CHAPTER 21 - The Miracle
True to their word, the Liwans did have wings.
Nightshade looked down from atop his blackbird and watched the scenery racing by below him. It still amazed Nightshade how quickly the birds had come to the Liwans’ aid. The shrill chitter sound the Liwans were able to produce from blowing across a single blade of grass pinched between their cupped paws was incredibly effective.
Now, Nightshade and a flying squadron of ten other riders were in an all-out race to intercept the distant Mothship; the red and yellow markings on their wings a blur of color. Despite the extreme efforts of the Liwans, Nightshade knew the grim reality was that these birds had little chance of catching a rocket-powered airship - let alone one with as big of a head start as the Mothship had on them now.
Pushing the facts aside, Nightshade tried to cling to some hope. “Do you think we can catch the ship, Cheentu?” he called down to the bird warrior carrying him.
The Red-winged Blackbird tossed his head and emitted sharp laughter, “True, true. No feather faster than Cheentu’s kind. For Liwa friends, we fly like rocks.”
Nightshade hoped he’d just heard the good-hearted bird wrong - perhaps he’d meant to say ‘rockets’. That’s what they’d need to catch the Mothship. It was still so far ahead, carrying any hopes of being able to save his friends with it. To him, the distance seemed impossible.
Cheentu shrieked out some high-pitched commands in his native tongue, and the squadron started climbing with him in a steep ascent. Soon they were breaking through the clouds. When it seemed the poor load-bearing birds could climb no higher, their leader gave another command and they leveled off.
Nightshade looked for the Mothship, but it had been lost from sight. “Now what?” he asked, confused by the blackbird’s tactics.
“Wings stop. Now...” Cheentu panted, “Now... we fall. No leave Cheentu. ‘kay?”
Nightshade didn’t have any choice. He gripped Cheentu’s feathers tighter as the bird tucked in his wings and, true to his word, let himself fall just like a rock. Fast.
With the slightest adjustments of their tucked wing shapes, the blackbirds made themselves every bit like rockets, cutting the distance at surprising speed.
Nightshade squinted into the wind as they sliced through the clouds. Moments later, they broke through to find the Mothship was only a thousand tails or less away, and the distance was closing fast. In fact, much faster than should have been possible. That’s when Nightshade realized they were no longer chasing the ship. It was heading straight back at them!
“Pull up!” Nightshade screamed as Cheentu screeched his own commands.
The squadron broke formation, darting wildly in every direction to avoid the collision. It was too little too late for some. The Mothship roared into the flock, blasting one blackbird and rider head-on. More than one Liwan was thrown from his blackbird as the force of wind spun the birds helplessly out of control. Though Cheentu narrowly avoided the nose of the ship, the air current was too strong, slamming him into the curved topside of the mammoth ship. Nightshade was thrown off, tumbling alongside Cheentu as the ship rocketed beneath them.
Aiming for the Mothship’s towers, Nightshade fired his grappling hook. The line went taut. He reached out for Cheentu and caught a part of his tail. But the single feather was not strong enough. Nightshade watched in horror as the brave blackbird leader was whisked away and sucked into the flames of the rear jets. Seconds later, the same fate swallowed another blackbird and its Liwan rider.
Scrambling to his feet, Nightshade pulled himself forward along the grappling line back towards the tower. Reaching safety, he was relieved to look out and discover that a few of the squadron had actually survived the collision and were circling back around to chase the ship down again.
Somewhere ahead of him on the ship, a voice grunted. Nightshade peered around the towers until he spotted one of the Liwans.
“Gibb!” Nightshade called out. “Hold on!”
The Liwan didn’t need any help there; his robotic claws had punctured the ship’s metal skin. Seeing that gave Nightshade an idea.
Back inside the control center the scene had deteriorated into complete chaos. Demo, Streak, Boggs, Ziro, and Magenta were all fully engaged in a firefight to fend off the endless horde of bug bots that were now spilling into the room. Already a pile of motionless beetles were piling up in the room, but no matter how many bugs they blasted, it seemed another wave of them were right behind.
Black and Nitro remained at the controls, navigating the massive ship as far from civilization as they could. The wastelands of Erg were not far off; with any luck they might be able to crash-land the ship and escape before the bombs exploded. It was a fool’s hope, but the only plan they had.
“We can’t keep this up forever,” Magenta shouted.
“I’m nearly out of plasma,” Streak said, shaking his gun and noting the dwindling levels of ammo still available in his canister.
“There’s just too many of these things,” Demo added.
A sudden pounding on the roof drew their attention to the ceiling where a metallic object jabbed through and began to cut a hole to the outside.
“Seriously, they’re coming through the ceiling now?” Streak despaired.
“Guys, it’s me,” Nightshade shouted through the hole.
“‘Shade?” Ziro’s eyes widened in recognition of their friend on the roof of the ship.
“Let us in,” Nightshade yelled again. “The Liwans are with me. We’re here to help...”
Ziro backed everyone away and let the Liwans finish creating the access passage. When they were finished, the nimble black mouse peeked his head in to reunite himself with his squad.
“How did you get up there?” Ziro asked.
“Birds,” Nightshade replied, surprised to see the rest of the Alpha team was also there. “I think we have enough to glide you all to safety. Come on up.”
“Snap to it,” Black said, pointing to the time on the screen. There was little more than three minutes remaining. “I’ll keep her steady.”
The evacuation began. One by one, Demo hoisted the others out of the freshly-cut roof access and onto the wings of the Moth Ship until only Ziro and Black were left.
“It’s just you and me, Colonel,” Ziro called.
“You first, kid,” Black growled. “I’ll keep her steady until you are all free.”
Just then, a growing tapping noise in the elevator shaft drew Ziro’s attention back across the room. The bugs were coming back. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the doorway.
“What about the bugs? They’ll break in if we don’t fire back.” Ziro asked.
“I can handle myself. Just get off this ship and let me take care of the rest.”
“But sir, I can’t leave you behind. There’s no time...you’ll...”
“You heard me, Commander!” Black shouted. “Get those mice out of here, that’s an order.”
Suddenly, Ziro knew what the Colonel meant to do. He was going to sacrifice himself for the others. He stared at the valiant but small shrew.
“It’s been a pleasure serving with you, sir,” Ziro said, fighting to distance himself from the emotion. “Thanks for believing in me.”
Black nodded back.
“You’ve done good, Commander. Now get your squad out of here, and when you get a chance to fight the Dark Union again...tell ‘em Black sent ya.”
Already the bugs were spilling into the control room. Ziro reached for the arms of the Liwans as they pulled him up into the cold, howling winds of the rooftop. The birds flew down to the ship and with their claws took hold of each of the squad members. Streak went first, gliding safely away from the ship, followed by Nightshade, Demo, Boggs, Magenta, the other Liwans, Nitro and lastly Ziro.
When they were all clear, Black raised the ship in a second steep climb, keeping the bugs at bay and watching the final 60 seconds of his life pass by.
Ziro and the others landed roughly in the sands of the wasteland. Incredibly, everyone was alive and accounted for... everyone but Black. The distant thunder of the ascending rockets of the Mothship caught Ziro’s ears. Picking himself up, he looked skyward just in time to see the last seconds tick off before the peaceful sky was lit up in the most spectacular, ear-splitting, heart-stopping explosion ever recorded. The raw power of the sap bombs obliterated the Mothship, leaving a cloud of particles in its place as shreds of debris rained down.
It was over. The threat had been averted... for now.
As he watched the wind carry the ship’s ashes away, Ziro raised his paw and saluted the sky in honor of the fallen Colonel. One by one, the others joined in; the Liwans, bowing in quiet respect.
A minute passed before anyone spoke.
“Hey, Ziro,” Nitro called out. The Alpha Squad leader made his way over to his little brother and extended a pawshake. “Nice work, bro.”
Ziro was shocked. It wasn’t the first compliment he’d ever heard from his brother, but usually the words were delivered in a demeaning sort of way. He waited for some kind of punchline to follow, but nothing came. Nitro just patted him on the shoulder and walked away.
“You too, brother,” Ziro replied. For the first time, he no longer felt lost in his brother’s shadow. He was proud of his squad; and yes, he was grateful for his brother too.
The significance of that simple exchange wasn’t lost on Demo. He elbowed Nightshade and smiled. Streak was still shaking his head, trying to dislodge the sand from one of his ears.
“So what do we do now?” Streak asked, walking up to Ziro.
Ziro turned south in the direction of the Academy and squared his shoulders. “Now, we go home.