Ceikeh Alari had seen a number of people die in his lifetime—in part because of his previous profession. Before acquiring enough fame that he was inducted into Iridonian politics, he had worked the Outer Rim as a mercenary, a gun-for-hire. He and his wife, Arraya, had flown an old YT-1300, the Tansarii Dream, from planet to planet to ply their trade.
He had killed a number of people in the heat of battle, most often Imperial soldiers. Occasionally he had participated in gang warfare between Hutt criminal syndicates and pirate bands. In many of those same battles, his allies had also suffered losses. Often there were not “right” or “wrong” sides in the battles, and casualties on either side didn’t bother him; he grew numb after a time, hardened to the emotional shock of watching allies die.
A decade of politics had made him soft again.
Halyn Sanshir lay on a medical table. Were it not for the monitors showing his very slow heartbeats—perhaps once every ten seconds—and the extremely shallow respirations that didn’t seem to move his chest, he would have believed his old friend dead. Looking at his old friend in such a state hurt, and hurt in a way he hadn’t thought he would ever feel again.
He was heartened to see that Kelta Rose, the Jedi Knight sent by Skywalker, was back on her feet, though she was still pale and her hands shook when she released her grip on the edge of the medical bed where Halyn now rested.
The big Wookiee was kneeling on the other side of the fallen Zabrak—even on his knees, he was tall enough to stretch out his big furry paws to rest on Halyn’s chest. Anishor’s eyes were closed, and Ceikeh could swear that light was emanating from his hands, though it was hard to see through the fur.
See something new every day, Ceikeh thought. And this war has brought on a lot of new things.
<I pour my strength into him, but he does not respond,> the Wookiee growled in frustration. <I touch him through the Force, but there is almost nothing left. He is fading quickly.>
“Let him go,” Kativie said hoarsely from another medical bed, where she sat with her hands folded in her lap. “There’s nothing you can do to save him.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Kryi Rinnet asked. “Why did he collapse?”
Kativie was silent for long moments. She isn’t denying knowing, Ceikeh realized. Which means she knows.
<Kat,> Anishor said, rising to his feet with slow weariness, <what has happened to him?>
“He’s dying,” she whispered. “He’s dying, and I can’t save him. I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying so damned hard, but nothing I did made any difference.”
“What do you mean?” Ceikeh asked. “You’re not a doctor.”
Kativie laughed, a slow and bitter sound that equaled any Ceikeh had heard before. “No, I’m not. I’m a Jedi.”
<What has happened to him?> Anishor repeated.
“We don’t know exactly when or how,” Kativie said slowly. “Some time around the Yuuzhan Vong’s initial invasion, he was infected with something. It’s been slowly eating at his nervous system, and we knew eventually it would reach his brain’s critical functions. Once those shut down, he’d die, and there was nothing we could do.”
“Why didn’t you take him to a doctor?” Li Coden asked. “I mean, you knew he was sick.”
“We did go to see doctors,” Kativie ground out. “We saw every top physician I could get him in to see. I pulled every string I could as a Jedi, got him in to see top neurologists, top xenobiologists, anyone who we thought might have some insight into whatever has been killing him. I even managed to get Master Cilghal to examine him once, and there’s no better Jedi healer than her.”
“And?” Li prompted.
“And nothing. They could see the damage, and with repeat visits they could see the progress of the disease. But they couldn’t ever find it, couldn’t reverse the damage.” Tears flowed down Kativie’s cheeks. “I could sense the hurt in the Force, but I couldn’t find the disease itself. Neither could Master Cilghal. It’s the reason we thought it was something from the Yuuzhan Vong—anything else I should be able to sense.”
<How does the disease hurt him?> Anishor asked. <If I know, perhaps I can find a way to help him fight it.>
“It’s attacked his nervous system, over and over. But only specific parts.” Kativie took a moment to compose herself. “He lost his ability to feel pain about a year ago. Well, not just pain. He lost his ability to feel tiredness, pain, anything. He started struggling to sleep, and it nearly killed him then—he pushed himself way past the limits of his body, and he almost died then. Since then I’ve tried to keep him in check so he doesn’t do it again, but he kept throwing himself into the battle.”
“That’s why he never seemed to notice,” Ceikeh reasoned. “He would take cuts, mostly shallow wounds, and he wouldn’t notice until someone else started binding the wounds up.”
Kativie nodded, her eyes red. “Yes, exactly.” She looked down. “I couldn’t save him,” she whispered. “No matter what I did.”
A red-and-grey R2 astromech whistled from the doorway. Ceikeh turned to look and frowned. “What is that beat-up old droid doing here?” he asked.
“That’s Deuce,” Kativie said, looking over at the R2. “Halyn’s old astromech droid.” She tried to smile, but it never reached her eyes. “He probably wants to say goodbye, too.”
“No,” Kelta Rose said hoarsely, speaking for the first time since Halyn’s collapse on the Cathleen’s bridge. “He has messages for us.” Her tone was bitter. “Halyn’s last words, I suppose.”
The R2 astromech called “Deuce” had been in service for over forty years. A leftover from the Clone Wars, where he had served aboard an ARC-170 starfighter in service to the Old Republic, he had been decommissioned and left at a deep space storage facility. From there, he was eventually liberated—along with the ARC-170—by a resistance group. He later survived the destruction of the fighter and was then shuffled from group to group, acting as a backseater in Y-wing bombers until finally being assigned to a new T-65 X-wing starfighter. There he came under the ownership of one Halyn Lance, a starfighter pilot recruit in the Rebel Alliance.
Halyn Lance had retained ownership of him, unlike many previous pilots, beyond the destruction of the X-wing. Deuce had eventually been stationed at Zephyr Base on Rori, where he served with distinction as a backseater for X-wings, Y-wings, reconditioned ARC-170 starfighters, and several obscure refurbished craft. He had also participated as part of the crew on several larger vessels, including the Gallofree light freighter Starwind and the larger, heavier-armed Incom X4 gunship Firestorm.
When Halyn left the Rebel Alliance, the droid had remained in his service, acting as partner and accountant for the Zabrak’s business ventures ranging from smuggling to honest shipping to mercenary jobs. Eventually, Halyn had left him on Iridonia in service to Argus Sanshir and Kativie Lusp, helping to coordinate the defensive preparations.
Droids were not programmed with emotions, but Deuce had felt something akin to joy when Halyn had reappeared to help with the defense of Iridonia. While the Zabrak had not taken direct ownership again, the R2 unit considered himself back in Halyn’s service. Thus, it had not been a surprise when the Zabrak had asked the droid to record several messages for his friends and allies in the event of his demise.
Deuce had known from experience that many pilots recorded such messages with similar conditions; it was a common enough practice that the necessary programming had been added to his software during his service to the Rebel Alliance.
The R2 considered the encrypted messages, calculated the likely consequences of permutations of orders of playback, and chose to start with Kativie Lusp.
Kativie didn’t bother trying to compose herself when the R2 astromech wheeled up before her with a low whistle. “It’s okay, Deuce,” she said. “Go ahead.”
The R2 whistled and adjusted the angle of his body; after a moment, his holoprojector lens focused and a grainy blue-white image of Halyn swam into existence.
Judging from the battered duster and the recently-healed cuts, Kativie guessed the message had been recorded very recently—within a day or two of the collapse of the New Horizon Designs building.
“Hi, Katie,” he said hesitantly. “You know, I’ve recorded and updated this message a dozen times since the Vong started their invasion of Iridonia, and it’s still hard to say what I need to say and get these words out.”
He closed his eyes and his expression smoothed out as he composed himself. “First, thank you, little sister. I couldn’t have done this without you, and we would have long since lost the war if you hadn’t been my second. If I’m gone now, that means Iridonia will be in your hands, and I can’t imagine anyone more capable of it.”
“Second,” he said, his voice shaky and then silent for several long seconds—long enough for Kativie to wonder if the recording was corrupted. “I’m so sorry for what happened to your children. It was my fault, and I’ll never forgive myself. I’ll understand if you never forgive me.” He went silent again, seemingly to gather his thoughts.
His eyes opened, and his gaze was intense even through a grainy recording. “I know you’ve struggled over the years, standing in the shadows of a brother who was the living hero of Iridonia, and the brother who was a general in the Rebel Alliance. You’ve grown into a powerful Jedi Knight, and in many ways you’re a better Zabrak than either of your brothers could ever be.” He smiled faintly. “If anyone can bridge the gap between the Sanshirs and the Lusps, it’ll be you—if it’s even possible.”
Kativie smiled a little at that.
“Rely on our friends and allies. Don’t try to shoulder the burden of this all alone—let Anishor and Kelta and Ceikeh take some of the burden.”
“What, I don’t count?” Li Coden groused.
“If you don’t, this war will crush you the way it has me. You have children, a husband, a family—they deserve more than just a soldier, and you can give it to them.”
Halyn hesitated. “Thank you, little sister, for everything you did. I know keeping my secrets has been hard on you, but I hope you’ll remember me fondly, not as the brother who hurt you.” He raised a hand. “Goodbye, Katie. Remember I love you,” he quirked a smile, “even if you were a brat. Halyn out.”
The holo faded away, but Kativie continued to stare at the spot where Halyn’s image had been. She swallowed hard, resisting the urge to ask Deuce to play the message again. No, be strong, Kat. You’re the leader now; don’t show weakness.
She rubbed at her cheeks and couldn’t understand why her hands came away wet.
As she watched, the R2 spun around on its wheels and headed for someone else. She didn’t look up from the spot where the holo had been projected.
Anishor watched with a small degree of amusement as the old R2 rolled to a stop in front of him. He remembered the droid well from Halyn’s days as a Rebel X-wing, and later Y-wing, pilot. The coatrack left a message for me, did he?
Deuce beeped twice at the Wookiee. <Go ahead, little one,> Anishor rumbled with a smile.
The hologram of his old friend appeared in a staticky haze in standard one-quarter size. Halyn’s expression was more cheerful than it had been when speaking to Kativie. “Hello, Anishor,” the Zabrak said with an easy smile.
Anishor smiled at the hologram. <Hello, honor brother,> he said in reply to the recording.
“Of the few people I’m leaving these recordings for, I know you’ll likely be taking this best.” The hologram chuckled. “I’m sure you’re already talking about me becoming one with the Great Tree, or something like that. You’ll be at peace with my passing, even when the others are fighting or mourning me. And I appreciate that.”
The Wookiee swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, grateful that the furless beings around him likely could not interpret his expressions well enough to understand what he felt. You’re wrong, coatrack. I mourn you, too, even as you join the Force. I may accept your passing, but I feel your passing as dearly as any family.
“Seriously?” Li grumbled. “No message for me?”
Anishor studied the hologram closely, seeing the distress in his old friend’s face as the recording continued. “I know I was your honor brother, and that means more to me than you’ll ever know. In many ways, you were closer to me than my own brother. We went through everything together, and you’re a big part of why I survived the Civil War.”
Halyn’s tone grew darker. “You helped lead the rescue on Talus when I fell into the hands of the Empire, and you covered my back in some of the worst starfighter combat the galaxy ever saw in the months leading up to Endor. You helped me lead the One-Eighteenth and kept Zephyr Base hidden on Rori.”
His voice dropped even further. “Now I need you to help me one more time. At the time I’m recording this, Iridonia is in danger. With me gone, Kativie will be the last remaining hope for Iridonia to win the fight against the Yuuzhan Vong. I need you to protect her as you have me.”
<I would have anyways, coatrack,> Anishor growled. <She is honor family as well.>
“Right now, you’re probably shaking your head at me for telling you to do something you were already going to do,” the hologram said. “But it needed to be said.”
The recording seemed to freeze in place—long enough for Anishor to wonder if the droid had malfunctioned. Then the hologram finally spoke. “I also wanted to say goodbye. Well, not just goodbye, but thank you. Furball, even after all the things I did, the hell I put you through, you still chose to be my honor brother. You protected me, came for me when I was in captivity, without any thought of the danger you put yourself in. When the war started to eat away at me, and I was losing my way, you were the one who called me on it and forced me to see what I was doing.
“You were a far better friend than I ever deserved.” Halyn hesitated again before adding, “So, I guess I’m saying thank you for being my friend, my protector, my sounding board, and my conscience. Thank you.”
The hologram faded out of existence, and Anishor found himself blinking away at suspicious moisture in his eyes.
Kryi Rinnet watched in puzzlement as the battered R2 unit rolled over to Edlin Sanshir. The young Zabrak warrior had been standing alone, leaning against the wall, just watching. Why would the General leave him a message? It’s not like they were particularly close.
The red-and-grey droid adjusted itself, then started up the holoprojector. The hazy blue-tinted hologram reappeared on the floor again, dressed in the same clothes he had worn in the previous holo.
“Edlin Sanshir,” Lance’s voice floated from the tinny speaker. “This message is for you.” The General hesitated for a few seconds. “I know you and I haven’t been very close over the years, and I’m mostly to blame for that. While you were growing up, I was gallivanting across the galaxy, getting myself into and out of trouble everywhere but Iridonia. But with Argus and me both dead, and knowing that you may never see Allanna again, I felt you need to know some truths. Truths about the Sanshirs. Truths about me. Truths about yourself. There are things I need to tell you that even Kativie doesn’t know.”
Kryi turned her head to see Kativie’s reaction. Shock rode freely on the other’s face at Halyn’s words. She thought she knew all her big brother’s secrets, Kryi thought silently. He obviously included her in so much of his planning that she just assumed…
“Argus, Kativie, and I were all born into a time of war and unrest here on Iridonia. We responded to it different ways. Argus became the noble one among us three—the leader, the Zabrak who would stand up for what he believed in, and would fight to free Iridonia from the Empire’s grip.”
Halyn smiled. “Sometimes I think that’s why Kativie was born with the Force—she was destined to be a Jedi Knight, the noble warrior among the three of us, the real hero of the Sanshirs. If you look at the history of our family, we seldom have Force-sensitives born to our clan, but when we do, it’s usually when the galaxy is at war and such heroes are needed.”
His smile faded into a somber expression. “I was born the coward of our family. I ran away, became a criminal. I was eventually forced to rise above it, but I made a lot of mistakes over the years. Some of those mistakes I regret; some of them turned out better than I could have hoped at the time.”
Melancholy dominated his tone. “After I left the Rebel Alliance, I spent months in the criminal underworld of the galaxy, skipping from planet to planet running cargo. I made a few enemies, made a few credits, and impressed more than a few criminal kingpins. It’s amazing how applicable military training is to running cargo past Imperial patrols.”
The hologram shook his head. “Like everything I’ve done in life, it fell apart due to my decisions. I met a Zabrak girl who was enslaved by a Hutt, and I decided I liked her more than I liked him. The myth that Hutts are immune to blasterfire? Yeah, it’s just a myth.” Halyn’s expression softened. “She and I fell in love. I left the smuggling game and we found a nice backwater planet to hide on. We lived there for just a little while—less than a year. Then the Hutts caught up with us.”
The hologram’s eyes were hard. “Hutts are very unhappy when another Hutt is killed—officially, anyway. Because I hadn’t been acting on orders from another Hutt when I killed Sari’s master, they needed to eliminate me to make an example for the rest of the underworld.”
Halyn’s voice dropped in tone and volume. “Sari was killed by Hutt assassins. I took our child, our son, to Iridonia. I want you to understand, Edlin, just who I was—I was a criminal, a Zabrak who had abandoned every cause he’d been a part of, and didn’t know a way to make an honest living. So, I turned my son over to Argus and Allanna, who were only recently married. I knew they’d be able to provide a stable upbringing for my child—the kind of upbringing a kid should have.”
The General stared through the hologram at Edlin as though he could truly see him. “Yes, that son is you, Edlin. Argus and Allanna raised you, and I know you will probably call them your parents until the day you die, and I don’t hold that against you. But you needed to know the truth—that I’m your father, that your mother was a Zabrak slave girl.”
He hesitated again. Kryi looked at Edlin, but the boy’s expression was completely unreadable to her. “I’ve watched you grow up from afar, and I know you’re already a better man than I am. You’re proof that you can be greater than your origin. Never forget that, Edlin—you are your own man. You make your own decisions in life.”
Halyn finally smiled again. “I know it probably won’t mean much, but I love you, Edlin. There is little else I can say, but good luck. I know the Sanshir family name is in good hands with you.”
The hologram fizzled and died. Kryi’s eyes flashed from Edlin to Kativie, then around the room at a variety of shocked expressions. I guess I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know.
Kelta Rose thought she was holding her composure well as she watched the old astromech deliver messages. The shock of discovery—of Edlin’s parentage—had reached through the fog of pain and mourning that had descended over her. Halyn had a son? It’s not him at all. Though leaving him to someone else? A stab of old pain cracked her heart. Yeah, that I can believe. That’s entirely his style.
The Jedi felt, in that moment, a clarity she had never experienced—she understood entirely how a Jedi could fall to the dark side. It’s good Halyn didn’t date more Jedi, or the galaxy would be overrun by Sith by now.
She was still caught up in that line of thought when Deuce rolled up and stopped before her, beeping to get her attention. Kelta looked up at the R2. Oh. Yeah. Halyn left a recording for me. I’d almost forgotten.
The droid didn’t immediately kick off the recording. Instead, it whistled inquisitively at her.
The Jedi suppressed a shudder. Damn mechanical things. I don’t know why Halyn set so much store by them. She nodded at the droid. “Go ahead, Deuce,” she said reassuringly.
The R2 whistled uncertainly, but a moment later the hologram of Halyn Lance reappeared.
This Halyn Lance was dressed in the uniform he had worn when he collapsed. How recently did he record this? Kelta wondered.
“Hello, Kelta,” Halyn said quietly. “I’m pretty sure this is the last recording I’ll ever make. My last checkup with the med droid indicates I’m nearly at the end.”
The last recording he’s making is to me? Kelta wondered.
“I made a mistake twenty years ago, and I know I can’t make up for it now. So I’m not going to try. There’s no forgiveness to be had for me. I’ve done terrible things, both back then and now.”
Halyn took a deep breath. “I spent five years fighting the Civil War, almost all of them as a fighter pilot. By the time I met you, I was a jaded officer. I was certain I was going to die fighting the Empire like so many of my friends. And when I recruited you to manage the flight academy, I thought you were a naive girl who could do the paperwork.”
He swallowed. “I was wrong, Kelta, and it was the first of a lot of mistakes I made. I was wrong in denying how I felt about you for so long, and I finally started doing right when I let you get close to me. You stabilized me. When we started, I thought the only thing that mattered was the war, and I was ready to die for it. You helped show me there was something to live for, too.”
The hologram seemed to hesitate again before continuing. “Kelta, I loved you more than anything. And that scared me, gave me hope at the same time. Then Endor happened, and half the people we knew died at the horrid place. And when it was over, I knew I was done with war…if I could be.”
Halyn’s face twisted into something unreadable. “When I decided to leave the Alliance, I did it because I wanted to see if there was anything left of me besides the killer I had turned into while fighting the war. I had to know if I could be something else—someone who didn’t immediately evaluate a situation by judging how to kill opponents, how to escape, how to minimize casualties if a firefight broke out.” He took a deep breath again. “That’s when I made another mistake—I thought the only way to do it was to leave everyone behind, to make a completely clean break.”
Kelta fought back against the old wave of pain as the recording stirred old memories.
He closed his eyes. “I left everyone, including the woman who mattered to me most.” He paused again, clearly struggling for words. When his eyes opened again, they seemed to see Kelta even through the recording. “So when I left, I left a big part of myself behind.” He swallowed. “I told myself that it was better for you—that you weren’t the killer I was, that I was protecting you, that you would be happier and better once you had gotten over me.”
The next words seemed to tumble out uncontrolled. “I left the Alliance, met Sari, fell in love, thought I had found myself. We ran away, hid from the war, hid from the Hutts, tried to live a simple life. She died weeks after having our son, assassinated by some Hutt’s lackeys.” His expression was dark. “I went after them, killed them too, eliminated the Hutt who sent them after us. Realized I was still the same Zabrak I was during the war—a killer, a man who shed blood willingly. So I turned Edlin over to Allanna and Argus so he could grow up knowing something besides death.”
The Zabrak stopped to compose himself. “I’m happy for you,” he said at last. “You had a happy marriage until Thrawn’s invasion. You have a wonderful daughter. You’ve made yourself into the Jedi you always wanted to be. And maybe, maybe you’re a better person because of it. So, I wanted to tell you one last time what I’ve wanted to say every time I’ve seen you since—that spaceport at the end of nowhere, Kativie’s wedding, the first time I saw you on the Cathleen’s bridge.
“Kelta, I…I love you. I always have. I never stopped.” He smiled faintly. “Apparently I’m not capable of change, because even now I’ve been refusing to say it to protect you. I didn’t want to draw you in and then die on you. I’m sorry, Kelta Rose. But I love you.” His voice was hoarse. “I’ve always loved you. Goodbye, Kelta.”
“I love you, too,” Kelta whispered as the hologram faded away.
She felt Anishor’s big paw on her shoulder. <Are you alright?> the Wookiee asked, his voice low and calm.
“No.” Kelta shrugged his hand off. “I’m not okay. Halyn is dying or already dead, and I will not let him get off that easy.”
<What are you doing?> Anishor asked as Kelta pulled herself to her feet, then stalked over to where Halyn’s body rested, still hooked up to monitors and showing some faint traces of life, and no sign of hope.
“I will not let him die,” Kelta growled, stretching her hands out and resting them on Halyn’s chest. “Not now. Not after all this.”
<Kelta…> Anishor said hesitantly.
“Kelta, if there were some way to bring him back, I’d be the first to do it,” Kativie whispered. “But you can’t. No one can.”
The Jedi Knight felt her legs weaken, the walls begin to spin around her. “No, I can save him,” she said hoarsely. “I can save him.”
She fell to her knees. “I can’t let him die.”
<He will be one with the Force,> she heard Anishor say.
Kelta closed her eyes, felt the galaxy itself spinning around her. I can’t let him die. He can’t die here. Not now, not after everything.
She could hear voices distantly, but they meant little to her. Ceikeh Alari, Kryi Rinnet, and Kativie Lusp leaving the medical center to return to the Cathleen’s bridge. Anishor and Edlin Sanshir conversing in low tones. Li Coden complaining about a lack of a recording for him yet again before departing to return to his squadron.
They were leaving her to mourn, she knew. But she wouldn’t mourn—not yet. Instead, she reached out to the Force with every bit of strength she possessed. Can’t let him die.