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Phantom

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Book One: Gray

Chapter One: Purpose in Death

 

 

That is a big gun.” 

“Thank you for that very novel insight, Lieutenant,” a gruff voice said, garbled slightly over the outdated comm. “Now cut the chatter.”

A young, human face, framed by thick black hair and a roughspun hood, popped up over a centuries old felled trunk. She crouched, waiting with excited, ragged breaths, at the edge of the conifer tree line. Kira pressed her borrowed binoculars in a tight seal against her sweat-drenched brow. Though the monster was a familiar sight, her eyes still widened at the sight of the Beast.

Two hundred yards away, at the center of a massive First Order installation, was General Nara’s crowning achievement in the occupation of Ryloth. It was an aircraft defense tower, tall as any skyscraper in Coruscant’s upper city. And she could take down starships in orbit while annihilating any light fighters who dared get near the base. 

The Beast changed everything. The newly minted Rebellion — the real Rebellion, with the symbols and the fleet and the whole big deal — could not approach an entire hemisphere of Ryloth, even once they finally wanted to. Practically all Twi’lek air support in the province was grounded, and most of Ryloth’s starships were destroyed within days. The rest were left helplessly orbiting around Ryloth’s moons.

The Damen Province, the core of resistance against the First Order on Ryloth, turned into a no man’s land practically overnight. Every freedom fighter and refugee was forced into secret underground bunkers and hidden forest caves. With every passing day, the Beast turned its attention to bombarding more and more of the planet’s surface. Forests and villages and farms turned to smoking craters in seconds. And the growing First Order fleet above the planet was all too happy to chip in every now and again.

But Ryloth survived the Clone Wars. The Empire. The hard and rocky years in between. These punks calling themselves the First Order were no match for children of the Rebellion. Ryloth had faith and strength, which the First Order, despite all their might, was unable to quash. And that was before the Rebellion finally stepped up, offering their assistance.

At least, that was what Lieutenant Kira kept telling herself.

“This commander’s plan had better actually work,” a thickly accented voice whispered in Kira’s ear. The human ducked back behind the massive fallen tree to raise an eyebrow at her superior officer — a battle-scarred, blue-skinned Twi-lek — as she continued. “Because I still think it sounds like a suicide mission.”

“General Taenara, I’m wounded,” Kira said dramatically, holding a hand over her heart. “Do you trust my intel — and my people — or not?”

“Even if your intel is good — even if we can bring that cannon and its shields offline for a few minutes—”

“Commander Dameron will come through,” Kira insisted fiercely. “I’ve seen him in action before. We can trust him and his squad.”

“You’re blinded by your past, Kira,” Tae said softly. She placed one hand warmly on the human's shoulder. “No matter what the two of you share, no matter what you think you owe him, that doesn’t mean this plan is fated to work—” 

“The Force is strong with us,” Kira insisted, willing her prayer to be true. “And this isn’t about Poe and me. This is a good plan. A solid plan. You signed off on it, along with all the other generals. My faith in Commander Dameron's not blind. His record speaks for itself. And we will not let Ryl—”

“Positions. Ready Phase One.”

General Mika’s gruff voice sounded over the comm line like an electric shock, running throughout the entire Ryloth resistance surrounding the First Order base. Kira imagined she could feel it, resonating with the Force. She could feel their troops getting into position. She could feel the ships dropping out of hyperspace above, undetected. She could feel the First Order double agents on the ground disabling the sensor arrays. She could feel those same agents preparing to disable the Beast’s shields on the field below.

She could feel their imminent victory. Ryloth would be free. It had to be. Kira had a debt to pay. A promise to keep.

It was so tantalizingly close. So intoxicating and wonderful and perfect. So beautiful an ideal that she never felt the disturbance in the Force. The wrinkle in the flow of battle as they leaped from behind the treeline — blasters in hand, Blurgg-mounted cannons and tanks and repurposed old AT-STs at the ready — praying for glorious victory with every footfall in the dusty, parched earth.

Then, the Rebel fighter pilots arrived. A exuberant roar went up from Ryloth’s army at the sight of them, deafening over the comm channel, even in the chaos of battle. They brought a fleet of X-wings and A-wings, unopposed and wreaking havoc upon the base below. And, among them soared one of the most famous ships in the entire galaxy. Commander Dameron’s fresh-off-the-line, Rebellion-orange B-wing, it’s devastating main weapon priming to fire at the behemoth boogeyman at the other end of the battlefield.

And as it did, as Kira watched the red beams of the B-wing’s star destroyer destroying cannon come to a point, she knew.

She stopped mid-fight, paying little heed to the songs of battle around her, and shouted into the comm unit of her prosthetic left arm.

“Poe! Pull back! All fighters pull back! Now!”

“Who-”

The B-wing fired at the Beast, the points of red light from its four bladed wings coming into perfect harmony and creating a weapon of mass destruction. It released its torrent right at the base of the skyscraper, and the light immediately hit an invisible energy shield. The shield that was supposed to disabled. The shield that Kira’s agents were supposed to have disabled. The shield they had confirmation was disabled. And when the B-wing’s charge was spent — and Poe Dameron had flown past on his one and only real shot — the First Order’s trump card was left unscathed.

The Beast fired one of its anti-aircraft guns — a minute blast, compared to its full power — with devastating accuracy at one of the X-wings. And the cry that tore at the air — echoing over the Rebellion comm channel — was unforgettable.  

“Finn!”

More fighters went down in the sky above. But Kira barely noticed the fire as it swept over the once-blue sky of Ryloth. She never even heard Commander Dameron or General Mika give the order to retreat. All she saw was the single burning X-wing hurling toward the planet’s surface, about to crash right into the remainder of General Taenara’s squad.

All instinct, Kira fled her position — firing her blaster at any stormtrooper who dared stand in her way — and charged up the disk-shaped energy shield from her bracer. There was no chance this was going to work. She was going to die. They were all going to die.

She stormed toward Taenara. Toward the point where the X-wing was about to crash. Tae looked up from barrel of her gun toward the combusting sky, just in time take in Kira’s desperate attempt with wide, violet eyes. Kira grabbed her, pulled her, shielded her. And prayed. A fierce fire erupted around them, fighting the deflector shield, burning away its charge. Kira felt shockwaves and shrapnel blasting against the shield and the metal arm with which she wielded it, shaking and threatening to shatter her very bones. The deflector shield cracked and fractured. All that stood between the woman Kira loved and a great inferno was a few more seconds of its charge. And some ancient Mandalorian armor.

Then, the searing heat and pain — the shout of a raging monster — stopped. Somehow, it was enough.

Taenara was safely cradled against Kira’s body, unharmed. And, over the comm, a single furious voice roused Kira back to the moment at hand.

“Damn it, Tae, answer me!”

“I’m here, General,” Taenara coughed, looking up at Kira with confused but grateful eyes. Kira held the comm unit in her wrist up to Tae, keeping her other arm tightly wrapped around the Twi'lek's shoulders. “I’m alright, Mika. Dammit. We’ll meet you at the rendezvous.”

The two women helped each other up, looking around for a second at the carnage. The battlefield was oddly still, in the aftermath. Kira realized they must have been dazed by the blast for more than just a moment.

Crashed fighters littered the field. Tae’s squad was decimated. Most squadrons — Twi’lek and First Order alike — were just gone. Kira felt angry, hot tears welling to the corners of her eyes. Guilt and rage threatened to overtake her. Beneath her armor, where her prosthetic was bonded to her torso, searing pain erupted. Kira felt like her entire body was splintering from within, threatening to tear itself apart.

This was her fault. Her intelligence was faulty. And her agents? They failed. Or Kira had failed them. 

“Don’t start down that path,” Tae said, roughly taking Kira's face in both her hands. She watched the human warily. “You have no idea what happened. But we can hash out blame and demotions and court marshals later, if that’s what you want, my ayy. Right now we just have to survive. Come on, love.”

Kira wiped hastily at her tears, observing that Tae never bothered to hide her own. And then she felt it. The light. She held up a hand and tilted her head to listen. Not with her still-ringing ears, but with something else.

“This way!” Kira insisted, darting off back toward the tree-line, in the exact opposite direction of the rendezvous.

“For fuck’s sake — where are you — Kira!” 

Tae chased after her lieutenant, struggling to catch up as she limped on a sprained ankle and maneuvered over broken corpses. Kira glanced over her shoulder with every few steps, but she pressed forward. She fixated on her new target, knowing the general would be safe in her wake. Tae could curse her out for it later.

And thirty yards into the forest was an unconscious Rebel pilot. His signature bright orange flight suit was heavily stained with fresh blood. His parachute was already detached, a dead stormtrooper lay nearby, and a standard-issue blaster rested limply in the pilot's hand.

“Damn! He must have ejected safely, but he was pursued,” Tae said, kneeling down next to him mournfully. “Hell of an ironic way to go — oh! He’s breathing!”

“Of course he is,” Kira chuckled with a small, sad smile. She knelt down next to the pilot. “Why do you think we’re here?”

“How did you even — oh, right,” Tae stopped herself, rolling her eyes. “You know, you could have told me that’s why we were running here five damn minutes ago.

“No time,” Kira said. She applied heavy pressure to the shrapnel wound in his bicep. “Lacerated a major artery. He’s lost a lot of blood. Give me your scarf or a medipac or something, and call it in.”