Kelta frowned as Halyn re-entered the bridge. The Ul’akhoi didn’t say anything or meet her gaze as he moved back to the command chair. She moved away from the wall and walked over, dropping into a crouch beside his chair. “Something wrong?” she whispered in his ear.
Halyn shook his head without looking. “Nothing important right now. Just two overeager old Rebels convinced I’m going to lose the war.” He raised his voice to be heard. “Situation, please.”
“The Vong are attempting to push through our defenses,” came the tired reply. “They’ve only made serious progress in one place, and Jedi Lusp is there now.”
I should be out there, Kelta thought as she glanced down at the lightsabers belted to her waist. I may be a sensitive, but I’m trained to fight. I could be doing Kativie a lot of good as her backup.
“Rotate fresh units in,” Halyn ordered. “Concentrate on the areas that have taken the least beating in the last two days.”
Kelta frowned and leaned back in. “The least active units?”
Halyn shrugged. “The Vong can only keep up the same old tactics for so long.” He nodded at the tactical holograms surrounding them. “With our aerial defenses still in place, keeping the Vong from resupply, they’re going to be getting desperate. Even the Vong have a limit on how many warriors they can throw away by storming over the bodies of their own dead.”
“Why now?” Kelta asked.
The Zabrak shrugged again. “Call it instinct.”
“Sir, Jedi Lusp is reporting in,” one of the officers called.
“Transfer the signal to my comlink,” Halyn ordered, hooking a headset over his ear and offering a second to Kelta. The Jedi Knight took it wordlessly and slid it on.
“Are you there, big brother?” Kativie’s voice rang in Kelta’s ear.
“I’m here with Kelta,” Halyn replied. “What’s your status?”
“I’ve blunted the Vong’s attack at this point,” Kat answered. “Our forces here are holding. When can they expect reinforcements?”
“Soon,” Halyn lied. “How’s morale on the line?”
“Frustrated, but determined.” Kat’s voice faded for a moment as an explosion echoed over the comm, then strengthened again. “Lot of warriors out here frustrated because they’re being pushed back. Or,” she added wryly, “being pulled back. Every one I’ve talked is determined to fight to the end, though. No one thinks the Vong are unbeatable, and there’s no talk of surrender or retreat.”
“Good.” Halyn closed his eyes. “I need you to stay out there on the front lines. Make sure we hold.”
“We’ll hold,” Kativie said determinedly. “I could use another Jedi out here, though,” she added with a touch of hope.
“Not yet,” Halyn said. “You’ll see her again soon enough, though.”
“Oh? Getting restless on the Cathleen, big brother?”
“Something like that.” Halyn smiled. “Can’t have the Ul’akhoi only standing back giving orders. Iridonians won’t follow me if I don’t lead from in front.”
“You’re the Hero of Iridonia and the Ul’akhoi. The warriors here would follow you into a black hole if you asked them.”
“I hope they’re not that foolish,” Kelta joked.
“If they thought that black hole would swallow the Vong, they certainly are,” Kat said with a touch of grim humor. “See you soon, big brother.”
“That’s the plan, Katie.”
The link went dead and both Halyn and Kelta pulled their headsets off. “You’re planning on going back out to the front line?” Kelta asked with a raised eyebrow. “The last time you did that, you were nearly filleted by an amphistaff.”
“Good thing I have a Jedi to watch my back, then,” he replied with a straight face. “Or at least patch me up when the Vong get done with me.”
Kelta shook his head at his battlefield humor. “Even after all these years, your jokes haven’t gotten any better.”
“But my tactics have,” Halyn said with a small smile. “Take a look at the tactical hologram.”
Kelta looked up at the holo, but she couldn’t see what he was talking about until one of the bridge officers lit the appropriate sector with crimson. “The Vong are making a push there, where you’ve moved your forces away,” she breathed.
“Because they were needed elsewhere,” Halyn agreed. “Except they weren’t moved away. There go the reinforcements.” On the tactical hologram, two Muurian transports dropped straight into the hot zone, deploying the already prepared warriors. The Zabrak nodded in satisfaction. “They’ll hold.” He turned in his command chair. “What’s the status on Ocopaqui’s special forces group? Have they deployed yet?”
“Yes, they have,” the comm officer said. “They’re deploying right now into a hot zone.”
Halyn shrugged. “Guess I’ll go without them, then. Prepare a Muurian for me. See if you can get Kativie on the line again—if you can raise her, have her meet me at the New Horizon Designs building. Kelta, Ceikeh, you two are with me.”
Kelta had been so intent on Halyn that she had missed the presence of the Zabrak Senator standing against the wall. She looked over, returned his nod of greeting, and rose to her feet.
“Sir,” Kryi Rinnet protested, “the New Horizon Designs building is right near where the Vong are probably going to strike next.”
“Yep. That’s the idea.” He headed straight back to the turbolift. “Kryi, mind the shop while I’m gone.”
The turbolift door hissed open to reveal Anishor. Halyn didn’t even slow as he walked past the giant Wookiee. “C’mon, furball. Could use you—that’ll make our team four.”
<Four?> Anishor asked as the door hissed shut, with Kelta and Ceikeh barely slipping through in time. <Where are we going?>
“To fight the Vong,” Halyn said dryly. “I figure the four of us are worth a scarhead army.”
Anishor’s only reply was a fierce, fang-baring grin.
“The enemy has anticipated you, tactician,” Triak Kraal said with a note of displeasure. “Your attempt to deceive the infidel has failed.”
Ret Kraal bowed his head. “I have failed you, Supreme One. If it is your will, I will take my life in recompense for my failure.”
Triak snorted. “Hardly, tactician. Where would I find a suitable replacement? No, it is not your time. Your death would not benefit the Yuuzhan Vong.”
Ret rose to his feet. “The enemy warmaster is more clever than I have given him credit for.”
“It is easy to think less of an infidel because of his mere existence,” Triak mused. “With the gods at our backs, how could any infidel stand against us? How could they possibly be more clever than the children of the gods? Truth that may be, but it is a trap of our making. We have defeated ourselves.”
“We are not defeated,” Ret objected.
“The war is not lost, but the infidels have blunted this attack,” Triak agreed. “We will need a new plan, a new strategy to defeat these Zabrak.”
“Yet how much longer can we hold?” Ret pressed his Commander. “Our supplies grow short. These Zabrak destroy every food, contaminate every water they leave behind. Their accursed aerial defenses strangle our supply lines in an impossible grip.”
“You are the tactician,” Triak growled. “You present problems—now present solutions!”
Ret bowed deeply. “I have failed you yet again, Supreme One.”
“Not yet. But defeating the enemy must be your highest goal. Upon you rests the redemption or Shame of our entire domain.” Triak stared at his subordinate. “Should you fail to find a solution, we shall forever be cast out of the Yuuzhan Vong!”
A villip tender interrupted, her head bowed in humble subservience and hands filled with a villip. “Supreme One, my life in compensation, but the traitor’s villip has inverted.”
“Nylah,” Triak snarled as he turned and took the villip from the tender.
The Zabrak traitor’s face was calm but clearly tired. Triak knew enough about these infidels now to recognize the signs—drooping eyelids, bloodshot eyes, loose skin under the eyes. “The traitor dares show her face again,” he spat.
“Commander,” she said evenly. Her tone, as near as Triak could decipher it, held no trace of the weariness her face betrayed. “The battle flows in your favor.”
“Did you only contact me to gloat?” Triak growled. “Foolish infidel. If that is your decision, I will very personally hunt you down and remove your head.”
“Hardly, Commander. I have already sold out my people, and I don’t doubt my betrayal will become known if the Zabraks win. My only chance of survival is in your victory.” Her tone was contrite.
“I have little time for your games,” the Yuuzhan Vong commander said. “The battle demands my full attention.”
“I will be brief, then, Commander,” Nylah replied. “I offer you the life of the Zabrak general, our Ul’akhoi, Halyn Sanshir.”
That comment brought both Triak and Ret’s full attention to the villip.
“If you are too preoccupied to speak of it now, I will try to make contact again later,” Nylah continued. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience…”
“Speak, infidel.” Triak’s voice was low and cold. “Your fate hangs on the edge of a coufee. Make good on your offer, and your life and your precious credits will be long and many. Fail, and only death awaits.”
“I offer the fruit on the vine,” Nylah countered. “It is up to you to pluck it and consume it.”
“Give us this fruit, then,” Triak said shortly.
“The Ul’akhoi makes his base of operations in the wreckage of the Star Cruiser Cathleen, which you pulled out of orbit,” Nylah began.
“Our readers surmised as much,” Triak countered.
“He also makes his home there, among the ruins. He has surrounded himself with those unable or unwilling to fight. The young and the elderly, the wounded and infirm, all are hidden within the remains of the Cathleen.”
“How does that make him vulnerable?” Triak asked contemptuously. “Even the weak and infirm can raise an alarm, can trouble an invading force. We would fight our way through a thousand sick and dying to strike down your infidel leader, and it would take far too long to prevent him from slipping the attack.”
Nylah shook her head, with the villip doing its best to match the motion. “No, Commander. I offer you the specifics—where the Ul’akhoi’s personal quarters are.”
Triak and Ret exchanged glances. This leak could end the life of their most hated foe and turn the tide of the battle for Rak’Edalin in a single night.
“I don’t have all the information an assassination team would need,” Nylah hedged. “The hull was fractured and breached in many places in the crash; a team should be able to find an infiltration point.”
“If you know the Ul’akhoi’s location, slit his throat yourself and your rewards will be doubled,” Triak offered. “Bring us his head and live the rest of your life in infidel riches.”
“A tempting offer, but one I cannot take up at this time,” Nylah said with a trace of sadness. “The Ul’akhoi has divided up all of us who give him counsel and dispatched us to different fields of battle. He has kept only a few around him—a Jedi bodyguard and a handful of others. Were I to attempt to slay him, I would be quickly caught and executed for my treason, most likely without succeeding.”
Triak and Ret exchanged looks again. The infidel warmaster had changed his methods of operation. No doubt he suspects there is a traitor within his own domain, Triak told himself. The death of this traitor would be no great loss to Domain Kraal, but she will hardly sacrifice herself for our case. She is, after all, an infidel.
“Tell me, then,” Triak said as he leaned toward the villip. “Where does the Zabrak warmaster sleep?”
“This is the third stupidest thing you’ve done that I’ve known about in the last twenty years,” Kelta hollered over the rush of wind.
“Third, huh?” Halyn shouted back. “Does that count Endor?”
“No! You were under orders there!”
Halyn snorted and shook his head at the red-headed Jedi Knight. In spite of his best efforts, he kept seeing flashes of her with eyes twenty years younger. You’re not a kid anymore, he told himself firmly. And neither is she.
“So what’s the second dumbest?” he asked as the rush of wind was replaced by the whine of repulsorlifts.
“Thinking that bringing the Vong down to the surface of Iridonia was a good idea,” she yelled.
Halyn laughed aloud, though the repulsorlifts drowned it out. Through the open hatch, he could see Rak’Edalin spread out before him, and the thin line of demarcation between the Iridonian defenders and the Yuuzhan Vong invaders.
About half of the city was now in Yuuzhan Vong hands. The sections of it still in the hands of the Zabraks stood tall and bright, untouched by the ravages of war. The broad swaths that had fallen were smoking ruins, quite often literally. The Yuuzhan Vong would destroy every blasphemous creation the Zabraks left behind, but Halyn had given orders to deny them that capability. The defenders had carried with them everything usable they could scavenge and pack, and destroyed everything else.
Halyn’s strategy for victory relied heavily on cutting the Yuuzhan Vong supply lines and starving the invaders of the materiel they needed to conduct a war. The old veteran had understood very well that merely cutting the supply lines wouldn’t do the entirety of the job; while the Vong wouldn’t soil themselves by touching or wielding infidel weapons, they very well could use Zabrak food and water, which would keep them fighting for a very long time.
Still, it was difficult to see so much of Rak’Edalin in ruin. Halyn closed his eyes. It’s necessary. You knew this from the beginning. You knew it wouldn’t be a quick or easy war, and that you’d have to make the hard choices. You knew that, when it’s all over, you may not be welcome on your own world, but you also knew no one else could make these decisions.
That doesn’t mean you have to like them, though. He grasped that thought for a moment. You haven’t become the villain—not yet, anyways. You’re sacrificing a little to save Iridonia, and there’s not another way. Not with the New Republic in shambles and no other friendly forces to save you. No, it had to be that way, and you knew it.
He forced his thoughts away from the grief gnawing at his heart, staring out into the open air. The New Horizon Designs building was squarely ahead now, like a zhaboka jutting up from a beach. It was the tallest building in all of Rak’Edalin, more than double the height of the now-fallen Capitol.
The building had went up several years after the battle of Endor. New Horizon Designs had decided that Iridonia, with its focus on starfighter defenses over traditional star-faring fleets, was the ideal headquarters for a starfighter development and manufacturing company. NHD’s research facilities had led to some of the refits to starfighters across Zabrak space, and their manufacturing capabilities had turned out nearly half of the T-wings built for Iridonia’s defenses.
After the peace treaty with the Empire, however, New Horizon Designs had moved their headquarters to Coruscant. Some of the company’s facilities, employing Zabrak engineers and laborers, were still producing equipment, which included a very large part of the supplies needed to keep Iridonia’s fighter defenses in the air. The headquarters building, however, had been reduced to a maintenance staff.
Staff which had been evacuated when the Vong landed outside Rak’Edalin.
The New Horizon Designs building was now abandoned and, as a pinnacle of engineering, would be a juicy target for the Yuuzhan Vong.
Halyn adjusted his duster to fall more comfortably across his shoulders. He checked his sidearm, a Power5 pistol, confirmed his zhaboka was still slung across his back with a tip of his head, and ensured the long, Wookiee-forged blade was hanging securely inside his duster.
Around him, he saw his three companions doing similar checks: Anishor warming up with a rykk blade, Ceikeh Alari using his zhaboka as a simple pole to help stretch tight muscles, and Kelta now dropping into a meditative posture, a lightsaber in either hand.
Halyn smiled. It’s been twenty years since we all fought together in the Civil War—well, aside from Ceikeh—but they’re still as sharp as ever. Maybe they’re even better than they were back then.
The whine of the repulsors seemed to grow even louder as the Muurian’s forward flight slowed further. The transport was descending now, the ground growing nearer. Halyn peaked out the open ramp and was satisfied to note that no dizziness or vertigo assaulted him. I’m still as good as I ever was, he thought smugly. I could still step into a starfighter without a problem.
Kelta Rose appeared beside him and flashed him a stunning smile. Without hesitating, she walked to the end of the open ramp and jumped into the open air.
“Show-off!” Halyn shouted after her, though he doubted she could hear him.
Anishor and Ceikeh both snickered behind him. The Ul’akhoi turned and glared at his friends. “What are you laughing at?”
“Nothing, boss,” Ceikeh said with a grin. “You should’ve been the Jedi in your family, you know.”
Halyn snorted as the transport slowed its descent, his knees taking the pressure. “No one wants to see the galaxy where I was a Jedi,” he said.
Dust billowed up from the sand in front of the New Horizon Designs building as the repulsors kicked up loose material. Halyn ran to the end of the ramp, dropping the last meter to the ground in an imitation of Kelta’s graceful leap from a hundred meters up. Anishor and Ceikeh followed a moment later, and Halyn turned back to wave the pilot off. The Muurian lifted up on its repulsorlifts, spinning away and rising quickly on a jet of ions.
Halyn turned back and saw now why Kelta had leapt from the transport: an emerald lightsaber blade was flashing through the dust, as bright as the sun itself. Even as he watched, twin purple flames joined it, the three lightsabers the only visible sign of anyone in the choking cloud.
“Well, I didn’t come here for drinks!” Halyn shouted above the now-fading din of the Muurian’s engines. “C’mon!”
Unhooking the zhaboka from his back, he rushed towards the already-engaged battle, a Wookiee berserker and an ex-mercenary at his back.
Kativie parried madly, her teeth clenched tightly as another Yuuzhan Vong bore down on her with maddened strength. “Not today,” she snarled, thrusting his attack aside and spinning around. Her lightsaber blade flicked neatly through his neck, leaving the decapitated warrior to fall bonelessly to the ground.
She barely had time to block the next attack: a Yuuzhan Vong warrior leapt straight over the body of his falling comrade, bringing his amphistaff down in a powerful overhand strike.
The Jedi’s wrists strained with the shock, barely holding the hissing staff at bay. You’re a small woman, her master had once told her during a lightsaber sparring exercise. You will almost always face opponents who are taller and stronger than you. Use your quickness, and don’t allow a fight to devolve into a contest of strength. And, more insidious, the voice of her very first instructor in the ways of the Force: you cannot match me, strength for strength. Turn my attacks aside instead of blocking them.
She slipped out from under the amphistaff, spinning aside. Her lightsaber flipped up in a defensive pattern. Kativie couldn’t see, couldn’t feel any incoming attacks through the Force, but her shining blade pushed away two strikes nonetheless. She smiled as she set herself, ready now to face her opponent.
Except it wasn’t one opponent; it was three.
Before she could strike, dust billowed across all three of them as the whine of a transport’s repulsorlifts assaulted her ears. Barely able to see, she flicked the blade defensively again, fending off another pair of strikes probing for her through the haze. She was grateful again, in that moment, that Master Skywalker had developed the technique after the outbreak of war with the Yuuzhan Vong—a pattern developed from the old Form III of lightsaber combat, Soresu. It had saved Kativie’s life a hundred times over, and she had no doubt it had saved many other Jedi as well.
Purple fire erupted in the dust near her, and her Force senses were filled with the shining presence of another Jedi. Kelta! Nearby, Kativie could sense three other presences as well: the brilliant light of the berserker Anishor, the calm determination and inexhaustible energy of her brother Halyn, and the grim experience of Senator Alari.
Oh, maybe this won’t be so bad. Kativie sprung forward through the dust, lightsaber striking instinctively. A Yuuzhan Vong warrior went down in with a howl, a mass of scorched flesh where his eyes had been. She stabbed her lightsaber down into the amphistaff’s head, killing the serpent before it could strike at her feet.
Two left. One, she amended as she saw another Vong fall in three pieces, victim to Kelta’s twin lightsabers.
The last Vong warrior snarled and turned to engage the closer Kelta. Instead of attempting to rush him, Kativie released the grip on her lightsaber. The Force flooded through her, bending to her will: the green-white blade stabbed forward impossibly fast, impaling the Yuuzhan Vong warrior. As he crumpled to the ground, the hilt returned to her hand with a satisfying smack.
The dust was just starting to clear when Halyn, Anishor, and Ceikeh slid to a stop, weapons in hand.
“You’re a little slow for a rescue,” Kativie remarked wryly.
“Hardly,” was her brother’s dry reply.
Kativie looked back through the clearing dust cloud. A hundred Yuuzhan Vong warriors stood ready fifty meters away, amphistaffs in hand. “Do-ro’ik vong pratte!” they shouted as one.
“Tactical retreat,” Halyn suggested. He turned. “Kelta, you take lead. Get us up to the roof of New Horizon Designs.”
“Right,” she said, as if in a daze. She turned and sprinted towards the skyscraper, lightsabers blazing.
The remains of the Zabrak squad that had been guarding this section of the battlefront abandoned their pitifully sparse cover to join Kativie and the others. The survivors only numbered a half-dozen. “Sir,” said the ranking officer, a boy of no older than seventeen, “Orders?”
The Yuuzhan Vong began to walk towards the Zabrak defenders. “Right,” Kativie said with a nod. “Follow us. This is going to get ugly, so try to keep up.” She looked over at Halyn. “I assume you have a plan besides trapping us on top of the tallest building in Rak’Edalin?” she asked.
“Why does everyone complain about my plans?” Halyn asked theatrically.
The door into New Horizon Designs fell to the ground with a thump. “Are you guys coming?” Kelta shouted.
“Yeah, I think it’s time to leave this party,” Halyn said agreeably, flicking the zhaboka back around to lock into place against his back. “Blasters only,” he advised. “No stopping to duel. Everyone follow Kelta. Anishor, you ride drag on our Iridonian defenders here. Katie, borrow a blaster—we’ve got rearguard. Now let’s go!”
The Yuuzhan Vong were beginning to trot now towards the pitifully small band of defenders. On Halyn’s orders, the band sprinted towards the New Horizon Designs building. The Vong let out a roar of outrage, picking up their own pace to pursue.
Kelta was well in the lead, leaving a smoking pile of doors in her wake. Ceikeh led the half-dozen warriors as closely behind her as he could manage, but even with the disadvantage of breaking trail, Kelta was able to keep lead over them. Her twin lightsabers carved through doors twice as quickly as Kativie’s single blade would have managed.
Kativie and Halyn lagged behind, firing almost continually at their Yuuzhan Vong pursuers. Kativie held her lightsaber in her off-hand, only bringing it up to pick off incoming thud bugs and razor bugs.
The siblings were indiscriminate with their blasters, burning holes through floors, walls, ceilings, and Yuuzhan Vong. The invaders, finding their initial attacks ineffective, resorted to blast bugs instead. Halyn and Kativie both attempted to shoot them out of the air, though their detonations still blew holes through the thin walls and floors of the structure.
Kativie grimaced as their pursuers choked the stairwells below them, all of them determined to get a crack at the Jeedai and the mad Zabrak defenders. As she pulled a thermal detonator from her belt, she wondered briefly if the Yuuzhan Vong had recognized her brother as the hated Ul’akhoi. She thumbed the thermal detonator to life with a three-second timer and pulled her arm back to throw.
Halyn snatched the detonator out of her hand, his own closing to hold the trigger in place. “Are you crazy?” he shouted. “You’ll bring the building down on us!”
“You have a better idea?” Kativie shot back.
“Take your lightsaber to the stairs!”
Grimacing, she brought her almost forgotten blade down to slash away at the stairs below her. They groaned in protest as supports gave way. The Vong howled and rushed even faster, barely slowed by Halyn’s rapid-fire blasts in their ranks. Kativie retreated further up the stairs, Halyn moving more slowly as he attempted to slow the Yuuzhan Vong attack. It wasn’t working; in spite of their leaders falling to repeated hits to the face and torso and belly, they continued their intense pursuit.
Kativie reached the next landing and slashed her blade through the stairs. Deprived of support both above and below, the stairs rumbled and started to fall away. Abruptly, her brain caught up with her. Halyn is still on the stairs!
She dropped her lightsaber, the blade hissing into oblivion as the deadman switch in the handgrip killed its power. She swung her free hand out, grabbing Halyn’s outstretched arm as the stairs fell away. His sudden weight nearly pulled them both into the hole, but the Force rooted her into place on the stairs, and gave her the strength to pull him up.
They stood shakily for a moment, both breathing hard. Kativie called her lightsaber back to her hand, and Halyn just stood and trembled. “That,” he said, “was too close.”
“Next time, I’ll give you the lightsaber,” Kativie joked.
“I’ll hold you to that.” He looked back at the collapsed staircase and the crowd of Yuuzhan Vong now freeing hordes of flying bugs from belts and bandoleers. “That’s not going to hold them off for more than a minute or two. We’d better catch up with the rest.”