75 million credits.
This was the largest bounty ever under the UCNSS. But then again, none of the nine systems had ever encountered a terrorist attack. The high bounty did more than attract even the least ambitious salvagers; kastouts would refuse to shelter Teresa Moody, hoping to gain something more than that reward. A life sponsored by Blue Nova Consolidated meant ease and comfort. The chasm between the keiras and the kastouts ran wide and deep, so much so that all kastouts knew to abandon hope of ever becoming anything else.
Unless an opportunity such as this presented itself.
This was the closest the UCNSS had ever come to a lottery. kastouts desperate for a chance at the keira life would gladly take their chances against the most experienced salvagers who only wanted the credits. The chance at Blue Nova sponsorship was the realization of a dream for the underclass long left to falter in the shadows. The person who brought in Teresa Moody’s head would change their life forever.
The second hit knocked them off balance, but Raven managed to recover the craft before they endured a third. Jimmy hadn’t gotten the shields up in time to save them from the impact of the first blow. Art had gone to put out the fire in the back before it spread and caused irreparable damage.
“I’ll try some more evasive maneuvers,” Raven said. “Try to get the cannon powered up again. Maybe it’ll work this time.”
Jimmy busied himself at the controls, hoping he keyed in the correct sequence to power up the cannon. The craft was tough but even the strongest ones could only endure so much. Raven hadn’t had to do much more than the short route between the colony and starpoint with no chance at encountering salvagers or pirates.
But she had an idea. Of course it was risky and reckless, but it might just work. She would have already done it had she not had passengers with her. If Jimmy got enough power to the cannons, she could perform a head on strike, take the craft directly to the fight and hit the other right at the bottom where it was most vulnerable. The trick would be getting her own craft out of the way before the explosion and other debris could cause further damage to her own craft. If these were indeed salvagers, she was in no danger of finding herself on the receiving end of this maneuver. Pirates were a different matter.
A loud, high beep. “I got it!” Jimmy exclaimed.
“Hang on,” Raven said as she turned the craft the around. “We’re gonna do a Faux Seppuku.”
Jimmy got quiet and Raven heard Art take his place in the cockpit just in time to hear her. She took the craft at full speed toward their attacker as Art strapped himself in. They all braced themselves. She knew the other craft powered a cannon as she approached.
They fired upon the craft. Raven took it down just in time to avoid a direct hit then pulled up to fire the cannon right at the bottom of the craft. She took them back down as the explosion rocked their own craft and hit them with small pieces of debris.
The rollercoaster motion left her a bit queasy, but it was over. Raven looked around at the others to see Art and Jimmy exhale in relief. She finally allowed herself to slump in a relaxed posture she rarely if never took at the helm. She never allowed herself to come undone when she was supposed to be in control.
“Sorry. I didn’t want it to come to that. I’d never put passengers in danger like that.”
Raven heard Art’s eyeroll along with his exasperated sigh. “Dammit, Moody, we’re your crew, not your passengers. We know what we got into and we did it voluntarily.”
She straightened up again without answering. She reset the coordinates and went back into pilot mode. “We better get back to Troiwee and tell Nesake what happened.”
“This debris definitely didn’t come from your run of the mill salvager,” Tobi said as he examined the large piece of the attacker craft wedged in the side of Raven’s craft. “A salvager craft usually isn’t reinforced this well. If you hadn’t tried a Faux Seppuku, you might not have gotten out of this alive.”
Tobi had helped them remove the craft shrapnel that had almost gone unnoticed. They looked it over once they got back to Nesake’s place. Raven got the image of the room as a torture chamber out of her head long enough to find out about the reward placed on her capture. Now they needed to determine if their pursuers had known about it when they landed on Dostro.
“Some of the better salvagers might have stronger crafts,” Raven said. “But if the bounty hadn’t been announced yet, none would have been motivated to come after us. Definitely not a pirate. Pirates commandeer and leave you out in space to languish. Maybe this was security or some other extension of Blue Nova.”
“But they carried none of the company’s insignia,” Jimmy said. “What would be the point in hiding that if we’d already been spotted?”
She had no answer. Raven knew her shuttlecrafts, but she hadn’t been concerned with identifying it while it fired upon them in an unexpected battle. This piece was a part of the wing, but she found no familiarity with it. Either new crafts had been designed under the radar or this one had been modified to the point of non-recognition.
“Well, whoever it was had no intention of taking us alive. Since there’s a bounty now, I know they’ll try to take me alive since the UCNSS likes to make an example of criminals rather than let them die quickly.”
Nesake said nothing, probably still deep in her thoughts about Jess. Raven had noticed a flicker in her eyes when she told her how Jess’ last gesture saved them from their pursuers. She had the feeling she had just lost some of her credibility with Nesake, but Nesake asked for any details they could give about their assailants. They didn’t have much. That was when Raven learned of the UCNSS bounty.
“Safe to say whoever this was hadn’t heard of the reward before finding you,” Tobi said. “You’re worth more alive than dead. Blue Nova wants you punished, suffering for the ‘crime’ you committed.”
“He’s right you know,” Nesake said as the melancholy left her eyes. “They need to pin this on you so that it’s not the company making mistakes. See, they can’t use the star this time to fix it.”
Raven didn’t hide her confusion when she stared at Nesake. Nesake continued, “How do you think the company became dominant? How do you think it maintained a sterling reputation? You think they never used the star for their own purposes? They make gradual changes to the past to correct errors they made: people who didn’t make it back from the star in tact, kastouts who managed to outsmart them, rebels who defied them and intended to expose them…”
Her voice faded at the last one. Raven had a few sudden realizations. She often had memories that did not seem real, déjà vu on things that could not have happened already. She blamed her own tendency to dissociate and thought the problem lied with her. Things were becoming clearer now and she realized her own role in the company’s deeds. Her complicity didn’t matter.
“But how did you know when it all changed? How could you have even kept a record?”
“Same way the company changed the past when they shouldn’t have,” Art said. “Leave the records before the change where they wouldn’t be discovered by eyes that shouldn’t see.”
Raven’s look of astonishment turned to him. Art’s presence finally made sense, how he had connections and why he needed to travel the star. Why he seemed to know more than he let on.
“Destroying the kemtons was the only way to stop it and expose the company for what it was. This has been in the works since long before any of us were born. We knew sacrifices had to be made and some of us wouldn’t be around to see it happen in our lifetime, but we had to make sure we could destroy the kemtons before the company found out.”
The last two days when the kemtons began to disappear. They had been destroying them from the navigation stations planted all over the UCNSS and other complicit solar systems. Raven fumed as she stormed out and headed to the small patio she’d found on her first visit to Nesake’s place. She was more shaken than angry. Only a few hardheaded actions had saved her life.
She sat on the dingy lawn chairs staring off beyond the fence, watching Rotterdam ignore a reality hidden in plain sight. She knew without turning to look that Art had been the one to follow her when she heard him approach her. He spoke first.
“We all decided we would have to make sacrifices. Don’t know what it is, but we all have a compulsion to carry on, leave something for the next ones even if we don’t make it. We never could just lie down and die, not without a fight. We had to accept that there would be blood…”
“But I didn’t accept it!” Raven snapped. Her outburst surprised Art as he was used to her rather quiet demeanor. She lowered her voice. “No one asked me if I wanted to sacrifice myself. No one asked if I wanted to sacrifice anyone else at the base. You destroyed the kemtons knowing it might make the star hot. You know what would have happened if it hadn’t blown? The heat would have become so unbearable that it would’ve eventually suffocated us. We wouldn’t have been able to breathe and died a slow agonizing death. I could have died!”
Raven collected herself and looked away from Arthur as it dawned on her what he tried to tell her. She couldn’t look at him when she said, “You didn’t plan to make it back either.”
There was a theory that if the Blue Nova Star died out or the kemtons lost their abilities, all those who traveled in the star would disappear, dissolve into the star and out of existence. It had not been proven and Blue Nova never wanted to find out for sure. Raven knew this now. So did Art.
“You volunteered for this trip. Even if you didn’t make it back, you would have at least been with him. Was that your reward?”
Art’s genteel smile told her all she needed to know. He would have gotten to die happy with the one he spent a lifetime loving. When she brought him back, she broke a pact he made with The Blank, but he now had Jimmy for his efforts.
“I might not have known everything foul the company did, but I wasn’t completely ignorant,” she said. Raven felt the need to explain. “I wasn’t always happy there, but I knew in the end, it would be worth it just to have a life with no worries. I deserved at least that. I put people through that star all the time and trusted nothing would go wrong because the almighty Blue Nova would never let anything get in the way of its profits. I counted on that greed. I contributed to it. But now…”
Art walked over to her and placed a paternal hand on her shoulder. She wouldn’t cry. Her kind never did, but the deep lines around her citrine eyes betrayed every emotion she felt at the moment. He knew she needed a moment. She had done what he had trained to do most of his life: come face to face with her own mortality. It was never easy.
“You were evacuated with the rest. How did you make it here?”
Raven recognized the kid right away. Her hair was different and her blue sandstone eyes held as much vastness as the galaxies they resembled. She was haunted. Raven understood how it felt to get older before her time and this child had definitely gotten much older than her seven years. But she comfortably sat in Raven’s lap unprompted and listened to the adults converse.
“We almost didn’t.” Jihm twirled the cup of coffee in his hands, his eyes firmly on the table as his wife Maura managed a bowl of oatmeal. They both recognized Raven as their navigator-pilot and panicked at the sight of her. Then they realized she paused at the sight of them. Art convinced them that Raven and Jimmy could be trusted. He sat in the booth next to theirs with Jimmy and Nesake while Raven got acquainted with the Dolan family.
“I worked for a subsidiary of Blue Nova, you know, one of those small companies they don’t want you to know is directly connected to them. It was good work, kept the family together at least. But you know how it is. We got by, but that’s it. Well when you get by, you can’t afford any surprises. We got a surprise. Maura here took a pretty bad tumble a few months ago. Broke some bones and knocked out a couple of teeth. Took her a while to heal and we didn’t have enough credits to cover the medical expenses and the time she needed off from homemaking duties.
“We were surprised a couple of weeks ago when we got a call from someone claiming to be from Blue Nova. I listened to this proposition to erase the credit debts and even get us a little ahead. Of course we were desperate and willing to do anything. It seemed simple enough. All we had to do was retrieve something for the company and bring it back after the tour. We’d even get to see my folks before they passed. Really wanted Moon here to see them.”
He paused momentarily and looked at his daughter sitting contently in Raven’s arms. “So we took the deal. About 30 years ago, there was this kid who developed a liquid substance that could be manipulated in miraculous ways. If you manipulated just right, you could turn it into water, fresh, drinkable water. But if you did it wrong, you manipulated it differently, you could turn it into a potent poison. Of course the kid wants to make water. Blue Nova heard about it and tried to get the formula. They don’t get it. The kid hides the formula and turns up dead a couple of days later.
“One theory is that the kid committed suicide and put the formula somewhere it would be found by an underground organization. However, there are some who believe the kid never died, fake death and all. We don’t really know, but the company asked us to get that formula before the kid hid it. Once we brought it back, our credit debt would be wiped and we would get a lifetime sponsorship from Blue Nova. Think about it. Working all our lives this way you never think you get a break like this. Having Moon taken care of and not working until I’m so sore I can no longer feel… I had to take it.”
The apology and regret in his voice was all too real for Raven. Jihm Dolan was not the type of person Raven ever thought she would find kinship with, but there it was. Working for someone else’s wealth was her life and all she could do was hope for the day her turn came. She fully understood why Jihm took the deal. What she didn’t know was why he backed out.
“You ended up here for a reason, Jihm,” she said gently. “What changed your mind? Did you leave the formula behind? Did you run out of time before I brought you back and you got scared?”
Jihm shook his head. “I found it right where they suspected it would be. Yeah I almost sabotaged myself when I saw us getting the signal, but I stayed with my family. It was when we returned…” Jihm’s voice trailed off as he looked up at the figure approaching Raven from behind. “When we returned, we found out we had an unexpected ally.”
Raven felt a familiar impressive presence behind her before she turned to see it. Dex stood behind her waiting to be acknowledged.
Dex had always been impressive to Raven for a number of reasons. So full of contradictions that somehow made sense when put together in this one being. The enstantite eyes sparkled but never twinkled in a smile. Tall and imposing, Dex never tried to intimidate. Years as a Blue Nova “soldier” forced a straight posture on the wide frame. Years lifting weights toned it. Dex’s low voice rumbled when in use, which was rarely when Raven was around. Its soothing nature startled her at first but eventually grew on her. That voice kept her calm as she sat in her room with Dex, who explained how close she had come to perishing on Terra Firma 9.
“Nearly all of us in The Blank have been preparing for this our entire lives, Raven. This is how we know who to trust. You and Jimmy are exceptions. Yes, you could have been collateral damage along with the rest, but it was best in the overall situation. We had to destroy the kemtons while we had the chance.”
Raven’s weary expression did not escape Dex. “You worked for Blue Star, Raven. You were part of the institution no matter how small a part you played. More than likely the higher ups might have gotten out at the expense of some of the lower decks, but that would have helped our cause. We could have spun it. But Jimmy did his job. Wasn’t as lazy as we thought. Good thing Captain came to me. She wanted to believe Jimmy manipulated the patterns himself just to get attention. She profiled him as that type you know. Needing to do something to separate himself from his family name.”
Dex got up to leave Raven alone with her thoughts but stopped at the door. “I’m glad you made it out, Raven. Captain never trusted you. She knew you were better than she was. She felt you as a threat to her position from the moment you stepped on that base. She could see everything she sacrificed her name for unraveling, slowly and systematically. Blue Star likes to train your kind for leadership. That’s why I was glad when you helped Jimmy knowing what it could cost you… and I am glad you got out.”
Even though Dex’s words came with a calm demeanor, they still shook Raven. She was supposed to be dead. Her life meant that a plan generations in the making had been jeopardized. The Blank could have easily turned her over to Blue Nova and claimed the reward, getting more resources such as the arms they would surely need. Instead they opted to believe her spared life could benefit the movement.
She couldn’t sleep. Raven’s world had opened up and a blind eye was no longer an option. Blue Star’s long arm would no longer protect her, but it would not matter if she had a different purpose. The Blank had provided her with ID, she could provide The Blank with whatever skills she had to overthrow the regime. She laid back in the stiff bed in a nearly bare room, but for the first time since she left Terra Firma, Raven felt at ease, a peace she could live with in a way she hadn’t with Blue Star. Accepting the uncertainty this life would surely bring meant letting go of the expectations she once had as a corporate drone. She turned over as sleep finally tried to cloud her eyes and said to no one in particular:
“I’m in a fucking war.”
Raven spent the next few days in Rotterdam making repairs to the craft. Tobi went over the weapons system with her to make sure she knew where everything was and the full extent of weapons’ powers. They were built for battle and lesser tasks such as eluding salvagers and pirates.
Dex left for The Blank’s hidden base soon after speaking with Raven. She was not yet ready to access such privileged information. Just as she had with Blue Nova, she put her blind trust in higher ups she never saw. But she didn’t mind this time. She had plenty of evidence that The Blank was legitimate and prepared to fight the battle to the end.
For the first time in her life, Raven had a purpose. Something she did mattered and would mean a drastic but needed change in her current reality. She never felt that at Blue Nova. Telling herself that she did anything more than serve a rich clientele did not ease her ennui, not even during those little moments she tried to take for herself and give herself a reason to care for her vocation. She wouldn’t accrue wealth in this new role, but she would gain a life not contingent upon it.
“You think she’s ready, Miss Moody?”
“What did I tell you about that ‘Miss Moody’ shit, Art?”
Art’s hearty laugh had become like music to Raven. She heard it often as he worked with Jimmy to repair the ship. Now they all stood before it in its renewed form. The pewter exterior shone brighter than the Siralope Star itself. The exterior looked like any transportation craft, disguising a warrior-grade craft with a reinforced shell. Much of the transport area were actually living quarters where the crew could rest and sleep during downtime. Raven had not been in a livable craft in quite some time and had nearly given up hope of ever piloting one.
“I think we’re just about set,” Jimmy said as they admired their handiwork. “We can christen her now.”
“What is it with people and their ceremonies?” Raven asked irritably. “We just painted it. No way I’m breaking a bottle on it.”
“We don’t have to break the bottle,” Art said. “Just open it and have at it ’til it’s empty.”
Raven smiled. She didn’t drink often, but when she did, she preferred company. Art and Jimmy were just as good as any.
“I’ll go see what Nesake’s keeping.”
When Raven returned with a cheap but popular bottle of champagne a moment later, Nesake and Tobi flanked her. “We should make it a proper ceremony,” Nesake said with her wink.
“So you finally settled on a name?” Tobi asked.
Raven looked proudly at the craft before turning her attention back to the bottle in her hand. “We gave it a lot of thought and decided on something suitable. We hereby christen thee…”
She wrestled the bottle open and let the cork pop before finishing.
“… Little Wing.”
Tobi threw his head back as he laughed. “Why, Raven, I had no idea you liked 20th century music.”
“Wait ’til you get to know me better. You’ll find I’m full of surprises.”
Raven poured the champagne for everyone and they toasted to the new alliance. She allowed herself to enjoy these moments of serenity knowing they were about to be few and far between. She might have regretted not having more moments such as this while she lived on Terra Firma, but part of the fight was to get more of them when they were no longer under the thumb of Blue Nova. She now had a memory worth saving, a life worth giving it a try.