Rotterdam came alive on the day of James “Jimmy” Thompson’s memorial. Of course, he was to be honored among the rest of the fallen during an official ceremony, but Art decided to have him buried with Mikkel. He was somewhat comforted to think that they could keep each other company until it was his time to join them in whatever beyond the afterlife held.
Raven held Art’s hand through his comatose and eventually his tears. He couldn’t believe that twice in his life, he had lost someone who meant so much to him. Raven knew he would someday tell himself he was lucky to have had something twice that not too many got to have once in a lifetime, but today was not that day. He needed to mourn and miss his Jimmy. So Raven stayed by his side and attended to him.
Then Art kept her company in the days following. While they spent the days helping Nesake revamp her weigh station yet again, Dex became a part of the new order charging itself to rebuild the UCNSS from its civil war. As the leader of the Resistance, Dex’s involvement was mandatory and hopefully meant more than a figurehead in the UCNSS’s same old ways. After a few days, Dex did contact Raven to offer her one very important concession in the agreements: the UCNSS was no longer allowed to align itself with companies such as Blue Nova.
With this separation of governance and commerce, Blue Nova no longer had the protections it enjoyed with the UCNSS as practically an extension of its own company. The power Blue Nova acquired over time rendered any governance useless without its influence. Now Dex and others who spent their lives under The Blank had their say in how things should be done to reverse the damage that created a class of kieras and kastouts.
Much to her surprise, Dex had also proposed that Blue Nova compensate former employees for their service even though the company planned to dissolve itself over the next few years. If all went well, Raven would still “retire” as planned with all her expenses covered. Dex fought to get her more, noting that her actions had saved many lives before she was falsely accused of terrorism.
Raven was also sure that Dex was behind the leak of the news. She no longer had a price over her head. Her face was still known, but the narrative around it was changing with every day.
“Important to get the story right,” Nesake said. “We don’t know what’s true anymore because we let them tell the history in a way that favors them. Every once in a while, someone who had travelled the star came in after a trip to Earth in the 20th or 21st century. They marveled at how different it was, how they thought it would be. I don’t think Blue Nova considered that. A lot of people who traveled the star as children were a huge part of The Blank. They knew they had been lied to and didn’t appreciate the deception.
“Then there are people like you, Raven. You looked deeper into the history you were taught and imagined it could have been some other way. And it probably was. People like you were the ones to retrieve history. Now you’ve also helped make it.”
Raven smiled at Nesake’s kindness as she carefully took tech pieces off the shelves to box them. They were to be transported back to Jesse’s cave warehouse where it would be further developed if needed. Chessy had assembled a small team to take back with her to continue developing the Moana Tech. Dex had steadfastly refused to relinquish it to the UCNSS in a joint development venture. So the UCNSS refused to help convince Blue Nova to join with the Resistance in exploring the Anaed Star.
That was now Art’s purpose. He and Tobi had already made arrangements to take a team to a nearby uninhabited dwarf planet where they could set up the colony. They wouldn’t have all the same resources as Blue Star once had, but much of the Moana Tech would come in handy as it was developed. Tobi wouldn’t stay full time. As an experienced pilot, he had to act as liaison and bring supplies back and forth to the colony while they studied the kemtons in the Anaed.
“The stargazing will be nice,” Art said quietly. “Got a chance to just sit and enjoy it every once in a while. Forgot there was a whole war going on. I thought about just staying there. Nobody would have missed us and we didn’t get to use the star anyway. What difference would it have made? And he would still…”
He simply shut down. Neither Nesake nor Raven pushed him to say more. They only continued with the task of making Troiwee better than it had been before the war.
Raven hadn’t allowed Awya to be buried. She had a feeling she wouldn’t have liked being buried in a box underground, not after confinement on Heifri. So she found a beautiful decorative urn to hold her ashes while she traveled to Venquo. She knew where she had planned to live once she left Blue Nova, so she decided to take Awya there to wait for her while she finished taking care of business and waited for Dex.
“Nice place,” Ni-Hun said as they came upon her soon-to-be designated housing. “Lots of space, a beautiful wooded area, all the conveniences you were used to on Terra Firma 9. Now we just need to see if they contest the order.”
“I doubt they will,” Raven said as she carried the urn toward the small but beautiful wood house that looked to be in the middle of nowhere to anyone who didn’t know the area. Now that Blue Nova was no longer in charge, she didn’t know how well the area would be kept up with its beautiful flower and vegetable gardens around the housing. No one had private vehicles, so vans and other public transports took residents to and from shopping areas, museums, theatres and other services concentrated in designated areas of the cities. The whole planet was designed for comfort and ease.
“I figure they’ll keep this up for a while. They want to maintain their image and have a chance to rebuild. They think we have short memories. Hell, we do have short memories. That’s why things stay the way they are. But we’ll see what they do when they think we’ve forgotten.”
They reached the front porch of the dark brown house. Raven had to admit to herself she liked the quaintness of it all. Three dark brown wooden rocking chairs and a porch swing. A ceiling fan. A wide rectangular window on either side of the door. This was exactly as she dreamed it would be.
Raven set the urn by the front door. “Watch over the place until we get back.”
“You don’t wanna go in, explore the place a bit,” Ni-Hun asked.
“No, not yet. I’ll wait until Dex can come with.”
Ni-Hun draped a friendly arm around Raven’s shoulder and led her away from the house. “Before we go back to the airfield, let’s head downtown. I hear they have a supreme pizza that will make you cry at this place…”
Dex was home. They stayed a few days at Nesake’s place, only then realizing that they were both without a permanent home until they headed to Venquo.
“I hate goodbyes,” Nesake said, sitting down at the patio table with them after she put out her cigarette. “You never know when they’re permanent. I’ve had enough uncertainty for a lifetime. I’d be happy to never say goodbye again. I know the word doesn’t mean to be cruel, but it is.”
“Perhaps it depends on what you’re saying goodbye to. Or whom.”
Dex contemplated those words while sipping at the hot coffee before noticing how quiet and faraway Raven had gotten. She obviously hadn’t been part of the conversation.
“Back on Unone, the only thing I wanted was to get out,” she said. “Working the farm for the rest of my life would have just been the slowest death, the slowest torture I’d have ever endured. So I was glad when I found the Starman. His words, his creativity, his life helped me get through mine. I learned everything I could about him right up until the day he died.
“The man even made his death a brilliant piece of performance art. He released an album on his birthday and the last visual he ever made was a goodbye because he knew he was dying. He made himself immortal.
“After a while, I went through some of the things people wrote about him after his death. He made such a huge impact while he was there, before he returned home to his real people so they say. But there was also something else. Almost as soon as the praise started, so did the ugliness. Immediately, people wanted everyone to remember some of the more horrible things he had done in his past.
“No doubt it was horrible, even when the victim of his crimes said it wasn’t. I found a few people who like me, admired him for making them feel not so out of place. They had a hard time with it, reconciling that part of him with the parts they loved, the parts that saved them when they needed. I became one of them. How could I love and admire someone so much who was capable of the most horrible things against a person?
“But I couldn’t let go of that love. I couldn’t let go of something that saved me when I thought there was nothing else out there for me except what he gave. It’s because of him I got the urge to explore. I found the courage to learn to fly so that I’d never have to go back to that place again. Not just Unone but that place that made me feel like an insignificant speck in the light of the UCNSS.
“I decided then the good he did outweighed the bad. He became a good person who did horrible things. I could live with that. There was this expression: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I said goodbye to the bathwater. Kept the baby.”
Raven looked up from her reverie to find Dex and Nesake staring at her. Dex took her hand as if making sure she was still well.
“I’m alright, Dex,” she said. “I’ve just had time to think. I haven’t seen my parents since I left Unone for Terra Firma 9. I lost contact with them when I went on the run. Haven’t tried to reach them since this whole thing ended. Maybe it’s time. I avoided facing that part I couldn’t live with, but I need to know. Things are different. I’m not the same. I think I can handle it.”
Dex smiled. Nesake softly chuckled to herself, no doubt finding her friend’s hero worship a bit silly but too polite to say it.
“Well, our place in Venquo is ready when we are,” Dex said. “If you want to go to Unone before we get settled in, I’ll go with you.”
Raven smiled back at Dex and nodded. She wasn’t particularly looking forward to the trip, but at least she would have Dex by her side to make it easier.
Somehow she recognized the feeling of Unone’s atmosphere as soon as the craft entered. But there was something different about it. Something off.
“We can land close to my parents’ compound,” Raven said. “That way we won’t need a vehicle since the farm is within walking distance.”
She saw it before they landed. Her heart pounded with fear and anticipation. This was not good in any way.
“What the hell happened here?”
Dex didn’t exactly pose the question to Raven, more like read her mind. They landed safely in an open field often used for air traffic to exchange supplies and other items. They disembarked and almost sprinted to the nearly destroyed wall of the farm’s compound.
The land was barren as if nothing had been grown there for years. The fields had been burned out and destroyed. Raven looked around in disbelief at the fields that had thrived when she was a child and still thrived the day she left for Terra Firma 9. It was all gone.
“This was no natural disaster,” Dex said. “This was a deliberate act of sabotage. These fields were intentionally destroyed and the compound…”
Raven looked up at Dex before turning toward the gated brick wall that no longer stood strong or closed. She ran toward the wall with Dex close at her heels. In the not so far distance, she saw the compound where her parents once lived and worked. Even though it looked as if it had burned years ago, she could still process the smell of smoke and ash. She ran toward the compound against all hope that she would find something there, anything, to tell her what happened to her parents and the others.
She reached the compound. Everything was gone, burned beyond recognition. The only thing she could think when Dex reached her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder was would she find her parents among the ashes in the search.
They made one correct call: the UCNSS was not expecting an offensive on Eicho, especially since they had let it leak that they were attacking Troiwee. However, the forces on Eicho were still quite vast and well-equipped. For a moment, Raven regretted not bringing even the smaller PCT – both had been left on Troiwee to defend the armed forces and civilians.
Still, both Raven and Dex knew the empire was torn between keeping its forces safe on Eicho or sending reinforcements to ensure a victory on Troiwee. Just as they had taken a gamble, the UCNSS was now forced to decide if they were indeed prepared enough to defend itself while simultaneously launching an attack on an unexpectedly stronger rebellion.
Raven breathed deeply as they got closer to the atmosphere of Eicho. Their intelligence had shown no missiles located on the surface, only on designated warcrafts. She flew slightly behind Dex, flanking the left while Tobi flanked the right.
“Keep formation as long as possible,” Dex’s voice commanded over the comm. “We need enough to allow them to get on the ground and take out the base. Without that base, they have no defenses. They’ll have to call off the attack on Troiwee.”
“Got it,” Raven and Tobi answered in unison. Raven then turned to her weapons’ specialist. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Awya turned to her with that cocky smile Raven remembered from their time on Heifri. “Trust me. I’ve forgotten more weapons operations than you’ll ever learn. Looking forward to taking out those bastards.”
Awya’s eagerness might have put off Raven two years ago. But time had hardened her and blurred her moral lines. With what was at stake, she had no room for doubt and was grateful to hear Awya’s own lack of it. Knowing their opposition felt the same way only angered her.
They were in the atmosphere. UCNSS warcrafts had set up a blockade to meet them. It was time.
The ground forces on Rotterdam seemed to swarm them rather quickly, but the Resistance forces quickly recovered and held a strong defensive line.
“We need to keep as many of them in the downtown area as possible,” Jimmy said to his unit. “We can’t let them get to the command center.”
He tried not to think about Art and Nesake at the station, possibly unarmed, as they communicated with the fighters. Nesake was responsible for speaking directly with Dex to coordinate the offensive strike with the defensive. Art kept an eye on the UCNSS forces through the remote drones to stop surprises.
“We got a full fleet coming in from the west,” he continued. “If C-team keeps them at bay, that should give us time to regroup with B-team and keep their troops from getting to the civilian camp.”
“Right,” the C-team leader said from her location. “B-team plans to use the PCT to keep them occupied until they surely bring in reinforcements. We know they’re not operating at full capacity yet, so we can’t show our whole hand either.”
“Got it,” Jimmy answered. “Looks like we’re meeting up with D-team to distract their ground forces. We don’t know what they’re holding back yet, so don’t get overeager.”
The unit advanced to the center of downtown to meet D-team. Jimmy breathed deeply under his armor and began his silent prayers that this was the beginning of the end.
“Dex, they’re still holding back here. I think they’re waiting to see how strong you are on Eicho before a full assault.”
Nesake stared at the monitor, watching the empire’s army gradually grow larger as it advanced to the heart of Rotterdam. She had no eyes on Eicho, so she had to rely on Dex’s reports to make sure they stayed coordinated. The ground troops on Rotterdam were plentiful but still not enough to overpower the Resistance forces with any brutal putdown. They would have to fight for it.
Art watched as the first crafts emerged into the atmosphere above the main battleground. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he’d prepared his whole life for this. He couldn’t let his worries get the best of him.
He sent the signal to the smaller PCT to get it in place to protect the ground forces. Alone it could handle the sky forces without much of a problem, but that didn’t mean there would be no losses on the ground. That was why Art worried. He knew Jimmy and the others could face the other forces head on in combat, but the combination of the sky forces could prove to be too much since they could not do much in the way of training for it.
For now, Art could only hope that the pilots chosen to fly the PCTs had as much control and skill as Raven had when she flew Little Wing. She hadn’t had much training in combat, but her talents as a pilot were more than enough to help her maneuver out of trouble.
The first shots from the sky started a deadly cadence that hit the ground forces with the timing of a symphony. They were under attack.
Little Wing was hit. Bigger than a flesh wound but not enough to cause any organ damage. Nothing to be concerned about for the moment.
“We got one advantage over them,” Awya said as she fired upon an oncoming craft. “We’re built for speed. We got the crafts made for smuggling and maneuvers to get away in a hurry. That’s where they underestimate us, thinking we’re a bunch of inexperienced hardheads. How the hell they think we got by all this time.”
“Four o’clock coming right at us,” Raven said as she headed away from the oncoming craft but getting into the path of another. Awya focused on the controls again and ordered a direct hit to the craft in their path, clearing an escape route. The reinforced blasters made the shot with no problem. “Now to get the one on our tail.”
“Collision course,” Awya said.
Raven spotted a small warcraft and headed directly to it, playing an old-fashioned game of chicken like she had seen in the films she watched as a child. The pilot of the oncoming craft was just as cocky as she hoped, coming at her in full speed. Unfortunately, they did not see the other craft on Raven’s tail until it was too late. Raven did her sudden drop, leaving the two enemy crafts to fire at each other and meeting in a fiery crash. She hated the drawback of the sparks and debris that met her craft since it was impossible to get out of the way in time, but it was worth the effect it had.
“Raven, we need to make a move on the base,” Dex’s voice said through the comm. Most of their forces are in the air now and we need to take out the source while we have the chance.”
“I’m moving to your side right now,” Raven answered. She turned the craft and found Dex’s, making her way to the ranks.
“Their weak spot is the left side where they store fuel and keep the power generator. It’ll take out their communications and some of their firepower as well. They’ll have to move more forces away from the ammunitions. That’ll give the infiltrators on the ground time to set charges around the base.”
“Got it,” Raven and Tobi said in unison.
Central command at the base was a heavily reinforced building, but they had found weaknesses. Of course, like most structures, it could only withstand so much before it gave under the strain of an attack. Even if they didn’t manage to bring down the entire thing, they could create enough damage to disable the main functions.
“Don’t break formation until absolutely necessary,” Dex said. “Doby is covering us from the rear. As long as that line holds, we can get a clear shot.”
They flew in formation toward the command center. Raven checked the vitals and saw that the cannons were fully charged.
“Better make this shot count, Awya. Doby may not hold that line for long and we’ll only get one shot.”
“Don’t worry. I’m ready.”
They drew closer.
“On my mark,” Dex said.
Raven focused, keeping her eye on the comm center. The cannons were on target. All Dex had to do was give the signal.
As soon as Awya fired, they felt the impact from the cannon that hit Little Wing.
“We’re hit!” Raven yelled into the comm. “It looks like they took out an engine. We’re gonna be grounded.”
She heard no reply from Dex or Tobi so she had no way of knowing if they had heard. But the ground was getting closer every second. “Brace for impact. I’m gonna try to land it near the forest. Just hold on.”
Little Wing hurtled into the atmosphere at a fast speed, but Raven felt every second as she anticipated the moment of impact.
“Sorry. They slipped through right at the last minute and caught me off guard.”
Raven was just about to offer whatever reassurance she could to Awya, but the surface of the planet met them head on before she could.
The ground battle escalated rather quickly in Rotterdam. The Resistance forces knew they were outnumbered, but they had the advantage of knowing the area and rigging it to their advantage. A few well-placed explosives did wonders in reducing the UCNSS’s forces just when they thought they might overpower the Resistance for good.
Jimmy fired off a few shots before retreating behind what was once a pub. Not even stragglers in the alley relieving themselves when they just couldn’t find the bathroom. Just him and a couple of other troops meant to distract the UCNSS forces and draw their fire long enough for their compatriots to surround them and move them to a larger trap.
“They’re starting to follow us,” Jimmy said. “That should open up a chance for B-team to move into position and –”
The loud explosion and the sound of the pub coming down around them interrupted Jimmy’s speech. The UCNSS had indeed brought out the heavy artillery from their sky forces. They had nowhere to run to take cover before a wall of fiery debris that used to be the back of the pub came crashing down around them in the back alley.
If this is how it ends, Jimmy thought as he slipped out of consciousness, then I only hope they box in these bastards.
She felt a bit dazed but was still in commission. So was Awya. So was most of the crew. But as soon as Raven realized they would have to make their way out of what was left of Little Wing as soon as possible, she knew they would not all make it out even if they had survived the crash.
“They’ll be gunning for us while we’re on the ground,” she said as she gathered as many weapons and supplies as possible. “So we need to get out and try to do what we can to help the infiltrators already here.”
They found a side hatch that could still open and the surviving crew members began to make their way out. It didn’t take long before she heard the fire fight with the coming forces beyond the wreckage.
“I know this area,” she said to Awya. “Just through the woods there is a storage facility. They keep a lot of important documents and things there. They may also have more weapons and explosives. If we can get there and get through whatever forces they have then we might be able to help finish off the base.”
Awya nodded and signaled for some of the crew to follow her. Raven tried to help more out of Little Wing before the UCNSS could get any closer. Then she noticed the craft in the sky heading directly for them. They were out of time.
She fired off a few shots at the enemy before running off into the temporary safety of the woods. The ground forces wouldn’t follow then, knowing what the craft overhead intended. She didn’t turn around to see when she heard Little Wing explode when the craft fired upon it.
Art had seen the pub come down and knew that Jimmy was still nearby when it blew. He stared at the monitor unblinking, not really seeing anything that was happening. He had been trained to deal with these things, but he couldn’t get out of his shock. Jimmy was under that rubble. Jimmy was trapped. Jimmy was helpless. Jimmy was… possibly dead.
He slowly turned his head to look at Nesake. Her voice was steady, but her eyes gave away her grief.
“I need you here, man. I know how you feel but you gotta stay with me a little longer. Okay?”
Art gave no sign that he understood as he turned his head to face the monitor again. The Resistance had moved to box the UCNSS forces into a trap. It was working.
“B-team has position,” Art said to the pilot of the smaller PCT. “You can move in when you want. Fire at will.”
Nesake sighed heavily, glad that Art came to his senses long enough to make the order but still understanding that his grief could still get the better of him.
“I’ll send the rescue team there first when we can clear it,” she said as she took Art by the hand. She offered no words of encouragement or hope that Jimmy was still alive. That would have been cruel. From the wreckage on the monitor, there was little chance that anyone could have survived that.
“They’ve shown their hand now,” Art said quietly. “We know what we’re dealing with and what must be done.”
Nesake nodded and let go of Art’s hand. She busied herself transmitting coordinates and other vital information to the sky forces. Art took a few deep, cleansing breaths, giving himself a moment to collect. He never thought it would be Jimmy. If he had succeeded in his own suicide mission with the Blue Nova Star, he wouldn’t have had to deal with loss for the second time in his life. So all he could do now was make sure his beloved’s death was not in vain.
Raven was sure she had shrapnel in the same place the hunter had wounded her a couple of years earlier, but she had no time to tend to that wound. She ran with the others through the woods, hoping the storage facility was as close as she remembered.
“I don’t hear any of them following us,” she yelled at Awya who ran slightly ahead of her. “Maybe they think we perished with the ship or they plan to meet us ahead from a different path.”
“I’d bet the latter,” Awya said, slightly out of breath. “Why do the hard work of hunting us down when they can go to the only place they know we can run from this area.”
Raven thought a moment. “Halt!”
Little Wing’s remaining crew stopped in their tracks, looking cautiously about them for any UCNSS forces that might have ventured to follow and slaughter them. They were now less than 20 and knew they couldn’t afford too many more losses without results.
“The storage facility is practically a fortress,” Raven said. “At least a small one. There will be armed guards and vehicles there. You better believe they’ll be worried about protecting the facility –”
“But the vehicles not so much,” Awya said. “Those armored vehicles can penetrate walls with enough force. If one were to crash into the comm center with enough explosives –”
“We can finish what we started in the sky,” Raven interrupted this time.
“But first we better take care of that leg. We can send a couple of scouts ahead to see what we’re dealing with then come up with a plan.”
Raven nodded and turned to a couple of crew members. “Head northwest that way. The clearing looks very close, so be careful to stay where you can easily take cover. We need to know what their forces look like at the building and if anyone is guarding their armored vehicles. We can tell where they’ll be expecting us by how many they’ve selected to stay near the woods.”
The crew members nodded and headed off to find the storage facility.
Awya turned to Raven. “Let me look at that leg. At the very least I can make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until we can get out of here and do better.”
Raven agreed and set down her supplies. “Let’s just hope the UCNSS hasn’t learned their lesson about underestimating us.”
His head pounded. His body felt like one big aching mess. He wasn’t sure what parts he still had or if he was even alive.
Jimmy struggled to open his eyes. He couldn’t focus on the big blurry mess all around him. Nothing was clear, nothing was stable. The big dark blur eventually became a big light one.
Then something moved.
He wasn’t alone. Jimmy tried to move his arms, desperately searching for a weapon or something he could use to defend himself. His body would not cooperate. He was at the mercy of whatever it was that decided to approach him.
It was a person. He could see that as his vision began to focus. He wasn’t attacked. He was examined.
“Thought I would lose all of you for a moment there.”
He didn’t recognize the gruff voice or the bearded, grizzled face. But he stopped trying to resist as this stranger looked over his head, his arms, his legs. His whole body was still intact.
“The blast got the rest of your comrades, I’m afraid,” the stranger continued. “You were barely breathing when I dug you out but still had some life in you. Just barely.”
Jimmy managed to make a desperate motion with his hand. His strength only allowed him to tap at the supply pouch at his side. The stranger seemed to understand, patting Jimmy’s hand to calm him. He then removed the pouch and began to rummage through it before he came across a small data chip. He looked at Jimmy to make sure he got the message.
“Arturo… Gutierrez,” Jimmy croaked. “My… my husband…”
It was the only time Jimmy got to make that declaration, his husband Arturo Gutierrez. The man he fell in love with as he took care of him on a small shuttlecraft on a barren surface that might have ended them then and there. But he got his time with the man and he had something with him that eluded too many these days. The stranger nodded at him, understanding Jimmy’s last request. Jimmy thought of Art’s face one last time, determined to make it the last memory he had before he left this life.
The stranger watched the serene smile creep across Jimmy’s lips and reach his eyes just as the young man gasped his last breath. He sat still with him for a moment before closing his eyes and stayed by his side until the rescue team was able to make it a few hours later.
“Mostly stationed in front of the building. But you’re right. They’re using the armored vehicles to transport weapons and explosives. Just one could cause some serious damage.”
“Good,” Raven said after the scout gave the report. “We can focus on the vehicles.” She looked at the firepower they had. With a good sneak attack, they could successfully commandeer at least two of the vehicles. They could also bring most if not all their remaining forces with them.
“We still have a couple of grenades. If we lobbed them at the facility, they’ll think they’re under attack there. It’ll draw the remaining forces away from the vehicles. From there, we can get between them and take what we need.”
“Let’s just hope our friends in the sky get the message.”
Raven nodded at Awya’s observation. Her tourniquet was tight, but the bleeding in her leg had stopped. She wasn’t slowed down too much, but she hoped her injury wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance.
They trekked through the rest of the woods until they came upon the storage facility. They noticed a small but effective trap set for them meant to alert the guards of their presence.
“Didn’t have time to put together anything better than this I reckon,” Raven said.
They deftly avoided the trap and got themselves into position. Raven then signaled her crew member with the strongest arm. She pulled the pins from two grenades then lobbed them one by one toward the facility. The explosions weren’t too great, but they were effective. Just as Raven predicted, the entire squadron headed toward the facility and the part of the woods they expected the Resistance to emerge from.
They ran toward the vehicles. The UCNSS forces soon realized their error and fired at the crew. They returned fire and kept moving toward the vehicles.
“I got one!” Awya yelled as she climbed into one of the armored vehicles.
Raven and another followed and managed to climb into the passenger side as Awya took off and headed for the comm center. Raven saw that they had gotten at least one more vehicle before she turned around and watched ahead of her instead of behind.
“They planned to arm at least one craft here,” their companion said. “These missiles are designed to blow upon impact.”
They all grew quiet, knowing what that meant. They needed a direct hit to crash into the comm center and they needed it to be done with force. Jumping out of the vehicle with no one to stir or keep it accelerated would diminish impact. Furthermore, they still needed to try to signal Dex in some way to let the sky forces know how they intended to attack.
“Look in the storage pouch behind the seat,” Awya said. “Are their spare caps there?”
Raven crawled over the seat just enough to search the pouch. She found two, shiny unused caps big enough to fit the wheels of the vehicle.
“Now you signal, Dex.”
Raven was just about to ask how to signal from the vehicle when her door suddenly opened and a hard shove forced her out of the vehicle. She barely had time to catch herself, but she managed to make a leap when she felt the push then tucked and rolled before getting caught under a wheel.
As soon as she cleared the vehicle path, she heard someone running toward her. He had the caps she had dropped on her way out of the vehicle. Raven then propped herself up and saw Awya driving away full speed ahead to the comm center.
He handed her the cap. “She said she’d see that bastard in hell after all.”
Raven understood then. She forced herself to stand up. He had a light with him. Raven looked toward the sky and looked for Dex’s craft. It came toward the surface with Tobi not too far behind. She positioned the caps at an angle while her compatriot shined the light. She knew the reflection reached far into the sky, enough for Dex and Tobi to see it. She saw them turn their direction toward the comm center just as Awya reached it. They fired just when the vehicle crashed into the building, making one of the most spectacular explosions Raven had ever seen.
Her compatriot helped her run back into the woods for safety. Through her slight dizziness, she thought of Awya and the others she had lost on this mission. She was glad that they had achieved their purpose. But she silently mourned and hoped that sacrifice was enough.
Some of the other crew had found them as they also retreated into the woods. They agreed to stay put until nightfall before attempting to find some other means of communication to find a rescue.
They set up camp, taking turns on the watch while deciding who would be sent out to find help. Raven was told to sleep on the first shift. She could take a later watch if they were still there during the night, but she wasn’t allowed to join the search party because of her injuries. So she settled down for the night and realized just how much her body ached.
Then she cried. She cried for Awya. She cried for her lost crew. She cried for Little Wing. She cried for wanting Dex’s comforting touch to reassure her. She hadn’t allowed herself to cry in so long, not even when she was sent to Heifri. She cried until her tears ran dry and lulled her into sleep.
She was still in a sleepy haze when she heard a voice saying “over there” and thought she saw a light being shined toward the camp. She heard footsteps approaching her, rustling the leaves. Raven didn’t move. She didn’t know if she was still asleep or just too tired and injured to care. But she hoped it was no dream when she felt Dex gather her in those strong arms and carry her off.
Tobi’s small landing station looked different. Then again, the PCT was too big to fit inside the Barn. Raven settled for landing the huge craft at the side, leaving the entrance clear just in case. She sat at the controls after the craft was still, listening to the passengers disembark while she briefly contemplated taking the craft back into the dark rather than face the uncertain possibility awaiting her in Rotterdam.
“No way this could possibly be worse than Heifri.”
She didn’t have to turn around to know Awya’s voice addressed her. “Is everyone out yet?”
“Yeah,” Awya said as she strolled up behind Raven. “Not sure where to go yet though.”
“I’m sure Tobi will tell them.”
Raven listened to Awya’s retreating footsteps that stopped at the back of the cockpit.
“Just wanted to say, no matter what happens here, I’m still grateful you came back for me. I’m happier to be off that rock than you know.”
Raven nodded, listened as Awya left to join the others. She took a deep breath. No way would she deprive the Resistance of such a weapon. She got up and left the cockpit, deciding to use the side entry with everyone else instead of the emergency exit.
She recognized some faces, the ones she studied through her ice binoculars on Heifri, but so many others she did not know. No matter. They all wore the same dingy-colored tunics over identically colored drawstring pants. It hit her then that she no longer needed protective clothing to shield her from the cold. She no longer needed another body to keep her warm. The wish for a quick death had faded, the hope for a new life settling in its place.
For the first time in her life, Raven realized she was free.
That beautiful revelation became clearer when an old friend made his way through the bodies and stood before Raven. Tobi held no anger or animosity in his eyes as he looked at her, only relief. She felt it when he grabbed her, embracing her in a tight breath-taking bear hug that lifted her from the ground and left her weak.
“Good to see you, poppet! Wasn’t ready to lose you yet.”
Raven didn’t care that the weariness she felt showed through her smile. “We need to get to Nesake’s, Tobi. I’m sure everyone here would like to know what’s been going on – and help if needed.”
“Unfortunately, they will need to.”
So they were still at war. Tobi didn’t look much different, but he had always appeared world weary to her. She could see how he looked her over, evaluating, looking for signs to explain what he knew she wouldn’t.
They nodded at each other in affirmation. Tobi said, “I already called for some land transports. We can get everyone to local headquarters. You can come with me. Sure there’s some stuff you wanna catch up on.”
Her insides heated slightly at the indirect mention of Dex, for she knew this could only be a reference to Dex. How he knew about them wasn’t her concern for now. The land transports approached in the distance. Like the other former prisoners, Raven winced when she saw that they were the large carriers only used by UCNSS authorities like Blue Nova, usually to transport “employees” or prisoners.
“It’s alright,” Tobi said as his head gestured toward the PCT. “Commandeered just like this. We need mass transports, too.”
While the rest piled into the mass transports, Raven followed Tobi inside the Barn where he kept his old trustworthy land transport, the one she knew. The Barn still held no crafts and its lack of wear and maintenance told her everything.
“Was this place always a decoy?”
“More or less. You were brought here first just in case. Don’t really have the time and luxury to screen loyalties anymore.”
Raven nodded as Tobi helped her inside the vehicle just as he had in their first encounter. She smiled at the memory, something she had tried to suppress on Heifri. Her smile gradually faded as she considered broaching the subject while Tobi made his way around the vehicle to climb in the driver’s seat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to broach the subject, but by the time Tobi got into the vehicle and strapped himself in, she couldn’t hide the worry in her eyes.
“We’ve definitely been down but sure as hell not out,” Tobi began as soon as the vehicle started its bumpy way to Rotterdam. “The good news is we keep getting new people to our side every day; bad news: it’s tough as hell to keep them all fed. But we try. So many of them had to get to their absolute lowest before they would finally admit they couldn’t depend on the UCNSS to make things right. The good news is most everyone learns to work together pretty quick. Everyone likes to eat so best to cooperate.
“Not everything runs smoothly. Infighting and such. Someone who just decided to come to our side yesterday thinks they should be in charge when nobody knows who they are. Wouldn’t be so bad if they knew what they were doing, but we’ve been doing this since we were kids. No things aren’t perfect and don’t always go as expected, but we’re willing to stay the course. A lot’s happened since you left, Raven, but we still believe we can do it.”
“I see,” Raven said absently as she looked out the window, waiting for the barrenness to turn into overload when they finally reached the city limits of Troiwee. It hadn’t been lost on her that Tobi seemed to be avoiding the topic they both knew she wanted to talk about. She decided to be the one to take the step.
“They were asked to investigate when they found information about another star containing kemtons.”
She didn’t like the way Tobi’s stopped at that explanation. “And?”
“They made the discovery right before you got Art at the base on Eicho. We planned to send you on a mission with them when you… when you all came back. We gave Art some time to recover and asked if he wanted to be a part of the mission to find the star. You see it’s an exploratory expedition and mostly based on projections and a few traces of hard evidence that could have come from anywhere. They both decided to take their chances and try to get to the star before UCNSS did. It was probably a month after they returned they set off. Been gone ever since.”
“You’re not sure if they’re still alive are you?”
Tobi’s non-answer was enough of an answer for her. He had gotten attached to Art and Jimmy just as he had her. “They were instructed not to make contact weren’t they? Resistance has erased all connection with them just in case, haven’t they?”
“It’s for their own good. And ours.”
“Did Dex say it was for their own good!”
Raven turned her focus back to the passenger window again. Of course she wanted to ask about Dex but not this way. Although she was certain Tobi probably already knew about her relationship with Dex, she didn’t want to appear too anxious. She was aware at how some had looked at their relationship, thinking she only used it to gain favor and influence. She knew her intentions but as Tobi implied, prestige and status meant everything in a revolution even though it wasn’t supposed to.
“Contacted as soon as I knew it was you by the way.”
She looked at Tobi again who had not taken his eyes of the road. She was relieved to get the subtle message: he knew whatever it was between Raven and Dex was genuine. She could handle the others doubting her but not Tobi. She needed him to believe it for some reason.
Raven sat back in her seat and settled in to the pleasure of being driven. She realized then she was still tired. She rarely left the cockpit of the PCT, not even to make herself comfortable to sleep. No one else aboard had her experience when it came to piloting, so she stayed at the helm even with autopilot guaranteed to get them to the next destination unharmed. She lived in that cockpit, intentionally avoiding prisoners’ accommodations although she knew they were being used. She didn’t want to feel like a prisoner ever again.
She didn’t know when she dozed off because her sleep was light enough to keep her somewhat conscious of the sounds around her. She saw the Troiwee she left when she heard the familiar sounds of the city that often greeted her when she ventured out. It was so vivid she thought her eyes were open, taking in the sights, becoming part of the city.
However, she received a shock when her eyes finally opened and took in an unfamiliar sight: a concrete wall where Nesake’s broken fence once stood. It wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, but she could tell it had been reinforced as strongly as possible. They had made Nesake’s place their headquarters.
Armed guards stood at the door, protected with bulletproof clothing. She also noticed a couple of snipers posted around the perimeter. The only gated part of the wall opened when Tobi pulled up and gave a signal. They drove inside with the rest of the larger land vehicles in procession.
The outside of Nesake’s place looked the same if not a little more rundown than Raven remembered. She climbed out of the vehicle before Tobi had a chance to get out and made a power walk to the front door where Nesake waited and opened her arms as soon as Raven approached.
“I thought we wouldn’t see you again!” Nesake exclaimed as they embraced. She then held Raven out at arm’s length and examined her. “Been rough on you huh? Can’t hide it. I can tell.”
Raven’s smile was weak but genuine. She really was happy to see Nesake again. Nesake looked almost the same, but haunting now colored her eyes. She had become slightly bent in a way that happened to those who spent much time serving others, bending to tend to beds, serve food or pick someone up off the ground. For the first time since they met, Nesake looked like a mother.
Nesake kept Raven’s hand as they finally walked inside. Raven didn’t notice any of the others walking past them to head to the restaurant or the upstairs quarters as she looked around. The convenience store was completely gone. None of the packaged foods, clothing or other items sat around. Instead, she saw much of the same Moana technology she had seen in Jesse’s cave warehouse on Seix. But this technology was finished, completed in what must have been days of nonstop sessions to make sure the Resistance had what it needed to defeat the empire. For a moment, she felt full with a sense of hope that they could indeed win. Then her heart fell when she remembered the cost: Jesse.
“Chessy’s been busy,” Nesake said as Raven looked around. “A lot of the tech here’s been responsible for keeping us alive to fight another day.”
Raven took her eyes off the supplies long enough to look at Nesake again. She didn’t know where to start first. She had so many questions, so much to catch up on since her unexpected departure. Were things worse than Nesake and Tobi had made out? Had they carried out a major strike that put a dent in the UCNSS’ stronghold? How much good would the PCT do in helping accelerate the end of the war? Would she be in the way?
“I know you must be exhausted right now. I still have a room for you upstairs so I’ll get you settled.”
“No, Nesake. I know you must be dealing with a thousand other things right now. Definitely don’t need to drop any of it on my account. I should find some way to help out.”
“You’re no good to me or anyone else in this state,” Nesake said as she again grabbed Raven by the hand and headed upstairs to quarters. “A few hours sleep will do you good. I’m not briefing you on anything or letting you handle any strikes until I know you’re rested. I’m taking you to your room.”
She knew she probably spent more time than she should have in the shower, but the hot water from the showerhead soothed her tired joints and washed away the memory of the frozen hell that had been Heifri. She ran her hands through the stubble of hair that remained on her head, still not missing it after all this time. But she wouldn’t stop it from growing back this time. She no longer needed the reminder of how she’d been treated. She no longer needed to be reminded of Captain’s brutality.
Raven couldn’t remember if this was a room she had previously occupied, but she did know that the bed was the most comfortable she’d lain in since before she was captured. She stripped down to her underclothing and pulled the blanket down. She took her time settling under it, rubbing her face in the pillow before finding the most comfortable position for her. She didn’t have much time to think about the luxury. Sleep came so fast she didn’t feel it coming.
It all started off peacefully at first. The sensation of being weightless as always. Then the nightmares began. The sense of helplessness during the stay at Assilem came back in full force in her subconscious when she couldn’t control it. Then she felt cold, the cold she hadn’t felt since she escaped Heifri.
Then she was warm again. Warm and safe. Safe from a touch she knew and missed.
Raven woke to find the warmth of Dex’s body was just as real as it felt in her dream. She sleepily ran her hand along one of the long arms she had missed for far too long, the safety she craved during her darkest moments in Assilem and on Heifri. It was hers again. Dex was hers again.
She realized Dex wasn’t asleep when her caresses were returned. Dex stroked her gently on her back while she buried her head in Dex’s still clothed chest. She just needed this to last.
“I was lucky back on Unone. Most kids had to work with their parents on the farms their whole lives. Couldn’t get paid for it until they were 14 though. Up until then, they contributed to their family’s output but got nothing for their individual efforts. Fortunately for my parents, I showed signs of higher intelligence by the time I was four. That meant they could find a sponsor to put me through school and give me opportunities outside Unone. That’s the life most parents there want for their children, but so few of us can do it.
“So my mother was especially disheartened when I was older and would spend time alone in my room instead of going out and hanging with my school friends. They had connections, clout from their associations with Blue Nova. But I didn’t like them. I preferred to be alone. So my mom had to take solace in the fact that I didn’t hang around the others my age who had to work the farms either. She didn’t have to worry about them tainting me by association.
“I don’t know if she thought it was worse when I got a little obsessed with the old telecasts. I loved the music from 20th century Earth. Nothing else like it exists. The visuals were so weird and primitive. They had no idea what it was really like beyond their system and couldn’t imagine it outside of what they did know. But I didn’t care. I found it charming. I was most fascinated by the origins.
“That’s how I first found him. ‘Ground control to Major Tom.’ In five minutes, I was on a journey with Major Tom and an ill-fated mission because the Earthlings didn’t yet know what they were doing beyond their world. But I didn’t really see it that way. I saw it as Major Tom leaving a world that hated her for reasons she couldn’t control and deciding not to come back. I see her as sabotaging her own mission so that she could stay in space. Imagine not having to go back to that existence, having the chance to stay among this vast blackness where no one could hurt her anymore. Who knows if Unoneans really found her and brought her here. She was a rebel.
“That’s what I wanted to be. Instead, I ended up working for the one place that makes it a priority to crush any rebellious spirit in anyone who crosses it. I went along. I forgot about Major Tom and focused on doing something that made my parents happy because I thought I owed them for all they did in their lives. Still don’t know if it was right, but at least they didn’t have to work the farms in their old age while I was with Blue Nova. I tried not to admit it even to myself that when it all went down, the first thing I did was picture myself as Major Tom, finally having my own great adventure, thumbing my nose at authority because I knew it didn’t respect me even though it gave me the chance I needed to escape. Irony.”
Dex had listened, still caressing her, lightly kissing her forehead when she finally went quiet again. Raven drew herself further in as if trying to fit her whole body into Dex’s and merge with it. She was held tighter, wrapped in an embrace she had never held with anyone. Then she was asleep again.
“I remember him. He was your husband?”
Awya looked different in civilian clothes. They both wore simple shirts and trousers, but modifications provided functions to help them be more efficient on missions. Raven didn’t even mind the dingy gray color because at least it wasn’t blue. However, Awya’s ginger hair suddenly appeared brighter. Everything about Awya seemed lighter, possibly because Raven had spent the better part of the day asleep then making up with Dex for lost time.
“He was always a bit of an asshole,” Awya said after swallowing a mouthful of the coffee Nesake had placed in front of her before joining Awya, Dex and Raven at their booth. “I kinda liked that though. They’re always fun until they turn it on you. I put up with it for a while thinking it would change or he would stop. Never did. I had to stop him.”
“Well, the fact that he was a higher up in Blue Nova explains the severity of your punishment,” Dex said. “Usually you’re given the chance to make a case for self-defense even if you aren’t in imminent danger at the time. Thought we figured out the psychology of abuse a long time ago.”
“We did,” Awya said with uncharacteristic gentleness. “We still just don’t apply it equally.”
The lull in the conversation brought about a brief awkwardness as they tried to ignore the situation before them. Of course, Dex was the one to find a way to apply tact and diplomacy.
“At least now that will be to your advantage. You have a connection to Blue Nova, but it’s safe to say that connection is broken and you won’t be going back. And I never liked your husband while he was there. Such an inefficient, entitled ass. Only the most incredible family ties got him that position. No offense.”
“Definitely none taken.”
“It’s all a matter of time now,” Dex said. “The UCNSS makes a good show of how well they’re doing putting us down, but we know better. It’s losing its hold on the people. No one will go back to the way things were after this. No matter what happens, we’ve shown that we don’t have to accept their rule lying down. This is either the end of the beginning or simply another step in a longer process. Either way, we’ve all seen another way now. We know why we fight and what we have to lose. Things won’t be the same anymore.”
Perhaps Nesake sensed Awya’s tension because only then did she notice Dex’s arm around Raven. Her previous inferences had been confirmed when she noticed Raven leaning in to the shoulder, returning the embrace. But Raven had also noticed Awya wince at the gesture and Nesake made another inference at that relationship. So did Dex.
“I better make sure our supplies are on the way,” Nesake said as she got up from the booth. “Had to get more food in with the influx we just had.”
“I’ll help you,” Awya said as she scooted out of the booth and followed Nesake out of the restaurant.
Raven and Dex were left to themselves. Dex didn’t stop her when Raven leaned out of their embrace to retrieve her tea.
“I know it’s not really my business,” Dex said without looking at her, “but she seems a little envious. I know she was close to you on Heifri. Were there any promises made there that you intend to keep?”
“No. No promises.”
“She doesn’t seem to be under that impression.”
“Neither do you.”
“Look I’m sorry. I know I can trust what you say. I just can’t help wondering what happened while you were stuck there together…”
“She kept me warm when I needed.”
Dex grew quiet again. They sat in silence awhile before Raven found something to say.
“I don’t have any regrets about it. She saved my life and didn’t have to. I would have assumed you moved on after a while anyway. I wouldn’t have blamed you. Nothing’s certain these days. Have to take our happiness when we can get it right?”
Dex nodded with a half-hearted grin. “No matter what happened, what happens, something in me still wants this to be over so I can be happy with you. Nesake said that you once told her you planned to retire to Evete after you left Blue Nova, have a companion or two. Every day you were gone, I told myself that once I found you again, we’d find a way to end this war and I’d get you to Evete and build that life you wanted. Now I don’t know if that’s what you still want or if it’s even possible.”
Raven grabbed Dex’s hand, her squeeze saying what her voice wouldn’t. Dex understood and gave her a smile before kissing her softly on the lips.
“I think the thing that surprised me most about you was the feeling I always got that I could be happy with you. Not too many people I can say that I just like the person they are and I’m glad they like me. I know it’s real with you because I’d feel the same way even if we hadn’t become intimate. I’d still want you in my life.” Raven sighed heavily as if it had taken some effort to say her piece. “Of course, first thing we have to do is end this war.”
Dex’s eyes twinkled with the closed-mouth laugh. “One way or another…”
Dex suddenly looked over the seat opposite them in the booth at the side door that just opened. “And perhaps we may have just found a way to do it.”
Raven looked at Dex. She turned around to see what happened to brighten Dex’s mood even more. Her smile came fast and wide. Her heart thumped in a way it hadn’t since she was a child receiving a new gift or finding some other such excitement.
She didn’t feel herself releasing Dex’s hand or jumping on the table to get out of the booth to run to the door straight into Art’s waiting arms.
“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.