Epilogue: A new Azuno
They did it.
They actually did it.
When Staff Sergeant Karla Nichols heard that Riley, Nick, Daniel, Langley, and the GIS team stayed behind to rescue two of their soldiers to disable the nuclear missile, only to then stay behind again to shut down the powerplant, she had already buried them.
But now that she saw their liberated Warbird fly away from the city on the satellite recording that command had sent them with the nuke’s fusion core onboard and the Steelhorn powerplant being safely offline, Nichols couldn’t have been happier that she was wrong.
But despite that, she was still mourning.
With the GCSA tower destroyed, Nichols couldn’t contact the Warbird, but on the recordings, she could clearly see that two of the escaping soldiers were still at the powerplant when it was showered with rockets and missiles. With one of them wearing a dark blue helmet and the other having blonde hair, it was very clear who those two were. Private First-Class Nick Becket and Private Riley McConnel joined the ever-growing list of the causalities of Operation Black Knight.
Not wanting to drown themselves in grief, they were sharing stories with Hopkins in an attempt to pass the time until they reached Sapphiria.
“…so Riley was sitting there with a bleeding forehead, after literally getting shot in the head, staring at his dented helmet and then he just says with a completely straight face that "yep, our helmets suck".“
Hopkins burst out laughing at the end, and Nichols had a short chuckle as well. “Sounds like he was an entertaining fellow.”
“Yeah… Definitely going to miss him…” said Hopkins in a longing voice.
Nichols did her best to comfort Hopkins, seeing that it wasn’t entirely confirmed that the two of them had died, but it was obvious that the potential deaths of even more of her friends hit her hard.
Them finding a bottle of wine stashed away in Kingsley’s cabin did help somewhat.
“To good friends!” said Nichols as she raised her glass.
“And to the new ones!” added Hopkins while nodding at Nichols.
They sat still for a while until Hopkins broke up the silence. “So, what are you planning to do once we get home?”
Nichols thought about her answer for a bit. “Honestly, same as before. Sapphiria will certainly want retribution for Blackfortress, not to mention that we need to find our missing civilians. They are going to need plenty of soldiers and volunteers, and after today, I can’t just sit back and relax.”
“I’m sure Admiral Hsu will appreciate your aid.”
Nichols shook her head. “I know but… I still can’t believe that she just refused to send us reinforcements! I know they were far away, but she could have done something at least!”
Nichols drank the rest of the contents of the glass, then put it down to the floor since there weren’t any tables around, other than the consoles. After a bit of grumbling, she eventually asked Hopkins the same thing. “What about you Lola?”
Hopkins looked at her arm, then down to the ground. “I… honestly don’t know. I lost a lot of people today, including my father. I’m… I’m going to need some time to process…”
“Captain Brown was certainly one of a kind. I didn’t know him too well, but you have my condolences.”
Hopkins just nodded but didn’t say anything. Nichols didn’t know how close Hopkins was to the other members of Rhino, but she had heard about what happened when Nick drove off from the plane. “So, you and Nick––”
“I honestly don’t know, Karla. I mean he seems nice, and I can’t deny that he’s a good man, but…”
“Not what I meant!” said Nichols hastily.
Hopkins looked embarrassed for a moment. “Oh, sorry, I just assumed––”
“No, no, it’s fine! I was just curious about why you two decided to assault your superior.”
“Oh,” she said. “…that’s what you meant. Well, neither one of us wanted to leave Riley behind, and I guess Nick didn’t want to waste time arguing, and I did not want Major Jefferson to stop him from leaving...”
Nichols took her job at the Sapphirian Navy very seriously, so to her, an assault on a superior officer was unimaginable. She didn’t expect a fellow Sapphirian to do something like that, especially one that was raised by Captain Brown. And yet, she did.
“I understand that, but throwing a helmet into his face and then knocking him down to the ground?” replied Nichols, while shaking her head. “Bit excessive.”
“Well, we didn’t have time to plan, since you were already taking off!” Hopkins retorted as she leaned forward from her seat.
“You’d rather I didn’t?” Nichols asked back.
For a moment, the atmosphere in the cockpit tensed up. Before things got any more heated, Hopkins laid back inside her seat, and let out a deep breath.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that I wasn’t grateful…” she explained. “I’m just angry that so many of our people are not getting home. Ronald, Jason, Jones, Riley, Nick…”
“…and Cole,” added Nichols.
The two sat in silence for a while. Nichols was looking out through the window, into the bright sky towards Azuno’s ring.
“How long have you known him for?” asked Hopkins suddenly.
Nichols looked away for a moment as she tried to remember. “Twelve years, I think. We… tried to keep our distance after our mission Klosaap island.” She sighed after she finished her sentence, then turned back to Hopkins. “…and yet, he traded his life for mine.”
“If you don’t mind me asking… what happened between you two?”
Nichols leaned back into her seat and took a deep breath. “He and his friend Hodson were assigned to the same unit as I was on Klosaap island during the Gredrurgian Independence war,” she explained, during her best to recall the exact details. “…things were relatively peaceful for the first few days until we eventually got attacked by an entire battalion of soldiers out of nowhere. We lost control of the situation very quickly, and with only a few of us remaining standing at our camp Cole and I decided to evacuate the unit while we still had the chance to do so.”
She took a pause to take another sip from her glass. “...but as we were about to evac in an enemy plane, Hodson got pinned down on the other end of the runway. I was the only one with pilot training, and I had to make a choice between risking everyone to save Hodson or getting out of there…”
“…and what happened?”
Nichols looked at her console, where Patterson’s box of dog tags was sitting. “I made a choice,” she sighed. “…Cole saw the whole thing go down. Frankly, I don’t think he ever forgave me, but in spite of that, he still gave his life away for mine.”
Hopkins gazed out the window. “I guess in the end, he was able to forget about the past.”
Nichols looked at the metal box again. She smiled. “Eventually.”
The cockpit’s door suddenly opened, and Major Jefferson walked inside. “Am I interrupting?”
“No sir, not at all” replied Hopkins.
“There are some things that we need to discuss. Consider it your debriefing.”
Nichols nodded. “We’ll be there in a second.”
Jefferson nodded back and went out of the cockpit.
“Come on, let’s not keep them waiting,” said Nichols as she helped Hopkins get up from her seat. They walked out of the cockpit afterwards.
When they made their way into the briefing room that was previously used by Hernandez for poker, Jefferson was explaining to Captain Stanley, Specialist Bisson, and Alex what will happen once they land. Ira was also there, but she didn’t seem to play much part in the conversation.
“…we’ll be landing in Sakreta at the Southern Airport in a few hours. Once we get there, the civilians will be escorted to their temporary homes, while Stanley and I will be taken to the S.B.S Stormspike so that Fleet Admiral Hsu can debrief us.”
“Oh great, we’re going straight to my hometown,” muttered Hopkins.
Jefferson nodded at Nichols and Hopkins and waited for Hopkins to take a seat before he continued.
“As for the rest of you…” he continued.
“…Jail,” finished Alex.
Nichols raised her head. Alex noticed her surprise, but he just shrugged. “I’m going to jail, aren’t I? That’s what Sapphirians do to traitors, don’t they?”
“Meh, I can live with that,” Bisson replied. “…not sure how my former "allies" can live with themselves though.”
Stanley patted him on the back. “Don’t worry son, I’ll put in a good word for you and Mr. Santos. In the end, you helped us save our people, and that’s what counts.”
“Not to mention that you saved Riley’s butt twice,” said Nichols as she turned to Alex. “…and you helped us find the deactivation codes for the missile. That’s gotta count for something.” added Nichols.
Major Jefferson shook his head. “I agree with you two and I tried to smooth things over with General Thompson and Admiral Hsu, but they insisted on bringing you and Bisson in for a trial. I’m sorry.”
“With all due respect sir,” Ira said as she stepped forward. “…who the fuck cares what they insist on? This mission was stupidly planned from the start and those two “Generals” lost our reinforcements while we were getting shot at all day. They can screw off.”
Nichols stared blankly at the private who just scolded her superiors. She had guts for sure.
“And what do you want me to do about that, Private?” Jefferson asked. “…I’m not a general, I can’t go around their orders. Not anymore at least.”
Ira shook her head and walked back to her corner, while Alex just leaned back into his seat.
“As I said, jail. Still, if it wasn’t for you, I would be long dead by now.”
Nichols took this chance to speak up.
“So what about Rhino platoon and Sergeants Schmidt and Dresden? With Rhino’s commander dead I think they should be there too.”
Jefferson sighed. He avoided looking into anybody’s eyes. “Rhino platoon has been officially dismantled per General Thompson’s orders.”
Hopkins and Ira both raised their heads in a quick motion and looked at the Major.
“The fuck you mean dismantled?” Ira scowled.
“Why would he do that?” said Hopkins with a confused look on her face.
Nichols did not like the fact either that Rhino was dismantled, but she had some ideas about why the General would do it. She figured she’d wait for Jefferson to explain it before she thought too deep into the issue.
“Listen,” started the Major. “I don’t like it either, but let’s face the facts. Rhino just lost its leader, four of its members, and their former platoon commander turned out to be a traitor. Add to that the fact that Corporal Norton disobeyed a direct order and was ready to detonate a nuclear missile…”
“…to take out the entire enemy force...” added Hopkins.
“…and you get a good old media shitstorm.”
Hopkins tightened her mouth, and Nichols could see that she very much didn’t like that answer.
“You mean a PR a problem?” she asked, barely holding her emotions in. “You’re telling me, that the reason he dismantled the platoon is that he’s worried he’ll look bad in the eyes of the public?”
“Corporal…” started Stanley in an attempt to calm her down, but it didn’t seem like that she was about to stop.
“No, this is wrong and you know it. All of the people we left behind were ready to give their lives to save the island, and this is the sort of reward they get? How can you think that this is in any way fair or justified?!” she exclaimed, almost shouting.
“Welcome to the military, Hopkins!” Ira exclaimed mockingly.
Something broke inside Major Jefferson, who immediately stood up and walked right up to Hopkins. “And what in the world do you want me to do about it, Corporal?! Huh?!”
Hopkins didn’t say anything to that.
“I know you lost a lot of people but you’re not nearly the only one!” he yelled less than a meter away from Hopkins. “And the same goes for you, Private Cote, so unless you two smartasses have any actual advice on how I can change the General's mind, you can shut right up!”
Hopkins just stared at the ground in front of her without saying a word, while Ira looked away from them.
“And at least you can keep your damned jobs…” added Jefferson.
Nichols just noticed that the Major didn’t have his insignia on his armor anymore. “They want to sack you, sir?”
Jefferson shook his head again. “Yes, they do. I broke protocol when I transmitted our request for help on an open channel, and I had half the team die under my command. And just like with Rhino, I can’t do a damn thing but watch…” A few seconds of tense silence later the Major spoke up again. “However, we have much bigger problems.”
Stanley nodded. “I agree. We still don’t know squat about why the NAF wanted to get their hands on that flight-log so bad, that they were willing to blow up a city to cover it up.”
“I do.” Stated Nichols.
Everyone in the room looked at her.
“Before Captain Kingsley and Patterson got sucked out of the plane, Kingsley told us that they were looking for the DSC Bluehammer. More specifically, they want something that’s inside the ship.”
Major Jefferson crossed his arms. “That sure as hell explains it. The Danuvee was the last ship to crash, and its tracking systems probably saw where the Bluehammer splashed down.”
“And how sure are we that McConnel's drive actually has this information on it?” Stanley asked.
“Sensor data is always backed up into our aircraft's black boxes,” Nichols remarked. “Pretty sure the Earthers were smart enough to back them up if we were.”
“And once the federation got the drive and the location of the ship,” Jefferson continued. “...all they would need is a submarine to get to it, and maybe some manpower to speed up the searching process.”
“You think that’s why they kidnapped the people from my city? To speed up their recon?” asked Stanley as he put his hands on his hips.
“That’s what my guess would be as well,” agreed Bisson. “…even if they knew where to look, the malleus ocean is a big place.”
Jefferson simply nodded.
“Hmm… if we could find where they were taken,” Stanley started suddenly “…maybe we could find their base of operations as well?”
“That would be good, wouldn’t it?” Jefferson said, “Problem is, that we don’t know where they are.”
Alex turned to Nichols. “Staff Sergeant, did you find anything in the navigation logs?”
“Not much. Kingsley was smart enough to wipe the most recent logs. I still managed to find a few airfields that this plane visited quite often, but...”
“So we don't know where their HQ is?”
“No, not yet...” concluded Nichols with a bit of frustration. “But now that they're out in the open it's only a matter of time.”
Hopkins leaned forward from her seat. “We do have one more lead. One of the recordings we found said something about a certain “Section Bermuda” being the place where they took the people.”
“And do we know where that site is?” asked Stanley.
Hopkins simply shook her head as a reply.
Nichols looked at Alex, who seemed to be thinking about something. “Know anything about that place?” She asked.
“I’m just a mercenary. They didn’t tell me or my buddies much about the other NAF operations. Hell, we got recruited only a few days before the attack.”
“Same here.” Bisson continued. “…all they said was that they’d release my sister if I helped, but they kept everything real hush-hush. The only thing I know is that they transported them in containers onboard freighter ships, but I have no idea where they went afterwards.”
Jefferson crossed his arms. “Well, that’s better than nothing at least...”
“We could ask Hsu for information about the ships that entered and left Paks during the past weeks,” suggested Stanley.
“Yes, we could, but that doesn’t mean she’ll give it to us,” replied Jefferson. “…my faith in her is a bit shaken after today.”
“Well, Langley got that Skyraider personally from her a few months ago…” said Nichols after shrugging. “I doubt she would withhold information like that, especially in these circumstances.”
“You’ve got more faith in her than I do.”
Alex leaned forward. “You might also want to send some of your people back to Blackfortress.”
Hopkins turned to Alex. “To find those two who stayed behind?” she asked.
“Or their gear at least. Riley still had that flight log on him when he left to get Becket out of there. I’d personally sleep easier if that thing wasn’t in Paks anymore.”
Jefferson looked outside one of the circular windows for a moment, then slowly turned back to the others. “He didn’t get on the Warbird, did he?”
“No sir… he did not,” Hopkins said as she looked down to the ground.
Jefferson let out a deep breath. He was about to say something, but Bisson beat him to it. “I think it might be best to leave that thing there.” He suggested. “If that building collapsed on him, that drive is most likely in a bazillion pieces by now.”
“Maybe…” Jefferson said with a shrug. “…but I’d rather send someone to make sure.”
Ira wasn’t saying much for most of the conversation, but she felt the need to step forward now. “Look I’m not much of a sentimentalist but… fuck, Becket and McConnel deserve a proper burial after all they did. We need to go back for them.”
Hopkins nodded in agreement. “They deserve it.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy going back for a while,” stated Stanley. “seeing such a city completely devoid of life is horrifying enough, but when you actually knew most of the people who are missing, well…”
He wasn’t saying it out loud, but Nichols could tell that the Major didn’t really want to go back either, which meant it boiled down to her, Ira or Hopkins to go back eventually unless of course one of the generals put together a new squad specifically to go back into the city, which was likely to happen after Riley’s open transmission.
Nichols wasn’t exactly fond of the idea of going back either, but she never once backed away from a mission out of fear in the 16 years she had served in the Sapphirian Navy. And while it was possible that it was just her guilt speaking, she figured she owed one to the late Patterson to find his men.
The two of them went their separate ways after Klosaap, but despite that, he willingly gave his life to save Nichols, and that was something that she wasn’t going to forget.
She took a deep breath, then stepped forward. “I volunteer,” she said, as confidently as she could.
Ira and Hopkins raised their heads in unison, while Stanley just looked at her with a smile.
“Wait, you want to go alone?” asked Hopkins. She seemed concerned.
“Not right now of course, but when we had a chance to rest. If someone else wants to join then I’ll be happy to take them along, but if not, then I’ll go at it alone. And with the way your right arm is, I’m not sure that––”
“Sergeant, I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself. More importantly, both Nick and Riley had risked their own lives for me numerous times. I want to be there when we go back for them.”
Stanley and Jefferson were both looking at Hopkins, along with Ira. The medic shrugged, then leaned forward. “Screw it, I’m in. I hate that damned city more than anything but what kind of a shitty medic leaves people behind? If you don’t mind the company, I’m game.”
Nichols appreciated Ira’s offer. “Happy to hear it. Anybody else?”
Stanley and Jefferson turned to each other. Stanley spoke up. “I do not think we’ll be able to go anywhere for a while, but you might want to ask Master Sergeant Dresden when we regroup at Sakreta. Pretty sure a man like him would go back without a second thought.”
“Same goes for us.” added Bisson, nodding at Alex. “…if we get to leave that is.”
Nichols nodded. “In that case, I’ll get back to the cockpit, unless there’s anything else to discuss.”
“Me too,” said Hopkins as she stood up.
Jefferson stood up from the table. “No, that’s it. You are all dismissed, but I’d like a word with the Staff Sergeant here.”
Stanley, Bisson, Alex, and Ira all walked out of the room after they saluted or nodded.
Nichols walked with Hopkins back to the cockpit, then closed the door and made her way back to Jefferson, who now had a wooden box in one of his arms.
“Listen, Nichols. By the time we land, there will be a pretty good chance that I will no longer be a Major, or not even a soldier, and I’m not sure how much Hsu will care about what you accomplished here…”
Nichols didn’t know where the Major was going with that line of thought. “What are you aiming at, sir?”
“I’m saying that if you hadn’t destroyed the SAM site with your makeshift bomb and if you hadn’t been there to take over the plane, we wouldn’t have gone home today. Not to mention the service you did by intercepting McConnel’s signal in the first place.”
Nichols looked away from Jefferson. “Sir, with respect, Patterson would also be alive if it wasn’t for me being here.”
The major looked at her concernedly, and she did not like that one bit. “Look, I appreciate the thought, Major, but you should be thanking your ground team. Not me.”
“I will,” he said as he slowly opened the box. “But the fact that you chose to volunteer to lead a squad back to that damned city, despite everything that happened today, shows me that you’re more than ready for the responsibilities of a higher rank.”
Nichols skipped a breath. She felt something rumbling in her stomach. “Are you saying that I––”
“Congratulations, Gunnery Sergeant Nichols. You’re promoted.”
Before Nichols could say anything, the Major patted her on the shoulder and pinned the Sapphirian GSGT insignia on her armor's shoulder plate, then walked out of the room, leaving the newly promoted Gunnery Sergeant standing confused in the middle of their plane.
She stood still for a few seconds as she collected her thoughts, but shortly after she raised her head, and with her heart filled with determination, she began walking back to the cockpit.
As she sat back into her seat, she took a long gaze out one of the windows. Tendor was sitting on the horizon, brightening up the sky all around the plane. A new day had started, and a new day bought new hope and new possibilities with it. She didn’t know what was going to happen in the coming days and months as Azuno had to deal with the existence of such a large-scale terrorist organization, or the acquirement and then the loss of the Danuvee’s almost legendary black box data, but Nichols was certain that whatever came next, she was going to take an active part in it.
As for the city, the battle of Blackfortress was over. The ghost city remained standing, saved from the nuclear weapons and powerplants that almost destroyed it, with its demolished GCSA tower serving as an eternal reminder of the fallen soldiers of Azuno who died in its defense.
The war for Azuno, however, was only just starting.
I'm just an average dude from Hungary who has way too much time on his hands. I started writing a couple years ago as a hobby, partly because I wanted to practice and improve my English, and partly because there's just something amazing about inventing new worlds and people from scratch and then writing about their deeds and adventures.
At this point I honestly can't imagine myself putting down my writing pen ever again, and I would like to wish lots of luck to every other writer out there with their projects!
Favorite genres: Science Fiction, Adventure, Military