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Ghostfire Part 1
By: Angel
Contributions by: Gremlin and Wolf

CRS Vigilant, Angel and Gremlin’s Room
POV: Angel

1st Lieutenant Jeni “Angel” Courtner woke up gasping. She slapped at her legs to put out phantom fires before she realized she was aboard the Vigilant. She wasn’t back inside the Death Star, engulfed in fire. Her eyes were open but she couldn’t force the flames away even though she knew the durasteel above her was the ceiling of her bunk. She couldn’t control her breathing, even though she knew she was safe.

Shutting her eyes, she pleaded with the nightmare. Wake up. Please let me wake up. It had a hold of her like so many other nights, and like so many of those nights, it would have its due before it fled.

Something soft and gentle touched her cheek and then a pressure surrounded her. At first she wanted to scream as the tunnel closed around her, but this pressure was warm and smelled of spice and good memories.

A voice joined that warmth and it was as soothing as a warm bath. “Jeni, it was almost two months ago. Two months ago. Come back. It’s all right.”

Her eyes opened to orbs of violet. Too dark to be bacta. Too bright for death. It took another moment for the webs of terror to shake free and her sight to clear.

“Grem?” she gasped, her throat dry and painful.

1st Lieutenant Gemilan, her roommate, wingmate, and friend, came into focus. It was her hand on Jeni’s cheek and her violet eyes that filled her vision. It was her body surrounding her own. It’d been her voice, calling her back.

“I’m here,” the Zeltron said. “Are you?”

Angel nodded, nestling against Gremlin’s body and laying her head in the crook of the woman’s shoulder. How many times would this keep happening? She thought that flying again would put an end to it all, but it hadn’t. She could fly, that problem was solved. This was another.

“That was a bad one, I’m sorry,” she muttered into Gremlin’s shoulder.

“Don’t you say you’re sorry. Not to me.”

She felt the Zeltron woman’s hand stroke her hair. Despite being sweaty and gross and the roots spiked with adrenaline, it felt good. It was calming. As much as she wanted to resist, to tough it out, she needed it. Oblivion kept calling and Gremlin kept calling her back.

What had she done to deserve a friend like her?

“Grem, I--”

An Alert sounded like a chorus of banthas mating. It wasn’t the normal all-hands bleating, but rather the squadron-specific one. This was for Spectre only.

“Kriff, what now?” Gremlin muttered as the two women untangled themselves from one another, glancing simultaneously at the speaker on the wall.

“Attention, attention. Spectre Squadron is being scrambled to Tanith. You will be briefed en route by your Squadron Commander. Attention, attention. Spectre Squadron is being…”

The remnants of the nightmare gone as nervous energy replaced terror, Angel frowned at Gremlin.

“The hell is Tanith?”

“Don’t know, but, here,” Gremlin said, pushing out of the tiny cot they’d been briefly sharing and tossing Angel her flight suit. “Guess we’ll find out.”

Grimacing, Angel caught the orange suit and pulled it over her legs and hips before stamping her feet into her boots.

“I look like an emaciated pumpkin.”

Gremlin laughed. It was a sweet, comforting sound as familiar to Angel as anything else in her life. Just as familiar was the brush of Gremlin’s fingers across her temple, teasingly light.

“You look lovely in orange.”

“I look like they hollowed out a Nectara fruit and shoved an ewok in it.”

Once more the sound of Gremlin’s laugh made her spirit soar. She hadn’t felt truly at home in her new assignment yet, but she hadn’t really felt at home anywhere in a long time. Except when Gremlin made her feel that way. Maybe it was the history with Red Squadron, the familiarity of an old squadron-mate, or maybe it was just the way Gremlin was.

Either way, it helped to push aside the fear that these night terrors would never go away.

The Ready Room was already busy with activity as they arrived. Angel grinned and side-stepped just as First Lieutenant Conall “Shadow” McKenna attempted to bump her shoulder from behind. He’d been waiting, hiding in the crevice to the left of the door, but she’d known he was there. She always knew, just like he always knew when she was coming. Her old wingman from Red grinned at her, his helmet beneath his arm.

“One day, I’ll get ya and then you’ll owe me that movie.”

“Ugh,” Angel said, rolling her eyes. “Star Gonks IV is terrible. We are not watching that.”

“No, it’s the best movie, you are just terrible,” Shadow said and pulled Angel’s shiny new X-wing helmet off the racket, tossing it to her. She hated the thing. It was bone white, with generic blue Alliance markings on the front. Her old helmet was set up for an A-wing’s avionics and HUD, and if she was being honest with herself, she needed a fresh start. Still. It was ugly and boring. Utterly without character.

Unlike her friends.

“Why do I tolerate you?” she told Shadow as Gremlin helped attach her chestbox hose and cinch her crash gear.

“It was my face,” Shadow said, clapping her on the shoulder. “You couldn’t take your eyes off it.”

“Right. That’s it. Definitely wasn’t the smell.”

His feigned look of hurt spread a warm, nostalgic happiness through her. She was home again.

“At least I don’t look like an ewok stuffed into a pumpkin.”

Before she could think up an appropriate reply, Krayt’s voice boomed through the Ready Room.

“Skids up in 5 minutes! Let’s move it people!”

Gremlin touched her arm, large violet eyes wide awake now. They’d done this a hundred times in the dark days before Endor. Both women’s faces split into excited smiles as they filed out of the Ready Room and into the hangar.

They had done this before and it felt good to be back to old habits.

Angel ran for where her X-wing was already being prepped for launch. Torbin, the quiet, young Devaronian girl who was her newly assigned first mechanic, was just securing her astromech Tone into Constellation-Five-One-Five-Delta. Her X-wing’s serial number meant a lot to her. It had been Derek “Hobbie” Klivian’s X-wing on Hoth and she’d taken meticulous care of it. She’d flown it for the first time during Hoth’s evacuation, having just learned Hobbie had died.

Now she was the pilot and Torbin was taking care of it for her. It felt strange, like giving a kid away to a new babysitter, but she had to let go. If she was going to do this, if she was going to fly, she needed to be a pilot again.

“See you in space,” Gremlin said, winking at her before rushing towards her own X-wing. Angel nodded, though she doubted her friend even saw it.

Torbin turned just as Angel reached the base of the ladder. The girl’s dark, crimson features were flushed darker with effort as she breathlessly reported that all the X-wing’s safety pins were pulled and she was fueled up. Six torpedoes were loaded into the launch bays. Chaff buckets were full.

“Thanks,” she said and reached for the ladder.

Movement caught her eye and she saw Second Lieutenant Edwyn “Talon” KalDan sprinting for a U-wing, trailed by a full platoon of commandos. Angel began to suspect this mission was going to get interesting fast.

Dropping into the seat, she strapped in with the help of Torbin. A flash of yellow caught her attention off the left side of her X-wing’s nose. A starfighter handler was alreadying signalling her to spin up Engine One. Nearly two minutes later, all her engines were lit and power flooded every system.

“Tone, can you shortcut the tests, make sure there’s nothing I need to know?”

Her R2 unit warbled an affirmative, already running diagnostics on the X-wing’s systems, looking for faults or anything that would be alarming. Torbin would have checked everything already, but it always paid to double check.

The radio crackled to life with Krayt’s voice. “Spectre Flights Two and Three, report Ready.”

The next voice she heard was Gremlin’s. “Two Flight, report in.”

Checking her systems, she saw the handler touch his lightwand to his clenched hand and then arch it away. She engaged her repulsorlifts and gave a thumbs up.

“Six, reporting in. Ready.”

A moment later, Talon’s voice sounded hurried and excited. “Seven, ready!”

“One, Two Flight is standing by.”

“Three Flight, standing by,” Shadow said just a second later. Part of her was pleased her flight was ready before his.

“Spectres, rendezvous at the following waypoint once clear of the Vigilant,” Krayt said as his X-wing moved into one of the launch lanes on the deck.

Lifting off the deck, Angel retracted her skids and taxied her fighter behind Gremlin. The Vigilant’s port launch bay had two launch lanes and the deck crew was in full scramble mode, directing Spectre into both of them. She pulled her X-wing into the left lane, lining up just behind Trip a moment before he and the rest of One Flight rocketed into space. She felt a bump as the maglock held her fighter floating in place.

Risking a quick glance at Gremlin, she saw her wingmate wink back at her. She instantly felt her nerves settle. This was just like old times, only their fighters were blue-green instead of gray and red. Tone warbled in her ear and she glanced off the left side of her fighter’s nose. Her handler had one glowstick raised, swinging around in a tight circle. In response, Angel powered up her engines, her X-wing tugging against the maglock.

The handler glanced over his shoulder, saw the way was clear of traffic and then dropped to a knee and pointed to the exit. Gremlin rocketed out ahead a split second before her maglock collapsed and she shot into space just aft and to her wingmate’s port. No matter how many times she did that, it never ceased to give her a thrill. Sometimes she turned down the compensators just to feel the G.

It took less than a minute for the squadron to form up.

“Spectre Squadron, this is One. Nav data is downloading to your astromechs now. We’re being routed to Tanith. It’s imperative we get forces there as soon as possible. Buccaneer reinforcements are twenty minutes behind.”

Tone beeped an acknowledgement as the nav data flooded the X-wing’s system. Her hyperdrive was already spooling in anticipation. Krayt straightened the formation out and brought them around to align with the jump.

“Our mission is to reinforce a rogue Imperial garrison that wishes to surrender. They claim to have civilian refugees with them. Currently they are being attacked by an entire battalion of armor. We suspect at least one TIE Squadron as well.”

It didn't take a lot of math to realize how outmatched they were. She glanced right to catch Gremlin glancing back her way. Shooting off into the unknown, against a powerful enemy. Like old times indeed.

“Our objective is to slow down the advance, protect the refugees, and wait for a suitable extraction to arrive from Sabre. If our U-wings can pull any of them off world before then, that’s plan B. Acknowledge all.”

One by one, they did.

Krayt’s X-wing suddenly went very still. Angel felt, more than heard, her hyperdrive sync up with her lead’s. Everything seemed to go quiet.

“May the Force be with us,” Krayt said just before they all shot into hyperspace.

***

Caston City streets, Tanith
POV: Major Kevan Spier, 9th Imperial Armored

Kevan Spier felt his guts turn to water as he peered through his TX-225a “Occupier” Assault Tank’s rangefinder. Crashing through Caston City’s suburbs were at least two AT-ATs and a whole company of AT-STs in support. He still hadn’t seen the rest of the garrison’s tank company, but maybe that was a good sign.

Maybe the sabotage had worked and he wouldn’t have to kill friends today.

“Here they come,” he growled into his mic, spreading the word across the entire formation. He had six Occupiers. Six against heavy armor, a battalion of Stormtroopers and the Emperor knew what else they hadn’t told him about.

The AT-ATs fired first, their massive chin-mounted guns exploding through abandoned businesses and houses. The shots landed short of his company, throwing up a mountain of dirt and debris. The massive walkers took a step and the smaller, more agile AT-STs ran off in different directions, disappearing behind buildings and down side streets.

That’s it, separate.

Their second volley landed behind them, but a six-story building broke apart from the blast. The resulting collapse showered his tank with blocks of duracrete, the entire vehicle shivering from multiple impacts. No alarms called his attention, but he could feel his gunner and driver both tense.

The AT-ATs took another step.

Rotating the viewfinder behind them, he saw the fading wisps of blue smoke. The scout troopers had reached the river. The bridge needed to be held until they were across it. One hour. The bloody Rebels said they’d be here in one hour. One hour for a few dozen civilians and his people to escape this war. One hour to hold off whatever came this way. It felt wrong. It felt like everything he’d done in his life had been suddenly erased, all for a few dozen civvies.

He turned his view back just as the AT-ATs fired again. One of the blasts struck his number two tank just forward of its chin gun, pitching the tank up onto his rear. For a horrible second its treads spun, like a bug being upended with a stick. It’s belly was exposed, vulnerable, and the damned AT-STs picked that moment to emerge into the main street again.

“Fire!” he ordered, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough to save his Number Two. Two had been the only other tank on the main street with him. The others revealed their positions in a torrent of cannon fire. His Number Three blasted free from a side street, having concealed himself beneath rubble. Four emerged from another street further up the thoroughfare, directly behind the scout walkers. Five announced its presence by dropping a half-dozen concussion charges from atop a four-story building. Six was opposite Four, creating a deadly crossfire.

As his tank joined the violence, all five tanks opened up on the two-legged machines. A torrent of cannon fire ripped one AT-ST open like a ripe melon, but the damage was done. Number Two took three direct hits. Something inside exploded. Pieces of his comrades pelted his own tank.

The AT-ATs took another step.

***

Space, Tanith
POV: Shadow

1st Lieutenant Conall “Shadow” McKenna’s X-wing shuddered as it emerged from hyperspace. The timing had been good and he saw Flights One and Two just above and ahead of him, lit by the system’s large, yellow sun. The system had just two planets, Tanith and its dead, lifeless sister, Sherdoth.

Off his left wing, he saw three U-wings loaded with Bex’s Bastards, the Special Ops Commandos stationed on the Vigilant. Each held eight heavily armored, highly trained soldiers, which felt like a lot, but Shadow knew the odds weren’t good. They were a delaying action, not a full rescue. It would be one of Spectre’s first real tests.

His nerves settled as he watched the closest two X-wings settle into a silent, close formation. Angel and Gremlin had done a lot to make Red feel like a home back then and he was glad to be here with them again. Rogue was like the blasty, more dangerous brother he never had. The others were unknown, but everyone began that way, didn’t they? Spectre wasn’t Red, but it was close enough.

His sensors blipped a moment before he heard Rogue’s voice over the comm. “One, Three. Detecting TIEs emerging from an orbital platform.”

Platform? Shadow hadn’t seen any platform on his scans. He hoped the X-wing’s systems weren’t on the fritz again.

“One, Five here. I see them. Looks like they’re headed planetside.”

“I see that,” Krayt responded. “Which means those people on the ground are running out of time. Let’s get down there.”

When they struck atmosphere some time later, Shadow could already see the devastation. Below, forests were on fire. A large city was little more than a smudge at this height but he could tell it was in ruins.

His comm crackled back to life after a minute of blackout. “-ectres, this is One. Our targets are the forces east of the green smoke. Check fire.”

Smoke? Shadow wheeled his X-wing to the far left of the formation, the three U-wings falling into formation out to his left and aft. Spectre was now spread out, east to west, with One Flight being at the far eastern end and Three Flight at the western. Krayt would guide them but Shadow would have to be the termination line for fire.

They broke through the cloud cover, still fifty thousand feet above the action. They couldn’t see anything yet, but he kept his eyes peeled for green smoke.

Forty-Thousand.

Thirty.

Twenty.

Shadow could see laser blasts in the streets but it was chaotic and frenzied. He couldn’t tell if there was a battle line at all. He saw no green smoke.

“One, Nine. I don’t--”

“This is Three, TIEs inbound! Zero-nine-five! Thirty miles!”

“Spectre Flights Two and Three, with me. Nine, break your Flight off west and try to make contact on this frequency. Your contact is Nomad.”

Data flooded the X-wing’s computer and his comm chirped with a new pre-loaded frequency. Switching to it, he clicked it open just the rest of the squadron broke off to engage the TIEs.

“Nomad, this is Spectre Nine of the New Republic, do you read?”

Static erupted over the line and he heard garbled voices.

“Nomad, this is Spectre Nine. Do you read?”

***

Skies south of Caston City, Tanith
POV: Gremlin

The Zeltron pilot silently wished Shadow good fortune as she nudged her stick to follow Rogue, leaving their comrade to his solo task. A glance out of her portside window showed Angel pacing her, looking like a child had sneaked into the cockpit of the lethal snubfighter. The kill marks on the side of her X-wing told a different story, though. Yeah, show me an ‘emaciated pumpkin’ that can fight like you!

Gremlin smiled as she flicked her sensors to full, seeking to pinpoint the oncoming TIEs. She was lucky to have so many of her friends from Red in this new squadron; it made the transition easier. Being named acting XO was a challenge, especially when she still felt inadequate for the task, but Krayt had asked her just a couple of days earlier and she’d do her best. It wasn’t finalised yet, anyway; the OC could always change his mind.

Rogue’s voice crackled in her headset. “One, Three. I read 12 TIEs, 20 miles and closing fast.”

One squadron. Just as predicted. They were strung out slightly in finger four formation, the final quartet lagging by a couple of seconds. Her heartbeat started to speed up, autonomic responses reacting to adrenaline and stress. This was second nature, now: fight, not flight. Her lips stretched into an eager smile but she stayed in formation, awaiting orders. Angel’s X-wing was steady in her peripheral vision.

Numbered targets appeared on her heads-up display, mirrored on her cockpit screen. Krayt, his tone smooth and controlled, overcoming the comms distortion: “Three and I will take the middle four. Five, Six, starboard group is yours. After we break them, it’s targets of opportunity. Copy?”

One by one, they confirmed they understood.

Gremlin stole a glance towards the ground, wondering how Shadow was faring. Far below, laser blasts lanced through shattered streets. Above, the TIEs were breaking through the cloud cover. The engines of her X-wing bellowed as she climbed to meet them; Li’l Leo, her astromech, tootled happily to himself as he balanced power conduits and kept complex systems running smoothly. Gremlin flexed her fingers, cocooned inside her black nerfhide gloves, and took a deep breath.

It began.

***

Caston City streets, Tanith
POV: Major Kevan Spier, 9th Imperial Armored

The tank was full of smoke and he popped the hatch, letting wan sunlight filter through the darkening clouds above.

Keying the comm, he gave a single order. “Fall back! Delta! Repeat Delta!”

Lieutenant Kuvari turned to him, despite their helmet-to-helmet commlink. “The engine’s running hot, sir! She might blow!”

“Do it, or we’re dead,” Spier said, pulling himself through the hatch and into open air. As Tank Commander, it allowed him a good Mark-One-Eyeball view of the area. It was also a great way to get shot. Still, he needed to look.

His Number Three was down. The engine was burning and Kaysen, Number Three’s commander, was dead. His body lay on the ground where he’d been hit by the Stormtroopers now advancing ahead of the walkers. Number Three’s driver, whom Spier regrettably didn’t know, was alive and taking cover behind his downed tank. As Spier’s vehicle began to move in reverse, Spier shouted to him.

“Let’s go soldier! We've got civvies to protect!”

Maybe he heard him over the sound of cannon fire, blaster fire, and crumbling buildings or maybe he saw Spier waving frantically to him. Either way, he came, sprinting from behind his tank and taking up position at the rear of Spier’s. With an athletic vault, he was on the back, taking cover behind the command castle.

Spier turned and forced himself to take in the devastation ahead. The city was gone. Fires burned in crumbled buildings and slagged streets. The AT-ATs crashed through markets and blasted apart homes. Even now he saw them, another step and a spire, once the home of classy dining, exploded into mortar and glass.

Half his tanks were gone. The company of Scout Troopers behind them were not going to stave off the heavy armor that tore apart everything in its path. Spier knew it. It was a delaying action at best. Once more he was gripped by the futility of this.

He should have let them be executed. It would have been easier. It would have been safer. What’s a lifetime of nightmares if you and your men got to go home? His people didn’t deserve death or a traitor’s brand because of them, did they?

An AT-ST stepped into view and Spier slid back into the commander’s chair. Taking aim, he fired along with his Number Two. The walker took both hits in the gyro, nearly toppling it. Still, he got a shot off and through sheer luck or a talented gunner, Spier’s tank took a direct hit to the open hatch.

His world darkened and burned. In the distance, as if down a long corridor, he heard a voice shouting over the comm.

“Nomad, this is Spectre Nine. Do you read?”

The Rebels are here, he thought. What a joke. His salvation, his men’s salvation, lay in trusting the damned Rebels.

Shaking his head, he turned to his driver. “Juvari, status?”

There was no answer and as the smoke cleared, Spier saw the man slumped at his controls.

Keying the comm, he fought to keep the aching cough from his voice. “This is Spier, if anyone is able, fire smoke. I say again, fire smoke.”

No one answered him for a long moment, and when they did, it didn’t make him happier.

“Major, this is Hirkland.” Spier groaned. Hirkland was the scout troop’s commanding officer, little more than a kid promoted out of necessity. Spier wasn’t sure if he was even twenty years old.

“This is Spier, go.”

“Sir, we’ve lost sight of the civilians. We had to break off and engage some advanced scouts.”

Lost. Civilians. Spier gritted his teeth just as another burst of fire peppered his tank. Ignoring Hirkland for a moment, he sighted his main guns on advancing Stormtroopers and let them have it. Duracrete and plasteel exploded under the onslaught, separating armor and limbs from whomever was in the way.

“Major, I say again, we’ve--”

“I heard you! Where in the Emperor’s ass are they?”

“We sent them to the bridge, sir.”

“Are they there yet?”

There was another pause, then Hirkland’s shaky voice told him all he needed to know. “Sir, we don’t know.”

This is a joke.

“Lieutenant, you are to return to the bridge. Find the civilians. Do you hear me? Find the bloody civvies!

Hirkland's voice was interrupted by another. “Nomad, this is Spectre Nine. Do you read?”

Tonguing the frequency, Spier reached down into the driver’s compartment and pulled a grenade launcher from its storage clip. Cracking it open, he loaded it with a single green canister.

“Spectre Nine, this is Nomad. I read you. Three AT-ATs east of our position. Four Scout Walkers. Popping smoke now.”

Dragging himself out of the hatch, Spier once more saw the utter devastation of his home. All for the Empire. What a joke.

He took aim and saw several Stormtroopers scatter while others fired at him. Sparks and heated metal flew as shots ricocheted off his tank’s armor.

“Nomad, Spectre Nine. Copy three Aurochs, four Chickens. Location of civilians?”

Aurochs, Spier thought as he sighted down the launcher’s iron sights. I like that.

A shot blasted apart his left pauldron and tore through his shoulder. Grunting in pain, he struggled to keep the launcher from toppling from his fingers. Not paying attention to precision, he pulled the trigger and dropped back inside the tank.

Ripping off his helmet, Spier looked at his shoulder. It would require bacta to heal and there was no way he was firing off another shot. Judging by the melted skin and exposed bone, he was lucky he was alive. Manually keying the comm through the tank’s systems, he sighed.

“West, Spectre. Look for the bridge and hurry.”

Ahead, an AT-AT took another step as Stormtroopers began to step through the expanding cloud of green smoke.

***

Skies over southern Caston City, Tanith
POV: Talon

Talon jinked his U-wing just as a blast from a TIE tore between him and Spectre Six. He’d been flying too close to her, the Imperial doctrine too hard to forget completely. Five and Six suddenly banked hard to the right and he followed, pulling the yoke full aft in an attempt to match the turn.

How do they stay so in sync?

It was hard to step into a unit filled with friends who had flown together for years. It was harder to shake his old training and make friends so he could do the same. He barely knew either of them very well. In fact, he couldn’t even remember Angel’s first name.

He kept his eyes glued to Angel’s left S-Foils, trying to keep it in the starboard triangular window of his canopy. If he could do that, he’d keep close enough to help.

Something flickered in his peripheral vision and glanced down, looking through the transparisteel viewport at his feet. A green cloud billowed up from the street just below them. For a moment, he thought that was mighty strange, until Krayt’s words snapped into focus.

“One, Seven! Green Smoke! I have Green Smoke!”

Frantically checking his U-wing’s sensors, he tried to make sense of the grid. “Heading uh, zero-eight-five from bullseye, twelve miles!”

He was probably off by a few degrees and a few miles, but it wouldn’t matter. His sensors told him their current position was roughly dead east of bullseye, the nickname for a relative waypoint where all locations could be referenced from.

Looking back up, Talon felt himself grow a little cold. Gremlin and Angel were gone and the sky was utterly clear. He’d lost his Flight.

“This is One, I have it. Two Flight, disengage from the TIEs and hit those walkers!”

“Two Flight copies, disengaging.” There was a moment of static as Gremlin now spoke on his other ear, where the Flight Frequency came through. “Six, Seven, you still with me?”

“With you,” Angel said, making Talon crane his neck left and right, desperate for a hint of where his flight was. Thankfully, his training kicked in and he subconsciously checked his scanners even as he searched. Their green blips were bright as day, off to starboard and high. With that information to help, Talon found two X-wings turning hard around.

Talon yanked the throttle back to one-third power and banked hard right and back. The U-wing shuddered and bucked in the thick air, but it brought him around in a tight arc, the nose of his craft pointed at his two wingmates as they leveled out.

“Seven, with you!”

“All right Two Flight, let’s go kneecap some Walkers.”

Talon smiled, spreading his sensor feed to immediately recognize three AT-ATs and four AT-STs on the ground. Now that his nerves were settling, things were back in place. He was once more at ease.

So when two more blips suddenly glowed hot on his sensors, Talon knew what was about to happen moments before his incoming warhead alarm blared. Quickly slapping out the jamming net, he masked his two wingmates from the pair of missiles that streaked off the ground.

Angel cried out a moment later. “Missile!”

“I’ve got it, Six! Air-defense vehicle, target bracketing it now!”

Locking the target, he turned on the U-wing’s powerful sensors, lighting up a single vehicle on his Flight’s own sensor boards. It’d be obvious as day now, no matter how much it tried to hide.

Got you, he grinned to himself.

The grin died a moment later when his sensor board lit up like a Life Day tree. He just had time to register that someone was now jamming him when a torrent of cannon fire took out his rear shields and set one of his engines on fire. To his horror, a full squadron of TIE Interceptors roared past him.

“Five, Six, look out! Behind you!”

Silence greeted him.

***

Skies over eastern Caston City, Tanith
POV: FLATTOP

2nd Lieutenant Marshal “FLATTOP” Westfolder wasn’t going to lose sight of his Squadron Commander, not today. He stuck to Krayt, Spectre Leader, like glue. Most of these other kids had been flying X-wings for as long as he’d slung hash on Corellia, but he was damned determined to be their equal.

I’m Spectre Two. Wingman to a former Rogue. Act like it!

“One Flight, One here. We’re turning zero-one-five. Bandits are ten miles. Go echelon right, attack pattern sigma.”

FLATTOP nudged the stick right, using his rudder to keep the X-wing pointed on the heading Krayt gave him. Giving the snubfighter a little more power, he came alongside Spectre Leader. One Flight was now spread out over a mile, a few hundred meters between them. To his right, Spectre 3, callsign “Rogue”, flew like he owned the sky.

Krayt’s voice cut through his thoughts like a vibroblade through nerfmeat. “Here they come!”

A squadron of TIE Fighters appeared on the horizon, closing fast. Already green laser bolts spat their way, inaccurate at this range but enough that it made FLATTOP wary.

“Hold,” Krayt told them, calm as the lake aboard the Vigilant. The calm in his OC’s voice did the opposite in FLATTOP. Every nerve was on fire. Every muscle tightened. Krayt had been in countless fights. He was used to this.

A splash against his shields signalled a direct hit, but it had been weak. With his heart throbbing in his throat, FLATTOP wondered how anyone could get used to this.

“Spectre, weapons free!”

Squeezing the firing stud, FLATTOP realized he hadn’t even aimed at the incoming TIEs. His red lances speared open air, utterly useless. Wasted shots. Just like he’d done with his life before joining up. Wasted time. Wasted chances.

I’m done with that.

He took a long, slow breath and saw the TIEs racing headlong towards him. In a few seconds, they’d pass another, but a few seconds was enough. He didn’t think, he just flew and the X-wing responded. His targeting computer flashed green and once more red bolts of energy flashed from his guns.

A TIE directly ahead of him sparked and a trail of smoke spiralled out from behind the tiny starfighter as it began to spin towards the ground.

I got him.

“One, I got him!”

“Two, break left now!”

A hit on his shields told him that perhaps he’d focused a tad too much on his first kill as two more TIEs roared in on him. Yanking the stick left, he pulled hard, sending the X-wing into a tight turn. Glancing down at his sensors, he blinked. Instead of the small cloud of contacts, he saw a thousand dancing blips.

What the?

“Eyes open, One Flight! We’re being jammed!” Krayt called, his voice urgent.

“Intel was bad, again. Shocker,” Rogue said with a sigh.

The comm crackled, signalling a longer range call. “One, this is Nine! Contact with Nomad. Three Elephants, four Chickens. Civilians near bridge west of city!”

“One Flight is engaged, Nine!”

FLATTOP ended his circle and saw Krayt barrel roll away from two shots that would have tagged him. Kicking his rudder, the Corellian pushed the throttle forward and dove after his squadron leader. Flicking his ELS to charge his lasers and shields, he let gravity carry him down.

The time for letting others save the galaxy was over. Time to get to work.

***

Skies over southern Caston City, Tanith
POV: Angel

Their X-wings punched through the cloud layer and into open sky. Below, the city lay in ruins with fires burning everywhere. Frenzied laser fire illuminated the streets in staccato flashes and Talon’s datalinked targets highlighted where two surface-to-air missile vehicles were hiding.

Without a word passing between them, Angel targeted the western-most target as her X-wing was to Gremlin’s left. One pass is all they would need.

Just like old ti--

Her breath caught and she felt a tightening of her gut. Instantly she yanked the stick left and pulled hard, keying the comm at the same time.

“Gremlin, break right break right!

She had no time to see if her wingmate had obeyed as a torrent of laser fire erupted through the space she’d just occupied. Pulling as hard as she could, Angel turned her head to spy a horde of TIE Interceptors blow past her. They were so close their triangular solar panels nearly scraped her canopy.

Following the TIEs was another sight that made her feel cold. A U-wing, Talon’s U-wing, was on fire and rolling inverted towards the ground.

“Spectre Seven, status!”

There was no answer and as Angel completed her looping maneuvering, she saw Gremlin pull out of her own turn, coming nose-to-nose with her. Pulling up and shoving the throttles forward, Angel climbed towards the cloud cover again, inverting just before she did so to keep sight of Gremlin. Her wingmate kept turning, looping back to engage the TIEs and allowing Angel to nose down and drop back onto her tail.

Once more, she looked towards Talon’s U-wing, which had now leveled out. The fire was out, however he’d managed that but the utility craft looked in bad shape. The TIEs saw it too and four of them broke off from the main group to finish him off. The rest continued on towards the city.

Flicking to the squadron comm channel, Angel signalled Krayt. “One, a whole flight of Squints just showed up. Eight are on their way.”

“One copies. They must have a Reaper out here, sensors are useless.” Glancing at her sensors, she saw he was right. Nothing but garbage littered the screen. Phantom contacts everywhere.

“Grem--”

“We’re saving Talon. I’ll take the first pass, you clean up.”

Comm discipline had gone out the airlock. It wasn’t Spectre 5 leading her into this fight, it was Gremlin. And they were going to save Talon, not Spectre 7, a young man who’d somehow managed to screw up an A-wing’s comm array so bad Angel had spent a week fixing it.

“Take me in, Grem.”

She could almost feel the Zeltron’s smile. “Stay close, love.”

A calm settled over her, like coming back home after a long trip. Gremlin wasn’t Shadow, but she was something else. She felt at ease with her. Nothing would ever feel right again, not after Endor, but this was a start.

Gremlin brought them on the quickest intercept path towards Talon, but there was no way they’d get to him before the TIEs. They were closing on him fast, but the young pilot was squirrely, even in a U-wing. As Angel watched, he pulled the ungainly craft into a drifting turning, causing the TIEs to overshoot. Even through the mess of sensor jamming, the squints were suddenly painted clear as day.

Kid’s a natural with those scanners.

The two X-wings swooped down on the TIEs, who desperately tried to break in every direction. They were new, inexperienced, because they did so too early. All they managed to do was separate, allowing the two Spectres to pick them off one at a time.

Gremlin’s first two bursts of laser fire crumpled a solar panel and the whole structure caught fire. Her second blast missed, but the doomed fighter was already spinning towards the ground. Angel lined up a shot on another that was pulling up into them. Squeezing off four rounds, the first two went high but the second caught the squint in the ball cockpit.

The TIE came apart in a gruesome fireball, trailing greasy smoke as it split apart.

“Two left, Ange! I lost sight!”

Twisting around, Angel found one curving around towards her six o’clock, but the other was nowhere to be seen.

It’s always the one you don’t see that kills you. Hobbie’s words came back to her easily.

She let the TIE on her six close on her. If she broke now, she’d just be an easier target as there wasn’t enough time to turn into him before he had a shot on her. Instead, she looked for Gremlin, finding her above and to her port side. The Zeltron was rolling inverted, perhaps looking for her or Talon in return.

Looking down, Angel found Talon low, hanging just over the treetops on his way towards the city. In the distance, she saw the green smoke. Their dogfight had pushed them back south of the city.

Still, no fourth TIE.

Where are you?

Her sensors were still a mess, and Talon’s sensor trickery had failed to push through it. That tingle in her gut warned her that the time to deal with her tail was upon her and she kicked hard rudder and pulled hard to part. Green laser blasts darted past her, but the TIE never got off another round. Red bolts from Gremlin’s X-wing struck the imperial fighter in the cockpit, engines, and wing struts. It came apart without a single spark of flame.

“Tail’s clear, Ange.”

Glancing up, Gremlin’s X-wing descended out of the sun like a four-winged hawk, beautiful and graceful and deadly. It rolled upright and she could feel the satisfaction from her wingmate. And something else.

She was almost too late. “Grem, behind you!”

The fourth TIE followed her out of the sun, firing with careful precision. Gremlin’s X-wing took a strong hit behind the astromech socket, the shields buckling beneath the onslaught. Angel pulled hard after it, disabling the G-force safeties that kept the X-wing from exceeding its compensators. She felt her weight grow exponentially, a star destroyer suddenly pressing against her chest as she strained to raise the nose of her fighter towards the TIE zeroing in on her friend.

Not today, she thought. Her X-wing screamed in protest, the stress on the airframe likely causing hours of repairs. It didn’t matter, she had to do this. The nose rose above the horizon, upwards towards the TIE diving on Gremlin’s breaking X-wing.

Darkness poked at the edges of her vision. Breathing was impossible. Holding the stick back was like holding back an ocean. She let out a wordless scream as her targeting computer flickered green and she fired.

It wasn’t precise. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t an instant kill.

But it hit.

The TIE wobbled, spinning like a top as sparks and small fires dotted its angled wings. Then it fell from the sky, its engines reigniting as it did so. It would fly on, but for now, in this moment, Gremlin was safe.

She eased off the pull and sucked in a painful breath.

“Ange! Missile missile missile!”

She just had time to glance to the left as a surface-to-air missile exploded.

To be continued...