This was the conclusion of the siege of Iridonia; it was not the climax, which had arguably been the Cathleen’s razing of Rak’Edalin and the utter devastation of the Yuuzhan Vong army. The damaged, badly undercrewed Yuuzhan Vong fleet was savaged by the combined New Republic-Zabrak fleet, commanded by the legendary Garm Bel Iblis; the remains of their ground army were wiped out mercilessly by Zabrak warriors who had lost everything in the months-long war.
The vengeful Zabraks did not offer their foes an opportunity to surrender; the disgraced Yuuzhan Vong, believing themselves Shamed, fought to the death to the last warrior, unwilling to live with their failure. The final battle was fought with savagery and cold-bloodedness. Zabrak and Yuuzhan Vong fell, but as the dust began to settle, it rapidly became clear that only one side had survived.
With the allied fleet in a defensive orbit, and the remains of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet no more dangerous than any other orbiting asteroids, a single battered old YT-1300 descended from orbit. Its owner would have rejected the vessel’s description as “battered”—it had been his home for years during the Civil War, before he had become captain of a proper warship for the Rebel Alliance and later New Republic.
Ryian Coron looked out of the cockpit of the Spinning Cloud as the vessel dropped toward the Iridonian capital, Rak’Edalin. He had seen holo footage aboard the Dauntless, of course, but it hadn’t really prepared him for the sights he now saw with his own eyes out the freighter’s cockpit.
His passenger grunted from the copilot seat, but said nothing.
Ryian ignored him, as he had since he began the flight down from the fleet.
Clouds of smoke and dust from the downed Yuuzhan Vong warships reduced Ryian’s view to glimpses, but they were ugly scenes that grew nightmarish as he neared. Fires did not burn so much as smolder, smoke billowing skyward. As the Spinning Cloud dropped to below a hundred meters in altitude, he realized why there was a lack of open flame.
There was nothing left to burn.
When the Dauntless had first arrived at Iridonia and volunteered to join the defensive fleet, Rak’Edalin had been a bustling city—quiet by the standards of Coruscant or Corellia, but as busy a starport as could be found on any Zabrak-colonized world. Now there was virtually nothing left. Small buildings had literally been razed to their foundations; larger structures had been toppled and left a more significant footprint, but the subsequent fires had left little behind but twisted durasteel.
At less than fifty meters, he finally dropped below the most persistent haze. With a start, he realized what most of the smoldering fires were fueled by.
Ryian shuddered at the thought. This war is hell. It wasn’t this bad when we were fighting the Empire, was it? I mean, a lot of people died fighting that, but it wasn’t like this. His memory replayed the horrors of Alderaan, of Toprawa, of Restuss. Okay, it was that bad then, too. Ryian swallowed hard. Sandarie had better be alive down there.
He guided the freighter toward a slow descent to the location an exhausted Kelta, aboard the wrecked Cathleen, had relayed to him. This was where Halyn last was, along with Anishor. No one knows if they’re still alive.
The freighter had not yet settled onto its struts when an imposing figure appeared through the haze, his hand raised in greeting. Ryian slapped the boarding lamp’s release as he frowned at the figure. It took him a moment to recognize the newcomer as Anishor. So that’s how he would look with black fur, Ryian observed distantly as he watched the soot-streaked Wookiee approach.
Ryian’s passenger was already walking down the Spinning Cloud’s ramp by the time Ryian rose from the pilot’s chair. He glanced over the controls one last time to ensure the freighter’s engines were in standby but ready to go within a few seconds before he turned and headed aft to descend himself.
His hand trailed along the wall as he walked back to the ramp. Halyn really is crazy. I must be crazy, too, considering I keep coming back whenever he asks me. I should have retired years ago on Corellia with Sandi. I shouldn’t still be out here fighting against whatever new enemies pop up. Let the young pick up this battle; we’ve already done our share.
Ryian descended the Spinning Cloud’s boarding ramp just in time for Anishor to ambush him, lifting him up in a giant Wookiee hug, squeezing him hard enough to restrict his breathing. “Hey,” he managed to grunt out.
<Ryian!> Anishor bellowed, loud enough to deafen him at such close proximity.
“I still need to breathe,” Ryian gasped.
<Silly furless,> Anishor chuckled as he released the Corellian.
“Where’s Sandi?” he asked.
The Wookiee uncharacteristically froze. <I think you’d better ask Halyn about that,> he said reluctantly.
Ryian’s heart stopped in his chest. No. No, this can’t have cost me Sandi. She’s not a fighter. She wouldn’t be on the front lines. “She’s not dead,” Ryian said flatly.
His heart started to beat again when Anishor shook his head and answered, <No, she hasn’t been killed. But you’ll need to talk to Halyn.>
Ryian looked past the Wookiee in time to see three more figures approaching through the haze, Zabraks all: two males and a female.
The passenger Ryian had brought down from orbit marched out to meet them.
Kativie felt utterly drained as she limped through the debris between Halyn and Ceikeh. Even with the power Anishor had lent her, keeping the four of them alive when the coral vessels had come to pieces overhead had taken every bit of strength she could muster. I don’t know if I could use the Force right now if all our lives depended on it, she thought tiredly. I never, ever want to do that again. She allowed herself a tiny smile. Though with what I felt during all that, I’m pretty sure we won. Our fleet returned and eliminated the Vong, I think, and there’s no more tension from our army, so they must have wiped out whatever is left.
She looked from left to right. Senator Ceikeh Alari seemed to have more spring to his step than she felt; he was clearly exhausted from the battle, but buoyed by survival and, as insane as it sounded, victory. We won, Kativie told herself giddily. We won, we won, we won. The costs of the victory weighed heavily on her, though she tried not to consider them—the price paid by Iridonia and by herself, personally, were high—too high. We won, but at what cost?
Halyn looked even more exhausted than she felt. If she would have had the strength to spare, she would have looped his arm over her shoulders, but she knew doing so would topple them both to the ground. Whatever this took out of me, it’s been worse for him. He’s been fighting all this time and has worn himself out. I just hope he can recover with enough time.
Distantly she heard the whine of repulsorlifts and looked up; barely visible through the haze was the shape of an old YT-1300 freighter descending to land not too far away. Ahead of them, staying on point in case of any Yuuzhan Vong ambushes, she could barely see Anishor as he altered course to intercept the descending ship.
Well, at least we won’t have to walk back to the Cathleen, Kativie managed to think. Unless the Vong started using YT-1300s. She giggled at the thought. Yes, we killed so many of their living ships they have to use abominations. The fact that she was finding amusement in the situation meant, to the rational part of her mind, that she needed something to eat and about sixteen hours of sleep.
“So,” Ceikeh said aloud, very slowly, “we finally won.”
“Yeah,” Halyn said hoarsely. “Something like that. If this is victory.”
“We’re still alive,” Ceikeh reminded him. “So is all of Iridonia, aside from those who fell here at Rak’Edalin.”
Halyn spat before he spoke again. “It cost us a lot. Half the people I asked to come here and fight either died or were badly wounded. We lost a large part of our fleet, and thousands of Zabraks died fighting the Vong. We won, but if the Vong would strike again now, nothing would stop them from overrunning Iridonia.”
Kativie spoke up, “You sound like you don’t think the Vong will attack us again.”
The Ul’akhoi shook his head. “We fought a months-long war against the Vong here. From the moment their forces landed on Iridonia, they never received reinforcements from the outside. The Vong never sent more ships, never sent more supplies, never sent anything. I’d guess there’s some politics at work that we’ll never know about, but I’d bet the Vong won’t attack here again anytime soon.”
“If they really wanted to take the planet, they would’ve sent more forces while they had a foothold,” Ceikeh concluded.
“Exactly.” Halyn nodded. “Besides, I’m going to choose to believe that because there’s no way we can win another war against them right now.”
The dust and smoke billowed back toward them, prompting Kativie to raise her arm to cover her eyes. When she lowered her arm again, she could see the outline of the YT-1300 as it dropped onto its landing struts.
“Nice ride,” Ceikeh commented.
“Corellian garbage,” Halyn mumbled. “Survive the war only to step into a deathtrap and get killed flying home. They should’ve sent one of our Muurians to pick us up.”
“Quit complaining or we’ll make you walk,” Kativie giggled.
“I’d definitely be safer,” the Ul’akhoi grumbled.
A Zabrak figure cut through the haze, heading straight toward them. “Our pilot,” Kativie said. “Odd that he left his ship.”
A gust of wind cleared the air between them, and Kativie stumbled as she recognized the figure. She fell to her hands and knees, felt Halyn stop without needing to look.
It can’t be. Not even by the Force. It can’t be.
Impossibly, it was.
Argus Sanshir, the eldest of the three Sanshir siblings, walked toward them through the haze, alive and in the flesh.
Halyn stared in utter shock and disbelief as his elder brother walked toward him. It can’t be. Even the Jedi can’t conjure the dead back to life. Kelta bringing me back is as close as they come.
“You never could stand being second-best, could you?” Argus called as he approached.
“Huh?” Halyn said brilliantly.
“The Council made me Vysht’akhoi, but you had to go make yourself Ul’akhoi.”
Halyn laughed at the joke. “You didn’t push yourself to succeed. You, too, could have been dictator.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Besides, I’m retired.”
“Retired?” Argus asked, close enough now that Halyn could see his dark-skinned brother.
“Yeah. I was Ul’akhoi until the Vong were removed from Iridonia.” He looked around theatrically. “Seen any Vong lately?”
It was Argus’s turn to laugh. “No, I can’t say I have.”
Kativie finally found her voice. “What are you doing here? Where have you been?”
Argus’s mirth faded away to nothingness. “The attack on Reecee reduced the Maria to a shell with a tenth of her crew surviving. After the Errant Venture escaped, we managed to get the hyperdrive online and risked a jump with no backup. We spent weeks in the void, lightyears from any star system, while we got the Maria back in condition to make a sustained hyperspace jump. We limped her to Tallaan and persuaded Garm Bel Iblis—freshly arrived after the fall of Coruscant—to patch us up and get us spaceworthy. He even lended us enough crew to make the Maria battleworthy so we could risk voyaging to Iridonia.”
“Why didn’t you get us word?” Kativie asked. “We thought you were dead.”
“I tried. The HoloNet hasn’t exactly been reliable on the other side of the Core, and by the time Allanna arrived with the fleet I had given up on it,” Argus explained. “With the Zabrak fleet at my back and with a recent report of the situation on Iridonia, I was able to persuade Bel Iblis to lend us some heavy firepower to come back and break the blockade.”
“We thought you were dead,” Kativie repeated.
Argus shrugged. “When Allanna laid out the situation here, I thought you all might be dead by the time we got back. Instead, I find that my little brother threw a party that trashed the entire city—that’s way worse than what happened to the house when we were kids,” he finished jokingly.
Halyn shook his head. “Glad you’re back. Now you can take over and I can go back to irresponsibility.”
The eldest Sanshir frowned and peered closer at Halyn. “I’m a bit surprised to find you’re still alive.”
“Neat Jedi trick,” Halyn said dryly. “Kelta figured out a way to heal me.”
Before Halyn could reply, Kativie leapt from the ground up at Argus, half-tackling him. She wrapped her arms tightly around him. “I’m glad you’re alive,” she whispered, loud enough for Halyn to hear. “Welcome home, big brother.”
Argus embraced her tightly for a few moments, finally releasing her only reluctantly. “I’m glad you’re still alive, too,” he said.
Halyn waited until the moment had passed and both were firmly on their feet before answering. “Yes, Kelta is here.”
“So are you going to run off again?” Argus asked, his voice hinting at just a bit of irritation.
“I won’t be running anywhere for a long time,” Halyn said dryly. “C’mon. I don’t want to stand around here all day.”
The other Zabraks fell in around Halyn as he limped toward the YT-1300. Maybe, Halyn concluded to himself, we haven’t lost everything in this war. We’re still a family.
When Halyn walked onto the bridge of the Cathleen, he was not expecting anything.
Instead of a place of war and officers conducting a battle with careful, ugly precision, he found a room of celebration.
Normally reserved military officers were exchanging drinks—many of them Kashyyykian in origin, their alcohol a popular import to the Zabrak homeworld. Uniforms were loosened and lacked precision; chatter was loud and unstructured. Formality was rumor among the buzz, and the air was filled with a sense of celebration.
Kryi Rinnet was the first to spot Halyn, backed by Kativie, Argus, and Ceikeh. “Ul’akhoi on deck!” she hollered at the top of her lungs, fighting to make herself heard over the din.
Officers snapped to attention in spite of their disheveled appearances; drinks were slapped down on nearby flat surfaces. Within three seconds, the bridge was utterly silent, with every Zabrak present standing at attention.
Halyn hid his smile as he limped forward. “Thank you, Coordinator Rinnet,” he said quietly as he limped forward. “And thank you all.” He finally allowed his mask to slip. “As you were.”
Raucous cheers broke out, deafening in the cramped starship’s bridge. Halyn bore it all as he walked forward to the command chair in the center of the bridge, the only place where someone was still sitting.
Kelta Rose, Jedi Knight, rotated in the chair to face him. Her violet eyes burned with life and power and vitality, though her body seemed to droop with exhaustion. “General,” she said cheerfully.
“I’m not a general anymore,” Halyn said dryly.
“Vong are gone. I’m not Ul’akhoi any more,” the Zabrak smirked.
“You’re still the General,” Kelta said with a warm smile. “You always will be, to everyone who fought with you during the Civil War.”
Halyn pulled his battered duster back far enough to unhook Kelta’s lightsaber from his belt. He offered it to her pommel-first. “Figured you’d want this back.”
Kelta accepted the blade gracefully. “Did you find it useful?”
“I’ll tell you the whole story some time, but yes, I did.”
Kelta smiled as she leaned back in the command chair and closed her eyes. “Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Her smile turned to a frown. “Is that…Argus?”
“Yeah. Turns out he wasn’t quite as dead as we thought.”
“You love being mysterious, don’t you?”
“It’s the whole officer thing,” Halyn explained with a straight face. “You learn to keep information from your officers…and enjoy doing it.”
Kelta opened her eyes. “Is that what I am? One of your officers?”
“No, you Jedi types don’t follow orders well enough to be in a military.” Halyn leaned in then and kissed her, just lightly brushing her lips. “Which is good for us, because then we’d be breaking all sorts of conduct rules.”
“Can’t have that,” Kelta grinned and returned the kiss. When she pulled back for air, her eyes seemed to take in his entire face. “You took a nasty hit from some Vong, didn’t you?”
Halyn couldn’t manage to hide his blush. “Um, actually, no.”
Kelta frowned. “No? That looks like a pretty bad hit.”
“No, it wasn’t a Vong.” Halyn turned a bit pink in spite of himself. “Ryian wasn’t very happy when he found out I had Sandi frozen in carbonite. I don’t think explaining that she had been poisoned by an amphistaff and we couldn’t save her ourselves helped me any, either.”
Kelta chuckled and shook her head. “No, I can’t imagine it did. You always did have a way with your officers. You’re lucky he didn’t shoot you.”
“Something like that,” Halyn said dryly.
“So now what?” Kelta asked.
The Zabrak hesitated. “I’m not sure. I mean, I’m no longer Ul’akhoi—the Vong are wiped out. The proper Vysht’akhoi has returned, so he can take over the military side. The Council, or whatever’s left of it, will take up the reins of power now that the siege is over. I’m pretty much free of my responsibilities.” He hesitated even longer before adding, “Well, once we’ve confirmed the Vong are wiped out and I’ve transited all the responsibilities over to Argus, anyway.”
“I’m sure Argus will want you to stay here and help rebuild.”
Halyn smiled a bit. “I doubt it. Besides, I do have something else to do.”
Kelta frowned. “Oh?”
“Yeah.” Halyn fumbled in his pocket for a moment before withdrawing his hand. “Kelta Rose, I screwed this up once, and I don’t want to do it again.” He offered her his palm, a ring shining silver in the dim bridge lighting. “Will you marry me?”