“Die, you motherfu--” an orange-jumpsuit-clad man shouted, interrupted by two blasts to the chest from a Nektro rifle. The black printed numbers on his chest were obscured by blood as countless alien troopers rushed past him. Traw witnessed the escaped prisoners clashing with the Nektro footsoldiers as he drove past the penitentiary division, a gunfire-accented storm of orange and gray. Despite many of them still being bound in chains, the prisoners were engaging the Nektro in hand-to-hand combat and gunning them down in the courts and streets with rifles snatched from the lifeless hands of dozens of guards. Then the cannon fire ensued.
Disregarding the footsoldiers within the prison boundaries, the Nektro warship opened fire from above, its devastating cannons tearing apart the buildings and courts in plumes of laser-induced explosions. Men and Nektro alike were crushed and blown apart under the sheer might of the cannonfire.
Traw desperately sped by, trying to avoid both the colossal explosions and the physical obstacles blocking his path. All around him there was chaos. Twice he narrowly dodged stray laser shots from the battle in the prison courtyard. Just as he set his sights on the school division a mile down one of the long, straight roads, an explosion knocked him off his speeder, blowing shrapnel and flaming trash everywhere.
He lay unconscious as twilight fell over the city. Flames and dying sunlight were nearly indistinguishable. Then he awoke to the sound of a nearby explosion, scrambling to rise from the hot ground. Awkwardly he lifted himself to his feet, staggering around. Blood ran down the side of his head. He lifted his goggles off and dropped them carelessly. The world was a blur of smoke and rubble. Glancing frantically around him, he stumbled back against a brick wall, clutching the side of a garbage container. “Get Luella,” he mumbled, pushing himself onward on the long stretch of road.
As he staggered down the street, a caravan of fleeing school transport ships headed toward him, escorted by four police speeders. He stopped, waving his hand in the air. “My daughter's in there!” he yelled, his mind still rattled from the blast. One of the police stopped in front of him.
“What is it, sir? What do you need?” the officer asked, his black gloved hand on his holster.
“I need my daughter,” Traw replied, slurring his words. “She's in one of those vehicles.”
“I'm sorry, sir. We're taking these ships directly to the emergency station. We stop for no--”
“Give me my daughter, you bastard!” Traw screamed, advancing on the officer with a raised fist. “I'm the only one who can keep her safe, you hear? Luella! Where are you, darlin'?”
Traw looked down the cold barrel of the officer's pistol. “Step away from the convoy, sir,” the officer commanded calmly. Traw watched the rows of vehicles as they passed, standing in the same spot. “I said step away!” the officer repeated, his finger getting tighter on the trigger.
Traw took two uneasy steps backward, raising his open hands. The last of the vehicles passed by, and the officer sped up to join the convoy, holstering his pistol. Traw stood where he had been ordered to halt, watching the convoy depart. Then he turned about to see a frantic mob of people fleeing, a few of them falling by laser shots to the back. He ducked and sought cover in a heap of rubble and charred trash as they passed, with a Nektro platoon in hot pursuit. Both parties passed with no notice of him, and when he deemed the area safe, he sneaked out and glanced back down the street.
Every key compound in the city had been struck by cannonfire. Traw walked toward the wreckage of his speeder, realizing that there was no salvaging it. “My gun,” he muttered, scanning about on the ground. The fires from afar illuminated the streets, and he found the barrel of his gun sticking out from beneath a garbage container, and he slid it out.
Judging it to still be worthy of use, he began his journey toward the emergency station. “Luella,” he repeated to himself, gun slung over his shoulder.
After a long hike through darkness and rubble, he found it at last. It was a large bunker, fortified with three rows of barriers and a few cannons, all of which had been blown out in the battle. Three platoons of Nektro soldiers surrounded the bunker, with several established turrets opening fire at the points of entry. “I don't think so,” he grumbled, taking his aim from behind a blasted-out wall.
He shot down three of the gunners, then set his sights on the commanders. Traw struck them in the sides of the heads with well placed shots from his rifle. One of the remaining commanders pointed imperiously toward Traw, uttering a deep-throated command, and eight Nektro soldiers ran toward him, opening fire.
Traw took cover behind the rubble, squeezing his eyes shut as cement chunks and dust sprayed about him. He raised himself again and fired off three shots in rapid succession, then ducking. He had no idea if the shots met their targets. Sebastian sprung up again and clicked his trigger, to no avail. The energy in his rifle had been expended. Rolling to the side and avoiding two blasts, he picked up a stray brick and flung it at one of the Nektro, its head smashed by the object. The Nektro's fire intensified, forcing him to hide behind a mound of garbage.
Realizing he had no choice, Traw grabbed another brick and crouched at the ready, awaiting the arrival of a footsoldier eager to complete its task. Though to his surprise, he heard a hailfire of shots and Nektro cries of pain that followed. The new shots didn't bear the strange, fluid chirp the Nektro rifles did when they discharged a blast. In fact, he almost found the sound to be relieving. Although he suspected the Nektro were no longer such a pressing threat, Traw decided to wait it out another twenty seconds or so before leaving his barrier.
As he emerged, he saw twenty GAM troopers walking across the field of Nektro corpses, inspecting them with flashlights. They wore various protective pads and straps that held tactical tools and ammunition. Flashlights were strapped to their dense, padded helmets and to the ends of their bulky rifles. “We're good over here!” one of them called.
“And over here!” another one chimed.
“Alright, let's get these civilians out of here and to the chopper. Move it, the next platoon's comin' in hot!” a sturdy, deep voice commanded.
Traw approached the leader with raised hands. “Excuse me, sir,” he introduced. The squad leader turned about, a smoking magnum in his right hand and a communicator device in the other.
“What do you need? We're not giving you any rations or medicine. If you want some, you can scavenge in there after we're done here,” the leader told him, making his disinterest plain as day.
“No, I just need my daughter. She should be in there,” Traw informed the leader. He glanced over to see the troopers prying open the shabby barricade.
The squad leader paused, looking Traw over head to toe. “We'll see if your daughter's in there. When we let them out, she'll come running to you...assuming she is in fact your daughter.”
“I know she is,” Traw assured him. They both watched as the troopers ripped down the last layer of barricade, ensuring the civilians that they were on their side. After a few seconds of hesitation, civilians began to flow out. Traw walked up to the door and scanned each one's face anxiously.
To his immense relief, Luella was there among her schoolmates. “Oh, God, Luella,” he exclaimed, picking her up. She embraced her father silently, unable to speak a word. The squad leader watched from beside a turret, studying the girl's response. By the hand, Traw led his daughter away.
The squad leader walked in front of them, staring Traw straight in the eye with squinted lids. “You'll have to forgive me for doubting you're her parent,” the leader apologized. “I can't count how many times men have tried to take random girls away after battles like this. I haven't let one of them get away with it to this day, and that's something I don't intend to change.”
“Understandable,” Traw granted, looking down at his daughter again. “Do you know what's goin' on with the rest of the city?”
“I couldn't tell you specifics if I wanted to,” the leader answered, “but as of now, this quadrant of the city is secure. We flushed out the Nektro air armada, and they're in full retreat. We got boys shootin' down the rest of the Nektro soldiers in the streets as we speak. By this time tomorrow, the city will be secure.”
“And how are we supposed to get home? I got a wife that's probably worried sick and a speeder that ain't gonna run even if I bribed it with a fresh can of oil.”
“We've arranged for all rural civilians to be taken to their individual residencies. You should be out of here within the hour.”
“Thank you,” Traw concluded, holding Luella's hand tight.
“Just doing my job. We all gotta eat.”
Weary and beaten, Sebastian and Luella walked up the long driveway to the homestead, and were met halfway by Louise.
Later that night, when Luella was fast asleep in bed, Sebastian and Louise lied in their own, staring at the ceiling. “I shouldn't 'ave let her go,” Sebastian uttered, his face clean after a cold shower. “I insisted she went to school, and...Louise, she coulda died.” His brow furrowed as his mind spun.
“Babe, it wasn't your fault,” she excused. “What matters is you're both safe here. At home.”
“I dunno. I wish I would have just--”
Louise began kissing his cheek slowly, wrapping her arms around him. He just stared at the ceiling, unfazed by his wife's embrace. “That warship. I've never seen anything that big. And those guns...they were like thunder.” She stopped, propping herself gently on his chest.
“Look at me,” she told him in a soft voice. “You're safe. We're safe. You did a heroic thing, gettin' Luella outta there. We're both safe because of you, and we'll always be.”