(The Hammer Comes Down)
The mood in the Millennium Falcon as it flew through hyperspace to Lehon was somber. They'd spent a tense few hours helping the Nemesis group retrieve the Judgment's life-pods, fighting off the occasional Vong foray prowling the edges of the system, but now they had nothing to do as their ship traversed the distance to their next destination.
A few hours into the journey, Han Solo sat in one of the chairs beside the computer console in the main hold, idly drumming his fingers on his knee. He looked up as Jaina walked in, noting her weary expression.
"I'm sick of this war," she said, pushing the sleeves of her dark gray fatigues up to her elbows. "I don't know how you and Mom got through the one you fought when you were my age."
"When I was your age, I was just about to graduate from the Naval Academy on Carida," Han said. "But even then we figured there'd be war with the Rebellion before long."
Jaina sat down in the other chair next to the console. "If you hadn't been discharged from the Navy, would you have fought for the Empire?"
Han paused, thinking about this. "I don't know," he admitted. "I probably would have resigned or just deserted sooner or later, to tell you the truth. I joined the Navy because I was young and stupid and wanted to fight for 'the good guys', but it didn't take me long to figure out that certainly wasn't the Empire."
"Has Jacen talked to you about what happened to him?" Jaina asked, surprising Han with the sudden change of subject.
He nodded. "A little. Leia's told me some of what he told her. It's… it's hard to deal with being tortured," he said, subdued. "But what he went through… That was worse than anything I ever got." Then it dawned on him. "She said something about my, uh, what do you call it, counterpart, being there. That he was a Grand Admiral."
"I can't even imagine that," Jaina said. "I mean, you're a general, and I've seen you in uniform plenty of times, but I still can't see you as an Imperial officer."
Han shrugged. "The only reason I'm still in the Republic military is because your mother won't let me go back to smuggling," he said jokingly. He sobered. "But it's… strange, thinking I could have ended up like that. I don't think I'd want to live in that world."
"Me, neither," Jaina said softly, looking down. "This one's bad enough sometimes."
"You've certainly been busy," Jenn remarked to Revan as the Argent Hawk approached the huge gray shape of the Star Forge at Lehon.
Spread out around the massive station was an immense fleet of Imperial-style warships, along with other ship designs Jenn recognized from their own time. She counted at least nine black Eclipse-class vessels and a dozen cobalt Super Star Destroyers, along with hundreds of smaller gray Imperial Star Destroyers, frigates, and probably tens of thousands of fighters and other support craft.
And still more poured out of the immense stellar factory every day. Though she knew these ships would be fighting for their side, Jenn still felt a slight shudder pass through her at the sight of so many warships all in one place.
"The problem is finding crews for them," Revan said. "I've automated as many systems as I can to reduce the number of essential crewmen, but we're still going to need hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions. We barely have enough for skeleton crews as it is."
"Hasn't Vader sent some of those cloning cylinders here?" she asked, looking over the console at him.
"He has," Revan replied, making an adjustment to the controls as they drew closer. "But, even with Thrawn's method of using ysalamiri to cut the clones off from the Force and speed up the process, they're still weeks away from being ready." He frowned. "I'm not exactly comfortable with the idea of growing clone soldiers, but as we've all been saying a lot lately, desperate times call for desperate measures."
Jenn nodded, sighing. "I didn't think it was possible to be worse than the Mandalorians, but these Vong make them look positively civil. At least the Mandalorians knew when to give up."
"Well, now the Republic has some help," Revan said. He frowned again. "Or it will if the Senate finally ratifies the new treaty and lets the Imperial fleet across the border."
"They still haven't done that?!" Jenn exclaimed, astonished. "What are they waiting for?"
"According to the report I got from the HoloNet during our last recalculation," Revan answered, "it's that Bothan Senator, Fey'lya. Since we left, he's gotten the Senate all worked up by claiming this is a plot by Emperor Fel and Vader to position the Imperial fleet within the Republic. He says they're 'obviously' planning to take advantage of the war and re-conquer Republic space. The Chancellor and her supporters are doing their best to straighten things out, but Fey'lya's gaining ground, especially given the public outrage over Delta Red. There's a growing possibility the treaty could get voted down."
"Is he brain-damaged?!" Jenn gaped, unable to believe such stupidity. "Does he have any idea what's going on out here?"
Revan glared out into space. "This is turning into the Mandalorian Wars all over again."
Jenn shook her head disgustedly. "Well, we're a long way away from the politicians here," she said after a moment. "We knew we probably weren't going to get Republic reinforcements for this battle, anyway."
"Emperor Fel has sent a few warships, and we have the Chiss," Revan said, briefly pointing to a large gathering of exotic-looking vessels near the Star Forge. "If the reports I've read are even half correct, they're some of the best allies we could hope for in an engagement like this."
Their comm pinged, and Revan answered it. "Argent Hawk, this is Executor. Lord Vader and Grand Admiral Thrawn are aboard the station, and they request you to join them on the command level as soon as possible."
"Tell them we're on our way," Revan said. "Hawk out."
Leia sighed as she leaned back in one of the chairs in her mother's office in the Royal Palace, massaging her temples with the fingers of one hand. She felt totally drained, both mentally and physically, as if even the Force could not wash away her weary frustration.
"I know that sigh," her mother's voice said from the door. "I can't count how many times I've done it myself."
Leia lowered her hand to look up as Padmé and Winter walked in. Winter sat in one of the other embroidered chairs, and Padmé headed for her desk. Here, away from all the cameras and pundits watching through them, her mother finally relaxed and allowed her own weariness to show.
"What is wrong with him?" Leia asked half-rhetorically. "These new terms Fey'lya is trying to add to the treaty are only going to anger the Imperials and keep them from agreeing to it. What is he doing?"
"He wants to be Chancellor," Padmé replied tiredly as she sat down. "He's planning to run against me in the next election, so he's hoping to discredit me and my supporters. I wouldn't be surprised if he's deliberately trying to get the Imperials to reject the treaty so he can blame it on me somehow and call for a vote of no confidence. I've seen it happen before."
" 'Those who desire power are those least suited to wielding it'," Leia quoted. "There are days I'm very glad Jedi don't run for political office."
"Which is exactly why you would make an excellent Chancellor," Winter said with wry humor.
Leia scoffed lightly. "Being a Jedi Master is enough stress, thank you."
Winter's shoulders rose in a graceful shrug. "I wasn't exactly eager to get into politics, myself, but I could hardly refuse your mother's nomination."
"To quote my son-in-law," Padmé said with a wry smile of her own, "it's a rotten job, but someone has to do it." The door chimed, and she looked up at it. "Come in."
C-3PO walked in, looking between them briefly. "Ah, Mistress Leia, I thought I would find you here," he said. "We have received a communiqué from Master Han. He reports that the outpost at Arctriel has been attacked, and that the warship stationed there, the Judgment, has been destroyed, along with the moon and almost one-third of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet that had gathered in the system. It all sounds rather frightful, if you ask me. I am glad we are here safely away from all that."
"Did he say anything else?" Leia asked.
"He said they have arrived at the Lehon system and are preparing the fortifications there," Threepio went on. "He expects there will be a rather large battle there soon, and requests that you go there as quickly as possible so that you might aid them with your specially trained skills."
Leia hid a smile; all Han had probably said was, "Get here as quick as you can, 'cause we could use your help."
"Even if you leave now, it's still going to take you quite a while to get there," Padmé said.
"You think I should go?" Leia asked, surprised.
Her mother nodded. "I need you here, but they need you more," she said. "I was afraid the fighting was going to cut the conference short anyway, but things are stirring up sooner than I had expected."
"The conference would have been over days ago if not for Fey'lya," Leia said sourly. She turned back to Threepio. "Is Luke's X-wing still in the Temple hangar?"
"I believe so," he replied. "Shall I tell Artoo to start getting it ready?"
"Yes," Leia said, standing. "I want to take off as soon as I get there."
"Right away, Mistress Leia," Threepio said, and hurried off.
"May the Force be with you," Padmé said as Leia headed for the door a few steps after him.
Leia paused and looked back at her. "And with you."
As Jaina and Mara walked through the dim gray corridors of the Star Forge beside Jacen and Qeris, Jaina paused as she heard what sounded like distant marching feet.
Many distant marching feet.
She was about to ask the others if they heard it, as well, when the sound of marching grew louder, and ahead of them, the tall rust-red shape of HK-47 appeared around the corner at the head of approximately three dozen YVHK droids. The huge, menacing war droids, all of them well over two meters tall, were shaped roughly like armored Yuuzhan Vong warriors, complete with spines on their joints. Angled yellow photoreceptors gleamed in skull-like heads above grinning metal teeth. As they spotted the four of them, all the droids looked over at them in disturbing unison, their joints clicking and whirring as some of them surreptitiously activated weapons.
"Command: Stand down," HK-47 said, looking back at the war droids. "Addendum: These meatbags are authorized; add them to your database of restricted targets."
"Acknowledgment," the YVHK droids said in unison, their voices deep and mechanical.
"Restricted targets?" Mara asked suspiciously.
HK swiveled his head toward her. "Explanation: Meatbags they may not fire upon, Master Jade Skywalker."
Mara seemed about to say something, but after a moment just waved dismissively instead. "On second thought, I'd rather not hear more about that. Keep going with your patrol."
"Command: Company, march!" HK-47 said, and the droids set off again, stomping loudly down the corridor past them.
"These are what will be crewing most of the ships built here?" Qeris asked, watching them leave.
"I think so," Jacen replied. "The ones that were built on the Executor have been deployed in a few battles, I believe."
"They have, though I haven't seen them in action yet," said Jaina. She frowned. "I have seen some of the messes they've left behind, though. They seem to be quite effective."
Mara mirrored her frown. "Yes, Vader has been deploying a lot of 'effective' weapons lately."
They reached a turbolift, and a few minutes later entered the command level, emerging into an enormous circular room with a gigantic holoprojector in the center, which was currently displaying a map of the system and the various warships gathered in it.
Darth Vader was there in full armor along with Grand Admiral Thrawn, Thrawn's aide, - a young female of his species in a gray Imperial uniform - and Danni Quee. Also there were Revan, Jenn, and Luke, who smiled at them as they approached.
Jaina heard the end of a conversation between Vader and Thrawn as her group walked over to them.
"I recommend posthumous commendations for all who remained aboard the Judgment," Thrawn was saying. "According to Downes' estimates, the destruction of Arctriel's moon eliminated nearly a third of the Yuuzhan Vong ships in the system."
"Vorlcan was a good officer," Vader said, his basso mechanical rumble echoing slightly in the large room. "Not a traitor like her aunt. I'll see to the arrangements personally." He looked up as he saw them approaching. "We have a problem," he announced without preamble. He gestured to Danni. "It seems the second Star Forge has a shield. Ours does not."
"What kind of shield?" Jacen asked.
"According to the schematics I was able to access," Danni replied, "it seems to be more or less a conventional energy shield, although several orders of magnitude stronger than anything I've ever seen. It's powered the same way the rest of the Star Forge is, by converting plasma drawn directly from a sun, so it's also inexhaustible."
"Why didn't the Vong use it when they had the station, then?" Jenn asked. "If it's that powerful, even ramming a warship into it wouldn't have done anything."
"I don't think they knew about it," Danni said. "I was able to access some of the computer logs on the second Star Forge through my console, and though I didn't get much, it seems to me that the Vong never got that station working at anywhere near full capacity. They don't seem to have been able to get it to cooperate with them very well, if that makes any sense." She frowned, pushing a lock of her hair behind her ear. "Those old Rakatan computers can be really difficult to work with sometimes. I think the only reason I was able to do so much with the one at Arctriel was because Revan unlocked it for me. It seemed to respond to him."
"They're partially intelligent," Revan said. "There are ways of getting around their safeguards, but as you said, they can make things very difficult for unauthorized users."
"Anyway," Danni went on, "Pyrron seems to have turned the shield on, because shortly after he took over the second Star Forge, my console lost all contact with it, and I haven't been able to link up to it since."
"That's going to be a problem when we go out there to destroy it," Jaina said.
"I'm more interested in the problem we're about to have," said Mara. "You said this station doesn't have that shield?"
Danni nodded. "I don't think it ever did. I've been looking around in the computers here, and I haven't seen any mention of it."
"The original Star Forge I commanded didn't have one," said Revan, "and this is an almost identical version of that station. It figures that the second Star Forge would have some differences; it may have been built later, as the Rakatan Empire was falling apart. They may have intended to use it as a fallback base, but lost the ability to control it like they did the rest of their technology. That all happened so long ago it's hard to say."
"So, we have no shield," Mara said, looking up at the huge tactical hologram. "Our only defenses are the fleet and whatever weapons are on this thing."
"My strategy accounts for that," Thrawn said, looking over at her. "I've been going over the schematics of the station with Revan, and we've pinpointed the areas on which we must focus our defense. According to the estimates of Admiral Downes, we are still outnumbered, but I am confident we can prevail."
"There is a substantial probability the station will be boarded by Vong troops," said Vader. "I will remain aboard to coordinate the interior defense. The Jedi and Imperial Knights will command battalions of droids and soldiers against any incursions." His death's-head mask turned to look at all of them. "Are there any questions?"
The comlink mounted on his belt buzzed just then, and he answered it. "Lord Vader, our outer system patrols have encountered a group of Yuuzhan Vong scout vessels. Most were destroyed, but one got away."
"Their fleet will be arriving soon, then," Vader rumbled grimly. "To your stations!"
As always, it seemed, whether he wanted to or not, Han ended up right in the middle of the action. Waiting in the Falcon's cockpit at the head of the formation of support craft around Executor, which was itself at the head of the larger formation, Han thought to himself that he hadn't seen so many warships in one place since the Battle of Naboo almost twenty-two years ago. He didn't even want to think about how much worse this battle was probably going to be.
Beside him, Chewbacca methodically moved through a last series of checks, grumbling to himself under his breath.
"How do we get ourselves into these messes?" Han wondered aloud.
The Wookiee barked a partially aggravated, partially teasing reply.
"Oh, come on!" Han objected in the same tone. "They haven't all been my fault."
Chewie turned in his seat to fix Han with a silent stare.
"Okay, so maybe most of them have," the Corellian conceded. "But not all of them."
Chewie just grunted and went back to work.
Han toggled the intercom. "Boys, you ready?"
In the turrets, Ben and Anakin both transmitted back that they were. Now all that was left to do was wait. This was the worst part of a battle, Han thought; waiting for the enemy to show up, anticipating what was about to happen. The actual fighting was almost never as bad as he imagined.
Sometimes it was worse.
Han peered into the starry black expanse outside. "I think I can see them," he said, realizing some of the points of light were moving.
Sure enough, only moments later the moving specks resolved themselves into hundreds upon hundreds of Yuuzhan Vong worldships, warships, and other craft. A ring of Interdictors positioned some distance from the sun had kept the Vong from jumping into the system close to the Star Forge, giving the defending fleet slightly more time to prepare, but now they were here.
As it usually did, Executor fired first, destroying the closest warship in the Vong formation. Han reflected that in some cases it was better to shoot first, as opposed to shooting second.
Once again, the Falcon soared into battle.
On Executor's bridge, Admiral Piett monitored his command board, studying the enemy formation. There were so many of them!
"Main weapon recharging, sir," the fire-control officer reported. "Ready to fire again in five minutes."
"When it's ready, target that worldship in sector thirty-six," Piett ordered, indicating the tremendous galaxy-shaped coral vessel whose magma projectors were spitting fire into their own formation.
After almost twenty-five years of working together, it felt strange not to have Thrawn on Executor's bridge during a battle, but the Grand Admiral was in the war room on the Star Forge, directing the battle from there. Piett was on his own here.
He switched his comm over to one of the squadron frequencies. "Blue Leader, the Chimaera is taking heavy fire. Bring your squadron to sector forty-one and reinforce it," he ordered.
"Yes, Admiral," Colonel Fel replied.
Piett's eyes roved over his command screen. "Fire control, direct batteries one-two-five through three-eight-six to target that Vong destroyer, maximum firepower."
A hail of green fire leaped from the cobalt titan out at the hulking coral warship and smashed into it with vicious force, rupturing its hull in several places.
On the general frequency, Piett heard Thrawn order the Dauntless to stop another Vong ship from crossing the line. So far, their lines were holding and nothing had gotten past them, but Piett knew that wouldn't last for long.
Long minutes passed like hours, ships on both sides exploding around them, turbolaser fire and magma blasts flying back and forth. Chatter on the general frequency kept up a constant background hum amidst all the other noise, a steady stream of orders, requests for assistance, and even dying screams punctuating the busy hum in Executor's bridge.
Outside, a Star Destroyer succumbed to sustained enemy fire and exploded. Swarms of fighters and the other ships around it rushed in to fill the gap, but the Vong took advantage of the opportunity and sent dozens of ships hurtling toward the slowly fading fireball.
One of the newly manufactured Eclipse-class ships fired its superlaser down into the approaching enemy vessels, destroying several, but still more poured through the breach like water through a bursting dam. The warships around the gap intensified their fire, but there were just too many, and more slipped through the line.
Reluctantly, Piett turned his attention back to the ships in front of him. This was in the plan, he reminded himself. Thrawn and Lord Vader were working together with the Jedi to defend the station; his job was to stay out here and destroy as many enemy ships as he could.
"I really don't like this place," Ami Skywalker's voice said nearby.
In her seat off to one side in the war room, Jenn opened her eyes and looked over at the girl, who had just sat down on the metal bench next to her.
"The Dark Side is strong here," Jenn agreed.
"The closest way I can describe it is…" Ami paused, her expression twisting with distaste. "One time Master Kolos and I were chasing a criminal through an industrial district. We were running through a factory, and the catwalk gave way beneath me and I fell into this big tub of engine oil. I thought I was never going to get it all off." She gestured vaguely. "The Dark Side feels like that here; oily, creeping, like it's soaking into my pores or something."
"The station was built with it," Jenn said. "Though Revan is doing his best to purge the Dark Side from this Star Forge, it was still originally built to be a weapon of conquest, and has been used as such many times. In a way, it wants to be used to destroy."
Ami nodded slowly. "It's like there's this… pressure, on my mind, making it to where I can hardly think."
"I've been to many places that were very strong with the Dark Side," Jenn said. "Do you want to know how to deal with it? The trick is to keep breathing."
Ami's brows drew together in puzzlement. "Keep breathing?"
Jenn drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Concentrate on staying calm. Even in battle, you can keep yourself under control, keep the Dark Side from sneaking in and taking over. Remember that you are a Jedi; though you may sometimes have to use violence, you are not yourself violent. Your goal is to defend your allies, not to slaughter your enemies."
"That's what my dad says he did on Korriban and other dark places he's had to go," Ami said, gesturing to her father where he stood nearby conferring with Vader and Thrawn. "My mom says she still has trouble with it sometimes."
"Every Jedi does," said Jenn. "It's a constant struggle; not even Jedi Masters are immune. It's even more difficult in the heat of battle when emotions naturally run strong, but remember what I said: we are Jedi, instruments of defense, not weapons of war."
The immense holoprojector beeped, and Jenn looked up to see a number of flashing icons moving through their lines, headed for the station. "Here comes the first wave of boarding parties," she said as she stood.
"Can I come with you?" Ami asked. "My parents are going to be off doing their power couple thing, and to be honest they work better alone." She raised a hand to point at Jenn, a hint of stubbornness crossing her face. "And don't tell me to stay here."
Jenn smiled lightly. "I hadn't planned on it." She let her smile fade as she studied the tactical hologram. "Looks like a few ships might land there, close to Corran's position. Let's go meet up with him."
Qeris stood next to Jacen at the head of a company of Phoenix Fleet stormtroopers, her lightsaber held tightly in one hand but not yet activated. They and their soldiers were just outside one of the hangar bays where Yuuzhan Vong boarding craft had managed to land, waiting for the Vong to melt their way through the fused-shut door.
"Steady," Jacen said, as the door bubbled and hissed, the sharp stench of the acid and melting metal and plastic stinging their nostrils.
The troopers' armor rattled and creaked as they tensed, gripping their weapons. They were arranged in two lines, one row crouching before the other, their weapons aimed at the rapidly disintegrating door.
"Steady," Jacen said again, and Qeris heard a loud snap-hiss and saw a bright green flash out of the corner of her eye as he ignited his lightsaber.
She turned her head to look at him, and he met her gaze, an incongruous lopsided grin on his face, as if to say, 'We've been through worse; this is nothing.'
Qeris ignited her lightsaber, and the silver blade flared into being with its own distinctive sound. She held the weapon upright in both hands, watching as the melting lines on the door raced up to meet each other in the center.
A heavy thump shook the door like a gong, and with a shriek of distressed metal, it peeled away from the frame and toppled inwards with a tremendous crash.
"Fire!" Jacen shouted, sweeping his lightsaber toward the door.
All fifty of the stormtroopers fired in unison, pouring searing plasma bolts into the smoking opening. Armored Vong warriors fell back under the assault, but more surged in to take their place, stepping over the bodies. They returned fire with a hail of thrown razor bugs, and Jacen and Qeris stepped in, lightsabers flashing, to deflect them. Despite their efforts, a few troopers collapsed with pained screams, but they pressed on.
Qeris used her lightsaber to block a sweeping horizontal slash from a warrior's amphistaff, then stepped back as he whirled his arm over his head, building momentum for another powerful blow. She angled her blade diagonally, caught the slash, then spun to the side, flipping the edge of her cloak up into his eyes with one arm.
As he tried to claw the fabric aside, Qeris jumped up, pushed off the nearby wall with one foot, and stabbed her blade down into the gap in his armor at the neck, pushing him forward with her momentum as she landed.
Another warrior leaped at her immediately, and she ducked under his opening strike, shifting her lightsaber into a reversed grip. He raised his weapon for a two-handed strike, as she had expected, and she moved faster, shifting to bring her lightsaber down in a backhanded stab into his exposed armpit.
Using her blade as a lever as she pulled it free, Qeris shoved the corpse into another Vong, who stumbled back. A flash of green light emerged from his throat, and he toppled forward in a heap to reveal Jacen.
By silent agreement, they moved to stand back to back, working in concert to hold the line. Fire flashed past all around them, some of it coming uncomfortably close, but to Qeris it was almost as if everything was moving slightly slower than normal, and she saw all dangers well in time to avoid them.
Through the Force, Jacen sent her a quick outline of a plan, and she agreed, reaching out to grasp his forearm as he grasped hers. They spun quickly, joining their powers to push Qeris high into the air as Jacen let go of her arm.
She came down spinning, blade outstretched, into a cluster of Vong warriors, slashing high as Jacen went low and the troopers behind them fired into the middle. The knot of warriors went down, their armor clattering as they collapsed in a heap.
As Qeris landed on her feet, one arm stretched out to the side to steady herself, she looked into the hangar bay where the ugly, lumpy coral craft sat crowded together, disgorging yet more Yuuzhan Vong and the squat reptilian humanoids they used as foot soldiers.
Jacen ran past her with blade held high, leading their company in a charge, and she joined him, rushing to meet their foes.
Unnoticed in the frenetic melee around the ancient space station, a sleek black starship dodged its way through the battle, heading for the Star Forge. Even without the distraction of the battle, the starship would have been difficult to detect; it was designed for speed and stealth, equipped with technology that masked it from most kinds of sensors.
The black starship stole up behind a lumpy coral boarding craft, following it in as it headed for one of the docking bays that ringed the central sphere of the Star Forge between the three massive pylons.
The Vong craft touched down on one side of the hangar, and the black starship slipped in beside it, venting gasses as it settled on its slim landing gear. Almost noiselessly, its hatch opened, lowering down into an angled ramp through which only dim red light could be seen.
Twelve black-cloaked figures swiftly filed out of the starship, their boots clanging softly on the metal gratings along the hangar's floor, and took up position near the coral ship, waiting for it to open. Another cloaked and hooded figure paused at the base of the black starship's ramp, watching, only glowing red eyes visible in the shadow of his cowl.
When the Yuuzhan Vong charged out of their vessel, they were met with arcing whips of orange energy mingled with twitching blue lightning, the blasts crawling over their armor to drive them back, howling under the assault.
Scarlet blades of energy ignited from twelve black hilts, and as one the cloaked figures charged, their blades humming fiery paths through the air.
When a squad of stormtroopers rushed to the hangar to repel the boarders, they found the hangar door open and the thirteen black-cloaked figures standing in a line, the twelve behind their leader, who stood impassively on the threshold with his cloak pushed back over his shoulders and his arms crossed over his chest.
"Where is Lord Vader?" the man asked, his glowing red eyes passing over the line of white-armored troopers. "I desire to speak with him."
Working in concert with the rest of Blue Squadron, Jag Fel fired his TIE Interceptor's wingtip blasters relentlessly, driving a Vong boarding craft into a concentrated blast from the Star Forge's point-defense turrets. As the Vong ship crumbled into a cloud of spreading debris, Fel broke left, heading back out away from the station.
The Vong kept launching wave after wave of boarding craft, and though the fighter squadrons fought to stop them, some were still getting through. Beyond them, the line of warships spread like a broad ring around the station were keeping the Vong capital ships back, though more kept coming in from the outer system all the time. The space between the formations was ablaze with turbolaser fire and magma blasts, explosions in both rings lighting up like fireworks on Empire Day.
High above Fel's current position, a phalanx of Chiss warships moved out away from the defensive ring, targeting one of the larger Vong capital ships. They fired in a staggered, seemingly random pattern, the bolts striking in too many places for the dovin basals to intercept. Magma blasts leaped up in a sustained cannonade at one of the Chiss ships, which attempted to angle itself to avoid the bulk of the blasts, but still it was hit several times and drifted back out of the formation, crippled and on fire through a number of hull breaches.
The rest of the Chiss vessels kept up their bombardment, and soon the targeted Vong vessel belched a stream of fire and debris from a large hull breach, clearly in its death throes. Most of the Chiss ships moved on, their squadrons of clawcraft swarming around them, while one peeled off from the formation to assist the crippled ship.
At the head of Blue Squadron, Fel blazed through a flight of coralskippers, methodically moving from one to the next, launching concussion missiles as soon as his wingman made an opening.
Over the general frequency, Thrawn's measured voice issued a steady stream of orders, directing Executor or one of the Eclipse-class ships to fire their superlasers on various Vong formations around the battle, or sending squadrons to reinforce certain positions. The Chiss admiral's unflappable calm was reassuring in the chaos of the battle, though Fel wondered how long they could keep this up. There was no end to the Vong, to the point where it seemed as if two more took the place of any destroyed ship.
To his right, a TIE fighter exploded, and two coralskippers swooped through the debris cloud, firing at his squadron. Fel broke left and up, sending Zekk right and down, and they angled their fighters through tight curving loops, chasing their designated targets into each other's line of fire.
Fel noticed another skip trying to sneak up behind him, but even before he began his turn, the Millennium Falcon soared past, spitting fire from both turrets, and blasted the skip into a cloud of coral fragments.
"Thanks for the assist, Falcon," Fel transmitted.
"Anytime, junior," General Solo replied. "You boys follow me; I'm headed for those frigates targeting the Peremptory."
"We're with you, Falcon," Fel replied. "Blue Squadron, form up."
Blue Squadron spread out into a broad chevron with the Falcon at its point, following as the battered-looking old freighter launched a barrage of concussion missiles at one of the two Yuuzhan Vong frigates attacking the Peremptory.
As the Falcon and Fel's squadron goaded the first frigate into angling toward them, the Star Destroyer fired back into its underside with her heavy turbolasers, splitting it lengthwise with the force of the blast.
Together, they made short work of the second frigate, and were about to move on when Fel noticed a third frigate accelerating straight toward the Peremptory, obviously intent on ramming it amidships. Peremptory fired at it frantically, blasting several large chunks out of the coral hull, but the frigate was simply going too fast, and Fel could only order his ships to get clear of the blast radius before the impact.
The ramming frigate slammed into Peremptory with enough force to buckle the Star Destroyer almost in half before the hypermatter reactor exploded, flinging jagged chunks of wreckage through the fireball.
"Damn it!" Fel hissed under his breath in frustration.
"Millennium Falcon, the Chimaera has weakened that Vong destroyer-analogue off her starboard bow," Piett's voice said over the general frequency. "Go help her finish it."
"On our way," Solo transmitted back. "Come on, Blues; this ain't over yet."
"You heard the General," Fel said. "Let's go!"
"Keep breathing," Ami muttered to herself as she crouched behind a plate of metal shielding the mingled stormtroopers and Chiss marines around her had fashioned into a makeshift barricade. Off in the distance she could hear heavy pounding footsteps and deep-throated shouting as a company of Yuuzhan Vong marched through the corridors of the Star Forge toward them.
To her left, between the two broad rectangles of metal set up in the center of the corridor, three stormtroopers worked quickly to assemble an E-Web heavy blaster cannon. Assorted metallic clicking sounds echoed from the walls as the troopers and marines checked their weapons and armor one last time before the enemy reached their position.
"Fire in waves," Jenn was saying to the troops behind her. "Watch for bugs; those things can change direction in mid-air. Corran and I will be in front of the barricade on either side of the E-Web, trying to keep the Vong back. Their armor is weak at the joints and the neck, and a lot of them don't wear helmets, so go for head-shots when you can. Ami," she said, turning to her. "Stay back there behind the barricade and focus on defending the E-Web; the longer we can keep it firing, the longer we can hold this position."
Ami nodded. "You got it." She drummed her fingers anxiously on her knee. "Keep breathing," she muttered again. "Keep breathing."
Finally, the Vong tromped into view, at least fifty of them, but what drew Ami's attention was behind them; a huge six-legged saurian with bony armor plates covering its head, back and flanks, its tail ending in an oblong heavy club. As it saw them, it let out an eerie whining howl, lowering its head in preparation to charge.
"Plan doesn't change!" Jenn shouted, igniting her cyan lightsaber. "We'll take the lizard, you focus on the troops."
Beside her, Corran activated his viridian blade, spinning it through a quick infinity arc before dropping into a crouch, preparing to spring at the creature.
With another whining vibrato howl, the saurian charged down the corridor, its heavy footsteps echoing like thunder, its tail slamming into the walls every few steps with a reverberating gonging sound.
"Fire!" the leader of the stormtroopers shouted, and the E-Web roared to life, spitting a stream of orange bolts at the creature, joined by the higher-pitched discharge of the troopers' rifles and the accelerating hum of the Chiss marines' charrics.
The majority of the bolts hit the saurian's armor plates with little effect, but some hit its legs and left streaking black burns, causing the creature to shriek in pain, but still it kept galloping toward them.
Jenn moved right, waving her lightsaber. "Over here, beastie! Come get me!"
As the creature angled toward her, Corran moved left and made a Force-assisted leap up to the ceiling, where he grabbed onto a conduit and hung by one hand for a moment, spinning his lightsaber into a reversed grip.
Ami ignited her golden-yellow lightsaber and moved to swat away a razor bug that had been heading for the E-Web gunners. The saurian's attention was drawn to this, distracting it long enough for Corran to drop down onto its back, where he nimbly dodged its initial swipe with its tail. Jenn slashed at its throat, and it reared back, snarling. Corran grabbed hold of one of its bony skull-ridges, bracing his feet on its shoulders, and slashed down at its throat. The saurian reared up on its four back limbs, thrashing its head and pawing at Corran with its forelimbs.
This, as planned, left the saurian's underbelly open, and the E-Web gunner opened fire on it, raking orange bolts up and down the softer, paler scales. Howling, the creature folded up on itself, trying to protect its belly, but Jenn dove, stretching out with the arm that held her lightsaber, and the creature inadvertently brought the underside of its jaw straight down onto the blade, which pierced up into its brain.
With a whine, it collapsed into a dead heap across the corridor. Corran quickly braced his shoulder against its flank and shoved it back, working together with Jenn to use the carcass to fill as much of the corridor as possible, making another obstacle for the charging Vong.
A warrior scrambled up over the dead beast, leaping from its shoulder at the gun emplacement with his amphistaff raised overhead for a two-handed blow, but the gunner tilted his weapon and let loose a chattering blast of fire, knocking the warrior all the way back over the slumped creature.
All around Ami, the troopers and marines fired steadily, pausing only to reload when their magazines ran dry, but still the Vong came, swarming over and around their dead war-beast in a fury. One notably tall, broad-shouldered warrior, his cheeks cut open nearly to his cheekbones in a horrifying rictus, pushed through the lines, heading straight for Ami where she stood next to the gun emplacement.
Both Jenn and Corran were engaged with knots of other warriors, and the soldiers had their own targets; this one was all hers.
Ami shifted sweat-slick hands on the hilt of her lightsaber, tensing her legs in preparation to leap.
Author's Note: Apologies for the delay. Among other factors, I was temporarily distracted by a side project: 'Chuck Versus Judgment Day', a 'Chuck' - 'Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles' crossover. It's completely posted now, if you're interested. I meant to post this part of the story more quickly, but it seems Darth Real Life had other plans. Ah, well. I'll do my best to have the next chapter up on time. Till then, thanks for reading!