Dust and debris from the shattered roof was repelled by the Muurian’s shields, raising sparks and giving a faint blue haze to the view through the canopy. Li grimaced as another large chunk fell and bounced off the shields directly above him, drawing a whine from the ship’s shield generators. “This is getting ugly,” he grumbled aloud.
Anishor answered through the ship’s comm. <Not much longer.>
“How many left?” Li asked.
<Twenty at best,> Anishor replied, his voice abruptly rising into a battle growl that made Li wince. He’s going to shatter my eardrums.
“We can get those on board our ship,” Li decided. He slapped the comm board, changing channels. “Two and Three, take off and get yourselves back to the Cathleen with your cargoes,” he ordered. “We’ve got the rest.”
He waited until the other Muurian pilots had acknowledged, then flipped the comm back to the channel he was sharing with the Wookiee berserker. The two transports slowly rose on repulsorlifts on either side of him, sending yet another shower of debris raining down on his parked ship. “C’mon, Anishor,” he said urgently. “Get the last Zabraks on board so we can get our asses out of here. We’re going to get the ship shot out from under us if we wait much longer.”
Anishor didn’t immediately reply. Li rose from his seat, trying to get a better look at the battle through the smoke and dust boiling through the destroyed Council chamber.
The remaining Iridonians were reluctant to disengage from the eager Vong warriors, but they were slowly being pushed back. The Zabraks were careful in their direction, only allowing themselves to fall back towards the Muurian. Zhabokas and amphistaffs were flashing faster than Li’s eye could follow in the dust, with casualties falling on both sides.
“Much longer and we’re not going to have anyone alive to get out,” Li grumbled.
Anishor’s battle roar was audible even over the din of a building shaking itself to pieces. Li saw the big Wookiee charge headlong into the fray, a rykk blade in either hand as he bolstered the faltering Zabrak defenders.
“Wrong idea!” Li shouted. “We need to retreat, not hold!”
The battle came to a standstill for a long moment as the arrival of the berserker swung the tide. Anishor’s blades seemed to gleam with some internal light that was visible even in the haze of war. Li shook his head. He’s forgetting the point of evacuation, the pilot thought. With nothing to do but wait, he looked away from the fight to the bodies lying around.
He was sickened to recognize a beheaded corpse as Nisia Eisweep, one of Halyn’s close friends and advisors. Damn, he thought to himself. Damn. Halyn’s not going to like this. He sighed. Be honest, Li. You’re going to be lucky if you make it off this rock alive, and there’s not many pilots who can match you in the air. For all you know, we’re all going to end up like that.
His eyes wandered further, and he spotted something even more disturbing: an older Zabrak, not quite elderly, being pulled from the mounds of dead by Yuuzhan Vong warriors. They released him, and he swayed on his feet, but remained standing. They’re taking prisoners! Li swallowed, remembering what he’d seen on a dozen different worlds: loyal New Republic citizens, taken and sacrificed to appease the bloodlust of the Yuuzhan Vong’s imaginary gods. No one deserves that.
He turned back to the battle to see that Anishor was now leading a slow, defensive retreat back to the last transport. The Zabrak warriors still standing were a bloodied and battered lot, their numbers slowly dwindling even with the mighty Wookiee defending them.
Li glanced over at the prisoner and the Vong warriors. No one deserves that, he repeated to himself.
He unstrapped from the pilot’s seat and ran aft.
The upper turbolaser had been manned by a Zabrak gunner when the transport had broken its way into the Council, but that gunner had abandoned his post to defend the boarding ramp with a zhaboka and blaster rifle. Li took advantage of the vacancy by climbing up the gunwell and settling in behind the turbolaser’s controls.
He didn’t bother strapping in; he would be returning to the cockpit in just a moment. The controls were labeled in Zabraki, but the layout was standard Corellian controls for the weapon, no different than the more common quad lasers found in smuggler transports across the galaxy. Li flipped the weapon out of standby with a few switches, then rotated the starship weapon around to where the Vong were now retreating with their prisoner.
He was almost too late; the Vong were already retreating into one of the holes opened through the hallway. The Zabrak had already disappeared into the gap by the time he leveled the weapon at the hole.
Li closed his eyes for a brief moment. Killing in battle was one thing; he had long since made peace with that, having shed blood for nearly thirty years. He even was comfortable with what he was about to do to the Yuuzhan Vong—they had massacred and sacrificed and slaughtered their way across a galaxy that would have greeted them with open arms, had they come peacefully. But to pull the trigger on an ally, to save him from captivity…well, that was something else entirely.
He pushed his doubt aside, opened his eyes, and jammed his thumbs down on the firing studs.
Green-white laserfire, blindingly bright in the dim chamber, flashed through the dust-choked air and slammed into the wall. Yuuzhan Vong at the edge of the blast were thrown askew, tumbled like insects in a gale-force wind. Vong more directly caught by the shot died instantly, their blood and flesh boiled away faster than an eyeblink.
Of the captured Zabrak, Li could see nothing.
However, he very distinctly could see the even-further comprised wall starting to collapse.
Li found himself grateful that he hadn’t strapped himself in. He dropped from the turbolaser turret, sliding down the ladder to the transport’s main deck.
When his boots hit metal, he sprinted for the cockpit, pushing through dazed and wounded Zabrak warriors and politicians, making for the cockpit. The rumble outside the ship grew louder, and he could hear Anishor’s battle cry clearly now.
By the time he was sliding into the pilot’s chair again, he could see the building was coming down. No stopping it now, he thought as he fed power into the repulsorlifts. “Anishor!” he called at the comm. “Ten seconds until lift!”
<Go now!> Anishor immediately returned.
Li decided survival was more important than grace, and slammed full power to the repulsors.
The transport leapt from the ground like a startled nexu. The dorsal shields smashed against the roof—his ascent hadn’t carried him along the same path as his descent—but he held tight to the controls, refusing to budge a centimeter.
He couldn’t tell if the roar was from the shields, the engines, or the building, but Li couldn’t hear anything distinct as he fought the Muurian’s controls with every ounce of skill he possessed.
Then the building was falling away, and the transport was free.
The rumble faded away, and Li could hear again. His eyes stung, and he realized sweat had poured into them during the struggle. He wiped it away, and found his hands were shaking. He clamped onto the controls to steady them.
Anishor was speaking now over the comm. <…too many close scrapes,> the Wookiee rumbled. <Even during the height of the Civil War, we had more breaks, more rest, more time between fights than this.>
“Yeah,” Li croaked. He shook his head. I’m never flying a transport for Halyn again. And people say starfighters are dangerous!
The infirmary was quiet when Halyn arrived. The only time they’re not quiet is when all hell has broken loose, he observed distantly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be proper. Can’t break decorum unless there’s a damned good reason.
He shook his head at the dark thought. Can’t be thinking that way. Too much to do yet, and too little time. Can’t afford to pity myself, either, or Iridonia will pay the price. We’re on the edge of disaster, and if I don’t walk this exactly right, it will end in disaster.
He allowed himself a small smile, remembering some long-ago lecture to a class of starfighter pilot trainees. The difference between a good pilot and a great pilot is the ability to operate on the very edge of disaster; a great pilot pushes much further toward that line than a good pilot. The difference between a great pilot and a dead pilot is that the dead pilot pushed even further.
Dead… he shook his head, trying to will the word away. Dead, dead, dead. Lenn is, Sandi is between life and death, some of Kativie and Allanna’s children did, and Abi could’ve died, all because you’ve been too reckless. Others are paying for your mistakes. Not to mention all the Iridonians who have died fighting the war so far. How many more will die before this is over? How many will you kill to beat the Vong?
No. No self-pity. No doubt. Carry the plan through, or everyone who’s died following your orders did it for nothing.
He swallowed hard as he walked further into the medical bay. It was perhaps half-filled now with wounded Zabraks. As the battle lines had pulled in tighter around the Cathleen, the wrecked ship’s facilities had been heavier utilized to treat the casualties of the nearly-continual fighting.
He would have had to be blind to not see Abi, though.
Amidst the flesh-colored Zabrak warriors, the blue Twi’lek stood out distinctly from the other wounded undergoing treatment.
Abi was alone on a corner bed, treated only by a medical droid. Sandi’s dire predicament was indicative of Iridonia’s limited capability to assist non-Zabraks. Were Abi’s wounds more typical—an amputated hand, a hole opened in her belly from an amphistaff stabbing, or slashed open flesh from a cut—Zabrak physicians would have sewn her up, treated her with bacta, and sent her on her way.
A severed lekku, however, was something else entirely.
Halyn had known more than a few Twi’leks during his years—Abi and Sandarie, several of his pilots during the war like Tairs’Ren, pirates like Poe’kunal, even Force-users like Ab’Ki Acha. From many conversations, he understood something of lekku and their purposes.
The nickname “brain tail” for a lek was not entirely inaccurate. The cartilaginous lek housed a fair amount of a Twi’lek’s brain, and was a tool for communication as well. Twi’leks could communicate entirely silently with shakes and twitches of their lekku; only a few non-Twi’leks could even attempt to decipher the language.
Sandarie had told him once—after a lot of drinking—that lekku stored the memories of her ancestors. Those memories weren’t necessarily clear, vivid images, but they held deeply ingrained beliefs, behaviors, attitudes: the very basics of culture.
A Twi’lek who lost her lekku was an outcast.
It wasn’t that other Twi’leks would necessarily exile an amputee; rather, the victim would lose a certain, fundamental part of herself that every Twi’lek shared. In a certain sense, she was no longer a Twi’lek at all.
Halyn was hesitant to approach his old friend.
Abi’s eyes burned with something Halyn couldn’t identify. “You,” she whispered hoarsely.
Halyn didn’t speak at first; instead, he watched the medical droid finish wrapping the amputated lek. When the Emdee-One finished, it laid the damaged appendage across Abi’s chest, mirroring her other lek.
The Zabrak blew out a sigh as he looked her over. “Hello,” he said quietly.
“I should have shot you twenty-five years ago,” Abi rasped.
“Yes, you should have.” Halyn shook his head. “How do you feel?”
The fire faded from the Twi’lek’s eyes. “I…I don’t know.”
The words jarred him worse than anything he had imagined she might say to him. Abi’s personality was always bedrock certain—right or wrong, she would stick with a thought or opinion until it wasn’t possible to maintain it. She made her mind up quickly, and never, ever bothered with indecision.
“I feel…different,” the Twi’lek said slowly. “Like some part of me is just gone.”
“What part?” Halyn asked.
She started to shake her head, grimaced, and stopped. “I don’t know. It’s like I know something’s wrong, but I can’t identify it. I know something’s missing, but I don’t know what.”
The Ul’akhoi straightened. Don’t hesitate, he told himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I got you into this. I’m sorry you were hurt fighting on my behalf.”
Abi looked at him, and he still couldn’t read her eyes. “I’m not sure if I’m still me, Hal. I’m not sure if Abi died, and I’m here in her place.”
The words stung him, and he closed his eyes. Of course. She’s brain-damaged. Even assuming she heals, she might not be the same person anymore.
“The med droid believes the amphistaff missed my brain, though,” Abi continued softly. “Took a big chunk out of my lek, severed a lot of nerves and muscles and tendons and cartilage, but the soft stuff is still intact. An inch higher and I’d be in a lot worse shape.”
Halyn opened his eyes. “Your brain’s intact?”
“The med droid thinks so,” Abi said. “But the surviving part of my lek is all swelled with blood and clotting and from the trauma, so it’s a bit like you horn-heads having a concussion. We won’t know for sure until the swelling has gone down.” She grimaced. “Though I don’t know what I’ll do with a short lek.”
The Zabrak found his voice. “Could be your new signature as a bounty hunter,” he suggested with forced casualness. “Criminals could be terrified of One-Lek coming after them.”
“Not my style,” Abi said. “Too distinctive. I mean, with one lekku, I’d never be able to sneak up on anyone.”
Halyn reached out and grasped her hand, squeezed it. “I’m sorry I got you into this mess,” he said quietly.
“You didn’t,” Abi retorted, her eyes opening and flaring with fire. “So knock it off. I got myself into this fight, and the Vong cut my lek off, not you. And believe me, when I get out of this damned medical center, I’m going to find a way to make every single one of them pay for it.”
“That sounds like the Abi we all know,” Halyn said with a quiet, sad chuckle.
“And love,” Abi added.
“Well, know, anyways.”
She wasn’t strong enough to lash out at him, but he stepped back anyway.
“The patient needs complete rest,” the Emdee intoned from the other side of the bed. “Further excitement will only serve to harm the patient.”
“Shove it up your charger port,” Abi rasped at the droid.
“No, the machine is right,” Halyn said. “You’d better rest.”
“What else is going on?” Abi asked as Halyn turned his back. “I know I didn’t get the bastard, but I saw him. Did anyone else get him?”
“Not yet,” Halyn said as he started to walk away. “No one got him during the strike, but I’m going to make damned sure he doesn’t get off Iridonia alive.”
Commander Triak of Domain Kraal smiled contentedly when the bloodied warriors dumped a Zabrak at his feet.
“The Zabrak Councilor, Achick Lusp, as you requested, Supreme One,” one of the warriors growled.
“The Commander requested he be brought alive,” the tactician, Ret Kraal, stated flatly.
“The Zabrak lives.” The warrior shook his head. “One of his own kind attempted to kill him when we captured him. A dozen warriors died, but this infidel lives.”
“Wake him,” Triak said impatiently, gesturing a hand at the infidel. “The war progresses quickly, and we must waste no time.”
One of the warriors provided a spineray coaxer, a new creation of the shapers during the Iridonian campaign. The nervous systems of the infidel species were varied, and creations that worked for one species often did not work well on another. The creature, designed to inflict pain, had been specifically adapted for use on the Zabraks. It had been tested thoroughly on captured Zabrak warriors, but never put to important use.
Achick Lusp’s eyes snapped open as pain coursed through his nervous system, eliciting a pitiful moan. Hardly the behavior of a warrior, Triak thought with amusement. And there are those among us who dare think these Zabraks equal warriors!
He carefully pushed aside his own doubts, his own heresies, refusing to acknowledge them until he had finished with this infidel politician.
“Awaken and arise,” Triak said aloud, in the infidel Basic tongue. “The gods have smiled upon you, Achick Lusp. You still have some minor use to them before you go to your Ultimate Reward.”
The Zabrak tried to rise to his knees, but the pain was apparently too much for him to bear, as he curled into a tight ball on the floor of the damutek, one of many such living buildings the shapers had grown and planted among the Rak’Edalin ruins.
Triak gestured impatiently to the warrior controlling the spineray coaxer. The warrior stroked the creature wrapped around the Zabrak’s neck, quieting it. A moment later, the Zabrak stopped shaking and managed to rise to his knees.
“Where am I?” Achick asked blearily.
“You are among the Chosen,” Triak informed him shortly. “Arise, Achick Lusp, and serve the gods! Or die as an infidel coward and face the eternal void instead.”
The Zabrak, to his credit, staggered to his feet in spite of the burns lining his back and arms, the scorches that patterned his bald head with red streaks. “What are you talking about?” he rasped.
“It is simple,” Triak said. “I want to make a bargain with you. That is the correct word in your Basic, is it not?”
“Basic is not my language,” Achick said hoarsely.
“I will take that as a confirmation.” Triak began to pace back and forth before the prisoner. “We have learned much about you infidels in our time in this galaxy,” he explained slowly. “You infidels often choose the weakest amongst you to lead. It seems your kind prefers a warrior with no power, who could never be a threat, to be your leaders. Your galaxy is a soft place, one which does not understand the necessity of war and sacrifice.”
The Zabrak’s eyes were focusing more clearly now, Triak noted approvingly. “We have taken advantage of your weaknesses repeatedly. A stronger leader to your New Republic, for example, may have stymied the early invasion before we could establish our foothold in this galaxy. A wiser leader would certainly have united these small kingdoms and empires together against us, instead of allowing us to split them apart and dilute the forces arrayed against us.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Achick said hoarsely.
“You understand well what I have already said,” Triak said approvingly. “It is evidenced by your own words and actions. You recognized the weakness of your warmaster and sought to overthrow him, to replace him with a more capable warrior. Your effort failed, but that made you no less correct.”
Achick watched him warily, like a cornered predator. “What do you want?” he asked again. “To turn the Council against Sanshir? It won’t work.”
“Your politicians and your Council are meaningless,” Triak said dismissively. “What I want is to put a strong leader at the head of your kind. A warrior who understands well how to fight.” The Commander smiled cunningly. “A wise warrior who would make peace with our kind, who would lead his people into an alliance with us—an alliance that would end the pitiful New Republic and the Imperial Remnant. A leader who could take his people into a new age of conquest, victory, and glory.”
“You want to make me the leader of Iridonia?” Achick said, his eyes wide.
“Of course. You have proven yourself wise—this Sanshir has been incapable of stopping us, as you predicted. You understand the need for strength of arms. With your wisdom, your people would even come to know the True Way, I have no doubt.” Triak spread his arms wide. “Join us in our war against this galaxy. I have learned much of your history—it is the nature of Zabraks to join conquerors, not remain defenders of the weak. You are natural allies of the Sith, and you would be to us as well.” He offered his hand in a gesture of friendship the Yuuzhan Vong had learned, but never had bothered to use. “Join us.”
Achick responded not by offering his hand, but by a hacking sound. It took Triak a long moment to realize the Zabrak was not coughing, or in pain, but laughing.
Laughing at a child of the gods, and at a warrior.
“You really are fools,” Achick Lusp said, gasping for breath. “You know nothing about me, or about my people. You think I can’t see what’s happening here?” He stopped and bent double for a moment before straightening, his face contorting in pain. “In spite of everything I said and did, Halyn Sanshir is beating you. You’re losing the war here on Iridonia. You’re desperate for anything to change the tide of the war—so desperate you’re trying to get me to betray my own people.” He laughed again, an ugly sound, and raised a finger at Triak.
The warrior turned his back on the Zabrak, examining his options.
“You know nothing about Zabraks, or about the Lusps,” Achick continued. “Yes, we worked with the Sith, to overthrow a corrupt Republic and to maintain our own sovereignty. You Yuuzhan Vong don’t want to just conquer us, you want to remake us. You want to make us become like you. We’ll never submit to you, you scarhead slime.” He spat at Triak. “And the Lusp clan would never, ever betray the New Republic. The Sanshirs and the Lusps may hate each other—we’ve been at war for longer than family memory—but all of us know Iridonia would be crushed under your heel.”
He stopped and gasped for breath for a moment before adding, “Find a different puppet, Vong scum. I won’t betray Iridonia or the New Republic to you.”
Triak chose, and acted.
The Yuuzhan Vong warrior spun and lashed out with his amphistaff. The serpent uncoiled like a whip, its fangs sinking deep into the Zabrak’s flesh and unleashing its venomous load straight into Achick’s bloodstream.
The Iridonian Councilor fell to his knees as poison rushed through his system, eating his nerves alive. “Iridonia will never submit,” he said weakly.
“Fool,” Triak growled. “You could have become great by my hand; instead, you will be crushed by it.”
“Iridonia has survived far worse than you,” Achick slurred. “Like every invader, it will chew you up and spit you out into the void. You’ll never win here. Iridonia will never surrender.”
Triak watched in contempt as the Zabrak Councilor, Achick Lusp, died.
When Achick rested motionless on the floor, his doubts began to rise up again. Even if we win here, will we ever be able to force these Zabraks into submission?