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The Bloody Bantha


by Lock, Gremlin, Frosty and Flash

[Hyperspace].

Blue. Swirling blue. Endless swirling blue.

A constant, never ending. It was all you could see in all directions—left, right, up, down, front and back. The first time you entered hyperspace it was amazing, later it became soothing. Sometimes it was an annoyance or a huge waste of time. Sometimes, it became a refuge.

Hyperspace.

You couldn't see other ships in hyperspace; most communications didn't even work in this void. Essentially, you were all alone. An X-Wing flew through it at incalculable speeds, making its way towards the rendezvous location set in its navigation computer. It was still some way away, but it would arrive within the hour. That didn't matter to the pilot sitting inside the cockpit, though. He felt that even if he did reach the location physically, his mind and soul were still back in the Selitan System with the pilots that would never leave it.

Lieutenant Roy "Lock" Callahan sat completely still in the cockpit. He'd taken off his helmet so his nest of black hair was visible. He held his helmet on his lap, though his grip felt limp. The Corellian's face was etched in stone: emotionless, expressionless. His dark eyes looked forward, not focused on anything in particular. His breathing was slow and his body, tense from the recent battle, tried uselessly to relax. Lock simply sat in the X-Wing, doing nothing.

Hyperspace always emitted a blue glow. Now it was reflecting through the transparisteel cockpit of the starfighter, illuminating Lock's face in a tainted blue. The pilot didn't seem to notice, though, he remained as he was. Motionless.

Behind him, plugged into a socket, was his astromech. R2-F8, or Fate, was completely black with white trims. Lock always said he liked that the droid was that color as it made him less visible to TIE pilots that might try to snipe the little guy... not that Lock cared much for droids anyways. He had never been the type of pilot that got attached to them, although he'd had Fate ever since joining the Rebellion. Lock had always seen droids for what they were: tools. Fate was often enough a victim of memory wipes, but was very much oblivious to this little fact.

Though usually somewhat annoying to the Corellian pilot, right now Fate was quietly running diagnostics over and over—there was nothing else it could do at the moment. The droid whistled softly, a sad little hoot and toot that the stoic pilot ignored.

Lock was oblivious... his mind was elsewhere.

Hyperspace.

A constant, never ending. It was all you could see in all directions—left, right, up, down, front and back. The first time you entered hyperspace it was amazing, later it became soothing. Sometimes it was an annoyance or a huge waste of time.

Sometimes, it became a refuge.

***

[Briefing Room; Kay Ron Base]

"As you all may have noticed," Lock began the briefing, "the mission did not turn out as planned … but we still completed it. Starfighter Command sends its congratulations."

His voice was cold; it didn't convey much emotion. The undertone though was suggestive. To none of the five pilots in the room, including Lock, did the outcome of the mission seem a success. Only Wire, Sensei, Gremlin and Lock had survived out of the Banthas. Alien had survived but had lost her right arm in the process, which made the Sullustian incapable of rejoining the squadron. Even if the Alliance had the resources to provide an adequate prosthetic, the rehabilitation of losing an entire arm and learning how to use the new robotic would take well over a year. But at least she was alive, unlike seven other members of Bantha Squadron.

There was no response from the pilots. They all sat around the briefing room with tired and glum expressions on their faces. Lock couldn't blame them. They had just gone through a terrible battle, one that had cost far too much. Then, as soon as they had gotten back to Kay Ron Base, they had gone through the debriefing process. Now they were towards the end... all of the pilots in the room wanted to break off and deal with the pain of so many lost friends in their own way.

Lock was in the same position... he was still having a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that Jet had died. Lock had known him forever... and now he was gone. What was he going to do now? Would he be forced to lead this unit in Jet's place? Would he have to conduct his funeral? Send his empty casket into space with the full honors of a hero? Lock wasn't sure that he could actually face that just yet. He needed time. He didn’t expect to get any, though.

"I'm going to make this short," he said finally. He looked to each of the pilots in turn, speaking slowly. "I know this is hard... our first mission wasn't supposed to end like this. But you all fought well today; be proud of that. You saved dozens of lives. Hundreds. I'm proud of you. The funeral is tomorrow at fourteen-hundred hours. For now, get some rest. You all deserve it." He stopped next to Alien. "Alien, I'd like to talk to you after the briefing. The rest of you, dismissed."

Wire, Sensei and Gremlin shuffled away slowly. Eventually, though, Lock and Alien were alone. For a minute or so they were completely quiet, unsure of how to begin this conversation that they knew they had to have.

"So," Alien was the first to speak up. "What happens with Bantha?"

"I don't know," Lock replied, looking at the Sullustan. "I expect that we'll be one flight. Probably start doing some sort of escort duty here and there."

"There's only four pilots in a flight, Lock."

"I know."

"What happens to me?"

There was silence for a very long moment.

"I don't know," Lock finally replied.

"Of course you know, Lock! I can't fly again!" Alien stood up, staring directly at the Corellian pilot. "I'm useless in Starfighter Command! I'm useless to the Rebellion and you know it! You know what you have to do ... don't make me force you ..."

"I've already lost enough today." Lock's tone was suddenly serious; stern, even. His eyes were fixed on Alien and his bow furled; he seemed to be holding something in. "I don't know what's going to happen to you, but you're not useless. I'll find something."

There was silence again between the two.

"I know it's hard, Roy ..."

"I said that I'll find something, Officer Drugo," he told her. There was to be no arguing with him at this point. "You're dismissed. Go get some rest. I've got work to do."

Alien snapped a salute with her remaining arm. "Yes, sir!" she said, then pivoted and marched out of the briefing room. As soon as she was gone, Lock let out a long sigh and sat down on the edge of the holoprojector in the center of the room. He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and simply sat there.

"Kriff it." he said, then got up and left.

***

[Landing Pad; Kay Ron Base]

Lock's work was still not done.

He should have been finishing up the last few pieces of paperwork but he finally decided that he'd had more than he could handle for one day and made his way towards the landing pad that they had built on Kay Ron Base. It was an exterior pad so pilots could take off at a moment's notice. It was a good thing that the weather here, unlike Rainworld, was stable and generally very pleasant throughout the planet's natural yearly cycle. He should’ve been doing paperwork; instead he was here.

With all the debriefing and after-mission work that the Corellian had had to handle, he hadn't even had the opportunity to even give his fighter a damage assessment. He knew that Fate would be mulling around the X-Wing, already diagnosing everything to give Lock a quick read-out on the snubfighter as soon as he asked for it. The black R2 unit would also give the same report to the mechanics on duty, making sure that the fighter received the proper maintenance when Lock was too busy with other duties to attend 100% to his starfighter. This was clearly one of those cases, though he had managed to find the time anyhow. There were other reasons that he had decided to go to the hangar, though, one of which came to mind when he saw the Rimward Liberty settled on the landing platform.

As he exited onto the pad, he looked around. The place seemed desolate; everyone was resting after such a hard mission. Lock hadn't expected to find anyone here. All for the best. He headed for his X-Wing and, as expected, there was Fate, diagnostic ready. Lock began to go through it, doing whatever possible to take his mind off of those seven pilots that had lost their lives for the Rebellion.

A few minutes later, unseen by Lock, another person made their way onto the landing-pad, though the reason for their visit was very different to the lieutenant's. Since being dismissed from the briefing, Gemilan had been unable to settle. She had prowled the base until realisation had dawned: there was someone who would listen to her and not be upset.

Li'l Leo's dome lights flashed in greeting as she sat down beside him, the ferrocrete of the landing pad rough against the palms of her hands, her battered X-wing dwarfing them both. Gemi shivered, pulling her grey Imperial jacket around her; she hadn't felt truly warm since Saber died, the first of the losses she had personally witnessed. "Oh, Leo ... Leo, I wish ..." Her voice broke and she leaned against the astromech, quietly sobbing, as the little R2 unit gave a mournful hoot that only served to underscore her loss.

“Gremlin,” said a voice behind the young female pilot.

Lock stood at a distance of a few meters, watching the woman crying on the ferrocrete floor of the exterior hangar. There were dark bags under his black eyes because he had not slept since the day they had left Kay Ron Base to liberate the prisoners of the Demagol. A soft breeze of wind blew past them and Lock’s dark hair flowed with it. He had heard her arrive, hidden behind his own X-Wing. He’d come over to ask her if she had a hydrospanner he could use but instead found her like this.

Other than her name, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t know exactly what to say... he didn’t remember his first mission, didn’t remember the first time a squadmate had died. He knew that feeling of emptiness, but didn’t know how to fill it. Lock had gotten used to that empty hole created by the deaths of so many pilots. It was a hole that never filled; it came with the uniform, like a built-in subroutine in his X-wing.

She twisted round at the sound of his voice, raising one hand to hide her face. Gemi had established an uneasy relationship with Lock during her cadetship at Rainworld Academy; they had clashed on several occasions, notably over his training methods. She would have preferred anyone other than him to see her crying, but it was obvious that he had spotted her distress. Gemi dropped her hand and gazed at Lock, defiance intermixed with despair.

"How do you do it?" she asked, her voice low. "How do you keep going when we've lost so many today? Our first mission and the Banthas barely exist any more. Liz ... Saber ... Jet ..." Her voice wobbled and she blinked hard, palming moisture from her cheeks.

For a long moment there was no response from the dark-haired Corellian.

“I just keep flying,” he finally replied. His voice was low and he spoke slowly. “Keep going forward at full speed, knowing that every meter I advance is because of them.”

Lock stopped and looked at the red-skinned woman for a moment. Then he stepped towards her, closing the space between the two. She watched him, eyes wary, her shoulders hunched beneath the Imperial jacket. Slowly he sat down next to Gemi and sighed, as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders. He remembered when he was her age, when he saw another being die for the first time. When he killed another being as well. When he saw friends die.

“It never gets easier,” he continued, gazing towards the edge of the landing platform where the darkened forest hugged the buildings of Kay Ron base in a protective embrace. “But I keep on flying and fighting. I realize,” he paused slightly, as if he were considering his words carefully, “that I’m no longer fighting because I want to overthrow the Empire, but because they did. Because... even if they are gone, their hopes and dreams remain, who they were.

“Some are closer than others,” Lock thought of Jet, “others you really never get to know. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that those that remain make sure that their deaths were not in vain.” Lock became quiet. He didn’t want to dishearten her by saying too much, by talking about how soon faces would begin to disappear, how soon memories would begin to mix with others.

Gemi had hugged her knees to her chest as he spoke, turning her head to watch the play of emotions across his face, which was dimly illuminated by the glow of Leo’s lights. When he fell silent, she looked forwards again, thinking about what he had said. The night-time breeze brushed over them, lifting Lock’s unruly hair, and Gemi sniffed, dragging her hand across her nose in a gesture that only served to underscore her youth.

“I’m glad,” she said eventually, her voice light against the wind. “Glad that, if I die,”she tilted her head to look at him directly, “you’ll keep fighting. For my family - and all the others,” she added, in case he thought her selfish. A faint smile touched her lips, but her eyes remained bright with tears. “When we were cadets, on Rainworld, you said we’d probably last five missions. We won’t even get that far, will we, sir?”

“You know, today we fought a battle that not many pilots, even experienced pilots, would have survived,” he told her. “I think that says something... I’m very proud of you guys. You all proved to be superior pilots, pilots capable of surviving even in the worst of situations.”

His sincerity was obvious, but Gemi closed her eyes against the memories his words invoked. Shuddering, she re-lived the dread she had felt when a TIE fighter had her in its sights and she had known, with total clarity, that she was going to die. Though it would have been easier to keep quiet and accept the Lieutenant's compliments, Gemi felt she owed him the truth.

"I-I'm not a superior pilot, though." Her confession was whispered, barely louder than the breeze. "I shouldn't be here. That TIE commander - Larson? - he had me dead in space. I knew I was going to be vaped for sure. And then ... he didn't fire." A world of confusion and shame was in her voice. "He just flew away, back to the battle, and that's when I found Captain Avern and fed my telemetry to her R2 unit so she could see and I became her wingman for the rest of the fight." She turned to look Lock full in the face.

"I didn't survive because I'm a superior pilot. I survived because an Imperial ace decided not to kill me, simple as that. And if he could do that to me, why did he not choose Liz? Toro? Any of the others? What did I do that made him decide to spare my life?" Gemi thumped her chest with her fist, anger flaring as she tried to express her emotional turmoil. On her other side, Leo tootled in an attempt to soothe his pilot, but without noticeable effect.

Lock smiled softly at the red-skinned Zeltron. “Gremlin... the life of a starfighter pilot is twenty-five percent skill, twenty-five percent heart and fifty percent luck,” he told her. “Never take for granted the gift that you have and that others lost.”

Those few words, delivered in a gentle tone but carrying the weight of personal experience, left Gemi feeling like a spoiled child. What right did she have to complain about being alive when so many had died? The anger leaked from her and she dropped her forehead to her upturned knees to hide tears that had welled up as Lock’s comment sank in.

Her voice was choked. “I don’t … I mean …” she paused, sniffed and tried again, raising her head to speak more clearly, “I won’t let that happen, sir. Never again.” Leo chirped a trill of notes, as if underscoring her determination, and Gemi gave the little astromech a wavering smile. Visibly she pulled herself together, hugging the purloined Imperial jacket around herself as she turned back to Lock.

“D-did you want me for something, sir? Is that why you’re here?” Maybe, if she acted like a pilot instead of an immature, self-absorbed girl, he’d forget what she had just said. She would never forget his words, though.

Lock smiled at her and stood up. He offered her his hand, “Yeah, I was going to ask to borrow a hydrospanner.”

She looked up at him before managing an answering smile. “I have a spare in my toolkit, in my X-wing’s compartment.” Gemi accepted Lock’s outstretched hand, levering herself to her feet. Briefly they stood face to face, silently acknowledging the moment, then turned towards the battered fighters.

***

[On board Rimward Liberty; Kay Ron Base]

It had been a pretty awful few days for everyone concerned, even for Jack “Frosty” McCauley, who didn’t consider himself personally affected by all the losses. Sure, he’d known some of the pilots who had died but they weren’t his friends; you had to be pretty stupid to make friends with people straddling the thin line between death and life all the time. But nevertheless the mood surrounding Kay Ron Base was starting to get to McCauley and he wasn’t sure how to escape it. There was no point going to see the usually bubbly Gemilan; he knew she’d be feeling thoroughly miserable. Had the girl even seen anyone die before yesterday? Of course she had, she’d seen him die. But this time was different.

So he approached the Rimward Liberty ready to bask in the warm glow of the whiskey aboard, happier in the knowledge that escapism would soon be his. Except when he got there he was quite disturbed to find the ramp of his ship was already down. Uttering a minor curse he pulled out his blaster pistol and walked up the ramp slowly.

Stalking the corridors of his ship, he felt his anger rise slowly as the smell of whiskey wafted through the ship; an open container showed some of his prize imports were missing. He walked, blaster gripped tightly, into the cargo bay. Then, like a gust of wind had taken his anger and replaced it with calm, he placed the blaster back in his holster carefully and approached the figure sitting on the cargo bay floor.

Deflated, the young pilot sat across from McCauley, his dark flight suit adding a sombre tone to his dark hair, making him look like the Universe had personally just punched him in the gut. He didn’t look like the young man McCauley knew him to be, nor did he look like a proud leader or a cocky pilot. Right now he looked pathetic. McCauley approached Lock and gently took the whiskey bottle from the man’s hand. Lock didn’t make a sound.

Jack reached into a crate and produced two glasses before sitting opposite Lock on the floor. He poured himself a glass before passing one to the other pilot. Lock picked it up gently and for the first time his eyes seemed to focus, briefly, on Jack. It sent shivers down Jack’s spine; the look in Lock’s eyes was one he recognised and dreaded. He raised his glass and drank the whiskey. So did Lock.

“You’ll never forget him,” Jack said gently. Lock simply passed his glass back so it could be refilled; Jack obliged. He drank his whiskey once more. “You never forget.”

***

[Selitan System]

There was a sudden jolt and his X-Wing shook. Inertial dampening was down. Lock could hear Fate wail in the background but his sight was compromised as soon as the smoke began to leak into his cockpit. His eyes watered and he immediately started to have a hard time breathing. His fighter was hit again and Lock felt himself jolt forward again, this time smacking his forehead against the starfighter’s canopy.

That’s when he began to react again. “Frak!” he cursed as he tried to get his bearings.

Where was he? What was happening? Ah, yes, the Selitan System. What had originally been a simple mission to capture an Imperial prison barge had turned into an all-out fiasco. First, their command ship was not large enough to accommodate all the prisoners, and then they had been attacked by a squadron of gunboats. X-Wings were evenly matched against gunboats, but this was also Bantha Squadron’s first mission. They had lost Rider and Saber, as well as the command ship. Alien would never fly again. They had been forced onto the disabled prisoner barge for many hours as engineers tried to get the Demagol operational again. It had been enough time for the Empire to send reinforcements; now the rookie Bantha pilots were fighting a horde of TIE Interceptors, commanded by the Imperial-class Star Destroyer Battle of New Plympto. They had already lost Toro, Berserker, and Liz. The Demagol was barely starting to move.

Lock stared for a moment, desperation starting to creep in. He had been in dozens upon dozens of dogfights, both in the Empire and the Rebellion and he had rarely found himself in a situation like this. He took a deep breath of the smoke-filled air.

Bantha Five! Do you read me, Bantha Five?

The voice of a woman rang in his ear: Purple Six, Flight Officer Racyne “Ice” Vel Aath, his wingmate. Lock started moving, he could barely breathe at this point. “Fa...te...” he croaked. “Ve...ent....”

In a moment all the oxygen was gone from the cockpit, along with the smoke and the smothered fire. Lock banged his hand against the control panel as Fate started letting oxygen back into the cockpit. He started taking in deep breaths, at first nothing but the desperate thought that he was suffocating and then finally of air. Suddenly he could breathe again... now he could get started. “Fate! Get that compensator working!” There was a whistle and the spinning feeling disappeared. Lock pulled back on his flight stick. “Pee-Six! This is Five! I’ve got it under control!”

“Good thing, Five, we’re leaving!”

“What?” Lock sat up in his chair and started flicking through the comm frequencies till he found the one he was looking for. “Jet?” “Where were you, Lock? I’ve been trying to reach you, thought you were a goner!” The relief was evident in the voice of Captain Dirr “Jet” Sol, leader of the fledgling Bantha Squadron.

“You know me,” Lock replied. “Sitrep?”

“We’re on the bounce, Demagol is almost at the jump point. We’re rendezvousing there; she jumps, then us. Got it?”

“Copy that, Lead!”

“Lead, this is Twelve, we have a squadron of interceptors on an incoming course,” Sensei said over the comm. His voice was agitated, Lock noticed, a sign of a relatively novice pilot albeit him being twice as old as most of the others. “They’re making a move on the Demagol”.

“Punch a hole for them, Banthas!” called out Jet.

Lock didn’t need to wait to hear more. “All right, Six, follow me closely.”

“Copy that,” Ice replied. “Try not to get shot, yes?”

Lock smirked. She sounded nervous, but that was to be expected in a situation like this. “I’ll do my best, Six. Avenge me if I do, though!”

“Deal!”

In less than half a minute they had made contact with the enemy. TIE Interceptors outnumbered them so badly that Lock found himself not only chasing after a squint (the pilot’s nickname for a TIE Interceptor), but being chased himself by two more as well. Ice herself was busy, so there wouldn’t be any help for quite a few minutes as the dogfight got hairier and hairier. Lock managed to take out the first squint and cut his thrusters to a full stop. It was an old trick used by pilots when confronted with faster starfighters; it caused the enemy TIEs to overshoot his fighter and place him behind. He put a second Interceptor between his crosshairs and squeezed the trigger, destroying a second TIE minutes apart. It wasn’t long after he had vanquished his third foe and had gone off in search of his wingmate when the words that they were all hoping to hear came through:

“That’s it! Demagol is away! All starfighters, escape to hyperspace and meet at rendezvous coordinates!” called the mission leader, Captain Avern, who was going by the designation of Red One.

Jet was on the comm immediately after. “You heard her, Banthas! Let’s get out of - -frak!”

Static suddenly overcame Jet’s communication and Lock saw an X-Wing erupt in an explosion of flame a few dozen meters away. It took Lock a couple of seconds to realize it: Jet had been hit. Jet was dead. Frak. Jet was dead! Lock froze: what was he supposed to do now? Suddenly he felt detached from everything. Jet was dead.

“Five!”

He couldn’t frakking believe it.

“Five!”

Jet was dead.

“Five! Answer me!”

Who was that? A female voice? Ah, yes, Ice. She wasn’t dead. Sudden realization hit Lock. She wasn’t dead, and neither were many others, especially Banthas.

“Banthas! Get the frak out of here, that’s an order!” he barked. He started pulling on his starfighter’s controls and began to head towards the jump point.

“But, sir!” Gremlin’s voice. “Sir! Lead is--”

“Shut up, Eleven!” Lock said loudly over his comm. “Get the frak out of here!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Pee-Six, that means you, too!”

“Thought you’d never ask!”

X-Wings started racing away from the swarm of TIE interceptors. Lock saw Lancer’s X-Wing succumb to fire from enemy forces. Another Bantha dead. One by one friendlies disappeared from his radar--he couldn’t tell if they were being destroyed or if they were making it to hyperspace. He fell into formation with Ice’s X-Wing and saw her fighter’s S-Foils contract. Moments later she was in hyperspace.

Lock was alone on the battlefield, suddenly. The place that Jet had died... The wave of emotion began to take over him again. He felt his grip begin to loosen on his flight stick. Maybe if he just stayed...

“Bantha Five, what the frak are you doing?” a voice suddenly asked. Captain Avern, mission leader.

Lock didn’t respond.

“Five, get out of here, that’s an order.”

He still didn’t respond. He was decided.

“If you’re staying I’m staying, too. If you die, I’m probably gonna die, too.”

“Get out of here, Red One,” Lock finally said. He did not need anyone to die with him. Jet already had; that was enough.

“I’m not moving. Now get your ass into hyperspace... that next wave of squints will be on us in thirty seconds,” she told him.

For a moment, Lock considered staying. If she wanted to die, that was her problem. He was going to die anyway; it was just a matter of time if he survived this mission or not. Just like Jet had died, Lock would die. She would probably die, too. It was just a matter of time. But did he really want to die? Did he want to cause Avern’s death? No, he felt like dying... but he did not want to die, much less drag this crazy Mandalorian woman along with him.

“Frak!” he cursed and slammed his fists on the console on his fighter.

He grabbed the flight stick and pulled on it, returning towards the hyperjump point.

“Thank you, Five,” he heard Avern say in her typical emotionless voice.

He didn’t reply, he simply jumped to hyperspace.

To refuge.

***

[Quarters; Kay Ron Base]

BUZZ!

BUUUUZZ!

The door’s buzzer sounded again, much to the annoyance of the hungover man laying on the couch of his makeshift quarters. Lock had been drinking all night with Frosty after speaking with Gremlin and wasn’t in any condition to meet with anyone. That was part of the reason that he’d turned off his commlink last night... he wanted to be alone. He wanted to be intoxicated and alone.

“I’m going...” he muttered, his eyes still closed. He had said it very low, but the sound of his own voice still caused him pain. BUUUUUUZZZZZZ!!! “I SAID... I’M GOING, FOR FORCE’S SAKE!” Pain shot through his head, making his writhe on the couch while cradling his head for a few seconds. He opened his eyes and light seared his retinas, causing temporary blindness.

With a loud groan he heaved himself off the couch and stood on wobbly legs. His eyes were having trouble focusing with the new light of morning and the incessant war drums beating behind his skull. The mere action of standing up threw his stomach into a disarray of confusion -- as far as it was concerned, Lock should not be moving under these conditions. Wearing nothing but his pair of boxers and a face that said “I’m-hungover-and-would-much-like-to-die-now,” he stumbled towards the sound.

He threw himself upon the door with a loud THUNK and a stubbed toe. Cursing, he opened the door and narrowed his eyes in a sleepy manner in an attempt to discover who was there while letting in as little light as possible. All he accomplished was closing his eyes completely - they refused to open and suffer the blinding light emitted by this system’s sun.

What?” he asked, not even knowing who he was addressing.

Meg Avern stood in the entrance, looking over the place and the man standing before her. She couldn’t believe what she was about to do, but she kept telling herself that it was the best option for all concerned, including her. “Lieutenant, I’m here to talk to you about your future.”

“My future?” His eyes fluttered open, then he blinked a few times as he recognized the short woman in full Mandalorian battle armor.

“Yes,” she replied. “General Nole has ordered the surviving pilots to be grouped together into a single squadron; he feels that it would be too time-consuming and take up too many personnel to try and reform all the individual squadrons to full strength. This includes the former Banthas.”

“Uh... well ...,” he began. The hangover was killing him. “Would you, ah, like to come in?”

Avern walked into the room without a word and stood in its center. The place was an absolute mess, which seemed to mirror its owner well. She waited until the man had turned to face her before she continued. “The new unit will be called Red Squadron, a homage to the heroes of the Battle of Yavin. Nole has placed me in provisional command of the group.”

Lock stared at her. The pain in his head was slowing his ability to comprehend the short Mando women in full battle armor. “Please, have a seat, Captain,” he told her. “One moment to get dressed.”

Avern looked around for a place to sit and decided upon the ejection seat that doubled as a lounging chair. It felt a bit uneasy in her beskar’gam, but she made do. “Thank you,” she finally said, though she personally was still deciding if he really should be thanked for the gesture. If I fall over, I will shoot him.

Lock, meanwhile, walked into the bedroom and pulled on the first clean flightsuit he could find. He had his things half-unpacked as usual; the life of a starfighter pilot was on the move. Making his way slowly back to the room where Flash was waiting for him, he walked past her towards the kitchen area that some officers had the pleasure of having in their quarters. Lock opened the refrigeration unit and pulled out a packet of hot chocolate, tossed it into the heater and started warming it.

“Want something?” he asked the woman. “I don’t have caf, but I have hot chocolate and...” he glanced back into the refrigeration unit, “that’s about it.”

The Mandalorian stared back at Lock in complete silence.

“I guess not,” muttered Lock under his breath.

The hum of the heating oven was the only sound for what felt like decades. Only ten seconds passed, though, before a ring announced that Lock’s chocolate was ready for consumption. He pulled the mug from it and left the kitchen area of his room, settling himself on an old ejection seat on the opposite side of the coffee table that now separated Lock and Avern. Lock took a sip from his hot chocolate and looked from over the rim at Avern. After a moment he set the mug on the table.

“... So?”

“The Banthas are to be amalgamated into Red Squadron under my command.” Avern wasted no time. “You are going to be my XO.”

Lock, still very much hungover, could only blink.

Avern stood up, having completed her goal. “Right, Lieutenant,” she said. “Today is the funeral. Tomorrow I expect the Banthas to be at the Squadron Briefing at oh-eight-hundred.”

“Uh... okay...”

“Is that how you reply to your commanding officer, Lieutenant?” she asked, her voice becoming suddenly sharper through the mechanical communicator in her helmet.

Lock snapped into the position of attention, his arms at his sides, facing rigidly forwards.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Don’t call me ‘sir.’”

“Yes, Captain.”

Avern gave him a look over, “Shave,” she told him. “And find some sunnies. You look like shit, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Without another word Avern turned and left Lock’s quarters. Once she was gone, Lock relaxed and slumped back onto the chair. He looked at the door through which the Mandalorian had just passed and sighed heavily. He touched his face, feeling the stubble. Maybe I do need to shave, he thought.

“Kriff it,” Lock said wearily.

***

[Landing Pad, Kay Ron Base]

It was odd, Sensei thought, how a lifetime spent studying philosophy did not make it easier to deal with the consequences of sudden, violent death. Especially when those who died had been friends and comrades, fellow cadets, pilots all. Members of Bantha Squadron.

Seledesnoi stood now alongside the remaining Banthas, his thin face sombre, four of his six arms drooping at his sides. He had accepted intellectually that it might come to this when he gave up his professor’s post and dropped the secrecy that had surrounded his membership of the Rebellion. Starfighter training had been challenging, yet it had also brought unexpected benefits - the friendship with his fellow cadets, especially young Gremlin, chief among them. And how many philosophy professors could say they had fought dogfights among the stars, defeating gravity, cheating death?

If only that could have been true of all the squadron members.

One by one, Captain Mii'sui read the names of the dead. He had already performed this solemn duty once that day aboard the newly renamed Ugly Mynock, formerly Demagol), mourning the crewmembers who had lost their lives in the Selitan system. The occasion had been relayed by holo to the Kay Ron base, so personnel there could join in the memorial. All the Banthas had attended, along with Captain Avern, Frosty, and the three new pilots who had fought so fiercely the day before. But this commemoration was far more personal. Here, the Banthas stood alone before the ranks of Rebel support workers from the base.

To Sensei, it felt as if the missing squadron members were standing behind him, barely out of sight. If he turned quickly, he should be able to catch a glimpse of them - Jet, the consummate leader; cocky young Toro; Liz, the proud Barabel - but they were a trick of hope and memory now, their atoms returned to the universe. Sensei recalled those philosophers who had argued for the existence of an afterlife. Perhaps he should re-read their works. They would have much more meaning now.

Captain Mii'sui had stopped speaking. The roar of X-wing engines was growing louder. All those gathered on the landing-pad looked upwards, some narrowing their eyes against the afternoon sun. A flight of X-wings appeared over the forest canopy, flying low, keeping close formation - the newcomers Ice, Raven and Blaze, paying their own respects to the dead. They were led by Lock.

As the flight crossed the landing-pad Lock's X-wing soared upwards in the classic "Missing Man" formation, a tribute practised almost as long as pilots had existed. Four points of light from the Incom engines faded into the bright sky as the remaining fighters completed their flypast, the empty space in their formation a mute reminder of loss. Sensei heard Gremlin's sudden intake of breath as the symbolism struck home. He, too, felt grief pressing in on him; on his other side Wire was swallowing convulsively while Alien simply gazed after the X-wings with longing in her eyes, her injured arm pressed against her flightsuit to hide the missing extremity.

The funeral parade was dismissed. As Mii'sui and Avern left, the remaining Banthas stood together in a loose huddle, not wanting to unravel the ties that bound them all. The three X-wings from the flypast landed nearby, buffeting them with sound and engine-blasts. Finally Alien said, in a voice rough with unshed tears, "Kriff this. I need a drink. Who's with me?" Nobody declined. They left the landing-pad, stopping only to invite the three new pilots to join them.

When the pad was clear, the fourth and final X-wing came in to land. It wasn't the neatest manoeuvre but Lock was past caring. His headache, which had been reduced to modest proportions by pain meds and hot chocolate, crashed back now that he didn't have to focus on flying.

The Corellian eased off his helmet. With a sigh, he remembered past missions with the original Bantha Squadron, before Rainworld Academy. Back when he had been a new recruit to the Rebel cause, when he and Jet had been flight officers; long before anyone had ever heard of a Death Star. Even after ... he shied away from thinking about that terrible day. Even then, the Banthas had continued. Now they were to be disbanded.

"As long as we live, we'll still be Banthas. I promise you that much, Jet. We won't forget."

And echoing through memory, he heard his friend's laugh one more time.

***

[Briefing Room; Kay Ron Base]

The chatter in the briefing room was muted. Many of the pilots looked tired, sitting slumped in their seats. They straightened half-heartedly as Captain Avern marched up to the podium, Callahan a pace behind. The Mandalorian paused, surveying the scene, then barked, "Atten-SHUN!"

Ten pilots stood, with varying degrees of alacrity. Avern watched them, inscrutable behind her helmet, mentally tallying the names. They were a rag-tag bunch, for sure - survivors of several major encounters. Enquiries were continuing into the fate of Purple Squadron; once these had been completed, their dead would also be remembered in an official ceremony. The trio who had attached themselves to the Rimward Liberty were now officially part of the new unit. Even if more survivors of Purple Squadron were found, Ice, Raven and Blaze would not be returning.

Avern cleared her throat, the helmet comm rendering the noise as a grinding rasp. "Be seated." Behind her, Lock took up an "at ease" stance as the pilots returned to their seats though now they were alert, aware that something was about to happen.

"It's time to focus on the future," Avern began without preamble. "General Nole has asked me to command a new X-wing squadron, with Lieutenant Callahan as my Executive Officer. You have all been assigned to this new unit. Training begins immediately and I expect we shall be operational very quickly, such is the demand for starfighter pilots." Avern paused. They were all watching her now, their expressions intent. A smile crossed her lips, but it was hidden by her helmet.

"Pilots," the Mandalorian looked around the room at the members of the Rebellion's latest strike force, "welcome to Red Squadron!”