Ceikeh Alari wasn’t surprised when the door to his quarters chimed. That would be my wife. The system stopped recognizing her code after the crash, and I never did get it fixed. “Come in!” he called at the portal.
Instead of the Twi’lek, however, he was surprised to see Halyn Sanshir walk into his quarters. Ceikeh caught just a glimpse of the red-maned Kelta out in the corridor before the door hissed shut again. “Senator,” Halyn greeted.
“Ul’akhoi,” Ceikeh returned.
Halyn smiled. “Not anymore. The conditions of my release have been met. The Vong aren’t here anymore.”
“So what do I call you now? Vysht’akhoi?”
“Doubtful,” the other said, shaking his head. “The Council hasn’t convened yet—that will be happening later today—but as far as I’m concerned, Argus is the Vysht’akhoi, not me.”
“Guess I’ll have to settle for General, then,” Ceikeh said.
“You could try calling me Halyn.”
“I never could get my mind quite wrapped around that. You were always the commander, the Zabrak in charge—you never seemed like the sort I could socialize with.”
Halyn chuckled. “I wasn’t much for socializing, pretty much ever. Not my thing.”
“So, this isn’t a social call?” Ceikeh asked.
The other man shook his head. “Not really, no.”
“What can I do for you?”
Halyn hesitated before speaking. “First, I’d like to know what your plans are now that we’ve won the battle here.”
“Well, I’ve already spoken to the surviving Councilors. Assuming I retain my position as Senator of Zabrak space, I’ll be heading out to Mon Calamari to meet with the New Republic government-in-exile. We’ll still need representation, after all, and maybe I can help push the Senate to do what will be necessary to beat the Vong. We proved here it can be done, but we need to stop running and learn to stand our ground and fight.” He smiled faintly. “I’m speaking about the New Republic, of course, not the Zabraks—we already know how to stand and fight.”
“So back to high politics for you, huh?”
Ceikeh nodded. “I figure I can take all kinds of bribes when I get to Mon Calamari and send the money back here to rebuild Rak’Edalin.”
Halyn laughed aloud. “Don’t let anyone hear you say that. Somehow I doubt your constituents will find that nearly as funny as I do.”
“So, what can I do for you?” Ceikeh asked. “Looking for some bribe money, or maybe a nice juicy military contract?”
The other sobered quickly. “I wanted to get your promise on something.”
“Some things are probably going to erupt in the first Council meeting. I want you to promise me you won’t interfere.”
Ceikeh frowned. What is he afraid of? “I’m the Senator to the New Republic, not a Councilor. I don’t get a vote or a voice in the Council.”
“Don’t try that line on me, Ceikeh,” Halyn chided him. “I’ve been around long enough to know you’re highly respected, and your voice holds a lot of power in the Council, even if you don’t officially have a voice. So promise me you won’t interfere.”
I don’t like this. Is he trying some last-minute power play to eliminate members of the Council he sees as a threat to our future? “I’m not sure I can do that,” Ceikeh said slowly.
“Let’s make it conditional, then, so you know I’m not up to something underhanded. In return for your word, I promise I won’t act in any way to undermine the Council or any member of the Council,” Halyn said. “I have no desire to seek more power—being Ul’akhoi temporarily was bad enough.”
Ceikeh turned it over in his mind. “What about proxies?” he asked. “You’re leaving a big hole for one of your friends to do something underhanded.”
“I’m here in good faith,” Halyn said gently. “I have no conspiracies in place, no one I’ve asked to act on my behalf.” He smiled self-deprecatingly. “You’re not the only one who knows Councilors—they’re just a lot more comfortable with you.”
If he breaks his word in some way, I can step up, Ceikeh told himself. “You have a deal.”
“Thank you, Senator.” Halyn turned and started to leave.
“General,” Ceikeh said. The word brought Halyn to a halt and his head back around to meet Ceikeh’s eyes. “Thank you,” the Senator said, “for doing this. For doing everything. If you hadn’t been willing to take the role and make the hard decisions, we would have lost everything.”
“Possibly,” Halyn allowed with a small smile. “And you’re welcome.”
Ceikeh watched his old friend depart, trying to ignore the sick worry gnawing at his heart. We won the war, but why do I feel like something else is still going to happen?
Ryian Coron stood amidst the crowd of Iridonian officers and politicians, intermixed with offworld soldiers and pilots who had helped fight the long siege. He could see a handful of others in the crowd wearing New Republic dress uniforms—a smattering of officers from Garm Bel Iblis’s fleet that had chosen to attend the celebration.
And a celebration it was. The Zabrak race had stood at the doorstep of annihilation, the same portal that had swallowed other species whole, and had come face-to-face with that fate. And, as Zabraks, they had chosen to collectively spit in the eye of that fate and fought an impossible battle—and won.
The Corellian captain wasn’t sure he had seen a sober Iridonian since the battle ended.
“How long until it starts?” Sandarie said from beside him, her arm looped through his.
He glanced down at the beautiful Twi’lek. Aboard the Dauntless, she had been released from her carbonite prison and treated with antivenom, which successfully saved her from the painful death of an amphistaff’s bite. Her long hibernation and the poison had both sapped her strength, and while she was growing in energy each day, she still leaned heavily on her husband for support.
“Soon, I would think,” Ryian answered. “Hal won’t want his audience too drunk before he gives his speech.”
“You’re acting like they ever sobered up,” Sandi replied dryly.
“That is a…very good point, actually.”
Ryian continued looking around the crowd. He saw several of his old friends in attendance—Anishor and most of his Wookiee berserkers were conspicuous by both size and hair among a crowd of Zabraks that, for the most part, lacked any hair whatsoever. Li Coden and Abi Ocopaqui were exchanging drinks and conversation with Kativie and her husband, whom Ryian had only met that morning. Kryi Rinnet and Allanna Saret were laughing about some shared memory. More faces Ryian knew he should recognize were also in the crowd, maddeningly familiar even though names slipped his mind.
Then the captain saw the crowd begin to part. Through the crowd, he saw two Zabraks walking side-by-side, everyone offering them room to advance. It took Ryian a moment to catch a clear glimpse and confirm it was Halyn Lance and his brother, Argus Sanshir.
He frowned as he replayed his memory of the glimpse. Argus is wearing a military uniform, as is proper, but Halyn was dressed in that damned duster Sandi told me about.
A small stage had been setup at the foot of the wreckage of the Star Cruiser—just a meter high, enough to ensure that anyone standing there could be seen by the crowd. A sound amplification system was also setup, with large speakers on poles placed a dozen meters to either side of the stage.
Halyn and Argus reached the stage without incident. The two conversed for a moment before Halyn stepped to the back of the stage and allowed Argus to take the podium.
The sound system squealed for a fraction of a second before the auto-correction system kicked in and suppressed the noise. Argus picked up a comlink from the podium and clipped it to his lapel.
Argus’s voice was a bit deeper than even Halyn’s low voice. “Thank you,” the Zabrak said, “for joining us here as we celebrate the freedom of our world.” He paused as spontaneous cheers, mostly from Zabrak warriors, rose up and threatened to overwhelm his words. “Every sentient in our space, whether Zabrak or not, owes their continued lives and freedom to your efforts, your skills, and your sacrifices.”
More cheers rose up. Ryian smiled a little at the celebration. This really is Coruscant for Zabraks, he thought. To anyone else, Iridonia is a hell and would hardly be considered livable. To them, it’s the crown jewel of their territory.
“You didn’t come here to listen to me speak, however,” Argus said. “I don’t need to sing your praises. So, instead of boring you all, it is my honor to introduce to you the Zabrak you already know—the warrior who led Iridonia through hell and proved the Yuuzhan Vong can be beaten. My brother, Halyn Sanshir.”
There was applause as Argus stepped back and Halyn stepped forward. He looked uncharacteristically awkward as he fumbled for a moment with the comlink Argus handed him. Rather than clip it to his duster, he chose to hold the device and forwent the podium, standing in front of it at the edge of the stage.
“I’m not a speaker,” Halyn said slowly. “I’m not a politician. I’ve found I need to be good at words, because they can and do inspire men of action. With the right words before a battle, I’ve saved lives. But this battle is already won.”
The crowd was utterly silent as they waited for Halyn’s next words. Ryian himself remained silent in respect for his old friend.
“Twenty-three years ago, Iridonia chose to declare its freedom and independence from the tyranny of an Empire. We founded a new government dedicated to the unity and freedom of all Zabraks on here and our colonies, believing we could not be oppressed if we stood together.
“The Yuuzhan Vong have challenged that belief, both here and in the wider galaxy. We have engaged in the great test to see if we can endure, if such bonds can remain firm throughout such terrible warfare. It is fitting, then, that we meet here upon the battleground of this conflict.
“Politicians would try to commit this ground to the memory of the dead heroes who fought to ensure our survival. But no words anyone could speak, including myself, can make this battlefield any more or less important. It has been consecrated by the blood of the warriors who died committed to the cause of our people, far beyond our small ability to affect it. Decades or centuries from now, my words will be forgotten, but the blood of Zabraks will be remembered.
“It falls on us, then, not to just preserve the memory of this battle. Instead, we must be committed to the task that lies before us: we must resolve not to let these warriors to have died in vain, but instead commit to finishing the war they fought, that the worlds they sacrificed for will not vanish from the history of the galaxy.”
Ryian swallowed hard as Halyn stepped off the edge of the stage, vanishing from sight into the crowd.
“That was a good speech,” Sandi murmured from his side.
“Yeah,” Ryian said. He’s right, you know. So many people have fought and died in this war, but if we don’t finish it all their sacrifices will be in vain.
“Are we going to get a chance to talk to him?” Sandi asked.
“I can’t imagine we won’t,” Ryian replied. “He knows the Dauntless is scheduled to leave orbit this afternoon, and there’s no way he’ll not talk to us before we leave.”
A figure materialized out of the crowd, but it wasn’t Halyn; the imposing figure of Garm Bel Iblis, dressed in his general’s uniform, offered a salute and then a handshake to Ryian. “Captain,” the famous New Republic officer greeted him.
“General,” Ryian said, returning the salute before accepting the handshake.
“Your friend knows how to give a speech,” Bel Iblis remarked. “We could’ve used him to help rally the fleet at Coruscant.”
“You did that well enough,” Ryian said. “After all, you took most of Kre’fey’s fleet on the power of words alone.”
“Yes, but it would’ve taken everything to hold the Vong at bay—and maybe more than that.” The General shrugged. “But the battle was likely lost no matter what we had done.”
“Maybe,” Ryian allowed. “But we can’t refight that battle—it’s better to prepare for the coming conflicts instead.”
Bel Iblis nodded agreeably. “You’re right, of course.” He took a drink from a flask before asking, “Are you returning with us to Tallaan?”
Ryian shook his head. “I’d rather put the Dauntless under the command of a Corellian rather than a Bothan or the Sullustan who lost us Coruscant, but since the HoloNet relay came up I’ve been contacted by High Command. Wedge Antilles and his fleet have rallied at Mon Calamari, and latest word is that Admiral Ackbar himself is coming out of retirement to command the Fleet. I’ve already been ordered to rejoin the Defense Force there until they’re prepared to engage in offensive operations.”
“If they’re capable of offensive operations,” Bel Iblis said grimly. “They fought defensively all the way to Coruscant.”
“Yes, but they have to see the folly of that now,” a new voice said. “Their defensive stance cost them the capital. If Ackbar’s coming out of retirement, they’ll be launching offensives soon.”
Ryian turned in time to see Halyn break through the nearby edge of the crowd. “General,” he said with a smile.
Halyn nodded. “Glad to see you returned with the fleet.” He turned and offered Garm Bel Iblis his hand. “And thank you, General. Without your heavy warships, our fleet couldn’t have broken the blockade and we’d all be bearing coral implants about now.”
Bel Iblis shook the smaller man’s hand. “I doubt that—your people fight with a ferocity that rivals the Wookiees.”
“Regardless, thank you,” Halyn said. “Iridionia owes you everything.”
Bel Iblis smiled warmly. “It would have been worth it just to learn what happened here. Your people did something no one else has managed—they went toe-to-toe with the Yuuzhan Vong and defeated them. You’ve proven the Vong can be beaten, here and everywhere.”
Halyn shrugged. “I did one thing no one else has been willing to do. I refused to allow our people to retreat.” He hesitated. “I once had an old friend tell me that humans could never understand the link we Zabraks have with this world. Our blood goes back further than recorded history on this world—it’s a part of who every one of us are. The Iridonians may have needed to be reminded, but ultimately they knew. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to win this war.”
“So, what’s the plan for the newest Hero of Iridonia?” Bel Iblis asked.
The Zabrak shrugged. “That depends on the Council.”
Ryian spoke up, “By the way, I need to complement you on officer loyalty. I tried to recruit Kryi Rinnet to join my bridge crew, but she turned me down flat and said Iridonia needed her more than I did.”
Halyn smiled. “She’s a colonial Zabrak, but she’s as loyal a daughter of Iridonia as anyone.” His gaze shifted from Ryian to the Twi’lek on his arm. “And how are you feeling, Sandi?”
She smiled up at him, the warmth of her eyes giving no ground to the weakness in her body. “Better, and getting better all the time,” she said slowly. “Thank you for saving me.”
Halyn snorted. “I didn’t save you, I turned you into a Twi’cicle.”
“Yes, you did,” Ryian growled. “I haven’t forgotten that.”
Halyn shrugged. “It wasn’t what I planned, but the alternative wasn’t better.”
Ryian nodded grudgingly. Yes, you put her in danger, but you also did everything you could to save her, and I appreciate that. I won’t ever tell you that, though.
“So, what happens to Iridonia now?” Bel Iblis asked.
“Again, it depends on the Council. Given how little I want to be in command, I’d guess Argus will be appointed back into the role of Vysht’akhoi with instructions to rebuild our defenses. The Council will try to focus everything internal so we’re prepared to repulse another attack, but Argus will push to reinforce the New Republic—especially if they’re willing to undertake attacks on the Vong.” Halyn shrugged. “Zabrak space will stay united, though. If the Vong had managed to take Iridonia, it could’ve shattered the coalition, but we averted that.”
“You averted that,” Sandi pointed out.
“Hardly. It wasn’t like I was standing alone on the front line holding a hundred thousand Vong at bay with a zhaboka.” He snorted. “No, every Zabrak who fought and died here is responsible for beating the Vong.”
“Such humility,” Bel Iblis said dryly. “At any rate, I would love to bring Iridonia under the protection of my fleet, but you’re too far outside my territory to manage it. In fact, I was surprised we made it here without running into any Vong interference. Of course, the course Allanna Saret plotted was rather…unique.” He eyed Halyn. “I wasn’t aware the Zabrak were hyperspace explorers.”
“Trade secret,” the Zabrak said. “You can interrogate me all you want, but there are some things too important to give away.”
Ryian shook his head. Some day I’ll find out where he gets these hyperspace routes. He’s been doing that since the Civil War.
Before he could say anything further, another Zabrak breached the crowd and joined them. “Ul’akhoi,” he said breathlessly.
“I’m not Ul’akhoi anymore,” Halyn said irritably to the newcomer.
It took Ryian to recognize the newcomer as the Zabrak senator, Ceikeh Alari.
“I just came from the Council,” Ceikeh said between gasping breaths. “They were holding a meeting about disposition of the military, and you.”
“They’re not here?” Bel Iblis asked with a raised eyebrow. “That seems kind of…odd.”
“They’re Zabraks,” Ryian grumbled. “They’re always odd.”
“They were paying respect by staying out of the public view while I was speaking,” Halyn said. “And it has the advantage of being able to talk about me while my back is turned.”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. Ul’akhoi, they decided to turn the military back over to Argus,” Ceikeh said.
“As expected,” Halyn said.
“Then they decided to banish you from Iridonia.
That stung. Halyn closed his eyes for a moment as he processed Ceikeh’s words. “As expected,” he repeated.
Ryian, Sandarie, Garm Bel Iblis, and Ceikeh all turned to him with varying degrees of shock on their faces. “What?” they chorused.
Halyn nodded. “Yes, I was expecting this.”
“Why?” Sandarie asked, apparently overcoming the shock first.
“Because of what I did.”
“You won the war,” Garm Bel Iblis pointed out.
“By disregarding pretty much everything the Council would’ve had me do. I refused to let anyone retreat. I forced my people to fight and risked everything. I allowed the Yuuzhan Vong to land on Iridonia and invade our capital, and I chose to raze it to kill the invaders. I’m responsible for everything that’s happened here, for better or for worse.” Halyn took a deep breath. “I made myself into a divisive figure when Zabrak space needs someone to rally around. Whether I’m the hero or villain of Iridonia depends on your point of view. If we’re going to unite and be ready for another war with the Vong, they need Argus as their leader, not me.”
Ryian shook his head. “That’s insane. You risked everything—you were out on the front line—you were responsible for winning—you can’t just…”
“Yes, I can.” Halyn nodded. “I knew this was coming, and I already made my peace with it.”
Suspicion dawned on Ryian’s face. “If you knew it, then you planned on this.”
The Zabrak smiled. “Of course I did. I made sure Argus was ready to take up the mantle of leader again. He has Kativie as his second, and a solid staff with Allanna, Kryi, and you, Ceikeh.”
Ceikeh barely managed a smile.
Halyn took a deep breath again before continuing. “I knew, even if we won, that I might become the villain. I knew just how bad the war might get, and I was prepared to make that sacrifice.”
An arm slipped through his, and he looked over to see Kelta Rose smiling radiantly at him.
“Exile won’t be so bad,” he said, looking into her shining violet eyes. “I still have places to go, and I somehow doubt life with a Jedi will be more boring than fighting the war here was.” He looked back up and around at the small group.
“So when do you have to leave?” Ryian asked.
“Two days,” Ceikeh said.
Halyn shook his head. “Now.”
It drew another round of stares.
“I told you, I was expecting this,” Halyn justified. “I already told Kelta this was likely the outcome.”
“So where will you go?” Bel Iblis asked.
“Mon Calamari, at least at first,” Halyn said. “Kelta wants to meet up with the Jedi, and I suspect there’ll be a few officers there who will want to talk to me after what has happened here.”
“You need a ride on the Dauntless?” Ryian asked.
Halyn shook his head and pointed out past the small cluster of ships, mostly shuttles from the fleet, clustered together well beyond the crowd. “I finished rebuilding the Starwind a few weeks back, and she’s fueled and ready to fly.” He turned back to the group. “This isn’t goodbye—I will see all of you again, I promise. But it’s time to part ways for now.”
He smiled at each of his friends, returned Sandarie’s tight hug, and then stepped through the crowd arm-in-arm with Kelta.
The crowd parted around them. Halyn nodded at well-wishers, mostly warriors who would hear about his banishment in minutes or hours or days.
The Starwind rested with its landing ramp extended, prepared to take its passengers aboard and leave its home port. Unexpectedly, two figures were waiting at the foot of the ramp—something Halyn hadn’t planned for.
Adreia Varo, her hair a mirror of her mother’s, smiled at the pair as they approached. She maintained proper Jedi composure until they were an arm-length away before leaping into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly around Kelta. She stayed that way for several moments before finally releasing her mother, pulling back. “The last time I let you go off by yourself, Mom, you got yourself mixed up in a war on some Outer Rim rock. I figured I’d better not let you out of my sight again.”
Kelta smiled at her daughter. “You’re welcome to come with us.”
The second figure detached himself from the boarding ramp and walked over to Halyn.
“Uncle,” Edlin Sanshir said. “Or…Father.” He swallowed hard. “I’ve done a lot of thinking since I found out. I was mad at first that you never told me, but after I thought about it I understand why. But,” he said, his voice turning into the same durasteel Halyn exercised when disciplining subordinate officers, “I want to come with you. I think it’s time we get to know each other. So no running off without me.”
Halyn smiled. “Somehow I doubt I’d be able to manage. You’re a Sanshir, after all.”
“And I want to know about my mother,” Edlin finished.
Halyn paused for a moment to compose himself. “That’s fair. That’s more than fair.” He smiled, a little sadly, before looking over at Kelta. “Is that…?”
Kelta smiled reassuringly at him. “It’s okay.”
“Then let’s get aboard and hit the sky,” Halyn said, gesturing at the Starwind.
The two children boarded first—no, not children, Halyn corrected himself, they’re adults. Just young adults. That shouldn’t be fighting a war.
He pushed aside his doubts and started up the Starwind’s boarding ramp, pausing for just a moment to look back on Iridonia. This may be the last time I see my homeworld, he told himself. If Kelta’s with me, it’s worth it.
Five minutes later, the Starwind climbed up through atmosphere—away from Iridonia, from the horror of a war fought to the utter destruction of half its combatants.
And toward a greater galaxy still at war.