In less than four weeks, loyalties divided. Some learned what they never knew about family members as they split between empire and anarchy. Not all kastouts sided with the anarchists and a handful of kieras defied the empire and lent resources to the anarchists.
Those who refused to take a side were assumed to ride with the other and handled accordingly.
One thing worked in favor of both the empire and the anarchists: order was no more. The lip service the UCNSS paid to order dissipated within a matter of weeks. Those who’d put their faith in the protection of the Empire eventually saw through its facade and its futility. Those who still hoped to become part of it believed more than ever that they needed the iron hand of an empire.
Neither was to be. This was a war that Blue Nova Consolidated would not be able to erase for a cost.
Through it all, Raven Moody became a symbol of terrorism and resistance depending on who told the story. Blue Nova stuck to its declaration that whether or not she was part of the organization, her terrorist act was the catalyst that sparked its wider movement. Many in the resistance credited her with saving many lives that could have been lost.
Raven tried to ignore it all, knowing she was just a poor fool caught in the middle of a mess she didn’t make. But her new status as folk hero gave her some klout in the Resistance. Envy came from others. But Raven knew she was no one to envy.
Dex didn’t envy her. Eltsyrk’s death brought them closer together and Dex had come to rely on Raven for more than her piloting skills. After planning sessions, she and Dex found themselves sharing coffee and conversation over irrelevant matters in Nesake’s weigh station that served as a secondary headquarters for the Resistance. At first, Raven thought Dex showed her such attention to keep an eye on her, still questioning her loyalties to them. She eventually realized Dex’s interests were personal and that she looked forward to their time together. She looked forward to coming back from each mission to see Dex.
It wasn’t in her nature to share her bed with anyone, not even to sleep. However, the first time Dex asked, she said yes. The experience wasn’t without its pleasure for her, but she imagined Dex got more out of it than she, which suited her fine. She understood the need for that connection, that type of freedom to be intimate, when everything around them threatened to end them.
“I’m taking a group to Venquo in the morning,” Raven said as she retrieved her clothing from where Dex had scattered them all over the floor. Dex’s eyes followed her around the room, taking in every curve, roll, scar, blemish and perfection of Raven’s body, but made no move to get dressed.
“Pirates and salvagers aren’t that bad anymore.” Raven sat down on the bed to get dressed. “A lot of them feel UCNSS credits are useless now or soon will be, so they don’t want to bother with us. The bad news is the ones who still work have gotten more aggressive. The extra crew helps.”
She felt Dex’s long arms wrap themselves around her waist before that smooth face burrowed itself into the small of her back.
“I thought about this so much while we were stuck on Terra Firma 9,” Dex said. “But you were always alone, not really interested in anyone. There were rumors, but I never listened. I knew not to try to make anything happen. If I had, I might have told you everything. I might have risked everything to ask you to come with me.”
Raven twisted her fully-clothed body to face Dex’s still naked one. She picked up one of the large hands that attentively roamed her body just minutes earlier and placed it at her lips. “It’s a good thing you didn’t,” she said thru the long fingers. “I might not have chosen this side had my hand not been forced.”
Dex raised up and propped on an elbow. “That’s what you think. You were never happy at Blue Nova. You had suspicions all along. You would have jumped at the chance to escape it – and destroy it.”
Raven kissed the lips that caressed her thighs and nipples. “That’s what you think.”
“Don’t fight me on this, Raven. You tease, but you wouldn’t be with us if you felt any differently. You’re not really getting anything out of this.”
Dex was right. She could have done without their liaisons and just enjoyed the company Dex offered but to confirm seemed cruel. She liked Dex and didn’t want to ruin the connection they had – and not entirely for the sake of the resistance. She cared about Dex’s feelings. It was that caring that brought her back to the bed each time.
“It doesn’t matter why I’m here now. I’m not leaving. You can count on that.”
Dex gave her one last kiss before finally releasing her. Neither of them knew this would be the last sweet moment between them for the duration of the war.
All it took was a small miscalculation and everything would go awry. Raven had made that small miscalculation and now it would cost her everything: the father-daughter talks with Art, the trash talking of Blue Nova with Jimmy, the sweet interludes with Dex… and her freedom. Her small miscalculation would definitely cost her the freedom she found with the Resistance.
After dropping her charges at Venquo’s main port, she split from Art and Jimmy to give them some alone time. Raven locked down Little Wing and decided to head to the one place she wanted to go when she was a girl: Major Tom’s.
One of her first memories as a child in her parents’ home in Unone was sitting with a telecaster that played old footage from 19th and 20th century Earth. The concepts of space travel and beings from other star systems seemed so primitive, so far out reach to the time before hyperdrive allowed travel out of Solar System. But they were entertaining. Raven especially loved a Star Man who was called the androgynous alien during his time. She began to devour stories written about him and a song he wrote in 1969 that put him on the road to becoming a legend.
His tale of Major Tom was never finished, but it had somehow become legend, particularly among radical youth of the UCNSS who decided Major Tom was more than a bedtime story. They believed Major Tom was real and the founding mother of sorts of contemporary life on UCNSS. Legend had it that she survived the ordeal and was found by the people of Unone who had traveled beyond the UCNSS for centuries already. However, unlike a dominant, violent race that eventually made Earth unlivable, Tom shared her knowledge with Unoneans and gave them the tools they needed to build their society.
Centuries later, the Earthlings found traces of Tom’s shuttle when they had the means to safely travel beyond their own solar system. Then they discovered the Siralope Star and changed the course of history as they built the UCNSS upon what became a story told to children who never knew the subversive nature of the Star Man.
Raven was one of those children, so she felt completely at ease when she entered Major Tom’s. The muted oranges among garish green shades in the decor on stark white backgrounds might have turned her away during her Terra Firma days, but the colors satisfied a childhood fascination she carried in spite of her eventual occupation. Dizzying colors that tended to spark imagination as well as distract. They sparked Raven, that child who spent her nights believing a Thin White Duke still existed somewhere other than a collective memory that might not have been real.
She let herself get lost in that memory, so she thought nothing of it when she saw one of her passengers walk into Major Tom’s. Raven ignored the lingering stare as she lost herself in mental images of a fight in a dancehall and the freakiest show. She thought the gas mask was all a part of the freak show. It definitely wasn’t out of place. Neither was the misty cloud that arose from the cannister the passenger threw. It wasn’t until the garish scene around her appeared more like a nightmare than an innocent hallucination from a drug-fueled binge that Raven understood her miscalculation.
She dropped to the floor, hoping to crawl under the cloud that grew thicker. But the bodies began to fall around her. They weren’t dead, but they hindered her route. The music began to drag in an ominous dirge. The bright orange merged with the green, becoming indistinguishable from the white. Raven’s eyes burned, her throat felt tight as if someone held a death grip on it. Her bones felt ground to dust.
Raven thought she would die right then and there.
She finally dropped to the floor, a useless lump like the rest. The last thing she heard were the sounds of heavy footsteps approaching before darkness lulled her to sleep.
The voices around her sounded heavy and muffled. She could only make out sounds, not any actual words. Her eyes slightly opened but everything around her remained dark. She had no sense of when and where she was.
The dryness left a foul taste in her mouth, making her feel as if she hadn’t had water for months. Food either. Her weakness and achy head didn’t come simply from dehydration. She had been deprived. By whom and for how long, she didn’t know. Or why. If a salvager wanted to deliver her to the UCNSS, she would have been handed over in better condition. Weak prisoners didn’t make good servants.
She was shackled, confined to a wall with manacles and chains. At least this metal had grown warm against her skin. She also still had her clothes. They clung to her with her own sweat and filth that must have built over a few days, but she was still dressed.
The tap of hard soles on the metal floor interrupted her thoughts. She couldn’t tell if they came from behind a door or from within the room. Raven tried to open her eyes again. She saw nothing in the room until a sliver of light a few feet away appeared and eventually grew larger to reveal the door. But the light burned her eyes and she looked away in pain. She scrambled from her reclining position on the floor and sat with her back against the wall as if it could provide her with some defense.
The figure approaching her seemed vaguely familiar, but the confusion in her head couldn’t put it together. It stopped inches in front of her and crouched down to meet her face to face. Raven still couldn’t see with the backlight hiding any defining features. But the faint scent of flowery perfume was familiar. The shape of the head was familiar. She put the pieces together before the figure made a rapid clap of the hand, making the room overflow with light to reveal herself.
To her surprise, Raven didn’t feel a sense of dread, but she did feel the bile attempt to escape the pit of her stomach. It stopped at her dry, scratchy throat.
She had been caught. At this point, she was only grateful that she hadn’t been with Art and Jimmy when she was captured, but she still had no guarantee that they hadn’t been spotted. And Little Wing. What would happen to Little Wing?
“You had more friends than I anticipated,” Captain said, interrupting Raven’s thoughts. “Didn’t think it would take this long to catch you. But at least your little rebellion hasn’t gotten too big though. We can still nip all you troublemakers in the bud before it gets out of hand.”
Captain stood up, suddenly appearing to tower over Raven. She paced the room while Raven squirmed against the discomfort of her dry mouth, aching head and sore muscles. Captain’s voice seemed to come from all directions and nowhere as she spoke.
“I knew from the beginning you would be a headache, Moody. Surprised it took so long to show your true face. Blue Nova never should have opened its doors to outsiders like you. I knew it would be a mistake from the beginning. We had a tight ship, a family trained to keep Blue Nova in the right hands. But UCNSS had to make its little show again, let the people know that they had a chance if only they made the right choices.
“You were vetted from a young age. Your parents guaranteed us you would be a valuable asset. So you were allowed into the schools even though you come from a family of farmers. I told them we shouldn’t let you out of sight. No matter how much you chisel away at it, a square peg is still a square peg at heart. You weren’t meant to fit into the circle.”
The Captain walked back over to Raven and crouched inches away from her face. “None of this would have happened if they hadn’t accepted you. The rich boy either. He was never good enough to be here, but his family had far too many credits to its name to tell him no when he decided he wanted his lot in life to be the stars. Neither of you really had to do the work. Neither of you were loyal to Blue Nova. Not like Dex.”
Raven heard it then, the change that came over Captain when she mentioned Dex’s name. She understood then the animosity. Perhaps Dex gave a look that lingered too long or said something to hip the Captain to true feelings. But now Raven saw something that Dex either didn’t see or chose to ignore: Captain thought Raven was in the way of something she wanted with Dex. Her animosity had nothing to do with Raven not being borne into the organization. It had everything to do with the way Dex obviously felt about her.
“Dex would still be here if not for you. But I bet you don’t care. You would never have been able to appreciate someone like Dex if you’d been smart enough to notice it would you? I knew you would always be in the way, just not like this.”
Captain moved in even closer, her eyes filled with a fire Raven had never before seen in her. Raven squirmed uncomfortably again, wishing she could move out of the line of fire of Captain’s eyes.
“I convinced them not to make the same mistake again,” Captain said in a low, menacing voice. “You won’t get that parade. You won’t get that chance to escape. If Dex hadn’t died, I might have just let them send you to Heifri and let you freeze there for the next 80 years. But you’ll pay for Dex.”
Captain moved away, giving some space between them and dropping the whisper. “You have one chance for leniency, Moody. We know Eltsyrk led you while he was alive, but he’s been replaced. Our inside sources haven’t been able to identify this new figurehead. We know you have a center. Every movement does. Now we need to find that center. You’re going to help us.”
Raven kept her face blank while a sudden terror tore through her. That terror didn’t come because she hadn’t been told who now led the movement. It came because she was afraid she did know – and she might not be able to keep the secret that needed protecting more than ever. So she did the one thing she knew would end the inquiry before she had to say a word.
Raven gathered as much saliva as she could from her dry mouth and projected it right into Captain’s face.
The small but noticeable ball of spit landed right between Captain’s eyes. She flinched but quickly maintained her composure. She slowly stood and tugged at the shirt of her uniform as if to straighten it – right before she delivered a severe kick right to the side of Raven’s head. In her daze, Raven heard the sound of other footsteps approaching. She heard Captain say “She’s ready for Assilem” before she succumbed to the dizziness.
The UCNSS officially did not torture. But Raven was not technically a prisoner of UCNSS. The Unity allowed some corporations like Blue Nova to hold prisoners in extenuating circumstances such as this. So the general public wasn’t aware of Assilem since technically it wasn’t supposed to exist.
After again being deprived of her senses, she awoke to the sudden harsh splash of cold water over her naked body. Despite her weakness, her scream was loud and bloodcurdling, echoing through the walls of the asylum hidden away on Eicho, which was almost completely under Blue Nova’s control. The cold bursts were one of the least cruel methods of “rehabilitation.” She only received food and drink once every other day. Not only was it barely enough to sustain her, but it was also nearly unfit for consumption. Hunger always got the best of her and she risked the possibility of something rancid disagreeing with her now weakened stomach.
She barely slept, not by her own choice. The two occasions she passed out where she stood resulted in more cold bursts, this time with her head submerged in ice water until she could no longer hold her breath. Her handlers more than once “accidentally” tripped her or let a hand slip while escorting her to and from her cell. The more serious violation came when she was put under in order to conduct tests on her person, but considering her drugged state, she had no proof that it was only a nightmare.
For two weeks she endured it. At the end of the two weeks, she was given an appointment to see the Captain. Raven was taken to the large office used for “parole” hearings. However, the Captain sat alone in the vast nearly empty room, enjoying what smelled like baked hen and ostrich feathers. Raven’s gut responded to the scent but quickly churned as she was not used to real food anymore. She was shackled to a chair opposite the Captain, who never looked up as she devoured her meal.
“They say you’re quiet, barely even respond to the cold bursts anymore,” Captain said with her mouth still full of hen. “That’s impressive. I never would have figured you had that type of resolve.”
Raven said nothing, didn’t even give the Captain an uncomfortable shift in her seat. She tried to block the scent of the food and the sound of Captain’s chewing. She thought about Dex instead, those moments they spent talking about a life they hoped would come after the war. She made those moments with Dex her happy place to save her during the worst moments of weakness.
“We’ll find out what we need sooner or later. It doesn’t matter whether or not you know who the new leader is. What took years for them to build only took weeks for us to infiltrate. That whole lifelong oath they took means nothing when they see a chance of something better before them. It’s always been that way. That’s why your kind never wins.”
Captain put down her utensils then dabbed delicately at her mouth with a blue napkin although there was nothing to clear. Raven sat in silence and waited for the other shoe to drop. She knew this was no friendly chat. Captain was up to something.
“We had differences, Raven.” Raven looked up suspiciously at the phrase – and the use of her nickname. Captain continued, “I understand why you choose that side. We were quick to blame you for what happened to Terra Firma 9. As you know, we had to put the blame on someone and you were the most likely suspect. It was no secret you weren’t entirely happy with us, so it all made sense that you might be behind such a heinous act. But we’ve had time to think. Even if you knew ahead of time what they planned to do, it’s possible you were misled. These are crafty types, Raven. They find any weakness of yours and exploit it. This is what happened to you, isn’t it, Raven?”
Raven didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at Captain. She stared straight in front of her at a spot on the floor that looked just like the rest of the immaculately clean floor. Dex would have told her about a favorite hideaway on Seix.
“Whatever they promised you, Raven, they can’t deliver it. Not like we can. You know the company. You know what we can do.”
Captain stood up and slowly moved from behind the desk to join Raven on the other side. Raven still didn’t move. She thought of something else Dex would tell her, the tendency for families in Evete to avoid living on lower floors of the larger buildings because it made them targets for gangs.
“If there’s anything I know about you, Raven, it’s how much your work and your reputation mean to you. How would you like that again, a chance to clear your name and live your life in peace the way you planned when you left Blue Nova?”
This time, Raven did look up and met the Captain’s eyes. She saw no deceit, but she knew it was there. It was always there with officials from Blue Nova. What made them dangerous was that they believed their own lies.
“You could have it all back. We’ll clear your name. You won’t have to hide in the shadows anymore. We’ll put an infinite supply of credits to your name. Whatever you want will be all yours for the rest of your life.”
Raven stared at the woman a long while until she was certain she detected the lie behind them. Then for the first time since she was kidnapped off Venquo, she spoke.
“At what cost?”
Captain seemed satisfied rather than surprised with the answer. She moved closer to Raven, perhaps weary of their previous interaction.
“You always were a talented pilot, Raven. I had to concede to that on Terra Firma. We know now that you have some experience with combat crafts. Our systems are more advanced and better than anything you might have flown with your ragtag friends. Fly for us and help us end this silly skirmish before it evolves and gets all your friends killed.”
Raven closed her eyes as if she was thinking before taking a deep breath and asking, “And if I refuse.”
Captain walked right over to Raven and delicately lifted her face by the chin. “I think we both know what happens then, dear. I hear Heifri… isn’t very nice this time of year… or any time of year for that matter.”
The thought of Heifri terrified her like none other. However, when the Captain lifted her face, Raven understood the true threat behind the request. Heifri was in the cards, but it wasn’t the only punishment she would receive. The Captain already knew how closely aligned she was with Art and Jimmy. She was already bearing the brunt of the wrath of the almighty Blue Nova, so sending her to Heifri was the final step. The real punishment would be to find Art and Jimmy and make sure they suffered a fate worse than the one she had endured for the past weeks.
“The choice is yours, Raven. It’s also simple. You can either help us end this war now or watch it become a long, drawn out ordeal. Your friends will suffer. Your family on Unone might not make it.”
Raven made no attempt to hide her scowl. If she had any respect for the Captain in any capacity, it was now gone. The woman took her function as the symbol of Blue Nova very seriously and there was no way Raven could sway her. Yet the Captain was clearly shocked when Raven’s eyes pierced through her and she gave her answer.
“I’ll do it.”