The incessant ding of a transmission alert cut through the haze of sleep, in spite of Kativie Lusp’s best efforts to dismiss it. Half-blind, the small Zabrak woman rolled out of her bunk and crashed to the floor before finally shaking herself off and rising to her feet. She heard some of the other crew of the Skipray blastboat start to awaken and finally reached the comm unit, slapping off the alert. The green-eyed woman pondered what she probably looked like with her hair in a mess, tangled around her horns, for just a moment before connecting the transmission.
The blue-tinted holo that swam into appearance was neither her husband and children, nor any of the Jedi Knights.
It was Halyn Sanshir, her brother.
“Confirm security of this transmission, Katie,” Halyn said immediately.
The instruction was enough to shake the last vestiges of sleep away. She glanced over at the status lights on the comm board. “Transmission secure, encryption Aleph-Aleph-Seven-Echo-Four.”
“Confirmed.” Halyn said. “ What’s your status?”
“En route to Shelter with a crew,” she replied. “Survivors from Coruscant until we can regroup.” She squinted her eyes, trying to read her brother’s expression in the fuzzy quarter-sized hologram. “Is something wrong?”
“We are Case Black,” the other replied, his face a mask.
Kativie’s heart caught in her throat. The Yuuzhan Vong have attacked Iridonia. They’re under siege. I have to get back there now. Where are the children? Where’s my husband? “Status?” she asked, barely keeping her voice under control.
“We’ve deflected the first attack, with help from the furballs,” Halyn replied.
Wookiees, Kativie translated to herself.
“I’ve issued the recall order,” her brother continued. “We’ve been receiving confirmations from Fleet and Army units, and we’ll have a sizable force here soon. I need you to execute Operation Orange.” Halyn glanced away from the holocam for a moment. “I’m sending you all the information I have for your use, including the current tactical and strategic situation, and the information you’ll need for Orange.”
Kativie nodded grimly, half-watching the incoming data flow across a secondary flat display.
“How long until you can be here?” Halyn asked.
“I’ll need to drop this crew off at Shelter, which we’re four hours out from,” she replied. “Sixteen hours from Shelter to Iridonia with the back routes. Add in time I’ll need to refuel this blastboat, and it’ll be about a day.”
“Sooner if possible,” Halyn said shortly. “We need you here as quick as we can. It’ll do everyone here good if they see a Jedi on the front lines fighting with us here.”
Kativie couldn’t help but smile at that, stretching her arms. The Force carried the hilt of her lightsaber from its resting place under her bunk to her outstretched hand. Its weight arrived with a reassuring thump, and she brought it around to be visible in front of the holocam. “As soon as I can,” she promised. She hesitated for a long moment. “The kids and…”
Halyn nodded slightly as her words trailed off. “They’ll be safe enough until you arrive. I don’t think the Vong will make a push again before you’re here—we bloodied their noses, and Anishor thinks we nailed their commander. They’re not overly aggressive yet, but they will be soon enough.”
“Is the New Republic sending forces?”
“Doubful,” Halyn said. “After the disaster at Coruscant, they’re scattered…”
“Coruscant?!” Kativie exclaimed. “You mean the Vong…?”
“You didn’t know?”
The Zabrak woman shut her eyes tightly for a moment. “I was retrieving a couple of Jedi who were under threat from the voxyn,” she said slowly. “I’ve been out of touch for nearly two weeks. I didn’t know.” She hesitated. “How bad?”
“The Vong killed a couple million refugees doing it,” Halyn said grimly. “Half the New Republic fleet was there, and they couldn’t hold the Vong off. The Jedi had a full wing of starfighters there and managed to kill several yammosks, but it didn’t make much of a difference. The Zabrak Defense Force fought with Wedge Antilles in Fleet Group Three, but we were largely a harassing action the entire time and lost none of our capital ships. The starfighter groups that deployed with us took a beating, but they’ve been rotated out for fresh squadrons.”
Coruscant…they took Coruscant. The idea just couldn’t quite seem to coalesce into reality in Kativie’s mind. How could they have possibly taken Coruscant? What will the New Republic do now? What about the Jedi?
“The Vong struck here less than sixty hours after taking the capital,” Halyn continued. “I think they were expecting to get a cheap shot in and take our systems without much of a fight. The ambushes we’ve discussed previously worked perfectly, but they won’t work a second time.”
Kativie nodded. “Any friends showing up?”
“A few already,” her brother replied. “More on the way, I think. Especially now that the recall is out.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I wonder if I can legally recall you from service to the Jedi Order. Do the treaties between Iridonia and Coruscant include the Jedi?”
Kativie snorted. “Like it really matters. You know I’m coming regardless, even if Master Skywalker himself told me not to come.”
“Oh, I know. Just wondering.” Halyn shook his head. “I’ll be meeting with the Council soon,” he said with just a bit of tension in his voice. “I may have overstepped a bit already.”
“Wait…” Kativie said as she put the pieces together. “You issued the recall before you talked to the Council?”
Halyn shrugged. “Only doing what I needed to do, little sister,” he said in reply. “Easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“And what will we do if they pull you out of the Commander-in-Chief spot?” Kat retorted. “That was a big risk, and you’re gambling all of Zabrak space on it.”
“It’d be as big a gamble to wait until the Council can get their asses together,” Halyn spat back. “Without those forces, we won’t turn aside another Yuuzhan Vong attack.”
Kat’s guts twisted. “You think you can—“
“No,” Halyn said immediately. “But some things have to be said for appearances. If I get into sloppy habits talking to you, it’ll come out at the wrong time.” He glanced aside from the holocam, then back. “I’ll see you in twenty-four hours. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t be,” Kativie promised. The transmission faded and died, and she slumped back in her chair. So much for sleep, she thought glumly.
“You wanted to see me, Master Skywalker?” Kelta Rose asked hesitantly from the door. She was cleanly-showered after her dip in the bacta tank, though she still couldn’t get the sour taste out of her mouth.
Luke Skywalker turned his head as the group he was sitting with scattered. Another meeting, Kelta had already decided. He’s probably grateful.
The blonde Jedi Master smiled at her, though weariness was in his eyes. “Yes, Kelta. Please, come sit down.”
The red-haired Jedi seated herself across the table from Skywalker. “What is it?”
Luke studied her for a moment. “What do you know about the political situation in Zabrak space?” he asked.
Kelta hesitated before answering. “Not as much as I should, I expect. I know Zabrak space has been Jedi-friendly, but not much beyond that.”
“I thought you’d know more,” the Jedi Master said offhandedly, “given your connections to some of the clans on Iridonia.”
Kelta’s poker face held. I’ll never let anything happen to my daughter…even if I have to fight you, Master Skywalker.
“When the Yuuzhan Vong declared war on the Jedi at Duro,” Luke continued, “it divided a number of worlds into pro-Jedi and anti-Jedi camps. The Zabrak worlds, as a whole, came down on the side of the Jedi and have been firm supporters. In fact, one of Iridonia’s shipping companies has been crucial in setting up elements of the Great River. Of course, it helps that the Shooting Star Shipping Company is owned by the husband of a Jedi, Kativie Lusp.
“Further, up until the battle of Reecee, Iridonia’s military was headed by a firmly pro-Jedi Zabrak, Argus Sanshir, who made a name for himself during the Galactic Civil War by heading up one of the largest and most successful underground resistance cells. When a Rebel Alliance starfighter wing broke the blockade around Iridonia, Argus’s people were on-hand to take advantage of it.”
Kelta nodded. “So how do I factor into this?”
“Aside from the fact that your daughter was inducted into the Sanshir clan?” Luke’s smile held no threat. “The problem is that Argus disappeared during the battle at Reecee—he was commanding elements of Zabrak space’s defenses there as part of the New Republic task force.”
It was all Kelta could do to keep from staring. She locked down on her emotions hard, but she had no doubt the Jedi Master could sense her turmoil. Argus…oh Argus. When Kativie finds out, it will rip her hearts apart.
“And with his disappearance, his younger brother stepped out of nowhere and has assumed the reins of power. His name is Halyn Sanshir,” Luke continued, his blue eyes studying her. “And we have no idea if his stance is pro or anti-Jedi. He led a Zabrak task force as part of Wedge Antilles’s Fleet Group Three during the battle of Coruscant, but he returned to Iridonia with his fleet instead of joining us in taking Borleias. And in the last twenty-four hours, every Zabrak fighter squadron in the New Republic Defense Force has disappeared.”
The last statement brought surprise bubbling to the surface. “I’m not sure I understand,” Kelta said. Her mind raced as her mouth had replied automatically. Halyn…is alive? After all this time, he’s still alive?
“When the Zabrak nation joined the New Republic, it contributed all-Zabrak fighter squadrons to the Fleet. Nearly a full percent of our starfighter forces are comprised of Zabrak pilots and crew. Those forces are rotated regularly with the Zabrak home defense forces, meaning they all take their turn serving. But now, as near as Wedge and I can determine, they’re all gone.”
Kelta frowned. “How many squadrons are we talking about?”
“The fleet here had a larger percentage of Zabrak squadrons than most—two units off the Mon Mothma, and another from the Elegos A’Kla.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
Luke’s blue eyes were unreadable. “I want you to go to Iridonia, find out if this Halyn Sanshir is for or against the Jedi, and find out why the Zabrak recalled their fighter squadrons from the Fleet. If Iridonia has chosen to sign a pact with the Yuuzhan Vong, we need to know as soon as possible.”
Kelta shook her head. “Why not send Kativie?” Please, not me. I can’t deal with him again. I can’t. Kativie is the one to send—he’s her damned brother. This should be her mission, not mine. She can deal with him. She knows everything about Iridonia that I don’t.
“She disappeared the same time the fighter squadrons did,” Luke replied calmly. “That leaves you, with a connection to the Sanshir clan, as the best possible choice.”
The woman hesitated, and Luke spoke more softly. “Kelta, you’ve been with the Jedi for a long time now. You have secrets that you don’t share, and I understand that. But…” the Jedi Master uncharacteristically hesitated. “Something limits you. Your potential lies untapped because something in your past still shackles you. And the Force has indicated that you are the one who needs to do this. I believe this, Kelta Rose, is what is needed not just for the Jedi or for the New Republic, but for you personally. I have no evidence…only what the Force has led me to believe.”
Kelta stared at the Jedi Master. How does he know? Am I really that transparent? Am I weak in the Force?
“Whatever happens on Iridonia,” Luke said quietly, “is your trial to face. The Force hides your fate from me—I don’t know if you’ll become a Master, or fall to the dark side, or die there. But it is the path you need to walk.”
“There’s no one else to send?” Kelta whispered.
“You need to do this,” Luke replied.
The woman closed her eyes. May the Force be with me. Oh, fierfek, I don’t want to do this. Me, a Master? Will I fall? Will I die? I can’t leave my daughter alone in the universe. “Will you have a transport for me?’
“The ground crews prepped a Series-4 E-wing for your use,” Luke replied, his tone more normal now. “It should take you to Iridonia and back easily, and should provide you the firepower you need should you stumble across something unexpected.”
Kelta nodded oh-so-slowly. “I understand, Master Skywalker, and I accept the assignment.”
“May the Force be with you, Kelta Rose.”
“And with you, Master Skywalker.”
The death of Commander Bykkora Kraal left Domain Kraal in disarray.
Three Yuuzhan Vong warriors had stepped up to exert supremacy. Now, the Yuuzhan Vong tactician Ret Kraal watched with disinterest as those three fought to take command of a losing battle. A crowd had gathered around the fighting circle to watch, but Ret did not believe the outcome would truly matter.
If Commander Bykkora Kraal had listened to my advice, Domain Kraal would now be in orbit over this accursed world, preparing to take it as our own. Instead, three fools battle to the death to see who will be the next to fail. Ret frowned as the three warriors exchanged rapid-fire blows from amphistaffs, each taking opportunity of another’s strikes to try to slip a decisive strike into another’s defenses. They fight each other, when their focus should be on the destruction of the infidels.
He frowned as the largest of the three was thrown off-balance by a strike to the ankle. The big warrior suffered more blows as his defenses slipped. He stumbled, but it bought him the half-breath of space he needed to lash out at his enemies. Perhaps we are the larger warrior, Ret mused. These infidels, these Zabraks, have less resources. They are not as mighty a race. Their forces are inferior to our own, but they strike precisely and off-balanced our forces. Their follow-up strike was aimed true, and it removed our head and best chance.
The big warrior lunged and his amphistaff curled around the ankle of one of his opponents. He heaved back, and the Yuuzhan Vong warrior was jerked from his feet. The third warrior, instead of striking his fallen opponent, lunged in return at the big warrior, his amphistaff straight as a spear. The blow glanced off the big warrior’s armor, but it was enough to give the downed warrior a chance to survive. These Zabraks fight with ferocity and skill, and their strategies appear more subtle than first meets the eye. Bykkora Kraal believed the infidel ambush was easily-beaten and wasn’t ready when the true strike arrived. The readers must be wrong; the Zabrak commander is not a fool, nor is he inexperienced in warfare. There is no doubt of that.
The fallen warrior did not rise to his feet—instead, he in turn lashed out with his amphistaff, the weapon becoming soft and whiplike as its serpentine head flashed at the smaller of his opponents. Its fangs found flesh, and though in an instant the victim had kicked it away, it was too late. The infidel forces arrayed against us are smaller but potent. It would be wise for us to poison them, weaken them before they can do us true harm.
The poisoned warrior staggered back from the fighting; even if he won, he had already lost. Still, he rotated his amphistaff overhead with a war cry and charged forward.
The big warrior ignored him as he recovered his own amphistaff, then sliced it down at the warrior on the floor with an overhead chop. The downed warrior, instead of avoiding it, took the blow on his vonduun crab armor unflinchingly, then seized the big warrior’s staff just below its hissing head and pulled hard.
The big warrior released the weapon rather than be thrown off-guard again. Before he act further, the poisoned warrior was all over him, raining blows down with his amphistaff. To Ret’s eye, the blows were already slowing, the strikes no longer as strong or sure. The venom works quickly. And now…
The warrior still didn’t rise from the ground. In an instant the amphistaff he’d pulled from the largest warrior hardened into a spear at an unspoken command, and he hurled it the big warrior’s armpit. The vonduun crab was pierced and the big warrior shrieked once, but he could do nothing but battle the poisoned warrior as he bled out.
The warrior who’d fallen rolled back from the fighting and climbed to his feet, his amphistaff curling around his forearm and a triumphant smile on his face. Ret paused. He allows his enemies to battle each other, dooming both. He, perhaps, has potential. Perhaps Domain Kraal is not yet Shamed.
The warrior watched as both his opponents slowly sank to their knees, still fighting with their dying breaths. He turned away before they could gasp their last. “I am the warrior Triak of Domain Kraal!” he intoned. “I will led us to victory over these infidels, by the will of the gods!”
Some of the members of the surrounding crowed cheered for the victorious warrior. Ret was surprised, however, when Triak turned and looked directly to him. “Tactician Ret of Domain Kraal, the gods have need of your services. It is time to crush these infidels and redeem our domain. We are warriors, and we will not stand by to be Shamed!”
Ret bowed his head in response. “I live to serve the gods,” he rasped. “And by their will, we shall be victorious…or die in glorious battle.”
“Indeed,” Triak said gravely. “Domain Kraal did not cross the starless voids to die shamed, as Vong, orphaned children of the gods! We are Yuuzhan Vong, the chosen people. The gods have not abandoned us here—they are testing our mettle, our skill, our devotion.
“Bring forth the priests!” he called. “Let us sacrifice to the gods, that they give us victory!”
As the crowd began to disperse, Triak stepped within earshot of Ret. “Bykkora Kraal,” he said so low that Ret strained to hear, “was a fool who believed in her own destiny, blinded by faith. The gods demand the best of us—our greatest skill and greatest strength. I need a second, one who is wiser than myself…one who can tell me what the seers miss. Is that you, Ret of Domain Kraal?”
Ret surpressed a smile. I may yet command Domain Kraal. The strength of a warrior is not the strength of a tactician, and in Triak’s fall may be my own ascension. “I live to serve,” he repeated. “I will be your second, and for the glory of the gods we will crush these infidels and redeem the name of Domain Kraal!”
The bridge of the Cathleen, flagship of Iridonia, was a continual hive of activity. To Halyn’s mild amusement, or occasional irritation, he found he was able to filter out almost all of it. In spite of the crewmen running to and fro, the constant updates from Kryi Rinnet, the starfighter coordinator, the incoming transmissions from other ships of the fleet, very little could penetrate the calm that seemed to surround him.
The tactical display, as always, showed the Yuuzhan Vong fleet at the edge of the system. Reinforcements had trickled in to their formation in the past forty-eight hours, but not the overwhelming forces Halyn had expected. The destroyed capital ships had both been replaced, and fresh coralskippers had replenished their ranks, but the heavy firepower Halyn expected had not materialized. Something’s different here, he concluded. I’m not sure what, but the Vong aren’t throwing the kind of forces at us I expected.
The strategic display glowed green with friendly reinforcements. Starfighter squadrons from all over the fragmented New Republic had poured in, far more than replacing Zabrak losses from the first engagement. Smaller capital ships—armed freighters, corvette, frigates, and a couple of light cruisers—had swelled the Zabrak Defense Fleet. Units from the Army were already on the ground on Iridonia, integrating seamlessly into the existing defenses.
And it won’t be enough. The forces the Zabrak had brought to bear were too fighter-heavy, with not nearly enough capital ships. Starfighters are important, even essential to modern warfare, but you don’t build your military forces around it…unless you were the Rebel Alliance, of course. Even then, without the Star Cruisers from Mon Calamari, the Alliance wouldn’t have had the forces necessary for the engagement at Endor.
Starfighter pilots had coined the phrase “Trench Run Disease” after Yavin, referring to the use of well-armed starfighters to punch way out of their weight class. Coordinated snubfighter assaults had destroyed more than a few Imperial capital ships, but it was the exception, not the norm.
Iridonia now housed thousands of starfighters with the return of the New Republic squadrons…and they wouldn’t be enough. That’s an advantage to these Vong cruisers—they don’t have a reactor to destroy. It won’t ever go supercritical and destroy the ship. There’s no power cells to neutralize. Halyn knew that it didn’t mean the Yuuzhan Vong’s capital ships didn’t have weaknesses—they certainly did—but those weaknesses were far different than the conventional starship.
And many starfighter tactics were designed around a conventional starship’s weaknesses.
Halyn was pondering the possibility of new tactics when something unusual enough happened to penetrate the peace surrounding him. He frowned, turning to locate the offending communication or officer or report.
“Unidentified cruiser, stand by,” the ensign at the communication station was saying. “Repeat, stand by.” The ensign looked around frantically, until his eyes were caught by Halyn’s.
“What is it?”
“A cruiser with no IFF codes has dropped out of hyperspace and is attempting to take up orbit around Iridonia.” The ensign looked nervous. “Sir, should we scramble fighters to intercept?”
Halyn looked at Kryi, caught her attention, and nodded. She immediately turned back to her console to dispatch starfighter squadrons.
“No IFF at all?” Halyn asked the ensign. When she shook her head, his voice dropped to a growl. “Peace Brigade.” The Brigade was an organization of traitors to the galaxy, mercenaries, pirates, and scoundrels who’d sold out secrets and intelligence to the Yuuzhan Vong. They’d been encountered in more than a few systems, acting as support for the Yuuzhan Vong. Bastards deserve nothing but death.
He looked around the bridge. “I want turbolaser solutions for that unidentified warship,” he called. “Don’t light him up yet, but paint him with lock so he’s aware we’re watching him.”
The chaos on the bridge increased as officers became aware of the unfolding conflict and began maneuvering their charges out of the hot zone.
“Give me a visual on the cruiser,” Halyn called. It took a moment before a blue-white hologram of the warship swam into view, with potential weapons emplacements highlighted in red, shield generators in green, engines in blue, and other systems labeled and highlighted in white. The vessel was twelve hundred meters long and, from first glance, at least as heavily-armed as the Cathleen. Closer inspection of the vessel’s armament revealed ion cannons and proton torpedoes, and the Zabrak realized very quickly that even the Cathleen was outgunned by the intruder.
“Frak,” he muttered. He cocked his head and realized that there was a familiar chiming, barely audible over the din of a warship preparing for combat. Abruptly his hand fell to his personal comlink. He closed his eyes, removed the comlink from his belt, and snapped it into place on his command chair to relay the signal to his headset. “Sanshir,” he said quietly, ensuring that no eavesdropped would hear it.
“There some reason you’re lighting up my ship?” a familiar voice asked in his ear. “Seriously, Lance, if this is the best greeting you can give an old friend, I’m leaving.”
That voice, the Corellian accent, my private comlink frequency… Halyn’s mouth fell open. “Ryian Coron?!”
The other man laughed. “Didn’t take you as long as I thought it’d take.”
Halyn eyed the holo of the warship with understanding. The cruiser was the Dauntless, a passenger liner from the Galactic Civil War that had been converted to a warship. The Mon Calamari Star Cruisers that had formed the backbone of the Alliance fleet had been converted from liners as well, but the Dauntless was built at Sullust. The Imperial-friendly nature of SoroSuub had prevented more of the warships from entering service, making them a rare sight in the spacelanes.
“Last I heard, you were part of the fleet defending Bilbringi,” he said cautiously. Peace Brigaders could still be trying to spring a trap on us, he warned himself.
“That was before Coruscant. We were part of Bel Iblis’s fleet there, until the retreat was ordered.”
“Where’s your IFF?”
“We took a beating at Coruscant,” Coron said grimly. “We barely made it out and missed the rendezvous with Bel Iblis’s Fleet. We’ve been trying to find a safe place to regroup and put the pieces back together. We didn’t know our IFF wasn’t transmitting.”
Halyn nodded. It made sense, but he wouldn’t be absolutely certain until…and then the idea struck him. “Stand by a second, Coron, and I’ll get you an orbital slot.” Not waiting for a confirmation, he swapped channels and sent a hail.
It took several seconds before Sandarie answered. “What is it, General?”
“Need you to confirm the ID of a ship’s captain for me,” he said. “I’m conferencing you into the signal.” A twist of the base of his comlink accomplished the task.
“Who am I identifying?” Sandarie’s puzzled voice floated across the comm.
“Sandi?” Coron asked.
“Ryian? Ryian! Where the hell have you been?”
Halyn smiled. “Stand down the turbolasers,” he called. “Rinnet, inform your squadrons that they’re on escort duty, not interception.”
His smile only widened as he listened to Sandarie and Ryian argue over his comlink. Ah, married bliss.