She never controlled the weapons herself. That was the one thing she could do to reconcile herself after every mission she flew. She never touched the weapons herself.
But she flew every mission she was told seemingly with no reservations. To the UCNSS, she was the perfect soldier, obedient and efficient. But she was still watched closely, not because they were afraid of her eventual betrayal but because they didn’t want her to end herself prematurely before they could get as much out of her as possible. She knew her watchers: they alternated in three shifts. Ni-Hun watched her first shift. Ni-Sho watched her second shift during many of her most difficult hours as she worked. Ni-Ash watched her during the third shift, the easiest one since she mostly slept.
It was Ni-Sho who now sat with her at the controls of the huge warcraft. As the pilot, she had access to all the weapons functions. But she never used them. Not yet. She had been on combat missions, but her weapons specialist Diane called the shots in that area. Of course, she was responsible for maneuvers and keeping them safe, but she could always tell herself she didn’t control the weapons herself.
But every time Diane said “Fire” in that flat, authoritative voice, she wondered: would this be the time they got Art or Jimmy on a transport run? Would this be the time they got Dex in combat? The weapons system for the UCNSS warcrafts were even more impressive than she imagined. “Our shields protect us from the petty firepower of those ‘rebels,’” Diane had said as she gave Raven a “tour” of the system. “It almost seems cruel to fire upon them, but they attacked first. They took the chance. Look at this! This cannon has enough power to take down a shuttlecraft with minimum firepower. Imagine what we can do to the larger crafts that arm themselves.”
The threat wasn’t really implied. Raven understood it loud and clear. The UCNSS meant to crush them, not simply put them down. And Raven was going to help.
Now as she sat in the pilot’s seat of the warcraft, she futilely hoped that the blip on her screen indicating an approaching craft was not a civilian one. The UCNSS only let crafts carrying its own insignia be. All others were subject to whatever actions the UCNSS saw fit. Rarely did those actions include boarding the craft and inspecting it to make sure it was not under anarchist control. Any craft that made the slightest move that could be interpreted as hostile was usually met with firepower.
She tried not to think about it as the blip grew closer but still remained out of range. Turn back, she thought to herself. Go the other way. Don’t come back. Of course, her wish went unheeded. The craft continued in their direction.
“There’s plenty of space here,” Diane said from her seat just behind Raven. “Why would they keep coming directly at us if they didn’t plan to attack?”
That was always an excuse. It was akin to looking authority in the eye. Authority saw it as a challenge and always acted in a way to re-establish dominance – even when there was no real threat to that dominance.
“You know what to do,” Diane continued as she stared straight ahead into the depths of space. “If you give even an inch, I’ll report you. You wouldn’t last a week on Heifri.”
Raven barely blinked as she set off on autopilot, letting the craft come to her. When it was close enough to scan, she took the steps and found it was little more than transport especially made for carrying edible goods. Raven wished she had heard at least a satisfied grunt from Diane, any little something to let her know her suspicions were founded. Instead, Diane remained as stoic and still as she barked her command:
“Power the cannon.”
Raven heard the energy flow through the craft as the cannon was given its full power. This wasn’t just an offensive; Diane meant to send a message on behalf of the UCNSS. Small, seemingly innocent looking vessels would not be spared.
“They’re now in range.”
Diane took a dramatic pause before she commanded, “Fire.”
Raven didn’t need to look outside to see the beautiful explosion the small craft made upon its impact with the cannon. She maneuvered around it and continued on the course to Eicho. She felt Diane’s sharp, satisfied eye on her the entire way there.
She avoided everyone in her path as she headed to her designated quarters at one of the UCNSS’ primary bases on Eicho. She locked herself in the room stripped of everything except the bare necessities but surprisingly afforded her privacy. Raven headed to her shower and ran the water, adjusting it to the hot temperature she liked. She stripped off her uniform, not caring that it laid strewn on the floor in the highest display of disrespect. That was when she looked at the waterproof monitor attached to her ankle. It wouldn’t shock her as long as she remained within the acceptable range of her watcher.
Raven gingerly touched the monitor even though it caused her no pain. At least none that was physical. She didn’t even put herself under the shower stream before she wept. She avoided letting anyone see her this way, deeply weeping with her whole body in a way that was undignified but wholly cleansing. She wept not for herself but for all the lives she tried to tell herself were lost beyond her control. She wept for the ones she knew would end in the weeks to come on the new missions she would fly. She wept because she wanted to believe that in the end, her part in this would mean her freedom and she was willing to sacrifice many more lives beyond the ones already gone in order to assure it.
The tension made it hard for him to breathe. It had never been this way with Art before. He knew their relationship wouldn’t be all sunshine and roses, but he at least thought they would avoid any unpleasantries while a war raged on around them. After all, what would happen if this was the last time they saw each other? They wouldn’t want their last memories to be Art giving Jimmy the evil eye every time they made eye contact.
But here they were, Art treating him like a father disappointed with his only son for being a coward. The only conversation that had passed between them since the meeting with Dex had to do with their missions. Art had even taken to sleeping in a different room rather than sharing quarters with Jimmy.
Jimmy had finally had enough. Their next mission was to take them Eicho. No way was he going to a major stronghold of the UCNSS with someone who barely acknowledged his presence. So many risks he had been willing to take because Art was by his side. He felt stronger with Art and being the object of Art’s wrath not only racked him with guilt but also filled him with fear that he would lose Art not to the empire but to the man’s own pride.
“It’s hours before we’re scheduled to go to Eicho,” Jimmy said as he sat a plate of carefully prepared eggs and ostrich feathers in front of Art before sitting opposite of him with his own plate. Nesake had let him behind the counter to prepare the food himself. He knew just how Art liked his favorites. “It’s gonna be dangerous, moreso than usual. We need to at least be civil with each other and cooperate…”
“Don’t I always cooperate,” Art interrupted before he shoveled a mouthful from his fork.
“Begrudgingly maybe,” Jimmy said, nervously staring at his plate. “But I don’t know if you’re willing to go the full distance again to make sure we don’t get caught. Things we sometimes have to do to throw off the scent.”
“Ain’t gotta worry about that. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the mission. If we need to make a show of things, we can do it like always. Been doing things to keep us safe in this game longer than you’ve even been here. I know what I’m doing. I knew what sacrifices and compromises I’d be making when I agreed to all this. But who knows? Maybe sooner rather than later none of this will even matter.”
The flat tone put an extra sting in Art’s words. Jimmy sat with them for a moment, processing the implication that he was now considered a burden rather than an asset.
“So that’s how it is now? I say one thing you don’t like and I’m a sacrifice and a compromise. Nothing these past few months have mattered because we disagree on this one thing?”
Jimmy read the body language as Art sound down his fork and finished off the bite he currently chewed before he finally ended his semi-silent treatment and nailed the coffin on his relationship with Jimmy.
“As many years as I’ve been here, I thought I knew people better than this. Definitely thought I knew the man who shared my bed and shared my head. Come to find out he’d trade me just as soon as he would take me in his bed. Doesn’t even discuss it; just assumes things will be better if he never knew I existed…”
Art was usually the one to take Jimmy by the face and look him in the eye. Art usually did the comforting. So Jimmy had a good idea of how to do it when he got up to join Art on his side of the booth and put his hands gently on the sides of Art’s face and made eye contact.
“Do you really believe that? Do you think I want a life that feels off somehow but never understanding why? Do you think I want some other man’s touch that doesn’t quite feel the way I remembered and not be able to put my finger on it? I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t include you, but I know I have to take the chance. If we do this, neither of us might not exist just as much as one of us could never come to be. But, Art, there will always be something in one or both of us that carries the other. Something within the both of us will always be together. You’re in me now just like I’m in you. We’ll never lose that no matter how much of us is lost if we change the past.”
Art had had moments like this with Mikkel at times. He thought at his age, he’d never have them again: insecurity over losing someone he cared so much for. He felt a bit foolish feeling this way, thinking that age and wisdom would save him from feelings of inadequacy that plagued his youth. But here he was now needing this young man to wrap his arms around him and reassure him that he meant more than a possibly fading memory.
He hadn’t intended to fall for Jimmy as he had. He thought that part of his life was over, so he volunteered for the suicide mission he thought would be the last line of offense for a cause he had been taught as righteous his whole life. He hadn’t counted on Jimmy and Raven deciding to go against their own interests and take it upon themselves to save the lives of the astral tourists. Against all odds, he was in love again… and he had to deal with everything that came with that emotion.
Right there in the restaurant in front of the other patrons, he kissed Jimmy. The display of affection caused no waves, but Art usually never let himself show so much emotion in front of others. He’d been reserved that way, preferring not to let anyone find a potential weakness they could exploit. But times had changed. He didn’t know how many more times he would get to embrace Jimmy this way. After tasting Jimmy’s lips a moment, he turned his lips to Jimmy’s ear:
“I think we should make up for lost time before we go to Eicho.”
Somewhere between unintentional lullabies and the blues, Ni-Hun had taken pity on her and smuggled a small telecaster to let Raven listen to music. Ni-Hun was getting off his watch when he heard Raven on a quiet afternoon when she had no missions to fly. No one paid much attention to the prisoner whose DNA identified her as Terry Shaw because she spent most of her time confined to her quarters.
He also knew she slept most of the time. She wouldn’t read books or watch telecasts, afraid that her limited selection was UCNSS propaganda she couldn’t even bear to pretend she believed. No matter. She was stuck for now and unsure whether or not her friends remembered the name of the ID she had acquired months ago. Ni-Hun knew they weren’t looking for her and she’d been abandoned as one more casualty in a useless war, not a weapon.
But every once in a while, Ni-Hun would hear a faint noise coming from Raven’s quarters. It sounded like the humming of a machine, a slight background noise no one ever noticed until it disappeared. Then the humming grew varied, crescendoed at times and suddenly dropped off at others. One day, he finally opened Raven’s door slightly to investigate. She wasn’t reclined on her bed, sitting at her desk or in her lavatory.
Raven sat on the floor, her back to her door as she sat with her back rested on her chest of drawers facing the corner. Her knees were hugged to her cheek as she rocked side to side. The song she hummed was familiar to Ni-Hun, but it took him a moment to place it without it’s lyrics. But he soon remembered the story of a girl with mousy hair and sunkens dreams, unable to escape her reality because the film was a sad reflection of her own life. He imagined then it was something of a lullaby to her, soothing her in a way he couldn’t explain.
She stopped humming when she heard Ni-Hun enter her quarters. Raven turned to face him but didn’t get up from her lonely looking position on the floor. He hadn’t brought her food, books or other treats he usually used to get on her good side this time, so she was confused at his end game. Ni-Hun was usually quite subtle at trying to get her to consciously turn on her friends, so she assumed this was a new tactic.
Ni-Hun sat down in the open space in the corner. Raven eyed the weapon at his hip and kept her body hugged tightly, closing herself to him. He noticed but made no mention of it.
“A lot of us fantasized about how great Major Tom’s must be and couldn’t wait to go there when we grew up,” he said. A nostalgic smile spread across his face as he looked off into a distant memory outside of Raven’s quarters. Raven loosened up slightly, waiting to see where this was headed.
“We all thought were special at first, thinking we were the only ones our age listening to that old telecast. Then we got older, connected, found out we all had the same dreams of an androgynous alien who could tell the future and predicted this new world we founded. We wanted it to be real so badly. So when we found out there was a place dedicated to the Major we all see as a god now, we wanted to be there more than anything we ever wanted in life. Maybe we’d not only find out that Major Tom was indeed a real person but she was also somehow still alive. He made us think it was possible.”
He turned his attention back to Raven. “The only way we’d get there was through Blue Star. Blue Star could take us anywhere. Fuck its mission. Fuck its false sense of family. I only wanted to get out of there. If this company could take me as far away from Dostro as I could get, I was all for it…. That’s all you wanted, too, isn’t it? You just wanted a way out and now you end up here. Some family.”
Ni-Hun leaned back against the wall, his arms folded in front of him on his belly with his long outstretched legs nearly touching Raven’s feet. She had never before noticed that the color of his skin was almost the color of goldenrod, perfectly accenting his onyx eyes. His hair was almost the same raven color as hers but was cut short well above his ears, making a curly mop on top of his head. She saw no deception in the wistful expression that furrowed his brow and made him twitch at the full mouth. She still didn’t unfold herself as she started to rock side to side again, calling up a melody they both knew. Her voice came in small but clearly as she sang the first line.
“Ground control to Major Tom…”
“Ground control to Major Tom…”
Ni-Hun’s voice harmonized with hers as they both sang the words to the unofficial teen rebellion anthem. By the time they were floating in a tin can, they had found their connection, singing to each other in a newly formed bond that labeled them both prisoners of a situation to which they currently felt helpless. Then it was over.
They sat still looking at each other wondering how far they could take the freedom they had just found with each other. But Raven found herself releasing the tension she felt in the only way she could these days: her tears. Ni-Hun stood and stepped into her lavatory. He came back to her side with a small face towel that he used to dry her tears when he sat down directly beside her this time.
“They promised me…”
Ni-Hun took her hand as Raven tried to gather herself through her tears. He patiently waited.
“They promised me that I could leave, just go back to Unone where they weren’t fighting and live the rest of my life there in peace – if I just do one more thing for them.”
Ni-Hun clasped her hand more tightly as Raven threatened to succumb to tears again. But she got enough breath to tell him what was supposed to be her final mission.
“They want me to go back to them and hand over the leader.”
He understood then, the melancholy that kept Raven robotic and obedient for the past few weeks. He could also guess the conditions: give them the leader and spend exile in Unone or resist them and spend exile in a slow icy grave on Heifri. In either case, she would lose everyone she had come to know when she joined The Blank. In either case, they were killing the only life she had left.
But Ni-Hun knew that wasn’t the tragedy. The tragedy was she was considering the benefits of following the command. With no one else to turn to and help her warn her friends, she could see no other alternative. So Ni-Hun simply asked her one question.
“How can I help you?”
Eicho was known as the most pleasant place to live in the UCNSS, so of course Blue Nova had complete control over the entire planet. Those who could not afford to be astral tourists often settled for one of the resorts on Eicho for an extended vacation. Like Seix, it wasn’t divided into cities or other larger regions. The entire planet was simply known as Eicho.
After the evacuation, the survivors of Terra Firma 9 were allowed a few days in some of the resorts. Afterwards, they were given the option of relocation to any other of the seven planets of the UCNSS. Only those who got further employment at one of the other Blue Nova businesses were allowed to stay.
Because of that, Blue Nova found that many of its lower level employees had turned to the Resistance to get even with their former employer. A few who had gotten employment also held a quiet animosity and turned spy for the Resistance. This was how Art and Jimmy knew to look for more information about the second kemton-filled star at a little known base where Blue Nova stored backup information of some of several facets of its operations – including research.
Their source would get them into the base, but it was up to them to transmit the files without being discovered from the storage facility. According to their sources, cargo was moved in and out of the facility only three times a day. This meant Blue Nova could leave the base unmanned most of the day and gave workers 45 minutes to find the information needed during one of the designated open periods. Art and Jimmy were to sneak in during the third shift turnover and get the info they needed about the new star.
They now sat in the back of a land transport with one of their allies. Another would meet them at the facility mostly hidden by a dense wooded area that usually kept trespassers at bay. Jimmy fidgeted with his powder blue uniform. He hadn’t worn this color since his first days at Blue Star. He only realized at that moment how much he loathed the uniform.
“Don’t worry. You look good in it. It’s what first caught my eye.”
Jimmy smiled at Art’s flirtations. He was glad they’d made up. It gave him the boost he needed when they made it to the gates of the storage facility. He was about to find out if the records of Henry Miles’ arrest had been wiped as promised so that he and “Jeremy Cox” were recognized as Blue Nova employees.
They were in. The gates of the facility clanged shut as they pulled up in front of the door and disembarked. They headed in with their scanning devices and were sectioned off into their designated areas. Jimmy and Art headed to ongoing research projects and scanned a few files. It didn’t take long to find a high priority file on the Anaed Star in an outlying system not far from the UCNSS. If all went well, they would find out what the company had discovered regarding the possibility of kemtons.
Jimmy uploaded the files on his scanner. Art also made a backup copy and scanned some other information just in case. It had been easy. Too easy. He saw his contact come to open the storeroom. Security followed closely behind him.
“Shit,” he heard Art say from behind him as they stepped outside and looked toward their vehicle.
They were about to be searched. Somehow the base was on an alert. Neither of them knew yet whether or not they had actually been discovered or if this was a surprise inspection just in case. But somehow they had to get back through those gates.
The inspector got to them and scanned their fingerprints again. Jimmy kept his breath as even as he could when he saw the inspector hesitated a bit at their IDs. But she let them go back to the vehicle. Once they got in, Jimmy gripped Art’s hand with the intensity of a vise. He didn’t let go until the land transport pulled outside of the gates.
They had done it. They were free.
Or so they thought.
The vehicle was stopped when another land transport stopped in its path. These forces were armed. Something was wrong.
They heard the driver get forced out of the vehicle amid some incoherent shouting. They would search the vehicle.
“We’ll have to get out and make a run for it,” their contact, Ni-Hun, said. “If things don’t pan out, they’ll kill you for that information you have. We have a chance once we get out into the woods. That will slow them down and we have a place to lay low while they pull together for the search.”
They knew they would have to run. The Resistance had to have this information. It could change everything. So Art and Jimmy silently agreed to make a run for the woods.
“Jimmy, you go first,” Ni-Hun said. “I can surprise them when they see you’re covered. Then I can send Art.”
Jimmy clasped Art’s hand, preparing himself to make a break for the woods. Ni-Hun gave the signal. Jimmy took out.
A search light aimed itself in his direction but was quickly shut off when the bullet lodged itself into it. The shots started. Jimmy kept running. He turned back quickly to see if Art had started out. He saw Ni-Hun making his way toward him, still firing his weapon toward the sound of return fire. Art got out of the vehicle. But he didn’t run. Instead, he raised his hands in surprise as if he had been stunned. Then he fell to the ground. Jimmy saw the figure who had stood behind Art and sent electricity through his body.
“Let’s go!” Ni-Hun yelled as he grabbed Jimmy by the arm and pulled him into the woods.
Jimmy ran blindly behind Ni-Hun unable to process what he had just seen. They got Art. But not just anyone had gotten Art.
It was Raven.