She should have known but complacency let it slip right past her open eyes. Nesake made it clear that Raven had to choose a side. The interrogation of the man who almost turned her in to the UCNSS played no factor in her decision. When Nesake had asked her to sit in on the proceedings, Raven knew she could have changed her mind, but she needed to confirm the suspicions already gnawing at her since she began to realize the true nature of Nesake’s business. No one would go through the trouble of torture for a mere smuggling operation. Nesake was protecting something much more precious.
Raven played out the scenario as she set out to Dostro. Nesake’s collaborators didn’t even beat their captive. They had much more sophisticated methods of torture, the Extractor, among them. While the device had its uses in medicine, more enterprising creators found a more extreme use of it. In its medical capacities, the Extractor removed blood without breaking the skin. However, if used in a certain way, it removed the blood too fast and crushed the bones. Raven saw the man turn gray and eventually collapse within himself as the Extractor removed every last drop of his blood and turned his bones to dust.
It was not how she had pictured revolutionaries or rebels. Rebels were always supposed to be ethical in their cause. That was how they showed their righteousness. Violence and torture were supposed to be counterproductive in revolution.
That was what Raven had been taught to think. So her lack of discomfort in watching a man tortured to death indirectly on her behalf concerned her at first. Then Nesake told her what was truly at stake. She thought of Nesake’s words as she navigated her new secondhand craft to Dostro.
“This has been going on for years,” she said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to keep our operations secret, under the radar of UCNSS’s eye. We need the upper hand when we strike. We can only maintain that through secrecy. This is why I needed to be sure you would be on board before I showed you this. Because if you have any doubt, this is how we have to handle you.”
The blood extracted this way had a value, so rebels made sure anyone they had to kill did not go to waste. Raven’s job was to transport the blood from the past few extractions to Dostro. In exchange for her first mission, the Blank would provide her, Jimmy and Art with new IDs.
“At least the controls aren’t much different than Blue Nova’s, just more of them,” Jimmy said from his position in the co-pilot seat. “May take a little time to get used to the weapons though.”
“Yeah,” Raven replied. “Been navigating that damn shuttlecraft for so long I almost forgot what a real craft feels like. Thought I’d work with something more like this when I first went to Blue Nova but that was for the navigator-pilots who transported the higher ups. Never got that assignment though.”
Dostro loomed in the distance. They would soon be close enough for radio contact. She hoped the landing codes for the “shipping” company worked. Most checkpoints were lax and didn’t do random searches. Also, Nesake explained that they had “understandings” with a few checkpoints, but Raven remained a skeptic.
“I’m sure it’s fine, Ms. Moody,” Art said from the back of the cockpit. “Just give the codes like Nesake said and they’ll let us right through.”
Art’s seeming clairvoyance increasingly worried her as she never knew when he would read her mind or seemed to. As much as she appreciated his and Jimmy’s company sometimes, she still was not sure about making them her crew. Something in her told her they would be better off separately, but they had insisted on staying with her and working as her crew. Art had some experience with engines and cooking, so Raven knew he could help keep the ship together. Jimmy’s expertise with Blue Nova had been neu-physics and shuttlecraft maintenance, so he complimented her and brought his own value.
“Shuttle SCC1978, please enter your code.”
Times like this made Raven grateful for automation, no stuttering explanations to a human untrained to detect suspicions so they based judgment on “instinct.” She punched in the code for her cargo and destination and waited for the reply. She had begun to expect the worst ever since they left Cuafour so the few seconds it took to get the all-clear felt like hours. Raven still cautiously preceded to land the craft on Dostro’s surface.
She had never heard of Port Poln previously. It was nowhere near as crowded as Rotterdam. It was also not as loud or noisy, merely a landing strip surrounded by a mountain range. They were miles away from the city’s hustle and bustle. Perhaps many found the city’s rocky terrain unmanageable and unpleasant. Raven suspected the freezing cold temperatures overnight might have been a deterrent, especially with the mountains drawing even more cold air to the flat land.
Fortunately when they landed, the landing strip was smooth and devoid of citizens and there was still a few hours before nightfall. Raven hoped to deliver the bounty and find their contact who was to forge their IDs before the temperature became unreasonably cold.
There was no hangar this time, just a lonely landing strip out in the open near a rocky mountain pass. This made it difficult for thieves and other trouble makers to accost them but not impossible. Nesake had told them to be careful about strangers approaching them at the port, but this stranger looked exactly as Nesake had described: sandy brown hair, a lightly freckled face against pale skin and citrine eyes without the sparkle, all atop a skinny but muscular frame due to manual labor. This was Jess.
“Been expecting you,” Jess said in a noticeable drawl as she extended a hand to Raven. “Hear you got a pretty valuable shipment for us here.”
“Yeah,” Raven said. “We need a flat transport to unload the goods and get them to your base. Then my, uh, crew and I need to see about some other matters.”
Jess nodded then dialed a code into her armband. A hoverboard flew itself in their direction while they unloaded the contraband. They trekked a short distance to a land transport where they stored the valuable blood the Blank planned to store until needed. Raven’s boots weren’t made for the sandy ground even as they got closer to the rocky area. She was relieved to see a smoother passage winding through the mountains as they grew higher and higher in the distance.
“You and your crew will have to ride in the back with the cargo,” Jess told them. “It’s best to keep you hidden and of course it’s not feasible for us to give away a location to people we barely know.”
“So all the trust lies with us,” Jimmy said.
Jess shrugged nonchalantly. “You want the ID then that’s the deal. Small price considering how much IDs usually cost.”
Raven looked at her crew, sensing apprehension but resignation knowing they had no other options. They climbed into the windowless back of the transport next to the blood cargo. Even though she couldn’t see, Raven knew Art and Jimmy held hands in the dark, the older man comforting the younger one in a non-paternal coupling.
“We’re lucky, you know,” Art said aloud. “Most people need a payment plan to afford an ID this way. The Blank is doing us a huge favor setting this up for us.”
“It’s not a favor if we owe,” Raven said. “But I understand the cost. It’s not easy finding someone willing to become an kastout for the rest of their lives, no matter how much money’s involved.”
“I just don’t get it though,” Jimmy said. “When you become an kastout, you technically no longer exist. What’s the point of having a fortune if you’re legally dead?”
“What’s the point in being legal?” Art offered. “Most people who become kastouts don’t do it ’cause of greed. They already spent most of their lives being told in different ways they don’t exist or matter when they do get acknowledged. Giving up a legal life is nothing. Better to pay ’em a lot to finally drop out and find their way in the underground where UCNSS won’t deal with them. Bound to happen when you decide that some people deserve to have and others don’t. If it wasn’t this way, companies like Blue Nova couldn’t exist.”
She knew he was right. Kastouts were one of UCNSS’s most visible invisible problems. Blue Nova made sure the system saw all the luxuries life had to offer but failed to mention that by design those luxuries would only ever be attained by a certain few. Kastouts took finances out of legal circulation and created an underground economy that contributed nothing to the UCNSS. Raven admired that secretly. It was no fault of the kastouts that entities like Blue Star intentionally created a system that depended upon body value.
The land transport stopped. A slightly brighter darkness greeted them as Jess opened the back and beckoned them to disembark. They were inside. Inside what Raven didn’t know. She could see none of her surroundings clearly, so she tried to keep the disorientation away, knowing it might have been intentional to keep her distracted.
Jess said, “We can unload and get all this to storage.”
They reloaded the hoverboard and stayed close to Jess, who led them through a tunnel without the aid of any artificial light. Raven had no idea how Jess knew exactly where she was going and relied more on her ears than she liked. Finally, they came upon a doorway.
Jess powered a light source as they entered. The massive storeroom must have been carved within one of the mountains, judging from the coolness from a cross breeze. Jess began setting aside the blood near one of the coolest parts of the room.
“It’ll be sorted later. That’s not my job. So I guess this means you’ll be wanting that ID now. Don’t worry. You earned it. We keep our word here. I know this operation don’t look like much, but we do have what we need. Just head out through that door on the other side there and keep walking. You’ll find Chessy there.”
The crew obeyed, leaving Jess in cold storage with weapons, blood, food and other supplies any military would need. At least this door led to a lighted tunnel.
“You really think they’ll just give us IDs,” Jimmy said once he felt they were out of earshot of the storeroom. “I know we had a deal, but can we really trust them? I mean IDs cost more than some of these people make in a lifetime.”
“I’m sure it’s okay,” Art answered. “They got some plans for that blood. Us, too. If we got believable ID, we’re valuable to them. I don’t think we got to worry about getting double crossed.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Raven said more to herself than Art. She shared Jimmy’s uneasiness. Part of it was the chill in the air but the sinking feeling that she had to trust strangers simply because she had no other alternatives at her disposal gnawed at her. These people had no incentive to help her and even made it clear that they would certainly kill her if she proved untrustworthy. The odds seemed stacked to her.
There was only one doorway out of this tunnel. Raven stopped at the closed door, unsure of whether or not to knock. She decided to err on the side of caution and give a couple of quick raps to the surprisingly thin door.
The chipper voice threw Raven a moment. The familiar face threw her even more. Jess had a twin.
Chessy looked them over a moment from her desk before relenting to the kind of wide smile Raven usually did not trust. But Raven knew the reason for it. She’d heard about the ID process already. It would be quite painful with no anesthesia.
“Well, you are definitely the famous Teresa Moody. And you are Jimmy Thompson. At least for now.”
Chessy looked at Art but made no comment about his identity. She went over to a supply cabinet in the small but spacious office. Raven looked at the recliner next to the cabinet, noticing the restrainers at the arms and legs. She wondered how much pain was involved in the process that required them to be strapped down.
“Our donors just left. Performed the extraction while Jess went to get you and I finished prepping the serum right before you came. Hope you don’t mind legally being a man from now on.”
“What’s the name?”
Raven scoffed outwardly and groaned inwardly. She’d avoided that particular nickname most of her life only to be saddled with it when she had no choice. So far fate refused to be kind. Chessy beckoned her over to the recliner. She took deep silent breaths as Chessy slipped on and tightened the restraints.
“You know I can’t give you anything to put you under because it causes a reaction with the serum. I’ll give you bit to bite down on so you don’t swallow your tongue.”
Raven couldn’t hide her distress as her breathing quickened, but Art’s hand suddenly over hers helped calm her. She watched Chessy place the serum in the injector. She squeezed Art’s hand even before Chessy approached her and took the free one.
She closed her eyes and tried to block out the searing pain as Chessy stuck the injector under each fingernail where the injection point would leave no trace. Only the bit in her mouth muffled the screams when they came through.
“Alright those were the fingers. Now we have to do the toes.”
Jimmy nearly had to sit his whole body weight on Raven’s legs as Chessy injected the serum under her toenails. As hard as she tried to black out and leave her body, she could not force herself to block out the pain. She felt the sting of every prick and the inexplicable burn as foreign DNA forced itself to overcome hers without changing her genetic structure, only her prints.
It was finally over. Raven’s fingers and toes still felt the sting of the absent injector as her body acclimated itself to its new condition. She opened her eyes that had been previously shut tight and locked them on Jimmy’s, who promptly passed out.
“Looks like he’s next,” Chessy said.
Raven barely watched as Art helped Chessy position Jimmy in the recliner, strapping him in just in case he regained consciousness during the procedure. He didn’t.
“Lucky bastard,” Raven muttered.
Art proved to be stronger than Raven suspected or more tolerant to pain. He grimaced at the prickings under his nails but never once cried out in pain.
“Now you’ll read as Jeremy Cox if you’re ever scanned,” Chessy said as she helped Art remove his binds. She then turned to Jimmy, who had regained consciousness. “You’ll be Henry Miles from now on.”
Raven no longer felt the pain by the time they were back in the land transport heading back to the craft. She knew it was there, but it had waned to the point of insignificance. She focused on trying to memorize something of the unfamiliar terrain while Jimmy laid still in Art’s arms.
She felt no different. She also looked no different. But the serum inside her allowed a stranger’s DNA to overpower her own when read for ID purposes. The UCNSS underestimated the ingenuity of the underground. There would always be a few who learned how to get around the system, especially when it was designed to keep them out.
“We’re slowing down.”
Art’s observation snapped her out of her reverie. The land transport had not stopped, but it had slowed significantly, which seemed strange considering they were on a smooth path. The sudden lunge backward threw the entire crew off balance.
“Shit!” Raven exclaimed as they hit the floor of the vehicle. A terror grew in her as she heard a low whistle creep closer to the vehicle. A hammer missile.
The impact knocked the vehicle off its wheels and sent it hurtling into the mountain terrain. The rough landing banged up Raven but caused no permanent damage. Hammer missiles contained no explosives but were strong enough to hurtle land transports hundreds of yards and crushed weaker vehicles. However, the sound of the collision caused a ringing in her ears that disoriented all her senses.
The door of the vehicle had opened. It was on its side and Raven could see a bit of light come through.
“We have to get out of here,” she said as she crawled toward the light.
“I hope you brought that pistol of yours,” Art said.
Raven ignored the obvious request for an answer as she raised the door more widely to allow them enough room to leave. She saw no one nearby, but the sound of crackling flames confirmed her fears: the land transport had caught fire.
Art and Jimmy emerged from the vehicle as Raven looked around for a place to run. The mountains were only a few feet away and might give them some refuge. Then the bullet whizzed past her ear. The three of them took cover behind the burning vehicle knowing it could blow from the old form of fuel in the engine.
“We can’t stay here!” Jimmy panicked.
“We may just have to make a run for it and take our chances with whoever’s firing. Otherwise, we’re gonna get burned alive here.”
“Or you could take them out with your gun,” Art offered.
“Not possible…” Raven began before she flinched at another shot. “We just have to take our chance.”
A small moan from beyond the flames caught all their attention. Jess hung half out of the vehicle with the rest of her body in a mangled wedge under it where the missile landed. Raven went over to her. Jess weakly pushed an automatic rifle toward her. Raven took the rifle and placed her hand on Jess’ neck just in time to feel her take her last breath. She didn’t take her eyes off Jess as she spoke.
“We head for the mountain. I’ll cover us.”
Raven rarely fired a weapon, never under pressure. She hoped her estimation of the sniper was accurate enough to throw them off long enough to get to the safety of the mountains. She turned to the crew and gave a nod. They ran.
She fired toward an unfamiliar land transport a few paces from Jess’. The sniper stopped firing, so they had an opening to run. Raven turned around again just in time to see the sniper setting up to take another shot. That was when the burning vehicle made a spectacular explosion. This time Raven didn’t look back as she ran with Art and Jimmy toward the mountains.
“It’s a trank! Do you really think a company like Blue Nova would really risk its clientele with the chance that someone could actually get shot! That gun is useless!”
Art stared at her, speechless at the revelation. Raven rubbed at her temples. She hated to disappoint Art, but he kept asking why she hadn’t used the pistol at her side when she could have. So she had to reveal one of the company’s secrets that kept astral tourists in line.
“All this time we’ve been unprotected. Or you were just keeping it just in case…”
“Art, no one ever really had to use the trank. Terra Firma 9 was already practically a fortress. It was designed to keep trouble out before it got started. We were always safe.”
Art nodded then looked at Jimmy who studied his well-worn shoes. Raven looked around to see if their assailants had followed. Seeing no one, she observed the rest of the area, looking for something familiar.
“I don’t know where the hell we are,” she said finally. “If it was night I could probably look at the star patterns or something to get a good idea of where we might be. Right now I can’t tell where we left the craft.”
They all looked around and saw nothing but the mountains all around them. Taking the smooth path would be more dangerous than crossing the rocky ridges. They had no idea who was after them, how many there were and how far they had gotten from them. All they had were mountains for cover and a weak sense of direction for how to get back to the craft.
“These mountains definitely don’t look like the ones we saw when we first landed but we only saw them from a distance anyway,” Jimmy offered.
“From what I remember of Dostro’s geography, the mountains grow greener the further you get away from flatland,” Raven replied. “So I suppose we should try to follow them until they become brown.”
“These are a little brownish green and the vehicle was turned in that direction,” Art said, pointing out into the distance. “Best bet we go this way and hope we get somewhere close to the flats.”
So they headed off with one weapon among them, unsure of where the mountains would lead.
The Board had decided to give her a chance to redeem herself after saying she would personally oversee the process of capturing Moody. After all, finding a new Captain now would be difficult as any qualified potentials were reluctant to handle the mess without the use of the Blue Nova Star. But she was willing to give it a try to maintain her position. Furthermore, her plan to make Dex’s death work in the company’s favor would help it rebuild its reputation and turn the tragedy into opportunity.
She decided to pursue a relentless search for Moody. Perhaps the promise of a reward would prevent even the kastouts from protecting her and giving her refuge from the company. Salvagers from all over the system would look for Moody and those on the verge of kastout status would surely succumb to the temptation of suddenly making it to the luxury class.
The Captain updated the decree on Moody’s capture: 75 million quid for her head, company status and privileges for a lifetime for her live capture.
The fading light made it difficult to tell, but the mountains had grown browner rather than greener the further they got. They were also become more sparse and the temperature seemed to drop every second. Raven hoped they were heading in the direction of the flatlands that held their craft.
Her feet hurt but she didn’t dare stop the trek. The craft was their only hope for food and water and perhaps a few hours rest if they were lucky. They didn’t talk to each other, understanding the need to preserve their energy and avoid dry mouths.
They all saw it at the same time. The flat land and the craft standing clear in the distance. They were close. Raven knew they were all tempted to make a run and quickly close the distance between them and salvation, but their earlier encounter reminded them that someone could be hidden near the craft.
“There aren’t too many places to hide within this part of the range and I don’t know if they would take a chance to set up near the craft to get us,” Raven reasoned. “If their communication is good, they may know we’re armed and take proper precaution. Plus they might have had some time to set up at a higher point. How do we do this?”
Art and Jimmy thought a moment. Art finally answered, “I say we wait until complete nightfall and risk the cold. They may have night vision gear, but we can use the time to look at the mountains on the edge of the range where they might have set up. They might also be a little less alert in the cold, too.”
“How about we walk around a bit and meet back at this point in an hour,” Raven said. “If you see someone unfriendly, take care of it as quietly as possible. Don’t know how many there might be.”
A little more than an hour later, both Jimmy and Art were already waiting for her back at the rendezvous point. Jimmy had some noticeable injuries; he also had some extra equipment.
“They only left one behind,” Raven deduced. “Their target must have been Jess’ base. They’re out looking for it instead of us. Maybe just decided to call it a night to get out of the cold.”
“Possibly,” Art said. “But I think it’s safe to go ahead and move toward the ship. Still got something to take care of once we get there, but we should get ready to take off.”
Raven kept her eye out as they left the mountains but saw nothing unusual and could hear nothing against the silent and barren flats. She told Art and Jimmy to check the outside of the ship before they boarded. She found no one hiding in the crevices waiting to get in. She saw no explosives planted on the ship. She saw Art fiddling with something under a wing but he said nothing as they congregated to get back inside the craft.
The craft appeared untouched. They were safe to leave. As she strapped herself into the cockpit, she could not get rid of the sinking feeling that Art knew much more than he let on. The crew situated themselves and prepared for the return to Troiwee. She wanted to ask Art about the device he removed from the wing, but they all saw it at the same time. Raven knew then they were about to find out just how well the weapons system on the craft worked.
© Inda Lauryn 2015