Tobi’s small landing station looked different. Then again, the PCT was too big to fit inside the Barn. Raven settled for landing the huge craft at the side, leaving the entrance clear just in case. She sat at the controls after the craft was still, listening to the passengers disembark while she briefly contemplated taking the craft back into the dark rather than face the uncertain possibility awaiting her in Rotterdam.
“No way this could possibly be worse than Heifri.”
She didn’t have to turn around to know Awya’s voice addressed her. “Is everyone out yet?”
“Yeah,” Awya said as she strolled up behind Raven. “Not sure where to go yet though.”
“I’m sure Tobi will tell them.”
Raven listened to Awya’s retreating footsteps that stopped at the back of the cockpit.
“Just wanted to say, no matter what happens here, I’m still grateful you came back for me. I’m happier to be off that rock than you know.”
Raven nodded, listened as Awya left to join the others. She took a deep breath. No way would she deprive the Resistance of such a weapon. She got up and left the cockpit, deciding to use the side entry with everyone else instead of the emergency exit.
She recognized some faces, the ones she studied through her ice binoculars on Heifri, but so many others she did not know. No matter. They all wore the same dingy-colored tunics over identically colored drawstring pants. It hit her then that she no longer needed protective clothing to shield her from the cold. She no longer needed another body to keep her warm. The wish for a quick death had faded, the hope for a new life settling in its place.
For the first time in her life, Raven realized she was free.
That beautiful revelation became clearer when an old friend made his way through the bodies and stood before Raven. Tobi held no anger or animosity in his eyes as he looked at her, only relief. She felt it when he grabbed her, embracing her in a tight breath-taking bear hug that lifted her from the ground and left her weak.
“Good to see you, poppet! Wasn’t ready to lose you yet.”
Raven didn’t care that the weariness she felt showed through her smile. “We need to get to Nesake’s, Tobi. I’m sure everyone here would like to know what’s been going on – and help if needed.”
“Unfortunately, they will need to.”
So they were still at war. Tobi didn’t look much different, but he had always appeared world weary to her. She could see how he looked her over, evaluating, looking for signs to explain what he knew she wouldn’t.
They nodded at each other in affirmation. Tobi said, “I already called for some land transports. We can get everyone to local headquarters. You can come with me. Sure there’s some stuff you wanna catch up on.”
Her insides heated slightly at the indirect mention of Dex, for she knew this could only be a reference to Dex. How he knew about them wasn’t her concern for now. The land transports approached in the distance. Like the other former prisoners, Raven winced when she saw that they were the large carriers only used by UCNSS authorities like Blue Nova, usually to transport “employees” or prisoners.
“It’s alright,” Tobi said as his head gestured toward the PCT. “Commandeered just like this. We need mass transports, too.”
While the rest piled into the mass transports, Raven followed Tobi inside the Barn where he kept his old trustworthy land transport, the one she knew. The Barn still held no crafts and its lack of wear and maintenance told her everything.
“Was this place always a decoy?”
“More or less. You were brought here first just in case. Don’t really have the time and luxury to screen loyalties anymore.”
Raven nodded as Tobi helped her inside the vehicle just as he had in their first encounter. She smiled at the memory, something she had tried to suppress on Heifri. Her smile gradually faded as she considered broaching the subject while Tobi made his way around the vehicle to climb in the driver’s seat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to broach the subject, but by the time Tobi got into the vehicle and strapped himself in, she couldn’t hide the worry in her eyes.
“We’ve definitely been down but sure as hell not out,” Tobi began as soon as the vehicle started its bumpy way to Rotterdam. “The good news is we keep getting new people to our side every day; bad news: it’s tough as hell to keep them all fed. But we try. So many of them had to get to their absolute lowest before they would finally admit they couldn’t depend on the UCNSS to make things right. The good news is most everyone learns to work together pretty quick. Everyone likes to eat so best to cooperate.
“Not everything runs smoothly. Infighting and such. Someone who just decided to come to our side yesterday thinks they should be in charge when nobody knows who they are. Wouldn’t be so bad if they knew what they were doing, but we’ve been doing this since we were kids. No things aren’t perfect and don’t always go as expected, but we’re willing to stay the course. A lot’s happened since you left, Raven, but we still believe we can do it.”
“I see,” Raven said absently as she looked out the window, waiting for the barrenness to turn into overload when they finally reached the city limits of Troiwee. It hadn’t been lost on her that Tobi seemed to be avoiding the topic they both knew she wanted to talk about. She decided to be the one to take the step.
“They were asked to investigate when they found information about another star containing kemtons.”
She didn’t like the way Tobi’s stopped at that explanation. “And?”
“They made the discovery right before you got Art at the base on Eicho. We planned to send you on a mission with them when you… when you all came back. We gave Art some time to recover and asked if he wanted to be a part of the mission to find the star. You see it’s an exploratory expedition and mostly based on projections and a few traces of hard evidence that could have come from anywhere. They both decided to take their chances and try to get to the star before UCNSS did. It was probably a month after they returned they set off. Been gone ever since.”
“You’re not sure if they’re still alive are you?”
Tobi’s non-answer was enough of an answer for her. He had gotten attached to Art and Jimmy just as he had her. “They were instructed not to make contact weren’t they? Resistance has erased all connection with them just in case, haven’t they?”
“It’s for their own good. And ours.”
“Did Dex say it was for their own good!”
Raven turned her focus back to the passenger window again. Of course she wanted to ask about Dex but not this way. Although she was certain Tobi probably already knew about her relationship with Dex, she didn’t want to appear too anxious. She was aware at how some had looked at their relationship, thinking she only used it to gain favor and influence. She knew her intentions but as Tobi implied, prestige and status meant everything in a revolution even though it wasn’t supposed to.
“Contacted as soon as I knew it was you by the way.”
She looked at Tobi again who had not taken his eyes of the road. She was relieved to get the subtle message: he knew whatever it was between Raven and Dex was genuine. She could handle the others doubting her but not Tobi. She needed him to believe it for some reason.
Raven sat back in her seat and settled in to the pleasure of being driven. She realized then she was still tired. She rarely left the cockpit of the PCT, not even to make herself comfortable to sleep. No one else aboard had her experience when it came to piloting, so she stayed at the helm even with autopilot guaranteed to get them to the next destination unharmed. She lived in that cockpit, intentionally avoiding prisoners’ accommodations although she knew they were being used. She didn’t want to feel like a prisoner ever again.
She didn’t know when she dozed off because her sleep was light enough to keep her somewhat conscious of the sounds around her. She saw the Troiwee she left when she heard the familiar sounds of the city that often greeted her when she ventured out. It was so vivid she thought her eyes were open, taking in the sights, becoming part of the city.
However, she received a shock when her eyes finally opened and took in an unfamiliar sight: a concrete wall where Nesake’s broken fence once stood. It wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, but she could tell it had been reinforced as strongly as possible. They had made Nesake’s place their headquarters.
Armed guards stood at the door, protected with bulletproof clothing. She also noticed a couple of snipers posted around the perimeter. The only gated part of the wall opened when Tobi pulled up and gave a signal. They drove inside with the rest of the larger land vehicles in procession.
The outside of Nesake’s place looked the same if not a little more rundown than Raven remembered. She climbed out of the vehicle before Tobi had a chance to get out and made a power walk to the front door where Nesake waited and opened her arms as soon as Raven approached.
“I thought we wouldn’t see you again!” Nesake exclaimed as they embraced. She then held Raven out at arm’s length and examined her. “Been rough on you huh? Can’t hide it. I can tell.”
Raven’s smile was weak but genuine. She really was happy to see Nesake again. Nesake looked almost the same, but haunting now colored her eyes. She had become slightly bent in a way that happened to those who spent much time serving others, bending to tend to beds, serve food or pick someone up off the ground. For the first time since they met, Nesake looked like a mother.
Nesake kept Raven’s hand as they finally walked inside. Raven didn’t notice any of the others walking past them to head to the restaurant or the upstairs quarters as she looked around. The convenience store was completely gone. None of the packaged foods, clothing or other items sat around. Instead, she saw much of the same Moana technology she had seen in Jesse’s cave warehouse on Seix. But this technology was finished, completed in what must have been days of nonstop sessions to make sure the Resistance had what it needed to defeat the empire. For a moment, she felt full with a sense of hope that they could indeed win. Then her heart fell when she remembered the cost: Jesse.
“Chessy’s been busy,” Nesake said as Raven looked around. “A lot of the tech here’s been responsible for keeping us alive to fight another day.”
Raven took her eyes off the supplies long enough to look at Nesake again. She didn’t know where to start first. She had so many questions, so much to catch up on since her unexpected departure. Were things worse than Nesake and Tobi had made out? Had they carried out a major strike that put a dent in the UCNSS’ stronghold? How much good would the PCT do in helping accelerate the end of the war? Would she be in the way?
“I know you must be exhausted right now. I still have a room for you upstairs so I’ll get you settled.”
“No, Nesake. I know you must be dealing with a thousand other things right now. Definitely don’t need to drop any of it on my account. I should find some way to help out.”
“You’re no good to me or anyone else in this state,” Nesake said as she again grabbed Raven by the hand and headed upstairs to quarters. “A few hours sleep will do you good. I’m not briefing you on anything or letting you handle any strikes until I know you’re rested. I’m taking you to your room.”
She knew she probably spent more time than she should have in the shower, but the hot water from the showerhead soothed her tired joints and washed away the memory of the frozen hell that had been Heifri. She ran her hands through the stubble of hair that remained on her head, still not missing it after all this time. But she wouldn’t stop it from growing back this time. She no longer needed the reminder of how she’d been treated. She no longer needed to be reminded of Captain’s brutality.
Raven couldn’t remember if this was a room she had previously occupied, but she did know that the bed was the most comfortable she’d lain in since before she was captured. She stripped down to her underclothing and pulled the blanket down. She took her time settling under it, rubbing her face in the pillow before finding the most comfortable position for her. She didn’t have much time to think about the luxury. Sleep came so fast she didn’t feel it coming.
It all started off peacefully at first. The sensation of being weightless as always. Then the nightmares began. The sense of helplessness during the stay at Assilem came back in full force in her subconscious when she couldn’t control it. Then she felt cold, the cold she hadn’t felt since she escaped Heifri.
Then she was warm again. Warm and safe. Safe from a touch she knew and missed.
Raven woke to find the warmth of Dex’s body was just as real as it felt in her dream. She sleepily ran her hand along one of the long arms she had missed for far too long, the safety she craved during her darkest moments in Assilem and on Heifri. It was hers again. Dex was hers again.
She realized Dex wasn’t asleep when her caresses were returned. Dex stroked her gently on her back while she buried her head in Dex’s still clothed chest. She just needed this to last.
“I was lucky back on Unone. Most kids had to work with their parents on the farms their whole lives. Couldn’t get paid for it until they were 14 though. Up until then, they contributed to their family’s output but got nothing for their individual efforts. Fortunately for my parents, I showed signs of higher intelligence by the time I was four. That meant they could find a sponsor to put me through school and give me opportunities outside Unone. That’s the life most parents there want for their children, but so few of us can do it.
“So my mother was especially disheartened when I was older and would spend time alone in my room instead of going out and hanging with my school friends. They had connections, clout from their associations with Blue Nova. But I didn’t like them. I preferred to be alone. So my mom had to take solace in the fact that I didn’t hang around the others my age who had to work the farms either. She didn’t have to worry about them tainting me by association.
“I don’t know if she thought it was worse when I got a little obsessed with the old telecasts. I loved the music from 20th century Earth. Nothing else like it exists. The visuals were so weird and primitive. They had no idea what it was really like beyond their system and couldn’t imagine it outside of what they did know. But I didn’t care. I found it charming. I was most fascinated by the origins.
“That’s how I first found him. ‘Ground control to Major Tom.’ In five minutes, I was on a journey with Major Tom and an ill-fated mission because the Earthlings didn’t yet know what they were doing beyond their world. But I didn’t really see it that way. I saw it as Major Tom leaving a world that hated her for reasons she couldn’t control and deciding not to come back. I see her as sabotaging her own mission so that she could stay in space. Imagine not having to go back to that existence, having the chance to stay among this vast blackness where no one could hurt her anymore. Who knows if Unoneans really found her and brought her here. She was a rebel.
“That’s what I wanted to be. Instead, I ended up working for the one place that makes it a priority to crush any rebellious spirit in anyone who crosses it. I went along. I forgot about Major Tom and focused on doing something that made my parents happy because I thought I owed them for all they did in their lives. Still don’t know if it was right, but at least they didn’t have to work the farms in their old age while I was with Blue Nova. I tried not to admit it even to myself that when it all went down, the first thing I did was picture myself as Major Tom, finally having my own great adventure, thumbing my nose at authority because I knew it didn’t respect me even though it gave me the chance I needed to escape. Irony.”
Dex had listened, still caressing her, lightly kissing her forehead when she finally went quiet again. Raven drew herself further in as if trying to fit her whole body into Dex’s and merge with it. She was held tighter, wrapped in an embrace she had never held with anyone. Then she was asleep again.
“I remember him. He was your husband?”
Awya looked different in civilian clothes. They both wore simple shirts and trousers, but modifications provided functions to help them be more efficient on missions. Raven didn’t even mind the dingy gray color because at least it wasn’t blue. However, Awya’s ginger hair suddenly appeared brighter. Everything about Awya seemed lighter, possibly because Raven had spent the better part of the day asleep then making up with Dex for lost time.
“He was always a bit of an asshole,” Awya said after swallowing a mouthful of the coffee Nesake had placed in front of her before joining Awya, Dex and Raven at their booth. “I kinda liked that though. They’re always fun until they turn it on you. I put up with it for a while thinking it would change or he would stop. Never did. I had to stop him.”
“Well, the fact that he was a higher up in Blue Nova explains the severity of your punishment,” Dex said. “Usually you’re given the chance to make a case for self-defense even if you aren’t in imminent danger at the time. Thought we figured out the psychology of abuse a long time ago.”
“We did,” Awya said with uncharacteristic gentleness. “We still just don’t apply it equally.”
The lull in the conversation brought about a brief awkwardness as they tried to ignore the situation before them. Of course, Dex was the one to find a way to apply tact and diplomacy.
“At least now that will be to your advantage. You have a connection to Blue Nova, but it’s safe to say that connection is broken and you won’t be going back. And I never liked your husband while he was there. Such an inefficient, entitled ass. Only the most incredible family ties got him that position. No offense.”
“Definitely none taken.”
“It’s all a matter of time now,” Dex said. “The UCNSS makes a good show of how well they’re doing putting us down, but we know better. It’s losing its hold on the people. No one will go back to the way things were after this. No matter what happens, we’ve shown that we don’t have to accept their rule lying down. This is either the end of the beginning or simply another step in a longer process. Either way, we’ve all seen another way now. We know why we fight and what we have to lose. Things won’t be the same anymore.”
Perhaps Nesake sensed Awya’s tension because only then did she notice Dex’s arm around Raven. Her previous inferences had been confirmed when she noticed Raven leaning in to the shoulder, returning the embrace. But Raven had also noticed Awya wince at the gesture and Nesake made another inference at that relationship. So did Dex.
“I better make sure our supplies are on the way,” Nesake said as she got up from the booth. “Had to get more food in with the influx we just had.”
“I’ll help you,” Awya said as she scooted out of the booth and followed Nesake out of the restaurant.
Raven and Dex were left to themselves. Dex didn’t stop her when Raven leaned out of their embrace to retrieve her tea.
“I know it’s not really my business,” Dex said without looking at her, “but she seems a little envious. I know she was close to you on Heifri. Were there any promises made there that you intend to keep?”
“No. No promises.”
“She doesn’t seem to be under that impression.”
“Neither do you.”
“Look I’m sorry. I know I can trust what you say. I just can’t help wondering what happened while you were stuck there together…”
“She kept me warm when I needed.”
Dex grew quiet again. They sat in silence awhile before Raven found something to say.
“I don’t have any regrets about it. She saved my life and didn’t have to. I would have assumed you moved on after a while anyway. I wouldn’t have blamed you. Nothing’s certain these days. Have to take our happiness when we can get it right?”
Dex nodded with a half-hearted grin. “No matter what happened, what happens, something in me still wants this to be over so I can be happy with you. Nesake said that you once told her you planned to retire to Evete after you left Blue Nova, have a companion or two. Every day you were gone, I told myself that once I found you again, we’d find a way to end this war and I’d get you to Evete and build that life you wanted. Now I don’t know if that’s what you still want or if it’s even possible.”
Raven grabbed Dex’s hand, her squeeze saying what her voice wouldn’t. Dex understood and gave her a smile before kissing her softly on the lips.
“I think the thing that surprised me most about you was the feeling I always got that I could be happy with you. Not too many people I can say that I just like the person they are and I’m glad they like me. I know it’s real with you because I’d feel the same way even if we hadn’t become intimate. I’d still want you in my life.” Raven sighed heavily as if it had taken some effort to say her piece. “Of course, first thing we have to do is end this war.”
Dex’s eyes twinkled with the closed-mouth laugh. “One way or another…”
Dex suddenly looked over the seat opposite them in the booth at the side door that just opened. “And perhaps we may have just found a way to do it.”
Raven looked at Dex. She turned around to see what happened to brighten Dex’s mood even more. Her smile came fast and wide. Her heart thumped in a way it hadn’t since she was a child receiving a new gift or finding some other such excitement.
She didn’t feel herself releasing Dex’s hand or jumping on the table to get out of the booth to run to the door straight into Art’s waiting arms.