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23

The orbital command center was abuzz with activity. The threat boards now showed the remnants of the Yanibar Guard Fleet huddled around the station for protection, reinforced by the fact that ground-based weaponry from Yanibar would be able to cover them in the event of another Zannist attack. Small freighters flew up from the surface with supplies and materials with which to affect repairs.

Still on the command bridge several hours after the battle, Selu kept watching the threat boards hawkishly. Zann’s fleet had closed in, staying just out of effective gunnery range, and though it had been diminished, the victory had been costly. The Yoda was battered, barely able to fight, and the Secura was a drifting hulk. An Ataru-class gunship, the Jurokk, had also been destroyed. Seven other ships were below fifty percent combat readiness. Nearly fifty starfighters had been lost. Costly losses indeed, especially for the Yanibar Guard, which could ill afford such casualties. However, his surviving B-wings and Valkyries had been busy laying another belt of space mines between the orbital command center and the hostile fleet. If Tyber Zann tried a direct assault, his remaining starfighters and gunships would pay heavily for it.

Selu was watching because there was nothing else more important to do. A sense of eminent action had been taunting him for hours now, drawing his attention to the threat board like a glowmoth to a light. Then, he saw motion with the Consortium ships, a new group of vessels dropping out of hyperspace and heading straight for Yanibar. He watched as the Zannist fleet moved into position to screen the newcomers.

“Cronau radiation spike!” called the lieutenant at the hyperwave sensor station. “Ships coming in!”
“Confirmed. Multiple contacts in Sector Nine,” reported the sublight sensor officer.
“What are they?” Selu asked. “More warships?”
“No, sir,” the sensor officer replied. “They appear to be transports.”
“They’re landing on Yanibar,” Selu realized aloud. “What’s their trajectory?”
“If they follow their present course . . . they’ll land about fifty klicks from the Daizon Valley entrance.”

Selu paled. The Daizon Valley was the widest and most commonly used entrance to the Tusloni Basin where the Yanibar refuge was located. A thirty kilometer passage through the jagged mountain peaks that encircled the refuge and made it impassable to ground assault, it was the perfect invasion corridor. Forested, green, with plenty of water from a network of small rivers, and—most importantly—fairly passable terrain, the Daizon Valley was the most vulnerable point of the Yanibar refuge in terms of overland assault. It was no coincidence that the largest Yanibar Guard Army base was located right at its inner mouth and various defense outposts were scattered throughout it.

“Are they in range of fleet gunnery?” Selu asked.
“No, sir,” the weapons chief told him. “And we can’t interdict the transports without passing through the Zannist fleet. Not unless you can conceal them again.”
“They’d see it coming,” Selu said with a shake of his head. “They’d open up on likely vectors, or hit the station while the fleet was hidden. Get me the emergency line to YG Command groundside.”

In seconds, Selu was connected by the encrypted priority command line to Spectre down at that largest YGA base.

“Do you see what I see?” Selu asked.
“We do,” Spectre replied grimly. “We don’t have line-of-sight for our direct-fire ground to space weaponry. The approach angle is off. We could use missiles, but they’re not in range yet.”
“And the civilians in the area?” Selu asked.
“YGI is evacuating them,” Spectre replied. “Also, you should know that the Ruling Council convened as soon as the Zannist fleet appeared. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of temporary martial law until the crisis is over. We didn’t even have to request it.”
“That was very considerate of them,” Selu remarked.
“They all understand the stakes,” Spectre told him. “Even the ones who disagree with you. They tried to tell you, but it wasn’t a priority signal and the comms have been rather busy.”
“I understand,” Selu answered. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Do you have plan for dealing with the army, or do you want me to deal with it?” Spectre asked.
“Stand by,” Selu said. “I’m on my way down.”

Switching over his transmission to reach Admiral Slayke, Selu faced the quarter-sized hologram of the admiral.

“Admiral, I’m heading down to the surface. If you see an opportunity, take it, but otherwise hold position. Fleet’s all yours.”
“All right,” Slayke said. “We’re not going anywhere if we don’t have to anyway. We’re in bad shape. If you and the Force can accomplish anything . . .”
“I know that,” Selu told the officer. “But we could be in worse shape on the ground depending on what Zann brought with him. I’m needed down there.”
“I understand,” Slayke replied. “We’ll hold ‘em off.”
“I know you will, Admiral,” Selu reassured him. “May the Force be with you.”

He terminated the transmission, then headed for the hangar bay where the Hawk-bat was parked. Selu boarded it and quickly obtained permission to launch. Escorted by a flight of Sabre starfighters, he flew the modified freighter down to the surface of Yanibar. He was puzzled at how the Zannists could have known to land so close to the Daizon Valley, or how they even knew it was there. The Force illusion he had concealed the Yanibar refuge with at its inception had been created specifically to show the Tusloni Basin from orbit as explicitly impenetrable by any conventional ground force; Selu had formed the illusion so that the Daizon Valley simply didn’t appear from orbit. He needed answers. Activating the comm board on the Hawk-bat, he sent a transmission to the one person whom he thought might have information.

“Milya,” Selu asked. “Are you busy?”
“A little,” Milya said curtly; her transmission signal showed that she was at YGI Central, no doubt coordinating everything that she could, against her doctor’s orders. “I’m only supervising an evacuation of the Daizon Valley and watching an invasion army descend upon my homeworld.”
“I know,” Selu said. “I’m sorry; I’ll be brief. Does YGI know how the Zannists determined the location of the Daizon Valley, or even the refuge?”
“Not really,” Milya’s answer came almost immediately. “The spy aboard the ODC didn’t access that kind of information and there hasn’t been an accurate, up-to-date geological survey of Yanibar released in decades. No spy ships or probes either. He’s either got some really old maps—which were never exactly common—or some other source of information.”

Selu frowned. The deluge of information she was feeding him basically said that they didn’t know. But there was something in the way she’d worded her reply and pitched her tone of voice that told him there was something more.

“What else?” he asked.

She sighed.

“I can’t confirm it, so it’s not in any kind of official statement,” she said. “But I caught a glimpse of something in the Force.”
“Go on,” Selu pressed.
“I saw . . . Tyber Zann on his ship,” Milya said. “I think he has Sarth and Cassi.”
“If he does, then we should have sensed their presences,” Selu said. “Right?”
“I know,” Milya told him. “I’ve thought of that already, and I know Sarth and Cassi would never divulge anything about Yanibar to Tyber Zann.”
“They might be under duress,” Selu said gently, trying to word it in such a way as to not instill further worry about them, nor overtly suggest the idea that they could be broken.
“It’s a possibility,” Milya said. “But, I can’t confirm it, for whatever reason.”
“I understand,” Selu said as the Hawk-bat swooped into the atmosphere. “I’ll be groundside in a few minutes. If you can, see if you can confirm that nagging suspicion of yours.”
“I’ll try,” Milya replied, the trace of exasperation in her voice telling him that she’d been trying to do just that. “See you soon.”

The comlink cut off before Selu had a chance to ask Milya where Rhiannon was. She was obviously both agitated and busy, so he decided not to call her back. That little detail could be easily taken care of later.

Due to the fact that his approach trajectory was more direct, the Hawk-bat reached Yanibar well before the first of Zann’s transports breached the planet’s atmosphere. In fact, Selu had time to fly through a light rainstorm that had settled over much of the Tusloni Basin and set the freighter down and reach the command room of the central YGA base before that happened. Joining Spectre in studying the threat board there, Selu watched the cluster of red dots approach.

“They appear to be heavily escorted,” Spectre pointed out, referring to the transports. “I could launch missiles or droids at them, but it would just be a waste.”
“Hmm,” Selu mused, stroking his goatee thoughtfully.

The seeds of an idea had been forming in his mind on his flight down to the surface and now he was convinced it was the best way.

“What do you recommend?” Spectre asked, arching one eyebrow inquisitively.
“I recommend you don’t fire anything,” Selu said. “You’re right, it’s a waste of time to send a single droid, missile, or fighter at that landing force.”
“So, we just let them land and hope their intentions are noble?” Spectre asked, waiting for Selu to reveal the catch.
“Not exactly,” Selu said with a wicked, knowing smile.

He told Spectre about his plan, and after he had done so, the same wicked smile had creased Spectre’s face.

The natural state of Yanibar’s weather was, to put it bluntly, awful. Unpredictable and savage as a result of the planet’s axial tilt and distance from its star, as well as due to tidal forces from its moons, the weather patterns made the planet just barely habitable. Many of the original Zeison Sha had perished due to the inclement conditions. In the initial days of the Yanibar refuge, the weather had required Selu Kraen and several talented Zeison Sha to scramble out any time and attempt to use the Force to weaken it any time that a particularly severe storm blew in. Thankfully, those days were long gone due to three sizable weather control towers purchased with a stolen Imperial fortune and which sheltered the Tusloni Basin from the worst of Yanibar’s weather. The towers’ range extended nearly a hundred kilometers on every side of the basin. It was these devices that Selu now hoped to use against the Zann Consortium in an idea that somehow seemed reminiscent of something Sarth would contrive.

A single transmission on his emergency command frequency put Selu in touch with the individual in charge of the weather control network. It took a few minutes to convey exactly what Selu wanted done to the scientist, but in the end, his point was made clear. The scientist, a Force-sensitive genius in his field specifically recruited by Sarth from the Jal Shey, said that, though it had never been done before, he could get Selu what he wanted, provided he had the resources and necessary power available. Selu promised him he’d have everything he needed. A YGI databurst transmission gave Selu the vicinity of likely landing sites where Zann Consortium pathfinding craft and advance scouts had already set down, and he provided those coordinates to the weather control network.

Selu stood in the darkened command center while Spectre pulled up a meteorological display on a secondary screen next to the threat board. The two men observed the formative stages of a storm front large enough to blanket the entire landing force. Within the hour, directed by the impulses spewing from careful, if unorthodox, uses of the weather control network, the storm intensified. Yanibar’s storms could form very quickly, and this one, artificially aggravated and enhanced, was even nastier than the multi-cell thunderstorms common on Yanibar. The color-coded meteorological screen showed a large patch of angry reds and purples, indicating a severe and very powerful storm, growing and moving swiftly towards the incoming ships. Selu watched as a second storm front appeared from the other side, cutting off their retreat.

“The clash of those two fronts will be quite spectacular,” Spectre noted as he watched them converge on each other—and the invasion fleet.
“Indeed,” Selu said wryly. “Remind me to increase the pay of all weather control technicians by at least twenty percent when this is all over.”
“Wind speed is nearing two hundred kilometers per hour,” Spectre said, glancing at the symbols on the meteorological display. “Significant numbers of lightning strikes, visibility down to 0 kilometers.”

Spectre’s dry description of the storm didn’t nearly do justice to the actual meteorological event. Gusts of wind collided in swirling vortices as the two fronts collided in a clash of titans. Forks of lightning split the thick blanket of ominous black thunderclouds as sheets of rain flew through the air, whipped in every direction by the eddies and tempests of the angry, howling gales. The fierce energy, buoyed by the influence of the weather control stations, torched spidery webs through the dense cloud cover, providing the illumination in the pitch-black darkness of the frontal collision.

Caught right in the midst of this fear-inspiring beast of a storm, the gaggle of transports soon flew into utter disarray as the ships were tossed around by the sheer power of the weather. Lightning strikes, attracted to the high metal content of the transports, lit up shields, sapping energy as the deflectors tried to withstand the high-energy bolts. Winds made piloting a tenuous affair at best, and collisions began thinning the ranks as spacecraft were slammed into each other at lethal velocities. Several other ships simply lost control and fell out of the sky to crash below, destroying men and materiel. The ships that did make it to the landing site set down with a quarter of their original number missing; such was the intensity of the storm they had flown through. When they did land, they found that the dry lake bed where the landing site was located had been transformed into a sea of mud, making debarkation difficult. For the most part, the Zannist soldiers simply hunkered down to wait for the storm to finish unleashing its drenching rain and whirlwinds. They could do nothing until the wrath of Yanibar’s weather was depleted.

Eventually, though, the clouds did break, revealing a star-filled night sky and two moons. Pressed relentlessly by their overseers, the Zannist soldiers managed to finish the unpleasant task of unloading their weaponry and supplies in the knee-deep mud, working late into the night, but eventually, most of them found somewhere to collapse from exhaustion. They would launch their assault the next morning.

Merciless
“Are you sure about this?” Tyber Zann asked Sarth, who was sitting in front of a large holoprojector.
“I’m sure,” Sarth told him wearily.

This was the third such session he’d had with the crime lord, and Zann had relentlessly pressed him for information on Yanibar and its defenses. Sarth had complied, just as he’d promised he would. The holoprojector showed the location of the Daizon Valley, as well as the four major Yanibar Guard bases inside the Tusloni Basin, data that Sarth had provided to Zann. He’d also given an approximate number of Yanibar Guardsmen and droids, as well as what information he could on their equipment, to Zann. There had been no deception in the intelligence he’d provided—he knew all too well the consequences of doing so. However, that didn’t mean he was revealing the whole truth.

“I’m not sure I believe you,” Zann said suspiciously. “After all, you failed to inform me that the weather control towers could be used to generate such a massive storm. I lost a quarter of my landing force.”
“I didn’t even know they could be used that way,” Sarth countered. “I’m an engineer and an executive, not a soldier. I don’t even read the defense plans.”

Okay, technically true, Sarth thought. He was just told about them by Milya, Selu, and Spectre.

“A pity,” Zann said drily.
“Look, I’ve told you what you’re up against and given you their locations as best as I can,” Sarth said. “I don’t have anything else to tell you. I just don’t know any more.”
“I think you do,” Zann said. “There is one last thing I want to know.”
“What?” Sarth asked shortly.

Zann leaned in over the holoprojector to stare directly at Sarth.

“I want to know about the leadership of this Yanibar Guard,” he said. “Who is in charge down there?”

Sarth swallowed hard. This was the part he hadn’t wanted to divulge to Zann. He had no choice, though. The best he could do was hope to tell Zann very little substantive information.

“Matrik Tenzor is the general on the ground. He’s a former clone in the Republic army. He’s experienced and smart,” Sarth replied. “I’d put him over one of your mercenary commanders any day of the week.”
“Cut the attitude, Sarth,” Zann warned. “Or else your wife will suffer. Is he in charge of the space fleet also?”
“No,” Sarth said miserably. “That belongs to another experienced officer named Zozridor Slayke.”
“I’ve heard the name,” Zann replied. “He disappeared awhile ago, and I wondered where he and his group went.”
“That’s him,” Sarth said. “And there’s one other thing you should know.”
“What’s that?”
“You’re up against a trained and experienced army, Tyber Zann,” Sarth said with a last flicker of defiance. “They’re better equipped and better led than anything you’ve ever been up against. This isn’t bullying helpless Twi’leks on Ryloth. You’ll be up against trained warriors.”
“And Jedi?” Zann asked.
“There are several others,” Sarth said, giving a much lower number for the ranks of the Elite Guardians.
“I’m not too worried about them,” Zann said. “The same method I use to restrain you here will work equally well on the ground.”
“And just how is that?” Sarth asked, hoping to get some information.

Zann thought about refusing to answer, but he relented. Sarth couldn’t do anything to him now.

“Fascinating little creatures native to the planet Myrkr,” Zann explained. “They’re called ysalamiri. Apparently, they repel the Force in an area around them.”
“That’s absurd,” Sarth retorted.
“Is it?” Zann replied with a mocking chuckle. “I don’t see you lifting anything with your mind.”

Sarth said nothing, knowing Zann had a good point. Instead, he folded his hands and sat motionless, staring at the hologram loaded full of valuable tactical data that he’d given to Tyber Zann. Data that would greatly help the criminal conquer Yanibar.

“I’ve told you everything I know,” he told Zann.

Zann peered down at him, but something in Sarth’s face convinced him the man was sincere.

“We’ll talk later,” he said, then turned to his Trandoshan Guards. “See that Sarth here gets back to his cell. And get him and his wife something to eat and drink as a reward for his cooperation.”

The guards silently helped Sarth to his feet, each placing a giant forearm under his shoulder and half-supporting, half-carrying him. His knee and ankle still hadn’t been properly treated and Sarth didn’t even want to guess what they looked like under the dirty bandages they were wrapped in. He couldn’t place any weight on either of them and if it hadn’t been for the sizable dose of perigen he’d been given, the pain would have been unbearable.

The Trandoshans plodded their way down the hallway back to Sarth’s cell. Sarth feigned weakness, letting them do most of the work while he waited for the right moment. Zann’s explanation about the ysalamiri had cleared up a lot of the questions in his mind about how their access to the Force was blocked, and it had given him an idea. He’d sensed a small pocket in the halls of the Merciless where he’d gotten just a taste of the Force before its presence had been cut off again. The past two trips to and from the conference room had allowed him to determine its location and now he was ready. He tensed, knowing he would only get one shot at this. Thankfully, the Trandoshans seemed to be the very definition of dumb muscle and Sarth knew they weren’t the most attentive guards. The spot approached—five meters, four, three, two . . one . . . there!

The Force was with him for just a second, and Sarth used that brief sliver of opportunity to telekinetically pull a loose comlink from one Trandoshan and slip it into his boot. The sensation of being open to the Force was cut off almost immediately afterward, but he was successful. His prize was now nestled in his boot, out of sight. Hopefully, he’d be able to make use of it.

Yanibar

Slogging through the mud, the army of Zann Consortium soldiers made its way to the entrance of the Tusloni Basin. Squads of mercenary soldiers scouted ahead, backed up by swift yet flimsy speeders. Behind them followed the brunt of the army—heavy droidekas, plasma tanks, three-legged All-Terrain Attack Pods of Clone Wars vintage, MDUs, and personnel transports. Lumbering behind them were the armored spearheads of the Consortium, the massive Canderous assault tanks produced by MandalMotors, and the Missile Attack Launchers that served as artillery.

The weather had not improved much. The torrential rain and gale-force winds had given away, but now a thick blanket of fog had rolled in over the entire valley, prompting unconfident mutterings from the common soldiery. The planet had been entirely inhospitable to them thus far.

Acting cautiously, the advance scouts progressed gradually through the entrance of the valley until their commander grew impatient and ordered a full frontal assault into the Daizon Valley. The armored columns moved up while the forward groups slowed, allowing the army to form a single cohesive unit pushing through the Valley. Strangely, the misty, forested valley had offered no resistance.

Nor did it until they were five kilometers in. Then, bursting out of underground bunkers carefully concealed for such an ambush, squads of battle droids, droidekas, and Armored Assault Tanks carefully preserved from the Clone Wars emerged from hiding with all weapons blazing. Their robotic photoreceptors were little troubled by the fog and the clumped formation of the Zann Consortium made targeting easy. The confused Zannist soldiers, taken by surprise, blazed away in all directions, sometimes hitting friendly vehicles. The actual number of droids was less than a thousand, but the effect of the multi-vector assault had been intended to carefully sow discord into the army. It was some time before all the droids, programmed to evade and harass, were defeated, and there were nearly as many casualties from friendly fire as there were from the YG droids. In particular, the drivers of the larger plasma tanks and Canderous assault tanks were disdainful and heedless of the impact their cannons had when fired; they simply didn’t care about the smaller vehicles and infantry. Soon, the trees of the Daizon Valley, many of which had already been trampled despite the presence of a sizable cleared road, were splintered, sundered, and set afire in the vicinity of the army. Yet, despite the harassment, the Zannist army continued its path of devastation.

Until it hit the first minefield. Smaller speeders exploded outright, hurled into the air as burning hulks by the force of the detonations. Larger vehicles weren’t destroyed by the mines, but the damage was often enough to debilitate them. The minefields weren’t that dense, but their appearance was enough to spook even the most hardened tank pilots into slowing down until their movement lane had been cleared by the infantry.

The Zannist commander gritted his teeth in anger as reports of more casualties came through the murky fog. Had he been more patient and deployed more of his mercenaries to scout the surroundings, they might have picked up on the tactics of their enemies. Belatedly, he gave that order now, sending his trained mercenaries and Mandalorian commanders to the sweep the flanks and directly in front of the army for further traps. He also deployed the masses of conscripted infantry, sentients that had been pressed into service of the Zann Consortium. Little more than laser cannon fodder, they only served because of the threat hanging over their families and people if they failed to do their part. To the Zann Consortium, they were the most expendable of all assets.

Revising the tactics did make a difference. The heavily armed and ruthless mercenaries and Mandalorians quickly located and dealt with two more droid bunkers with minimal casualties. Droids were simply no match for experienced organic warriors with the appropriate equipment and training. The mines, hastily laid by the Yanibar Guard only a few days prior, were also not hard for demolitions specialists to locate and disarm, greatly diminishing their effectiveness at slowing down the Zannists. The one thing that annoyed the mercenaries was that they had to meet any organic opponents.

With the columns proceeding more cautiously, it was midday before the Zannists made it twelve kilometers into the Daizon Valley. There had still been no sign of the Yanibar Guard other than the occasional mine or droid ambush. They had passed through a few isolated villages, though, but they had all been completely evacuated. The entire valley seemed devoid of sentient life other than the entire Zann Consortium.

Of course, that wasn’t true.

Watching from one of those villages, Nate Kraen set his helmet visor to maximum magnification in its infrared mode, watching twenty or so Mandalorians approach the small cluster of buildings, making their way through the forest. The rest of Cresh Squad was likewise scattered around the village. Given that the advance squads no doubt had sophisticated sensors, they had eschewed their camopacks in favor of shields.

“Cresh Three to Lead,” he said into his comlink. “Hostiles spotted.”
“Confirmed,” Captain Wyslond reported. “Two, fire at will. Give them something to think about.”

There was a click on the commnet as the taciturn sniper acknowledged. Nate observed as one of the Mandalorians was suddenly knocked over by an invisible force, no doubt the result of an armor-piercing tungsten-durasteel slug from the sniper’s S-5X. The Mandalorians immediately ducked down and began approaching far more cautiously, using the trees and scattered rocks for cover. One of them, carefully flattened against a tree, never knew what hit him when another sniper round punched through the thick trunk and tore a messy hole in the back of his helmeted head. S-5X rounds could travel at up to 2,000 meters per second. A tree trunk wouldn’t slow one down much at all, and the big bullets had been designed to punch through armor.

“Looks like they’ve found the next cluster of mines,” Nate said, observing two Mandalorians belly-crawl up to the explosives and begin disarming them.

He was now doing so through the scope of his S-2F blaster rifle rather than just his helmet’s optics. Nate sighted in on one Mandalorian, but held his fire. No need to waste all that preparation.

“Set ‘em off,” Captain Wyslond ordered.

Cresh Squad’s demolition expert did as ordered, setting off the secondary set of charges planted underneath the mines that he’d placed. The resulting explosion blew a large crater in the ground and tossed several Mandalorians around lifelessly. The squad opened fire from the cover of the buildings, filling the air with angry whining purple blasterfire. The bolts soon sought out the Mandalorians, hammering them with relentless accuracy.

However, these were no simple thugs or guards on Nar Shaddaa. The return fire was just as accurate and heavy. If it wasn’t for their shields, Nate, realized, they would have been slightly overmatched. As it was, Cresh Squad was barely hanging on, but they were inflicting heavy casualties on the Mandalorians. A tight grouping of blaster bolts chewed away at the stone wall he was ducked behind, filling the air over his head with red-hot rock splinters. He stayed down, sliding the blaster rifle up over the wall to let loose a burst of suppressing fire. He popped up just as a Mandalorian, equipped with rockets on his wrist gauntlets, fired a jetpack and launched himself into the air, intent on raining explosive death down on Cresh Squad. Nate’s blaster was tracking the rapidly ascending man when he saw a flash on the man’s armor, followed by an ear-splitting crack two seconds later from the sound of the S-5X round hitting hypersonic velocities. Cresh Two was still plying his deadly trade, and had just saved the squad from certain death.

Nate snapped back up above the wall again, planting two blaster bolts square into a Mandalorian. Several return blasts hit him in the head, and only the energy shield enveloping him saved him from death. Consulting his helmet sensors, Nate realized that at least a hundred more soldiers were rushing to the aid of the Mandalorians. Noting the size of some of the laser blasts, they’d brought in heavy vehicles as well. The initial soldiers were a distraction, designed to keep Cresh Squad distracted with fighting them until reinforcements arrived. Nate’s squad status display in one corner of his helmet’s HUD showed two wounded among the squad. A clever plan and one that had succeeded.

“Fall back,” Wyslond ordered as the fire intensified.

Arming a detonator, Nate chunked it over the wall and waited for the explosion to cover his retreat before scrambling back a dozen meters, dodging blaster bolts. He ran straight into an opportunistic Nikto mercenary who had been sneaking up on Cresh Two with a large disrupter. The blasts to Nate’s head must have damaged his sensors. Time slowed down as both combatants were taken by surprise. Nate recovered first, though, slamming the butt of his rifle into the Nikto’s chin, driving the alien back. Immediately after, he pulled his vibroblade and ran the Nikto through.

“We’re being overrun!” he called.

Laying down a pattern of cover fire so that Cresh Two could scramble off the rooftop he’d been firing from and retreat through the mists, Nate noticed with dismay that several combat speeders had moved up. Seeing one blazing away less than twenty meters from him, he fired his underslung grenade launcher at it and was rewarded to see it explode. Good, those had light armor, then.

Two managed to backpedal safely, and the sniper was skilled enough to drop two more Mandalorians with close-range shots even while on the move. An impressive feat. Nate was about to fall back to another position at the rear of the village when a laser cannon bolt struck the corner of the wall he was hiding behind. The explosion hurled him back onto the ground in a cloud of smoke and dust, his shield completely blown out after trying to absorb the impact.

Nate tried to ignore the ringing in his ears and rolled over to see a three-legged All-Terrain Attack Pod pointing its cluster of weaponry at him. The sizable walker would be difficult for Cresh Squad to take down under even if it had been alone—they hadn’t brought the requisite heavy weapons with them for destroying that kind of vehicle in one hit, and only a close-range assault with grenades would stand a chance at toppling it. With the village and surrounding woods swarming with hostile infantry, they’d never make it. He prepared himself for the searing sensation of being blown apart by the walker, when suddenly it turned.

Glancing in the direction that it had traversed, Nate saw a figure jump into the sky out of cover without the use of any kind of jetpack. The airborne individual, a red-skinned female Twi’lek wearing light battle armor, hung in the sky for a second, heedless of the blaster bolts she was attracting, bringing her arms, which had been extended out from her shoulder, across her body violently in an expressive gesture. Nate watched as a sizable tree, its trunk already weakened by blaster fire, crashed down on top of the walker, smashing it to the ground in a pile of burning wreckage. The figure dropped back down, and Nate saw that she was running towards him, though running was probably not the right word for it. She was moving evasively, leaping and cartwheeling over blaster bolts that flew past her to hit the ground in puffs of steam and exploding dirt, jumping up to run along walls for short intervals. Her acrobatics were impressive, and Nate knew that only the Force could facilitate such agility. She paused briefly across the street from him and he could have sworn she was looking straight at him, trying to say something. His ringing ears couldn’t hear her, though, and he suspected his helmet was damaged, rendering his comlink useless.

He watched as she crouched low, then launched herself across the street, jumping up into the air and spinning around to sling two whirling disk-shaped objects in the direction of the energy blasts being fired at her. Craning his neck around the corner, he watched the two Mandalorians that had been firing at her go down, their necks sliced at the weak point by the thrown objects, which the Force-sensitive Twi’lek had called back to her hand by the time she’d landed gracefully next to Nate.

She looked at him concernedly even as she ducked behind the remains of the wall to avoid more blaster fire.

“I’m okay,” Nate told her, using his helmet’s speakers.
“Good,” she said. “We need to go. Can you run?”
“Yes,” Nate replied, though he’d only caught the last bit of her words due to the fading ringing in his ears.

The Twi’lek helped him up and together they dashed back through the fields. She always went first, drawing fire that uncannily never seemed to touch her, allowing Nate to loose a few last-second blaster bolts and fall back. Like the wind, she seemed almost ethereal, untouchable by any means available to their adversaries. At her whirlwind-fast mad dash of a pace, they made it out of the village in only a few minutes, though Nate’s legs ached from the incessant sprinting-and-stopping. Soon, she guided him away from their angry pursuers to a carefully hidden escape tunnel half a kilometer of the village where the rest of Cresh Squad was waiting for them.

“Told you I’d bring him back,” the Twi’lek told Captain Wyslond with a smile.
“Thank you, Master Daara,” the captain told her. “And not a moment too soon. We need to—,”
“Fall back using the tunnel and seal it behind us, I know,” Daara said. “Can your wounded walk?”
“They can,” the captain said. “Let’s go.”

Cresh Squad fell back through the tunnel, using their helmets’ optical sensors to guide them in the darkness, while Master Daara simply used the Force. They heard a muffled explosion behind them as a strategically-placed demolitions charge collapsed their escape route, keeping it from discovery by the Zannist forces.

Outside, though, the sky began to rumble as fiery streaks burned through the air to hit the village. The Zannists were finally experiencing the Yanibar Guard’s longest-ranged tactical artillery. Twenty kilometers away, enormous tri-barreled Mauler assault tanks, deployed in fire support mode, were loosing a furious thunderstorm of high explosive-filled solid projectiles. Those shells, magnetically accelerated into the sky, finished their parabolic arcs and dove downward, turning the misty, smoldering remains of the village into a cauldron of concussions and fire from the shell impacts. A rather old-fashioned form of artillery, Kraechar Arms had chosen to develop the primary long-range fire support battle system for the Yanibar Guard on a projectile-based system over energy weapons in order to facilitate exactly this kind of indirect bombardment that lasers couldn’t provide over uneven terrain. Fireballs dotted the area as the shells rained down mercilessly, and while they soon died out to flickering tongues of flame due to the thick mist, the electromagnetically-guided shells sought out the light vehicles of the Zann Consortium advance force. Though only a dozen of the Maulers were firing, their three barrels and high rate of fire allowed them to blanket several square kilometers with their deadly ordnance.

Still, the Zannists managed to advance through the fiery hailstorm and, as Missile Attack Launchers deployed and loosed volleys of rockets in counter-battery file, the artillery duel began in earnest. While Maulers were larger and had more powerful shields, the MALs were more mobile and could deploy faster. The exchange of shells and missiles raged for nearly an hour and the barrages were enough to slow the Zann Consortium advance even further while the MALs traded fire with the Maulers.

Eventually, though, Spectre conceded defeat and withdrew his surviving seven Maulers back behind a powerful shield generator. He’d done considerable damage to the approaching Zannists with his artillery, but the heavy tanks were proving quite vulnerable to the salvoes of long-range missiles packed by the MALs. This didn’t mean he was done, though. While the MALs were still deployed in their firing positions, Spectre sent a wave of twenty Vulture droids screaming through the mist at low-level to target them while the Maulers withdrew. Using their lasers and torpedoes, they strafed the MALs, reducing another nine of the missile carriers to wreckage before most of them were destroyed. Spectre called the survivors back; they’d accomplished their job by covering the withdrawal of the Maulers.

Free of harassment, the Zannists managed to advance another five kilometers by the time that evening had fallen. However, they were now in range of the Maulers even from within the shields. Carefully timed barrages were fired at random intervals to keep the Zannists from pushing forward too fast, and by the time the missiles from the MALs had launched, the shields had been raised again. The frustrated Zannist commander had originally ordered them to bombard the shields incessantly, but after a mysterious mudslide had buried a supply convoy loaded with more missiles, he’d been forced to conserve ammunition somewhat. The Yanibar Guard was fighting a war of attrition, making his advance through the Daizon Valley very costly.

Insisting that the pace be picked up, the general drove his Canderous tank to the front of the army, hoping to advance rapidly behind an armored thrust by the heavy tanks. He stayed inside the sturdy tank until it hit a series of mines which blew out its shields and damaged its engine. Popping up into his observation cupola to inspect the damage from his turret, he didn’t report as expected. One of his crewmembers went to investigate and found that him dead, the transparisteel of the observation cupola stained with sprayed blood from a lethal head wound between his eyes. There was a sizable round hole in the observation cupola where a sniper’s round had penetrated. From then on, the advance was more cautious and Canderous tank commanders were advised to stay out of their cupolas and “keep their kriffing heads down.”

Despite heavy casualties and few inflicted in return, the replacement commander kept the Zannist force pushing forward in the face of further harassment and artillery fire. By the time they had reached five kilometers from the mouth of the valley, the Yanibar Guard had added droid mortar tanks to their list of weaponry, sending blazing hot streaks of plasma fire raining down like lethal meteors on the front ranks. Unwilling to risk even heavier casualties, the Zannists fell back to just outside of mortar range—based on Sarth’s intelligence, there were quite a few in the Yanibar Guard Army arsenal. Looking through the ruined and charred forests surrounding their emplacements, the tired Zann Consortium soldiers could just barely see the sizable Yanibar Guard base sitting on a mountain spur overlooking the valley. Taking that base would be their objective for the next day, their commander informed. Not exactly thrilled about that prospect after the hardships they’d already experienced, they fell into an uneasy sleep against a background of intermittent artillery fire.

By the next morning, however, orders had changed, and to the surprise and pleasure of the common soldier, the advance on the no-doubt heavily fortified emplacement was called off. Though the reasoning was unknown to the majority of the strike force, it had nothing to do with a new squeamishness over heavy casualties. No, this order to halt had come straight from the top. New variables had entered the equation.

24

“What the kriff are those?” Spectre demanded as the orbital threat board showed a new host of contacts screaming in from hyperspace.

The new ships had showed up on the other side of the YGF ships and space station, pinning them between the new arrivals and the rest of Tyber Zann’s fleet. Until now, the space battle had been a prolonged stalemate, with Tyber Zann’s ships holding position out of weapons range while his army advanced. The YGF couldn’t bombard his ground troops as long as the fleet kept them in a deadlock, and so the two flotillas had been content to keep each other in check. A few occasional volleys of Nighthawk missiles, aimed at the unshielded Vengeance-class frigates, had sown minor chaos among the fleet, since Zann no longer had enough gunships to protect all his fleet. Instead, he’d clustered his ships together tightly around the Merciless in order to minimize their vulnerability to the annoying stealth missiles.

“Not sure, sir,” replied the sensor officer.

By now, Selu and Milya had emerged from the conference room where they’d been taking a much-needed respite for food and joined Spectre in staring at the new group of contacts.

“What do you mean, ‘not sure’?” Spectre asked, scowling darkly.
“They’re not any kind of ship in our database, sir,” the officer said apologetically.

Selu examined the new contacts, searching for some means of identifying them.

“Give me maximum resolution on those,” he said.

The command was carried out, and soon the new arrivals were displayed on the threat board, magnified as far as the orbital sensor network could display. The eleven largest ships were identical, each several hundred meters long and bristling with weaponry.

“I recognize that insignia,” Selu said, pointing out a large symbol wrought on the bow of the ships.
“What is it?” Milya asked.
“Those are Sith warships,” Selu told her. “Very old designs.”
“What?” Milya exclaimed. “You mean Imperial, right?”
“No, I mean Sith,” Selu confirmed grimly. “That symbol is of the Sith Empire, something that existed three thousand years ago.”
“Where did somebody dig up ancient Sith warships from?” Spectre wondered aloud. “And why would they use them? Those have to beyond antiques by now.”
“I don’t know, but they’re probably not friendly,” Selu said. “No transponder identification codes and they’re deploying fighters.”
“Can we destroy them?” Spectre asked.
“Not without leaving ourselves vulnerable to Zann’s fleet,” Selu told him. “Otherwise, yes.”
“What should we do, then?” Milya asked. “Admiral Slayke is requesting your orders.”
“Tell him to assume that they’re hostile, but hold position. Don’t provoke them,” Selu said. “We can’t move, or else we lose the fleet.”

The order was relayed, but all hope had fled from Selu, Spectre, and Milya, as they stared at the new fleet. They had thought they had a chance at defeating Zann’s forces both in space and on the ground, but the arrival of the second hostile fleet, even in admittedly ancient ships, spelled disaster for their carefully laid plans. The three Yanibar Guard heads watched in forlorn and morbid fascination as the new arrivals closed in, waiting for them to declare their intentions.

Merciless
“We are receiving a transmission from the incoming fleet,” one of the bridge crew informed a hastily-arrived Tyber Zann.
“Let me see it,” he replied.

A minute later, a translucent hologram of Nightsister Silri appeared. A smug grin was on her face, and Zann too, found himself cautiously optimistic about her arrival—if she was still on his side.

“Greetings, Tyber Zann,” she said.
“Silri,” he answered. “Excellent timing.”
“I’m sure it is,” she returned sardonically.
“Then you know about the Jedi stronghold down there on the surface,” Zann said.

She paused briefly, but just enough for Zann to realize that she hadn’t been fully aware of that.

“Is that why you’re over this miserable planet?”
“Partly,” he told her. “There are some people down there who owe me a debt. They’re working with the Jedi.”

Silri considered his point. On the one hand, she had come here intending to destroy the Jedi she’d been tracking herself, one whose tantalizing blood trail had enticed Silri to journey to this planet. Her untested Sith army needed to prove itself to her, and until it did, she wasn’t as confident in her ability to destroy Tyber Zann as she needed to be. She could have simply attacked Zann outright, but most of her force was antiquated and composed of ground troops. She would need supplies from Zann’s army on the ground to resupply her force. Also, Silri dared not risk any Jedi escaping. At the heart of the matter, she and Tyber Zann were both here for the same reason; both she and Zann wanted revenge on the inhabitants of Yanibar. And, for the moment, it seemed like as good a cause as any. The Jedi scum had nearly bested her on Coruscant, left her wounded in body and pride. Silri already hated the Jedi for who they were, but now it was personal. After the Jedi were defeated and their planet devastated, she could eliminate Tyber Zann. And she knew just how to do it, too.

Her fleet consisted of eleven Sith cruisers and two dozen smaller escort gunships, but what Zann didn’t know was that the crew and troops from five of the cruisers had been loaded onto smaller assault transports instead. Those ships were now crewed by droids instead, and packed full of explosives. Silri figured that she could use two of her ship-bombs to sidle up next to the Merciless and destroy it once the Jedi were defeated. If Tyber Zann escaped, her six remaining warships would be sufficient to deal with him. The only flaw Silri sensed in her plan was that she wouldn’t be able to kill Tyber Zann personally. Perhaps she would board his ship and kill him first, and then set off her bombs to eliminate the rest of his fleet.

“Very well,” she said. “We will destroy the Jedi.”
“I’m sending you the tactical data you’ll need,” Zann replied. “Don’t underestimate them; they’re very capable fighters.”

Silri studied the data for a brief moment, evaluating what she was seeing, but she wasn’t a strategist. However, looking over the topographical map of Yanibar, she noticed something that intrigued her.

“Here,” she said, indicating a small plateau inside the Tusloni Basin, not far from the Daizon Valley. “I will land my troops here.”

The plateau was obviously a key area; its high ground overlooked both a major city, but also was in position to allow a flank assault on the sizable Yanibar Guard base defending the Daizon Valley. However, it only held that value if troops could be placed there.

“They have a shield generator protecting the basin,” Zann said, scowling darkly. “How will do that?”

She favored him with a thin smile.

“Watch and learn, Tyber Zann,” she told him. “Have your ships keep their fleet from attacking us, and you will see.”

Zann glowered at her, and she thought for a moment that he was going to refuse—in which case, she immediately would have attacked him outright. However, despite looking distinctly unhappy, he acquiesced.

“It will be done,” he said, then terminated the transmission.

Neither of them knew that, due to the technological differences in their communications equipment, as well as disparate encryption protocols, that someone else had been listening in.

Yanibar Guard Command Center
“Wonderful,” Milya said. “Now there’s another army heading towards us. And it’s led by Silri. I wish I’d killed her on Coruscant.”
“For those of us who haven’t fought her or read her YGI file, who is she?” Spectre asked.
“She’s the Dark Jedi I ran into on Coruscant,” Milya said. “But she’s also a high-ranking operative of Tyber Zann’s. Very dangerous.”
“And now she has an army, too,” Selu remarked. “Did you know about this?”
“No,” Milya replied. “This is new.”

Even as they watched, four Sith warships, followed by at least two dozen transports and numerous escort vessels, peeled off from the main force, while the other seven ships, combined with Zann’s fleet, effectively kept the YGF pinned in place in close proximity of the Orbital Command Center.

“How many troops are we talking about there?” Spectre asked.

Milya pulled up details on the transports, squinting at their size as she tried to make an intelligent estimate.

“At least 500 per transport,” she said. “Probably 10,000 or so altogether.”
“What do we have in the area?” Selu asked.

Spectre shook his head.

“Not much. Most of our ground troops are deployed at the entrance to the Daizon Valley. I have one regiment that I was holding in reserve in that area. I can shift another battalion or two from protecting Union City in time to mount a defense.”
“2,000 against 10,000?” Milya replied. “That’s pushing it, even for the Jedi.”
“She’s right,” Selu said. “We’ll have to defeat them in the air, assuming they break the shield.”
“Understood,” Spectre replied. “Launching all ground-based squadrons and droid fighters now.”
“Use any anti-orbital weaponry you have,” Selu instructed him.
“Will do,” Spectre said. “All non-combat personnel are being issued weapons now. If they push on Union City or Saqua, there are reinforced regiments in each one.”
“That won’t stop them from occupying the high ground on the plateau,” Milya pointed out.
“I know,” Spectre said. “If they land, we’ll just have to hope that the cities and bases remain protected by their local shield generators.”
“You might want to pull that regiment back to protect your flank on the valley side,” Selu suggested. “The Zannist army will no doubt launch a major push if that plateau is taken, and we can’t afford to have half of the YGA caught between them.”
“I agree,” Spectre told him. “I’m only leaving a token force of droids there. If we had more time, I’d lay mines or something, but they’re coming in too fast.”
“They’ll be in range in twenty seconds,” Milya confirmed, looking at the approaching ships’ trajectories.
“Sithspawn,” Selu swore. “If they get through, they’ll overrun the training academies. They’re less than two kilometers south of that plateau.”
“I’ll get an emergency evacuation underway,” Milya told him. “They can fall back into the mountains until we can extract them via the tunnels.”

As the Sith warships moved into range, the ground-based turbolasers, missile launchers, and ion cannon of the Yanibar Guard opened fire on them. Soon, the skies were filled with the pale, smoke contrails of missiles, followed by the lightning-fast bolts of amethyst turbolaser fire and sizzling turquoise ion blasts. However, such powerful weapons were relatively rare among the Yanibar Guard, and though a few smaller ships were destroyed and the shields of the four lead cruisers went down quickly against the sudden barrage, the sturdy vessels remained intact, pelting scarlet laser cannon fire on the hazy blue shield with such intensity that the energy bolts fell like raindrops. They approached the shield perimeter resolutely, while down below, Yanibar Guardsmen and observing civilians alike waited to see what would happen. Three of the large cruisers surged forward unexpectedly, accelerating towards the shield as if heedless of the energy barrier. Then, abruptly, they detonated with violent force right at the edge of the shield. The blast of the energy illuminated the Yanibar sky with three expanding clouds of blue-hot plasma. The shields strained against the detonation, trying to absorb the tremendous force of the impact. They managed to deflect the millions of joules of energy unleashed by the destruction of the cruisers, but in doing so, the resulting feedback surge overloaded the main shield generators. Dedicated technicians were soon rerouting power, bypassing capacitors and burnt out relays, but it would be nearly ten minutes before the colony’s main southern shield came back online.

Immediately, smaller protective bubbles shimmered into existence over the major cities and main bases of the Yanibar Guard, sheathing them in energy fields capable of deflecting any other bombardment. However, the remaining cruiser and its attendant escort gunships and transports had no interest in further self-sacrifice. Instead, they swooped down for the plateau, regardless of the resistance rising to meet them.

A swarm of ground-based Vulture droids shot into the sky, winging their way to the attack, where they were met in fierce dogfights by ancient Sith fighters. Behind the droids, five squadrons of fighters, mostly Shotos, but with a single B-wing and Sabre squadron each, sliced through the frantic confusion of the fighter duels to engage the transports and gunships. Explosions and debris rent the sky as the pilots made their desperate defense. Shotos flew defensive patterns designed to shield and lure away pursuit from the slower B-wings long enough for the cruciform assault fighters to unload brutal volleys of torpedoes against the transports. YGF pilots were initially elated at the relatively low-powered shots fired by the aged fighters and gunships, though the number of opponents they were facing quickly diminished their confidence. The Sith troopers and gunners were disciplined, the fighters herding the Shotos into killing lanes where broadsides from the gunships could dispatch them. Without the battle meditation of Master Kraen, the YGF pilots soon realized they were not going to win, and even a number of heroic self-sacrifices and desperate attack runs were making little impact in the Sith landing force. In the end, the sheer number of Sith fighters and the efficiency of their tight formations of gunships supporting transports supporting fighters won out against the Yanibar Guard, forcing a general retreat by the two dozen survivors of the fighter attack. The Vulture droids fought to the end, with the last few combining to careen into the burning cruiser in fiery plumes, but even they were at last brought down by the overlapping fields of fire.

The way was now clear for the Sith army to establish a foothold on Yanibar; aside from scattered long-range fire from distant batteries at the two Yanibar Guard bases with sufficient angle to depress their guns and continue firing, they met no more resistance. The victory had been costly, though. Scarcely thirty Sith fighters remained out over twice that number originally, and only six gunships out of twelve were still intact. Only three were spaceworthy. The Sith cruiser was battered and burning, its landing barely controlled as it set down on the plateau. And, the most costly figure to Silri’s army—four transports had gone down, costing her over 7,000 additional lives before a single boot of her troops was placed on Yanibar soil.

The fighting reignited anew as the Sith landed, as scattered parties of droids opened fire on them from concealed positions on the grassy highland. The Sith troopers soon found that their blasters, aged and run down, were less than effective against the heavily armored B2 battle droids that had been the mainstay of droid armies throughout the Clone Wars. However, the war machines were still vulnerable to ion weaponry and close-in vibroblade stabs, making those the weapons of choice for fighting the ambush parties. Recognizing this, the droids were given new instructions to self-destruct in the middle of as many adversaries as possible. The exception to that order was a squad of YGA droidekas that had rolled swiftly across the plateau and seized a grassy knoll. Protected by their own deflector shields, they were blazing away at all comers, strewing the burning grass around them with bodies. However, once several Sith battle tanks were rolled out, their blaster cannons made short work of the merciless destroyer droids. The Sith had landed, and, under the direction of Nylad, Lexa, and Elitana, formed a perimeter around the plateau. A few plasma rounds fired by mortar tanks were soon answered with a blistering hail of fire from the Sith shatter cannons. Set up on the high ground, they commanded a large field of fire, dominating the ground for kilometers in each direction.

Silri herself had raced into battle, feeling the exhilarating rush of adrenaline and the dark side of the Force as she tore through battle droids. Her whip burned through their metal bodies, leaving behind the fallen robotic carcasses with deep scars in them from her lethal weapon. Now that the droids were cleared, she stood atop the plateau, breathing heavily, surveying her newest conquest. It had been costly, true, but her vicious assault had torn through any resistance, allowing her to land a sizable force inside the Tusloni Basin to attack the Jedi. Silri cared little for how many she lost in battle; the nameless Sith troopers were unimportant as long as her objectives were completed.

“My lady,” Lexa said, approaching her.
“What is it?” Silri asked.
“Our entire force has landed, my lady, and our fighters own the sky all around us. From this position, our shatter cannons can fire on either of two cities nearby, along with two fortresses manned by our enemies. They are shielded, but they cannot last forever. Also, we have seized what appears to be a Jedi training center not far from here. It was deserted.”
“I will make my headquarters there,” Silri said. “Tell the gunners to commence fire on the cities. If anyone approaches, destroy them.”
“It shall be done,” Lexa said, bowing and then walking off to pass along her orders.

Silri closed her eyes and concentrated, suffusing her mental senses with the dark side’s potent presence. Her mind was laced with hatred and vengeance, but she turned that emotion into a search, a search for someone whose blood she had longed to spill—the female Jedi she had fought on Coruscant. She was here, nearby, and Silri sensed that there were other Jedi around her. It would not be an easy fight to attack several Jedi at once—but there was one other person whom she could track by tracing her own spilled blood through the Force. True, this one had only had a stray droplet of blood mark, one scarcely noticeable, but even that meager amount was enough to call to Silri, to fill her mind with a picture of her location. A wicked slash of a smile creased her face as she visualized a little girl coloring a picture in a room while a droid stood over her. No one else seemed to be around. Even better yet, the girl was not far off and seemed to be located in an unfortified dwelling. True, the most direct path for her army to the dwelling would be through a narrow pass between a small mountain range and a river, a pass which was guarded by a sizable fortress. However, Silri knew that she herself, using a small speeder and protected by the power of the dark side, could cross the rugged peaks separating her from the dwelling. While her army could not follow, she could indulge her baser instincts by taking the girl hostage and forcing a rescue attempt. Or simply killing her. It would be sweet indeed if she was able to show that particular sight to the girl’s mother, an appropriately sadistic first step for Silri’s revenge. She waited and meditated, drawing on the dark side to restore her strength and prepare for what came next. Sitting in a room in the abandoned training academies, she remained in that position for six hours.

When she emerged, though, the Nightsister summoned Lexa back to her swiftly, though, as her mind had thought up another stratagem.

“Lexa, how many soldiers oppose us?”
“My lady, our scouts report that there is a strong force to our north, one which the other forces of this Consortium you speak of are besieging. They also estimate several thousand well-emplaced troops in a fortress to the southeast. The fortress’s position prevents us from attacking either city without heavy casualties.”
“And the shields?”
“The ones on the fortress are failing. We estimate that they will fall within the hour.”
“Good,” Silri said. “There are Jedi in there. Now, send a transmission to that fortress and let me know when it is ready.”
“My lady?” Lexa asked, puzzled.
“You heard me,” Silri said, then smiled wickedly. “And after finish, you and your sisters prepare for a mission I will give you.”
Yanibar Guard Command Center

The lights flickered as another barrage of artillery fire hit the shield protecting the fortress. Even inside the heavily-reinforced command center, the power drain of the shields was taxing the base’s resources. As good as the engineering that had constructed the base had been, it hadn’t been designed to withstand six hours of incessant bombardment after already deflecting countless laser blasts and crashing ships. The primary colony shield was the main defense of the colony, but while it was back online after being temporarily overloaded by the exploding cruisers, its envelope was too high to defend the base from the artillery fire.

“How much more of this can we take?” Selu asked Spectre.
“Another hour, maybe two with reserve power,” Spectre told him grimly. “We’ve been meaning to modernize the shields, but it hasn’t exactly been a budget priority.”
“I know,” Selu said, grimacing. “All those credits went to finishing the Yoda and getting more Sabres and B-wings.”
“We’d even allocated the funds for it,” Spectre said. “Sarth was going to build us shield generators that would last for weeks against this.”

A comment about how Selu was disappointed at the fact that eighteen-year-old shield generators couldn’t hold up against a few artillery rounds died unsaid as he was reminded of his brother. These past two sleepless days, Selu had been distracted by the battle, and he felt guilty for having neglected Sarth.

If he had had the time, Selu would have spent more than just a few seconds wondering if he had somehow compromised the colony. He would have fretted over whether the prophecy he had told Hasla was coming true, that the Sith were here to destroy everything he had labored to create and defend. It certainly seemed that way; the Yanibar Guard was outnumbered and outmatched on three different fronts-two on the ground, and one in space. Though a stubborn part of Selu resolutely refused to give up, he also knew it was hopeless. However, the constant activity of his role as the Supreme Commander of the Yanibar Guard and the valiant men and women that looked up to him had kept him from cracking; that and Milya’s and Spectre’s quiet reassurance and confidence in him. He had to be strong, for Sarth and Cassi, for all of them, and so he’d banished his doubt and worry to a secluded part of his mind to brood over later. Well, most of it, at least.

“We have an incoming transmission broadcasting unencrypted,” Milya interrupted his introspection, striding quickly up to him, one hand holding an earpiece comlink to her ear. “You’ll want to see this.”
“Pull it up,” Selu said, returning his mind to the present where it belonged.

Leaning over the holoprojector, he, Spectre, and Milya watched as a hologram materialized. It was Silri.

“I am Silri. I lead the army battering down your shields,” the woman said. “I wish to speak with the commanders inside the fortress.”
“It’s a loop,” Milya explained. “We won’t reply unless you want to.”

Selu stared at the ominous tattooed face of Silri.

“Put it through,” he told her. “I want to talk to her.”

Milya turned aside and spoke into her earpiece. A second later, a red light blinked on at the base of the holoprojector, indicating a live two-way transmission. Selu drew himself up to his full height and took a small step forward.

“I’m listening,” he told the hologram. “What do you want?”

Silri gave him an evil smile.

“Your defenses are failing,” she crowed. “Soon, we will break through and destroy all of you.”
“Is that so?” Selu replied nonchalantly.
“Yes,” she said, allowing an edge to creep into her voice. “And you will die.”
“Perhaps,” Selu answered, still feigning casual indifference. “What do you want, Silri? I’m not interested in your gloating.”

She sneered at him.

“I would have thought a Jedi such as yourself more concerned over the welfare of the troops under his command,” she said sourly.
“What of it?” he asked.

The smug tone returned to the Nightsister’s voice.

“I wish to negotiate your surrender,” she said, dripping condescension with every word. “Surely you know when you are beaten?”
“I’m not dead yet,” Selu countered. “And the shields are still holding.”

She sighed.

“You fool,” she spat. “Your shields will not last another hour and my gunners are standing by with chemical and radiation bombs to poison your men. They will die horrible deaths, screaming in pain as the Sith toxins melt them from within.”
“Charming,” Selu said, frowning at the hologram to mask the conflict he felt.
“You either surrender now, or I will start poisoning the countryside,” Silri said. “You and your troops will die, but not before any civilians in the area are dead too.”

She certainly had Selu’s full attention now. The swiftness of the Sith assault meant that many civilians had been caught outside the deflector shields of the cities and bases. Thousands would die if she carried out her threat, and the dark tone of her voice told Selu that she was not bluffing. No, this was a woman who delighted in watching her adversaries die slowly.

“What are your terms?” he asked.
“You will come to my base alone and unarmed,” Silri stated. “We’ll discuss the matter from there.”
“Absolutely not,” Selu said firmly. “You want to discuss surrender with me, then meet me at a neutral location. I’m not marching into your base to be used as a hostage.”
“You have little choice in the matter,” Silri replied.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Selu said. “I have instructed my fleet commander to bombard you and your little army to atoms if you commit any atrocities.”
“You will lose your fleet,” Silri pointed out.
“And you will lose your life,” Selu shot back. “I’m willing to discuss terms of surrender, but I will not be used as a hostage.”

Silri sighed theatrically, but conceded. There was no point in dragging this out further; she planned on ambushing him no matter where the negotiations were held. This pretense was merely to lure out their leader away from the others where he could be assassinated with greater ease by her three lieutenants.

“Fine,” she said. “There is a sizable building not far from here. Your maps refer to it as the Hall of Remembrance. Do you know where it is?”
“I do,” Selu replied.
“You will be there in an hour,” Silri said. “We will meet you there to discuss your surrender.”
“I’ll be there,” Selu said, smirking.
“Our bombardment will not stop until you arrive in case you go back on your word,” Silri said. “I suggest you make it quick.”
“I understand,” Selu told her.

He ended the transmission, his face somber.

“Selu, please tell me you’re not seriously considering this idea,” Milya said. “Please tell me that you’re bluffing here.”
“She’s right, old friend,” Spectre added. “This is almost certainly a trap.”
“I know,” Selu agreed heavily.
“Why don’t you just use the weather control towers again?” Spectre suggested. “Silri’s army would be forced to stop their bombardment long enough for the shields to recharge.”
“I thought of that,” Selu said. “But the power requirements are too high—we’d have to divert power from the shields to create a sufficiently powerful storm. There’d be a ten to twenty minute window where we’d be defenseless against whatever horrors Silri has up her sleeve. That’s unacceptable.”
“Another thing to get Sarth to fix when he gets back,” Spectre said.
“Assuming he does, yes,” Selu agreed ashenly. “But for now, this is the only chance we have.”
“What do you mean?” Milya asked.
“I’m going to take them with me,” Selu said. “As soon as I’m away, Spectre, you have command. The fate of this colony will rest in your hands.”

Spectre kept an impassive expression, but he knew that Selu was going on a suicide mission. Milya, however, was not so restrained. Walking right up to Selu, she laid a hand on his chest.

“Don’t do this,” she said softly, her dark eyes imploring him. “Our children need both their parents.”
“If I don’t,” he said thickly. “They won’t have any at all.”

He kissed her lightly.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said, gently caressing her head. “There’s something they don’t know.”
“What?” Milya asked.
“The Hall of Heroes has both Serra’s and Skip’s lightsabers. If I can get to those, I have a chance.”
“A very small one,” she told him.
“It’s just a risk I’ll have to take,” he said softly. “Wait for me. I’ll be back.”

He embraced his wife one last time, then headed out.

“Not so fast,” Spectre said after him. “They said you couldn’t be armed. They said nothing about armored.”

“What do you suggest?” Selu asked over his shoulder. “The armor of Revan,” Spectre said. “If these truly are ancient Sith soldiers, that will be significant to them.”

“You’re right,” Selu said. “But we don’t have much time.”
“We’ll help,” Milya said.

They followed Selu down to the vault where the armor was kept; Selu had left it in his personal locker on the base rather than store it at his house. Now, Spectre and Milya pulled the pieces of the ancient armor out of the locker while Selu hastily changed out of his Yanibar Guard field uniform and donned the black trousers and undertunic that came with the armor. As soon he was changed, Milya and Spectre helped him strap on the various pieces of the ancient suit. Last of all was the distinctive helmet, a burnished fully-encased helm with a distinctive T-visor. Selu pulled on a long black cloak, then, fully arrayed in the apparel of the ancient Sith that Revan had been before his redemption, strode out of the building and into a tunnel that would take him to the Hawk-bat.

Merciless

As soon as Sarth was carried back into his and Cassi’s prison cell, he stumbled over to the hard metal bunk that served as his bed. Immediately, he turned with his back facing the door and began fiddling with something. His body posture had been carefully planned out to ensure that the holocams watching them couldn’t see anything.

“Almost there,” he muttered.
“Sarth, what are you doing?” Cassi asked tiredly from her bunk.
“Sleeping,” he grunted, but something in his tone told her that he wasn’t.

In actuality, he was playing with the comlink he’d absconded, hastily punching in buttons and commands onto it. The tiny hand-held device was scratched and primitive, but it could very well prove to be their salvation. Sarth knew he would only get one shot at this, so he had to make sure it was done correctly. The worst thing that could happen was if they were caught, but Sarth was beyond caring. He had to do something to atone for his betrayal of Yanibar. Finally, a light on the comlink blinked green. Sarth stared at it apprehensively for a moment, then punched the “send” button.

“Sorry, dear,” he said to Cassi, discreetly slipping the comlink back into his boot as he turned back over to face him. “Did you need something?”
“No,” she said. “You just looked ill. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he lied, refusing to acknowledge the pain in his knee.

Then he noticed a fresh cut on her face, one that hadn’t been there before.

“Are you okay?” he asked suspiciously.

She was silent for a moment, wrestling with whether or not to tell him.

“Not really,” she admitted.

Sarth rolled out of his bed and staggered over to her side. Taking her hands in his, he saw that there were new blisters on them.

“What happened?” he asked, an angry light flickering in his eyes.

Her face fell.

“Some of Zann’s goons came in. That Dug, Zloskiba, was with them. He was a little angry.”
“What did he do?” Sarth asked.

She rolled up her sleeve to show him a row of ugly festering burn marks running the length of her arms.

“He had a broken glow-rod. One of his goons held me while he used it.”

Sarth gritted his teeth as rage built within him.

“And the cut on your face?” he asked.
“It’s a scratch from his nails. He hit me after I screamed,” she said simply.
“They promised me you wouldn’t be harmed,” he said, his jaw tightening in anger.
“I don’t think Zann knew about it,” Cassi said. “They didn’t ask me any questions. I think Zloskiba was out for revenge; he said as much.”
“Maybe,” Sarth said dubiously. “But I doubt it. I trusted him!”
“If it was Zann, then why did Urai Fen storm in and throw them out?” Cassi reasoned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Perhaps he was trying to earn your trust,” Sarth said begrudgingly, but even he didn’t believe that. “I’m sorry they hurt you.”
“I’ll be okay, Sarth,” she said earnestly. “I’m stronger than you think.”
“Nobody treats my wife this way and gets away with it,” Sarth said hotly.

Leaning forward, he whispered into her ear.

“I got a message out,” he said.

Her eyes widened with surprise.

“How?” she said.
“I stole a comlink,” he said. “I attached my message to a routine data transfer—it should make it down to the surface.”
“Is that possible?” Cassi asked.

Sarth shrugged.

“Of course it is,” he explained quietly. “The next time a data file is sent down to the surface—which should be fairly often given that there’s an army that Zann has to run down there, the communications algorithms also incorporate several hundred routines of prefix and suffix code as part of the transmission process before the actual stream of information or hologram signal is sent—it’s called preliminary signal flow. I reprogrammed the comlink to format my signal as part of that prefix or suffix coding and—,” Sarth said, stopping abruptly as he saw the glazed look on Cassi’s eyes indicating that she’d lost his train of thought.
“Suffice to say, it’s a very subtle way to send a transmission. Chances are, they’ll never notice we sent it,” he finished simply.
“How will Selu and Milya know that we sent it at all then?” Cassi asked, her brow furrowed with confusion.
“That’s what I’m counting on YGI for,” Sarth said. “If they’re listening—and I hope they still are—then hopefully one of the Jal Shey analysts will detect the anomaly in prefix code.”
“And the chances of that are?” Cassi inquired.
“Well . . .” Sarth said. “I did do some consultant work training the YGI agents about transmission processes. On the other hand, I just invented this technique now. Hard to tell.”
“What all did you say?” Cassi asked him.
“I told them we’re alive and on the Merciless,” Sarth said. “I also gave them the backdoor into one or two of my secret projects. There’s something that may prove useful there.”
“You’re up to something,” Cassi said.

Despite their miserable circumstances, Sarth allowed a sly smile to creep on his face, a smile shared only between him and Cassi.

“Based on what Cresh Squad got me from Nar Shaddaa, I was able to slice the Droideka Mk. II’s that Zann uses in my spare time during our search. Their control algorithm matrices were fairly similar to that of standard droidekas; it wasn’t that hard. The information is in the Silent Surprise, along with some other little things that might help. I encoded the message in such a way that only Selu, Milya, or Spectre could figure it out—it’s gibberish otherwise.”
“You’re brilliant,” Cassi breathed.
“If it works,” Sarth reminded her. “Now, all we have to do is hope and wait.”

She nodded, and Sarth took her hand in his. Despite the pain in his knee and ankle, he knew his wife was suffering, so he stayed by her side. He could not touch the Force, and had no medkit with which to ease her pain, but Sarth simply wanted to be there for her, to let her know that he cared. From the way she smiled at him and held his hand, he knew she understood. That was enough.

Yanibar

Morgedh clan Kel’nerh stood crouched behind a boulder. The chunk of granite was the only thing between him and a sheer five hundred meter plunge. He was alone, one of the last trainees at the academy to be moved. Most of the students had fled with their respective masters while those that had didn’t have any had followed some of the head instructors into the extensive network of hidden tunnels that crisscrossed the mountains surrounding the Tusloni Basin. Morgedh had lingered here, though, because of a feeling he had. He couldn’t explain it, but something was calling to him—something evil.

He surveyed the ground below. In the distance, he could see several houses on a street by themselves, with a large wall and a gate separating them and several surrounding kilometers of land behind and around them from the rest of the colony. Morgedh vaguely recognized them as the residences of his benefactors and their close friends, including General Kraen. He’d seen them from a distance, from outside the gate. They seemed largely unoccupied, and most of the speeders normally parked there were gone. That was not surprised; as important members of the Yanibar Guard, they would have their duties to handle during the invasion. However, he sensed that the houses were not what had been calling to him. Instead, his eyes turned back to the line of mountains that separated the valley where the training academies and these residences were located from a sizable plateau on the other side—a plateau now held by enemies. The keen eyes of the Noghri soon homed in on a swift black object that was crawling and clambering through the rocky slopes with considerable ease.

He squinted, focusing in on it, and saw a woman, clad in black and red, riding some sort of mechanical creature with six legs. It vaguely resembled a large spider. Morgedh reached out with his Force senses and was surprised and affronted by the darkness he sensed in this woman. It was unlike anything he’d ever sensed before, full of seething hate and bitterness. The sheer negativity disrupted his focus, but he also sensed something else from her. To his astonishment, Morgedh found that his hunter’s instincts had somehow combined with his mostly unrefined use of the Force to not only detect the woman’s presence in the Force, a dark burning singularity, a stain marring Yanibar, but also read her intent. Kel’nerh could sense that she was headed for the residences, that there was someone or something in them that she wanted. Taking an educated guess based on his intuition, he realized she was heading for Master Kraen’s house.

It took less than a split second for his sharp mind to realize that the lack of guards or other precautions meant that her approach had thus far gone undetected. It took less than another second for him to realize he had to sound the alarm. Morgedh immediately cut off his use of the Force—if he could detect her, she could probably detect him. Then, he began scrambling down the cliff as fast as he could, trusting the Force and his own instincts to not fail him as he clambered down. His dull brown tunic and gray skin kept him mostly camouflaged, but the climb was long and treacherous. Morgedh had begun to trust the Force, but not nearly enough to allow himself to plummet five hundred meters and rely on only his control of the Force to slow his descent. Instead, he used his hands and feet, sometimes only holding on by a few claws as he stretched out for another foothold. Several times he nearly fell, and he reminded himself under his breath that he would get no warning off if he killed himself descending this cliff.

Morgedh was a hundred meters down when an epiphany hit him. Swearing a Noghri battle curse under his breath, he immediately began checking the pockets of his belt. True, there was no weapon other than his knife there, nor a comlink—both of which he devoutly wished for, but there was a fibrarope there. A rope tied to a cable harpoon. Morgedh recalled his training instructor had said it was fifty meters long. Morgedh fired the harpoon into the rock, watching as it blew two flanges deep into the face of the cliff. Then, holding on to one end, he wrapped the fibra-rope around his wrists and swung out. He fell through the air until he hit fifty meters, at which point the fibra-rope snapped taut, jerking him to a bouncing halt suddenly. Lines of fire from the rope’s rough surface burned through his tunic and into his wrists, but Kel’nerh ignored the pain and, scrabbling for handholds, released the harpoon for another try.

In this manner, he managed to descend much swifter, reaching the bottom of the cliff long before the distant blurb of the dark woman cleared the cliffs. However, at her present pace, Kel’nerh knew he only had a few minutes. Dropping the last twenty meters, he hauled his rope in and then took off at a sprint through a rock field which soon led to a low stone wall only three meters high. It took little effort for the Noghri to clamber over it into the garden. Racing through the neat clumps of trees, shrubs, vines, and other flora, he rapidly approached the house, his heart pounding in his chest as he sprinted the final twenty meters.

Morgedh dashed up the double staircase to the second floor balcony. He soon found a door. Of course, it was locked, but he heard a whirring motion behind him and suddenly realized that wasn’t his biggest concern.

“Don’t move,” a mechanical voice intoned, and Morgedh froze.

Slowly, he raised his arms, holding them to the side.

“I must speak with Master Kraen,” he said.
“My defense protocols do not permit that,” the voice said again.

Morgedh glanced at the reflection of his captor in a nearby window and saw that it was a protocol droid. A protocol droid whose forearms had folded back to reveal concealed weaponry and which was apparently capable of moving both quickly and silently.

“I’m a friend,” Morgedh told the droid.
“I do not recognize you,” the droid replied. “My memory banks show no record of you being accorded any kind of status that would protect you from the intruder defense protocol.”

Morgedh gritted his needle-like teeth and reached out with his Force senses, sweeping the house. Neither of the adult Kraens was here, but the Noghri detected another, one who was clearly their offspring.

“The girl is in danger,” he said. “I’m here to warn you.”

The droid made a noise resembling a human sniffing dismissively.

“A likely story,” it said. “Such subterfuge will not work on me.”

Morgedh glowered.

“If you value the life of that girl, you will let me speak to Master Kraen or his mate,” he reiterated.
“I see no reason to do so,” the droid replied haughtily. “This conversation is meaningless. I shall stun you immediately.”
“No!” Morgedh shouted desperately, trying to get some semblance of a warning out, even if it was fragmented, in the hope that the droid would act on it. “The dark woman is coming!”

He heard a weapon in the droid’s arm power up, but as soon as he said the words “dark woman”, the droid whirred and stopped.

“Clarify,” it commanded.
“She looked human,” Morgedh explained. “With tattoos on her face. She is strong in the dark side of the Force.”
“Turn around,” the droid said, its tone of voice changed to something slightly less menacing. “Slowly.”

The Noghri complied, finding himself with two weapons barrels practically shoved in his face by the droid.

“Description, while vague, matches several possible parameters related to priority threat recently placed in the database,” the droid said aloud. “Is it this woman?”

A hologram of Silri, while only a crude composite sketch drawn by a YGI agent based on Milya’s description flickered into view above the droid’s wrist. However, it was undoubtedly the person Morgedh had seen.

“That is her,” Morgedh said resolutely, bracing for the stun blast.
“You will speak with one of the Kraens immediately,” the droid announced.

A series of lights began cycling on the side of its head as it spoke aloud.

“Master Kraen, Mistress Kraen, this is J7-A0 on the emergency circuit. Code phrase is fragile package. Please respond.”

There was static immediately after it spoke and Morgedh realized the droid was using some sort of built-in comlink while still vocalizing the words it was sending. However, after it sent the transmission a second time, the droid received a reply, which it was thoughtful enough to broadcast aloud.

“Jay Seven, this is Director Kraen,” Milya’s voice came through the droid’s vocabulator. “What is the situation?”
“Mistress, I have apprehended a nonhuman who attempted to approach the dwelling through the house. He claims that there is a threat to young Miss Rhiannon,” the droid explained, this time in its own voice. “I would have stunned him immediately, but he gave a description matching a priority threat recently programmed into my databanks.”
“Who is it?” Milya’s voice asked through J7.

The hologram of Silri flickered, replaced by a very concerned Milya.

“Morgedh?” she said in surprise.

He respectfully bowed his head as much as he dared without incurring the droid’s ire.

“It is I,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I sensed a dark presence, one that matched what your droid showed me. She is coming here very quickly.”
“Jay Seven, just who is it you’re referring to?” Milya asked.
“Mistress, the priority threat’s designation is Silri,” the droid informed her.

Even in hologram form, Milya’s reaction was evident to Morgedh.

“Stand down, Jay Seven,” she said. “Recognize this individual as a friend. Code is Dorn-Three-Nineteen.”
“Acknowledged,” Jay Seven said, retracting its weapon arms from Morgedh’s forehead.
“Also, prepare to defend the house,” Milya said. “I’ll be there soon. Get Rhiannon into the tunnels.”
“With your leave, I will stay here also, Director Kraen,” Morgedh assured her. “I will do what I can to protect your offspring.”
“Do it,” Milya said tersely.

The hologram disappeared.

“How long do we have until the threat arrives?” J7 asked Morgedh.

The Noghri sniffed the air even as his mind sought the answer to the droid’s question.

“Not long,” he said. “It would be good to get the child to safety.”
“Of course,” Jay Seven said, striding down the balcony towards another door.
“Are there others who can help?” Morgedh called after the droid.
“No,” Jay Seven said over its shoulder. “It is just us.”
Yanibar Command Center

Spectre had watched, confused, as Milya had received some kind of comlink call that had disturbed her terribly. She’d dashed out the door immediately after taking it, leaving him with no explanation. It also left him with no other choice but to stay there, particularly since he was the lone ranking officer in the room. The lights flickered again as the bombardment continued. He was about to order the nearest YGI officer to pull up the logs of her call when he noticed the Deputy Director of YGI, a Falleen named Xlora who’d just been recalled from a mission to Mandalore, standing off to the side engaged in a rather urgent hushed conversation with one of her subordinates.

“What is it, Xlora?” Spectre asked her.
“We think we might have detected an anomalous transmission from the Zannists,” Xlora told him. “Agent Narsan’das thinks it might be a ghost message, but there’s no way to tell. At any rate, it’s gibberish.”
“Ghost message?” Spectre asked, arching one eyebrow inquisitively.
“Sir,” the junior Twi’lek explained. “A ghost message is information that hides in the prefix and suffix code of transmission before and after the actual conversation or data transfer occurs.”
“Is this a common technique to pass on information?” Spectre asked.

The agent hesitated, then replied.

“No, not really,” he said. “As far as I know, it’s only theoretical. We’ve never used it, and neither does the Empire, nor any of the Zann Consortium transmissions we’ve intercepted.”
“Then who told you about this theory?” Xlora inquired.
“It was a consultant teaching a seminar on advanced signal theory,” the Twi’lek explained. “His name was Sarth Kraen.”
“Give me the message,” Spectre snapped immediately. “Just the part you think is a ghost message.”

The Twi’lek handed him a datapad, which Spectre quickly scanned. Soon, he allowed a small triumphant smile to make its way across his face.

“It’s a code only a few people understand,” Spectre told the YGI agents.
“It’s just random numbers, sir. How does it work? Is it a Russoni cipher? A Tak-takkari encryption?” Agent Narsandas asked, plying Spectre with questions.
“None of the above,” Spectre said. “The code operates on three variables. The first is the indicator sequence—the numerical values of five names. In this case, it’s both Sarth’s and Cassi’s. That means they’re still alive. The second is the dates when each of us joined the crew of the Hawk-bat. Those are vowels, each with a different value. The last variable gives us the consonants—they’re derived from a combination of the results of our last sabacc game and the numerical values of the names of Jedi we—well, never mind, that’s classified.”
“It seems so simple,” Xlora said. “Can you decode it?”
“Already done,” Spectre said, holding up the datapad with the translation.

MERCILESS, DECK 3, BLOCK 15. LOOK IN THE SS. 2ND S THERE. 3A55E28F117

“I get the first part, they’re on the Merciless, on Deck 3, Block 15, but what’s the rest?” Xlora asked.
“The SS is the Silent Surprise. It’s still on the Orbital Command Center,” Spectre said. “Get one of your agents there and tell it to talk to the ship. Make sure it’s someone who can understanding something technical.”
“Done,” Xlora said, speaking into her comlink. “What should tell it?”

Spectre rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“The ‘2ND S’ must mean ‘surprise,’” he concluded. “That’s the code to get in through Sarth’s emergency backdoor for that file.”

A minute later, Xlora passed on a report from her agent.

“We just hit something very valuable,” she said. “We’re receiving the transmission now on the secure line.”

Spectre’s eyes widened as he realized what Sarth had compiled for them.

“This is a droid control program,” he explained, scrolling through the summary. “If we broadcast this in the clear, it will give us control over every Droideka Mk. II in Zann’s arsenal that receives the signal.”
“Wow,” Xlora said, impressed. “That could be useful.”
“Very,” Spectre agreed. “How many droidekas do we estimate Zann has?”

The Falleen woman shrugged.

“Our current estimates place the number near to 200-300 based on battlefield reconnaissance,” she replied.

Spectre pursed his lips, trying to determine the best course of action. Sarth had somehow just passed on a strategic tool to him, one that could determine the fate of the battle. He glanced at the space threat board, looking at the tight cluster of Zann’s ships.

“Deputy Director, I need to talk with you and Admiral Slayke,” he said. “Now.”

In no time, he was in a conference room with Xlora and a hologram of the admiral. And this time, the conference room had been swept for listening devices.

“Time is short, so I’ll make this quick,” Spectre told them. “We now have the opportunity to sow discord in Zann’s army, making them vulnerable to a quick strike that could defeat them in the chaos.”
“That still leaves the Sith army and their two fleets,” Xlora pointed out.
“I know,” Spectre said. “Xlora, isn’t it true that Zann Consortium ships are equipped to self-destruct?”
“Yes,” she said. “We’ve heard reports from the dockyards that they’re almost standard features.”

Spectre pointed at the tight formation of Zann Consortium ships.

“Those ships are very close together due to the danger that our Nighthawk missiles have posed to them,” he said. “If the Merciless was to explode, would that largely deal with that threat?”
“It would,” Xlora said after thinking it over.
“Admiral,” Spectre told him. “Could you defeat the remaining Sith fleet if the Zannists were dealt with?”
“I could,” Slayke replied. “Their ships are old and they’ve already lost a lot landing their troops.”
“Good,” Spectre said. “Here’s the plan. YGA will assault the Zannists in thirty minutes. The droidekas will be reprogrammed at T-minus ten minutes. Admiral, you should bombard the Sith army on the surface as soon as that happens, then move in to engage the Sith fleet. Our remaining ground-based fighters and the frigates from the shipyards can protect the ODC while you’re finishing off the Sith.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Xlora said. “But how do you plan on activating the self-destruct on the Merciless?”
“Sarth and Cassi are on that ship, Xlora,” Spectre told her. “I’m going to rescue them.”
“General?” Admiral Slayke asked, confused. “By yourself? And how?”
“I could use some help,” Spectre admitted. “But Selu has taught me how to make temporary Force illusions. I’ll cloak a shuttle and take it over.”
“Be careful with that,” Xlora warned. “I can’t sense most of his ship in the Force.”
“Neither can I,” Spectre said. “That’s why I’ll board at an area that I can sense.”
“A suggestion,” Xlora commented.

Spectre nodded for her to continue.

“Cresh Squad just returned to this base after sabotaging a bridge to prevent its use by the enemy. They’re still operational and they have experience in boarding actions, as you know,” Xlora said.
“Good idea,” Spectre told her. “Have them meet me in the hangar bay and make sure fresh supplies and camopacks are there for them.”
“Shouldn’t you take a larger force? Or a larger ship?” Slayke asked.
“No time, Admiral,” Spectre replied. “The largest ship here right now is the Hawk-bat, so that’s what I’ll take. It’ll hold nine men comfortably, and we need stealth, not numbers.”
“One last thing, sir,” Xlora said with a measure of reluctance in her voice.
“Go ahead,” Spectre told her.
“Shouldn’t we contact Master or Director Kraen to inform them of our plans? Get their opinions?” she asked hesitantly.
“I’m not sure where Milya has gone, and I don’t want to distract Selu now,” Spectre told them. “Selu left me in charge, and, as acting Supreme Commander, these are my orders. I’ll take full responsibility for whatever happens. If you have a problem with them, please say so now.”
“No, sir,” Xlora replied stiffly, her green skin turning slightly paler.
“You’re a damn fool, risking your neck like this,” Slayke told him. “May the Force be with you.”
“Thank you,” Spectre said. “I must leave now.”

With that, he was out the door on a perilous attempt to save Yanibar—and his friends.

25

The flames of war embroiled seemingly every facet of the Yanibar refuge. Civilians huddled in their homes inside the cities, trusting in the energy shields to protect them, while those caught outside or who lived in rural areas scrambled for shelter in the surrounding foothills. Tall plumes of smoke rose from several areas where the conflict had already engulfed, and they would soon be joined by other indications of the devastation of war.

On the western side of the Daizon Valley, nearly five thousand Yanibar Guardsmen and over twice that many droids were preparing a final assault against the forces of the Zann Consortium who occupied the valley below. South of there, on a high plateau, an army of Sith troopers fired incessantly upon the weakening shields of a battered YGA base, and the near-misses ignited the plains and fields surrounding it, leaving the base wreathed in smoke from small brush fires. However, the war was not just fought between armies. Two women converged on an isolated cluster of residences, both intent on killing—the only difference was in whom. To the north of the plateau, four figures approached a tall stone structure built into the side of the hills, a building whose purpose was to commemorate the fallen.

And in space, warships prepared for battle as last-minute repairs were made. Starfighters were frantically fueled and armed in preparation for a short-notice strike and ion engines came to life with pulsating glows from their exhaust ports. And, slipping through the empty space between two opposing fleets, a tiny freighter, cloaked by the power of the Force, flew tenuously towards the invading force on a risky mission. The fate of Yanibar was about to be decided.

Hall of Remembrance

Selusda Kraen climbed off the speeder bike he had flown up to the Hall of Remembrance. His long black cloak flapped in the wind as he walked the last few steps into the Hall of Remembrance. The long hall was quiet and dimly lit—obviously, power had been shut off and now the only light in the building came from the evening sun streaming through the recessed skylights in the room. The lingering sunbeams cast long streaks of light through the room, illuminating tiny dust motes that floated aimlessly through the empty hall. There was a watchful, quiet silence as Selu pushed open the doors and entered.

He strode confidently to the far end of the hall, near where the branches for the Matukai and Jal Shey split off from the main room. The statues of fallen warriors loomed around him, gazing down at the floor from their positions nestled inside various quiet alcoves. Even before his eyes saw what was ahead, his Force senses gave him insight and precognition as to the three women standing at the intersection, their presences imbued with the power of the dark side. They were standing just outside of a rectangle of light cast on the floor by a high skylight, waiting like the ferocious predators they were.

Selu stopped just inside the circle of light, letting them get a good look at him.

“I’m here,” he said, his voice made deeper and lower by a vocoder inside the armor’s mask. “What do you want?”

One of them, a tall dark-haired woman, stepped forward, a malicious smile on her face.

“I am Lexa,” she said. “We are the emissaries of Silri. And you are?”
“I am the Supreme Commander,” Selu intoned calmly in reply. “You are not fit to hear my name, but some have called me the heir of Revan. The Force is my ally.”
“We are not interested in your name,” Lexa replied, curling her lip in disdain, but Selu felt a flicker of emotion that meant the words had had some effect on the Dark Jedi.
“Then state your terms for the surrender,” Selu said evenly.
“We are not interested in that, either,” Lexa told him. “Only your death.”

A flash of precognition warned Selu as all three women drew and ignited red-bladed lightsabers. Lexa’s final words were punctuated by three darts she’d fired from a wrist launcher, but the Force was Selu’s ally. He backflipped over them neatly, and a casual gesture indicated his intention in the Force as he almost effortlessly hurled Lexa to the ground telekinetically. Landing silently, he set himself in an unarmed guard stance, his right leg forward, with his left arm held straight in front of him and right tucked back against his side. He presented a narrow profile to them, daring them to approach as he stood in silent challenge.

“You fool!” Lexa scoffed as she scrambled to her feet. “You are outnumbered and unarmed. Prepare to die!”

They rushed him in unison, crimson blades seeking for his body, but Selu was again too fast. Buoyed by the Force, he spun and twisted his body through their initial rush, the humming lightsabers just barely missing him as he slid through them. He was in utter control of his body, and he drove an elbow into Lexa’s face even as he passed by her. Selu purposefully collapsed one knee as he slid in between her and Nylad, turning onto his right side. His other leg whipped up from the ground to kick up as he turned in mid-slide. His armored boot planted itself squarely on Nylad’s side as Selu made contact, then he replaced that foot on the ground, using it to support his weight while his right leg kicked out, narrowly missing the back of Nylad’s knee. He stayed low the whole time during his kick-rotation combination, saving him from a vicious back-swing from Nylad. He spun out and away from his three opponents, again assuming his guard stance as the Dark Jedi turned to face him angrily.

They hastily charged again, but their assault was not coordinated, their blade slashes coming milliseconds apart. Selu was like a cloud of smoke, untouchable by their blades as he evaded their blows, occasionally landing a punch or kick, but always falling back, always slipping away like an ethereal presence. His cloak had been scored by the red blades, but he himself remained untouched, aggravating all three dark warriors he faced. He stopped once he was about ten meters away from them, awaiting their next assault.

This time, they spread out, beginning to circle around them, blades held ready for any sudden tricks.

“You may be good,” Lexa taunted him. “But not even a Jedi Master could stand against us unarmed.”
“I beg to differ,” Selu said.

His maneuver had given what he needed—a clear line of sight to the Jedi statues. Suddenly, his arms were extended to his right, his fingers outstretched in a grasping gesture. Two solid metal objects were dislodged by his mental command flying into his hands and igniting with a snap-hiss. Selu reset himself into his guard stance with both blades, one blue and one green, pointed at his opponents.

“I’m not unarmed,” he said.

Lexa snarled and all three rushed him again. Their victory was not so assured now that the Jedi had somehow managed to arm himself, but they had been thoroughly infuriated by his survival of the first few seconds of the lopsided duel. Red blades humming, they closed in. Selu brandished his own lightsabers and readied his defense. There would be no retreat.

Kraen residence

Silri approached the house astride her mechanical arachnid Sith walker, drawing her lightwhip from her belt. The deadly glowing lash came to life as she approached, but her senses warned her that she was expected, and that at least one warrior was present. She was disappointed as she realized it wasn’t the Jedi woman, but at least it would be something of a challenge. The dark side sang its song of bloodlust and chaos in her ears as her walker clambered over the garden wall only a few short meters from the house.

The dark side gave her ample warning when a protocol droid appeared over the balcony, firing a stream of high-powered blaster bolts at her from both arms. She contemptuously batted them away with a single stroke of her lash, then reached out with the Force to throw the droid through a window into the house with a loud crash of shattered glass. She heard a girl’s voice scream from inside the house at the sound of the window breaking. The sound was music to Silri’s ears.

A whirr-chirp to her right caught her attention, and Silri, distracted as she was, only had a chance to twist evasively as a metal slug grazed her side, drawing a line of blood from the wound. Several more slugs followed in rapid succession, hitting her spider walker’s body and legs. Sparks and smoke issued from the wounded machine and a furious Silri tracked the source of the slugs to an alien firing some kind of pistol at her. Outraged, she wove the lightwhip through a defensive pattern, then clambered her walker up the back staircase to the balcony. She was about to jump down and decapitate the persistent alien who was still vainly peppering her with metal slugs despite her deflecting each and every one of them, when the dark side roared a warning.

Silri turned to see the protocol droid charging her again through the broken window, vibroblades protruding from its arms. Silri contemptuously decapitated the droid with her lightwhip, cracking it back over her head in time to burn away another metal slug, but her distraction had cost her. Glancing down, she was horrified to realize that the pesky alien nuisance had fired a harpoon attached to a cable into her spider walker. His strength enhanced with the Force, he pulled, bringing her walker—and her atop of it—crashing down from through the balcony railing onto the ground below. She leapt free from it, but her foot caught on the cable, keeping her pinned to the walker as it hit. A sharp pain appeared in her ankle, but Silri ignored it as she clambered free. From the way the walker was smoking and groaning, Silri knew the machine was inoperable, and she emerged from the wreck mostly unharmed, but absolutely seething. The walker had been a neat toy, and while it wasn’t the same thing as a trained rancor, she had liked the little device. It was time for retribution. A single telekinetic shove threw the alien back into a tree and another tossed his pathetic weapon into a pond of water. He lay still, making no effort to rise again, and Silri sensed he was gravely wounded. Despite her wrenched ankle, she had dispatched both her adversaries, albeit with more difficulty than she’d anticipated. She had no time to waste gloating, though, so the Nightsister returned to her original mission.

Storming back up the stairs, she leapt through the broken window and tore through the house in search of her prey. It did not take long. Progressing from the upper level room she’d entered, a training room of sorts, she moved through the hallway and past the staircase into a study. At first glance, the room appeared to be deserted, but Silri knew better. The dark side had told her so.

An evil smile spreading across her face, she telekinetically slammed open the door to the room’s closet to reveal a frightened little girl huddled within, staring up at her sightlessly. Silri started to step forward when suddenly the window facing the front of the house exploded in a shower of crystalline shards. Time slowed down as metallic prongs stabbed through the window into the study, aiming straight for her. Silri lunged to the side, narrowly escaping being run down by the speeder bike crashing through the window. A deft whirling of her whip had saved her from being hit by too much of the glass, but she was bleeding from small cuts here and there. The speeder’s bike pilot leapt off as the ruined vehicle crashed into the opposite wall and window of the study, tearing a hole in the wall as well as smashing that window. It slid off the balcony in a shower of sparks and smoke, taking more railing with it as it tumbled to the ground, but Silri’s stood transfixed by the woman who’d flown the vehicle into the window in the first place, the woman now interposed between the Nightsister and the girl, the woman wielding a very familiar-looking double-bladed lightsaber. Both silver-white blades were lit and ready, and there was a fierce expression on her face.

“I wish I’d killed you on Coruscant,” Silri snarled at Milya.

“I was just thinking that,” Milya replied coldly. They stared at each other intently for a moment, daring the other to move first. Then Silri’s eyes narrowed and she struck. Soon, the spinning staff and dancing lightwhip were going back and forth, cracking and flaring as they hit. All the while, frightened by the strange noises and sounds, Rhiannon stayed huddled in the closet as the deadly duel she would never see played out before her, a duel fought for her life. Milya and Silri went back and forth, Milya advancing slowly under cover of a whirling defensive shield of spinning silvery blades. Silri’s long whiplash probed her defense, coiling and striking anew. The energized end hissed as it burned through the air on a trail of ozone, but Milya stolidly maintained her defense, holding Silri at bay and keeping her at range. The Nightsister noted with dismay that the Jedi was at far less of a disadvantage than she had been on Coruscant and, now that they were on more even ground, seemed to be more than holding her own. Weaving her lightwhip and unleashing a three-part strike from it, Silri forced Milya to temporarily halt her relentless advance. As the saberstaff batted away the glowing lash, though, Silri clutched her fingers into a tight fist as she drew on the Force.

Milya froze as she heard a choking sound behind her. She whirled to see Rhiannon clutching her throat, gasping for breath. Anger rose inside her, as did a maternal instinct to run to her daughter’s side, but Milya suppressed them both. Instead, she instantaneously ducked and spun back to face Silri. Her instinctive maneuver saved her life as the whiplash darted overhead where her face had been. Milya stabbed up with her saberstaff, intercepting the lightwhip lash on its return flight. It wrapped around the saber blade, allowing Milya to yank Silri in close and kick the startled Nightsister squarely in the solar plexus. That distraction was enough to break Silri’s concentration, causing her to release Rhiannon. She was still trying to extract her lightwhip when Milya telekinetically smashed a lamp into her face. Howling with pain and temporarily blinded, she nevertheless knew that the silvery saberstaff was about to run her through. Silri yanked as hard as she could, freeing the lightwhip and quickly jerked it across her body, forcing Milya to deflect the savage weapon. However, Milya darted inside the lethal whiplash and, her blade tangled in the glowing strand, kicked Silri again. The Force-assisted strike was enough to send Silri flying out the window to crash across the ruined balcony out into thin air. Milya breathed a heavy sigh of relief and gave Rhiannon one last concerned look to make sure she was okay; the girl was still holding her throat, but she was breathing normally. Milya left the study, climbing out the ruined wall to the balcony, weapon at the ready. Silri was still out there.

Yanibar orbit

Spectre’s knuckles were white as he gripped the controls of the Hawk-bat. The tiny freighter and the nine men aboard it were only a few short kilometers from the tightly clustered Consortium fleet. They’d already flown past several starfighter pickets, cruising in with thrusters almost completely killed, relying on tiny maneuvering jets and inertial velocity to bring them into the mighty flagship. So far, they hadn’t been detected. The assembled warships loomed ever larger, filling the forward viewport as Spectre gently nudged the Hawk-bat forward. He checked his chrono. Twenty minutes had passed since he’d rocketed the freighter into space at maximum velocity, and now scarce time remained before the Yanibar Guard ships made their assault. However, he dared not speed up. The Hawk-bat wasn’t detected only because of the Force illusion Spectre had shielded it with and the fact that he wasn’t using a lot of thrusters that might leave a trail that would leak through the shield. He silently cursed himself for not refining this particular technique further, but Selu had always been there whenever it had needed done. Until now, that is.

Finally, the Hawk-bat swung in close to the Merciless, close enough to the destroyer’s undamaged starboard side for Spectre to extend the docking rings at the appropriate hatch.

“We must dock quickly or be detected,” he said to the men and women of Cresh Squad over the comlink built into his own Battlesuit52-B. “I’m going to close the airlock hatch as soon as we’re through.”

Spectre paused a moment, sorting out the last few details of his plan in his mind.

“Five,” he said to Cresh Squad’s pilot and mechanic. “Stay here, get ready to pop that hatch when we call for it.”
“Aye, sir,” Five, a tough Chev, acknowledged. “I’ll be here.”
“Captain, I’m going to borrow Three and Seven,” Spectre said, referring to Nate and the petite, pretty young human named Jabri who served as the squad’s medic. “We’re going to get Sarth and Cassi. Take the rest of the squad and activate the self-destruct. If possible, give us a warning.”
“Yes, sir,” Captain Wyslond said. “All right, Cresh Squad. Time to go!”

Spectre slipped out of the cockpit to the boarding hatch, where the rest of Cresh Squad stood ready, their camopacks already activated, rendering them invisible to light or the most common sensors. Spectre followed suit, shimmering out of the visible spectrum. The airlock cycled open at a command from Cresh Six, the unit slicer, admitting the eight invisible commandos. Weapons ready, they advanced through the deserted corridors. Most of the crew must have been working on repairing the damage. Invisible infrared strobes on their weapons bobbed and bounced along the walls and halls as they advanced, but they met no resistance.

The eight commandos stayed together for the first sixty meters, then, at a T-junction in the dimly lit corridors, they split up. Three of them ducked left, advancing slowly, each one covering the other, while the other five turned right and headed to seek out the main reactor of the Merciless. Comm silence was observed—instead, the squad used hand signals for communication in order to keep their presence unknown as long as possible.

Nate took point for Spectre’s group, cautiously shuffling forward, rifle at the ready. At every junction, he stopped, checked both ends, and then signaled Spectre and Seven forward before crossing himself. So far, so good. They managed to descend into the detention level on the third deck with no difficulty. Spectre soon found himself unable to use the Force, but he said nothing. He had known this would be coming, and since his scare when fighting the Empire, had trained himself to fight without it.

However, as Spectre and the two Cresh Squad commandos filed into the main detention processing area, they hit their first snag. A towering Snivvian was standing guard at a sizable console, accompanied by a Twi’lek and a sneering Dug. Spectre and his men would have simply sneaked past them, relying on their invisibility, but there was a force field blocking the hall labeled “Block 15” on the other side of the room. Spectre and his men would need to disable surveillance and the guards, and then get the door open.

First, the surveillance. Not so hard. Nate quietly approached the main computer bank, slipping up right beside the Twi’lek. Quietly, he pulled a slicer stick, a nasty little combination of malicious programming, slicer ingenuity, and override hacks, and slid it discreetly into the back input port of the console. Then, he carefully backed away, bringing his carbine up to bear on the Twi’lek’s back. A second later, the console started blinking and whirring as the slicer stick began to flood its circuits with malicious programming. The Twi’lek frowned and began tapping away at it, but he wasn’t fast enough. Nor, to Nate’s great relief, did he think to check the input port to see the unobtrusive little gray stick there. Instead, he began trying to enter a series of commands.

“What is it?” the Snivvian asked.
“Some kinda glitch in the surveillance circuits,” the Twi’lek said worriedly. “The holocams are overloading.”
“Maybe it’s something to do with the repairs,” the Snivvian suggested. “The lights have been flickering all day.”
“Perhaps,” the Twi’lek said. “I should still call it in.”

He reached for his comlink just as the holocam views on the console dissolved into static as they went offline. Unfortunately for him and the two others, they weren’t paying attention to the hazy shapes approaching through the shadows, guided by hand signals from the appropriately named Spectre. At a final wave, the three commandos sprang. The Twi’lek’s head was yanked back by a sharp tug on one of his brain tails as Nate casually slit his throat. Simultaneously, Spectre rammed the bayonet on his carbine into the Dug’s head, while the diminutive Jabri stabbed her own blade into the base of the Snivvian’s skull with almost surgical precision.

The guards dropped in bloody heaps on the floor while the three infiltrators advanced on the door to Block 15; Nate made sure to collect the slicer stick from the computer first. Jabri covered their rear as Spectre and Nate studied the force field. Unfortunately for them, there was no way to disable it or get through it, at least not without time and more slicing expertise than they had. There was no input port to slide the slicer stick into; it seemed to be controlled by a retinal scanner, and the three potential candidates for scanning they’d encountered were lifeless corpses on the floor. It was an impassable barrier, and Spectre knew without even looking at his chrono that they couldn’t retrieve Dex Naresco, the squad slicer, to get it open.

“So much for subtlety,” he muttered to himself inside the privacy of his helmet.

Reaching for his belt, he withdrew the hilt of his lightsaber, which he’d carefully colored matte black out of professional habit. Snapping on the glowing saffron-colored saber blade, he hesitated for just a second and then drove it into the door frame, bracing himself for whatever came next.

Daizon Valley

The setting sun was sinking behind the Yanibar Guardsmen as they powered up their vehicles and prepared to attack. Inside a fortified command center, a signal was transmitted. Shortly thereafter, the command was given to attack. Wave after wave of AATs, forty of the battle tanks in all, rumbled out on cushions of air, propelled into battle by their repulsorlifts. Dozens of STAP recon speeders, each piloted by a battle droid, swarmed around them like a cloud of insects flying over a stampede. Behind them advanced a line of Challenger light tanks, followed by ten Maulers, the largest tanks in the Yanibar Guard arsenal. Interspersed between the Challengers and Maulers were boxy Scorptail APCs, their turrets tracking the skies for any sign of trouble. Light Harasser speeders equipped with sniper and missile teams secured the flanks, but stayed clear of the main battle. The army’s dust cloud could scarcely be missed as they bore down on the Zannists conglomerated down in the Daizon Valley, but the Zannist armies were having problems of their own.

Their lethal Destroyer Droid Mk IIs had gone berserk. The automata had inexplicably opened fire on any and all personnel in their area. With most of the crews out of their tanks, and most infantry unprepared, the result was a slaughter. Dozens of conscripts, closely packed together in their encampments, were mowed down, while the remaining mercenaries and Mandalorians found creative ways to dispatch the heavily shielded and armed droids. Eventually, plasma and Canderous tanks were brought online, smashing through the droids that had once been theirs. Angry and bleeding from a blaster graze, the crazed Zann Consortium commander got on the comm with his transmission and ordered every Destroyer Droid knocked out even as he demanded an explanation from the droid control technicians. Not five minutes had passed since those orders had issued from his lips than his scouts told him of the Yanibar Guard army bearing down on him. Staring wide-eyed at his sensor report, he bellowed for his vehicles to form up around him and bombard the oncoming armor, even while the remaining droidekas continued to rampage through his infantry. The rumble of artillery shells, both high-explosive projectiles and plasma signaled the opening volleys of the battle. Soon, the first explosions began dotting the Zannist encampment, wreaking havoc.

Only the first few Zannist tanks had turned to face the Yanibar Guards when the lead AATs opened up, followed seconds later by the thundering triple rail guns on the Maulers. Three dozen YGA Stiletto gunships, nimble single-seat repulsorlift support craft, roared overhead, launching rockets at the hated Missile Attack Launchers before the MALs and Canderous tanks could traverse and fire at them. All but three of the artillery pieces were destroyed in the initial assault and the gunships came around for a second pass despite the rapidly intensifying anti-aircraft fire and jamming fields employed the Consortium Mobile Defense Units.

The mouth of the Daizon Valley rumbled as the pitched battle was fought. Vehicles on both sides exploded even as fireballs dotted the ground between both sides. Sophisticated equipment reduced other sophisticated equipment to burning scrap and was itself pulverized by other sophisticated equipment. Explosions, craters, and vehicle wrecks dotted the battlefield even as the armies continued expending their strength on each other.

Yanibar Guard AATs plunged straight into the ranks of the Consortium, using their main heavy laser cannon on the tanks while their lighter blasters and plasma shells decimated the remaining infantry. Again, the Mandalorians stepped up to fill the holes being torn through the Consortium ranks, jetpacking onto AATs to slap demo charges onto the droid tanks. However, they soon found themselves in a fight they couldn’t win against the attendant STAPs. The droid scouts were lightly armored, but their agility and twin blasters allowed them to inflict staggering losses on the remaining Mandalorians.

The heavy plasma tanks and Canderous assault tanks were not so easily destroyed; their shields and armored hulls took little damage from the AATs, or the Challengers and Scorptails following behind them, whose weapons had not been designed to contend with heavy armor. Even as the manned ranks of the Yanibar Guard slowed their pace as the AATs fell, the surviving Consortium tanks opened fire on the YGA vehicles. Conglomerating around the MDUs equipped with jamming pods, the Zannists soon returned the laser cannon and rail gun fire with plasma blasts and heavy mass driver rounds. The Maulers and Canderous tanks, sizable assault vehicles that both sported shields and projectile-based weapons systems that could punch through ray shields, traded punches in a giant armored slugging match. The lightly shielded and armored Challenger tanks, designed to support infantry, made quick work of light vehicles such as attack speeders or AT-APs, but soon found themselves heavily outclassed when it came to fighting plasma tanks or, even worse, Canderous tanks. The fusillades of mass driver shells and energized plasma bolts turned a dozen of the valiant Challengers into charred wreckage, but the Maulers replied with a vengeance. A full salvo of three rail gun slugs, hyper-accelerated to many times the speed of sound, could tear the turret clean off of a plasma tank. As casualties mounted, the Zannist commander opted to run damaged plasma tanks towards the Yanibar Guard in hopes of detonating their reactors and causing as much collateral damage as possible. After a Scorptail was lost in such a manner, though, the YGA wised up and began blasting any suicidal tanks with as much firepower as could be brought to bear on them.

In between the armored brawl, infantry on both sides engaged each other, with the Yanibar Guard squads matching up against mercenaries and the remaining conscripts. However, the YGA infantry stuck to the southern flank, setting up firing positions in the hills overlooking the main batteries. With support JRF-3 droids effortlessly toting repeating blasters and tri-fire missile pods to reinforce them, the well-trained YGA infantry squads soon dominated the flanks, raining down blaster bolts, missiles, and sniper shots on the Zannists. The surviving Zannist infantry, particularly the conscripts, tried desperate charges several times, blazing away as they stormed up the ridgeline, but they were cut down by the incessant hail of purple blaster fire. The personal shields sported by the Yanibar Guardsmen allowed them to survive blaster hits lethal to an unarmored individual, and while several foxholes were wiped out by cunning grenadier squads, the YGA held the southern ridges in face of numerous attempts to outflank them or wrest control of their emplacements.

Overhead, buzzing Stiletto gunships swooped down to unleash their ordnance, targeting the MDUs with rail guns and beamlasers in order to knock down the jamming fields. The brave gunships pilots flew into a furious firestorm and many of their craft plummeted from the sky as burning hulks, but their mission was accomplished. The MDUs fell, allowing the Scorptails to contribute their remaining missiles to the task of demolishing the Zannist heavy armor. And still, the battle raged.

Hall of Remembrance

Red blades clashed against blue and green. The loud cracks and pops of the lightsabers’ contact echoed through the large hall as Selu wove his way through the smooth rhythm of lightsaber combat. The three women were good, but Selu had dueled better in the form of a Dark Jedi named Asajj Ventress. And he was better. He stood in the midst of them, employing the defensive saber form Soresu in order to conserve energy and tire his foes out. His dual blades rose and fell, parrying, slashing, stabbing in a fluid ring of energy around him, deflecting all attempts to penetrate his guard. Their repeated attacks had yet to get through his bladework, and his arms were moving so fast, so finely controlled, that it looked as if he had at least four. In this place, where Selu had so often meditated and reflected upon the Force, its use came naturally to him, while the ambient light side aura of the temple had something of dampening effect on the dark side.

Selu knew that as long as they had him ringed, he was vulnerable. The armor, though intimidating, was cumbersome, preventing him from being as mobile as might have liked. The long black cloak was the worst of all, swirling around him uselessly, adding air resistance to his rapid maneuvers even as he blocked one strike after another, never holding the parry any longer than he needed to. The cloak did indeed prove to be his undoing, as Lexa stomped on its tattered him, arresting his motion long enough for Nylad to hold up a clenched fist as she exerted her will through the dark side of the Force.

Selu struggled, but was borne into the air against his will. He could feel the airways and blood vessels in his neck constricting as an invisible noose strangled him. Still, with what strength he could manage, he tried to loosen the Force choke even as he continued battling the Dark Jedi with desperate swipes of his sabers. Straining against the chokehold even as spots began to swim around his eyes, Selu couldn’t devote as much attention to defending himself. In short order, both his saber blades were engaged in deadly saber locks with Elitana and Nylad. Their red blades, pressed against his with their full strength, were pushing back his lightsabers, which a distracted Selu could only resist with one arm each. The world in front of eyes was filled with intense green and blue light as his own weapons were forced back towards him, coming perilously close to his body. His arms shook as he tried to resist. Adopting a desperate tactic, he shoved back, breaking the locks, but his maneuver allowed both his blades to be blocked and knocked out wide, leaving his body open to the humming red blades.

Selu was ready for it, though, dropping both his lightsabers and abandoning any attempts to break the chokehold. Instead, he funneled all his Force energy into generating bolts of electricity in a technique known as Electric Judgment. Momentarily caught off guard, all three Dark Jedi were wreathed in the energy bolts flowing from his hands. With pain coursing through her body, Lexa cried aloud and released the Force choke, hurling Selu back telekinetically as she unleashed her anger.

Years among the Zeison Sha, masters of telekinetic control, had taught Selu a few things. His eyes blazing with the currents of Force energy flowing through him, Selu summoned his lightsabers back to him even as he flew backward. The two blades, free of other obligations, quickly sliced the encumbering cloak from his shoulders. Selu slowed his descent, alighting on the floor in a crouched position. No sooner had he landed when he saw that all three Dark Jedi were flying through the air towards him. He jumped in the air, sabers flashing around him in a dazzling display of swordsmanship as he batted away their strikes. Selu landed easily, but saw that the Dark Jedi were encircling him again as they dropped down around him after the brief mid-air flurry of blows.

However, their bladework was no longer as polished as it had been, and Selu found them easier to counter. Crossing his blades high to block a particularly sloppy overhand chop from Nylad, Selu shoved her back with his sabers and swung both of them out to the side in vicious arcs, forcing Elitana and Lexa to parry. However, this left Elitana open to a kick that sent her flying back into a wall with enough force to send stars flying across her field of vision.

Selu took advantage of this opportunity to switch from the staid form of Soresu to his preferred style of combat, the aggressive Ataru form. Ducking low, he struck simultaneously with both blades, driving Nylad’s blade up and away from her body. Selu dropped his right hand lightsaber to hook his right arm under Nylad’s right bicep. With a single smooth motion of his body, he whirled around, throwing her over his right shoulder into the ground, aware that her humming red blade narrowly missed the top of his head. Even as she fell, Selu blocked a follow-up blow from Lexa. Their blades clashed right over Nylad, but Selu shoved his off hand, still wrapped around Skip’s blue lightsaber, forward expressively towards her, sending her stumbling back into a wall, temporarily out of the fight.

Suddenly, his Force senses became aware of a threat screaming through the air behind him. With Nylad again up and demanding his attention, Selu’s left hand continued battling her one-handed, but he didn’t have to look to see Elitana swooping down behind him, saber raised two-handed over her head in a powerful attack that would cleave straight through him. She roared aloud with savage anger as she fell, buoyed by rage and vengeance, anticipating him falling to her blade.

What she didn’t anticipate was Selu pushing off from Nylad and jumping straight up to meet her. He was inside the effective arc of her blade, and his left hand saber shot up to knock her strike off to the side away from him. His right hand had flipped around the weapon it was holding so Selu’s right thumb was resting on the pommel of the lightsaber in a reverse grip. This allowed him to spear the emerald green blade straight through her rib cage and into her evil heart. Elitana gasped once, then slid off the blade as Selu pulled it from her dying body. She collapsed lifelessly on the ground, Selu landing just behind her body.

“She is dead,” Selu told them. “Surrender now and your lives will be spared.”
“We would rather die than surrender to you!” Lexa shouted.
“As you wish,” he said.

Newly enraged, both females charged him, lightsabers hacking and slashing. They forced him back as they channeled their anger into the dark side of the Force, raining down furious blows on Selu. However, the elusive Selu remained just out of their reach, as ethereal as before. His Ataru form encouraged him to attack, and Selu continued to do so, meeting their renewed offensive with his own counterstrokes, leaping over their blows, spinning away from power swings only to lunge back inside and force them to temporarily counter his attack. All three combatants made free use of the Force to leap into the air, trying to slip past the other’s guards through unconventional angles of attack—low, high, from the side, behind the head. Only the Force kept them in control of their movements even as they added elbows, knees, and feet to their dancing saber blades.

Then, unexpectedly, Selu switched back as he dropped into a fighting crouch, blades weaving a protective pattern around him. Caught in the midst of a back-flip over him, Nylad was unprepared for his sudden defensive velocity. Her leap brought her in close proximity to Selu’s head, but also the spinning blades. Even as her back passed over him, Nylad struck out behind her, and while her blow was blocked, she scored a grazing hit on Selu’s left bicep, eliciting a grunt of pain, though. Selu hadn’t parried long enough and moving his blade too soon had allowed her to wound him. However, Nylad knew why a nanosecond later when that same blade sheared through both of her legs right above the knee. She landed in an undignified, screaming heap on the floor, her lightsaber fallen from her hands as she gazed in down in utter shock at the sight of her severed limbs. An instant later, Selu whirled around and plunged both blades through her chest, slaying her too. The shortened parry had been a risk—he could have lost his arm, or his head—but it had paid off.

He looked up just as a boot slammed into his face, driving him back. Lexa was beyond enraged, she was absolutely livid, her face purple with hatred. Calling on the dark side, she hammered him with such force that her blows drove him back. Using pure Form V swordplay, she sought to dominate the duel, to keep him backpedaling until she’d literally battered aside all resistance. Tiring and running solely on the Force, Selu did not have the strength to counter her blows with equal power, nor the agility to escape the Dark Jedi for even a moment’s respite. Selu was driven back a dozen meters when he realized he had only a short distance until she pinned him against a wall and carved him up. He had to make a stand. As she came in for another powerful overhand diagonal chop, Selu crossed his blades, preparing to shove her back. What he didn’t expect was for Lexa to douse the crimson bar of energy as he parried. His crossed blades met thin air and he stumbled forward as her blade came back to life inside his guard, slashing down at him. He desperately threw himself backwards, just narrowly missing being eviscerated. Instead, her lightsaber caught his hip and leg as he fell back, inflicting a searing wound across his thigh, slicing through skin and muscle, but missing his vitals. Selu gasped in pain as her blade burned through his leg. A quick follow-up strike sent both of his lightsabers spinning away from him, his fingers scorched by the close contact. Defenseless, he placed a hand over the wound, tottering backward.

“It’s over, Jedi,” she said, advancing on him before he had a chance to recover.
“I’m sorry,” Selu said aloud, closing his eyes as he tried to get farther away, delaying the final blow.

Lexa was brimming with confidence, though, and was in no hurry. Her prey was trapped, too wounded to summon the lightsabers back to his hand without her knowing. She laughed mockingly at him even as she forced him farther back into one of the statuary alcoves, relishing the thought of killing him.

“Sorry isn’t enough for the trouble you’ve been,” she told him. “But your slow death might be a start.”

Selu stopped suddenly, glaring up at her with gritted teeth.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he said fiercely, one hand clutching his leg, the other clenched in a fist at his side.

Lexa hissed and stabbed her lightsaber blade viciously at him. However, Selu, guided by a flash of precognition, collapsed to the floor, using his good left leg to kick out both of Lexa’s from under her. Selu’s arms shot up to her right arm as she fell on her right side, his hands shooting up to close around her elbow and wrist respectively in mid-air, trapping them in an iron grip. A quick exertion of strength from him and the arm was broken. She hit the ground a second later, but, ignoring the pain in her broken right arm, transferred the lightsaber to her left arm, swinging it over her shoulder in an arc that would sever his head from his shoulders. She never saw the statue that Selu had pulled down telekinetically even as she fell, but she did feel it hit. The heavy stone statue of Serra Keto toppled over squarely on Lexa’s back from its perch on the second floor, fracturing her spine at the waist. A gurgling cry escaped her lips as she was pinned to the ground by the heavy life-size sculpture, solid stone and nearly two meters high.

Selu pulled himself to his feet painfully, calling his lightsabers back to his hands and igniting their energy blades anew. Lexa’s left arm grasped frantically for the lightsaber that had slipped from her hand to lie just a few centimeters out of her reach. Selu would have none of it, though, and a single glance, a single twitch in the Force sent it rolling across the floor away from her.

“Ironic,” Selu said, observing the face on the statue that he’d pulled down. “Serra, you really have no idea what you just missed.”

Serra Keto had been slain by Darth Vader on the floor of the Jedi Temple over twenty years ago, crushed by a statue hurled down on her by the Sith. Now, her statue had allowed him to reverse the tactic on a servant of the dark side. If Serra was somehow watching him from an afterlife, Selu knew she would be laughing hysterically over the sheer irony. A brief trace of a smile appeared on his lips as he considered the matter, only to be erased as Lexa emitted another hiss of pain.

“You might still live,” Selu told her. “Surrender, and I will spare you.”

She gave no reply, but Selu felt the invisible noose close around his throat again as she focused her final exertions in the Force, her last efforts into strangling him. This time, he was ready, though. Stabbing downward with Serra’s green blade, Selu pierced the back of Lexa’s skull, driving the saber straight through her head and out her face into the stone floor. The pressure on his throat ceased as she died. Selu sensed no other presences in the Force. He had survived. The Dark Jedi were defeated and, surprisingly enough, the Hall of Remembrance hadn’t been overrun with Sith troopers. He sensed distant disturbances in the Force as lives were taken, but his pain-addled senses were incapable of giving him any definite information. For now, he needed to rest.

However, at the moment, he wasn’t safe yet. Hauling himself across the hall over to a hidden tunnel hatch, Selu somehow got it open, despite the ripples of pain emanating from his hip and torn leg muscles. Clambering down, he pulled the heavy stone lid closed over him once he was inside. Here he could rest, at least for the moment. Collapsing into a sitting position against the tunnel wall, Selu sat there in the darkness and tried to recover his strength. He would move as soon as he could.

Kraen residence

Milya peered over the balcony, looking for Silri. Her Force senses told her that the Nightsister was still alive, still dangerous, but she wasn’t sure where. Stepping out onto the balcony, Milya visually checked the area, alert for any sign of trouble. This reminded her all too much of a time she’d been ambushed on Bespin while on a hotel balcony, and her the hair on the back of her neck was raised. Broken glassine crunched under her boots as took another tentative step. She heard a slight swish and hiss and suddenly threw herself to the side.

A red-hot lightwhip lash scorched through the air where she’d been, its end tattered and frayed from the punishment of hitting Milya’s saberstaff repeatedly. The tendrils at the end raked across Milya’s back, lacerating it as their red-hot strands burned through her jacket and onto her skin. Milya remained calm, though, knocking away the whip as Silri vaulted up from where she’d been clinging to the edge of the balcony, biding her time. Though her surprise attack had failed, there was still plenty of fight left in the Nightsister.

The lightwhip cracked against the lightsaber once more as the two women battled it out. The clash of the two weapons left dizzying trails through the air as they fought, this time on the balcony. Milya telekinetically hurled a potted plant at Silri, hoping to crack her skull, but the Nightsister popped her whip over her head and behind her, the lash ripping right through the heavy jar. Silri offered Milya a bemused smile and struck back, lifting glassine shards from the ground with her mind and sending them at Milya in a shower of deadly, jagged daggers.

Milya’s staff wove an unspeakably fast Soresu defensive pattern as she backpedaled, incinerating all the shards.

“You really do have this thing for broken windows,” she commented.

Silri gave no reply, but cracked her lightwhip forward in an almost lazy strike that Milya easily entangled around one end of her saberstaff. What she didn’t anticipate was Silri looping another part of the whip around the other end of the saberstaff and jerking hard. The strength of her tug pulled the two entangled weapons—and their owners—close to each other. Silri yanked the whip out to her right side, and Milya’s flailing arms, struggling to retain her weapon, were pulled along with them. While the whip remained coiled around the saberstaff and both weapons were still live and dangerous, they were, for the moment, locked out away from them. Seizing the opportunity, Silri kicked out, driving Milya back into the balcony railing as her leg took the brunt of the kick. The Nightsister lunged and, since she had a free hand while Milya had none, delivered a knife-hand jab into Milya’s shoulder, just under the joint. Milya felt her grip on the saberstaff slipping as the nerve cluster controlling her left arm was struck so forcefully. Silri looped the whip around the saberstaff again, controlling it, and pulling the saberstaff forward so she could wrap her whip hand around both it and her own weapon. That done, the Nightsister essentially had control over the saberstaff in a direction of motion which allowed her to repeatedly bash Milya’s wrists and arms into the stone railing. The result sent waves of agony running up and down Milya’s battered arms.

Milya knew her control of her saberstaff was growing more and more tenuous each time Silri smashed her wrists into the solid stone of the railing’s side. She could feel the delicate bones in her wrist protesting as the impact rattled them. However, she couldn’t let go; one twitch of the whip would send her saberstaff flying, or take one of her arms if she did. Furthermore, with each smash, the saberstaff and whip came closer and closer to her face. She had to resist, but her strength was failing. Her eyes widened as she turned to see what Silri was doing with her other arm—the Nightsister had filled her left hand with a vibrodagger even she continued to pound Milya’s saberstaff and arms into the railing. The weapon slid forward in a flash of light, hissing through the air like a striking snake aimed at Milya’s midsection. Milya braced herself for the entrance of the cold steel into her body, knowing there was nothing she could do to stop it. However, there was one variable both Silri and Milya had left out of the equation.

Silri’s stabbing motion and her punishment of Milya’s wrists was unexpectedly arrested. The Nightsister screamed as she was jerked back towards the balcony’s edge against her will, her left leg involuntarily hauled back, preventing her from striking. In the split second that Silri was frozen, Milya saw the cause of her sudden stop—what appeared to be a cable harpoon was embedded in her left hamstring, pulling her awkwardly away from the attack. Silri whipped her vibrodagger back behind her to sever the cable, but her moment of distraction afforded Milya too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Redoubling her grip on the saber staff, Milya sprang to her feet and slashed forward in a quick tightly-controlled three-hit Soresu counterattack. The first hit the light whip three centimeters below the root of the lash, severing a thumb and destroying the weapon. It immediately deactivated. The second hit, a back swing, sliced straight up to sever Silri’s right arm at the shoulder, while to finish it, Milya whirled her saberstaff’s top blade right through the Nightsister’s torso, bisecting her. An astonished look of hatred frozen on her face, Silri’s top half toppled over lifelessly.

Sensing the danger was gone, Milya extinguished her blades to see Morgedh standing at the foot of the staircase, a cable gun still in his hands. Upon seeing her, he fell to one knee, arms splayed out at his side in deference, and bowed his head.

“Lady Kraen,” he said respectfully. “I am glad you received your warning. I fear she was too much for me.”

Milya walked down to him and took his hand, lifting the Noghri to his feet.

“No, Morgedh,” she told him. “I couldn’t have defeated her without your help. Thank you.”

He bowed his head again in acknowledgement.

“My daughter and I owe you our lives,” Milya told him. “If there’s anything you wish in return, name it.”

Visions of returning to Honoghr with the armies of Yanibar behind him, freeing his people, danced before Morgedh’s eyes, but he knew better. His people wouldn’t understand—they would reject him unless he had proof of the Empire’s treachery. Without the Force, they couldn’t know, as he did, that Selu and Milya had told the truth. And his conversation with Spectre, the one where he’d been given the trust of the general. Morgedh did not make his promises or accept such things lightly and he knew his loyalty was with Yanibar. He had merely been acting in the defense of the colony, which was his duty. Asking for a reward for something he had pledged to do would show a lack of sincere devotion, would deny him a chance to belong. Here, talking with Selu, Spectre, and the others, Morgedh felt that he actually had a chance to do so. He would not squander it now by seeking rewards like some petty mercenary. Noghri loyalty was not so cheaply bought.

“There is nothing,” Morgedh said simply. “I have sworn to serve the Force and defend this colony. You first set me on that path; it is I who am indebted to you.”
“Very well,” Milya said, impressed by his response. “Are you hurt?”
“I will be fine,” Morgedh said stolidly.

His ribs and back pained him from where he’d been thrown into a tree, but despite the mass of bruises he would have, nothing was broken. However, even as Milya asked him, he noticed the bloodied state of her arms and knew she wasn’t well.

“You are injured,” he said.
“Mostly flesh wounds,” Milya lied. “There’s a medpac inside the study.”

Morgedh retrieved it and brought it to her; having not completed his first aid training, he was of little use since he lacked knowledge of human physiology besides how to disable and kill. Despite the injuries to her arms, though, Milya was able to pull it open and begin applying treatment, albeit slowly and stiffly. She was in the middle of wrapping a large bacta bandage around her left arm when she heard a noise behind her.

Milya turned to see Rhiannon poking her head through the window.

“Mom, what’s going on?” she asked, her little voice quavering. “I heard a lot of noises, like back at the theatre. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Rhiannon,” Milya reassured her.
“Where’s Jay Seven?” Rhiannon asked. “Who else is out there?”
“Jay Seven is . . . broken,” Milya said. “We’re going to get him fixed. And this is Morgedh.”

Morgedh bowed his head in greeting.

“She can’t see you,” Milya told him. “She’s blind.”

The Noghri padded forward until he was standing in front of the window where Rhiannon was. She heard him approach, her head following the sound of his footsteps. Morgedh was purposefully making noise; ordinarily, he was all but completely silent when he walked.

“I greet you, Rhiannon clan Kraen,” Morgedh said once he stood before her.
“Hi,” she replied.

She reached one hand out to touch his face. Her little fingers, cool and dry, touched him as she tried to visualize what he looked like based on her touch. It was something she did whenever Selu or Milya weren’t there to provide pictures. Milya smiled and gave Rhiannon a mental image of the Noghri standing before her—but not of the devastated study, balcony, or herself. Or the bisected Nightsister. Better to spare Rhiannon from that.

“This is Morgedh,” Milya told her. “He’s a friend.”
“That’s a funny name,” Rhiannon said with a small giggle.

She took Morgedh’s hand and shook it.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

The Noghri inclined his head in another small bow, then turned back to Milya.

“Thank you again, Morgedh,” Milya told him hoarsely, the realization of just how close she and Rhiannon had come to death just now fully washing over him.

Abandoning the medpac for now, she walked over and sat on the windowsill after brushing away the last of the glass shards. Mindless of her battered condition, she drew Rhiannon into arms, holding her daughter tenderly. Above all else, Milya wanted Rhiannon to know she was safe, and that nothing could touch her long as she remained in her mother’s protective embrace. She cradled the girl silently for some time, tears of relief falling down her cheeks even as Milya hoped that Selu had been successful, that he too, would return safely from the battle he’d walked into.

Morgedh stood by quietly, but the knowledge that he had earned their trust and proved his worth swelled his heart with quiet pride. He had fulfilled his oath and passed the test to becoming a true member of Yanibar. Now, his training in the ways of the Force and his service to the colony that had rescued and taken him in could truly begin.

Merciless

Tyber Zann had been sitting in his usual conference room near the bridge of the ship, silently brooding, staring at a map of Yanibar’s surface. As always, Urai stood by, the dour Talortai refraining from speech as he watched Zann think. That is, until the door burst open, admitting one of Zann’s lieutenants.

“Lord Zann!” he stammered excitedly.

Zann slowly and deliberately looked up, scowling fiercely at the underling.

“What is it?” he glowered.
“Our troops on the surface . . . they’re under attack,” he said.
“What?” Zann demanded.
“Communications have been garbled, but first there was a report of malfunctioning droidekas. Then we just received word of a full attack!” the subordinate reported.
“What is our status?” Zann asked.
“It is . . . not going well,” the man replied haplessly. “We’ve received few transmissions, but what we have heard isn’t good.”
“What of their fleet?” Zann asked.
“They have not moved just yet, but they’re powering engines. A possible assault from them is likely.”
“Is my plasma cannon working yet?” Zann asked.
“Uh . . . not yet, Lord Zann,” came the reluctant reply.

Zann slammed his hands down on the table angrily as he stood. The lieutenant jumped, startled.

“Get out,” Zann told him.

The man gratefully retreated, leaving Zann and Urai alone.

“I think you were right, Urai,” Zann said. “Our prisoners may prove useful as bargaining chips after all.”
“We should act quickly,” the Talortai told him. “Before our army is defeated. I do not trust Silri’s forces to deal with the remaining ground resistance.”
“I agree,” Zann said. “She’s grown far too ambitious. No doubt she plans on turning on us once the Jedi are defeated.”
“That is why we must conserve our strength and preserve our forces,” Urai explained.
“Let us see to the prisoners, then,” Zann said.

The crime lord stalked out of his conference room, followed by Urai and his two Trandoshan enforcers, heading for the lower detention levels.

Little did either of them know that their prisoners already had visitors. Invisible visitors.

Spectre walked up and down the cell block, looking at each identical cell door in turn while Nate and Jabri guarded the approaches.

“Would it have been so much trouble to label them?” he muttered to himself as he searched for some indication as to which cell belonged to Sarth and Cassi.

For some strange reason, he had no desire to release all of whatever scum Zann might be holding his high-security detention level. The stained floor was too scuffed and smeared with various substances he cared not to contemplate to do any tracking. Spectre considered the dilemma, then the realization hit him.

“Should have thought of that in the first place,” he said.

Walking back up the row of doors, Spectre flipped on an ultraviolet light filter. All of the cells had thumbprint locks—a failsafe in case someone had cheated their way past the retinal scanner. The UV filter didn’t disappoint, and the fingerprints were easily visible under that mode. Spectre chose the one with the most recent activity. Pulling his lightsaber out, he lit it and began carving through the thick durasteel door. Once he’d completely carved out an outline he felt was large enough, he kicked it down. The steel slab hit the deck with the loud clang and Spectre stepped in to see Sarth and Cassi staring at the dusty cloud that was rising around the fallen slab.

“Who’s there?” Sarth asked.

Spectre was puzzled for a second, then realized he was still invisible and they couldn’t sense him through the Force. He shut down his camouflage, shimmering back into the visible spectrum.

“It’s me, Spectre,” he told them.
“You got our message?” Sarth asked excitedly.
“We did,” Spectre replied. “Great work.”

He took note of their obvious injuries and weakened condition and ducked back outside, beckoning Jabri inside the prison cell. She decloaked as she entered.

“They’re hurt,” he said. “Do what you can so we can move them.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered, pulling her medkit off her back.
“How many are with you?” Sarth asked.
“Myself, Nate, and the others from Cresh Squad,” Spectre told him.
“Selu and Milya are busy?” Cassi guessed.
“Very,” Spectre said. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but we’re under siege both on land and in space.”
“Let’s get out of here, then,” Sarth said as Jabri applied a spray splint to his knee and ankle.
“Not quite yet,” the medic said. “Let me get you both something in your system.”

She pulled out a pair of spray hypos.

“It’s a nutrient solution laced with glucose, stimulants, antishock, painkillers, and a bit of adrenaline,” she told them. “We call them pick-me-ups.”
“Sounds great,” Sarth said.

She injected them both, just as Spectre’s helmet comlink crackled.

“This is Lead,” he heard. “Reactor is sabotaged. Tee Two Dee is three or five minutes, please advise if you need assistance.”
“Understood,” Spectre said. “Speed up the countdown; package is secured. Head back for evac, secure our exit.”

Wyslond clicked his comlink in acknowledgement, then went silent again. Spectre turned back to Sarth and Cassi.

“Can you walk?” he asked them.

They both nodded, and Spectre and Jabri helped them up.

“Okay, I can maybe walk,” Sarth told them, wincing as he tried to put weight on his injured leg.

Spectre and Jabri put Sarth between them and supported him as he hobbled out of the prison cell, followed by Cassi. Spectre signaled Nate to take point and the group made their way back out of the prison cell and into the corridors of the Merciless. Their progress was much slower due to the addition of the half-lame Sarth, and without his camouflage or the Force, Spectre felt distinctly vulnerable.

They soon re-entered the main control room. Nate bent down and retrieved a blaster from Zloskiba, tossing it to Cassi.

“For you, ma’am,” Nate said. “Hope you don’t have to use it.”
“Who killed him?” Sarth asked, referring to Zloskiba.
“I did,” Spectre said. “Why? Friend of yours?”
“More like torturer,” Sarth said with obvious disgust.
“I regret that it was quick, then,” Spectre replied darkly, a wave of anger rising within him at the thought of Sarth and Cassi suffering. “Let’s go.”

Suddenly, Nate, ahead a few meters near a corridor, held up a hand, signaling danger. Spectre and Jabri set Sarth down on the floor gently and brought up their blasters. The other corridors were dimly lit, so they switched their optics to low-light, scanning for threats. Their helmet visors showed them that the AI inside Nate’s helmet, the ETA, had warned him of incoming threats.

Then, just as their helmet sensors told them, two hulking Trandoshans wielding blasters rounded the corner. To their surprise, though, four blasters opened up on them, chewing through their equipment vests and dropping them to the ground, their bodies charred with impacts. They fell without getting a shot off.

“Come on,” Spectre said, looking down the corridor to make sure there was nobody else. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
“Wait,” Nate said cautiously. “Something’s wrong.”
“You’re right,” Spectre said, his old soldier’s instincts blaring a warning to him.

It wasn’t the Force, but Spectre hadn’t survived as many battles as he had without listening to them. Immediately his carbine swept up, scanning the room for trouble.

Tyber Zann and Urai had been behind the Trandoshans and had ducked back with lightning-fast reflexes as soon as the Trandoshans had fallen.

“Intruders,” Urai growled softly.
“They must be here for the prisoners,” Zann said. “Stealth and we’ll deal with them.”

They both disappeared from view, engaging their own personal stealth fields. Esoteric pieces of technology, they’d cost a pretty sum of credits on the black market, but had been invaluable for their numerous infiltrations.

Zann waited quietly, drawing his long-barreled blaster as he waited for Urai to get clear of the corridor. He counted to ten, then rounded the corner and opened fire on the armored figures gathered in the central detention processing room.

Spectre watched as a pair of blaster bolts flew through the air to hit Nate, toppling him over. He swiveled just in time to see a shadow flying towards him. It was practically on top of him, and while some might have ignored it, Spectre was too familiar with stealth technology to not what know what it was. He immediately blocked upward with his blaster carbine. Unsurprisingly, he struck metal as the carbine met Urai Fen’s downward chop with his formidable arm blades. The blades cleaved through the weapon, but slowed down the metallic blades enough so that Spectre only received glancing wounds from them as they bit through his armor. Pushing back away from the giant Talortai that had materialized in front of him, Spectre drew his lightsaber. In the corner of his eye, he could see Jabri and Cassi ducked behind a console, trading blasts with Tyber Zann. However, all his attention was focused on Urai Fen. The alien warrior was enormous and the giant curved arm blades he wielded could easily slay Spectre with a single swipe if he wasn’t careful.

Spectre slashed at Fen with his lightsaber, aiming to destroy one of his weapons, but was disappointed when the glowing golden blade glanced off the sharp blade. They were made of something resistant to lightsabers then. So much for ending this quickly.

He ducked under a sweeping blow that would have cut him in half, kicking out at Fen’s leg. It had little effect on the warrior, though, and Spectre hastily parried the next strike. The force of the blow was tremendous, nearly driving his lightsaber back into his own shoulder, and Spectre knew he would have to evade or attack rather than block. He unloaded a flurry of blows on Fen in rapid succession, forcing the Talortai back, but the alien warrior wasn’t intimidated. Instead, as Spectre came in for a high-stabbing strike aimed at his chest, Urai knocked the lightsaber aside with his left blade and reached out to grab Spectre’s saber hand and wrist with his right. Spectre found himself trapped, unable to extricate his saber from Urai’s grip. Urai drew back his right arm, stabbing straight at Spectre. The clone’s life flashed before his eyes as a metal blade wider than his head thrust right at his face. He ducked under it at the last second and the blade drove deep into a metal bulkhead. Annoyed, Urai used his left arm to swing Spectre away from him and into a wall, stunning him. In doing so, the Talortai was careful to wrench the lightsaber away and knock it to the ground while he extracted his own right-hand blade from the wall.

Even as most of the air was driven out of him, Spectre swiftly recovered, dodging a backward slash from Urai’s left-hand blade. Leaping forward, he landed on the Talortai’s back, reaching around his neck in an attempt to strangle him. Urai charged backward, slamming him into the metal wall. Stars and spots danced before Spectre’s eyes, but still he held on. Urai struck backwards with his blades, but though they cut through Spectre’s armor and returned stained red with blood, Spectre had positioned himself in such a way to be unreachable by a major hit. Those minor cuts wouldn’t stop the commando from strangling him.

Urai knew he was running out of time. With a loud roar, he summoned his last breath a final effort. Reaching up, he grabbed the arm that was strangling him and used it to haul the commando over his shoulder. The man hit the deck limply with a loud boom. Urai stood over him menacingly, pinning Spectre in place with one clawed foot and drawing back his right blade to drive it through Spectre’s chest.

“Wait,” Spectre said weakly. “There’s something you should know.”

Urai looked him inquisitively as even the blade slid downward to strike.

“There’s a det on your back,” Spectre told him.

Urai’s alien eyes widened as Spectre’s words registered. He realized that Spectre had left something behind even as Urai had thrown him over his shoulder. Glancing back, his eyes locked onto the small cylinder that had been tucked into the back of his belt just as it exploded. Spectre rolled out of the way as the grenade went off and Urai fell forward, his back burning and smoking. Spectre scrambled to his feet and retrieved his lightsaber, igniting it in case the Talortai rose again, but there was no motion. He was dead.

While Urai and Spectre had brawled, Cassi and Jabri had exchanged volleys of fire with Tyber Zann, who remained skulking behind a corner, firing his blaster at them. On the floor, though, Sarth had been mentally timing Zann’s firing patterns. Jabri had tossed him her S-5XS sidearm and now he’d sighted in, waiting. The next time Zann came around the corner to unleash a blast or two, Sarth was ready. A single whirr-chirp issued from the pistol as he squeezed the trigger, sending a tungsten-durasteel slug into Zann’s knee.

Poetic justice at its best, Sarth thought, as the crime lord fired one more blast, causing Jabri to duck and then fell, clutching his wounded leg. He still tried to raise his blaster again, but Cassi was ready. She fired first, her blaster bolt catching him in his right shoulder. He gasped as the searing round hit him, his eyes wide with shock, then he slumped over limply.

Spectre walked over to Nate and hauled him to his feet.

“You all right, son?” he asked him.
“I’m fine,” Nate said, grinning through he knew Spectre couldn’t see him through the helmet. “A little banged up, but the armor did me good. Nice work on these, Uncle Sarth.”

Sarth gave Nate a thumbs-up as Jabri and Cassi helped from the ground. Nate’s armor, while charred and blackened on in two places on the torso, had saved his life from Zann’s powerful blaster shots. His injuries, while serious, were treatable and he seemed ambulatory.

“Don’t scare me like that,” Cassi said worriedly. “I thought you were dead.”
“I don’t die that easily,” Nate joked.

His suit must have already injected his system with painkillers for him to be that chipper, Spectre reflected. Alive, Nate might be, but unharmed—that was a different story altogether. He shook his head, trying to clear it. He needed to stay focused on the mission.

“I hate to interrupt the family reunion, but we need to go,” Spectre informed them. “There’s the little matter of this ship exploding in a matter of minutes.”
“Is that all?” Sarth asked facetiously, even as he began hobbling towards the exit, supported by Cassi.
“Jabri, take point,” Spectre said. “You’re uninjured. Keep Sarth and Cassi in the middle; Nate and I will bring up the rear.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, moving back down they’d come, blaster at the ready.

Nate gestured for Spectre to go first, but Spectre stubbornly refused to budge.

“I’m your superior and your father,” he growled. “Get your butt down that hall or else.”
“Yes, sir,” Nate replied reluctantly. “You know, you don’t have to be the last man out every time.”
“Just this time,” Spectre said grimly. “Go.”

Nate acceded, and they both turned. Spectre checked behind them one last time to make sure there was no pursuit, when something caught his eye.

“Duck!” he shouted, shoving Sarth and Cassi forward as hard as he could.

That something was a grenade. A grenade plucked from an equipment vest with slow care by Tyber Zann’s left hand. He was not dead. Though badly wounded and feigning unconsciousness, he’d managed to slip his good left hand up and carefully extract a small round detonator from one of the dead Trandoshan’s bodies that was lying next to him. Knowing that the weapon had a three-second timer, he’d activated it and held it in his good left hand for two seconds before rolling it after the escapees. Zann knew that there was no hope for him—his ship was apparently rigged to explode and he was lying here alone, grievously wounded. Waves of coldness swept over him and he knew he was dying by the sensation of sinking ever deeper into an inky blackness. All he could do was get a last modicum of revenge on the people who’d worked so hard to sabotage him. Even as his life faded away, Tyber Zann smiled one last cruel grimace as his last act of malice exploded into a fireball.

Sarth picked himself up from the deck where Spectre had knocked him over just before the concussive wave of the blast had swept over him. Beside him, he saw Cassi similarly lying next to him. To his relief, she stirred and opened her eyes. Someone was shouting something, but it was several seconds before the ringing in his ears subsided and a measure of hearing returned.

An armored figure—Jabri?—reached down and pulled him and Cassi to their feet, checking him for injuries. Though his body was shaking slightly in addition to his other injuries and he was disoriented, he seemed to be okay. Cassi also looked none the worse for the wear, though she seemed to be having trouble standing also. Dazed and confused, he leaned against the bulkhead of the ship and realized his legs were like jelly. Affected as he was by the grenade’s blast, he missed the exchange going on behind him. All things considered, it was probably for the best.

What neither Sarth nor Cassi knew was that Spectre and Nate had taken the full force of the blast. At that range, not even the Battlesuit52 could protect them. They’d been hurled to the deck by the concussion, internal organs ruptured and leg bones shattered by the blast wave. Their charred, steaming armor had deep rents in it, exposing flesh badly burned by the explosive in the grenade. They were both alive, but just barely.

“Sir!” Jabri shouted, kneeling by Spectre and rolling him over to face her.

She pulled off his helmet, checked his pulse, and then reached for his medkit.

“Stop, Jabri,” Spectre told her weakly. “It’s no good.”
“Don’t say that, sir,” she said resolutely. “We’re going to get you and Nate out of here!”
“Not this time,” Spectre told her even as she rolled Nate over to check his vitals. “Can’t . . . walk.”
“I’m getting you both out of here if I have to drag you myself,” she said brokenly.
“No time, and you can’t drag . . . four people,” Spectre wheezed as she injected something into Nate, trying to revive him. “Get to the ship.”
“I won’t leave you, sir,” Jabri insisted.

She peeled off Nate’s helmet as his eyes fluttered. He was conscious.

“Ow,” he said, wincing and then looking at Spectre.
“The others?” he asked hoarsely.
“They’re fine,” Spectre said through gasped breaths. “Aside from a stubborn medic.”

Nate looked at the chrono, then coughed heavily. The realization swept over him, but he knew what he had to do.

“Get out of here, Jabri,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“He’s right,” Spectre added painfully. “Going to die any . . . get Sarth and Cassi . . . out.”

His voice was becoming fainter now, and he felt his life slipping away, but he gritted his teeth and tried to focus. Nate was farther gone; he could only whisper.

“Jabri,” he groaned. “Tell Ana . . . Zeyn . . . love them,” he said.

She nodded frantically even as she pulled her medkit off and injected both of them with the last of her painkillers.

“That’s better,” Spectre managed as the pain subsided. Drawing himself up, he fixed his eyes directly on Jabri’s visor.
“Corporal, I order you to increase your suit’s strength enhancers and repulsors to max and carry Sarth and Cassi to the Hawk-bat as fast as you can,” he grated out as forcefully as he could. “Do I make . . . –self clear?”
“Sir!” she replied, tears brimming down her face inside her helmet. “Yes, sir!”
“Good . . . have only a minute,” Spectre said. “This isn’t . . . fault, Corporal.”

She nodded.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“Sheeka,” Spectre whispered. “Tell her and Jasika good-bye for me. Tell them all. Say we went out with a bang.”
“I will,” she promised him.
“Now, go,” Spectre said.

Blinking back more tears, she turned around to Sarth and Cassi. Giving vocal commands to her battlesuit, she doubled her strength and stamina by adding more power to the repulsors and strength enhancers. This allowed her to scoop up both civilians and sling them over her shoulders almost effortlessly. Jabri turned and faced both Spectre and Nate one last time. She didn’t have a free hand to salute with, so she simply said “good-bye, sirs” quietly. She knew that their earpiece comlinks would pick up her signal. Then, making sure she was holding her cargo securely, she took off through the corridors for the Merciless, sprinting for the hatch where the Hawk-bat was docked.

Jabri reached the ship where the rest of Cresh Squad was waiting with just seconds left. Her squadmates helped her bring Sarth and Cassi inside.

“Where’s the general and Three?” Captain Wyslond asked.
“They’re down,” she said breathlessly. “Punch it!”
“Dammit!” Wyslond said vehemently, slamming a fist against his leg before returning to the mission at hand. “Get us out of here. You heard the lady.”

The Hawk-bat’s engines throbbed as it shot free of the Merciless. Accelerating on a wake of blue-hot ion exhaust, it soared away just as explosions began racking the destroyer. The explosives planted around its reactor core had gone off, destroying the ship from within as the unstable hypermatter broke through the containment fields and interacted with normal matter. Physics took care of the rest.

Down back on Deck Three, Block 15, Spectre and Nate felt the ship begin to shake, heard the dull roar of the explosion as it reverberated through the bulkheads. The air around them began to rapidly get hotter.

“They did it,” Nate whispered hoarsely to Spectre. “They blew up the ship.”
“So they did,” Spectre replied. “I’m sorry . . . got you . . . this mess.”
“Wouldn’t trade it for anything, Dad,” Nate gasped. “This was my duty, my mission. Had to be done.”

He took Spectre’s gloved hand in his and waited for the end. His step-father was off in his own world, though.

“From water we're born . . . fire we die," Spectre whispered. "We seed the stars.”

It was a creed that had been passed down to clone troopers in the Grand Army of the Republic, a life that Spectre had lived so many years ago.

“Force be with us,” Nate said simply.

Then, the fiery wave took them both.

The Merciless detonated in a burning orb of brilliant energy and debris as the Hawk-bat shot away from the dying ship. The tiny freighter’s Force illusion was gone, and scattered volleys of laser fire followed, but most of the Zannist fleet was distracted by the unexpectedly exploding Merciless. There was one final explosion, larger than the others, as the matter-hypermatter reactions hit critical mass. The expanding cloud of burning plasma engulfed all of Tyber Zann’s tightly clustered ships, washing over them and reducing them to burnt ash. Immediately after, a wave of deadly exotic radiation from the blast hit the now-unshielded husks, burning away all life and electronic equipment. Secondary explosions dotted the blast field as the other ships succumbed to titanic explosion. Shooting away just ahead of the shock wave, the Hawk-bat rode the debris ring to safety. They’d done it.

The explosion and destruction of Tyber Zann’s remaining fleet wasn’t lost on Admiral Slayke aboard the Yoda.

“That’s the signal,” he said. “Launch all Nighthawk missiles and move us into bombardment position. De-activate the main colony shield.”

On his order, the Yanibar Guard Fleet formed up and its largest ships presented their bellies to the surface below. Then, their ventral turbolasers began to burst fire. Down below, hundreds of kilometers from the ship’s position, on a high plateau, it began to rain purple needles of destruction. Tanks and vehicles were pulverized by the capital ships’ weaponry. Sentients outside of shelter hit directly were vaporized as the intense energy bolts slammed into the ground, tearing them into their constituent atoms. Those farther away were bombarded with the lethal shock waves and showers of red-hot debris. The air roared with the fury of the distant warships. In ten minutes of firing, the entire plateau was razed down a large smoldering pool of glowing hot lava from the orbital bombardment. Smoke rose from the ruined highland as the ships ceased their terrible hail of death. A pair of YGA Stilettos flew over the plateau, battling the newly formed thermals that threatened to sweep them away. Their pilots finished their sweep swiftly, scanning the entire area, then reported the results. Not a single Sith soldier had survived.

Elsewhere on the ground, a formation of YGF Valkyrie bombers screamed over the armored battle over the Daizon Valley. The bombers had never been designed for low-altitude short-range bombing, but their pilots were experienced. As they cleared the last ridge, they unleashed their ordnance on the northern flank of the valley, the flank where the Zann Consortium camp had been nestled against. However, their targets were not the buildings, vehicles, or personnel of the Zann Consortium. Their bomb loads had been specifically intended for a particular use—the cliff face behind them. The YGF armorers had, per Admiral Slayke’s orders, outfitted these bombers with seismic charges. Now, as the little cylinders, drawn downward by gravity’s pull, hit the cliff face, they exploded in waves of force that tore through the rocks. What had been a sheer rock wall disintegrated into a hail of boulders rapidly rolling down into the valley, literally crushing all resistance. Trees, buildings, tanks, men—the boulders stopped for nobody. Imposing Canderous battle tanks lost their menace when hundred-ton boulders rolled over them. The rockslide plowed over anything, covering it with tons upon tons of rubble, burying the remaining Zannists under the mountainside. Dust clouds rose from the vanquished army, then, unexpectedly, streams of water came splashing down through the newly smashed mountain face. The YGF bombing had released a hidden underground aquifer, and now torrents of running water flowed down, pooling around the buried boulders. Any Zannists who had survived the rockslide only to find themselves buried now witnessed the ground begin to fill with water as the flood seeped through the rocks into the various scattered air pockets. In an hour’s time, the rockslide had become a muddy lake, a mass grave for a defeated army.

By that time, there was nothing left of the Sith warships either. Admiral Slayke had been pleasantly surprised at the results of his Nighthawk salvo. Most of the missiles had been concentrated on knocking out two of the big cruisers, and they’d succeeded. However, what he hadn’t expected was for both of them to explode with violent force. At that time, he didn’t know that all but three of the seven remaining cruisers were empty decoys, packed with explosives for use as ramships in eliminating either the Yanibar Guard or Tyber Zann. Their shields, 2,000 years obsolete, were no match for the swarm of Nighthawk missiles that unexpectedly detonated upon them. The destruction of two of the decoys hit the other ships, setting off the other two bombs. The chain reaction lit up the surrounding space in a fireball visible even down on Yanibar. When it had cleared, only two badly damaged ships remained, both feebly attempting to jump to hyperspace.

“Target them both,” Slayke said through gritted teeth.

A wave of fighters, led by Paladin Squadron, flew to the chase. The crippled Sith warships were in no position to resist the strafing of lasers and ion cannons, nor the streams of argent proton torpedoes tearing fiery gashes in their sides.

“We got him!” Paladin Three called as the first warship began to break up.
“Yes, we did,” Hasla said, watching with satisfaction as the ship began to tear itself apart with the force of its internal explosions. “Let’s go for two.”

Whipping her fighter around in concert with the rest of the attack formations, she opened up on its flanks even as the first long-range shots from the YGF capital ships began finding their mark on its stern. She saw its hyperdrive engines powering up, but the navicomputers of that era were slower, needed more time to prepare for a jump. The few seconds’ delay proved costly as four Ataru¬-class gunships closed into torpedo range. Once their sixty projectiles hit the engines, it was over. The warship shuddered in its death throes as its attackers peeled away. Then it blew up in a rapidly cooling cloud of fiery debris. With its death, the battle of Yanibar ended.

26

Sarth’s eyes opened slowly as he awoke. He blinked blearily, trying to assess his surroundings. He was in someplace cool and quiet, no longer in the hellish prison cell on the Merciless. There was something soft around him and even his pain had faded to a mere shadow of its former self. Best of all, the Force had returned to him. He could feel its reassuring presence again, and that thought alone brought a smile to his face. Blinking again, his eyes adjusted to light and he realized he was in a medcenter bed, most likely at a Yanibar Guard base. The walls were a sterile green tile and his bed was surrounded with various medical apparatuses. There was a window to his right, allowing the morning sunlight to stream through.

He looked over to his left and saw Cassi lying in a bed next to his, the sole other occupant in the room. Beyond her bed and the row of monitors, there was a privacy curtain shielding them from the door. She was already awake and was watching him expectantly. She smiled and gave him a playful mental nudge.

“It’s about time you’re up,” she said.
“Oh?” he asked.
“You’ve been sleeping the last thirty hours,” she remarked wryly. “I even had time to get the nurse to wash my hair before you were awake.”
“What happened?” Sarth asked. “Have you heard any news?”
“No, not really,” Cassi said. “The medcenter staff has been pretty pre-occupied. Spectre told us there was a battle here; they’re probably dealing with the wounded.”
“Well, we’re still here,” Sarth said. “And the lights are still on, so I guess we won, or we’re winning.”

She nodded.

“We’re supposed to stay here another day or two,” she said. “The nurse told me, but otherwise, I haven’t heard.”

Sarth tried to move his right leg, but found that it was immobilized. Peeking down under the covers, he noticed that it was covered in a thick sterile cast.

“They told me that you’ve got temporary implants in your knee and ankle,” Cassi said. “You’ll be here a little longer than me. Whenever it’s not so busy; the doctor said they’ll equip you with permanent ones.”
“Implants?” Sarth asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “The damage to your leg was severe—they showed me the bone scans. They’ll have to place artificial joints in for you to walk again.”
“Heh,” Sarth said. “How long will that take?”
“You could be here another couple of weeks,” Cassi said. “I don’t think a nonessential procedure like that is going to be prioritized in the midst of war casualties.”
“True,” Sarth conceded. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I could get out of bed now if it wasn’t for the doctor’s orders. I wanted to use the Force on you, but the doctors forbade me doing so.”

There was a knock on the door to their room.

“Come in,” Cassi called.

The privacy screen was pulled aside as Milya entered the room, dressed in black pants and a loose sleeveless black shirt. She looked haggard and hurt, with dark circles around her red-rimmed eyes and bandages and synthflesh evident on her arms, shoulders, and legs. She approached them quietly. However, her somber expression and battered appearance, though not lost on Sarth and Cassi, did not stop their faces from lighting up when they saw a familiar face.

“Glad you could visit,” Sarth said brightly. “How is the battle?”
“It’s over,” Milya said forlornly. “We won.”

There was no joy, no victory in her words, though. She was clearly troubled about something. Reaching out to touch her with the Force, Cassi felt a tremendous sadness leaking through gaps in Milya’s emotional armor. Something had gone wrong.

“What is it?” Cassi asked her. “What happened? Is it Selu?”
“No,” Milya said, shaking her head. “He’s fine.”

She took a deep breath, biting back fresh tears.

“They didn’t tell you?” she asked them, trying not to sob.
“Tell us what?” Sarth asked.

She told them, but was unable to stop the tears from falling as she did so. Their reactions, like their personalities, were completely different. Sarth sat stunned, his mouth hanging open as he tried to process what he’d been told. Cassi, however, saw the sincerity, the grief, the hurt in Milya’s eyes and felt the same hollow ache in her chest she knew the other woman was carrying. Tears of her own slid down from her face to splash on the medcenter blanket.

“That’s-that’s not possible,” Sarth said, aghast. “He and Nate were right behind us! They boarded the Hawk-bat and we flew away together!”
“No,” Milya said quietly with a slight shake of her head. “They didn’t.”

Except for the sound of the medical monitors and the quiet sound of Cassi’s weeping, it was silent in the room for a very long time after that.

Kraen residence

Selu slowly got out of the speeder, going easy on his injured leg. A medical droid had insisted that Selu not put any weight on it for at least a week, but Selu had overruled its judgment. He needed to do this. The events of the last few days were still drilled into his head, and knew they would be with him forever. Even if he hadn’t been gifted with his prodigious memory retention rate, the tragedy of the last few days would have been eternally imprinted on his mind.

Yes, the Yanibar Guard had been successful. Not a single Zannist or Sith ship, or even a soldier, had survived the final onslaught. There had been no survivors on that side. Yes, the colony was safe once more, the average citizens largely unaffected by the relatively brief invasion. Yes, he, his wife, and his daughter had survived, and Sarth and Cassi had miraculously been rescued and returned to them. However, that victory had come at a great cost.

Selu had seen the casualty lists and the final death toll, while not nearly as high as it could have been, had shocked and appalled him. 3,182 men and women of the Yanibar Guard had paid the ultimate price for defending the refuge of the Force exiles. 3,182 beings no longer alive to return to their families or fellow servicemembers. As Supreme Commander of the Yanibar Guard, he bore some measure of responsibility for their lives, and though they had died valiantly, that was little comfort to loved ones left behind. The least he could do was give them the respect they were due. While Selu knew that visiting the next-of-kin of all of them was out of the question, he could at least pay his respects to the fallen 183 officers personally. It was the final responsibility he owed to them.

Selu slowly, tenderly walked up the gravel walkway to the house, ignoring the pain in his body as he moved, particularly his leg. They were nothing compared to the loss he carried in him, the loss he was about to have to share with three other people.

His medals and decorations clanked softly against the formal dark gray jacket he was wearing as part of the Yanibar Guard’s dress uniform. Selu had managed to slip the full formal apparel on for the occasion, from the neatly-pressed white tunic and pants with the silver stripe running down the outside to the jacket and formal officer’s hat that he rarely wore. The silver buttons and trim on his jacket, as well as his well-polished glossy black formal boots shone in the morning sun as he walked. He’d shaved and done his best to be the very image of a Yanibar Guard officer. In his mind, it was the least he could do, so he put up with the hat, the impractically wide belt, and the thin white gloves that served no purpose other than ornamentation.

“Sir, do you want me to come with you?” asked a voice behind him from the back seat of the speeder.

Corporal Jabri C’esta, 3 Company, First Regiment, had insisted on coming along. She was also decked out in full dress uniform and seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. She had also told him of Spectre’s and Nate’s final words to him, their request that she pass along their final good-byes as the last witness of their deaths, so Selu had relented to the persistent soldier’s request.

“No, Corporal,” he said. “Stay in the speeder for now. I should tell them myself.”

Selu would not allow anyone else to try and shoulder the burden he had to carry in this area. It was his duty to be the one to tell them. He’d carefully thought out what he would say, staying awake all night long until he’d thought it through. He’d needed that much time to find words to suitably and appropriately express the tragic news he’d had to share.

Not that he was at all convinced that words could do the loss justice. Selu had lost a brother, a dear comrade-in-arms of nearly thirty years. They had been through so much together, and he still couldn’t fully accept that Spectre was gone. The fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire, the death of Emberlene, the creation of Yanibar, and a hundred other adventures, trials, and challenges—he and Spectre had faced them all together and had come through them. A hundred memories of their lives together flashed through Selu’s mind in rapid succession, and he knew that never again would he share or make memories with Spectre. The man had been a great soldier, a loyal comrade, a faithful friend, a loving father, and a brother to Selu in all but blood. He hadn’t felt such pain on a deep personal level since the Jedi Order had died. A deep hole had been torn inside Selu when he’d learned the truth, after Master Daara had brought him back to the command center and Captain Wyslond returned with his report, and it would not be easily filled. Selu knew that time would indeed heal the wound, and the certainty he had from the Force, as well as both his love for his family and his duty to Yanibar, would keep him going. All he had to do was take one more step at a time.

Selu reached the door and cleared his throat, drawing up his courage to say what he had to. Finally, he managed to quell the lump in his throat. Judging he was as ready as he ever would be for the next month, he rapped lightly on the door. A minute later, it slid open, revealing a worried Sheeka Tull Kraen.

“Selu?” she asked, taking in his solemn expression and attire. “What’s wrong?”

A dagger of pain knifed through his heart in the unhealed wound where Spectre’s life had been. Here she was, the love of Spectre’s life, and he was about to tell her that he was gone forever. Not to mention the daughter they’d had together, the daughter who would spend the rest of her life asking why her daddy hadn’t come home one day. But he had to continue.

“Is Ana here?” he asked.
“She is,” Sheeka replied warily. “Why?”
“I need to speak to both of you,” Selu said.

A haunted, horrified expression crossed the woman’s face and she hastily withdrew. Selu sensed the anguish, the concern welling up within her, emotions that were soon mirrored when she re-emerged with Ana. The younger woman’s brown hair was askance and frizzy; she was holding her newborn son, Zeyn, on one hip. She walked up to the door hastily, and Selu knew that this would be even harder for her to hear. She would be widowed in the prime of her life, less than two years into her marriage, and while Ana had certainly known the risks that Nate’s job entailed, as well as how much he loved it, she had to have dreaded something like this happening. Unlike Jasika, who’d at least had a chance to spend nearly twelve wonderful years with her father, Zeyn would never know his.

Ana’s Lorrdian heritage, her ability to read body language, made Selu’s posture and expression speak volumes. She already had a sinking, dreadful feeling inside her, one that told her what he was going to say.

“No,” she said, horrified, bracing herself against the inevitable. “Stars in the sky, no . . . please not Nate . . .”

One hand shot to her lips as she trailed off and Selu stepped forward. He steeled himself against the pain that he was about to etch on both of their hearts. As he spoke, he knew the same anguish would pierce him also.. But he had to say it, so he did, trying to break the news as gently as possible, even though he knew there was no way to cushion the blow he was about to inflict.

“Sheeka, Ana . . . there's something you need to know,” Selu said slowly, trying to keep his voice even. “This isn't easy for me to say--I'm still getting over the shock myself. Spectre and Nate-they're gone. They died in the line of duty two days ago, protecting this refuge and its people.”

They both stood in shock, staring at him with abject horror on their faces. Selu’s heart was wrenched to see it, but he pressed on. He had to.

“I know that's little comfort, but that they paid the ultimate price to protect Sarth and Cassi, to protect all of us. I--we--the entire Yanibar Guard owes a tremendous debt to you for what they did. They were heroes. We're here today because of them.”

Ana remained pale as if she’d seen a ghost, while tears were already beginning to streak down Sheeka’s face. Their grief reverberated through the Force and Selu hated himself for having to tell them, for having to be the one to end their worlds. The last few words he had to say sounded trite to him, but he hoped that they obtain some comfort from them, that they would know he cared.

“If there's anything myself or the Guard can do for you and your families, please, let me know. You're my family, too. I'm so sorry.”

Selu started to step back, but something in the eyes of the two women made him stop. Suddenly, both of them collapsed on his shoulders, and Selu held them as they both started weeping uncontrollably. Their worlds had just fallen; it was the least he could do for the widows.

“There is no death,” Selu breathed softly to himself to provide some modicum of assurance, quoting from the Jedi Code. “There is only the Force.”
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