Kativie’s lightsaber was a shining green blur, moving faster than her own eyes could follow as she parried blows and struck in return, hard, fast attacks that left limbs and corpses in her wake as she cut down Yuuzhan Vong attackers. The humming blade sang a symphony matched by her heart, by the flow of the Force through her, as she fought and killed and fought.
The Yuuzhan Vong didn’t break; they never broke. When the last warrior fell in a heap with his own arms and legs, barely bleeding through the cauterized stumps, the reptoids shrieked and broke for cover. Kativie let them go. Without the Vong to drive them onward, they’re no threat. She felt a moment of conflict. As a Jedi, I let them go…but Halyn would tell me not to let up, because they’ll be back and fighting again soon. If I strike them down now, they can’t kill any of us later.
The choice was robbed of her as the survivors of the fire support team opened up with their T-21 blaster rifles, mowing down the retreating slave troops. There were too many for the handful of snipers to get them all, but the problem was resolved by the reappearance of the Muurian transport that had dropped her into the combat zone. Its heavy ship cannons poured fire into the crowd. The streets below overheated and exploded upward, sending flesh and blood into the air in clouds.
Kativie grimaced. War is not for the Jedi. She shook her head at the slaughter as she turned back to ensure the Vong warriors she’d struck down were dead. Halyn was a pilot during the Civil War, but it was nothing like this. Pilots cloak themselves in the nobility of starfighter combat, because it’s clean and quick. This war isn’t clean nor quick, and a lot more people are going to die.
Satisfied that the Vong had all been cleanly dispatched, she shut down her lightsaber. Even if we survive this, what will this do to the Jedi? The Clone Wars wiped out the entire Order, and there were few Jedi left to fight in the Galactic Civil War. Master Skywalker has trained barely a hundred of us; will any of us still truly be Jedi when this is over?
The survivors of the Zabrak squad were clustered together, some leaning heavily on zhabokas while others stood straight with blasters in hand. One of them looked squarely at Kativie, his eyes blazing. “Should’ve known it’d be you,” he spat. “The Ul’akhoi send you to kill me? I know he sent me out here to die, and since I won’t oblige him or the Vong, it…”
“Jram,” Kativie said coldly. “If you didn’t notice, there’s plenty of Vong here to kill. I’ve got bigger things to worry about than you. Besides,” she added as an afterthought, “if I wanted to kill you, I only would’ve had to wait another thirty seconds.”
The Lusp stared daggers at his sister-in-law. Kativie shrugged. “Jram, I’m out here to win the war. Can’t do that if our front squads get massacred.” She deliberately looked away from him. “Sergeant, pull your men back a few blocks and regroup. We’ve got more volunteers coming up to reinforce you.”
“What about you?” the sergeant asked.
Kativie allowed herself a predator’s smile. “I’m going to delay the Vong. Just get your troops to safety, Sergeant.”
Halyn’s voice was raised in mild alarm. “Do we have identification on the new contacts?” he asked again, his voice carrying over the din in the Cathleen’s bridge. The Yuuzhan Vong had begun a major push into the city, and bridge officers were coordinating ground units in the defense, their voices and orders occasionally overlapping.
“Sir,” Kryi said, “Red Leader is identifying the newcomers as Li Coden and Abi Ocopaqui’s squadron.”
“Can you confirm that?” Halyn asked sharply as he watched the tactical hologram.
“Negative; comm chatter’s been too heavy on the open combat channel to confirm by countercalls or voiceprint recognition.” The starfighter coordinator’s voice was taut with stress. “I have multiple confirmations that the newcomers have scored coralskipper kills and are trading fire with the landing vessels.”
“Are Kaman’s wings going to catch up in time to do any good?”
Kryi shook her head. “Negative. They were too far out of intercept position before we realized what we were facing up there. The Vong transports will be over the city before they can catch up.”
“Do we have anything left in reserve?”
“Not much,” Kryi said flatly. “The few squadrons we have left here are running air support for our troops on the ground, and everything else is spread all over Iridonia trying to turn back coralskipper strikes all across the planet.”
Halyn lowered his head. They suckered us, and I fell for it. If we wouldn’t have tried to launch our preemptive strike, we would’ve had enough fighters here to blunt this landing force. One mistake, and I may have lost us Rak’Edalin. He looked up. “Pull our air cover off the troops. Get everything you can up to intercept the landing force—all our reserve fighters, any armed transports, hell, civilian ships with blasters if you can find them. Anything that can put down a Vong transport or buy enough time for something bigger to catch it.”
“Putting out the call now, sir.”
Anishor put a huge paw on Halyn’s shoulder. <If you pull the air cover off the ground troops, they’re going to lose ground,> he warned. <The Vong will take advantage of it to push hard.>
“I don’t doubt it,” Halyn said tightly. “But if all those Vong transports make it to the ground, we might as well write off the city. I’m not ready to do that yet.”
<But you will be soon?> Anishor asked with a trace of wariness.
“No.” Halyn shook his head as he watched the tactical hologram, gripping the edge of the display tightly. His voice was low and even, hard for anyone further than the Wookiee to hear even if the bridge wasn’t a cacophony of voices and orders. “We have an entire population here that have been raised from birth ready to fight. There are only a handful of worlds aside from Iridonia willing and capable of fielding an entire population of warriors. We can stop the Vong here.”
<You’re sure?> Anishor’s rumble was uncertain. <How many Iridonians will die here to stop them?>
“This isn’t the time to argue about this,” the Ul’akhoi said, his voice rising slightly.
<Halyn, you and I have been friends for many years,> Anishor said calmly. <I’ve never seen you willing to throw lives away.>
“The Vong aren’t the Empire,” Halyn said distantly. “There’s more at stake here than ever. If those crates set down in Rak’Edalin intact, we’ll lose Rak’Edalin and quite possibly Iridonia. With Iridonia goes Zabrak space. I won’t let that happen.”
<All those warriors that are fighting now…>
“Anishor, I don’t have time to do this now. There’s a battle to win or lose.” He spared a look for the big Wookiee. “I know the Cathleen’s crew won’t be able to force you off the bridge, so don’t make me ask you to leave.”
The Wookiee sighed. <Halyn, I…>
The Zabrak shook his head and turned away, raising his voice. “Kryi, where are my fighters?”
Abi Ocopaqui was in her element. The Twi’lek had been many things in her lifetime: bounty hunter, Alliance agent, New Republic officer, Intelligence infiltrator. Many of her professions during her long career with the Republic had nothing to do with flying, but she still found pure joy in the release of starfighter combat.
Her career as a pilot had not been long—several years between Yavin and Endor, flying as wingmate to Halyn Lance in Sabre Squadron. After Halyn’s elevation to General and commander of the Vanguard Wing, later reformed as the 118th Starfighter Wing as part of the fleet’s reorganization under Admiral Ackbar, she had been drawn further and further away from the cockpit to instead work for Alliance special operations. During those months pulling starfighter combat missions, she had felt the most alive she ever recalled—death-defying missions, bravery, skill.
Of course, at the time, she’d also been Halyn’s lover. In hindsight, they had been a supernova—they created a lot of heat and light, but it eventually collapsed under the stress of their separated lives. Halyn had gone on to become a heroic commanding officer up until the battle of Endor had devastated his fighter wing; Abi had become a distinguished special operations agent, specializing in extraction and deception missions. Halyn had racked up an amazing kill count in the fighter cockpit, while Abi had totaled nearly a hundred lives saved from Imperial Intelligence’s operations.
She’d nearly forgotten how much she enjoyed starfighter combat.
The B-wing starfighter she had borrowed from the Cathleen’s hangar before it had been destroyed was more agile and faster than her Y-wing, though it wasn’t near as tough. Still, she had to allow that the amazing array of weapons at her fingertips was useful.
The coralskipper in her sights was concentrating its dovin basals directly aft, soaking up firepower. Abi continued to hammer at it with laser cannons, then thumbed the controls over to ion weapons and squeezed off a burst.
Ion cannons were designed to disable starships without outright destroying them. Light versions, like those mounted by her B-wing or her old Y-wing, were capable of neutralizing circuitry without major damage. Other starfighters were vulnerable to such fire, but larger vessels often had multiple-redundant systems which would prevent a starfighter from knocking out major systems. Heavy ion cannons, like those sported by Star Destroyers, could outright fry and fuse circuitry, knocking out redundancies and causing major—but repairable—damage.
Yuuzhan Vong vessels lacked reactors, ion engines, computers, or even a single circuit. However, ion attacks weren’t much more pleasant to living nervous systems; not unlike a stun bolt from a blaster rifle, they tended to fire multiple nerves simultaneously, overloading sensory systems and potentially knocking a living being unconscious.
Few pilots would turn an ion cannon onto a living being; it was a gross waste of power when a single shot from a blaster rifle would effectively accomplish the same thing.
That is, before the Yuuzhan Vong arrived with a mighty armada of living ships.
The coralskipper was stunned by the blast and its defenses failed. It began to fall into a trajectory that, to Abi’s eye, would end a few kilometers north of Rak’Edalin not-too-far below. The Twi’lek’s index finger tightened on her trigger, sending a trio of high-powered bolts into the coralskipper. There was always a chance it would recover before it hit the ground, she justified as the skip came to pieces, throwing yorik coral chunks in all directions.
She pushed the nose of the fighter down again, picking up more speed. A kilometer below, she could see the Vong transports continuing their drop towards Rak’Edalin unabated. We’re not going to stop them in time, she thought distantly. There’s just not enough of us.
The B-wing’s dive was faster than the Vong transports. She squeezed off long distance attacks with both lasers and ion cannons, but the Vong transports picked off the bolts with ease. She smiled—her hunting smirk, Halyn had called it once—and swapped to proton torpedoes. The B-wing’s targeting computer gave her a solid tone, and she fired.
“One,” Li’s voice interrupted her thoughts as she watched the proton torpedoes close. “Watch your fire. Rak’Edalin is scrambling everything they’ve got into the air.”
“Wonderful,” Abi answered automatically. Far below, the proton torpedoes were caught by a Yuuzhan Vong gravitic void and detonated. She fired torpedoes again, watching and waiting.
“So watch your fire,” Li warned. “No stray fire over the city where we might take out a friendly.”
The Vong transports had been thrown by the shockwave of the detonating proton torpedoes, and a little disoriented. They were apparently still trying to regroup when the second set of torpedoes hit one of the coral vessels. The vessel shattered in a bloody fireball, and shrapnel from the blast hammered three more transports so hard that their descents turned into uncontrolled falls.
“I’ll watch my fire,” Abi repeated.
Far below, laser fire began to spray up through the Vong formation. Then two coralskippers were closing on her, and she had to pull up from the dive.
Kelta was standing quietly near the bridge’s entrance, staying out of the way and carefully maintaining her mental defenses. I can still feel them all, she thought distantly as death crashed against her mind through the Force. There’s just so much of it.
Part of it, she knew, was because she was just sitting still and not fighting. She’d found that actively fighting helped her keep her mental defenses in place—the activity distracted her from many of the sensations the Force brought to her. Now, though, she was merely trying to not feel. She remembered as a child on Nam Chorios an old mental game: to not think of a pink cu-pa. Of course, once that instruction was given, it was impossible to think of anything else.
So intent was she on the distant feelings in the Force that she nearly missed the frustration of a very large Wookiee as he stalked past her and out the bridge door. Of course, Anishor was more capable than most of harnessing or suppressing emotion; it was part of his nature as a berserker and as a Force-user.
She fell into step behind him; it took several heartbeats for her to catch up with his long, rangy strides. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
The frustration slowly bubbled up from the Wookiee. <The General is risking everything,> Anishor said at last. <And I do not understand why.>
“What do you mean?” Kelta asked.
<You fought with him during the Civil War, though not as long as myself. Tell me, how often did he commit everything to a battle without having a reserve or a back-up plan?>
The Jedi thought for several moments before she responded. “He didn’t. The only time he gambled everything was at Endor, and that was under direct orders from High Command. The One Eighteenth took heavy losses there and he blamed himself for it. Other than that, he wouldn’t commit everything to a fight; if it was all-or-nothing, he would refuse to engage it.”
<Avoiding a potentially decisive battle for the enemy,> Anishor agreed. <So tell me, what has changed?>
Kelta frowned. “Changed?”
<He gambles everything here on Iridonia. The Yuuzhan Vong slowly whittle away his forces with superior numbers, in spite of hideous casualties, and he stands and meets them toe-to-toe. He would never have done this before.>
“Perhaps,” she allowed. “But it’s different now. He’s fighting to defend Iridonia from the Yuuzhan Vong—back then, we could pick up and move if we were found. We fought a guerilla war, not a traditional one.”
<He could have drawn all of Iridonia’s forces out of the cities, abandoned them to the Yuuzhan Vong,> Anishor pointed out. <The Zabraks could have easily withdrawn into the jungles and fought warfare from there. The Yuuzhan Vong would never defeat them in such an engagement; it would be impossible to root them out with so little civilization on the world, just as they fought the Empire for twenty years. Just as my own people fought the Empire.> He shook his furry head. <Each time I’ve asked him about his battle plans, he deflects me.>
Kelta slowly shook her head. “I don’t know what his overall plan is.”
<You used to be among his most trusted confidants,> Anishor recalled.
“That was a long time ago,” Kelta said bluntly, ignoring the painful stirring the Wookiee had evoked. “A lifetime ago. If someone else knows his plans for the war, I don’t know who it is.”
<Nor I.> Anishor reached the end of a corridor and looked around. <I do not know if I can stay. Perhaps my leaving will persuade him away from this path; he risks all of Iridonia, all of his people by this course.>
“No,” Kelta protested. “You can’t leave, Anishor.”
<No?> The Wookiee looked at her uncertainly
“No.” She shook her head. “Anishor, I know you haven’t seen Halyn much since the end of the Civil War, but he’s going to need you. There’s not a warrior on Iridonia that can match you for strength or wisdom. I might be a Jedi, but even I’m no match for you.”
<He keeps me and my warriors from fighting.> Anishor looked tired. <There are many theaters where our strength could be used.>
“And you’re needed here,” Kelta reminded him. “Halyn has to have something in mind for you and your berserkers. He has needed you several times already to prevent disaster, and he’ll need you again.”
Anishor was silent for long moments. <Then I, too, will stay,> he said at last. <Even if I don’t understand.>
Kelta smiled. “That’s the nature of the Force, isn’t it?” she asked. “To trust what we don’t understand?”
The Wookiee rumbled a wordless assent.
“Let me ask you something, Anishor,” she asked, changing subject. “What is your take on the Yuuzhan Vong and the Force?”
The Wookiee was clearly hesitant to answer. <The Jedi have not drawn a conclusion?> he asked.
It was Kelta’s turn to hesitate. “Master Skywalker concluded that we need to fight the Yuuzhan Vong, regardless of whether they exist in the Force or not,” she said at last. “That’s been answer enough for me. They’ve slaughtered so many people—they may not be part of the dark side, but that doesn’t mean their actions aren’t dark.”
<I’ve known many evil individuals,> Anishor said slowly. <The Sith cult Dusk, the Emperor’s Inquisitors, fallen Jedi, the Imperial agent Suuzanne, even a handful among the berserkers who have followed the dark path. Even among the worst of them, however, there is a spark of light, a chance of redemption. It often does not succeed, for redemption requires forgiveness of self—a forgiveness not possible without acknowledgement of one’s guilt.>
The Wookiee grew even less certain. <Yet even the worst of them was merely a fallen individual—consumed by their own anger, or desire for power, or greed. They manipulate, they lie, they kill, yet all of them still exist in the most fundamental way: the Force. That is why there is always the possibility of redemption.>
Anishor bowed his head. <The Yuuzhan Vong are an abomination, Kelta Rose. The Jedi state that there is no life without the Force. The actions of the Yuuzhan Vong are without a doubt evil. But how can there be redemption without the Force?> He shook his head. <I sometimes wonder if they were created by the Sith to destroy the galaxy, but I know that such things are beyond the power of the dark side. After all, those who follow the dark side destroy; those of us who follow the true Force heal and grow.>
“Then what do we do with them, even if we win this war?” Kelta asked.
The Wookiee reflected before answering. <That answer must come from the Jedi and the New Republic,> he said at last. <I follow the Living Force, but the question you pose must be answered by the Unifying Force.>