Intentionally counting the days stopped around 200, but she knew it had been more than a solar year. In that time, Heifri had become no more forgiving, no less punishing. To make matters worse, she had no idea what had happened in her absence, no word of the war on anyone she once knew. She was kept in isolation as much as possible, impressive since she rarely if ever saw a UCNSS authority except for the occasional prisoner transports. There had been six from the time she had been dropped on the ice.
Each time the transport came, Raven studied the exterior as closely as possible from her vantage point. She had fashioned glass from ice pieces to create binoculars. It was always the same craft. She memorized weapons positions, engines, crew quarters and prisoners’ quarters from the make of the craft. She watched as the crew became smaller and automated. Most importantly, Raven watched the release of the land transport that sent prisoners for tagging and processing before getting assignments in their sentences. Since Raven’s punishment included severe isolation, she wasn’t even assigned quarters near the other prisoners.
But she used her self-made binoculars to watch them, too. She imagined the conversations between them, the friendly camaraderie that kept them going even when the snow created penetrable walls between two people standing right next to each other. Under severe isolation, she was supposed to miss the presence of others.
Except she didn’t. She didn’t have to. Eight days after she had been deposited in her lonely pen, she thought she would meet an early end. That thought was not completely an accident. She hadn’t eaten since her delivery to Heifri and her protective clothing was not always appropriately sealed. For those first days, the pain of her hunger distracted her from the discomfort of the cold. She hoped the combination of the two would make quick work of her. So by day eight, Raven’s body dragged as she performed her work order, digging through the side of an icy mountain to collect a valuable mineral that provided a power source to the UCNSS: anaed. Day eight brought the first of many blinding snowstorms that left her disoriented and confused because she couldn’t see passed her own hand when it was placed directly in front of her protective helmet. She smiled as she felt herself grow numb from the cold. The gnawing hunger seemed to stretch the length of her entire body instead of settling in the pit of her stomach. The snow covered her in a blanket of sharp stinging flakes whose icy coolness oddly left an electric sting in their absence.
Raven became still, but her eyes didn’t close. The figure approaching her must have been a being to take her to the next life – and she didn’t even believe in such fantasies. But the hands felt real when they connected with her before she lost consciousness.
The naked body she later found wrapped around her own was smaller than hers. But the warmth was real nonetheless. From the position on her side, she could see she was back in her quarters. She had no idea how this other body got into her quarters since the security system was especially designed to respond only to her body code. But the body heat, the warmth, saved her.
Raven tried not to disturb whoever this was gently spooning her as she released herself from the long, thin arms. For all she knew, this person was a type of overseer, surreptitiously watching her and making sure she suffered through her sentence. That would explain why the arm bracelet did not send a shock to the heart and the lasers were not activated when the unauthorized body code came through the door. Someone working for the UCNSS could easily access the codes.
She dressed in her designated casual clothing: gray loose-fitting pants with a drawstring and a matching tunic that fell almost to her knees. Raven looked around her quarters, noting that everything looked to be in place under the same order in which she left it – sparsely furnished with nothing but her occupied bed, desk and chair, shelf and cabinet in which she found food at designated times even though she never found its source.
Her rations sat outside the cabinet, so she knew she had missed at least three meals. Seeing the untouched food seemed to remind her body of its hunger as a dizziness overtook her and almost sent her reeling to the floor.
“Well aren’t you still in a sorry state.”
Raven couldn’t turn around as fast as she wanted in her weakened state, but she managed to turn to face her sudden guest. The woman lay naked under the blanket, her dark brown eyes opened wide in amusement under her frizzy, curly dull red hair. Both stood in contrast to her pale skin that matched the snow around them. Her skin alone would have made her hard to see against Heifri’s stark white backdrop, but Raven saw her clearly when she threw away the blanket and walked toward her.
“No point in trying to die right away, love. Always someone here to keep you going. Good thing for you it was me.”
The stranger took hold of Raven and helped her back to the bed. She held on to Raven’s hand and gently stroked her back as she tried to recover from the dizziness that had overwhelmed her.
“You need to eat something. I know you’ve been trying to reduce your body weight to help you die sooner, but that’s not gonna work here.”
Still very naked, the woman walked across the room to the cabinet to retrieve the rations. When she returned, she knelt in front of Raven and set up the food tray. She then returned to Raven’s side and slowly fed her like a child.
After Raven had as much of the rations as she handle, she lay back down on the bed. Her guest finally got dressed, satisfied that she had given as much of her body heat to Raven as she needed. Raven watched her, waiting for her strength to come back. She still had no idea who this woman was or what she wanted with her.
“Name’s Awya,” she finally said. “Been here about seven years already. Got into a bit of trouble with the husband a few years. He thought it was okay to hit me, so I thought it was okay to cut his throat when he was sleeping and stick a cucumber up his ass. Might not have gotten such a harsh sentence but he was somebody pretty important in Blue Nova.”
Raven vaguely remembered the case. She didn’t recognize Awya because nothing about the case seemed relevant to her at the time. However, she always remained fascinated that the reason Awya’s sentence was so harsh was because of her act of humiliation: the cucumber. Perhaps she could justify defending herself against his abuse but her humiliation of his body in death was an unforgivable crime.
She barely listened as Awya chatted on about how they were to survive on Heifri for who knows how long. Raven still had her mind set on dying as quickly as possible and putting Heifri and the Resistance behind her. She offered no resistance as Awya put her head in her lap and began to tame the mess that had become of her hair. Admittedly, Awya’s fingers massaging the scalp, oiling it, felt as good as Dex’s silky fingertips traveling down to the small of her back. Raven couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched her with kindness and no intent to harm at that moment.
But the warmth of Awya’s hands brought her back to the present reality. She was a prisoner in Heifri and dying was going to be a lot harder than she thought. So she had no choice but to live. Awya confirmed that when her thin fingers suddenly stopped working its way through Raven’s tangled coils.
“I don’t work for them,” she said. “That’s not why I brought you back here. Don’t know what you did to get here but severe isolation means you pissed off all the right people. But if you die here, you won’t get buried. You don’t get remembered. It takes four years to earn your rights to remembrance. They won’t leave your body here when you die. If you still want to die after that, I’ll help you. But live long enough to get off this rock. Keep us company a while.”
So Raven succumbed to the sensation of a safe touch for the moment – and decided that she would get off Heifri on her own terms. In the meantime, Awya kept her warm. She didn’t question how Awya was able to get in and out of her quarters, away from the invisible but ever-present eye of the UCNSS. She worked at the isolated mountainside as was her function then returned to her quarters to find Awya awaiting with her warm body.
So what was friendship for Awya was tenuous for Raven.
In those days, she learned to stop counting because she realized it made no difference how long it took. All that mattered was that she had enough information to pull off her plan and make her escape. She didn’t tell Awya about her plans and kept no record of anything in her quarters in case Awya really was a spy sent to make sure she suffered.
So after more than a solar year and six subsequent visits from the PCT, Raven knew she was ready.
She was ready when the opportunity came.
The driver never looked at who she was. Didn’t care. He simply signaled for her to bring a case of anaed from the mountain to replenish the energy stores on board the PCT. He then reset the codes on her arm band so that she would not get a shock when the body scanner read it. Raven knew then she would carry through with it right then at that moment. The strength she had acquired over the past year helped her break a sharp icicle from a lower entrance of a cave in the mountain before she did as she was told and gathered the anaed. She filled the barrel the driver left and set about rolling it to the land transport.
As she suspected, it hovered rather than used wheels over the deep snow. This would make things so much easier.
Raven braced herself as she rolled the barrel to the vehicle. The driver didn’t pay her much attention, seemed unaware of what was going on around him. That didn’t make the thought of what she had to do any easier. For all she knew, he was a grunt just as she had been, a pilot whose only intention was to make a living. But she couldn’t think about that right now. The possibility of freedom was strong in her now. She already had visions of seeing Nesake’s place again, taking Little Wing out for a spin… seeing Dex smile at her again in a conversation about nothing in particular.
He didn’t look up at her as he ordered her to place the barrel on the vehicle bed. Raven did as she was told. She maneuvered her body so that she was just inches from the driver. She retrieved her icy weapon and held it close to her side. She had to strike at just the right time or she was in for a struggle she didn’t want.
The neck was best. But she had to find it through all the protective clothing and hope that the thick icicle was strong enough to penetrate it all and find the target. Her last miscalculation had eventually landed her here; she didn’t intend to make the same mistake twice.
Satisfied with his fuel supply, the driver signaled for her to head back to the mountain, dismissing her. She nodded once and turned around as if to leave. He finally turned his back.
In one motion, Raven turned and jumped on his back, wrapped as much of her arm as she could around his neck and swung the sharp icicle as hard as she could. He was only startled a moment before he began to struggle with her. But Raven had managed to push through the protective clothing until she felt it penetrate flesh. She had to hold on as the driver struggled, fighting for the last few pieces of life he felt slipping away. Then he was still.
Raven dragged him inside the vehicle. She needed his body just in case she needed a fingerprint, eye recognition or some other part of his anatomy used for identification once she got back to the PCT. Although she wasn’t used to land vehicles, the controls looked simple enough. She could make it to the craft with no problem unless there were hidden body scanners enroute. She prepped the vehicle.
She took deep breaths to steady the racing in heart. She was so close to getting off Heifri. All she needed now was –
That couldn’t be a noise in the distance. Surely the high winds and thick snowfall couldn’t carry sounds this far. Raven found a pair of binoculars in the storage compartment near the controls. She climbed back out to the vehicle bed to take a look. Sure enough, she could see lasers discharging not too far away from the main compound. Then she saw it, a figure running from the firefight headed straight for the vehicle.
It was Awya.
“Shit.” The driver must not have entered the codes to close the encampment remotely before she killed him. Raven had no way of knowing whether or not the PCT had been warned of the breach and how many more body scanners would discharge on the way there. She certainly had no idea how many more would take aim if she were to go back for Awya.
Raven got back inside the vehicle. As she forged straight ahead, she told herself that she owed Awya nothing. It wasn’t her fight. Although the thought stayed with her as she made an abrupt turn and headed back toward the compound, it grew weaker and was overpowered by whatever sense of decency and loyalty Raven had left. She was going to bring Awya with her.
“You take them to the prisoners’ quarters and see if there’s anyone else about. I’ll make my way to the cockpit.”
As Raven had gotten closer to Awya, she saw that Awya had not made her great escape alone. A few other prisoners, some of whom Raven had observed from the mountain, had made it outside the compound with her, taking the chance when Awya observed in the distance that Raven was the one delivering the anaed. She had no idea where the weapons came from, but the prisoners had destroyed a few of the body scanners hidden in the snow. She was protected inside the vehicle but found herself in the crossfire of a few shots as she tried to make her way to Awya.
Fortunately, Awya was smart. She knew Raven had commandeered the land vehicle and ran toward it once she saw it approaching. The prisoners followed her. Some were hit with lasers from body scanners when they did not succumb to the shock from their arm bands.
Raven got as close as she could to Awya and began to force the turn. Awya was quick enough to catch the flatbed of the vehicle and climbed her way forward with a few others managing to make it. Raven ignored the cries of the ones who didn’t.
Only Awya climbed into the front of the vehicle with Raven. She looked for the device that would override their arm bands. Raven could hear the small grunts of pain and exhaustion as Awya reached the device and hacked it. A collective puff of air left Awya’s lips and the others when she finally managed to disable it.
The lasers stopped and they were on their way to the PCT. Raven knew before they reached it what she would have to do. She didn’t relish the thought, but she had far fewer reservations about it after more than a solar year on Heifri. She knew Awya was also willing to do whatever it took to leave this ice colony behind.
They agreed that Raven had to be the one to make it to the cockpit since she was the pilot. Raven told Awya her suspicions that the PCTs remained mostly empty of lifeforms and ran mostly through automation. She suspected that the crew in the cockpit were where most of the live occupants were concentrated. The UCNSS always overestimated its methods and restraints when it came to prisoners.
By the time Awya joined Raven in the cockpit after disabling the crew, she had figured out the controls. They weren’t much different from the crafts she flew for the UCNSS under duress. She was now thankful for the training as it was about to lead her back to the life she wanted.
“You really shouldn’t have let them eat so much so fast,” Raven said as she looked out into the vast darkness ahead of her.
“Oh what harm could it do?” Awya said before plopping a fat plumb in her mouth. “It’s been so long since we had real food. I think we deserve a little feast.”
“I’m not saying you should have eaten it. I’m just saying we don’t know how long we’ll be here, so we should take precautions. Imagine how miserable we’ll be if we run out of food before we even find out…”
Raven trailed off. Her mind wandered off far beyond the stars before her at the moment. It was in Troiwee at a weigh station she had no idea still existed. With people she had no idea still trusted her or wanted her to be a part of their lives. In a system that might have changed beyond her recognition in the time she had been gone. She wondered about all the things she had unwillingly left behind – including Dex.
“You’re worried?” Awya said between bites of juicy red grapes. “If you were part of this war you described, why would they doubt you, especially after you’ve been thrown in prison?”
Raven sighed and kept her eyes away from Awya’s. “I didn’t tell you everything.”
Awya’s voice had gotten softer but stern. Raven never really talked to her much about anything except to tell her that a war had started and she had gotten herself in the middle of it. She mentioned the terrorist charges as well as her former employment with Blue Nova to explain the reasoning behind her severe isolation. She did not, however, mention her relationship with Dex.
“When they were The Blank, they were rather fanatical about who to trust. You actually had to be trained from birth to be part of it. Otherwise, you were an enemy, expendable as anyone else who was a part of the UCNSS. I worked for Blue Nova, so I was especially suspect – even after I went back for the others. They didn’t trust me much. I had to earn it. Even then, I was never sure if I was completely trusted… at least not until Dex trusted me.”
Raven trailed off at the mention of Dex’s name. She knew then she’d given something away to Awya, but she didn’t care. She had only neglected to mention Dex before because she wanted to spare whatever feelings she knew Awya carried for her.
“So Dex is the name?” Awya said after a moment. She set the rest of the food she had brought with her aside and stared outside into the darkness with Raven. “I wondered who it was that kept you from fully getting into things. Maybe you had some hope of reuniting.”
“That wasn’t because of Dex,” Raven said quickly. “That’s just my nature. True I had – have – feelings for Dex, so I didn’t mind that part then. It was nice. But that wasn’t my need in the relationship you know. I enjoyed conversations, feeling safe. But Dex was physical. Since I cared, the physical part wasn’t bad at all. I just could have done okay without it.”
“So with me…”
“Tit for tat I guess.”
Awya grew quiet again. Raven had to be honest with her. She liked Awya just fine; she just didn’t feel about her the way Awya wanted.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish it was different, but it might be cruel to lie to you, especially when there’s a chance…”
“That you might get Dex back,” Awya completed when Raven didn’t finish the sentence.
“When there’s a chance you might find something else that works for you, not just because there’s a lack of options.”
Awya stood as if she would leave the cockpit but turned back to Raven. “You weren’t just the best option, Teresa. I took a liking to you. True there were others around. I keep connections wherever I can get them, but you were special to me. Maybe I wanted to mold you into something I could keep while we were stuck on that ice rock or maybe I just wanted to save you. But I didn’t think of you like I did the others.”
Raven sat quietly after Awya left. Dex weighed heavily on her mind, but the war loomed even larger. She had no idea how things had gone or if she would even still be needed. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to find out if the war still raged or if peace had somehow prevailed in her absence. With the war, there was still a chance that someone would find a use for her. With peace, she might not have a home to go to.
With each passing hour, they kept getting closer to Troiwee. Her heartbeat thumped like a tympani the closer they got to the planet. More than likely Dex wasn’t there, but she could still hope.
An alarm went off at the controls. Another craft had gotten near and had locked weapons on the PCT. The hailing signal went off soon afterward.
“You are approaching a restricted space. If you do not turn around and leave immediately, we will fire upon your craft. I repeat: you are approaching a restricted space. UCNSS crafts are not welcome here. You have 10 seconds to comply.”
Raven fiddled with the controls a moment before she found the correct one to answer. “This is Terry Shaw. I am not an enemy of the Resistance. I come from Heifri. I have passengers on board, none of them affiliated with UCNSS or Blue Nova. We have had to commandeer the PCT to make our way off the ice colony. Permission to land?”
Silence filled the airwaves as she waited for a reply. She was finally hailed again.
“Repeat your name.
Raven repeated her legal ID, hoping there was someone nearby who took the hint. The wait was a little longer. She was minutes away from Troiwee’s atmosphere, from a barely used landing field that had welcomed her when she made the great escape from a now gone traveling base. So it came as a great relief when a different but familiar voice came over the hair when her ship was once again hailed.
“Permission to land, Moody.”