“The good news is we found a definite location. But everything’s not as we thought it would be.”
Hugs had been exchanged. Tears had been shed. Words beyond pleasantries had been given. But everything in Art’s and Jimmy’s demeanors told them a joyous reunion would be cut short. They sat with Nesake, Raven, Dex and Chessy in the room Raven remembered as an “interrogation” chamber. Like the upstairs, it was overrun with pieces of Moana Tech, mostly advanced communication devices that allowed Nesake to send and receive messages undetectable by the empire. She now barely paid attention to any of it as she listened to the top gatherers in the system report on their findings.
“The Anaed Star is just beyond our system,” Art said as he passed around the map he customized on the way back to Troiwee, hand drawn to prevent the UCNSS from intercepting their tech. “Blue Nova happened upon it about two months before we destroyed the Siralope Star. Of course, they suspended exploration for a while. However, once they saw the war was escalating and presenting a real problem, they decided it was worth using resources to look into the star again. They knew we had spies by then, so they’ve tried to throw us off the trail as much as possible. But we found the most likely location nearest the system. First we had to figure out how to get passed the blockade since they shoot first and never ask questions later. Our friends on the inside helped with that. Some even died.
“Blue Nova did manage to get close to the Anaed and found kemtons. However, these aren’t the same kind of kemtons in the Siralope. They don’t take you back. We don’t know what they do. And the kemtons are unstable, more dangerous than useful right now. Until we know more, we shouldn’t try to use it.”
Raven looked at Dex, who sat back with poorly disguised disappointment while looking at the map. She realized then they had been hoping to use the star for themselves and stop the war before it happened. The Resistance was willing to undo their own lives to end their current misery.
“No shortcuts in getting this thing ended,” Dex said. “If I’m being honest, I’d have much preferred the star. I’m so sick of fighting and people dying that erasing my own existence seems a viable option.”
Jimmy spoke up. “Well, Anaed may be the least of our worries now. We gathered some more intelligence on our way back. They’re planning an all-out offensive soon. The plan is to strike everything all at once. We’re to be hardest hit here on Troiwee where we’re most concentrated. The good news in this scenario is that they’ll keep the fewest forces on Eicho. They think we wouldn’t dare attack their primary base, not against the weapons they have.”
“And we might not have before now,” Dex had leaned forward, turning to look at Raven. “But you’ve brought us the PCT. It’s better equipped than even their strongest warcrafts.” Dex redirected attention to the entire committee. “We’ve come a long way developing the Moana Tech. UCNSS forces come forward with certain strategies and tactics from which they rarely stray. Sometimes we can predict their methods. This works to our advantage because they expect us to respond accordingly. But we’re not trained soldiers.”
At that moment, the door opened and Ni-Hun entered. He was about to speak when he spotted Raven and sucked in his breath with both relief and surprise before rushing to her side to greet her with a bear hug.
“Heard you were back! Thought I might have lost the chance to get to know my new friend.”
“We may have to delay picnics in the park for now. We have some strategizing to do.” Dex’s tone wasn’t harsh, but Raven detected some possessiveness. Still, she relented.
“Yes, I’m sure you might have heard about the UCNSS’s plans,” she explained.
Ni-Hun released Raven from his grip and nodded. “Well, whatever those plans are, they might have just escalated. There’s a price on your head again. Now since the Captain is dead and you have a precious piece of equipment in your possession, they’ve sweetened the deal on your head: twice the reward credits, the sponsorship and a family membership to the UCNSS, never to be revoked.”
Even though she had been away for more than a solar year, Raven knew that the Resistance’s efforts had still not been enough to quell the Empire’s influence. The price on Raven’s head was more than a promise of a better life for whoever was fortunate enough to capture her. It was the promise that all would return to normal as soon as the war was over. It was also a message to the Resistance that they would never be strong enough to win.
Raven heard the message loud and clear. So did the rest of the committee.
“Guess that means we really got them running scared,” Raven said with a false bravado she must have somehow picked up while she was captive. “But that reward is only good if I’m captured in some way. We just have to make sure I’m not captured. The UCNSS will have a much worse time making me a bedtime fable told to small children if I’m buried and honored by my comrades rather than desecrated by whatever they had in mind.”
She noted the nervous stillness that greeted her speech – and the way everyone avoided looking at Dex.
“What does it matter anyway?” she continued. “As far as the story goes, I’ve gotten away twice and still work for the Resistance after having suffered Heifri. That promise can only go so far, especially since I have no intention of getting caught, dead or alive. I know I can depend on all of you to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Nesake’s smile was more nervous and weak than affirming, but she made sure Raven saw. “We’d better prepare as best we can. Sounds like we don’t have much time, but if we can make this as much of an offensive as possible, then we might stand a chance.”
Dex stood. “I’ll get in contact with Tobi. He can do well with covering me at Eicho. We’ll need his coordination. Ni-Hun, you’ve been great with sky forces, so I’d like you to command the PCT to keep the UCNSS’s battle crafts under control here in Rotterdam. Nesake, you know what to do. Keep all supplies and other necessities in check. Coordinate with Chessy to get our injured treated as soon as possible and find places for stray civilians to be safe. Jimmy –”
“I’d like to take my chances with the ground forces if that’s fine with you.”
Dex nodded and looked at Art, who gave no objection to the request. “I think you would be a great asset to central command.”
Dex looked around the room at the team, quickly turning from Raven’s gaze before continuing. “We’ll start here and make sure we have our defenses up before the UCNSS can arrive and find us unprotected. Nesake, everyone needs to have their comm devices ready and in working order immediately. We’re gonna have to wing it pretty soon, so I need everyone alert and at their best.”
With that, the team disassembled, scrambling to their respective posts to prepare.
Dex’s omission of her name and a mission had not been lost on Raven. She followed close behind as Dex left the room to prepare a division for the assault.
“I’m not staying behind, you know.”
They had made it back to the former store in Nesake’s weigh station with Raven quietly following behind Dex until they were away from the others. Dex stopped and Raven could see the exasperation before she heard the sigh and noted the slow turn of Dex’s body to face her.
“I can’t let you go, Raven.”
“It’s not up to you, Dex.”
They stood at an impasse, staring at each other, daring the other to give just an inch. Dex was the first to blink.
“You’ve barely had time to recover. I know you want to help. I know you want to be involved, but give yourself a chance to heal first.”
“I’ve had time to heal. I’ve had days since I left Heifri and readjusted, a few more since I made it back and found Nesake again. You know you need every hand you can get, Dex.”
Dex sighed deeply again, almost as if expecting this very argument. “Why don’t you stay with Nesake on the control room? She’ll need all the help she can get. Or you can stay on the edges of the battlefield. The people will want to see you. You can offer them hope –”
“You know that’s not where I want to be, Dex!”
She hadn’t meant to yell, but Raven’s patience suddenly had a mind of its own. As much as she cared for Dex, she knew this was not the time to let sentiment get in the way of practical sense. But Dex refused to make it easy.
“I can’t let you go to Eicho, Raven. You know I can’t.”
“This isn’t about you letting me go anywhere and you know it. There is nobody better to lead an assault on that place. Crushing Eicho while the UCNSS is putting the bulk of its forces here would mean a victory even you hadn’t foreseen. I can lead it, Dex. Well, I don’t even have to lead, just be there. Why don’t you trust me on this?”
She had never seen such sadness in Dex’s eyes as she saw then in that moment. It chilled her and told her there was something much more than Dex being overprotective in trying to keep her away from Eicho.
“I thought you were dead, Raven. We hadn’t had much time together, but in that time I knew happiness for the first time in my life. In that time, I regretted not saying anything sooner and having more time with you. But just like that, you were gone. I started to think about what you said about having that life you wanted on Venquo. I wanted you to have life. I was almost sorry that we decided to blow the star in my lifetime. Blowing that star meant you couldn’t have that simple life of happiness like you wanted. You have a chance for that again.” Dex stepped closer to her, cupping her face in shaky hands. “We have a chance for that.”
She touched Dex’s hands, caressed them softly as they surrounded her face. “And we have a better chance of that life if we’re both working toward it. Trust me when I say I’m well enough to do this. Trust me when I say that revenge may be somewhere in my heart, but it doesn’t overrule common sense. All I need is Little Wing and I can take a team to Eicho.”
They held the embrace for a moment, losing time and any sense of urgency to the situation. She knew Dex wanted to kiss her. But the sound of a throat being cleared took them out of each others’ eyes and into Art’s as Jimmy stood by his side.
“Very sorry to interrupt, but we would like it very much if you two could join us in the restaurant.”
There were no elaborate decorations in the restaurant. No one was dressed in their finest. There were no signs announcing it, but they all somehow knew the special occasion to expect when they got there. Art and Jimmy may have made the decision while they were scouting the Anaed, but pulling it off right now in Nesake’s restaurant had been a last minute decision just in case the war brought tragedy right to their door.
Art and Jimmy were getting married.
Well it was more of an informal commitment ceremony really. Legal marriage didn’t even take signatures or paperwork anymore, just a simple promise to be kept. If it ended, other details could be sorted later. Weddings, or commitment ceremonies, were another matter. They were considered frivolous for anyone except kieras. Besides, kastouts and others were not “civilized” enough to commit.
Even Raven’s parents never formally committed although they were very much committed to each other and their family. There were no great memories of a ceremony to cement to occasion. Most simply happened through a series of conversations that eventually led to an agreement or other arrangement, much like how she saw things going with Dex before she realized. But she understood why Art and Jimmy would want a ceremony. Small acts of rebellion kept them going, let them throw the “A” back into the faces of those who wanted to dismiss them as primitive.
By having a ceremony, they were saying they were just as capable as anyone in showing a true commitment. But their union wasn’t an economical or social gain. The only driving force was love.
Art motioned for Raven to take his side in front of the counter. She knew then he meant for her to be his best man. She was glad then she had watched more than films about the past when she was a girl. Otherwise, she might not have known her function as a best man. She looked up to see that Jimmy had chosen Nesake as his best man. Nesake looked at Raven and could not suppress the smile that spread across her painted lips.
Art turned to Dex. “As the leader of our movement, it would mean so much if you would perform as justice of the peace. I know it’s a lot to ask –”
“Say no more,” Dex interrupted, walking over to the couple. “I am so honored to be asked and would be proud to be your JP.” Dex smiled widely and embraced both Art and Jimmy. “Well I take it you want to get this ceremony underway immediately.”
They took their respective places. Dex stood between the counter and the soon-to-be spouses while their best men stood to their sides. JPs never had a ready-made speech. Most never actually prepared for the ceremony. Instead, they allowed the words to come. Those who stumbled and sputtered through a speech usually made for the most memorable ceremonies.
Dex was getting through a memory of first meeting Jimmy at Blue Star and not thinking much of him as was the case with most lower level employees. But the past few months had found a change of mind and heart as well as other valuable lessons with Jimmy showing time and time again that he had a loyal and good heart. As for Art, Dex was glad to see such a noble man find something a second time around that eluded many people even once in their lives. Of course, Dex could not ignore the situation in which these two had found each other and fell despite the odds.
“Perhaps now is the time we need love most, when we face chaos all around us and the threat of oppression has become an even more visible reality. Loving each other despite that threat is what they don’t want because they know we’ll do anything to protect that love, to protect what’s most sacred to us. Art, Jimmy, you have chosen to let love win in the midst of conflict and celebrate it with the ones you hold dearest. For that we thank you. You didn’t have to include us in your moment, but your decision to do so shows us not just your commitment to each other but also your integrity and your wish for others to someday have the happiness you’ve found with each other.
“I’m honored to be here sharing this moment with you because it’s a reminder, a reminder that it’s better to fight with someone by your side than alone – to have something worth fighting for.”
Dex’s voice grew soft at those last words, eyes drifted to somewhere outside the restaurant. Raven knew right then the epiphany that had just occurred, but she was willing to wait until after the ceremony to discuss it. For now, they all smiled as Dex made the pronouncement that they were allowed to take the plunge whenever they were ready.
Much to Raven’s surprise, Art smiled shyly at Jimmy, who looked like a child just walking in to his surprise birthday party.
“I’m ready,” Art said through the lump in his throat.
“You bet I’m ready too,” Jimmy said.
And they kissed.
This was the one tradition everyone seemed to enjoy with commitment ceremonies. Everyone might have put their own personal touch on their ceremonies, but cementing with a kiss remained a popular mainstay.
Even Raven had to admit the ceremony gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Unfortunately, they would not go through with the rest of the ceremony right then. Usually, the newly committed couple would have a party in their honor. For those going through less formal ceremonies because they were not kieras, guests would prepare a feast. Some would even offer to gift the couple clothing, furniture, appliances or anything else the couple still needed for the household. In some cases, toys or clothing for babies and children were in order. But Art and Jimmy decided to wait until things were less chaotic before they determined what they needed to start their home.
They just didn’t want to go off into battle without their commitment.
“If only we could all be as happy as they are.”
Raven stood on the barren patio behind Nesake’s place where she had formed a bond with the woman herself months ago. She spoke because she knew Dex was the one who had come to stand at her side. They watched Art and Jimmy have a bittersweet goodbye. Jimmy was on his way to join the ground forces just on the outskirts of Rotterdam to await an advance from the Empire. Art would make his way to central command located in the downtown area that had been evacuated, effectively shut down just in case the battle did not go the way the Resistance hoped.
“We just have to remember that this is why we fight,” Dex said. “Amazing to think that in the Earth that existed centuries ago, people fought this same fight – and lost. They destroyed it all and brought that poison here. Set up the same system that destroyed an entire planet and all we have left of it now is a shadow of what it used to be. No doubt using the Siralope Star to travel back and forth to it contributed to its demise.”
“And the curiously morbid would go to gawk at the last remnants of it, watch it as it dies before their eyes. But no worries. They can always go back to an earlier time and pretend it never happened.”
Dex stood closer to Raven, finally looking at her. “If either Art or Jimmy don’t make it, it’s the last they’ll ever see of each other. But at least they would go knowing he loved the other and the other loved him. I still lament that they won’t get to do this side by side as they should. So I’ll be leading the team accompanying yours to Eicho.”
She wasn’t surprised. She was relieved, not because Dex wanted to come with her but because she knew Eicho was where she needed to be. She was grateful Dex would be there.
“When are we to leave?”
“As soon as we can get you to your ship,” Dex said. “No matter how long it takes for them to advance here and try to take us out, we should take an offensive to Eicho immediately. They aren’t expecting it and it might force their hand everywhere they intend to strike.”
Dex extended a hand for Raven to take and led her away. Nesake stopped them on the way out and gave Raven a matronly hug. Ni-Hun offered a salute and Chessy managed a head nod. Dex got on a portable comm and signaled for the teams to meet at a rendezvous point. Much to her surprise, they didn’t head to Tobi’s barn. Dex steered the land transport to a part of town Raven had been unable to explore during the time she had spent in Rotterdam.
She realized then why there were no crafts at Tobi’s barn. The barn was not simply a front, but it’s location would have been compromised. Furthermore, it was not built to protect and support a full airfield.
Not like this fortress that seemed to come from nowhere.
Once they were waved through its reinforced iron gates, Raven saw an array of crafts, some of them modified shuttlecrafts and other warcrafts built specifically for the occasion. Some of the smaller ones were loading civilians to get them quickly to a safer area on Troiwee unlikely to be hit with firepower.
Raven watched the evacuees knowing they would be dropped off and left virtually unprotected except for a few armed guards. The crafts had to return to take their places in combat. She had never been a spiritual person, but Raven did her best to extend whatever wishes she could in hopes that the ones who had no access to firepower knew how to use whatever objects they had near them to make weapons.
A familiar and welcome sight slowly took her out of her reverie.
Dex pulled the vehicle up as close as possible and Raven jumped out to examine her ship. Just like her, Little Wing had some visible scars but was still standing proudly. She touched the nose of the ship, feeling the cold metal turn warm under her palm.
“It’s all just as you left it,” Dex said, suddenly materializing at her side. “Had to put her to good use while you were away, but she kept up and made it through. Thought you’d like to take her out again.”
“You bet I would,” Raven said almost breathlessly. “Just hope I remember where everything is.”
“I’m sure you do,” Dex said before drawing her attention and cupping her face. “We’ll lead this mission together. I trust you to make decisions and get your team out when you need, but we’re in this together. If you get into any trouble…”
“Dex! It’s okay. If I know how to do anything, it’s maneuver a craft. I’m taking my chances the same as everyone else.”
“But you’re the one I care most about, Raven. I can’t help it.”
“Then I promise I won’t be reckless. When this is over, when we’ve won, there’s something I want you to do with me. I’ve never asked of anyone else, but I think you’d be worth it.”
Dex smiled. “What is it?”
“We have to win first.” Raven took the initiative and reached up to pull Dex’s head closer to hers. “Don’t think this has all been taken lightly. I know what you mean to me and I got close to you despite myself. I’m not going to turn away from that. I won’t turn away from you. And if anything happens, no listen, if anything happens, I want you to know that you were special to me in a way no one else was.”
The kiss was soft and sweet, lingering just long enough to sustain them as they went to their respective crafts. Something came over her when Raven finally boarded Little Wing. She didn’t realize how much she missed being at the helm until she there. She had had far too little time to get to know the craft just as she had not had enough time to get to know her new friends, a life away from her servitude to Blue Star.
The feel of Dex’s kiss, the return of Little Wing, the commitment between Art and Jimmy – it all made her glad Awya helped her stick it out in Heifri. Raven felt her fight return. She knew then the life she was promised upon retiring from Blue Nova would have been a life of resignation, a pat on the head for being a good servant all her life. She tried not to regret that she didn’t know a better life was possible until after it all literally exploded.
And she would get that life or come to her end knowing that she had at least conceived of a better way before it was all crushed.