Art usually did a good job of remaining cool under pressure, but Raven still read the perplexity in his eyes. How could she have betrayed them. Had he been wrong to trust her, thinking their cause was great enough in itself to win her over? Had he miscalculated so much that he was now about to face the wrath of a mighty empire for having the gall to call it wrong?
She held his gaze despite the pain she saw behind his eyes. He hadn’t been mistreated yet, subjected to the torture Raven had to endure when she was first captured. They didn’t need Art to become compliant. His sentiments with The Resistance ran much more deeply than Raven’s, so killing him with no absolution would be the only solution – especially since Raven had told them he was the true leader and had been for some time.
His eyes still felt heavy and weary from the shock and possibly some other influence given to him while unconscious. But he kept them open as he watched Raven cross the room to meet a higher up. Art couldn’t read her lips even though her body was slightly turned to him, so he tried to get a better idea of his surroundings as they whispered in conversation. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t in a cell but a dimly lit interrogation room. That meant the room was bare other than the chair in which he was restrained with his hands tied behind him, the table sitting in front of him and a couple of additional chairs opposite him. The air felt dry and still, so he figured he wasn’t close to any water or technology. No way to feel out his location.
They turned their attention back to him as they re-entered the room. Raven stood with her back leaned against the wall near the corner while the higher up sat down directly opposite of Art. He couldn’t look at Raven. His heart didn’t want to confirm her betrayal, his naivete. He wasn’t yet ready to face it. He also didn’t want this tool of the UCNSS to think he was afraid or would sway to their side so easily. The two stared at each other in an age-old test of masculinity before the higher up spoke.
“I expected you to be older, like Eltsyrk,” the uniform said. “Leadership usually comes with age more advanced than yours.”
Art stole a glance at Raven before he could stop himself. But the moment they made eye contact, Raven turned away from his gaze. He focused on the uniform again, forcing his expression blank so as not to give away his suspicions.
“So unassuming, too,” the uniformed continued. “Eltsyrk held an air of arrogance about him even after he was caught. You, on the other hand, don’t seem one to inspire that same type of confidence. What would make you the leader of this ‘resistance’?”
Art knew it wasn’t a real question, just meant to rouse him so that there would be a reason to mistreat him. He knew better than to take the bait, but he wasn’t about to sit and give the satisfaction of letting this uniform think he was afraid at that moment.
“If you’re any sign, it doesn’t take much to take leadership here. Based on you, I’d run this place within a day.”
The smile wasn’t particularly friendly or genuine, simply playing at the same game as Art. The strained stretch of the lips and squinting of the eyes looked more like a challenge than an attempt to cover displeasure with Art’s failure to be impressed with authority.
“Charming. Makes sense. Charm tends to get you far amongst sheep. They’re easily swayed by shiny things. But we know better here. Shiny things break…” snap of the fingers “…just like that. Never are strong enough to withstand the heat when it comes.”
Now it was Art’s turn to give a strained but false smile. But he didn’t add any words. He didn’t need to. His diligence in remaining smug was all he needed to keep from being bested. Authorities hated it when you remained hopeful in the midst of seemingly hopelessness. They wanted you scared and cowering. Something told him they had recently had that performance and expected the same of him.
The uniform was the first to relent in the unofficial competition but not from lack of an upper hand. Just necessity.
“We won’t make the same mistake again. We thought the people might enjoy a show, a bit of distraction from the foolishness your kind brought about. But there won’t be a parade for you, not even a public execution. All they’ll see are the remains of a broken spirit they thought would lead them to victory. With the head not completely gone and suffering, how long do you think this little rebellion you’ve created will last? Who do you think will be anxious to take your place when they see that you aren’t strong enough to stand up to the enemy you claim to have? Once your people see you crushed, it’ll crush all their foolish inklings that they have a chance standing against us.”
Art kept his strained smile, not giving for a moment, not even blinking. Raven stood stoic against the wall, making herself part of it. But she wasn’t a bit surprised when her higher up turned to her to bury the dagger.
“As you can see we are most effective with taming the uncivilized. Then again she had the advantage of our training for years before she was waylaid by shiny distractions.”
The uniform focused attention back to Art. “Perhaps if you’d had the same benefit, we’d offer you the same safety and protection in return for our mercy. However, we already know how stubborn cult worshippers can be. As for Ms. Moody here, she will be granted full immunity for her crimes and for her ingenious plan to lure you here and capture you. Her enthusiasm for the cause surprised even me, suggesting you be given a quick execution to avoid our previous miscalculations.”
This time they held eye contact for a moment with Art’s eyes upturned in anger and Raven’s relaxed to emptiness. Art was the first to turn back to the uniform.
“Like you said: I come up the right way. She came up yours. You may as well put an end to me now coz you not likely to get what you want either way.”
The uniform stood this time, signaling an end to the meeting. “Good thing you’re stubborn. Perhaps that will give you comfort before you meet Assilem.” The higher up didn’t even look at Raven on the way out the door but said, “You have an hour with him. Make it sweet if you want.”
With the click of the lock, Raven moved from her spot against the wall. Art watched her as she took off her comm device and disabled it before sitting it on the table. He was unsure of her intentions as she walked to the other side of the table and stood before Art. He thought she might have been preparing to hit him, the source of his first bit of torture. Instead, to his confusion, she sat in his lap.
“Raven, you don’t have to –”
Raven placed her finger to his lips and moved her face closer to his, placing her lips right beside his ear.
“Listen to me very carefully.”
Ni-Hun gingerly touched his jaw where Jimmy’s fist had forcefully connected to it moments before. He glared hatefully at the young man although he understood the source of his anger. But he wasn’t given the chance to explain – so he returned a blow that knocked Jimmy to the floor.
“If you two are done with this childish display of machismo, we can get on with this and explain what’s going on.”
Dex’s voice boomed from the telecaster, filling the room with frustration and exasperation. Through his disorientation, Jimmy pulled himself up with the aid of an empty bookshelf and stood almost upright. Ni-Hun continued to glare at him while rubbing at his jaw not knowing if he wanted to soothe the pain or remember it.
“Now that you’ve gotten that out of way,” Dex sighed, “we can tell you the plan. Ni-Hun here is a friend of the cause. A recent one, like you, but he did get you out.”
“Yeah, but he left Art behind. And Raven fucking betrayed him!”
“It looks that way,” Ni-Hun said. “But when she gets him alone, she’ll tell him what’s really going on. Just like we’re about to tell you.”
Jimmy softened his expression slightly, looking from the monitor to Ni-Hun as he tried to determine exactly what was happening. His worry over Art’s predicament colored all his judgment at the moment, so he wasn’t interested in any excuses Raven had for handing him over to their enemies. But Ni-Hun spoke before he could reply.
“They’ve been torturing her since she was captured. They’re convinced she knows who the leader of the Resistance is. So right before you arranged to come to the facility on Eicho, she told them who she thought was the leader: Art.”
Incredulity contorted Jimmy’s face as he struggled to comprehend. He looked at the monitor of the telecom where Dex blankly stared back at him.
“But she knows Art isn’t the leader. She might not have known who exactly, but she knew it wasn’t Art. Why would she do that to him!”
“She had suspicions about the true leader, but do you really think she would consciously betray our cause? No. She hands them Art now… and we can commandeer one of their most heavily armed crafts when we rescue the both of them.”
Jimmy struggled with the realization a moment before he spoke. “You let me believe… you let him believe… how could you use him this way! As bait!”
“Nothing will happen to him,” Ni-Hun said. “He’s not the bait. She is.”
The confusion returned to Jimmy’s eyes as he stared at Ni-Hun.
“Not only does she have information about the UCNSS’ strategic maneuvers, but she also has more information about that new star you’ve been looking for. It wasn’t all in the facility.”
“You mean to tell me Art and I risked ourselves for a lie.”
“No, not a lie,” Dex chimed in. “But when Ni-Hun here contacted us, we knew we had a chance at something bigger. He proved they were holding Raven at Assilem and hadn’t willingly turned her loyalties over to UCNSS. She wanted to make them pay for making her pilot combat missions.”
Jimmy felt the air turn cold when he heard that Raven had flown combat missions against them. He didn’t want to believe it even though it hadn’t been under her own volition. He wanted her to be stronger than that, to not give in to the torment. But he couldn’t judge her for looking to her own survival. Self-preservation was a natural response and neither he nor she had been trained to let go of that instinct for a greater good.
“Don’t worry. Her plight has an advantage for us. She got to know the workings of their weapons craft very well. Fortunately for us, she also found out which crafts have the strongest weapons systems. Like their earthling predecessors before them, the UCNSS prioritizes the wrong thing.”
Jimmy looked at Ni-Hun. His anger had obviously dwindled and he understood where Dex was headed. “The prison transport craft.”
“The UCNSS keeps the best weaponry and security on that craft. If we were to commandeer it, we could learn all we need to know about their weapons, their weaknesses and other information that could help us win this war.”
“And if they think Art’s the leader, they’ll want to transport him on the most secure craft they have,” Jimmy said. “With Raven on the inside, we have a shot at getting it.”
Ni-Hun nodded slowly as he let Jimmy figure out the plan. Jimmy leaned against the wall as if he’d finally been granted a few moment’s rest after a marathon. They looked at each other again, making a silent agreement to forget their previous altercation. Of course, they were both too proud to be the first to offer a verbal apology.
Dex sighed again. “Now that that’s out of the way, we need to go over details.”
“Did you really think I was gonna try to have sex with you, Art?”
His laughter was slight but still produced a tear or two at the thought that Raven was about to send him to his death with a bang.
“I wouldn’t do that to you, Art. Not even if we were compatible in that way. But I had to convince them to leave us alone with some privacy some way.”
She had already unbound him and endured a bear hug that reminded her of his physical strength. He’d let her go quickly when he remembered that she might not be in the best physical state herself. He noted her tired eyes, their lack of sparkle and life even as she mocked him for following her mislead. She still sat in his lap, talking to him in a low voice, going over the plan to get them both out of Assilem and back to their friends.
“Sorry we had to get you the way we did, but we needed to make it look convincing. As far as they know, Ni-Hun got lost in the chaos trying to find Jimmy and never made it back. They think they got me, too. I’m just one of their voluntary clones. They won’t put me under mind control because I might not be as useful to them then.”
Raven’s eyes became faraway again, her time in captivity haunting them in a way Art had never seen. “If they have to put you under, then it’s too much work. They have to tell you every move, keep you functional. If they just use other means to ‘persuade,’ you’re much more useful. You have all your skills intact and you can reason. You also have a strong motivator: fear.”
And there it was. Art knew exactly what her fear was and it went beyond killing fighters on the side of The Resistance. She feared she knew the true leader even though she hadn’t been told and that was the one person she hoped she would never have to betray. So she went along. She stayed quiet with her head to the ground as she made her enemies think she had been mentally defeated when she was really just biding her time.
“So they think I’m the one they’re looking for and you’re going to use this to procure one of their most dangerous weapons. And what are we supposed to do with it?”
“Use it. The UCNSS is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy you. You can’t have a merciful mind when dealing with something without a soul.”
Raven finally stood up from Art’s lap, giving him a chance to rub some feeling back into them. Her back was to him, but he still sensed her uneasiness.
“We’ll only have one shot,” she said. “They’ll try to put you under before transporting you to the craft. They plan to use a depressant, but I have an anecdote for you.”
Raven reached into her shirt and pulled out a small green tablet. She turned around and handed it to Art.
“If you start on it now, it’ll have time to dissolve and work its way through your system. Sorry I don’t have any liquids to help you swallow it whole, but it’ll probably work better if you let it dissolve on its own anyway.”
Art looked skeptically at the tablet then looked at Raven. He saw no deception in her eyes. However, he still had regrets as the bitter taste of mineral coated his tongue as the pill dissolved much faster than he expected.
“Sorry about the unpleasant taste,” Raven said with a nonchalant shrug. “It’s the best I could do.”
“So are they making an announcement about my capture? Blasting it all over the telecomms and celebrating the demise of The Resistance?”
Raven casually leaned against the table, balancing herself with her hands. “Not this time. They don’t plan to say anything about this until you’re safely on Heifri, far out of reach. I think they plan on getting some visuals of you in restraints on the ice colony before they… before they end things. Making a show of Eltsyrk’s capture backfired. They won’t dare try that again. They also know they can’t keep you alive for long. If the Resistance sees you surviving on that rock, they might get ideas.”
She paused momentarily as she tried to bring herself to ask the crucial question. “Art… Dex…”
“Never believed for a second you were willing. None of us were. We looked for you, Raven, believe me. They kept you under wraps quite well. If we’d known Alissem was more than a myth, we’d have looked here for you first.”
Raven nodded in relief, glad to know that she still had Dex’s trust. She now knew she could carry the plan through. “Next time you see Dex, explain that I did what was best. I had to survive. I didn’t know if I’d have the chance to make it right, but I am trying to make it right.”
Art nodded. “I’m sure there’s nothing to explain. We might not have known what to expect with this whole war thing, but we all found out it wouldn’t be as black and white as we thought. That gray area made everything complicated.”
Art nodded again, slowly, wistfully. “But it’s okay. I know if we die, we were in it for the right cause. I’m glad something was able to bring us together, Raven.”
Raven smiled but the tears glistened as they settled upon her eyelid. This time when she went over to Art again, she did kiss on the cheek just as she would have her own father.
Raven trailed behind the gurney hovering with Art’s body as they headed to the prison transport craft. The walk from the medical bay where Art had been given the depressant seemed especially long. Raven had vague recollections of the corridors with their many doors to administrative offices in this part of the building. She was all too familiar with the “patients’” quarters.
“It was a good decision to keep you around.”
Captain was talking to her. Raven directed her attention to the woman walking at her side while two security specialists trailed the nurse ahead of them.
“UCNSS thought I was making a huge mistake in suggesting you would be the perfect candidate to implement our new rehabilitation program. But I know Blue Nova workers. You can’t resist the safety and security we offer. Imagine how it’s going to help our cause when we show that a known terrorist has changed her tune and works for us now, helping us destroy these petty little disturbances that got us out of order. You’ll be given a pardon – right after you bear witness to your friend’s death.”
Raven knew what she meant but remained silent. Let her think I have no qualms about flying the missions. Don’t let on that Art was holding a small explosive that he could detonate by simply throwing it against a hard surface. Don’t let on that Raven already knew that not everyone would come out of this mission alive. And she was just fine with that.
Captain kept talking, obviously pleased with the accomplishment that would mark her life’s work. Raven looked straight ahead as they got closer to the exit. Captain was so involved with her victory speech that she either didn’t notice the two uniforms approaching them or forgot to concern herself with their authority.
They separated from their side-by-side march to flank the PCT crew on either side. When they were close enough, Raven gave the signal.
She delivered the chop to Captain’s throat in one swift motion, taking her down as Captain struggled to breath and make sense of what was happening. Raven disarmed her while Ni-Hun and Jimmy, disguised as UCNSS Security, made short work of the real security guards while the nurse froze in fear and confusion.
“Over there,” Ni-Hun directed Jimmy. They dragged the unconscious guards to a nearby storage room after taking their weapons, code watches and comm devices. They then turned to Captain who still hadn’t recovered from Raven’s blow.
“Don’t worry,” Jimmy said. “We’ll put you out before we set in the gas. You won’t suffer. Can’t say the same for everyone you tortured here. Consider yourself lucky.”
“No, wait!” Captain managed to gasp before Raven walked over to her in a menacing march. The mutual stare lasted only a moment but for Captain seemed much longer. She knew what was coming and barely had time to brace herself before Raven delivered a hard kick to the head.
Ni-Hun grabbed Raven before she could do any more damage. Jimmy injected Captain with a dose of a common sleep aid. She was out before they could drag her all the way into the storage closet with security. Ni-Hun then set the poison gas to release from its cannister in 30 seconds. They would be dead in 20 minutes.
“You keep pushing the gurney and keep your cool,” Ni-Hun said to the nurse. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you as long as you cooperate.”
The nurse nodded. Ni-Hun said, “It shouldn’t even take us five minutes to get to the PCT platform. Once we get across, we’ll subdue the pilot and Raven can get us out of here.”
They walked at a steady but quick pace through the empty corridors on their way to the platform. The door to the suspension bridge leading to the platform loomed a few feet ahead of them.
Then they heard the alarm.
Somehow Alissem had been alerted.
Art got off the gurney, even though he was still shaky from the mix of drugs in his system, and took the nurse by the arm as they ran to the door. Ni-Hun banged at it in frustration when his worst nightmare was realized: the codes had changed.
“I have an idea,” Raven said. “There’s a coinkey for emergencies in the code watch. If you use that one and I use the one from Captain’s watch, we can open the door and be on the way.”
“But hers must be activated from within a control station,” Ni-Hun said. “The closest one is in the next corridor. You might not have time to get back before security catches up. And you have to fly the craft.”
Raven looked at the worried faces of the group. She knew they couldn’t trust the nurse to set off the controls. Art was still in danger as they believed he was the leader and Ni-Hun would definitely be executed for treason. And Jimmy’s entire reason for coming back had been Art.
“Instead of subduing the pilot, you have to hijack it and make sure coordinates are set to take you back to base. If it comes to it, you have two hostages instead of one.” She then turned to Art. “No matter what happens, you can’t let security stop you from getting on that craft. You’ll have to use the detonator to blow the bridge once you reach the platform.”
Raven turned to go before anyone could say anything, but the sound of Art calling her named stopped her momentarily. She turned back one last time and said, “You know what to tell Dex.”
She then ran off to find the control station. She found the next corridor and ran until she saw the station. She heard the boots running toward the station as she stepped inside. That meant they had to be close to her friends in the other corridor. Raven looked around and found the controls to override the lock codes. They were getting closer. She fumbled with the code watch and found the coinkey. She inserted it and waited for the prompt to let her override the lock code. She had been spotted. She gave the command and hoped it had come through for the platform exit.
They watched with a mix of admiration and uncertainty as Raven ran off. Ni-Hun took the coinkey out of the code watch and inserted it into the controls.
“We can’t leave her here,” Art said.
“We don’t have a choice,” Jimmy said. “Maybe she’ll make it back in time to get to the platform.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” Ni-Hun listened as the sound of approaching security forces drew closer. They were about to be in a firefight if the code wasn’t overridden soon. He readied his weapon in one hand and kept his eye on the code key. Art and Jimmy got in position as well. They looked at the nurse who’s told them there was no intention to run or fight back.
The boots came closer. Ni-Hun saw the first line of defense.
Then the door opened. Ni-Hun was the last one through as he gave one last glance in hopes that Raven would run from the other corridor before security got to them. Then he ran behind the others.
They were almost at the craft. Ni-Hun felt the security forces behind him. Jimmy had made it to the craft’s door and immediately gave cover from the shots that had begun to come behind him. Art shoved the nurse into the craft before directing Jimmy inside.
“Do it!” Ni-Hun yelled as he ran past Art into the PCT.
Art hesitated a moment, picturing Raven’s face one last time. He then threw the detonator onto the suspension bridge right in front of approaching security guards. The blast itself wasn’t that great, but the weight of the bodies intensified the damage, making it unable to sustain them. They started to fall as Art pulled back inside and the PCT became airborne.
She knew they made it. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did. Raven smiled, relishing the thought, the last thought she would have before the blow to her head turned everything black.