“Sir, the Yuuzhan Vong have made landfall,” Kryi said tersely. “No transports are left airborne. Our squadrons are strafing targets on the ground now, with limited success.”
Halyn grimaced. With the Vong on the ground, they can concentrate their voids entirely on defense. To take them down is going to take extended time over target, and… “Reports of ground resistance?” he asked sharply.
“Yuuzhan Vong have moved anti-aircraft weap…er…creatures into position,” Kryi replied after a moment. “The wings are taking losses.”
“Order a fallback,” Halyn instructed. “We need any fighters with enough fuel to fly to stay overhead and cover our troops inside Rak’Edalin. They’ve already lost major ground.”
“Issuing the order now, sir.”
“Good. Comm, patch me through to Red Leader.”
There was a moment of hesitation before the comm coordinator replied. “Sir, we no longer show Red Leader on the comm waves.”
Halyn frowned and turned to Kryi. “Rinnet, where’s Kaman?”
Kryi searched her status displays, then shook her head. “His transponder cut off about a minute ago.”
The Ul’akhoi grunted. “He wants to stay and fight.”
“No,” Kryi said with a shake of her head. “Sir, he disappeared before I issued the order.”
Halyn’s blood ran cold. Lenn, what the hell are you up to? “Can we get a visual contact with his fighter?”
Kryi was slowly shaking her head continually now. “I just ran backward through the sensor log, and I had a good tracking feed from one of the other interceptors up there. His trio punched through the Vong defenses over their encampment; all three of the fighters disappeared. Two of them were destroyed in the air, and it appears Lenn went down.”
Halyn closed his eyes. Dammit. No, Lenn, not you. “Start rotating squadrons in for refueling. I want a heavy CAP in place until sundown.”
Without another word, he turned and walked out of the Cathleen’s bridge. Eyes followed him as he did, some accusing, some sorrowful, but none, to his perspective, forgiving.
Darkness fell across Rak’Edalin. As in previous days, the Yuuzhan Vong and the Zabrak forces withdrew to lick their wounds and count their dead. Squad leaders issued orders, reorganized forces, devised new tactics. Battalion commanders rotated battered squads of fighting men off the front line, moved fresh units into play. Zabraks dug in for another day’s siege, tearing up duracrete with power tools to create defensive positions, fortifying rooftops with heavy weapons.
In spite of the mortal danger, the silent night found Zabraks eating food scrounged from now-abandoned homes, playing sabacc around glowlamps, and trying to sleep. Some drank a bewildering array of alcohol, from Iridonian home brews to Corellian whiskeys to Kashyyykian brandies powerful enough to put lesser races under the table.
Kativie found her brother where she had the night before: deep in the battered hull of the little Gallofree freighter. Tonight, however, he was not clearing debris; instead, he was up to his shoulders in the freighter’s guts, wiring and rewiring, swearing on occasion as the vessel punished him for his mistakes with cuts, shocks, and burns.
The Jedi Knight shook her head as she watched him from the forward hold’s entryway. “You should be sleeping, big brother,” she advised at last. In spite of her admonishment, Halyn showed no trace of exhaustion—only pain from the day’s events.
“Not now,” he contradicted. He was silent for long moments as he struggled with a bundle of cables that had been cut and fused together, carefully separating individual lines with a vibroblade. “It’s too easy sometimes,” he finally said as he carefully split the fused lines. “Too easy to order attacks and watch the consequences unfold. It’s nothing but numbers and statistics in a hologram, sometimes.”
Kativie had already known what would be troubling her brother. “What happened to Lenn wasn’t your fault.”
“When I was the wing commander of the 118th back at Zephyr Base, it was completely different,” Halyn continued without acknowledging Kativie’s assertion. “I knew every pilot under my command, to a greater or lesser extent. When I ordered an attack, made a tactical mistake, it was something I felt to the bottom of my soul. Every dead pilot is etched into me for all eternity.” He growled as he cut apart another fused line. “These people, these Iridonian, these Zabraks…their blood is no less on my head than the members of the 118th, but I don’t know them, don’t feel them.” He sighed and switched the vibroblade off as the last two fused lines came apart. “It’s too easy to order an attack that sacrifices lives for a short advantage.”
“Lenn’s death isn’t your fault,” Kativie said again.
“I shouldn’t have ordered the fighter wing to press in. I knew they’d take heavy losses.”
“We would’ve taken more losses fighting that many more Vong on the ground,” Kativie pointed out. “You made the right call.”
Halyn snorted as he picked up a fuser and a handful of couplers, leaning into the open panels again to reconnect power and data lines. “Maybe I did,” he finally said. “But that doesn’t make Lenn’s death any less my fault.”
“Halyn, you need to sleep,” Kativie said. “You’re not thinking straight. The General Lance I knew during the Civil War would kick your ass right now.”
The Ul’akhoi turned finally to look at her. “Oh? Why do you say that?”
“Because he understood something you’ve forgotten. Big brother, Lenn joined you here knowing he could very well die in the fighting. He believed Iridonia was a cause worth fighting for, and he was willing to follow your orders doing so. He placed himself in the game. So now, quit your moping around; you know he wouldn’t be.”
Halyn grimaced as the fuser drifted too near his hand, filling the cargo hold with the sickly scent of burnt skin. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I know I’m right. Honor his sacrifice by moving forward. Don’t let Rak’Edalin fall because you’re mourning one of your friends.” Kativie closed her eyes. “You know very well that Lenn won’t be the only one of us—those of us closest to you—who will die during this. You can’t let yourself get caught up in that, or all of us who don’t make it will have died in vain.”
“Quit the guilt trip,” he said sharply, but his tone softened. “You should get yourself cleaned up, you know. The blood-and-guts look really isn’t your thing.”
Kativie looked down at her blood and mud-spattered armor and shrugged. “You’re probably right. Are you going to sleep?”
“That’s the best I’m going to get out of you, isn’t it?”
Li Coden poked his head into Halyn’s quarters on the Cathleen, with Abi Ocopaqui right behind him. The darkened room was still. “Hello?”
<Come in, Li,> a Wookiee growled. <And the Twi’lek with the scatter pistol.>
Li frowned for a moment. “Anishor, is that you?”
<Of course.> The light slowly raised in the room. <I forget sometimes you furless can’t see as well in the dark.>
“Thanks,” Abi said shortly. “Where’s Halyn?”
<When did you get here?> Anishor asked instead. <I haven’t seen you since, well, since the fighting moved from orbit to here.>
Abi started to retort, but Li cut her off smoothly. “We figured today was a good day to break the blockade. We wound up on the wrong side of the blockade when they pulled this ship out of orbit.”
<Then you would’ve been with the Zabrak fleet, wouldn’t you?>
“Admiral Saret decided to leave one of her frigates behind,” Li explained. “Out past the orbit of the furthest planet. She was afraid that the Vong would find and destroy the out-system HoloNet relay and cut off communications. So we’ve been sitting out there, alongside the frigate’s regular fighter complement, waiting for a good chance to make it to the surface.”
“So now that we’re here, we wanted to talk to Halyn and find out what he’s done about the traitor.”
<I don’t know if he’s done anything about it,> Anishor said with a trace of irritation. <If he has, he hasn’t told me anything about it.>
“Wonderful.” Li’s voice was more frustrated.
“It’s Halyn,” Abi said simply. “We warned him once, so he has to be doing something about it.”
Li turned to the blue Twi’lek. “Oh?”
“Sure. He wouldn’t just let something like that go. It’s potentially a huge blind spot that could come back to haunt him at the worst possible moment. So, he would’ve put someone he trusted completely in charge of rooting out the traitor. Until then, he’s probably compartmentalizing information to prevent leakage from sinking any of his strategies.” Abi shrugged. “Intelligence ops were never his strong suit, but he understood the need for it.”
<Maybe that’s what he’s really got Sandi doing,> Anishor suggested. <It’d make sense.>
Abi’s face twisted in professional distaste. “Abi Number Two is here?”
Both Li and Anishor laughed at the almost-forgotten nickname. Back during the Galactic Civil War, on several different occasions Sandarie had been asked to impersonate Abi Ocopaqui to accomplish some goal in regards to Halyn. Abi and Sandarie had developed a friendship of sorts, though Abi still harbored a grudge about her identity—hard-crafted as a bounty hunter and fighter pilot—being stolen by a dancer.
<Yes, she is,> Anishor confirmed. <She was actually here before Ryian Coron and the Dauntless, and was in Rak’Edalin when the Vong broke through the defenses.>
“So where’s Halyn?” Abi asked again.
<I’m not sure,> Anishor confessed. <He left the bridge while I was in a discussion with Kelta Rose and my berserkers, and I have not seen or heard from him since.>
“Fine, we’ll start searching the ship,” Abi grumbled.
<I have a better idea,> Anishor said. When both of the Intelligence operatives turned back to him, he gave them a toothy smile. <These are Halyn’s personal quarters. He’ll be back here tonight, or at the very least, you can catch him when he meets with the inner circle before tomorrow’s fighting starts up.>
“That’ll work,” Abi said, clearly still unhappy.
Li frowned. “Who will be at the meeting?”
<All the usuals,> Anishor said. <Halyn, myself, Sandarie, Kryi…> he trailed off, then smiled. <I understand.>
Li nodded. “What do you think, Abi?”
The Twi’lek flashed a predator’s grin, and her scatter pistol was in her hand as she replied. “If we see the traitor, we shoot first and ask questions later.”
The grey-and-red astromech whistled in low tones. His exterior was battered and dirty, but he seemed otherwise intact—an analysis that was strongly backed up by the droid’s behavior and excited whistles, bouncing back and forth on his wheels.
“You’re lucky to be intact,” Kelta Rose told the astromech. “You’re probably the only thing that came out of that building in one piece.”
The R2 unit whistled, and Kelta had to dig out a datapad to translate his droidspeak into Basic. There are a few people who can translate that without a computer, but I’m not one of them. Halyn always could, though.
THANK YOU FOR DIGGING ME OUT, the astromech’s translated speech flowed across her datapad. GENERAL LANCE WOULD BE UNHAPPY IF I HAD BEEN LOST.
Kelta frowned as she identified the droid. “Deuce?!”
She shook her head. The Force is either guiding me, or has a twisted sense of humor, she thought darkly.
The R2 astromech “Deuce” had been Halyn’s backseater and partner for nearly two years of battle. He had been dispatched on a shadow operation on Halyn’s orders right about the time the Zabrak had recruited her to keep his flight academy in order, and she had only met the droid a few months before the battle of Endor.
IS GENERAL LANCE INTACT? the droid queried her.
“More or less. Why?” Kelta asked.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY ORDERS. PRIMARY ORDERS, IN THE EVENT OF THE DESTRUCTION OF MY NORMAL AREA OF OPERATIONS, ARE TO RETURN TO GENERAL LANCE. SECONDARY ORDERS, IN THE EVENT GENERAL LANCE IS INCAPACITATED, ARE TO SEEK OUT KELTA ROSE.
Kelta frowned. “Halyn must not have updated your orders in a long time.”
MY CONTINGENCY ORDERS WERE UPDATED TWENTY-SEVEN HOURS AGO.
The Jedi’s frown deepened. “Why would Halyn send you to me?”
SECONDARY ORDER SET INCLUDES INSTRUCTIONS TO DISPLAY ENCRYPTED HOLOGRAPHIC RECORDING. HOLOGRAM IS LOCKED UNLESS GENERAL LANCE IS CONFIRMED AS INCAPACITATED.
Kelta pondered that for a few moments. Why would he send Deuce to find me and not Kativie or Anishor? she wondered. He would expect Kativie to step up and take his place, with Anishor backing her up. He still doesn’t trust me—as his skifter, he’s got Kat now, not me.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she murmured aloud. “He doesn’t care about me.”
AVAILABLE DATA INDICATES A CONTRARY CONCLUSION, the astromech whistled as the translation continued to display on her pad. GENERAL LANCE INDICATED CONSIDERABLE INTEREST IN JEDI KNIGHT KELTA ROSE AS RECENTLY AS TWENTY-SEVEN HOURS AGO.
“What? How would you know?” Kelta asked skeptically.
I HAVE BEEN SERVING WITH GENERAL LANCE SINCE HIS CONSCRIPTION INTO THE REBEL ALLIANCE, the droid tootled. MY MEMORY HAS NOT BEEN WIPED SINCE THAT TIME. DURING MY SERVICE, HE HAS EXPRESSED POSITIVE STATEMENTS ABOUT KELTA ROSE APPROXIMATELY TWENTY-TWO THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SEVEN TIMES. COUNT IS NOT EXACT DUE TO OVERLAPPING STATEMENTS AND PROGRAMMING CONFLICTS ABOUT CLASSIFICATION OF STATEMENTS AS SEPERATED OR CONJOINED.
Kelta shook her head. This is why I don’t like droids. But still, after all this time? “Deuce, can you play me the message Halyn left for me?”
NEGATIVE. MESSAGE IS LOCKED UNTIL GENERAL LANCE IS CONFIRMED AS INCAPACITATED.
“Figures,” Kelta muttered. Another thought occurred to her. “Deuce, what can you tell me about Halyn’s history after the battle of Endor and he and I parted ways?”
The astromech paused silently, the only sign of activity a flashing red/blue light. It went on long enough that Kelta started to worry she’d tripped some fail-safe when the R2 finally answered. MEMORY IS FRAGMENTED.
“Whatever you can would be great,” Kelta assured him.
SPECIFY TIME PERIOD. REPLAY OF TWENTY YEARS OF INFORMATION WILL REQUIRE MORE TIME THAN IS ALLOWED FOR INFORMATION RETRIEVAL WITHOUT OVERRIDE.
Kelta closed her eyes. How much do I really want to know? she asked herself. Halyn’s not even shared that information with Kativie.
“Cancel the information request,” she said quietly. Let Halyn’s past stay in the past. If he wants me to know, he’ll tell me himself.
“Tell me, Tactician,” Triak Kraal said slowly as he studied the impertinent world below him. “Have we lost the favor of the gods?”
Ret Kraal was slow in answering. “Supreme One, I would think that a question posted to the priests, not to a warrior.”
Triak waved a hand at the insignificant speck that was the homeworld of the Zabrak infidels. “We risk the loss of our own people, an entire domain shamed, because of the mistakes of another warrior at Borleias and the loss of his fleet. To test our worthiness, we are sent here, to an isolated pocket of space, to vanquish a single race and their handful of worlds.
“Yet unlike so many of the infidels we have crushed, they refuse to submit. They fight to the death instead of surrendering. They do not seek peace with us. Even with their fleet shattered and driven from orbit, our own forces laying siege to their capitol, they refuse to submit.
“They are infidels still, yet they fight like Yuuzhan Vong. Unlike other races in this galaxy, they engage our warriors in honorable combat, standing toe-to-toe with us, using filthy tools instead of living weapons, but fighting nonetheless. I know the thought on the minds of all our warriors: shall we find our redemption here, or are we doomed to be Shamed?”
Ret mused his Commander’s words for long moments before answering. “If this is truly a test of the gods for us, the truest method would be to withdraw their succor. They let us stand and fight these Zabraks, an almost worthy race if not for their heretical beliefs. When we conquer them, we prove we are still Yuuzhan Vong, the children of the gods, and their support lies with us. Fail, and we die alone.”
“You believe we fight on our own two feet then? Without the aid of the gods?”
The tactician paused before answering. Triak’s statement bordered on heresy, and it could very well be a trap that would devour Ret. Yet it made no sense for his Commander to lay such a trap, when Triak leaned heavily on his advice for strategies and tactics in the war they now waged. “As you say, so I believe, Commander,” he affirmed at last.
Triak smiled slowly. “When we conquer these stubborn Zabraks, we will be mightier than any domain,” he said with swelling pride. “For no other domain dares fight without the approval of the gods. None will stand against us with the gods’ power behind us.”
If we defeat these Zabraks, Ret amended silently.
“Commander,” a villip tender interrupted with bowed head. “A communication for you.”
Triak snatched the villip out of her hands and dismissed her haughtily. As the tender retreated, Ret studied the horned visage. “The traitor at last makes contact.”
“I apologize, Commander, for my silence,” the Zabrak traitor said shortly. “Your recent actions have left me little time nor room to make contact.”
“What information do you have to offer?” Triak asked. “More tricks and treachery?”
“My master,” Nylah said, “I offer only what I know. The Zabrak warmaster is aggrieved. Your action yesterday resulted in the death of one of his inner circle. His attention wanes.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” Triak snarled. “While your General may be a heretic and infidel, his attention does not budge from the battle.”
Nylah inclined her head. “Yet now lies the opportunity. Test my words again for truth. Press your attack, move swiftly, and see if the defenses stand or crumble.”
Triak stared at the villip. “You play a dangerous game,” he said at last. “Betraying your own. Even without your aid, we will conquer this world; if you play me for the fool, you will die screaming.”
“Then so be it,” Nylah said with another incline of her head. “My contacts will be even more brief in the future. New allies of the General have arrived, and they may unmask me if I am not careful. They were infiltrators of the Peace Brigade, and may recognize me on site in spite of the efforts I have taken to conceal myself.”
Ret Kraal couldn’t help but lean in with interest. “Who are these allies?”
“Pilots and New Republic agents. They slipped through your blockade while you were landing your reinforcements.”
Triak frowned. “The New Republic prepares an invasion in force, then?”
“No. These two are renegades, operating without orders. The New Republic has shown no interest in defending a planet that will not evacuate in the face of danger. Besides, there are few in the New Republic’s hierarchy that would lift a finger to help a race that is traditionally their enemy.”
Triak and Ret exchanged glances. “Do not attempt to mislead me,” Triak warned again. “Your race is no friend to the Empire that came before.”
“Not them, no,” Nylah said. “To the Sith. Ancient history.”
Triak nodded slightly. “Go, and bring me something of more value than intrigues and the state of your commander’s mind. Bring me the information I need to conquer these infidel world, and you will be elevated greatly; fail me, and your children’s children will bear the pain of your mistakes.” Before the traitor could answer, Triak inverted the villip, breaking the connection.
“I still do not trust this Nylah,” Triak said after a deep breath. “She promises much but brings little.”
“It is the way of all these infidels,” Ret risked commenting. “They turn against each other so often, what little she offers is all she has. This Halyn Sanshir understands the treachery of his own people even more than we do.” He shrugged. “This Nylah may yet be the key to his downfall.”
“Assassination?” Triak suggested.
“Perhaps. If she is truly among his inner circle, as she claims, she could manage the task. If not, perhaps the information necessary for us to eliminate him would be acquirable.”
Triak’s eyes glinted in the dim light. “Eliminating the Zabrak warmaster would do much to win this war.”
“We must wait, then, for her to again make contact. I will ensure the orders are issued, if you do not handle it personally.”
Triak waved off the statement. “I shall provide the instructions. In the meantime, step up the attempts to unmask this traitor’s identity. With that leverage, we will either make her truly our tool, or destroy her for betraying us.”