“Jedi Lusp,” Kryi Rinnet called tightly from the Cathleen’s starfighter coordinator station. “Multiple traces in high atmosphere and falling like meteors.”
“Or rocks,” Kativie said tightly. Here they come. “Get our starfighters in the air.”
“Already scrambling them, sir,” Kryi said. “But some of them will get through.”
Kat merely nodded.
The Yuuzhan Vong fleet, still blockading off Iridonia from the rest of the galaxy, had been irrelevant to much of the conflict since the Vong’s second landing attempt—largely due to the impressive fighter screen Kryi had carefully maintained and coordinated. Kat knew the coordinator’s work had often gone almost completely unnoticed due to her effectiveness. The squadrons had made resupply of the Yuuzhan Vong forces virtually impossible.
The squadrons had been maintained in a dozen hangars around Rak’Edalin, virtually all of them subterranean with only launch tubes exposed. The concealment had kept them from falling to most of the Yuuzhan Vong’s attempts to neutralize the fighter groups by ground strikes, artillery, and coralskipper strafing runs.
The Cathleen’s turbolaser raking had, unintentionally, collapsed most of the launch tubes around the city.
Squadrons of starfighters were straggling into position, but it was clear there wouldn’t be enough to intercept the transports and coralskippers now in a screaming dive from orbit.
“Run the numbers for me,” Kat ordered. “Their estimated strength, and ours.”
Estimates of friendly and enemy forces flickered in a corner of the hologram. Kat looked at them, mentally calculated strengths and weaknesses. The Rak’Edalin squadrons were finely-honed and seasoned by the long campaign against the Vong, and their pilots couldn’t be better. Their starfighters were battle-worthy, even if they were not at one hundred percent maintenance. Ordinance was in limited supply, but the fighters now scrambling to meet the Vong forces carried almost everything available.
On the other hand, the coralskippers falling down the well were well-replenished. Their pilots had been faced with inaction and, in their limited engagements, been beaten badly and demoralized. Their numbers were superior for the first time in the Iridonian theater, but their previous defeats were making them tentative, unsure, and reluctant to engage.
But the numbers didn’t lie.
Kat eyed the falling contacts, judged they were coming largely from the north. “Rinnet, order the squadrons into a full-boost climb to the south. When they pass the Vong’s altitude, they’re to swing back and pounce.”
Kryi raised an eyebrow at Kat but issued the orders.
The Jedi stretched out to the Force, looking for guidance. The few Rak’Edalin squadrons that had made it into the air were climbing hard south, even as the Vong descended. In previous engagements, the defending starfighters climbed straight towards the Vong and engaged with the temporary disadvantages of speed and altitude, counting on superior firepower and numbers to overcome.
Now, with the fighters climbing to the south, Rak’Edalin lay open.
The Force gave Kativie no guidance, and she prayed that meant she was pursuing the correct course of action.
The two opposing aerial forces passed each other in altitude. The Rak’Edalin squadrons looped around, beginning their pursuit.
The Yuuzhan Vong craft had the advantage in initial velocity due to their long descent. The starfighters, however, had the advantage of energy shields to dissipate heat, allowing them a much higher atmospheric speed without burning up.
The Yuuzhan Vong’s coral craft were over Rak’Edalin by the time the Iridonian squadrons again reached firing range. Laserfire and plasma balls flashed back and forth across the sky, a brilliant lightshow punctuated by explosions as starfighters and coralskippers began to fall.
Kat closed her eyes. She knew the squadrons would be unable to stop the scattered transports from landing in the burnt remains of the city, but she wouldn’t make it easy on them.
The Cathleen’s turbolasers fired, but it wasn’t the steady boom-boom-boom of salvo fire. Instead, individual weapons fired, tracking the Vong transports carefully amidst the rolling clouds of starfighters and coralskippers.
A handful of transports fell to the ground as flaming boulders, but the majority made a hasty landfall, almost impossible to distinguish from debris by sensors alone. The starfighters continued their dogged battle with the coralskippers, but the skips were unwilling to stay and fight once their charges had made it to ground.
As the Vong fighters retreated for space and the Iridonians returned to their hangers to refuel and rearm, Kativie had to wonder if she had made the right decision. Is the Force guiding me? Or am I drowning in the dark side, and it can’t reach me?
The Jedi Knight fought the deep-seated rage she could feel, deep in her heart. The Yuuzhan Vong had cost her, personally, so much: her children and her brothers, so many of her friends and allies. She no longer felt certain her husband or sister-in-law still lived. It’s not Jedi to hate, she told herself. Let it go.
But she couldn’t.
When I touch the Force, am I still a Jedi? Have I become a Sith and not noticed? If she were slipping to the dark side, she would hardly be the first Jedi to do so in this long, long war. More than a few young Jedi Knights—mostly younger than herself—had tapped the awesome powers of darkness as a weapon against the extragalactic invaders. Most of them had less reason than she herself did to want vengeance upon the Yuuzhan Vong: they had lost homes and possessions, whereas she had watched them rip her family apart.
Tenatively, she reached out for the Force, but she wasn’t sure if the warmth she felt of its energy was the brilliance of the light…or the heat of her own anger.
The scopes were clear of contacts now, and Kativie felt a sense of unease. What will the Vong do next? Attack us with their army again—whatever’s left of it, at any rate? Will they bring their warships down from orbit to attack the Cathleen and our ground forces? Will they strike somewhere else on Iridonia?
Think, Kativie, think. You’re a Sanshir and a Jedi Knight. If anyone can hold the line against the Vong, it’s you.
“Jedi Lusp?” a voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Yes?” Kativie said, her head snapping up and around to look at the comm officer.
“Sir, we’re receiving a hail…from the Vong commander.”
Kativie frowned. “Oh?”
“I didn’t think they used anything that would work with our comm systems.”
“Sorry, sir—all I know is that he wants to talk to the, uh, warmaster of the infidel forces.” The comm officer tried to hide her embarrassment.
“I guess I’m as infidel as they come,” Kativie said with a confident smirk that she didn’t feel. “Patch him through.”
A full-size hologram of a heavily-tattooed Yuuzhan Vong warrior swam into existence. Kativie recognized him immediately. “Commander Triak Kraal, I presume,” she said, her smirk far more genuine this time.
The Yuuzhan Vong seemed to study her intensely before recognition dawned in his alien eyes. “It’s you. Nylah, the traitor.”
“As you can see,” Kativie said cheerfully, “I played you for the sucker you are. You Vong are too easy to trick—there’s no challenge or sport in it.” Get him mad so he’s not thinking.
Of course, that plan assumed she wasn’t too angry to think straight herself.
“Your treachery has not been forgotten, little one. I will dispatch you to the gods myself. Your death will be without honor or mercy. You shall know nothing but pain for the last days of your life,” he ground out. “Your entire race will be exterminated, but I will start with you. I will slaughter all you hold dear, sacrifice them upon the priests’ alters, and then disembowel you and leave your carcass to rot in a pit of soulless machines.”
Kativie’s eyes narrowed. “You won’t be exterminating or sacrificing anyone. Your forces have been beaten. It’s over.”
The Vong commander laughed. “You are not worthy of my time—I demand to speak with my equal. Where is your warmaster, the Sanshir?”
“My brother, the Ul’akhoi, is dead,” Kativie said evenly. “Died to one of your poisons. I’d expect nothing else from a cowardly race, though.”
The Vong seemed to ignore her insults. “Then I demand to speak with his successor.”
“That would be me,” Kativie said.
Triak Kraal snorted. “An honorless child-bearer?” he asked dismissively. “You are no warrior.”
Kativie’s eyes narrowed. How dare he! “I am a Jedi Knight,” the Zabrak spat, “and the scion of a line of warriors. It is you, a worthless and inept Vong, who is unworthy to speak with me.”
The Vong seemed taken aback for a moment. “So, you Jeedai forgo the path of war to instead pursue trickery and deception unworthy of a true warrior.” He pondered for a moment before adding, “I should have known such deception was your nature. You likely slew your own kin to rise in rank, and now blame his death upon us.”
“Did you call to surrender, or is this just a social chat?” Kativie asked sharply, her patience thin. “Your forces are surrounded and cut off from your fleet. Your army, such as it is, is outnumbered five to one by my Zabrak warriors. The war for Iridonia is over, and you have lost.”
“Have I? My fleet is in orbit, prepared to rain death upon you. Your army stands prepared for battle against mine, yes, but your estimate of our strength is badly mistaken.” The Vong commander exuded confidence—enough so to make Kativie wonder if the Vong had found some way to neutralize the Cathleen’s attack the night before. “I call you now, Jeedai, to make a challenge—a challenge of personal honor to combat.”
Triak’s tone took on a distinct distaste, reminding Kativie of her children when they were forced to eat a meal they disliked. “Your warmaster and I have fought a long battle here, a battle between tacticians and warriors. We exchanged our attacks, our feints, our parries and blocks, through the lives and movements of our warriors. We both stand bloodied from this war, and it is only fitting to finally meet my foe face-to-face to prove superiority.”
“And now you’ll never get the opportunity,” Kativie said with contempt.
“Because he has died a coward’s death,” Triak continued coolly, as though the Jedi had not interrupted, “I now issue the challenge to the one who has taken his position. Apparently you, the Jeedai and spy,” he spat. “So now, Jeedai, I challenge you to meet me upon the field of combat. You and your second, me and my second. One fight to the death.”
Kativie snorted, trying to choke back her rage. “And what happens if I win? You surrender?”
“I will do no such thing—I would be dead.” The Vong smirked at her. “And the Yuuzhan Vong under my command would never obey such an order. This is about personal honor, Jeedai.”
Kativie turned the idea over in her head. The Yuuzhan Vong commander had led his army capably throughout the bloody campaign. From what she knew of the Yuuzhan Vong, he likely didn’t have a successor ready, and striking him down could potentially throw the Vong invaders into enough confusion to overwhelm them before they could strike coherently at Iridonia’s defenses again.
Halyn would never back down from this challenge, she told herself. He’d take it as an opportunity to strike the head from the serpent. This would have been exactly the sort of chance he’d be waiting for at this stage in the game. The Vong are beaten for now, but if Triak actually does have more forces on the ground than we know about, taking advantage of this could give us time to win the war.
“I accept,” Kativie said sharply. “Where, and when?”
“As the sun touches the horizon this day,” the Vong said. “Where your Zabrak Council met, before you immolated it. Just you and your second.”
“Fine,” Kativie bit out. “I’ll kill you soon enough.”
The Yuuzhan Vong warrior nodded curtly at her, then faded away as he broke the connection.
Kativie turned around and found herself face-to-belly with a very large Wookiee. She had to take a step backward before she could look up far enough to see the other’s face.
“Yes, Anishor?” she asked sweetly.
<What are you doing?> Anishor asked her in disbelief.
“I’m going to kill the Vong commander at sundown,” Kativie replied cheerfully. “There’s only one person on the planet that could do it more reliably than me, but I’m pretty sure he’d take it as an insult if I sent you in my place.”
The Wookiee growled. <This is not the action of a Jedi Knight.>
“I’m acting to defend Iridonia,” Kativie justified. “He challenged me, not the other way around, so I’m not acting in aggression. I may not be the best Jedi to ever come out of Yavin IV, but I’m still toeing the line.”
The Wookiee leaned over her and sniffed deeply. His blue eyes were troubled and his voice was much quieter when he rumbled, <I sense darkness in you, little one.>
“You’re always straight to the point, aren’t you? No small talk, no easing into a subject, just a face full of blasterfire.” Kativie said irritably.
<Why are you so eager to fight this one?> Anishor asked her. <Halyn has beaten the Yuuzhan Vong with his final moments—it is the legacy he has left you. You can finish this war and help Rak’Edalin rebuild, but now you’re taking a chance to fight a battle that doesn’t need to be fought.>
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Kativie said coolly. “The battle isn’t over. The Vong battle fleet is hanging over our heads, and the Vong might have a lot more warriors out there then we know about. We used the storm sewer system to attack them before—they might have taken cover there en masse and survived. If I strike now, I can take the head off the Vong army and throw them into disarray long enough to ensure we win this war.”
<At what cost to yourself?> the Wookiee asked.
“Halyn was willing to sacrifice everything for Iridonia,” Kativie retorted. “You could argue he did sacrifice everything. He set the example for me to follow.”
<Yes, he did sacrifice everything,> Anishor agreed. <But tell me, Kat, did he know he was dying?>
The Jedi nodded silently.
<He sacrificed everything knowing his time was coming,> Anishor said. <I know your brother as well as anyone, and I think I finally understand what his battle plan was.>
Kativie’s eyebrows went up. “You think you know something about his plans that I don’t?” she asked skeptically.
<Yes. Halyn made the hard decisions that he didn’t think you would be capable of,> Anishor said bluntly.
“That I wouldn’t be capable of?” Kativie repeated, her jaw dropped open. “What, did he think I was too weak to do what we had to do?”
<Far from it. He feared what those decisions would do to you,> Anishor parried. <You are a Jedi Knight, a servant of the Force and bound by ethics to keep you from falling to the dark side. He was no Force user, and dying as he was, he was no longer concerned about his reputation. Think for a moment, Kativie, about what he chose to do.>
“I’m not sure I follow,” she said, puzzling over his logic.
<Your brother assumed the reins of power and ordered Rak’Edalin held at any cost. He indirectly conscripted Zabraks into the ranks of the warriors by disallowing civilians to evacuate. He oversaw a long and bloody campaign of street and house-to-house fighting throughout the entire city. He ordered buildings burned to the ground and supplies destroyed when they were about to fall into enemy hands.> Anishor’s tone was even as he described the Ul’akhoi’s orders. <He willingly invited Yuuzhan Vong assassins into the Cathleen. He put the Zabrak Council in the line of fire. And finally, he ordered the entire city razed in an attempt to eradicate the Vong invasion.>
The Wookiee spread his arms wide. <He sacrificed everything about himself—his name, his legacy, his fame, his position—in an attempt to protect Iridonia. He gave orders that would have sent you as a Jedi Knight or me as a berserker straight into the arms of the dark side. He knew he was dying, so he sacrificed everything to protect Iridonia, and to protect you.> The Wookiee growled. <Now, will you throw away his sacrifice by pursuing this?>
Kativie’s head spun. Did Halyn really do all that? Every decision Halyn had made she had understood at the time, and had agreed with. Now, though, with the clarity of hindsight…He did do a lot of things that would send a Jedi to the dark side, she reluctantly realized. And when this is all over, I don’t know if history will remember Halyn as a hero or a villain.
<So please, Kativie, abandon this pursuit. Do not face the Yuuzhan Vong commander. I don’t doubt you will, but it will undo you.>
Kativie slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Anishor, but if Halyn was willing to sacrifice everything for Iridonia, I can do nothing less until the Vong are wiped out.”
The Wookiee closed his eyes, then turned and walked away without another word.
The Jedi wasn’t particularly sensitive to emotions and thoughts—that was Kelta’s specialty—but she could feel two emotions clinging to the Wookiee like water to his fur: sadness…and resolve.
Kativie decided she didn’t want to ponder the possibilities, and as soon as the turbolift doors slid shut and cut him off from view, she washed him from her mind to concentrate on the matters at hand.
“I need a second,” she said aloud. She looked around the bridge. “Senator Alari, would you…?”
“It would be my honor,” the ex-mercenary said with a deep bow. “I represent all Zabraks to the New Republic—it seems fitting I would do so to the Yuuzhan Vong, as well.”
Kativie nodded. “Perfect. Rinnet?”
The starfighter coordinator came to attention, though her stance was weary.
“When I beat the Vong commander, bad things are going to happen,” Kativie said dryly. “They’re not going to take it well. Our battle line is going to stay firmly entrenched here, around the Cathleen, which should make it impossible for the Vong to penetrate. However, there’s the big issue of the fleet overhead.”
Kryi nodded. “And the skips they’ll be sending down after us.”
“Exactly. I know we probably won’t be able to clear the launch tunnels around Rak’Edalin in time, but at sundown we’ll need every fighting ship we can find in the air and ready to go. Starfighters, obviously, but every smuggler’s freighter, every corvette, every airskiff with a laser cannon needs to be manned and in the sky.”
“Do we attack them in space, or wait for them to come to us?” Kryi asked.
“We don’t want them to get too near any of our cities,” the Jedi said, “but we have a maneuvering advantage in atmosphere. I’ll leave the final decision up to you, but I would recommend letting them drop far enough inside atmosphere to give our fighters the advantage before attacking.”
“Even if we could get every fighter in the air,” Kryi warned, “it wouldn’t be enough to stop that armada.”
“I’m not expecting you to manage that,” Kat reassured her. “But do what you can. The Cathleen’s heavy turbolasers should do a number on anything that gets close—I doubt their biggest ships can make landfall—and the rest of the cities have shield and turbolaser defenses ready to go, and even if they’re not up to what Rak’Edalin’s specs were, they’ll be enough to make the Vong think twice.”
“Maybe,” was all Kryi would say.
Kat shrugged. “Our options are limited.”
“So this is it, then,” Li Coden spoke from a corner of the bridge. Kativie looked over at him in mild surprise—she hadn’t sensed his arrival.
“Halyn all but won this war for us,” Kativie said. “It’s up to us now to push Iridonia across the final line to victory.”
“It’s cost us a lot,” Li grunted.
Kat didn’t want to think about it—she’d already considered it once while speaking with Anishor. Her heart ached for her children, for her brothers, for her friends, but she forced the pain away. Mourn when it’s done, she told herself. The Force will sustain you for now. When the war is over, you can afford emotion. Not now. “Yes, it has,” Kativie conceded aloud. “But by standing our ground, we can see victory is within our grasp.”
The Jedi looked around the bridge. “Many of you are here because you were loyal to my brother, Halyn, and to the causes he fought for. Some of you are here because you don’t want to see Iridonia fall to the invasion—which was Halyn’s final cause. I am here because I love this world and the Zabraks who live here, and I’ll do anything to save them from the horror of a Vong victory here.”
She swallowed. “So this is it—this is our final stand, our last battle to defend Iridonia. Do not falter, and we can and will win freedom, and show the galaxy at large that the Yuuzhan Vong are beatable. We can do what even Coruscant could not—withstand the full strength of the Vong. So, I ask you,” she finished, unsnapping her lightsaber and holding it aloft over her head before igniting the blade, “stand with me as you would with Halyn. Join me for this one last battle, and Iridonia will be free of the Vong.”