She had expected some false leads, but the response was overwhelming even for Blue Star. Representatives for the company worked overtime to follow up on promising leads and made half-hearted promises to look into farfetched leads that held some glimmer of possibility. So much of the kastout population had become uncomfortably visible in an attempt to leapfrog to the kieras.
The response on Eicho alone created whole new jobs, reps screening communication throughout the system claiming to have a lead on Teresa Moody’s whereabouts…
Almost none of the leads came from experienced salvagers. They knew how to catch a prey, cause the least damage to the goods and collect the bounty. They understood timing, finding a prey at just the right moment to place the odds in their favor. Carefully crafted methodical and strategic approaches were why salvagers rarely failed. They were also why Captain knew it would be some time before they got a real solid lead. And also why she told a select few salvagers to track Moody for a while to lead to a bigger, more valuable target.
They had done an exceptional job staying off the radar, she had to admit. But the explosion of the Blue Nova Star had exposed them. Linking Moody to a terrorist act inevitably led to rumors and finger pointing to a shadowy organization that had spent decades building up to destroy the UCNSS. She needed this: bagging not only Moody but also the entire terrorist organization she worked for. This would wipe her record clean and cement her as one of the greatest captains in Blue Nova history, not a disgrace whose ineptitude caused the deaths of thousands.
She deployed the best hunters in each system. They were good enough to cover all planets in each system but give each other enough healthy competition outside their respective territories. Amateur salvagers and hopeful kastouts didn’t stand a chance against the hunters, but that hope kept them occupied and in line.
Captain straightened, readying herself as the proud face of Blue Nova Consolidated. She tugged at the tunic that barely fell below her waist to sit right at the top of her hips, seamlessly covering the matching trousers. She adjusted the pendant that, along with the color of her uniform, indicated her rank. It sat directly over her heart, a constant reminder of her alliance to Blue Nova and how she was to always regard the company. Directly under the pendant sat her nameplate: Captain. All she was and the only way anyone was to ever regard her.
Her uniform in tact, Captain left her temporary office, heading to a meeting in which she was to present her progress report. She was certain of her plan and had faith that it would produce the desired results. After all, she had the backing of Blue Nova. Why would the company ever doubt any of its resources when it had the best in all of UCNSS?
If he had ever had children with Mikkel, they would have definitely been like her. Mikkel never wanted it. He liked their life with just the two of them. Art had to admit that life had been good, but it was only one timeline within a number of possibilities. He also knew that part of Mikkel’s hesitation hinged on his fears of a war that would soon tear apart the UCNSS.
Finding Raven banged up, near dead had sent a shock through him. Until then, he hadn’t realized just how much he’d grown attached to the girl, looking forward to her presence, quiet as it was. Mikkel never understood that they could have raised a child to be a part of fight. Art had come from people who knew how to protect their children even as they had to prepare them for a war called their existence. He would never have been afraid to get attached to a child for fear of losing it. He assumed that was Mikkel’s fear, finding himself loving a child only to have that love ripped away unjustly. Seeing a lover die was one thing; watching his child die was a sign that he could not protect her.
Art had been the one to find her. His shock at how he felt seeing her overshadowed the actual sight of her battered body. He hadn’t known his feelings ran as deeply as they did. She wasn’t just a pilot, a tool for The Blank to use in this war now coming at them faster than an express shuttle. She was that child he wanted with Mikkel all those years ago and he’d almost lost her before he was ready. Art finally understood Mikkel’s fear but couldn’t say it was enough to convince him that Mikkel had been right to deny him the experience of fatherhood.
Now with the authorities on their tail, that fear and shock returned to him. That paternal instinct he’d suppressed throughout his years with Mikkel roared through the pit of his stomach and threatened to expose his guts. Raven had barely given herself time to recover before she accepted an invitation to meet the head of The Blank. He knew she needed to feel that sense of trustworthiness to go any further with the war they were fighting. But he worried about her the entire way to one of Troiwee’s outlying planets. He had done his best to present his fatherly love in a gentle but authoritative way when he asked her to take some more time to recuperate. “Your judgment might still be impaired. Who knows what damage the poison did?”
But she was stubborn, just like he always suspected any daughter of his would be. She insisted she was okay and needed some activity. “Never even laid around on my days off on Terra Firma. Besides, I wanna see more of Troiwee.”
He didn’t let her argue when he told her that he and Jimmy would accompany her even though it was not an official mission. He just wanted to make sure she kept her digits in tact and showed no after effects of the poison that had coursed through her body. He wasn’t sure whether she was under control or out of sync when they found the craft under the radar of a patrol vehicle.
“We shouldn’t try to outrun them,” he said. “We got our ID and patrols can’t call in without reasonable suspicion.”
Raven sighed but began to mobilize the craft. Piloting a shuttlecraft hadn’t given her much cause to be boarded while airborne. They waited until they felt the inevitable aftershock that occurred when the patrol’s craft attached to theirs. Art followed Raven out of the cockpit to a better reception area where the patrol would have to enter the ship.
Raven sealed the airlock and waited. She still looked a little vulnerable to Art, but he decided to let her handle it. The one thing he didn’t want to do was undermine her when she needed to feel strong. But he stayed at her side.
The door finally slid open. Both Art and Raven stared in confusion at first. They had definitely been detained by a patrol craft. However, only one agent boarded Little Wing. He wore the right uniform, but he had no backup to assist him. He was on an unauthorized stop. If things went badly and one of them ended up dead, there was no one to take their side against the agent. He strutted in with a cocky swagger as if he knew he ran the show. Art disliked him immediately.
He asked all the usual questions: destination? any cargo? any contraband? employer? “If you’re not working for anyone right now, then why are you traveling? It’s unlikely you could afford this shuttle on your own. Where’d you get it?”
They both knew the officer had no intention of getting answers for the questions he rattled off all at once with no breaks in between. The question was whether he was stalling for time or simply making it clear to them who was in charge of the situation. Apparently, Jimmy opted for the former possibility as he suddenly materialized and stuck the hypo in the officer’s neck.
“The hell is wrong with you!” Art screamed. “They’ll come looking for him!”
The sheer volume of Art’s voice stopped both Jimmy and Raven before they turned their attention back to the dead man in the ship. But Jimmy snapped out of it faster than Raven.
“We need to raid his vessel,” he said. “I’m sure he has some things we can use to keep ourselves one step ahead…”
“But you know the authorities track everything,” Raven said. “As soon as we used any of his technology, they’d find us and have a reason to…”
“No they won’t,” Art interrupted. “We can tweak it. Where do you think Jess and Chessy got some of their equipment? It wasn’t all bought legit.”
Raven looked at him a moment before answering. “If I learned anything working for Blue Nova it’s that they know how to make failsafes for their equipment. Everything connected to UCNSS is protected that way. If we take anything from that ship, we’ll be found.”
“And I’m telling you, we found ways.”
That was when Raven’s mind turned back to Dex. The Blank had had plants in Blue Nova for years. It wasn’t inconceivable that they had also infiltrated patrol and other factions of UCNSS. But that didn’t completely reassure her. Even though she had only been a navigator-pilot, she was well aware of the measures the company took to keep its secrets and its hold on the UCNSS, barely towing the line of legality.
“Raven, I thought we got past this already. Trust us. Remember that we’re ready to make sacrifices if we’re wrong about anything.”
Art knew how to use guilt even better than her mother, who had weaponized that particular emotion when Raven was still a child. “Well we better make sure nothing is activated when we take it and we have to figure out where to leave his body. Can’t leave it on his craft.”
“Don’t worry,” Art said. “We’ll get that covered. I’ll tell you how to reset the codes so that they think it’s on repair.”
Patrol crafts weren’t built to carry much, but they were built to withstand damage. Attacks against patrol crafts were rare if not nonexistent. Raven had never been on the inside of one. No cause. Her apprehension at boarding on one even if only to loot showed in the condensation inside her helmet where her breathing became slightly rapid and the hot sweat against her skin evaporated before it could travel down the length of her face. She quickly noticed that the craft was not meant for the comfort of intended passengers but still held enough room for at least two officers and enough equipment to perform desk duty right in the craft.
“They usually have extra restraints near the passenger area,” Art said. “Have to dislodge those in a specific way or else they’ll trip up an alert. If I do it right, we’ll have something we can use. You two load up here and start taking it back to Little Wing.”
Raven got her breathing under control and looked around to see what wasn’t attached to the craft. Of course there were rations, but that wasn’t the first necessity she wanted to grab. Patrol crafts had some of the best communication devices in the Unity. Raven had spent much time playing with a variety of comm devices in her spare time. She likened them to the Siralope Star, able to make a time and space in a distance appear much closer than it really was.
“I’ll get the comms and you can get the processors,” Raven said as she removed her helmet and went to work dislodging the small but delicate machine. She was surprised to see that it wasn’t the latest design like they’d had on Terra Firma 9 but a slightly older model. It worked excellently but lacked the prestige of being the latest thing, the comms that included monitors for face-to-face communication. Raven preferred the audio-only devices. A face looking back at her through the screen while they talked unsettled her. Then again, she had always behaved as if someone was watching her even when she was alone.
“I know you think I shouldn’t have killed him.”
Jimmy’s voice disrupted the space between them, making Raven lose her concentration for a moment. Raven had no answer as she regained focus removing the comm devices.
“He would have brought us in,” Jimmy continued as he disabled a processor. “I stayed in Troiwee a bit before I made it to Terra Firma. The patrols like to harass. They especially like to harass anyone not connected to a UCNSS entity, like you don’t have the right to have anything nice if you aren’t connected to the body. He had no intention of letting us go. He wanted to make sure we knew who was in charge and that he had the power to do whatever he wanted. He wasn’t gonna let us go.”
Raven stopped a moment and looked at Jimmy. He still looked the same, tall and lanky with an easygoing demeanor. Even his eyes didn’t betray the experience the last few weeks had given him. But she knew he was different. He’d gotten a taste of reality outside a gilded cage just as she had. Only he had something different that she didn’t possess. He had Art’s love.
“You really aren’t the same since we got blown off that rock are you? You wanted to believe that delusion the same as me: Blue Nova was just a company that got big through ingenuity and luck. No way we could be involved in actively letting people live like animals if it somehow affected profit. I know I definitely denied the truth. I read all the things about capitalism and a pursuit for greatness beyond death. It lost us Earth. We barely saved ourselves when Dr. Mishra finally broke the code of atmosphere. Some say she purposely withheld her discoveries until it was nearly too late so that she could profit. I never understood how people could intentionally let others suffer when there was clearly something to do about it.
“Now Earth no longer exists except as in shadows formed from an element that somehow takes us back there. I told myself that no one truly had a right to time travel since it needed to be regulated somehow. I justified it so I could live with it. I think you did, too. I think you told yourself these fairy tales then came forward when you realized what could happen. I guess I got tired of lying to myself too. I’m not the same since we left. I don’t think you are either… But it’s not just Terra Firma 9 is it? That’s not what’s changing you.”
Anyone who didn’t know how to read Jimmy might have thought his smirk was meant to dismiss Raven, but she knew better. His smirk hid a blush that couldn’t hide the answer to Raven’s question. It had to be the first time he’d fallen in love. Only the first time had that type of power over someone. At least that’s how Raven thought it would be, not being one to succumb to such feelings for another.
“We’ve grown close. I don’t think anyone can miss that. I know we get looks because of the age thing, but I don’t care. I’ve never gotten along with someone the way I get along with him. I felt it from him when I woke up on that shuttlecraft and saw him sitting there. It felt like a good dream was about to happen, at least it did until my body reminded me how much it hurt. But he was there and his eyes weren’t exactly telling me he wasn’t interested.”
Raven smiled. Just because she had never been the romantic type didn’t mean she didn’t occasionally enjoy a good love story. Then as soon as it came, that smile disappeared.
“I don’t know how you do it. I mean I know it’s natural to want something to hold on to no matter what type of life you get, but we might be at war soon. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
“Losing him? Losing him before you had a chance to have a full life with him. If something happens, won’t you feel cheated? Do you wish you’d have met him in a different time and place?”
“I don’t really think about it that much,” Jimmy said with all the nonchalance he could muster. “Yeah I know that anything can happen. Hell, he’s taking the same chance, more so since he’s been through this before and knows how that loss feels. I guess I just feel like it’s worth the risk. Even if it somehow all ended tomorrow, I’ve had some time with him. It could have only been that day in the ship when I was healing, but my life’s richer for having him in it. No regrets. No wishes for different circumstances. I’m grateful for what I have right now in front of me.”
This time the smile stayed. “As much as that man tries to come across as a stoic, he’s really just a big softee isn’t he? He does remind me of my dad a bit, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t, uh, alive.”
“No it doesn’t.”
She knew what that tone meant. Raven almost dropped it until Jimmy spoke up again. “I suspected from the beginning he wasn’t all that he appeared. Wasn’t an accident he ended up with us. Would have never taken him for a rebel though. Just seems so –”
Raven dislodged the last of the comm devices and reset the codes. Nothing blinked in an urgent red, so she figured she did it right.
“I’ll go take these to Little Wing. Once you finish those, we can get some rations and see if Art needs any help with the restraints.”
They decided to tow the vacant patrol shuttle to the outskirts of Cuafour. Raven detached the empty vessel and headed to the surface of an uninhabited moon.
Art hit the detonator. They watched the distant explosion of the patrol shuttle from the surface. They then got busy burying a shallow grave. They knew Security would look for the body among the debris before considering other reasons for the disappearance. When they found no traces of the body, they might begin to consider that the officer had faked his own death or had other reasons to disappear, especially when they found no traces of some valuable equipment. The crew even removed the black box. They would only consider the possibility of foul play last, a hastily put together scheme to make it appear that someone tried to make the disappearance look like the work of a salvager. If anything, it would buy them some time. They might not even have to worry about an investigation. Security cared as much about a lowly patrol officer as it did a kastout.
The trip back to Troiwee was quiet. All their trips were quiet when Art didn’t sit in the cockpit with them, but there was nothing said among them while the three headed to a destination that was becoming home to them. While it was a comfortable silence, Raven still felt the need to fill it. She spoke aloud of inane facts about a planet that no longer existed and no one would ever experience again with the star out of commission. She knew they paid no attention, but she chattered anyway.
Then the mood changed again. She didn’t know how she felt Art’s change, but she had. So had Jimmy. They both looked over to him at the same time. Art tried desperately to pick up a clear signal on the telecaster. He had heard something urgent that needed immediate attention.
“They got the leader,” he said. “They got Eltsyrk.”