Dawn rose on an Iridonia scarred by war.
The Cathleen’s turbolasers had fired nonstop for about six hours during the night. The glow of fires and the brilliant flashes of the weapons themselves had lit up the city in the darkness, but only daylight revealed the true nature of the destruction Halyn had ordered inflicted upon Rak’Edalin.
No structure more than a few hundred meters from the wrecked capital ship was still standing. The destruction had been thorough; the heavy weapons had brought down already-damaged buildings, had burned to the ground the previously-burned homes, businesses, civic structures that had made up the city.
Kativie Lusp studied it all from the bridge of the Cathleen, watching the holograms relayed to her by scouts, by reconnaissance flights, and by the warship’s own visual sensors.
Some of the minimal bridge crew wept openly and continually at the horrifying images. In spite of the infamous Iridonian discipline, sobs were audible throughout the bridge. Down below, in the areas given over to the protection of Rak’Edalin’s non-combatants, there were wails of despair and anguish as families realized everything except their lives had been ripped away from them, turned to ash in the span of a single night.
Kativie did not cry, nor did she feel sorrow or pain. She felt only numbness as more and more images were displayed in the bridge’s holographic well. The Jedi had already felt the pain of Rak’Edalin’s final destruction; the Force had carried it to her with a crystal clarity, with a realness that the tasteless, odorless, soundless images of a hologram could never match.
Both my brothers gone; two of my children dead; Rak’Edalin in ruin. Is Iridonia saved, now? she wondered distantly. Or will this battle keep grinding on?
Because in spite of it all, scattered reports were starting to filter in. The Yuuzhan Vong army had been badly damaged, but they had survived. Yuuzhan Vong warriors, seemingly as shell-shocked as her own troops, had attacked some of the scouting parties out in what little remained of the city. In places, yorik coral vessels and structures had managed to survive the turbolaser raking, either by pure luck or by dovin basal defenses.
Surely the Yuuzhan Vong did not have the strength for yet another battle.
Kativie tried to stretch out to the Force, but the very act of touching the energy was as painful as holding her hand in a bucket of icy water. It was raw with the pain and terror and horror of an entire people mourning the loss of everything.
She wondered, distantly, how Kelta would cope with it. Maybe she can’t. Maybe that’s why she’s still down in the med bay, clinging to Halyn’s body like she can save him. Even that image did not pierce the heavy fog surrounding her, the numbness pressing down on her senses.
“You did it, Halyn,” she whispered aloud—so quietly she doubted anyone would hear her. “You beat the Yuuzhan Vong. It only cost you everything.”
“Jedi Lusp,” an officer rasped from behind her. “Sir, what are our orders?”
Orders. Right. I’m in charge now, until the Council finds a way to act. The Sanshirs sure aren’t going to be heroes for this mess. Aloud, she said, “Keep all our intact forces in place, and order them to dig in. I want more reconnaissance flights over Rak’Edalin, with the best sensor packages we’ve got left. We need an estimate of any surviving Vong forces.”
She heard acknowledgements to her orders, but they hardly registered. Something bothered her, though. I feel like I’m missing something. What am I missing? The Yuuzhan Vong army has been shattered by Halyn’s last order. The city has been reduced to rubble and ash. We have scout parties out and more recon flights to locate any surviving Vong units, and we’ll eliminate them soon enough if they don’t surrender.
So what am I forgetting about? She felt uneasy; there was something she was forgetting about. She knew, with bedrock certainty, that there was still some danger, but she could not seem to comprehend its source.
The warning wasn’t from the Force; even if it wasn’t so painful to touch, she knew her own emotional turmoil would likely obscure any message it tried to give her. No, it was something that should be blatantly obvious. Kativie felt as though the answer were staring her in the face, but she couldn’t focus her eyes close enough to recognize it.
“Not much left, is there?” Senator Alari asked quietly from behind her.
Kativie turned and nodded at her brother’s old friend. “No, Senator,” she whispered. “Halyn made sure of that.”
Ceikeh stepped in close to her. His voice dropped to barely audible levels before inquiring, “Was this his plan from the beginning? Did Halyn and Argus plan this defense together?”
Instead of answering, Kativie asked, “Does it matter?”
“To Rak’Edalin? To Iridonia? To the Council, or the New Republic? No. To me, as his friend, I’d like to know,” Ceikeh answered slowly.
Kativie gnawed at her lip before replying. “This wasn’t the original defense Halyn and Argus had designed, no. They fully expected to draw the Vong into a long, drawn-out conflict in Rak’Edalin, but they’d expected to hold the Yuuzhan Vong fast here in a stalemate until the New Republic fleet arrived. With Iridonia as an anvil and the fleet as a hammer, they expected they could crush the invaders, after taking some collateral damage.”
“But they didn’t expect Coruscant to fall and the New Republic to come to pieces,” Ceikeh reasoned.
Kativie nodded. “Halyn had designed a contingency plan that Argus rejected, in the event that the New Republic wouldn’t send a fleet. He had expected to turn the city’s defensive turbolasers around and use them to vaporize any parts of Rak’Edalin that the Vong managed to capture and hold.”
“But the city’s defensive grid was shattered by the Cathleen’s fall, and later that Vong warship,” Ceikeh interjected.
“Yes. Fortunately, even after the fall, the Cathleen’s power core remained online, and more than a quarter of her turbolasers survived. It wasn’t what Halyn originally planned, but it was a final solution in the event the Vong were winning.”
Ceikeh shook his head. “Halyn was wiling to sacrifice everything to win, wasn’t he?”
“Anything less would’ve meant the fall of Zabraks everywhere,” Kativie whispered. “He had to draw his line in the sand, and enforce it with turbolasers, proton torpedoes, zhabokas, anything else he could lay his hands on.”
“And yet,” Ceikeh said, so quiet Kativie wasn’t sure she heard him, “he was still protecting you, up to the end.”
“What?” Kativie said reflexively, completely puzzled by his statement.
“He knew he was dying, didn’t he? So he made sure you wouldn’t be the one to issue the order. He knew it would destroy you to do that, so he moved the units around and setup the game board for his final instructions. And he made sure he did the dirty work, not you, because it would destroy you.” Ceikeh’s tone was somewhere between admiration and revulsion. “He really did care for you.”
“What do you mean, it would destroy me?” the Jedi whispered.
“You’re a Jedi Knight,” Ceikeh replied. “You could never have ordered an attack like this—not against your own city.”
Kativie reflected on the Senator’s simple statement. No, I couldn’t, she concluded. Not without taking a very large step toward the dark side.
“And there may well be political fallout from this,” Ceikeh continued. “In the aftermath of this, Iridonia may well be one of the only planets in the galaxy that repulsed the Yuuzhan Vong, which will make him a hero to outsiders. But here on Iridonia, and in Zabrak space, he may very well be cast as a villain for ordering the razing of Rak’Edalin.” The senator shrugged. “In the end, it may not matter that he ensured everyone was out of the line of fire, that he protected all the lives he could. Doing what he did may have tarnished his name forever.”
“His name, or Clan Sanshir?” Kativie asked haltingly.
“His own.” Ceikeh sounded bedrock certain. “Oh, I don’t doubt there will be a few opportunistic Councilors who try to spin this as a Clan Sanshir plot, but they will fail. Everyone knows Halyn’s history as a renegade—from the time he left Iridonia as a young Zabrak to the time he spent in the Rebel Alliance and on. If Argus was still alive and had ordered this, it would likely be all Clan Sanshir, but Halyn is a rogue.”
The Jedi shook her head despairingly. “I hate politics. He did what he had to do to save Iridonia.”
“I agree,” Ceikeh said. “And I don’t know if anyone else could’ve issued the orders he did. But there are many who will second-guess him for years to come.”
“What happens now, Senator?” Kativie asked, changing the subject.
“What do you mean?” Ceikeh said.
“We’ve beaten the Vong. Now what?”
“If they really are beaten, then I suppose we’ll have to make contact with the New Republic. We’ll need our fleet back, and find out where the New Republic government has setup so we can start coordinating with the larger galaxy again.”
Kativie looked up at the ceiling of the Cathleen’s bridge, and realized what she had been missing all along—the danger so obvious it was staring her in the face.
Li Coden’s X-wing roared over Rak’Edalin.
The snubfighter’s s-foils were locked in their cruise position as he made a fast, low pass over the city. His sensors were locked in a ground-search configuration, a variety of thermal, motion, topographic, and life-form readings steadily flowing across his HUD.
The topography was generally flat and predictable; a child in a recreational airspeeder could have flown over the city without endangering himself. The Cathleen’s turbolaser fire had reduced nearly everything to a uniform height, even shearing off small rolling hills that had made up some of the natural terrain under the city.
The pilot gently pulled back on the fighter’s stick. The X-wing responded, rising above the debris, allowing Li a far more panoramic view of Rak’Edalin.
Dark smoke rolled up into the clear morning sky from a hundred different places. The thermal sensors pointed out a thousand more hotspots where fires smoldered, with only a lack of fuel or oxygen preventing them from breaking into full-fledged flame.
It reminded Li of Restuss.
During the Galactic Civil War, a team of scientists developed the next generation of power generation technology—a reactor capable of supporting a Star Destroyer with energy, but small enough to fit in a pocket or be held in a sentient’s hand. The development team, trying to hide from prying eyes, had setup their research facility in one of the two starports on the moon of Rori.
When word broke out of the development and the location, the Rebel Alliance and the Empire had both acted.
Both factions established beachheads with easily-deployable, prefabricated garrisons, then marched on the city of Restuss with the plan of holding the city until they had secured the “Star Core” technology.
The necessary Rebel marines had arrived on fast-moving Corellian Corvettes, brought in as quickly as possible to secure the city. Given enough time, the Empire would arrive with a fleet of Star Destroyers which would make securing the Star Core impossible.
With ground forces moving in, the starfighter wing known as the Vanguard, already based on Rori, were tapped to provide air cover.
Li Coden had led his Sabre Squadron as part of the defensive group, alongside Bendo Kyn’s Grey-Ghost Squadron of Y-wings, and Cody Qel-Droma’s Resurrection Squadron. Halyn Lance, the wing’s commander, led a separate flight of special tactics pilots called Grey Flight.
The wing held off the Empire’s TIE fighters and bombers aptly, with the Y-wing squadron providing direct air-to-ground support for the Rebel marines. The arrival of Imperial capital ships—namely, a Lancer-class frigate—finally turned the tide of the battle against the Rebel forces.
Then everything had gone wrong.
An impossibly large explosion ripped the city apart. Tens of thousands of Rebel and Imperial troops, and an unknown number of civilians, were killed instantly. A quarter of the Vanguard pilots were too close to the city at the time and either crashed or were vaporized.
The official investigation had concluded that the Star Core technology was not stable, and a failure in containment had allowed for the catastrophic overload of the reactor, which in turn detonated and killed everyone involved in the project.
Halyn had subscribed to another theory, one officially discredited. The Zabrak had believed there had never been a “Star Core” and that the entire project was faked; instead, he believed the incident had been a trap meant to draw the Rebel Alliance into an open confrontation by using irresistible bait. The explosion, he maintained, had been a massive baradium bomb. Imperial losses he dismissed by pointing out the willingness of Imperial commanders to sacrifice their troops pointlessly in other theaters.
This time, though, it was Halyn who laid the trap, Li thought. He drew the Vong in and hit them with a sucker-punch they never could have seen coming.
For a blurry moment, the smoke and the debris looked too familiar—he really did believe he was flying over the bomb-shattered remains of the Restuss starport.
Then his vision cleared, and it was Rak’Edalin again, the smoke hard against the clear blue sky.
He sighed. Are all wars the same? Do we fight the same conflicts over and over, with the same results?
Li sent the X-wing into a lazy, long arc over Rak’Edalin to look down at the city off his starboard s-foils. It really does feel like Restuss all over again. So many things that went wrong, so many dead, a city reduced to ashes. Was that Halyn’s plan the entire time? Destroy the city to wipe out the Vong? The idea made him feel a bit sick. It’s the sort of thing the Empire would do, isn’t it? The line of thought made him even more uneasy. They were worried about making Halyn into a dictator. Maybe he really was the villain some people feared he was.
The New Republic agent’s hand tightened on the stick as he considered the possibilities. I know I didn’t make a mistake coming here. Iridonia needed assistance and Abi and I provided it. I don’t know if what we did made a big difference, but we contributed as best we could. That couldn’t be a mistake.
But Halyn? Was Halyn the general I remembered him to be? Did he change? Or are my memories of him tinted by time?
He shook his head. I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter now. He’s dead and gone, and Iridonia still stands. His little sister has command now, and she’ll finish this war.
Li frowned down at his heads-up display when the R5 unit started whistling at him. “What is it?” the pilot grumbled.
His comm started flashing for attention. He reached over and tapped the button. “Coden here,” he said.
“This is Cathleen actual,” Kativie Lusp’s voice called into his ear. “I think we’ve got trouble.”
Triak Kraal surveyed the remains of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion force.
Ninety percent of his troops, including all the reptoid slave troops, were completely wiped out by the treacherous infidel attack. Less than a thousand of his true warriors still lived.
I should have been sent to the gods, Triak told himself. I should have died with my warriors. Instead, I live with my Shame.
The infidels have beaten us. We are no longer the chosen children of the gods; we are orphans, parentless, the godless, the heathens. We have failed, and we are now only Vong.
The thought stabbed at him, and he was not sure he could live with himself for a moment longer.
He looked around at the battered yorik coral structure. Two coralskippers had shielded the living building with void defenses, which had not been enough to prevent damage to the structure, but had allowed the Commander of Domain Kraal to survive.
Ret Kraal limped to his side. “I bring my report, Supreme One,” he rasped.
The intense smoke from the blazes lit by the first abomination—fire from a machine—had damaged his tactician’s voice. “Do not delay, Tactician,” Triak said.
Ret Kraal nodded and spoke, his voice hoarse. “I was incorrect in my initial assessment; in hindsight, it is clear. The infidel warmaster has been preparing his deception for some time. I believe now the retreat of his forces night after night was to acclimate us to the action, leaving us unprepared for his strike.”
“He layered his deception well,” the commander said grudgingly. “He sacrificed many lives to defeat us.”
Ret hesitated long enough for Triak to know the next statement would not be pleasing. “It appears not. He evacuated their weak and cowardly well before the battle reached the last week’s area of combat. From our surviving troops and scouts, we know that his forces marched in retreat almost all the way to the wreckage of their warship. They ceded the entire city to us to complete their deception.”
Triak closed his eyes. Deceived! Are we not children of Yun-Harla, the Trickster goddess? How could their warmaster have succeeded in this gambit? The gods have truly abandoned us.
“There is more, Supreme One,” Ret said with deeply bowed head.
“Continue, Tactician,” Triak said.
“The enemy warmaster has fallen,” the tactician rasped.
Triak’s eyes snapped open. “What? What do you mean?”
“The details are limited,” Ret said. “But it appears he fell victim to disease. Even as his warship destroyed us with the First Abomination, the gods smited him. He died of a disease, a living thing.”
Perhaps we are not Shamed. The gods have brought us to humility, but they have also given us the means to redemption at the same time!
“Who now commands their forces?” Triak asked.
“The former warmaster’s younger sister,” Ret Kraal responded, his head so low as to touch the ash of the surface. “The Jeedai Kativie Lusp.”
“A Jeedai?” Triak asked. “I thought these Jeedai warriors did not lead.”
“I believe that is true,” Ret said. “They do not seem to lead outside their own kind.”
Triak frowned. “She may perhaps be a weak warmaster for these infidels. Now, at last, the time may have come for us to finish this war. We can still defeat these Zabraks and conquer this world.”
“With what army?” Ret asked in disbelief. He coughed and dropped into a deep bow again. “My apologies, Supreme One. I speak out of place.”
“Your concern is valid,” Triak said. “But we have warriors remaining aboard the fleet overhead even now.”
“They are few,” Ret said. “And most of those who remain will need to stay with the fleet; many of our vessels already have barely enough Yuuzhan Vong to keep them in orbit. Even if we could bring them all down, our force would hardly be a match for their surviving ranks. Only bolstered by the gods could we defeat these infidels at such numbers!”
“We need not defeat and destroy all the infidel troops,” Triak said with a small smile. “We need only enough to attack their warship, and finish them off. Without their commanders, their warmasters, they will scatter and fall before us like chaff in the wind.”
“When will we bring our warrior ranks down from the fleet?” Ret asked.
“I have already ordered the final landing,” Triak said confidently. “I believed we should allow our warriors to die in a final, glorious battle than in ignominious shame; now they shall taste victory!”
“Supreme One, if I may exchange words with only you,” Ret requested, his face on the ground.
Triak dismissed the rest of his Yuuzhan Vong officers with a shake of his hand.
When the others had scattered, Ret rose up from the ground to kneeling. “Supreme One, we have already begun to descend into our Shame. I am no priest, but the truth is plain to all the warriors. If you truly believe we can still defeat these infidels, I have a recommendation for you.”
“Which is?” Triak asked the wounded tactician.
“You must provide a sign to our remaining warriors—an indication the gods are still with us.”
“A deception, tactician?” Triak asked. “Would not the gods be offended by such things?”
“Not a deception, Supreme One,” Ret answered. “For without their assistance, we will surely fail.”
“What sign, then?”
Ret hesitated before answering. “A challenge to the infidels—a duel between yourself and their warmaster, the Jeedai. Strike her down in honorable combat, and the gods will surely smile upon us. If you fail, the warriors will know we are utterly Shamed.”
“Should I order off the landing, then?” Triak asked.
“No; when you win, the infidels will surely attack us in their desperation.”
Triak nodded. “Your plan is cunning. Victory will prove the ultimate redemption of Domain Kraal!”
The Yuuzhan Vong commander tried to ignore the uncertainty he felt. Against one of the Jeedai? Am I capable of such victory? I have heard rumors of these Jeedai on Yavin Four, where one of them was the redemption of a Shamed warrior. Perhaps the death of this Jeedai will be my redemption as well.
If not, she will surely be my doom.