The Raven Moody Chronicles | Chapter 3: Smoke Screens

They should have had more time.

By Jimmy’s own calculations, it should have taken weeks for the kemtons to reach that level of destruction, but they should not have exploded, just burned out. The amount of heat from the broken star would have definitely left the base uninhabitable. But there was no reason for the explosion, not a natural one. So she knew a saboteur caused it.

Of course, she was concerned when Jimmy showed her the printouts. But Blue Nova built its entire brand on its reliability and safety. She could do nothing that would potentially cause a public panic. All damaging incidents were handled discreetly within the company with the public none the wiser. Her expertise in management and relations had helped her make it as far as she had, so she thought it best to keep it quiet.

She’d sent Dex to investigate. Her trusted left hand since before her tenure as Captain, Dex told her the investigation turned up nothing unusual. The patterns were most likely from when the star was in use for transport and switched to another time. “We all know the kemtons flicker while the star recharges,” Dex said. “Jimmy isn’t above seeking attention this way. I’ll look into him and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble.”

Having no scientific experience to know the difference, she left it in Dex’s hands, thinking she would finally rid the company of the rich boy. But he had gone to Moody and ruined it all. Now she did not even have the benefit of using the star to correct her error. She would be the one Captain with a besmirched legacy at Blue Nova Consolidated. All because Raven Moody broke protocol and overtaxed the star before it could fully recharge.

Her gut told her that Moody had managed to get away from the blast in time. She knew Raven was crafty and resourceful. That had been why she was hired, but ironically it was also why the Captain never liked her. Most people on Terra Firma 9 knew how the Captain felt about Raven although they didn’t know the source of that animosity. They simply followed suit and kept their distance from Raven lest they draw the ire of a Blue Nova boss.

The Captain played the newscast masterfully. She had coached Krenshaw so well that she led the newscaster to call Moody the terrorist. She only had to plant the idea and now the long arm of Blue Nova would take care of the rest. Even those who had never worked for the company would be anxious to get in its good graces. That was how Blue Nova kept its interests in line.

Most of the evacuees had been transported to Eicho until further notice. She had to go to Unone where Blue Nova housed its primary headquarters in Lir. Even though she would certainly be commended for handling a PR nightmare so deftly, the black mark of the base’s destruction loomed larger. Spinning the telecast might keep her Captain a while longer. She now had to figure out how she would keep this position to which she had sacrificed her name.

“Your craft will be ready in 30 minutes, Captain.”

The Captain looked up to see the entern waiting to be acknowledged.

“Thank you. I’ll be ready to board.”

The entern turned to leave at the dismissal but stopped abruptly. “I’m very sorry about Dex, Sir. We all are.”

Captain simply nodded at the unexpected show of sympathy and watched the entern leave. Dex was among the lives unaccounted for and most likely dead. She might never know. But at that moment, she knew how to make Dex’s death count.

~~~

Troiwee housed the largest metropolis in the UCNSS, the city of Rotterdam. The constant state of movement, light and alienation attracted types from all across the UCNSS. No one was really born in Rotterdam and it remained a settlement of imports and temporary residents looking to make a name before moving to friendlier terrain, more welcoming permanent settling. Of course, it was perfect for those in need of less than legal services and goods.

Art filled in Raven about a small port that would clear them to land under the radar just outside of Rotterdam. After pulling the craft into a hangar that looked like a barn from 19th century Earth, the three disembarked into an unexpected darkness that had not been there when they landed.

The only light that suddenly greeted them was not enough to blind but gave them a chance to see their surroundings. The hangar was not a dingy one-craft barn on the inside as Raven had expected based on the exterior. The calming powder blue walls lent an air of sterility to the building. Raven’s craft was the only one there at the moment, so her thoughts seemed to echo in her head along with the steps of the person slowly approaching them.

“Long time, Art,” he said as he extended his hand to the older man. They shook then Art gestured toward Raven, who held Jimmy’s arm in case he still felt weak.

“Raven and Jimmy. Barely got off the base with them. Must have been the blast from the star knocked us this way.”

The stranger then turned his carnelian eyes to Raven, extending the same hand to her. “Tobi. Art and I go back further than I care to admit.”

Raven mentally noted Tobi’s slight muscular build and height that nearly matched Art’s. But he had been gentle as they shook hands. He had an honest face, but her judgment had been known to betray her in that area. She could only hope Art’s trust in Tobi was well-founded, especially since he had given their names.

“We can trust, Tobi,” Art said as if reading her mind. “He’s no fan of Blue Nova.”

“Somehow that doesn’t comfort me as it was meant to,” Raven retorted.

“Just because you work for a company doesn’t mean you subscribe to it’s politics,” Tobi said as he led them out of the hangar. “We all gotta make a living. We all get caught in this cycle. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to get out of isn’t paying attention.”

“You sound like an idealist from 20th century Earth… Socialists they were called.”

Tobi smiled, ushering her toward a land transport. “You study history.”

“I have an interest. Why does that amuse you? History is one of the only things that never changes.”

Tobi laughed from deep in his belly. “Ironic you work for a company that sells time travel but don’t think it would be used to change the past.”

“Well, it is part of the philosophy.”

“But do you really believe it?”

Raven didn’t answer as Tobi chivalrously helped her into a land transport while Art and Jimmy climbed into the back. To her relief, Tobi didn’t give her any flack about her former job as they traveled to Rotterdam. Instead, he shared old stories with Art while she watched the city come to life.

She rarely traveled by land transport and had never seen Rotterdam through unfiltered eyes. Raven saw an awesome contradiction of beauty and blight that should never co-exist within the same vicinity. On one block, a person laid in the doorway of an abandoned building sleeping while on the next a shop sold vintage luxury handbags. The sounds of yelling, traffic and lost senses created a cacophony that made her slightly dizzy and disoriented. Terra Firma 9 was quiet by comparison. She saw the same handful of people in Blue Nova’s middle tier all the time. In Rotterdam, she could probably go a full month or more before recognizing a familiar face. That might have appealed to her a few days ago when she was heavy in the doldrums, but boring stability clouded by blissful ignorance seemed a much better prospect given her current situation.

“You can get fuel here,” Tobi said as he pulled into a weigh station off the highway. “I suppose you have no money either.”

More a statement than a question. Raven hadn’t thought much about it since they left, but she knew she would not have access to any of her accounts or credits because it would give away their location as well as the fact that they were alive. Tobi didn’t wait for an answer.

“Don’t worry about it. Nesake will get you something to eat. If you wanna stay here in town for a little while instead of the ship, we can make some arrangements for you. Might be good to lie low until the news dies down. Lot of people around here might find it a good idea to hand your heads in to Blue Nova.”

Raven was always suspicious of anyone who showed kindness for no reason. Yet she could find no flaw in Tobi, no reason not to trust him. And this was all she had for the time being. So she turned her head from him when she replied, “Thanks.”

His scoff held no derision, amusement but no derision. Tobi walked with them inside the weigh station and approached the woman behind the food counter. Raven looked around and noticed the place was nearly empty despite a full stock of supplies and the late-afternoon traffic. The location seemed ideal for a busy lunch hour, yet only two people sat in opposite corners of the restaurant and no one wandered through the stores, showers or bathrooms.

Raven, Art and Jimmy sat down at a corner booth by the window while Tobi continued his quiet conversation with Nesake. Art was the first to break the uncomfortable silence.

“Nesake here makes the best double bacon cheeseburgers in the galaxy,” he said as if trying to convince five year olds. “A side order of ostrich feathers puts it right over the top.”

“Ostrich feathers?” Raven asked. “Here?”

“Why not here?” Nesake said as she strolled from behind the counter to the booth with Tobi at her side. “It’s one of my specialties.”

Raven looked at the light brown woman as Tobi settled at her side in the booth. Nesake was tall and imposing with sharp cairngorm eyes that failed to smile with her thin lips that somehow fit her clipped accent. Raven could tell her thin frame was wiry as she briefly studied the muscular tone of Nesake’s upper arms. Nesake was devoid of jewelry and other decorations, a sure sign of anyone who did physical labor for a living. She was attractive, at least in Raven’s opinion for what it was worth. But Raven was never one to let attractiveness fluster her, so she didn’t answer Nesake’s offense.

“Lot easier to come across ostrich feathers here than anywhere else. Hell, even the street bums eat them. You’d think they grew through the concrete here. Bet you think it’s all the synthetic stuff like they serve in work houses, huh?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Raven said with a hint of indignation. “I’ve never been to a work house.”

“What do you think that Blue Nova is? You were only a pilot. You think you got access to all the good stuff?”

Raven looked at Nesake with new distrust. She didn’t know this woman well enough to determine if Nesake intended to make a quick payday by handing her head over to Blue Nova, but Tobi jumped in.
“Don’t mind Nesake, but she’s really proud of this heap here. Easily takes offense when she thinks someone’s badmouthing it. You didn’t mean any harm, did you?”

Raven didn’t answer. She turned her attention back to the window to watch Rotterdam bustle around them.

“Just bring us all burgers and feathers,” Art said. “Be nice to have real meat again.”

“That sounds amazing,” Jimmy said at the mention of the meat they had missed since leaving Terra Firma 9.

Raven felt the daggers from Nesake’s eyes before she walked away to fulfill the order.

~~~

Raven had to admit Nesake made a hell of a cheeseburger. She satiated a hunger she hadn’t realized had grown stronger since she left home on Unone. But now that she was full, her worries gurgled about deep in her gut.

She left Art and Tobi to their old times while Jimmy obviously enjoyed getting to know more about Art in his younger days. Raven retreated to her designated room in the upstairs that served as a motel for overnight guests. She didn’t stay in the bare, dreary room long. She walked outside to see Rotterdam still vibrant and alive with light despite the sun having set. She found a flat patio with a couple of old, plastic chairs and had a seat while she stared through a wire fence nearly a block away that couldn’t even keep a domesticated fox out. Those on the other side never once glanced in the direction of the weigh station. No shipping land transports stopped for inspection or a rest.

She thought the smoke she smelled came from one of the chairs, a deep stain from years of a smoker accustomed to having a smoke in one spot. Then she realized the scent grew stronger from behind her. Raven turned to see Nesake studying her closely as she lazily dragged a cigarette she’d rolled herself.

Nesake snuffed the cigarette and headed to the empty chair beside Raven. The scent of smoke clung to her like a silk gown. Raven felt like she could almost see it on Nesake’s skin. Silence filled the tension between them for a while before Nesake decided Raven was not one to initiate conversation.

“You do realize you can trust Art, right? He’s counting on that trust. He took a chance bringing you here. I figure you can’t exactly blow the whistle on our quiet little operation here ‘cause of the trouble with Blue Nova, but you never know who might wanna trade information for a break.”

“What kinda break for a mass murder charge would I get turning you in?” Raven scoffed. “It’s just smuggling. I’m sure you’re not even the biggest operation in the city. Ratting you out gets me nothing.”

Raven felt Nesake eyeing her with genuine curiosity, not the judgment she usually got. No one had looked at her like they actually saw her in quite some time. She also realized that Nesake simply had a husky voice, not a low tone used in a threatening way.

“You really are lost. You didn’t know that star would blow and now here you are wondering what the hell just happened with your life.”

Raven exhaled, releasing the pressure that had built since the blast knocked them off course and made her a fugitive. “Blue Nova lets you retire at 35 if you don’t want to go into managerial positions. After that, you’re free to travel the star, leave the base and never return, whatever you want. The company comped the rest of your life for your service. I was just gonna serve my time and maybe start doing all those things I really wanted to do. Maybe travel back to early 21st century Earth and go to one of those outdoor music festivals. I might have just gone to Evete and lived in a cabin there with a companion or two. Quiet with only the bare necessities. I had something like a plan for my life. I don’t have that net anymore. Everything’s so… uncertain. I always had a plan and some backup before. Now it’s all gone. I’m on a ill-equipped shuttlecraft with the company goof looking at an older man with stars in his eyes and I think they’re gonna copulate any moment now. I’m terrified and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

Nesake gave an amused snort at the crack about Jimmy and Art but made no comment about it. “Congratulations, dear. You’re just like the rest of us now.”

Raven winced. Nesake suddenly turned soft.

“I didn’t mean it that way. I know you’re worried about what you’re gonna do now. I mean when did you last have a change of clothes? How long have you been surviving off rations, wondering when they’ll eventually run out? How much did you have in your accounts that you can’t get to now? I know you’re scared, honey. You got every right to be. But that’s how it is for us all the time here. You got the same worries as us.”

Raven relaxed. “I never had to borrow or steal before in my life, not even with my parents on Unone. And those two–I don’t know what to do about them. They’re only looking for Jimmy ‘cause of me and Art’s just a tourist. I don’t think I can keep them with me.”

Raven noticed a minor flinch when she mentioned her assessment of Art, but Nesake said nothing to confirm. Instead, she said, “I can help you with clothing. Maybe with a few other things too.”

“Much appreciated but I really don’t like to owe people.”

“You wouldn’t owe me for the clothes. I’m happy to do that. I might even have some work for you. Your pilot skills could come in handy to us here. We take care of our own just like you thought Blue Nova did. If you’re in, you just have to say.” Sensing Raven’s hesitance, Nesake added, “I’ll let you sleep on it. We can talk about it again in the morning.”

~~~

The bed was soft. Art’s body felt softer. Jimmy reluctantly detached himself from it and rolled out the bed. The small room didn’t hold much more, but he hadn’t noticed the night before when he asked Art to share the room even though there were plenty more available. Art accepted and the two acted on the attraction that caught them both from the beginning. Jimmy smiled at the new and welcome memory but decided not to wake Art for another session.

He quietly groomed and dressed in the loose-fitting leisure pants and shirt Nesake gave him then headed downstairs to the restaurant. A small morning crowd milled the store and a few sat in the restaurant to enjoy breakfast. He watched Nesake work the grill and serve in her dress and apron like a proper storefront waitress. Any other day, he’d have gone to the convenience store, picked out a few easy foods and settled in his room with them, but there were two obstacles: he had no money and he was famished with a need for real food.

“Looks like you can use a boost,” Nesake said as she materialized at his side to pour him a cup of coffee. “Old man must have more energy than it looks like.”

Jimmy blushed before sipping at the caffeinated treat he had gone too long without. She wasn’t wrong.

“Anything on the menu look good to you?” Nesake said. “Don’t worry about it. It’s on the house. Tried to tell that to your friend before she set out.”

“Raven’s gone?” Jimmy asked, alarmed.

“Went out to see about getting a day’s work. Think’s if she takes anything from here then she’ll owe me. Art brought you here, so you’re alright with me. I can spare it. Don’t know why she’s got such as stick up her ass about people doing for her.”

“No one ever has,” Jimmy said. “She always had to work for what she got and everyone just figured she could handle it. At least, that’s what we used to say about her at the base. Guess that talk got back to her. I was guilty, too. Never got to know anything about her until I needed her.”

“Well, this ain’t Blue Nova. We’re the type of thieves who actually have honor amongst our own. We could always use some good help. She’d be good help.”

Jimmy looked up at Nesake when he realized what she’d asked. She looked around at the other customers and decided it was safe to sit and have a chat.

“Both you guys were insiders at the company. You may have some security information that can help us get our operations moving around them more easily. A lot of people might not trust you because of your company past, but I see an advantage. Do you think she can be won?”

Jimmy didn’t know much personally about Raven, just her professional demeanor. She’d seemed so logical and calculating at Blue Nova. That was why he went to her. He didn’t know how she would react being asked to go into a venture that was clearly illegal no matter how much she needed the money.

“I’ll talk to her, but I can’t say for sure which way the wind will blow.”

“That’s all I ask,” Nesake said as she looked over his head. “I’ll fix you up some steak and eggs. I know that’s what he likes.”

Jimmy felt Art’s strong hand on his shoulder as Nesake excused herself and left the two of them tease each other over the previous night.

~~~

Shower first then hot food. The thought dominated her as she got closer to Nesake’s place. The sun was setting, so Raven hoped it was the time of day that meant she did not encounter a full house at the restaurant. At least the crowd thinned out the closer she got. She bypassed a few stragglers then went inside the nearly empty weigh station.

She managed to avoid Nesake as she made it to her room and stripped away her clothing that suddenly felt heavier and clung to her. She stepped into the shower to wash off the day’s work. Raven had never minded physical labor, but sometimes she just felt her body was not cut out for the task. Not really pain but aches, aches in muscles and joints piloting did not require. She got her pay. That was what counted.

She got dressed in the loose-fitting leisure clothing and headed back downstairs. She saw Nesake this time along with the two men she saw the day she arrived. They sat in the same place. She also noticed a man in the store giving her a stare before she met his eyes. She scrambled into the restaurant and sat at the counter this time.

“You know why leisure clothing is always in light colors? So you can be seen. You’re supposed to stand out and subtly flaunt your position. Dark clothes are work clothes. You’re supposed to be invisible as not to offend those fortunate enough to enjoy their leisure.” Nesake moved in front of Raven from behind the counter. “So I guess you found what you were looking for?”

Raven answered by taking out the wages she earned and setting them on the counter. “I could use some supplies. A change of clothes, rations, a new first aid kit and a few bobbles I can trade where they don’t use money. And definitely a Collier mask if you know where I can get one.”

“So you plan on leaving?”

“As soon as possible. All day I was petrified someone would recognize me and Security would come to haul me away. This isn’t the place to lay low and I figure Venquo might be a good place to hole up for a while. Then I can come back, work again then make haste.”

“What about Art and Jimmy? You thought about them?”

Raven looked at Nesake in surprise. “I’m sure they may have their own plans. It may not be a good idea for us to stay together anyway.”

“You never know. Sometimes having a team gets you further than you can get alone.”

“Maybe.”

Raven turned her head slightly toward the store as she heard the door open and close. “It’s probably best I leave now anyway. The man that just went out… I think he recognized me. He didn’t buy anything and it looks like he may be about to make a call to Security. You could get into a lot of trouble.”

Nesake stepped away from the counter and looked out the window until she spotted the man. Her face fell slightly in anger but she signaled one of the men sitting in the booths. Both men got up and exited different sides of the restaurant.

“Don’t look,” Nesake said to Raven. Raven kept her eyes forward and watched Nesake work. Jimmy and Art eventually emerged from downstairs and joined Raven at the counter.

“I’m leaving. You may want to consider where you want to go after this. It may not be safe for any of us.”

“Where we want to go?” Art asked. “We go together. We got out together and we’ll take our chances together.”

“No, Art, we may just all get caught faster if we’re together. I know I don’t want to split you two, but they really want me. Can’t ask you to go down with me if it comes to that.”

“You didn’t,” Jimmy said. “But you shouldn’t make decisions for all of us. We’re in this together and you have to learn to trust someone sometime, Moody. May as well start with us.”

Raven’s incredulous expression didn’t have time to set in as they heard the store door open again. The two men at the booths dragged away the man Raven had seen to a back room. She knew it wasn’t all about her, but she still felt some guilt.

“Is he gonna live?”

“That’s up to him,” Nesake answered. “Listen. I’ll have one of the guys take you back to Tobi. He’ll get you to someone who can get you some convincing IDs. I want you to think about what I’m going to offer, Raven. Art here thinks you could be an asset. I trust Art, so I’ll trust you. But rest assured if you aren’t on board with this, I can’t say you won’t end up like our friend in the back.”

It wasn’t a threat really, just a chance to back out. If she didn’t now, she would have to keep moving forward. Nothing would ever be certain again but perhaps this network Art had somehow led her to was her best recourse. She looked at him as if to tell him she would talk to him later then looked toward the back where they had taken the man before turning her attention back to Nesake.

“I’m in.”

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