Kelta Rose sat in the command chair on the Cathleen’s bridge. Compiled tactical data from the orbital situation, as well as the Rak’Edalin ground forces, slowly rotated in and out of view around her. There was too much data for her to process, too much to see and comprehend for her to gather into a cohesive whole.
Instead of trying, she closed her eyes and relaxed into the Force, allowing it to carry her all the information she needed.
She could sense Halyn and Anishor and Kativie and Ceikeh, locked in mortal combat against the Yuuzhan Vong. She could also feel the arrival of the Rak’Edalin ground forces as they attempted to reach the trapped leaders, fighting hand-to-hand against the last remnants of the invading army. She could even sense their victories, their losses, their bursts of pain and joy when wounded or striking down a foe.
She marveled at the feelings, because they were clear yet separated from her own. Even with an army fighting, she was not disabled by the feelings; she could sense it all, far more efficiently than she could see the tactical data with her eyes.
The Yuuzhan Vong were, as always, invisible to her senses; even her newfound clarity could not touch them. But she could sense their ferocity tangentially, by the exertions of the Zabrak defenders.
She could feel the starfighter squadrons launching now. Most of the launch tubes around Rak’Edalin had been cleared, and the fighter wings were gathering in force to engage the Yuuzhan Vong fleet which had finally broken its blockade formation. No one on the Cathleen seriously believed the Vong were doing anything but preparing to destroy Iridonia as they had Ithor, several years prior. Though analysis had shown their bio-weapon wouldn’t work due to Iridonia’s terrain and harsher ecologies, there was nothing to stop the Vong capital ships from descending and burning the planet with their plasma weapons.
She could sense the Rak’Edalin fight, and had no doubt the Zabraks would prevail—the Force whispered the truth in her ear—but the fleet battle with Rak’Edalin’s squadrons would no doubt determine Iridonia’s fate.
Kelta considered her options for a moment. Her oldest friends were fighting for their lives against the Yuuzhan Vong on the ground, and there was little she could do to affect the outcome of that battle. Similarly, the squadrons in the air were under the command of Kryi Rinnet and were already moving to intercept the Yuuzhan Vong before they could descend.
Where can I make a difference? she asked herself.
The answer was so simple she nearly laughed aloud, but that would have been a disservice to the Zabraks fighting and dying now on the ground and in the air.
She settled deeper into the flow of the Force, stretching out into it. She felt it all from every mind she could touch—the hope, the fear, the adrenaline, the pain, the loss. Into all that, she fed back what every warrior needed: confidence, speed, strength. The Force worked through her as well, offering coordination and cohesion even in the frantic, barely-organized brawl being fought in the rubble of the capital city.
This was battle meditation: the power of the Force offered to thousands of warriors who could not directly feel its flow, but were aided and boosted by it nonetheless.
The squadrons above formed up with a speed and precision usually impossible for such a diverse group of fighters, buying them precious minutes to prevent the Yuuzhan Vong from descending.
As the squadrons began to climb, at the edge of her perceptions, she felt something new: hundreds, then thousands of new minds.
Who are they? Kelta wondered. Is it…?
Then she felt one mind, familiar and powerful in the Force, and her heart leapt in joy.
The Dauntless’s bridge was a madhouse of alarms and shouts and orders. Ryian Coron stood like the calm center of a hurricane in the middle of it all, his hands held at the small of his back. He allowed no trace of fear or uncertainty to creep into his expression.
“Captain,” he heard the young woman say from behind him.
He turned and acknowledged her with a small nod.
“The Dauntless reverted as expected,” the red-headed girl said soberly. “We are in position between the Yuuzhan Vong and the planet.”
He eyed her. Among the uniformed, seasoned military crew on the bridge, the simple rough brown-and-white Jedi robes stood out. “Any problem?” he asked.
She shook her head. “The Force is with us,” she said with a smile.
The Dauntless shuddered as plasma balls and magma missiles—each large enough to entirely vaporize a starfighter—smashed into the shields. Ryian could sense as much as feel the tell-tale deck vibrations as the proton torpedo launcher clusters spewed waves of baradium warheads in return, could hear the faint thump-thump-thump of turbolaser fire.
“Give me visual on the ground situation in Rak’Edalin,” Ryian ordered to no one in particular.
A moment later, holograms materialized in the tactical well. Immediately Ryian thought the officer responsible had brought a holocam to bear on the wrong place, because there were no standing buildings. Then he spotted the wreckage of the Cathleen amidst the rubble, and his heart began to sink. “We were too late,” he murmured.
The Jedi girl frowned. “I don’t think so.” She closed her eyes. “I can sense life there, even in the rubble. Thousands—more.”
“Anyone familiar?” Ryian asked, trying to hide his discomfort.
“I can sense Aunt Kativie, my mother…the Wookiee Anishor…so many I don’t know.” Adreia Varo opened her eyes. “They’re fighting down there.”
“We’re fighting up here, too,” Ryian grunted. As if to punctuate his words, the Dauntless shuddered as a salvo of magma missiles penetrated the shields and impacted against the hull armor.
“They’ve launched fighters already to intercept the Yuuzhan Vong,” Adreia commented, pointed at the clusters of contacts ascending rapidly through the atmosphere.
Ryian turned and shouted to his fighter coordinator, “Are our squadrons launched?”
“Yes, sir,” the coordinator reported. “They’re being overwhelmed by the Vong coralskippers.”
“Not for long,” Ryian said grimly. “I’d say we have their attention, wouldn’t you?” he asked Adreia.
The Jedi nodded. “I would say that’s a fair assessment.”
Ryian turned to his comm officer. “Signal the Vysht’akhoi. A grand entrance would not go amiss.”
Kryi Rinnet bore a predator’s grin as she led the squadrons of Rak’Edalin in their full-throttle climb toward the enemy.
The entire war against the Yuuzhan Vong had put her on the sidelines. She had worked for the New Republic early on as a starfighter coordinator, serving with task forces from Ithor to Duro, until she had been asked to serve as a consultant for her old commanding officer Halyn Lance. When Argus Sanshir had died and Halyn had taken his place, she had been promoted to starfighter coordinator for the Iridonian fleet.
She didn’t mind the role—she was very good at it, and she had a far better grasp on the capabilities and tactics of her pilots and ships than most officers in the same role. Kryi had served without complaint, doing what needed to be done to save and preserve lives.
During the Civil War, however, she had been a pilot, not an officer, and she often missed it. During her prime, she had been very, very good—her simulation scores put her above Halyn himself, and her kill count on missions they had flown together was comparable. She understood now that while she might have been better, he had been more mature and capable of leading; if pilots had been under her command, they likely would’ve died in a blaze of glory.
Kryi was a mature officer now, but she had wanted from the beginning to match her skills against a Vong and his coralskipper. Today had finally given her the opportunity to slip out of the chains of the Cathleen command center and seat herself in a starfighter cockpit.
The X-wing reminded her greatly of the T-65 she had flown during much of the Civil War. When she’d slipped on the orange flightsuit and pulled the helmet over her head, she’d felt ten years younger; strapping into the cockpit made it twenty.
The astromech behind her warbled an alert. Kryi frowned. “Put it on my primary monitor,” she said.
The image of a SoroSuub star liner, a pleasure vessel repurposed for war, lit up her screen. Turbolasers and proton torpedoes flashed continually as coralskippers and larger coral craft assaulted it, its shields sparkling from hit after hit.
“That’s the Dauntless,” Kryi murmured. “What’s he doing here without the rest of our fleet?”
There wasn’t time to ponder the question, she knew, and the Dauntless’s presence might turn an impossible battle into a highly improbably one. There was no question what the Zabrak squadrons needed to do.
She flipped her comm to widecast to ensure all her pilots would hear her. “This is Rinnet. Lock s-foils in attack position. It looks like the Dauntless is drawing the brunt of the Vong attack since they put themselves into harm’s way, so let’s pull their asses out of the fire.”
She heard acknowledgements from wing and squadron leaders. A moment later, a private channel request lit up on her comm board. She sighed and punched it up.
“This is Li Coden,” the other pilot identified himself. “Any sign of the rest of the Zabrak fleet?”
“You’ve got as much information as I do,” Kryi replied shortly.
Abruptly, more contacts began to blizzard onto her display. “I’ll be damned,” she breathed. “It’s our fleet…and more!”
The Vysht’akhoi of Iridonia smiled tightly as the Maria dropped out of hyperspace. To port and starboard was Allanna’s Cyclone and Garm Bel Iblis’s Harbinger. The latter vessel dwarfed both the smaller vessels, and other warships were strung out around them in a cloud—the frigates and corvettes of the Zabrak fleet, interspersed with a pair of Victory II-class Star Destroyers and another MC80 Star Cruiser as old as the Maria.
I wish I could say this was how I left it, but it’s not, he told himself. The Yuuzhan Vong have made a mark here, but Iridonia is still fighting.
Images of Rak’Edalin flashed across his private screen mounted in the Maria’s command chair. They burned the city down. He frowned. That, or Halyn burned the city down. I never could leave him in charge of anything.
The fleet began to disperse, individual ships moving to their assigned formations and positions as they bled starfighters into space.
“Vysht’akhoi, the Yuuzhan Vong are trying to press to Iridonia,” his tactical advisor said. “Captain Coron’s Dauntless has been holding them, but there’s nothing to prevent them from bypassing his warship and entering atmosphere.”
“Then we had best give them no time to do so,” he said with a tight smile. “Hail Admiral Bel Iblis and inform him we’re pressing our attack.”
Even as Argus spoke, the Harbinger and the other heavy warships under the Corellian Admiral’s command surged forward. The lighter Zabrak vessels followed, falling into the shadow of the larger craft’s more powerful defenses.
The Yuuzhan Vong fleet seemed to hesitate, unsure of whether to turn and engage the larger New Republic/Zabrak combined fleet, or press the attack on Iridonia. The delay cost them; even as coral vessels began to bypass the battered Dauntless, the heavy turbolasers on the largest warships began to fire, quickly putting down several corvette analogs.
As the Vysht’akhoi watched, the Yuuzhan Vong fleet began to split; their lighter warships began to descend towards atmosphere, while the largest surviving craft threw themselves at the oncoming fleet.
They’re trying to delay us, the Vysht’akhoi realized. They know they can’t win, so they’re trying to hold our fleet long enough to inflict whatever damage they can on Iridonia.
Time to make them pay for that choice.
Kryi tagged warships frantically. “Arfive,” she said to her astromech, “designate each target I’m tagging to a unique wing. One per wing. Got it?”
The R5 beeped irritably.
“Yes, yes, I know you can follow orders,” she said with a touch of venom. “Just do it. And give me the widecast again.”
When the comm light flashed readiness, she cleared her throat. “All wings, this is Rinnet. You should be receiving your orders now. The Vong are trapped between the hammer of the fleet and the anvil of Iridonia. They’re throwing everything they can at Iridonia. They know they’ve lost, so they’re going to try and kill as many of our friends and brothers and sisters as they can.
“We’re not going to let them! Each wing has been assigned a target warship. Destroy it utterly! Let no Vong make it through our lines intact. We’ve already won this war—don’t allow them to inflict a single casualty more. All of those down on Iridonia’s surface, not just those in Rak’Edalin, are counting on us to finish this. Don’t give the Vong any taste of victory now!”
Entire wings of starfighters began to break out of the formation, preparing to assault their targets. Were the fighters all fresh and fully-armed, Kryi had no doubt they could tear apart the Vong warships with their light escorts of coralskippers. The long siege of Iridonia, however, had reduced fuel and munition supplies to nearly nothing. Without full loads of proton torpedoes, the wings would struggle to take down the powerful capital ships; it was baradium that leveled the playing field and allowed starfighters to punch out of their weight class.
We’re Iridonians. We’ll get it done.
Halyn stood with his back to his close friends. Anishor’s roar seemed to vibrate his very bones as the Wookiee cut down yet another Yuuzhan Vong with his shining rykk blades. Kativie was eerily silent as her lightsaber hummed ominously, striking down the invaders without seeming effort. Ceikeh grunted with effort as he blocked and parried and struck with his zhaboka, clearly exhausted but still keeping up.
And the Ul’akhoi himself felt the pain and weariness of months of warfare washing over him. Some part of him wanted to give up and let the Vong cut him down; he’d fought the good fight for so long that it seemed endless. But love kept him on his feet—love for his sister and her family, love for his friends and allies.
Love for a Jedi Knight aboard the Cathleen, and the prospect of actually spending the rest of his life with her—and a tinge of regret for having wasted so much time they could have been together.
He hadn’t expected the Vong’s treachery. He had fully expected the Vong to renew their attack even if he succeeded in killing Triak, but he had also expected he’d be allowed to return to his lines before they would begin aggressions anew.
He wielded the old sword with ferocity now, riding a new wave of energy. He fought and struck and killed as more Yuuzhan Vong attacked, seemingly as endless as an ocean. Okay, so this part wasn’t part of the plan.
Ryian Coron tried to smile and not cough as the smoke polluting the Dauntless’s bridge tried to choke him, but he only succeeded at the first. “Status?” he asked hoarsely.
“The Vong are starting to ignore us,” one of his officers called. “Their fleet’s either bypassing us to head to the surface, or turning away to engage our fleet.”
“We’ve taken a pounding,” an engineering officer reported. “Half our weaponry is shot, and our shields are gone. We’ve barely got enough power left in the engines to keep us in orbit.”
“What’s left on the guns?” Ryian asked.
“Half a dozen turbolasers and two proton torpedo clusters,” came the report.
“Concentrate everything we have on the ships descending toward Iridonia,” Ryian ordered. “And tell the Vysht’akhoi he owes me for repairs.” He looked over at Adreia, who seemed to be unaffected by the smoke. “Anything else I need to know?”
The Jedi looked thoughtful. “I’ve been studying the ground situation in Rak’Edalin. I believe Aunt Kativie is trapped behind the Yuuzhan Vong lines.”
“Not much we can do about that right now,” Ryian grunted. Then he paused to reconsider. “Actually, maybe there is.”
The Vysht’akhoi gripped the armrests of his command chair tightly as the Maria shuddered with hit after hit. The old Star Cruiser was tough, and her redundant systems kept her going even with the battle damage she was accumulating.
Even as he watched, coral warships broke apart under the combined fire of the heavy turbolasers of the Maria, the Harbinger, and the Cyclone. Kilometers away, he could distantly see the two Victory II-class Star Destroyers and the other Mon Cal cruiser pursuing and vaporizing a cluster of Vong vessels attempting to escape the trap.
“Keep up pursuit,” he ordered. “The Vong are already moving into atmosphere. If we have to, we’ll follow them all the way down.”
“Sir, the Maria can’t handle atmosphere,” the helm officer reminded him.
“Our turbolasers will reach, won’t they?” he snarled.
“Then keep it up!”
There was little he could do, though, besides watch as the smaller Yuuzhan Vong craft began to descend like meteorites to the planet below.
We won’t reach them in time to stop them, but we’ll make sure none escape, he told himself. We’ll extract Vong blood for the blood of every Zabrak dying down there right now.
Then, to his utter astonishment, the descending Vong craft began to break apart. First one, then a second, then two more almost simultaneously. “What’s going on with their descent group?” he barked.
There was a brief delay before one of the sensor officers reported, “There are squadrons rising from Iridonia. It appears they’re attacking the Yuuzhan Vong ships as they reach atmosphere.”
The Vysht’akhoi offered a predator’s grin. “Let’s finish this!”
Ahead, Kryi could see the battle-damaged Dauntless, its weapons still firing vaguely in her direction. It was an uneasy feeling. Can her turbolaser crews even see us at this range? she wondered uneasily.
Around her were the battle-weary craft of the fighter wing she had assigned herself to. She allowed herself a small smile. She had engaged and vaporized two coralskippers during the brief skirmish, proving she was still the fighter pilot she used to be. I’ve still got it, she told herself as she glanced over her shoulder. Her R5 astromech was missing its flowerpot dome, victim of a glancing hit from a magma missile. Oh well, I’m not jumping to hyperspace anytime soon, she justified as she checked her aft sensors.
Somehow, two Vong warships had slipped through the net of starfighters and the support fire from the Dauntless. Even now, they were descending toward Rak’Edalin. “Not going to let that happen,” she gritted as she slapped her button for widecast. “All free fighters, we have two Vong warships dropping down on the city. Let’s finish this.” She tugged her stick straight back, bringing the fighter around from a climb to a dive in two seconds.
She grimaced as her fighter picked up speed. We’ll never reach them in time to stop them. A red-white turbolaser blast flashed by her, so bright it nearly blinded her. “Will someone tell the Dauntless to quit firing?” she griped.
More turbolaser fire flashed past, so close the superheated air rocked her X-wing. She continued her power dive recklessly, even as the turbolasers were followed by a salvo of proton torpedoes. “Dammit,” she muttered. “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”
Far below her, she could see the Dauntless’s fire narrowly miss the descending coral warships and impact in Rak’Edalin, sending up plumes of ash and smoke.
“As if Halyn didn’t do a good enough job himself,” she muttered. She flipped her comm back on. “Someone get us a lock on the trailing warship and broadcast it,” she ordered to the now-descending starfighters. “As soon as we’ve got tone, everyone with ordinance left is free to fire.” She glanced back at her vaporized astromech, the reason she couldn’t provide the necessary targeting data herself. “Thanks for nothing.”
Her targeting reticule lit up with a positive lock, but Kryi had no missiles left to fire. Around her a handful of proton torpedoes and concussion missiles ripped through the skies, lancing down at the Vong warships only to be intercepted by defensive voids. If only we had more firepower! Kryi griped.
As if bidden by her thought, turbolaser fire lanced up from the wrecked Cathleen and burned into the unprotected bellies of both Vong warships. The coral craft came to pieces even as late-fired missiles flashed in and impacted against now-unprotected hulls.
“Goodbye,” Kryi crowed. “And thanks for stopping by!”
Kativie parried another blow, then the arm that wielded the staff, sending a Vong warrior falling away while clutching his stricken limb. Her danger sense tingled, a silent warning from the Force, and she brought her lightsaber up defensively.
No blow came.
The Vong attack was slowing at last, and she suspected a relief fleet had finally arrived. She could distantly sense another Jedi—Kelta’s daughter Adreia. A single starfighter was streaking through the air over the battlefield, followed by turbolaser blasts which, judging by angle, could only be fired from orbit. While she did not know him well, she could sense the pilot was Li Coden. She puzzled over that for a second before looking up.
Chunks of coral, roughly the size of starfighters, were dropping toward the small group like guided missiles.
“Oh, crap,” was all she could manage before she reached inside for every bit of strength the Force could give her.
It wasn’t enough, she knew. The fall from the New Horizon Designs tower had required every bit of strength she could muster, and that had just been herself. Now she was trying to protect three other lives after fighting against waves of Yuuzhan Vong warriors.
She felt as though she were stretching herself as she demanded more of the Force. She projected it all above her, as though forming an invisible dome of protection, a projection of raw telekinetic power. Distantly, she could feel both Kelta and Adreia reaching out to her, offering her threads of their own strength. She grasped it, wove it with her own, but it still wasn’t enough.
The first chunk of coral impacted a hundred meters away; the shockwave nearly threw her from her feet. She felt Halyn and Ceikeh both fall, and Anishor’s alarm as he was rudely informed of the danger. It’s not enough, she heard her own thought distantly, as though it were someone else’s. You don’t have enough strength.
Then the Wookiee berserker added his strength to hers.
He was not a Jedi Knight; by comparison, his powers were limited, half-trained. He could not levitate an object nor sense the future, and he could not distantly sense the thoughts of others. He could not project illusions or directly affect the mind.
But his connection to the Force was, like many things related to Wookiees, primeval and untrained—and powerful. It was the raw power of the Force, unshaped by the tight discipline of a Jedi Knight or even a Sith Lord.
She was tired—oh so tired—and the burst of power she felt was like grabbing a live wire and holding on.
Coral was smashing into the rubble all around them, but Kativie stood and held her hands aloft, and let the Force flow through her. I have not fought the war this long nor gone through so much to die now, at the end, and leave my children without their mother.