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Ghostfire Part 2
By: Angel
Contributions by: Gremlin and Wolf

Skies over western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Shadow

They descended low over the city. Beneath his S-Foils, the broken tops of buildings flashed by. Smoke billowed from dozens of streets and the air was thick with the heat of a hundred fires.

The comms from his squadron were worrying, but Shadow had a job to do: locate the civilians and establish a perimeter. The commandos in those U-wings were useless in a dogfight. Worse than useless. They were added weight that made the U-wings harder to maneuver.

So when the first rocket blew through their formation and exploded above them, Shadow cursed his luck. He should be flying with Gremlin, Angel, and Rogue. That’s where he belonged, not babysitting bloated troop transports!

Keying the comm, he told the formation to scatter and climb. Rockets like that were fired from shoulder-launchers and couldn’t reach them above a certain altitude. As the U-wings burned for sky, Shadow rolled the X-wing around to look for whoever fired the rocket.

Screaming low over the broken rooftops, he let his breathing slow, his eyes unfocus. He just flew by feel, by instinct. It’s how he knew when things were about to happen. How he could always find Angel in a fight.

He didn't know how or why, but he always knew where his former wingmate was. They could fly in fingertip formation for hours without even looking at one another. But now he was guarding U-wings and she was flying with Gremlin.

She was…

“Oh stang!”

Shadow pulled hard back east, flipping shield power back into engines and burning fuel for all he was worth. The U-wings were left behind, barely remembered. Sitting ducks if he didn’t protect them.

Still, he couldn’t stay.

There, in the corner of his eye, a Scout Trooper stood with a rocket launcher on his shoulder. In moments he’d take aim and fire again, but those were precious moments he couldn’t afford if he was going to get there in time.

Nine souls in every U-wing. One soul in an X-wing. Nine unknown faces for one he’d bled with.

He flipped his weapons to proton torpedoes.

Wrenching the stick sideways, he didn’t even aim. He just fired and pulled back on course, his X-wing blowing past the sound barrier, shattering any windows that remained intact. Behind him, the torpedo exploded.

Shadow hoped it saved nine souls.

Mere seconds later, roaring back into the sky, he saw the plume of smoke as a missile lifted off the ground. It tore through the thick air like a burning torch, going straight for a black speck in the sky. That speck slowly grew into the shape of an X-wing. It was turning hard and it was slow.

Too slow to evade the missile.

I’m coming.

Flipping back to his cannons, he chased the missile into the sky, but it was faster. Every moment it was getting closer to her and further from him. A wordless scream of defiance ripped its way through Shadow’s throat as he fired the X-wing’s cannons.

The missile exploded.

The X-wing fell.

“Angel!” he called, then thumbed the comm. She was alive. He knew it. The X-wing barely looked damaged. Ionized? Blue sparks rippled across its s-foils and engines. The shock of the explosion must have knocked out her systems!

Gremlin’s frantic call cut through the static. “Ange! Ange can you hear me?”

A TIE dove after the falling X-wing and Shadow turned on him. Not today you karkin’ bastard.

She was restarting her engines. A plume of smoke coughed from all four nozzles as the TIE disintegrated beneath Shadow’s fire. Then Angel’s X-wing leveled out.

“I’m okay!” Hearing her voice was sweet as wine. The U-wings were still back there. His responsibility. His failure.

“You’re clear, Six!” he called, before rolling down towards where the missile had fired from. Whoever fired that missile was about to learn a very hard lesson. Flipping back to torpedoes, he spotted a tank-like vehicle rolling into an alley. On it’s back were a half-dozen missiles. Each one capable of killing a friend. He didn’t target them, so they had no warning when a proton torpedo dropped from the sky, bounced off the broken pavement and exploded two meters from the vehicle’s front bumper.

Even as he raced back towards his abandoned position, Shadow found he didn’t regret his decision. The universe had tried to rip the heart out of him, but his friends had given it back. He’d tear his way through all the hells of the galaxy to pay that back.

***

Skies over western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Damak

Second Lieutenant Andika "Damak" Malim was deeply missing the responsiveness of a starfighter, even one like his Y-wing Longprobe. The U-wing just wasn’t built to maneuver, or go fast, especially loaded with commandos. His early years in the Alliance pushed at the back of his mind, each of those soldiers both familiar and alien to him. The very thought made his palms clammy with memory.

“Did anyone see where our flight lead went?” Damak’s wingman, 2nd Lieutenant Hod “Cash Cow” Min growled over the comm. The Shistavanen had spent most of his time in the Alliance as a transport pilot. After Endor, the need for pilots was so great that those who hadn’t qualified prior were now being considered. The other pilots had begun calling these re-assignment pilots “retreads.” Damak himself had used that desperation to come back to the fold.

“On my way, Twelve,” Spectre Nine said, his voice strained as if he was concentrating very hard. Damak had seen his callsign was “Shadow.” The lone X-wing in the flight, he was their protection if--

A blip on his sensors drew his attention. The blip became two contacts, closing fast. IFF declared them Imperial. Three U-wings, bloated with soldiers, were easy pickings for two TIEs if that’s what they were.

“Nine, Eleven here. I have two Imperials closing fast. Looks like they’re going to beat you here. I suggest Ten, Twelve and I make low for the city and use the smoke for cover. We’ll try and find that bridge.”

“Good idea, Eleven. I took out that rocket threat. Concentrate on evasion, I’ll be there in ninety seconds.”

How did he get so far off course?

It didn’t matter. The U-wings were in trouble and they only had themselves to depend on. He quickly told the other two to flank him and prepare sensor jamming. It wouldn’t help them if the Imps got within visual range, but it might buy them some time.

He took them low, descending through the broken clouds and into the smoking ruins of the city. Clicking his comm over to his commandos, Damak addressed them. “I need two of you on the door guns. Things may get hairy in a few moments.”

“We’ll get it done, sir,” one of them said and he heard the doors slide open. The chill wind whipped up into the cockpit, stealing his breath and carrying with it the scent of a dying city.

They raced west, the blips growing closer. Fifty-seconds had passed since he spoke to Shadow. Forty seconds until help arrived. A lot can happen in forty seconds.

“Two TIEs, coming in from our right!” a commando shouted over the comm. “Looks like Interceptors!”

“Nine, we have two Squints bearing two-eight-zero from your position. We’re…” Damak checked his sensors again and felt sweat collect on the back of his neck. “Ten seconds from being engaged.”

“Hold on, Eleven. I’m almost there!”

The sound of rapid gunfire erupted from behind him, signalling that his door gunners had opened fire on the TIEs. He couldn’t take evasive action with his U-wing loaded as it was. Slapping the jammer on, Damak banked into the threat, giving his gunner as good a shot as he could.

“Ten, Twelve, scatter!”

Laser fire exploded along the length of his U-wing, causing his shields to flicker and go out. Armor ablated in puffs of smoke and liquid metal, leaving behind sparks and shorted lighting. Damak shoved the yoke forward, diving to street level and shouting for his commandos to hold on.

Aided somewhat by the destruction, the streets were just wide enough for his U-wing to fit. Street lighting and shop windows flashed past, faster than was wise. Speed and his piloting skill was the only thing that would save them right now.

“He’s coming down for another pass, sir!”

Cursing inwardly, Damak looked for another street to turn his fighter into but they were all too narrow. He couldn’t climb, he’d be an easy target.

C’mon, Nine, hurry up!

He heard the lock on, his U-wing being targeted by the TIE who could take his sweet time lining up a kill shot. He’d spent so much time in the Alliance, doing jobs that had made him sick. He’d had a peaceful life as a teacher, a place in the world that left him feeling like he’d made a small difference. Now he was about to be killed in the street because--

The TIE exploded.

Pieces of debris rained down ahead of him, throwing up chunks of duracrete and plasteel as it struck the street around him. Sucking in a breath, he pulled hard for the sky. The sense of relief was dizzying.

“Thanks, Nine!”

“Wasn’t me, Eleven.”

It wasn’t Shadow? Glancing out of his cockpit window, he saw a sight that amazed him. The smoke from the city’s fires broke and a massive bridge emerged. Its girders were blackened and twisted, the path across the river lost. Grouped just before it were beings of a dozen species. They huddled behind debris, clutching small bags or children. And standing defiantly in front of them, a squad of scout troopers. One of them was lowering a smoking rocket launcher, while the rest were waving frantically to him.

It took him a moment to work moisture back into his mouth. “Spectre Eleven here. I found the civilians. The bridge is lost.”

“Eleven, this is One. Establish a perimeter, gauge how well they can be moved. Resistance is heavy and those AT-ATs are still coming.”

“Eleven copies, One.”

Pulling his U-wing into a tight right hand orbit, he saw the TIE Interceptor fall to Shadow’s X-wing, crashing into the river beyond. Ten and Twelve were still flying. They’d been lucky.

Switching his comms back to his commandos, Damak set began the landing procedure.

“Objective coming up. Let’s see if we can save some lives today.”

***

Skies east of Caston City, Tanith
POV: Rogue

Spectre One and Two pulled hard to the left and punched through a cloud bank, aiming for a duo of TIE fighters that had made a break north. Behind them, newly arrived Interceptors gave chase. First Lieutenant Paul “Rogue” Sweet selected both and told his R2 unit, Shade, to prioritize them as targets one and two.

“Trip, still with me?” he commed his wingman as he pushed his X-wing into a dive.

The Sullustan’s reply was enthusiastic. “With you, Spectre Three!”

He’s no Leo, but he’ll do, Rogue thought as they ran down the squints. Shifting his shields back into engines, he pushed the X-wing faster and used his descent to ramp up the speed even further. The TIEs grew from vague triangles into distinct fighters.

Rogue clicked his comm. “One, you have two on your tail. Three and four are ten seconds out.”

“I see them, Three. Bringing them right so you can cut the corner.”

“Three,” Rogue said, simply stating his callsign to let Krayt know he’d heard and acknowledged.

“Four, we’re turning hard right in three, two, one, execute! Go pattern delta!”

“With you boss!”

Rogue grinned as Krayt dragged the TIE Interceptors right into range of his guns. The first was shredded by a quad blast from his own guns, the second taking a hard hit from Trip as Rogue pulled off target. Though his target didn’t go down, it did pull off Krayt and run east.

Good enough, Rogue decided.

“Spectre Nine to all Spectres! AT-ATs are in range of the civilians! Vector two-five-five from bullseye! I repeat, the AT-ATs are in range! Spectre Five is distracting them but she won’t last long out there!”

“One Flight,” Krayt said as he dispatched one of the lone eyeballs that had remained after his first attack. “Disengage and head west. Support Nine. Those walkers need to be killed yesterday.”

“Two copies.”

“Three copies,” Rogue said and pulled a hard loop and roared back west. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Trip right where he should be. I’ll make a wingman out of you yet.

His eyes had just settled back onto his instruments when he saw he was being locked onto.

***

Skies over southern Caston City, Tanith
POV: Gremlin

Gremlin let the call-outs and comms chatter fade into the background. Two Flight still had a mission – take out the AT-ATs and AT-STs – and the fierce dogfight had pulled them away from it. We’re karking lucky we’re still alive! There had been too many narrow escapes that day – her heart was still pounding from seeing Angel’s X-wing in freefall. Shadow’s crazy climb had saved Angel; Ange had saved her. Talon’s U-wing was singed but, somehow, still under control.

She checked her position relative to the others in her flight. She was slightly further north, closest to the city, where a smudge of green smoke indicated the location of the Imperial forces. Her sensors flickered. Talon must have worked his magic with his scanners, piercing through the smoke to show the city in clear relief – three U-wings on the ground disgorging their soldiers while Shadow flew cover against more squints. One Flight was pushing hard for the city, though more TIEs were heading their way. Couldn’t rely on them for help right now.

On her screen, the river showed up as a straight-ish line, bisected by the rubble that had recently been a bridge. Seven blips showed the location of the armoured transports; the smaller AT-STs were rejoining their larger cousins. A line of buildings all that remained between them and a large open square that would give them a devastating field of fire on the civilians, commandos and the three Spectre U-wings. If someone could get in there and divert their attention …..

As soon as the thought occurred to her, she acted, pushing the stick downwards. “Two Flight – I’m going to distract the AT-ATs on the ground. Ange, head towards Shadow, get ready to take ‘em out with your torps. Talon, reinforce the troops and take civilians aboard. See you on the flipside!”

She didn’t wait for any acknowledgements. Air screamed over her S-foils as she dived, angling west of the river before flattening out at treetop height. Gremlin evened her shields fore and aft – I’m not getting caught out again! – and kept a close eye on her six in case any squints appeared, but it was clear. A few klicks upstream, well away from the furball at the ruined bridge, she hit the rudder, drifted to port and dipped between the river’s high banks.

Water fountained in her wake as she crammed on more speed, flying scant feet above the river’s surface. Seconds later, her astromech warbled a warning. “I know - I can see it!” She flipped a switch and her S-foils closed as a gravtrain bridge whipped overhead, its tracks ablaze and crumbling. Gremlin let out a breathless laugh. “That was close!” This low, she couldn’t get a clear reading on her sensors. Only when she spotted the ruins of another bridge collapsed into the river did she know she was almost there. Rapid deceleration threw her against her straps. She activated the repulsorlifts and her X-wing bounced into view above the riverbank and turned back east.

Broken buildings flashed past and suddenly the AT-ATs were there, coming round the corner into the square. The smaller AT-STs, lurching ahead of their bigger cousins, fired towards the Rebel troops. Gremlin dumbfired her remaining proton torpedo, following up with laser fire that splashed against as many of the walkers as possible. She wasn’t there to take them all out. Just to get their attention …

The nearest AT-AT’s giant head swivelled towards her and she got her wish.

***

Streets of west Caston City, Tanith
POV: Lieutenant Jacen Hirkland, 12th Army Scout Company

An X-wing erupted from the river and roared over Lieutenant Jacen Hirkland’s head. For a moment, he was awestruck. The raw power of a rebel X-wing up close was awesome to see. Their engines bellowed like an angry krayt dragon and their red laser cannons spat liquid fire. For all the speed his 74-Z speeder bike could put out, it was nothing in the face of a starfighter.

Not that he had a speeder bike right now.

A rebel trooper grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him to the ground, yelling “Incoming!”

The barricade they’d erected of burned out vehicles and rubble exploded into dust and debris. Jacen felt himself thrown, landing hard on his right shoulder pauldron, cracking it. His back-mounted radio crunched, bursting static into his helmet. For a moment he lay there, trying to remember how to breathe. Civilians crouched behind metal beams that had once been a bridge. Another scout trooper, Shilk maybe, lay a meter away, missing an arm. The blood was unnaturally bright.

His helmet’s overlays were gone, the macrobinocular functions offline. Dragging himself to a sitting position, he pulled a stimpack from his thigh pouch and stabbed himself with it. Uncertain if he was injured, he needed to move. Those civilians were counting on him.

Two meters towards the ruins of the barricade he found his pistol. Small, but lethal at a moderate range, it was all he had. Three U-wing starfighters had opened their side doors, mounted guns blazing, shooting into a rolling mist of smoke and dust. The rebel troopers that had come from them were taking cover alongside what remained of his Company. He stumbled to join them, his right knee feeling strangely stiff.

“Hell of a party!” a Twi’lek trooper said to him with a mouthful of dagger-like teeth. The tail-headed aliens always weirded Jacen out, but the being’s pure size and amusement gave him a strange sort of comfort. The rocket launcher he hoisted onto his shoulder helped too.

“You Imps really know how to show a guy a good--” the Twi’lek grunted as he flipped open a range finder, aiming into the dissipating cloud. Through it, Jacen saw something approaching. Something big.

An X-wing burst through, followed by a massive AT-AT.

The Twi’lek fired the rocket launcher. “A hell of a good time!”

The rocket impacted against the AT-AT’s head, just between the jaw-mounted laser cannons. The cannons fired, shooting for the X-wing, but the rocket made its whole head assembly twitch, the laser fire exploding an old shop instead. Jacen used to eat noodles in that shop every day.

Well now I’m just mad, he thought as he took aim with his tiny pistol. Maybe he couldn’t take on an AT-AT with it, but the stormtroopers that came running out of the dust and smoke on either side of it sure made for likely targets.

“Well, we’re screwed,” the Twi’lek laughed, slapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s get nuts!”

And so Jacen, Imperial scout trooper, took aim next to a Twi’lek rebel soldier.

***

Skies over central Caston City, Tanith
POV: Angel

Her X-wing refused to respond, her controls completely ionized. The missile had been destroyed before it could impact, but the explosion’s radiation still acted like a giant ion cannon. Engines were out, repulsors were out, and suddenly she was a very heavy metal object falling towards the city of Caston.

No, no you don’t. I didn’t find you again to let you explode over this stupid city!

Pulling open the fuze box, Angel popped every single one in rapid procession until the short was found and power began to flow again. Tone was screaming about her altitude, but there wasn’t anything she could do about that until power was restored. Her dash lit up and deep within the bowels of her fighter, her engines lit.

“That’s my girl!” she shouted with a grin and cycled the repulsors. The nose of her fighter was pointed into the air, the back end of an X-wing far heavier than the front, and she saw a high rise building aimed right at her back. Slamming the throttle forward, she cycled her laser and shields full into engines. They roared and the building once more grew smaller.

Tone made a happy chirp and she shook her head. “You’re tellin’ me, buddy.”

Flipping her comm system back on, she was greeted with distortion and then the unmistakable sound of Gremlin’s voice.

“--going to distract the AT-ATs on the ground. Ange, head towards Shadow, get ready to take ‘em out with your torps. Talon, reinforce the troops and take civilians aboard. See you on the flipside!”

Angel felt her gut twist and she slammed the stick hard to the left and kicked rudder to pull her X-wing around. Gremlin was out there, somewhere, and Angel didn’t know where. It left her feeling cold and isolated, impotent to help. Attacking AT-ATs alone was was karkin’ suicide.

“Damn it Gemi,” she whispered, burning west towards the sinking feeling inside. Shadow was there, he’d be right by the bridge, even if he’d come out of nowhere to save her hide and not for the first time. She’d find Shadow and then she’d find Gremlin.

There’s been enough dead heroes, she thought. Too many absent voices after Endor. Too many lost songs over the years. She thought back to the night before that battle, when they were all gathered on Sullust. She could still see their faces, lit by flickering flames from the bonfire. The empty seat next to her was for Gremlin, who was staging elsewhere with Blade Squadron. Angel had felt her absence so keenly then and felt it now. She hadn’t been there to help her during that battle, but she was here now.

An X-wing glinted in the sun, low to her right. Angel knew it was Shadow before she could see his markings. Without a word, he matched her altitude and slid onto her wing. Together they pulled hard towards the river.

“Gremlin’s about to do something stupid,” she said.

“She already is. Three o’clock, low, two AT-ATs.”

Glancing to her right, Angel saw the two big Imperial walkers illuminated by laser fire. They were stomping straight down a wide avenue, their giant metal feet crushing the pavement beneath them. The fire directed at them came from a line of figures hunkered against debris.

They don’t stand a chance.

Even as she thought the words, the metal behemoth let loose a cannon blast that destroyed half the ground troop’s cover. Bodies flew into the air and she felt her teeth grind together. This was the job. It was time to do it. Yet that avenue was narrow. It looked like a trench. Like a tunnel full of fire.

And flying straight down the middle of it was an X-wing with Spectre Five’s markings. It didn’t jink or evade, but flew right at the AT-ATs, giving them a good shot. The lead walker swiveled its head up.

“Gemi! You laser brained idiot!”

Rolling inverted, Angel pulled hard for the deck. Heedless of the way the avenue narrowed, ignoring the laser fire and how much it felt like a narrowing tunnel, she aimed her X-wing at that lead walker. Tone shrilled a warning about altitude again, but she ignored it.

Below, Gremlin’s X-wing fired a torpedo that ripped right between the walker’s knees and destroyed two AT-STs that had come for support.

Angel’s thumb flipped her weapons over to her own torpedoes. She had time for two beeps on the targeting system before she was out of time. Pulling the trigger, she had no choice but to pull off hard to avoid crashing directly into the walker. Laser fire from Shadow punched through the air behind her before he too pulled off with her.

Twisting in her seat, she saw an explosion blossom against the walker’s armored side. She’d fired a proton torpedo at the thing. It had to be enough. It had to!

The walker erupted into fire and molten metal.

“Hah hah, that got’im! Those new torps pack a big punch!” Shadow cheered, but Angel wasn’t looking at the walker. She was looking for an X-wing that had been so close to that explosion. What if she’d been caught in it? What if her torps had killed her? What if--

Gremlin’s voice hooted over the comm. “Nice shooting, Ange!”

She couldn’t speak. Her eyes stung with tears and she felt a terrible sob of relief and exhaustion claw at her throat. Losing Gremlin would have been too much. Ever since the Zeltron had come into her life at Hoth, she’d made the horror of war easier to bear. She’d made accepting herself easier. She’d simply made life better.

Damn it, she thought, sniffing and pulling herself together. After this was over, she was going to kick her ass for pulling a stunt like that. Kick it so bad she’d never chance death like that again.

“Five, this is Seven. I’m down and evacuating civvies as we speak. Not a lot of room. We’re gonna be heavy and a sitting duck for that other AT-AT!”

Angel felt a sense of relief wash over her. She hadn’t seen what happened to Talon after he’d been hit. Pretty smart of him to reinforce the other U-wings too. His ship was the only one with empty space on it to rescue anyone. There was no way Sabre was coming down with the landing zone being this hot.

Gremlin’s voice was calm and collected, sounding ever more like the leader she was turning into. “We read you, Seven. We’ll be re-attacking in thirty seconds from the north.”

“Thirty seconds is cutting it close!”

Angel followed Gremlin in a wide, left hand turn, burning for the sky and pulling separation from the ground fire. Their shields could take anything the troopers threw at them, but that AT-AT could down them with a single shot.

“Ange, Shadow, how many torps do you have left?” Gremlin asked.

Shadow sighed. “I’m out.”

Checking her weapon status and confirming with Tone, Angel clicked the comm. “Four left here.”

“Okay. Angel is the shooter. Shadow, we’re going to bracket the second AT-AT. Shoot for the knees, keep its gunners blind while Angel lines up a shot.”

“Copy that, Grem. Just like when we attacked that snow-crawler on Frontiir VI.”

“Exactly like that. Turning back onto the target in three…”

***

Streets of western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Talon

The AT-AT loomed like a giant out of legend. The dust and smoke mixed to obscure it’s legs, leaving only its gigantic metal head and humped body visible in the swirling mist. Gremlin’s X-wing raced towards it, her proton torpedo sailing between its massive legs and disappearing into the mist. Talon saw an explosion but couldn’t see what it was from.

And then a hail of laser fire announced the arrival of two more X-wings. They punched through the cloud cover, vapor swirling off their S-foils like wings of avenging angels. Talon stood transfixed in the open side door of his U-wing as a single torpedo slammed into the lead AT-AT. It hit dead center, just above the massive walker’s drive shaft. He’d been to so many lectures about the weaknesses of the AT-AT. Where it’d been hit, if the torpedo penetrated the armor, it would ignite the fuel lines and--

The AT-AT exploded. All his life, Talon had grown to believe the massive four-legged machines were symbols of the Empire’s might. They towered above everything, looking down upon all enemies. There were times when his upbringing, all those years in that academy, made him doubt his resolve. In this moment, watching a giant fall as X-wings flew off unscathed, he understood just how vulnerable the Empire was.

But the second AT-AT reminded him of just how vast it was. It stepped forward, crushing the burning hulk of its leader as a small horde of Stormtroopers rushed out of the mist towards them. Laser blasts sparked off his U-wings armor as the troopers began to target the civilians.

They had stood as if in a trance as the AT-ATs arrived. They knew nothing of combat, nothing of taking cover. Their fear was so thick Talon could almost feel it. Or was that his own fear? He was standing there in the open doorway too.

He shouted to them, waving a hand towards the open door. “Let’s go! Hurry up, get on! Move move move!”

Sweat ran down the back of his neck as an elderly human woman stepped aboard with his help. Her hand felt frail and weak in his grasp. Looking into her eyes, he expected to see abject terror. Instead, the drawn, sharp-lined jaw was set, and pale blue eyes narrowed.

“Can you outrun them, pilot?”

Pilot. A million memories rushed through him. How many times had they called him that? Just a pilot, a number without a name. He found himself scowling at her.

“I can.”

“Good, much depends on it.” she said as more men and women, humans all, crowded into the small craft. Those pale blue eyes never left his, even as bodies came between them. He nodded, then turned to help more aboard.

He reached down to pull a sweating, overweight man aboard when a barrage of laser fire pelted the doorway. Chaos and screaming followed. Talon felt the man’s weight fall away, his body slamming into the pavement where it still smoked from a half dozen blast wounds. Talon still had his hand outstretched, as if the man would get up and take it again.

“Take off, pilot!” the woman shouted. “You can’t save us all! We knew that!”

He turned, seeing grim faces crowded behind him. They did know that. Turning back, a Scout Trooper banged on his hull, waving a hand towards the west.

“Stay low! Take the river south and west! We’ll cover you!”

More blasts kicked up bits of duracrete from the pavement and the Trooper raised an arm to protect himself. “Go now! We’ll try and get the rest out on the other ships!”

There were still so many. Sabre would arrive in time, but that AT-AT needed to be destroyed first. Turning his eyes skyward, he found it empty of X-wings. All that were left were the three U-wings, their commandos, and a few Imperial defectors.

Talon rushed to the cockpit. It was time to go.

***

Skies over western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Angel

Tone gave a shrill warning even as Angel rolled and pulled hard for the deck. Two Interceptors had come out of nowhere, the jamming making it all but impossible for their sensors to pick up their arrival. Pulling into a Defensive Split, she rolled out onto her right S-foils and pulled back North just above the rooftops. Eruptions of duracrete and transparisteel exploded behind her as the TIEs followed. Tone indicated both fighters were still on her tail.

“Good,” she said and snapped her wings level and then pulled up into the vertical. The cloud cover had descended and she plunged up into it, her visibility zeroing instantly. The TIEs fired at her anyway and her rear shields faded quickly. Refreshing them again, she just needed a moment more.

Shooting into clear air, she let her mind settle for a moment and then pulled back south. She couldn’t be sure exactly where but she had a good feeling. Tone shouted again that the TIEs had appeared and were looping back in for a shot.

One more second. There!

Rolling onto her left side, she pulled as hard as she could just as Shadow burst through the clouds ahead of her. His cannons were already firing, wisps of clouds burning off into vapor in their wake. The lead TIE juked but his wingman took two bolts in the wing spar. Molten metal separated and the wing came off, spinning off into the cloud in one direction, and the rest of the fighter in another.

That lead TIE was still there though.

“Ange, where are you?”

“Grem, we’re … “ Glancing at her sensors, she saw it was still soup and she banged it with frustration as the TIE whittled her shields down more. “Above the clouds, about five klicks north of the U-wings!”

“Spectre Seven to any available fighters. I’m heading west along the river, civilians aboard! Spectres Ten and Eleven are still streetside!”

Angel kicked her rudder, side slipping to avoid a shot as Krayt answered. “Roger that, Seven. One flight is heavily engaged. Two Flight, say status.”

“Six is engaged!” she called and was about to roll back into the clouds when a deafening explosion came from very close behind her. Tone whistled in relief as the TIE suddenly pulled straight up, burning as its ion engines blew up.

“Six is clear!”

Gremlin had just saved her life again. She was too rusty. She wasn’t ready for this after all. She’d lost sight of her wingmate twice, though it was Gremlin’s fault for rushing off for that stupid stunt.

“One, Five here. Out of torps. Lasers only. There’s still one AT-AT down there and it’s advancing on the civvies.”

“Six is one torpedo.”

“Nine is lasers only too, One!”

Angel turned left to see Gremlin come alongside. For just an instant, she could see her friend’s smile through her canopy, and Angel felt a warmth she’d hadn’t felt in a long time. Shaking her head, she looked right and saw Shadow form up silently.

“Spectres Five and Six, your priority is that AT-AT. Nine, you are to escort Seven.”

Gremlin’s voice was once more all business. “Two Flight copies all.” Angel glanced to her right as Shadow dropped out formation, turning towards the west where Talon had gone. She felt suddenly cold, like she’d been partially blinded.

“Ange, follow me. You’re the only one with a torpedo left. I’ll clear you a path.”

***

Streets of western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Damak

Damak barely had time to turn his head as his door gunner shouted the terrible word ‘incoming!’

The massive blast from the AT-AT disintegrated entire sections of the street, throwing molten duracrete in every direction. The U-wing’s doorway disappeared, along with his gunner and his weapon. The entire craft shook and then rolled, throwing him back against the cockpit port-side instrument panel.

WIth his vision hazy and his ears ringing, he saw that the city had turned itself on its side. The street was rising straight up and the sky was now to his left. The body of an imperial Scout Trooper lay just outside the ship’s forward viewport. His helmet had been ripped off and dark brown eyes stared sightlessly at him.

The ringing slowly subsided, replaced by the sounds of laserfire and screams. Too much. It was too much like that final mission so many years ago. He thought he’d gotten over it, but he couldn’t. The young imperial man was suddenly her. Sightless eyes, outstretched hands, no hope, no life.

He shut his eyes and for a moment, he let it all go. Maybe the next blast would hit his U-wing and that would be it. An end to it all, finally. He’d see her again, tell her everything he hadn’t then.

Get up. The voice was hers, the ghost of a woman he’d loved, lost, and mourned. He opened his eyes, but saw only her standing there amidst smoke and carnage. A bloody hand was held out to him.

Get up. You’re not done yet. There’s more to do.

“I never wanted to do this again,” he croaked, shaking his head and thinking of the nice, peaceful life as a teacher he’d left behind. “I wanted to move on.”

So move on. The ones who killed me are right out there. Get up and move. On.

“I don’t… I can’t…”

She was suddenly there, gripping his chin with her hand. Her eyes were afire, burning with the rebellion he’d fallen in love with. Get. Up!

Damak got up and pulled his way through the broken ship. Somewhere along the way, he pulled out his slugthrower despite a palm slick with anxious sweat. Reaching up to grasp the still-hot edge of the U-wing’s door, he pulled himself up and out.

And saw an AT-AT step fully into view. It’s head lowered, guns still smoking from its last barrage. That huge, lifeless slit that served as a viewport for the pilots was like the single eye of a terrible beast. Beneath it, stormtroopers rushed forward.

They were met with desperate fire from the commandos and rebel imperials. The stormtroopers were too numerous. They’d overrun their position in a manner of moments.

The ones who killed me are right there, she said, standing beside him. The smoke and warm wind from the fires never touched her hair. When he reached over to her, she vanished like a dream.

A blaster shot nicked his arm and he turned, dropping to a knee and firing without thinking. The slug buried itself in a stormtrooper’s forehead as he climbed over the rigged defensive structures. For a moment, he stood there, arms raised, cradling his blaster. Then he fell forward in a heap of clattering armor.

“It’s going to fire again!”

Damak wasn’t sure who shouted the warning, but he glanced up as the AT-AT looked right at him. Raising his pistol, Damak fired again and again, screaming in wordless rage. Rage for her, rage for a life interrupted, rage for a life undone.

The AT-AT silently ignored him as its guns grew hot once more.

Two X-wings descended from the cloud cover. The roar of their engines was the scream of a million murdered souls. The fire of their cannons was the embodied vengeance of destroyed lives and the proton torpedo that dropped from one of them was the clarion call of the end.

The weapon whistled as it tore through the thick air, vapor plumes flowing from all sides. It impacted the ground between the AT-AT’s front legs and exploded. Damak was blown off the U-wing’s hull, his eyes blinded from the detonation’s flash. As he landed, his head smacked the pavement.

More explosions filled the air, a staccato of deep thumps. His vision darkened as the roar of X-wing engines passed overhead. The last thing he saw before it took him was her and she was smiling.

Satisfied.

***

Streets of western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Lieutenant Jacen Hirkland, 12th Army Scout Company

Jacen hurt all over. Groaning, he rolled onto his stomach, an act that told him something inside was broken. Coughing, he didn’t feel anything wet inside which was probably a good sign, but he wasn’t a medic so who knew. His visor was still offline and so were his comms, which meant either the jamming was still in play or everyone was dead.

The dust and smoke was so thick, he could barely see more than a few meters ahead of him. The battle was still going on though, he could hear blaster fire from almost every direction. A red beam sliced through the air near his head, spitting up chips of duracrete that dusted his helmet.

Rolling and pushing himself to his feet, he found his tiny blaster pistol a meter away next to the large twi’lek trooper. Rushing to the being’s side, he checked for a pulse and found it was weak but steady. Was that good?

More blaster fire spat his way but it was wide. At least the other guys couldn’t see either. Raising his pistol, he fired a few shots in their general direction. There’s a joke here, he thought as more fire came, only this time very wide to his right. Removing his one and only stim from his belt, he jabbed the Twi’lek’s arm with it.

The man groaned and Jacen slapped his shoulder. “Get up buddy. Those stormies are figuring out how to shoot.”

“Aren’t you a Stormtrooper?” he sighed, pushing himself to his feet and pulling his rifle into his lap. “I feel like I was hit by an AT-AT.”

Jacen began to crawl on his hands and knees towards the enemy. Hopefully there was some cover ahead. “You were in fact hit by an AT-AT. And I’m a Scout Trooper.”

“There’s a difference?” the Twi’lek asked, crawling forward as well a meter before stopping. He took quick aim and fired. Jacen heard someone scream.

Can Twi’leks see in infrared?

“We’re better trained!” he shouted, scurrying over to some broken up pavement. It wasn’t the best cover, but it would do. Just as he set his back to it, laser fire peppered the other side. Reaching his hand over the top, he fired back with several quick shots. No screams.

Damn it.

The Twi’lek slumped next to him, breathing hard. Jacen could see a rather large wound in his left side, just above his waist. That was definitely not a good thing.

“So, you rebels have a plan to get us out of here?”

The Twi’lek turned to grin at him. His mouth was filled with sharp, bloody teeth. It made the hair on the back of Jacen’s neck stand up.

“Armored transports should be arriving in…” He looked down at his chronometer. “Five minutes.”

Thump.

He knew that sound and his heart sank. Until then he thought that maybe they’d make it out of this. There was a slim chance the rebels would pull through and save them all. But not now.

Shifting over to the edge of the raised pavement, he quickly peaked around and saw he was right. A massive metal leg stepped through the dirt and dust. It’s foot was blackened and twisted, the ankle joint grinding as it set down, but it set down. The AT-AT’s massive metal head was a dark shadow in the dust. Soon it would look down and end this sorry story.

Returning to cover, he tapped his helmet and tried to get the comm unit online. Static was all he was met with so he pulled the helmet off and threw it away. Screw it. If he was going to die, he’d at least feel some actual air on his face.

Turning to the Twi’lek he offered a hand. “Jacen,” he said.

“Pel,” the Twi’lek said and took his hand. They shook once.

“Well at least I’ll die with someone I know,” Jacen said and leaned his head back against the rough duracrete. “Shame about the civvies though. They don’t deserve this.”

“No one does,” Pel said and unhooked a thermal detonator from his vest. “I do have one trick. Someone told me once that some maniac repelled up beneath an AT-AT and tossed one of these suckers in a hole up there. Destroyed the whole servo assembly and blew the head clean off.”

Jacen blinked at him. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Got any better ideas?”

“Admittedly, no,” Jacen sighed and reached behind to pull the small grapple gun from his belt. Holding out his hand, he gestured to the detonator. “Give me.”

Pel frowned at him. “This is my job. Give me the grapple gun.”

“You’re injured. Besides, I’ve lived for two years being ordered to do the most horrendous things. I’m so sick inside that when that thing crushes my head, it’ll be bliss. Now hand me the detonator.”

For a moment, Pel looked into his eyes and then put the weapon into his hand. The Twi’lek nodded.

“May the Force be with you.”

“I’ll settle for the dust being with me. So long, Pel.”

Jacen took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he went over the plan, but gave up because every fibre of his being told him how utterly stupid it was. There was zero chance this worked. But at least he’d look cool doing it.

Unless he fell.

New plan, don’t fall.

Jacen stepped out from behind the cover. Immediately a blaster shot blew off the pauldron on his right shoulder. For a moment, he was amazed that it didn’t hurt. The fact the armor did its job wasn’t a surprise to him, since it had worked very well before against…

Focus.

He saw the stormtrooper kneeling nearby, aiming at him for a second shot. Then he saw all twenty of his comrades also taking aim at him. The AT-AT took another giant step and its head swung down, its two large barrels pointed in his direction.

“Really?” he shouted. He was going to die like this? His brother had always told him he’d bite it in the stupidest way possible. He hated it when his brother was right. That moron had been taken prisoner at Endor. Talk about luck.

He threw the thermal detonator anyway, realizing mid-throw he’d forgotten to arm it. The stormtroopers tensed. Jacen did too, ready for oblivion.

BRRRRRRRRRRRZZZZZZZZZZTTTTTT!

An absolute deluge of red cannon fire tore through the stormtroopers, turning them into black and white mist. A moment later, two Y-wings soared overhead. Their engines sounded like the roar of oblivion’s furnaces. Two more followed in their wake, only they didn’t shoot their rotaries. Instead bright blue balls of light dropped in an arc towards the AT-AT.

Oh si--!

Something heavy and strong pulled him to the ground just before the loudest explosion Jacen had ever heard went off. Pel covered his body with his own as debris rained down around them. For a moment, all Jacen could think was that he was the one wearing armor.

Something impossibly large and heavy crashed nearby, causing a vibration so strong that the two of them were tossed into the air and unceremoniously slammed down again. His ribs cried out in agony, reminding him that he was pretty hurt.

Looking to his left, he saw the head of the AT-AT laying on the ground. It had separated from its body, the neck a smoking ruin.

They turned to stare at one another before bursting into laughter.

***

Skies over western Caston City, Tanith
POV: Angel

She’d missed. She’d had one shot to save the civilians and she’d missed. The torpedo had impacted between the AT-AT’s legs. The last AT-ST had been incinerated but the AT-AT, her actual target, had only taken light damage.

“Frak! Frak!” she cursed, slamming her fist against her canopy. “Grem, we need to go back! I missed! It’s going to kill them!”

“I see it, I see it. We need to climb and gain some separation, Ange or we’ll never get a clean shot with all that dust down there!”

“There’s no damn time!”

Gremlin’s voice was urgent as it appeared on the general squadron frequency. “One Flight, Five. ETA?”

“Thirty seconds, Five.”

They’re going to die. Angel looked over her shoulder, seeing only swirling dust and smoke where the AT-AT was. Somewhere down there, civilians, as well as Damak and Cash Cow, were sitting ducks and it was her fault.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not ready to fly again.

Her hand clenched the stick so tightly her fingers hurt even as Tone whistled soothingly. She shook her head. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t had time to take a full lock, she should have hit the target.

A few seconds later they began the compensator-straining turn back towards the action. Ten seconds had passed. It was too late. They were going to be too late.

A new voice crackled over the general frequency. “Buccaneer in from the south. Bringing the Gnoiz!”

Explosions suddenly erupted in the clouds below just before four Y-wings burst through the clouds. The sunlight sparkled off green hulls and Angel had never seen anything more beautiful. Tears stung her eyes and she felt every single nerve in her body alight with the sudden release of tension.

Buccaneer had arrived.

***

CRS Vigilant Hangar Deck, 3 Hours Later
POV: Krayt

He knew it was bad before he hopped off his X-wing’s ladder. Rushing to Mercy One, he met the medics as they pulled Damak and three of his crew onto hover stretchers. He could ask for their condition, but he didn’t need to. The one, his door gunner, wasn’t going to make it. He already had the look of a man halfway to the other side. The other two might make it with bacta.

Damak was conscious as he reached his side.

“How are you feeling, Lieutenant?” Krayt asked, glancing at the vitals displayed on Spectre Eleven’s bed. Damak gave a weak shrug, his eyes half-lidded. Krayt sensed a strange mix of relief amongst the pain.

“I’ll be alright, sir. No worries about me.”

“Did good down there. We’ll see you after the docs check you out.”

After the wounded were pulled off Mercy One, Sabre had set down just behind Spectre Seven’s U-wing. He wanted to see the civilians and Imperials they had fought so hard to save, even though he should leave that to the Intelligence spooks. They were their problem now, but he couldn’t help but approach.

Talon was just dropping onto the deck as Krayt arrived. The young pilot snapped a crisp salute, but Krayt waved him down. The youth’s need for formality was clearly a legacy of his upbringing.

“Sir,” Talon said, lowering his voice. “One of the women aboard says she has vital intelligence for the Alliance?”

Krayt crossed his arms and glanced at the civilians slowly stepping out of the U-wing’s hold. “Intelligence is likely already on their way. Who?”

“That would be me, and you are Lieutenant Colonel Alrick Durgan,” a tall, blue-eyed elderly woman said. She wore a sharp suit that was tattered and smoke-stained from her ordeal on Tanith. Her hair was iron gray and pulled into a severe bun. If she wasn’t military, she must have been at one time.

Krayt frowned at her. “You know who I am, Miss…? ”

“Derhlitt,” she said with a smile. “Amassa Derhlitt. I work… worked for UniTech on several Top Secret Defense projects for the Empire. It is why I’m here. Why we’re all here.”

Krayt couldn’t help but notice she’d dodged the question, but he sensed an urgency in her. She needed to tell him something. Maybe even the reason his new unit had risked themselves so readily.

“And why are you here, Miss Derhlitt?”

“Oh I’m afraid your intelligence people are going to want to hear all about this but tell me, Colonel Durgan, have you heard of something called Project Ghostfire?”

Krayt shook his head slowly, making the woman frown in return.

“Then you should take me to your intelligence agents immediately.”

An hour later, as he dismissed the squadron from the debriefing, Krayt found himself still thinking about the woman’s words. She’d been worried that he hadn’t heard about the project, why? And why him?

Movement from the corner of his eye brought him to the present. Seeing Angel and Shadow moving through the seats towards the exit reminded him of one last bit of business.

“Lieutenants McKenna and Courtner, a word please.”

The two former Red Squadron pilots glanced at one another before approaching. They both offered salutes which he returned. Waiting until the last pilot left, he turned his attention back on them.

“You were both wingmates back in Red Squadron, correct?”

It was Shadow who answered, nodding. “Yes, sir. We were.”

He knew, right then. He could feel it in them. Did they know? Had they always known? Krayt wondered how he could have missed it before now.

“First, I want to address your gross disobedience to orders, Lieutenant McKenna. You were to protect the U-wings. You left them, unguarded, for almost two minutes in hostile territory where surface-to-air munitions were known to be operating. We’re lucky we didn’t lose one because of your negligence.”

Shadow pailed and as Angel looked at her former wingman, Krayt could feel her surprise. She hadn’t called him, so it was exactly what he’d thought.

“Sir, she was in trouble. I had to help. I…” Shadow frowned, his jaw tightening. “I have no excuse, sir. It was a feeling. I had to do it.”

“I know,” Krayt said and leaned forward on the podium, eyeing both of them with concern. Keeping them apart was asking for trouble, but keeping them together was going to be trouble too.

“Tell me, have either of you heard of the Force?”

***

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

She’d let the refresher go long, the water almost scalding until her skin was red and flushed and stinging. The Force. The AT-AT. Damak nearly dying. Talon’s U-wing on fire. Gremlin …

The first time she’d stepped into an A-wing, she’d felt free and full of purpose. She loved flying and taking the fight to the Empire was everything she’d ever dreamed of. Why was it so hard now? Why did it feel so frightening? Running her hands over the scars on her leg and stomach, she waited for some tinge of fear, but they never came. It wasn’t the wounds or the pain. In truth she’d barely felt any pain until after her surgeries.

In those moments before she passed out in the Death Star’s tunnel, she’d heard a voice. It had been her mother, but she had never heard her mother’s voice before. How could she know it?

Could it be the Force, like Krayt had suggested? Had she been sensitive to it all this time? If she was then why hadn’t it helped her? Why didn’t it save Hobbie or Risha? Why hadn’t it helped her get out of the Death Star? She’d given up and, if she was being honest with herself, she’d been glad.

The fighting felt never ending. That night before the battle, they’d sat on Sullust around a bonfire and said their goodbyes. She’d sung to them, all those friends in Red and it felt final. Except for Gremlin, who hadn’t been there. So she’d said goodbye to her in silence.

But here she was, alive and unfinished. Gremlin too. Her friend had nearly died today, as she’d almost died a hundred times. She’d risked herself for others, to give them a chance. Gremlin was a hero.

Angel was so tired of heroes. She wanted someone to be there. Needed someone to be there. Ever since Risha had climbed into her X-wing and disappeared, Angel hadn’t felt quite whole. Red Squadron had helped and it had given her a family. Shadow, her brother. Rogue, the scary cousin. Even Lock, the mystery who had reached out to her. She’d been honest with him then, honest with herself mostly.

Shutting off the refresher, she dried herself and made her way back into her quarters. Gremlin was already in bed, sleeping by the looks of it. Today had been hard on them both. After the debrief, they’d had one silent drink together. Angel hadn’t told her what Krayt had said regarding her and Shadow. She hadn’t even thought of it. Sharing a quiet moment with Gremlin had the best balm in the universe.

Padding close to her roommate’s bed, she sat on the edge. Gremlin’s purple hair had fallen across her eyes, so she reached out and brushed it back. When her fingers touched the Zeltron’s cheek, she felt an old, familiar twist in her gut.

“Stop being a hero,” she whispered. “Please? I--”

“No!” Gremlin’s shout made Angel shoot to her feet, but the other woman’s eyes were still closed. Her lips moved in silent agony and whimpers of pain that Angel knew too well echoed through the room.

Climbing in next to her, she wrapped her arms around the other woman and held her tight. “Grem, come back. It’s all right. It’s going to be alright.”

“Stop--too far--please don’t…”

“Grem.”

“I’m losing them all… stop, please!”

“Gemi,” she whispered directly into her ear, threading her hands through that purple hair. This time the other woman stiffened and gasped. Angel could feel her body tense and shiver. “It’s me. It’s Jeni.”

“Jeni.” Gremlin’s voice was just a whisper, soft against Angel’s cheek.

“It’s okay, you’re okay. We’re okay.”

“Are we?” Gremlin whispered, pulling back just enough that Angel could look into her eyes. Angel didn’t know what to say. Were they okay? Would they ever be okay again? What she knew, in that moment, was that Gremlin’s arms around her made her feel as safe as she’d ever been.

“Gemi?” she began, the twisting in her gut expanding into a storm that ran through her entire body. Her hand stroked the other woman’s cheek and in that moment, she could see nothing but her friend’s eyes, her lips, the warmth of her body. Her breath caught.

“Jeni,” Gemilan whispered, her arms tightening around her.

Then Angel kissed her. The war faded away. Death faded away. The kiss deepened and became something more. From then on there was only life and love and pleasure and the sense of everything finally being right for one moment.

They finally fell asleep tangled in each other’s arms and neither woke again in fear of the past.

END