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.