Even the purveyors of history didn’t know it would be this bad. Reading about the atrocities of war was far different from actually experiencing them. People died. People suffered before they died. The innocent and the indifferent. Many soon found that refusing to choose sides would not spare them. War made no distinctions among guilt and innocence, right and wrong. They would all die.
No one was hit harder with that reality than those who choose the side of resistance. They learned that being righteous did not give them any divine intervention that would miraculously turn the tide in their favor. They found themselves outnumbered with fewer resources than they needed. They ran out of supplies faster than they could replenish them and found that one little loss often turned the tide in favor of the empire from those who didn’t have a strong conviction in the cause.
Through it all, Jimmy tried to keep hope, not just hope that they would win but that they would find Raven unscathed. In the five weeks since she disappeared, his whole outlook on their plight grew bleaker as if she had been the very thing that made the fight worth it. He knew Art missed her and worried about her daily as well although neither would say. Little Wing was grounded for a week before it was decided that it had to be used for other missions even if Raven was not at the helm. Neither Jimmy nor Art could bring himself to join the new crew of the craft.
Instead, they opted for covert missions, picking up information here and there and sending the correct codes back to base. Of course, this meant hitching a ride on various crafts with no promise of return to a home base, but that was one of the “unexpecteds” Art had told Jimmy to expect once he got into the life. And while he knew losing Raven or Art before it was time was a strong possibility, he was still not ready to face what he would feel upon learning that Raven was indeed gone.
As he sat with Art in the land transport, Jimmy tried to focus on the mission. They rarely had trouble gathering information surreptitiously. The empire had underestimated them in that way, so it took them a while to implement procedures to avoid hacking and other breaches in confidentiality. Yet many of their methods were in vain because most of the information the resistance got came from disillusioned insiders looking to sabotage the empire. Not even the public executions stopped the spies on both sides.
Jimmy sat back in the spacious land vehicle as their latest contact made sure the coast was clear before stepping out and slamming the door. “I get a bad feeling about this one,” he said to the vehicle’s only remaining occupant, Art. “I tell you we need a better way to verify the information we’re given to make sure we’re not being set up.”
“Not our job,” Art said as he sorted the data chips. He had a habit of trying to determine what was most important and send it first in case he and Jimmy were somehow caught before they sent all the information. He never told any of the contacts that he wiped the chips afterward and discarded them before they headed back to their arranged transport. Art had his own reservations about potential double agents, so he took the precautions he felt best to make it difficult to track them back to the base on Troiwee.
Jimmy shifted about in his seat before his agitation finally forced him to stand and pace the vehicle. He needed to move. He needed the vehicle to move, but he knew that wouldn’t happen until Art was ready. It was always wait until Art was ready.
“Can’t wait to get off this rock,” Jimmy said not bothering to hide his irritation. “ Fuckin’ empire at every turn, can’t even blow your nose without some jackhole claiming to be Security asking you for ID. And people wanna protect this. People really think this is a good way to live. Treating us like criminals until we can prove we aren’t. Tearing our… tearing our families apart.”
The change in Jimmy’s tone didn’t escape Art, but he made no move to acknowledge it as he kept transmitting the data. He didn’t even change the tenor of his voice the way many do when attempting to comfort a loved one, a lover. His voice kept the same flat tone that dominated his speech since he and Jimmy stepped back onto Little Wing then heard about the raid at Major Tom’s. He couldn’t let his voice show emotion because every word would then say the same thing: “Raven is gone and not coming back.” That one thought haunted him, but he refused to let it show, not even to Jimmy.
“We don’t really know what happened to her,” Art said while he nonchalantly tapped out codes on the telecomm. “She could have just wandered off to get rid of us like she been trying to do since the beginning. Maybe she met somebody and ran off for that life she wanted on that desolate rock with barely nobody on it. Or… or maybe they got her. Maybe they used their ways to get her to talk…”
“She wouldn’t do that!”
Art finally looked up at Jimmy, attention undivided. “You don’t know what they do to people under interrogation. Even the toughest, most close-mouthed and secretive asses will sing like a bird under that type of pressure. Maybe she got caught, maybe she didn’t. Maybe she talked, maybe she didn’t. But I do know that if… when we find her again, she won’t be the same.”
Jimmy couldn’t think of a reply. He knew Art was right but wasn’t ready to admit it. He had no time anyway. A bit of chaos had broken out around them. He went to the front of the vehicle and saw that some Security forces had broken up a group of young activists who fancied themselves part of the resistance but were clearly out to agitate.
“Damn. We’ll hear about this on the telecasts later. They always try to make it seem like this is who we are and they’ve got nothing to do with us.”
“Are they doing a patrol?” Art asked as he put the data chips away.
“Yeah. We better cover ourselves.” Jimmy began taking off his clothes, watching Art as he also removed his. He couldn’t suppress the smile that formed on his lips. “Gotta say I like this part. Always seems to work, too.”
Art released his own smile as they finished disrobing and threw their garments toward the front of the vehicle and laid down on the flatbed in the back. They held each other in an unmistakable embrace, trading soft kisses while they waited for Security to make its way inside uninvited to find them in the middle of an intimate moment.
It always worked perfectly. There was never any need to search two naked men or suspect them of any kind of wrongdoing; perhaps infidelity but there were no legal repercussions for that, at least not from UCNSS. But even the most thorough Security offer was reluctant to search a naked person, especially one who had been engaging in the most basic of carnal pleasures.
Security was so taken aback that they didn’t even search the clothes strewn around the vehicle. “We’re simply looking for indigents,” one officer explained. “You two are the only ones here and there’s certainly no room to hide anyone.”
Jimmy breathed again after Security exited the vehicle. “As much as I get a kick out of that, sometimes I don’t think my heart could take the adrenaline rush. I’m afraid something will go wrong or I’ll give myself away…”
Art stopped him before he could continue by slowly running his hands around Jimmy waist from behind. “That’s why I’m here. If you’re thinking about anything else other that what I’m doing, then I’m not doing it right. And at my age, I know how to do it right.”
Jimmy’s smile returned as he turned to face Art, knowing they would turn their romantic ruse into the real thing before going back to headquarters.
Upon reaching Nesake’s place, Art and Jimmy were told Dex needed to meet with them immediately. They might have another mission soon.
Meetings with Dex were much more complicated these days. As a safety precaution for all those involved, the organization kept a shroud of secrecy about Dex’s location at all times. Dex was also frequently moved, not allowed to stay put in one place for too long to avoid discovery and capture. Locations were scouted weeks in advance and chosen at the last minute to minimize the chance for leaks. Since Dex’s current location had just been chosen, it was best that they headed out right away.
Art and Jimmy were equipped with sensory deprivation helmets that blocked out sound and sight and guided to a craft that would take them to Dex. Neither of them had a sense of where he was or even how long it had taken him to get there by the time they were seated in a dimly lit room across from a grim-looking Dex. They studied the dim eyes they were used to seeing light up in Raven’s presence. But Raven was no longer present and her absence caused a notable effect on Dex’s demeanor.
“I’ll get right to it,” Dex said. “Looks like we have another objective to this game. We got the transmissions you sent a while ago. On their own, they don’t mean much. Even decoded, they feel like gibberish with no meaning. But it hit us that the codes you sent didn’t stand alone. We started going over some others and it all began to fit. The puzzle came together…. They found another star that produces kemtons.”
Neither Art nor Jimmy could speak. If the UCNSS discovered another star with kemtons, everything they did would have been in vain.
“They could go back and unplant the seed,” Art said quietly. “They’ll find out where where we started and make sure it never happens. They could make sure none of us ever exist…”
“We’ve thought about that,” Dex interrupted. “We thought by destroying the Siralope Star that we could bring down the whole structure with no fear of it being undone. But we still have so much to explore in this system alone, let alone all the others that exist outside our reach right now. We should have known though. I should have known.”
It was then that they noticed the disappointment in Dex’s voice and eyes. Dex had been the right hand to the Captain herself but still kept out of the loop in one of the most important discoveries the company had made since the Siralope Star. Of course, it would keep a lookout for other stars or bodies with properties like kemtons. Blue Nova was never in the market for competition, only domination.
Now Dex’s face reflected the fear they all felt at the moment: had a plan generations in the making been in vain? Dex sighed, put on a familiar game face that exuded determination and the resolve that kept inspired hope in the growing number of resistance fighters who had grown tired of the UCNSS’ reign.
“We’re working through this. But of course, we need information… and we need to find other means of fixing this problem.”
Art and Jimmy exchanged glances, letting themselves fill in the blanks from Dex’s inference.
“You don’t want to destroy this one,” Jimmy reasoned aloud. “You want to get to it first and change the course of history.”
Dex sighed again and walked away from the only small desk in the room, going nowhere and obviously looking for the right words.
“I know it’s always been decreed that we wouldn’t resort to using time travel except when we knew we could destroy the star. It’s not right playing with time that way, no matter what precautions Blue Nova took to stop any interference they didn’t want. We all have a right to our lives as they are: the good and the ugly. But it feels different when the lives are in your hands, when you have to put others on the line in the name of what you believe. Is this cost really worth it? We all knew we were ready to go to war, but when we got here, we found it wasn’t simply a matter of righteous and wrong. I was trained to prepare to give my life if necessary from a young age. Not everyone fighting for the cause now had the benefit of that indoctrination.”
Dex faced them again with weary eyes they had never seen before. “She was right to ask. She was right when she asked if it was right that we were so willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone on Terra Firma 9 just do destroy the star. Did we really have the right to take them just because they worked for the enemy? Were they not innocent? They were caught up in this system just the same as we were. Yet we decided to act as judge and jury to them because we said they had chosen a side. But they didn’t choose. We know that choice doesn’t exist now.”
Art shifted in his seat and looked at Jimmy. Finding the new star and manipulating the past could mean a lot of things, but the one thing that he cared about then was the possibility that Jimmy would never be a part of his life. So far he hadn’t felt any effects that many people claimed to have: memories that supposedly never happened, a sense that something hadn’t occurred the way it was remembered. What if this happened to him and he found Jimmy or even Mikkel a faded memory that never happened? Was it worth it?
“But it’s a greater good, right?” Jimmy said. “What if you can go back and prevent all those lives on Terra Firma 9 are never lost? What if Terra Firma 9 never exists in the first place? At least not for the purpose they made it.”
Art didn’t hide the dismay he felt, but Jimmy didn’t look at him. He didn’t even look at Dex. Dex understood the shift in the mood. The cloud that hung before Art and Jimmy arrived became thicker and denser now that the wider world became all too personal.
“It’s not been decided just yet how we’ll handle the situation,” Dex said. “We have to make sure the star actually exists so that we don’t waist time and resources we don’t have on a wild goose chase. That’s where you two come in. You’ve been some of the best gatherers we’ve had since the war started. Whatever you do to keep the empire off your backs is quite effective.”
The mood hadn’t lightened by the time Dex dismissed them and sent them back on their way back to Nesake, but they were both glad for the sensory deprivation helmets that left them to themselves and not their newfound discomfort.
Dex wanted to ask but didn’t. Without saying a word, Art and Jimmy had communicated that there was still no word from Raven, still no indication of whether she had been captured or forced to flee and had been in hiding. The empire had made no show of capturing Raven and parading her around as it had Eltsyrk. But that worried Dex most of all. It had been a mistake setting up Eltsyrk for public execution. He had become a martyr, a public folly that exposed everything wrong with the UCNSS. Because of that folly, they had an all-out war on their hands.
Yet with the war preoccupying the entire system, Dex could not stop the thoughts and worry about Raven. They had been happy their last meeting, happily entwined in each other taking a few moments bliss to forget the troubles they knew wouldn’t leave them be outside the few safe moments they made for each other. Raven’s lack of desire was known, yet she had given when asked. So Dex knew there were feelings between them.
But Raven’s disappearance would have far greater repercussions than the lost connection between them. The distrust that permeated the resistance had never diminished. Raven had not been around long enough to prove her loyalty. If she talked, even under duress, it would jeopardize her standing with the cause. Dex would be forgiven, as would Art, seen as an innocent victim of an unscrupulous woman.
Dex knew it wasn’t true, having gotten to know Raven underneath the enigmatic exterior. She wasn’t really that much of a mystery, but just as the others needed time to trust her, she needed time to know who to trust. And the people who made up the original members of The Blank needed to keep in mind that anyone could break under torture no matter how much training they had.
Dex shook the thought of Raven suffering, being tormented. That was a thought that could be manifested and begin to drive any actions regarding the movement. That would be deadly and possibly cause even more harm than the plan to use a new kemton-filled star if it existed. Dex knew better than to let personal feelings get in the way, but it was easier said in theory than done in practice. Something about Raven inspired something that had never been a problem before.
The wait had already been excruciating so far and Dex couldn’t see it becoming any easier no matter how long it lasted. Whether or not Raven’s disappearance reflected a breach had yet to be discovered, but it definitely broke a heart. Like all members of The Blank, Dex had been trained to put aside personal feelings when it came to the movement, but matters of love still managed to complicate the most carefully laid plans.
“We’re getting reports of patrols approaching.”
Dex snapped out of his reverie to see Darwin, one of the bodyguards assigned to the current detail.
“We never unpacked your things, so we’re ready to go when you are.”
Dex nodded and looked around again at the latest in nearly empty rooms that barely provided refuge for hours before heading to the next destination. Such was the life since Raven’s disappearance.
She could deal with the loss of her hair. It had grown impractical anyway. She could tell a size or two had disappeared. The beginnings of stretch marks were to be her first official battle scars, definitely not the last. She might have looked exactly the same to anyone who knew her before Blue Nova managed to get their hands on her.
But Raven knew she was not the same. She endured numerous and varied violations to her body with the hope that her mind would remain in tact. There were times she almost broke. At times not even the thought of Jimmy and Art could bring her peace. Not even the thought of those moments with Dex. At those times, Raven would simply will herself to sleep and manage to endure another day of uncertainty.
She had never been trained to take such abuse. She never thought it would happen to her. So she felt the guilt when she broke down in tears after her first “session.” Her humiliation produced cold tears that ran down her face as her session leader continued with the process apparently with no feeling. Her tears meant nothing. Her guilt meant nothing. She was simply told again and again that all they wanted was her cooperation.
But no matter how many times they asked, they could not get the identity of the new leader of the resistance. Her silence was not simply a matter of loyalty. Raven honestly did not know. She had her suspicions on the leader’s identity, but wrong information could be just as dangerous as no information. At least she felt they would keep her alive if she stuck with the truth and insisted she didn’t know.
“You mean they didn’t trust you enough to tell you whom you were risking your life for?”
The interrogator sneered at her. Raven was tired, she felt dirty and there were aches in her body in places she didn’t know could hurt. She was too dehydrated to cry. She was too frustrated to cry. She couldn’t process the refusal to see that she was telling the truth, that she had no new information for them. She had lost track of how long she had been held captive, but she did know that she had no access to information.
The interrogator finally left the room that was empty of everything except Raven. There was nothing inside that would allow her to harm herself, not even a hard wall. She couldn’t end it herself. She had no time to devise a plan before a couple of orderlies grabbed her by both arms and dragged her limp body out of the room. She was then thrown in another and hit the floor as she heard the door slam behind her. She hadn’t heard the tap of those heels in some time. Captain was back.
The taps stopped right in front of her head. She braced herself for a kick that never came. Instead, she was turned over on her back to look up at a dimly lit ceiling.
“I’m told you still insist that you don’t know who the leader is. I seriously doubt your resolve is so strong that you’re actually holding out the info.”
Raven felt the Captain lift her head and recline it in her lap. The relief of the cold compress made her feel free for the moment – almost as if the Captain had come to rescue her. Driplets of cold water coated her tongue and made their way down her dry, scratchy throat. It wasn’t enough to satiate her thirst, only enough to give her hope. Captain began stroking her head softly.
“It’s okay that you don’t know,” she said. “If they don’t think enough of you to trust you with basic information, then they must not care that you’re gone. We haven’t heard anything about them trying to find you. They abandoned you, Raven.”
Raven knew it was all a lie, but she was still in no position to fight. There would be no spitting in Captain’s face this time. That hand from Blue Star’s higher rank was literally the only thing sustaining her at the moment. They made her dependent on them again. She had no choice, no escape.
“But we’re not going to abandon you, Raven. Even though you betrayed us and cost so many lives, we think you were misled. You didn’t want to go through with it, did you? Did they threaten you? Did they threaten your family?”
She knew Captain wasn’t expecting an answer. Raven stayed quiet and focused on the soothing motions of Captain stroking the soft stumble where her hair tried to grow back. She suddenly missed Dex’s touch.
“We’ll fix this, Raven. We know you want this war to be over just as much as we do. There’s too much at stake, too many more lives that could be unnecessarily lost. But you’re going to help us prevent all this. You’re going to save lives.”
Raven held her calm demeanor, but inside she froze. If there had been anything inside her, she would have emptied it and choked on it. But the starvation and dehydration kept the bile from rising from her throat and giving away her true feelings. She knew anything the Captain said after this point would be much worse than the ordeal she had suffered thus far. Then it came – the last declaration she wanted to hear.
“You’re going to pilot the warcrafts for us. Then you’re going to help us find the leader and kill him.”