The Cathleen rocked with fire as another squadron of coralskippers raked plasma across her bow. A trio of X-wings rocketed past the bridge in hot pursuit, the lead fighter spraying stutterfire at the skips while the other two members of the shield trio fired full-power blasts, decimating the Yuuzhan Vong fighters.
“General,” a voice spoke directly in Halyn’s ear. “I’ve got something…strange.”
Halyn turned his full attention to the voice. “Go ahead, Saret.”
Allanna Saret’s voice was calm from her station aboard the Cyclone. “I’ve got three small Vong transports that have cut around the battle and have inserted themselves into an orbit between the Cathleen and Iridonia.”
Halyn frowned, more at the splash of plasma across the bridge’s transparisteel viewport than at Allanna’s statement. “We’re a bit busy here and I can’t spare any of our screen. Can you detach a squadron from your escort to intercept before they make planet fall?”
“That’s just it. They’re not trying to make planet fall. They’re staying directly between the Cathleen and Iridonia.” Allanna’s voice had a shade of strain in it. “I’ve already dispatched my Black Squad to investigate, but the Vong are throwing a lot of skips at them to keep them away.”
“Thanks for the information. Pull your squad back, Saret.” Halyn closed his eyes. “Keep your eyes peeled for anything else out of place. Sanshir out.” Without waiting for acknowledgement, Halyn glanced down at the control board on his command chair and switched channels. “Sanshir to Grey Leader. You there?”
The familiar voice of Li Coden filled his ear. “Grey Leader here, go ahead Sanshir.”
“Li, we’ve got a couple of Vong transports sitting between us and the planet, and the Vong really don’t want us near them. I need you to investigate.”
“It’s pretty hot right now, boss. Do you want us to pull off?”
“Affirmative, find out what’s going on. This is top priority.”
On the tactical hologram filling a large portion of the Cathleen’s bridge, he spotted the small triangle shaded grey break off and head back towards the Cathleen at approximately the full speed of an E-wing starfighter. C’mon, Li. If anyone can break through that screen, it’s you.
The Greys never had a chance to try.
The Cathleen shuddered heavily, in spite of the massive inertial compensators protecting the crew. Several officers who were standing were sent flying to the deck or splayed across consoles at the mighty Star Cruiser’s buffeting. “Report!” Halyn shouted.
The young Zabrak girl operating the sensors station looked up with fear in her eyes. “Sir, there’s a massive gravity well nearby, and it’s drawing us in!”
There was a long moment of silence as the officer rechecked her sensors. “Sir, it looks like the Vong are generating voids between us and Iridonia. We’re being pulled towards the planet!”
Halyn’s eyes narrowed. Those transports. “Find me those dovin basals, Ensign. The Vong must’ve dropped them from those transports that circled the combat zone.”
“Sir, I have them now. Feeding them to the weapons crews.”
“Thank you. Helm, bring us to port…” he glanced at the tactical display, “eighty degrees. All starboard weapons, continue concentrating on the Yuuzhan Vong warship formation. Port weapons lock onto the dovin basals and fire when ready.”
The mighty Star Cruiser rotated in space, turbolasers blazing in both directions. The sensor officer shook her head. “No change, sir. We’re still being drawn in. We have less than a minute until we’re too deep into Iridonia’s gravity well to get back out.”
“Grey Leader,” Halyn said into his comm headset. “You still there?”
“We had to orbit when those voids started popping,” Li’s voice came tensely. “What do you need us to do, boss?”
“See if you can get in there and light up those dovin basals. I’d guess they’ve got multiple stuck in some coral pods—they’ve got enough power to take our shots and still pull us down. If you can get around the other side, maybe we can take them down with a crossfire.”
The indicator for Grey Squadron, which Halyn had lost in the scramble, now was accelerating at an oblique angle towards the dovin basals’ location. Just as quickly, the coralskippers that had previously been escorting the transport turned and threw themselves at the Iridonian starfighters. “Port turbolasers!” Halyn bellowed above the din of the bridge, “lay down suppressing fire on those skips! If the Greys don’t get through, we’re all dead!”
The weapons officer shouted acknowledgement, and a moment later the turbolasers opened up with a withering barrage against the Vong starfighters. Still the coralskippers came, even as their numbers dwindled, determined to delay Coden’s starfighters.
A quarter of the skips still remained as they reached engagement range, forcing the turbolasers to break off or risk a friendly fire accident. “Li,” Halyn said tensely, “youhave to get through, or we’re dead up here.”
“Roger,” was the only reply. On the tactical display, the skirmish was too tightly-packed to get a clear reading, but abruptly a trio of E-wings broke away from the fight at a full sprint, vectoring towards the dovin basals again. The coralskippers were caught flat-footed by the escapees, unable to disengage from the rest of the veteran pilots as they fought for local supremacy, and for their lives.
“Turbolasers, target the dovin basals and fire,” Halyn snarled. “Sensors, what’s our status?”
“The dovin basals are falling into the atmosphere now, sir,” came the ensign’s fear-stricken voice. “We’re almost at the point of no return.”
The shield trio reached the dovin basals and opened fire from an oblique angle. “Keep up the fire,” Halyn said through gritted teeth. “Greys, pelt those things with torpedoes, lasers, your astromechs if that’s what it takes!”
Anticlimatically, one of the Cathleen’s heavy turbolasers punched through the void defenses around the Vong’s trap, and the Star Cruiser was free of its grip. “Get us out of here!” Halyn shouted as the warship rocked again, free of its restraint.
“We’re too late,” came the quiet reply from the helmsman. “We’re too deep into the well, sir.”
Halyn swore. “Grey Squadron, get out of here, now!” He switched channels. “Saret, are you there?”
Allanna’s voice answered a moment later. “I’m here, Cathleen.”
“You have command of the fleet,” Halyn said. “The Cathleen is out of action. Take all the forces you can muster and move them out to the edge of the system. If things on Iridonia go badly, take our surviving forces and link up with either Garm Bel Iblis or Wedge Antilles. Do you hear me, Admiral Saret?”
The bridge was deadly silent now. “I copy, sir,” came the half-strangled reply.
Fire began to lick at the bridge viewports as the Star Cruiser reached the edge of Iridonia’s atmosphere. “Give me a channel to the fleet,” Halyn ordered his comm officer. A moment later the officer nodded, and Halyn spoke again into his headset. “All Zabrak forces, this is General Sanshir.
“You’ve fought well against the Yuuzhan Vong. Every one of you is a damned hero for your role in this. Against the might of another empire-in-wanting, you’ve fought these intergalactic bastards to a standstill. Every crewman, every gunner, every pilot, every officer in our fleet, I say to you: thank you. Iridonia owes you a debt that it can never repay.
“But now it’s time for you to step aside. Other Zabraks are about to step up and take up your part in this task, in the defense of our world and our very race. You have not lost, nor have you failed—you have delayed the Yuuzhan Vong, hurt them badly, and made a victory on Iridonia possible.
“Thank you. Each and every one of you, thank you. General Sanshir out.”
The fleet-wide channel was silent in response. Halyn expected no less; a good number of the Zabrak ships were still fighting for their survival as Allanna Saret relayed orders to begin pulling back to the edge of the system. Fighter squadrons began to disengage, ships traded parting shots, as the Cathleen, the heart of the Zabrak defenses, fell into Iridonia’s atmosphere.
The Dauntless remained firm for the moment, but as more and more Yuuzhan Vong vessels began to converge on it, Ryian Coron would be forced to pull back as well or risk the destruction of his own warship.
Though Halyn wasn’t and never would be Force-sensitive, he could feel Anishor’s gaze on him. Time to get back to work, he told himself. “Time until impact?”
“Six minutes, sir.”
“Particle shields to maximum,” Halyn ordered. “Shut down all nonessentials. I want all weapons systems off-line, with every joule you can find in the ship’s particle shields and inertial compensator. What’s the status of the escape pods?”
“Sir,” the ship’s captain said quietly, “the escape pods won’t launch under these conditions. The turbulence will take them to pieces if they jettison now.”
Halyn slammed a hand down on his command chair. “Do we have any ships left in the hangars? They can handle the turbulence better.”
“Only a few starfighters that aren’t operable,” his starfighter coordinator, Kryi Rinnet, replied. “The shuttles are all gone.”
Halyn closed his eyes, mentally ticking off the seconds until an entire crew of good people—thousands of Zabrak—would die in a ball of fire. “Where are we coming down?”
“The Vong vectored us towards the capital,” the helmsman said. “We don’t have the thrust to get us far enough away to avoid the city, sir…not in atmosphere. These Star Cruisers just weren’t built for this.”
The bridge viewport was nothing but fire now; it was impossible to see. The inevitable pull of gravity would bring them crashing down, and there was no way to fight it. It wasn’t like Star Cruisers were fit with repulsorlifts like a starfighter or shuttle. Even with all of the Cathleen’s special equipment, there was nothing aboard her to prevent the crash.
Wait…the refits. That’s…it might work. Halyn opened his eyes again and started shouting orders. His bridge crew stared at him blank-faced and open-mouthed as his impromptu plan came out.
“That’s…sir, that’ll burn out half the systems on the ship, if it doesn’t break the Cathleen in two just in the attempt!”
“What’s going to be left of the Cathleen if we hit the planet in freefall?” Halyn replied mildly.
There was a long pause. “I hadn’t thought of that, sir.”
“Now do it!” Halyn snarled. “Shut down everything but the particle shields and the inertial compensators. Even life support! Evacuate from the areas of the ship near the outer hull, because it’s going to get hot out there!”
“Evacuate everyone,” Kativie was saying into her comm. “There’s no time for indecision on this! Get everyone out now! That Star Cruiser is going to hit the city. Evacuate everyone before it does, or we’re going to have millions of dead!”
Kelta Rose listened as Kativie finally won the argument with her comlink. Klaxxons began to blare all across the city, and comlinks all over the capital building starting chirping as evacuation orders blanketed communications channels city-wide. She was still pondering this twist of events when she felt a hand on her arm. She turned to look and found Kativie gripping her upper arm. “That’s for us, too,” she said.
“Isn’t there something we can do?” Kelta asked hoarsely. “We’re Jedi Knights.”
Kativie laughter was tinged with desperation. “I know, ‘Size matters not.’ But I don’t think Master Skywalker himself could just stop a falling Star Cruiser.”
“Does that mean we shouldn’t try?” Kelta asked. At some level she was aware now of the fear bleeding into the Force. It was suffocating, choking; the stench of it nearly made her retch. She also knew she was no longer quite stable, as the emotions the Force carried to her was affecting her judgement.
“It means we should spend our time doing something more useful,” Kativie said bluntly. “Like…”
She stopped. “Actually, you may be right.”
The two Jedi hurried to the top of the capital building. The falling Cathleen was visible now, though the datapad Kativie carried, which was linked to the capital’s computers and showed a hologram of the vessel, was far more detailed. The image, Kelta idly speculated, was probably relayed from a starfighter or shuttle following the doomed Cruiser down.
All around them, airspeeders took to the sky like flocks of startled birds. Landspeeders cruised the thoroughfares, all aiming to exit the city as quickly as possible. Only minutes remain.
Kativie frowned at the datapad. “The cruiser…she’s rotated, holding her belly down. And Halyn still has the shields up, judging by the fire. Doesn’t he know that’ll cause more damage when the ship hits, then if the shields were down? And shouldn’t he be nose-down to minimize the impact area?”
Kelta stretched out through the Force, focusing her perceptions high above them. Fear washed over her in waves, but she could sense a presence, brilliant in the Force, focused as tightly as possible. Halyn. After all this time, he feels even more…more…alive then when we were fighting the Empire. With the extraordinary clarity her particular gifts granted her, she nudged at his intentions, trying to divine his plan.
Laughter at the insanity of it erupted from her unbidden and uncontrolled. Kativie turned to stare at the red-maned Jedi, but Kelta’s tears of laughter made the Zabrak blurry. “He’s…he’s…”
“What?” Kativie asked.
“He’s going to land it.”
<Halyn, this is more harebrained then that stunt you pulled on Naboo,> Anishor said with a shake of his head.
“If you have a better idea, I’m still open to suggestion,” Halyn said dryly.
<If there was a better idea, you’d be using it already.>
“Damn straight. Give me a comm to the ship,” Halyn called. When the comm officer nodded, Halyn clicked the mic open on his headset. “All hands, this is General Sanshir. We’re about to crash into the capital. If this works, you really can say Any one you walk away from is a good landing. If it doesn’t, you’ve been an excellent crew. Brace yourselves for impact!”
He clicked the comlink off and looked around his bridge crew. “Ready?”
Shouts of assent answered him, and Halyn allowed himself a small smile. Even if we survive this, no one who wasn’t here will believe it. And I’ll have to personally talk to the shipyard crews on Mon Calamari to thank them for the excellence of their work.
“Twenty seconds to impact,” one of the bridge officers called.
“Execute.” Halyn sat down and strapped himself into the command chair. They don’t need me to do their work. They know what’s at stake, and what they need to do.
There were stories about the epic abilities of Jedi Knights under extreme duress. Half the galaxy had heard of the powerful Jedi Anakin Skywalker, during the twilight of the Clone Wars, successfully landing a Separatist cruiser on the surface of Coruscant without the benefit of engines or repulsorlifts. Fewer had heard the exploits of Luke Skywalker, romanticized in a holodrama, successfully taking the shattered remains of a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser into atmosphere at Mindor and successfully landing most of it.
Halyn was no Jedi. A Skywalker relied on the Force; Halyn relied on his crew and the insanity of the plan they’d concocted and were now executing. He hoped it would work, anyways; it was all based around an after-action report he’d read from a battle during General Han Solo’s pursuit of the Warlord Zsinj.
Maybe it will work. The fundamentals are sound.
Ten seconds until impact, the lights on the ship’s bridge dimmed as the massive gravity well generators—the Cathleen’s special refits, concealed by the typical curves and bumps of a Mon Calamari craft—began to draw power.
Halyn had heard of the technique once, and he’d been told the idea was sound. Gravity well generators produced a mass shadow to prevent ships from jumping to hyperspace. The well generally had a focal point of the originating ship, causing space-borne objects to slowly move in the direction of the craft. The New Republic fleet at Ithor had used an Interdictor for that purpose to trap a Yuuzhan Vong fleet at Ithor.
Theoretically, though, it was possible to reverse the direction of the artificially-generated gravity, so it would push instead of pull.
The Star Cruiser had been buffeted through its entire fall, but now the vibrations and rocking took on a new life of its own as the gravity well generators began to attempt to push against Iridonia. It’s the galaxy’s biggest, least efficient repulsorlift, Halyn thought.
And then the warship hit the planet.
Allanna Saret had never felt as helpless as she did watching smoke and dust rise from Rak’Edalin. It would be long hours before the atmosphere would be clear enough, she knew, for even the powerful sensors mounted on the Cyclone could pierce the murk to reveal the fate of the Cathleen.
And in the meantime, she had the orders the General had given her to execute.
Corvettes and frigates traded their last blows with their opponents as the Zabrak fleet gave ground. Yuuzhan Vong warships wasted no time penetrating through the gaps. The Yuuzhan Vong commander, Allanna figured, was going to take no chances. After all the damage we inflicted on his fleet, he wouldn’t risk giving us the opportunity to recompose our defenses.
The Dauntless rode drag on the retreating Zabrak fleet, keeping battle-damaged vessels in front of it and using its heavy firepower to discourage pursuit. Under other circumstances, the Yuuzhan Vong would be quick to pounce on wounded prey, doing their best to utterly destroy any enemy. With the old Sullustan-built battleship at the rear, though, the more numerous but smaller Yuuzhan Vong craft were choosing to concentrate their efforts on securing their foothold
The Wookiee battle cruisers had already recovered their fighters and, at Allanna’s urging, had jumped to hyperspace. They can’t do any more good here, Allanna thought to herself. Neither can we.
That jabbed at the broken remains of her hearts. We’ve been beaten, she railed silently. And unless we can convince the New Republic to release one of their major fleets, there’s nothing we can do to turn the Yuuzhan Vong back now.
“Cap…Admiral,” one of her bridge officers called. “Incoming transmission from Dauntless actual.”
Allanna donned her headset and nodded to the officer. “Patch him through.”
Ryian Coron’s voice crackled in her ear. She frowned at the static—it was far worse than usual. The Dauntless must’ve taken some damage in the last battle. The Vong must’ve chewed up her comm array. “What are your plans from here, Saret?”
Allanna hesitated. “I’m not sure,” she hedged. As she studied the tactical display, she realized far too late that the fleet’s starfighter coordinator, Kryi Rinnet, had been aboard the Cathleen. Without Rinnet’s guidance, a large number of the fleet’s starfighter squadrons were now vectoring down to land on Iridonia, rather than return to their capital ships. A third of our squadrons have gone dirtside, she realized in dismay. I’m going to need to appoint a new starfighter coordinator for the fleet as soon as we’ve regrouped.
“Can I suggest a course of action, then?”
Saret nodded. “Go ahead.”
“There’s no way we can crack the Yuuzhan Vong fleet with what we have left here at Iridonia, even if you hadn’t sent the Wookiees home.” Coron’s voice held no trace of criticism for the decision, just a simple statement of fact. “We’re going to need a lot more firepower if we’re going to break through, which means a New Republic fleet.”
“It occurred to me, too,” Allanna agreed.
“The Fleet is still scattered after the debacle at Coruscant. You’re now the closest thing Zabrak space has to an ambassador or representative. I think we should try to reach one of the New Republic fleets and ask to borrow some warships.”
That raised Allanna’s eyebrow, even though there was no way for Ryian to see it. “I didn’t think the New Republic was in the habit of borrowing out task forces.”
“They’re not, but are options are pretty limited.” Ryian’s voice was grim. “Last I heard, Wedge Antilles was holding the fort down at Borleias with a good chunk of the Third Fleet. I doubt he’ll have anything to spare. Our best shot would be approaching Garm Bel Iblis; his fleet took the heaviest losses, but I don’t think he’s under assault right now.”
“You don’t think approaching Kre’fey or Sovv would be the best approach?”
Ryian snorted. “Would you ask a Bothan for help?”
Allanna studied the tactical displays for long moments. The Yuuzhan Vong were clustered around Iridonia now, like mynocks drawn to a live power cable. Sensor traces indicated the launch of Yuuzhan Vong transports, no doubt headed down into atmosphere to begin the occupation attempts.
Towards Rak’Edalin, if Halyn’s earlier predictions were right. Allanna’s eyes closed as familiar pain and dread washed over her in waves. First Argus and my oldest…now likely my brother-in-law…and very soon the rest of my children are in the line of fire.
“Where is Bel Iblis headquartered?” Allanna asked.
“I’m sending you coordinates now,” the other said. “It’s the last best information I have on his fleet.”
“As soon as we’ve recovered the starfighters,” Allanna said, “we’ll make the jump to lightspeed.” The Zabrak rubbed at her face, her dark crimson tattoo pattern that Argus had loved, had described as delicate yet strong. She felt so very alone in a galaxy that had grown darker and harsher with each passing day.
And as she watched the starfighters return to the capital ships, as she organized the fleet for travel, as she ordered the jump to lightspeed, she felt guilt gnaw at her hearts. I’m so sorry.