“Bombers in position?”
“Waiting for the fun to start,” Nath Tensent said into his comm, though it struck him as he said it that this was the least fun he’d had in weeks. He called out his coordinates to the Lodestar, leaning back as the Y-wing rumbled around him. “How about you, Chass?”
“You know I’m in position. You can see me floating to starboard,” she answered. “I’m the speck that doesn’t handle well in wind.”
Nath’s display blinked and he read T5’s commentary. His astromech droid had a foul imagination. He grinned and refrained from sharing the message for the sake of the flight control officer. “Just let us know when you’ve got work for us. We’ll keep our eyes on the shield,” he said, and ceased transmitting to the ground.
By now, Wyl and Quell were streaking toward the capital, low enough to slip below the energy shield and make for the generators. Until the shield was down, though, there wasn’t much for Nath or Chass or Hail Squadron to do—their assault craft didn’t have the speed or agility to follow the A-wing and X-wing, and the enemy wasn’t stupid enough to send forces out from cover.
So they waited.
“You picking your songs?” Nath asked.
He heard the petulance in Chass’s voice: “How long do you think it takes me?”
“So you’re not busy, then? I’ve got a pack of cards—”
“You got a week’s pay to bet?”
“Sure,” Nath repeated.
His week’s pay wasn’t the same as Chass’s, but she didn’t need to know that. Caern Adan was still lining Nath’s pockets, as he had been since the founding of the working group.
Originally, Adan had treated Nath as his personal agent, offering regular deposits of credits in return for the occasional side job. Now that Adan had a whole division working for him, both men understood the new deal without speaking openly of it: Adan’s payments were meant to keep Nath silent as much as keep him on the squadron.
Nath had learned things about Yrica Quell that Adan was choosing to keep quiet. Nath was fine with that. He could use the extra cash.
Nath pulled a deck from under his seat. He and Chass played a slow, awkward hand of full open sabacc, occasionally pausing when someone announced progress on the ground. “What do you say about a side wager?” he asked. “Suppose the governor’s got a surprise waiting for us down there?”
Chass laughed loud enough for the cockpit speaker to crackle. “‘Course he does. No bet.”
Nath shrugged and scratched beneath his helmet’s chin strap. Chass wasn’t the brightest member of the squadron, but she wasn’t an idiot. “What’s your prediction? For the whole battle?”
“My prediction is that Wyl and Quell fly into a firestorm. They scrape by, take out the shield generators anyway, and by the time we get down there it’s all easy flying. Still a meatgrinder for the ground troops, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Nath liked the troops of the Sixty-First, but he’d learned before ever joining the military that infantry didn’t survive long. It was why he’d picked the navy instead of the army. “Guess in a few hours, the planet will be ours. Maybe Quell or Adan will share their plans for us, then.”
He noticed the uncertainty in her silence even before her awkward reply. “Right.”
Now that’s interesting.
“You figure they’ll keep holding back?” he asked. It wasn’t a question he especially cared about, but it was a probe fired off into the night.
“Probably,” Chass said.
Nath turned the conversation over in his head and grinned. “You don’t want to see Shadow Wing again, do you?”
Chass swore. Nath silenced her transmission and replied to a status update from the ground before he caught the end of her signal: “—you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure I do,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Truth is, I don’t think Wyl much wants to run into them again either.”
“He tell you that?”
“Wyl’s a good kid. He’ll grow into a half-decent commander if he gets the chance. But he isn’t exactly hard to read.”
That got a snort from Chass, though she didn’t say a word. Nath considered sharing what Wyl had told him but decided to keep the boy’s confidence. They’d spent an evening together dancing around the subject, Wyl expressing his gentle frustration with the Troithe operation until it became obvious he was worried about another disaster like Pandem Nai. Worried about the price of another victory.
But Nath assumed that sheer terror played a role in Wyl’s lack of enthusiasm, too. Wyl wasn’t a coward, but he was only human. If he didn’t want to face Shadow Wing again, of course he’d justify it as worry over the plan.
He wondered if he could get Chass to come clean. She was the last squad member he’d expected to have reservations—even if she’d gotten past her death wish, she sure as sin hadn’t lost her grudge against Shadow Wing.
Before he could say anything, she spoke again. “What about you?”
He considered the question before saying, “I got my revenge, and those bastards nearly killed me twice. I’m not looking forward to it either.”
He left out the parts she didn’t need to hear: That the fun was getting a pile of credits for very little work as the New Republic claimed its territory; that he was finding a lot of pleasure in playing air support to troops who would shout his name and drink with him and make a fuss when he landed. Taking the capital was a risk. Trapping Shadow Wing was going to be work.
“Well,” Chass said. “Maybe we’ll screw this mission up and we won’t have to worry about it.”
Nath would’ve answered, but another transmission came through first.
People were dying far below. The battle had started.
“Bombers! Go! Go!”
General Syndulla’s voice came through the comm, sudden enough to startle Chass. She straightened in her seat, checked her angle, and ignited her thrusters even before Nath called, “You ready?”
“Sure,” Chass said. “So long as no one tries to shoot me, I’ll be just fine.”
“How’s the rest of our squadron doing?” Nath asked.
The B-wing bounced as Chass adjusted its gyroscopics–she’d kept the cross upright while holding position against the wind, but in flight she was better off horizontal–and began a long, spiraling descent through the cloud cover toward the capital. Nath and the Y-wings of Hail Squadron were behind her now, but according to the flight plan they’d overtake her once they descended below shield altitude.
She was wondering if something had gone wrong when Quell’s voice said, “Lark and I are intact and on our way to escort you. Kairos is giving cover to the ground teams.”
“Great,” Chass said. “We’ll try not to blow her to bits.”
When the cloud cover ripped away and the city came into view, Chass tapped a button. The rapid patter of a Loletian politi-folk singer filled the cockpit. The Y-wings followed her and she swayed with the breeze and the song, and the first proton torpedoes and laser-guided bombs dropped toward preassigned coordinates like the too-bright stars of Cerberon rattling loose from the sky.
Soon Chass would be close enough to see the devastation. Soon she’d be picking targets and evading fire while trying not to murder her own side’s ground troops. She could forget the conversation with Nath–he’d sneered, You don’t want to see Shadow Wing again, do you? but he was wrong about that; Shadow Wing didn’t frighten her so much as what came after Shadow Wing.
The B-wing leapt as a proton bomb ejected from its launcher.
For now, she could do the thing she was best at. The only thing she was made for.