the warship had been compressed, packed together like layers of material in a laminate. Many of her crew had been killed instantly; most of the survivors were left injured or wounded.
Yet some of the vessel had survived. Its hangar was still in use, even now, by a small group of Muurian transports. Crew and cargo compartments now sheltered Rak’Edalin’s refugees. Its limited medical facilities now treated Zabrak warriors injured in the ongoing battle. The bridge had become the command center of the entire defensive operation.
The reactor had also survived—it provided the necessary power for the essential ship systems the Cathleen depended on, even in her crippled state.
So had eighteen of the turbolasers.
Red-white fire lanced out from the Cathleen and into the city.
In spite of her mental defenses, Kelta felt shock and horror, both from within and without, shatter her mental shields.
The turbolasers fired once, twice, three times in salvo before falling into a regular thump-thump-thump of the heavy weapons. The regular rhythm was soothing, but completely at odds with the raw sensations pouring into her through the Force.
There was death, of course—but not the death of Zabrak warriors. In fact, she did not feel the intense pain of a life torn away; it was the more muted death of animals, primarily small rodents and scavengers which survived by picking their way through the burnt remains of Rak’Edalin.
Grief, though, was a far more sentient emotion. Kelta could not differentiate her personal emotions from those carried to her by the Force. Her stomach collapsed in on itself, and she felt depths of grief she could barely comprehend—pain she’d felt only twice in her life. Once, when Halyn Lance had walked away from her after the battle of Endor, disappeared without saying goodbye; and once, when her husband, Liam Varo, had died during the Thrawn campaign.
Shock rattled her very soul, replaced moments later by the heart-wrenching pain of betrayal. She felt the betrayal of thousands of beings, Zabrak warriors who had trusted their Ul’akhoi to defend their city against the Yuuzhan Vong—the same Ul’akhoi who now ordered its destruction.
The pain all swirled together, and she could feel her individuality fading away in the storm of pain brought to her by the Force.
Then she felt a calm eye to that storm—the Zabrak it all focused upon. Halyn was utterly calm as he ordered the city utterly destroyed, reducing a burned ruin to a vaporized scorch mark on the face of Iridonia.
She latched onto him, a lifeline to keep her sanity. She could feel his own pain for the responsibility he bore in this maneuver, but he kept it tightly wrapped beneath layers of discipline and necessity. As the emotions of others tried to tug her under the flow, she hung to him in the Force like a shipwreck victim to a life buoy.
Halyn burned brightly in the Force now, even as she could feel faintly the thrum of the energy of the turbolasers. As Kelta felt her sanity, her self returning, she realized that Halyn was more brilliant, more vivid in her senses than she’d ever felt him before. As the remains of Rak’Edalin were reduced to ash, as Yuuzhan Vong warriors were vaporized by powerful starship weapons, his brightness seemed to grow in her perceptions.
He was burning brighter than Kativie, brighter than Anishor. The collective pain of the Zabraks witnessing the loss of their city seemed to fade away. She began to feel as though she were looking into the sun itself, with everything else fading into insignificance when compared to its impossibly bright light.
Then that sun collapsed in on itself, in the span of a heartbeat turning from a brilliant star into a black hole.
Kelta collapsed on the deck as the collective scream of the Zabrak survivors reached her through the sudden emptiness. Waves of pain swept over her, with nothing to dull it.
She pushed herself up to her hands and knees, felt Anishor’s furred paws on her shoulders. “I’m okay,” she rasped as she tried to shut down her connection to the Force. “What…?”
The Jedi raised her gaze far enough to see the truth: Halyn Lance lay silently on the deck, his eyes closed, his chest no longer raising with breath.