The only thing that united the Unity Confederation of the Nine Solar Systems was the name. Each system stood on its own independently of the UCNSS contrary to the edicts and agreements that mandated common laws and customs demanded. The UCNSS happily looked the other way as long as there was no clear challenge to its authority. Having the name gave the illusion of order but only kieras knew true peace and protection. Kastouts were not acknowledged and those who wavered in between found themselves pulled one way or another to the polar opposites. They were the ones who remained unnamed, unaffiliated to a life that saw them hoping to never fall to kastout status but despising the callousness of the kieras.
Raven had always belonged to that unaffiliated class even while she lived with her family on Unone. She had never picked a side, content to wait to see which way the wind blew before following in the direction of the winner. It was safe. She wasn’t despised like the kieras or shunned like the kastouts. From one point of view, she was destined to be a kiera when it was finally her turn and she deserved it. From another, she was one mistake away from being a kastout.
As a fugitive, she was neither kiera nor kastout, nor what she had been. She was now in limbo. Everyone in The Blank was in limbo. Kastouts would not want to be them and kieras would fear them to the point where they would rather see them destroyed than turn into kastouts. At least kastouts were useful in the normal order of the UCNSS.
Raven had no idea when The Blank would reveal itself. When she tried not to think about it much like she did when she worked for Blue Nova, she chastised herself, silently making a promise to be more aware, more proactive in her own life. The Blank never called itself a family, especially not in the false way Blue Nova had, to give her a sense of belonging and security, but the feeling was there for Raven. She felt safe knowing that Jimmy and Art volunteered to take the journey with her not because she was valuable to the cause but to them.
“You showed your true face that day,” Art told her. “We knew not everyone at that company was a lost cause, but we weren’t allowed to find out who. Makes it harder to carry out missions when you get too attached. Dex knew you might be one of the ones who would join us but couldn’t take the risk to ask.”
“It’s done and over with now, Art. I’m here. I’m on your side. I’ll do what I need. Why do you keep making such a big deal of it anyway?”
“You weren’t raised the way we were. We’ve always been given this purpose. You know you could have died on Terra Firma. We wouldn’t want you to resent us for that.”
“Still trying to give me an out?”
“No but you need to know that the thought will never be far from our minds, none of us.” Art sighed, “We’ll go public soon. They’ll say you were one of us all along, but we know better. I know these people, Raven, but you better keep your eyes open all the time. Wouldn’t want anyone to get it in their head that we can turn you in for a reward or some other bargain.”
So many of her conversations with Art turned into these paternal warnings. They irritated her, but she knew he meant well. In his own way, Art saw her as a daughter. She liked the attention at times. Her parents mostly left her to take care of herself when she hit her teens. Then expected her to take care of them once she got her position at Blue Nova. She held that end but never with the loving concern that was supposed to color her intentions, only her duty as a child unwillingly created in a business transaction that was supposed to pay off in the end.
Art was different. He kept a lifelong secret and took a risk by entrusting her with it. He had no expectation of her fidelity to The Blank but hoped it would be the restitution for letting her in on the impending revolution. So far, Raven was more than complicit, not only because of her lack of choices but also because of her own will.
“As they used to say, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Raven said. “For now, we better worry about getting in and out of Seix in one piece. From what I hear, Seixans are only slightly friendlier to outsiders than they are each other.”
There was no hangar when they got to the surface. Only a wide open field large enough to greet Little Wing indicated where they should land among the sterile-looking concrete buildings, completely indicative of what they were to expect on Seix. The Seixans never even bothered to distinguish different regions with cities or districts. It was all Seix.
Raven watched as the one she assumed to be her contact approached. If she assumed correctly, her contact answered to the name Cheven. And she would provide them with some of the useful technology the Seixans were known to create.
Cheven greeted them amicably, obviously recognizing Art, but maintained a professional demeanor. Raven was getting used to him as their connection. She kept her eye on members of The Blank as they became comfortable revealing themselves in her presence. She hadn’t seen any motions such as secret hand signals or other signs. It was all in the eyes when they chose to reveal. For Cheven, it was a crinkle around the eyes where the smile lasted a little too long at the recognition of a comrade.
“Glad to see you made it. Heard you had a little trouble last time.”
Cheven’s accent reminded her of the bland one she had to learn during her school years. Corporate work didn’t like variety, so diction was an essential lesson for those who had the privilege of a formal education. But the elective diction cost extra. Cheven seemed to have only a partial lesson as her Seixan drawl slipped into every few words.
“Just a little, but as you can see we’re good as new for now. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get the cargo unloaded as soon as possible and be on our way. Don’t fancy being in Seix when the bull run begins.”
Cheven gave a chuckle at the declaration. “Outsiders never have the stomach for the bull run. We like it like that. Keeps the weak element out.”
“Or just the ones who see no value in the role intelligence plays in survival. A feeble mind can be much more of a hindrance than a feeble body.”
Raven watched the amusement gradually dim from Cheven’s light brown eyes. She knew her type well, liked to pretend her humor wasn’t malicious and hated to be called out on it, especially from someone she felt beneath her. “We’ll see about that.”
Cheven’s thick frame led them to the cargo bay. None of the crew had opened the cargo or bothered to look inside. Cheven immediately went for a crate and pried it open with her bare hands showing a strength Raven didn’t know she possessed. However, her attention quickly turned to the contents of the crate.
The spectacular array of weapons looked like something Raven had only seen in old films from the 20th century, a fiction she didn’t believe really existed. Yet this cache of weaponry made the beginnings of a small army, an army to which she now belonged. Raven wondered why a race known for its advancements in technology would need to smuggle weapons to its planet. Seixans excelled in tech that seemed impossible only two generations ago but were forbidden by UCNSS to further develop much of it. Of course, this didn’t stop the Seixans who had one of the best underground markets in the galaxy.
“No one ever said the revolution would be nonviolent,” Cheven declared. “A revolution has to be bloody or else it’s not a revolution.
“Yeah but whose blood are you willing to spill?”
Cheven looked at Art as if to ask if he was sure of Raven’s dedication to the cause. “For someone wanted in a terrorist attack, Artby, she sure acts as if she has any options left.”
“It’s not a matter of options,” Art said before Raven could reply with a hot head. “She’s just a little more calculating than the rest of us. Used to weighing risks before acting. It’s training. Doesn’t go away overnight.”
Art’s answer seemed to satisfy Cheven for the moment. She continued looking through the crates to check the weapons. Finally she seemed happy with the results.
“Of course, we won’t keep all of them. We found some other means of distribution, for a profit of course.”
I guess the kastouts deserve their arms too, Raven thought. But at a cost. She helped the rest of the crew load the crates on a hovercraft, keeping her doubts to herself.
“Blue Nova lobbied to have the tech banned when they realized Moana had no intention of selling it. Convinced the UCNSS she had ‘untoward’ intentions for it, so they locked her up. Never could get her to tell them where she kept all the blueprints, the plans she had to make scramblers. She trusted her people though. Got all her work in the right hands and finally got it developed. She’d be proud had she lived to see it.”
Art and Jimmy had gone off with one of Cheven’s companions to eat while Raven sat with Cheven in a small office filled with prototypes of the technology she was told about as part of her schooling, only to explain why they were banned of course. Technologies that allowed people to penetrate walls, hide their identities or create their own resources were only supposed to have nefarious purposes, so the UCNSS stunted the development of such devices. That didn’t stop Raven from learning about them in her own time even though she never endeavored to build anything.
Cheven absentmindedly swirled the hot cup of coffee as if the motion prevented the paper cup from becoming too hot in her hands. Her eyes were lost to Raven who examined the scrambler. She fingered the fabric, finding it difficult to believe it was actually thin wired censors rather than silk or rayon. She imagined the fabric scratched the face, but Cheven invited her to put it on.
Raven covered her face with the scrambler, which began to conform itself to her face. She could see clearly through it as if she had no obstructions in front of her. No distorted colors or dark spots in her way. Cheven put down her coffee and reached over to the side of the table to pick up the mirror to hand over to Raven. She could make out the outline of her face through the scrambler, enough to identify her if needed.
“Tap your left ear twice.”
Raven held the mirror with one hand and tapped her ear with the other. Suddenly she saw her mirror image obscure, almost like the snow that showed up when a telecast lost its signal. Her face was gone.
“It’s incredible.” The clarity but strangeness of her voice took her aback as she expected it to be muffled under the cloth. She also did not expect the distortion disguising her true voice. The cloth had conformed to her face, creating a soft second skin. She touched it. She might as well had just put her hand to a monitor. Nothing interfered with the scrambler’s signal. Anyone who saw her would never know the shape of her face, the color of her eyes, any distinguishing dental anomalies, the structure of her nose or the size of her lips and ears.
Raven removed the mask and set it on the desk. She scratched at her face that had become itchy.
“Why does it leave this residue?”
“I put a little powder in it to keep the fabric from chafing your skin,” Cheven answered. “The censors conform to the skin but we don’t know if it does any damage yet.”
Raven scratched harder at her face as the itching intensified. “Itches like hell. I don’t have an allergy to powder. Why is it itching like this?”
“Probably because I laced the powder with amplified zaleplon. We found it causes some discomfort when it’s in a form that penetrates the skin.”
Raven looked up Cheven’s smug face with all the hatred she could muster despite the drug starting to take its hold of her. She stood from the chair but immediately felt dizzy from the motion. Amplified zaleplon was much more potent than a regular dosage, which is how it was so effective when effused through the skin. She stumbled toward the door and fumbled with the knob before managing to open it.
“Art!” she called out into surroundings she could barely remember or see. But she heard the footsteps behind her. Raven blindly set out, hoping she could find Art or Jimmy before the sedative left her useless. It only took her a few minutes before she fell into a useless lump on floor.
Her eyes felt stuck together like someone had put elementary school glue on them. She couldn’t raise her arms to get the glue out. Raven tried to force her eyes open. She wasn’t sure if she imagined the tiny slivers she finally managed since she found herself still engulfed in darkness. She realized she was in a dark room and the gunk in her eyes only partially obscured her vision.
She wasn’t reclined. Her back was to a wall and she sat upright. Her hands were at her sides, restrained with old-fashioned metal manacles that hadn’t been used since the early 22nd century. She could only move them so far in front of her. She wanted to scratch the itching that persisted just inside her nose where the poisoned powder still clung to her skin, but she couldn’t reach it.
There was no light for her to adjust her sight. Just a vast blackness that appeared to have no end. But the low, gutteral moan came from her left.
She heard him shift his weight as if trying to sit up before his voice gave her some calm. “Food didn’t even taste funny. Felt dizzy and tired all of a sudden and was here when we woke up.”
“Jimmy’s with you?”
“Over here to my left but I think he’s still out.”
“No I’m not.” Jimmy’s voice sounded tired and hoarse but otherwise the same. “Thought you knew these people, Art.”
“Yeah me too.”
Raven heard the sounds of them slowly coming back to life as they all assessed the situation from their various vantage points. They were far enough away that she could not touch them, but could speak to them in a low whisper. The room felt empty, like it was kept barren specifically to hold bodies. They appeared to be the only three in the room.
“Any idea why they did this?”
Art sighed but gave no other verbal reply. He felt just as betrayed as Raven.
Jimmy’s voice came in clearer as if he’d removed phlegm. “They wanna trade Raven for something. I’m not sure who they want to trade with or what they want, but they seem to think Raven’s the key to getting it for them.”
“And you two?”
Raven heard the despair in his voice clearly. If they planned to kill Jimmy and Art, then that meant they were not planning to turn them over to UCNSS authorities. Perhaps she would be given to salvagers but it was also possible they wanted to turn Raven over to a cheap labor service for someone who figured she would gladly live a life of involuntary servitude rather than risk getting caught. She had no idea why though.
“They’re not using remote restraints, only these metal contraptions,” Art said as Raven heard him fiddling with the manacles.
“I’m familiar with these though,” Raven said. “They were used them in a lot in European countries millennia ago: Clink Prison in London, England… the Spanish Inquisition… They made a torture chamber but don’t seem to be too concerned about enacting the torture part.”
She ran her thumbs along the manacles. The outside felt cold to her touch but she finally found the lock. It felt similar to the ones she had read about when her history interests took her outside of curriculum. If only she could find something to release the catch, she could get herself out.
Her belt might work. Raven’s penchant for old-fashioned clothing was a source of ridicule for much of her life, but now it came in handy. She positioned her back flat against the wall and maneuvered her body to get at least one hand as close as she could to the belt buckle. It took some effort and patience, but she managed to slip her finger under the buckle and loosen the belt.
However, she could not use one hand to slip the post into the lock. She had to place her hands behind her and fumbled around until she felt the catch give. She’d gotten her left hand free.
“We can figure out where we are after I get you guys free. Unless they have night vision surveillance here, they won’t know we’re free. If they do, it won’t matter.”
Raven freed her other hand and tried to stand. Her legs still felt weak from the poison, so she decided to crawl in the direction of Art’s and Jimmy’s voices. She found Jimmy first and freed him. Art came next. She could sense nothing or no one else in the darkness. It was as if the entire room was a sensory deprivation chamber.
“We need to find a door or something,” Raven said as she felt her way along the wall. “Even if we get out and find them waiting for us, it’s better than just sitting here with too much time to think.”
They all began to make their way along the walls, searching for an entrance. Raven felt nothing that hinted at a crack in the wall, hinges or any other entry or exit out of the room.
“They couldn’t have just dropped us in from the ceiling,” she said. “Someone had to shackle us…”
“Think I got something.”
Art’s voice came from the floor from a corner in the right back side of the room. Raven carefully made her way over until she could feel Art’s presence. She felt Jimmy join them. She ran her hands along the cold, concrete floor looking for any indication of a cellar. She found nothing.
“There has to be…”
She stopped suddenly. It was faint but the sound caught her ear long enough to tell her how to get out of the room. Raven ran her hands in the crevices where the wall met the floor. She was almost in the corner when she felt it, the one warm spot on the cold floor. She used both her hands and found the spot to be larger than she thought. She pushed at it. It gave. The opening gave almost right under Jimmy. He would have fallen in if he hadn’t caught himself just in time.
“I thought dungeons were always underground.”
“Obviously they made a few modifications to the concept.”
The tunnel was not completely dark but also not very well lit. It was barely wide enough for the three of them, so Raven quietly led from the front with Jimmy taking the rear just in case. She had no idea what they would do when they ran into someone since they were weaponless. She had no idea if they were retreating further underground or if the tunnel would eventually lead them to light. However, the cool, damp air surrounding them told her that no one stayed here very long.
“Did you guys get an idea of how many of them there were?”
“I only saw four while we were – eating,” Jimmy said bitterly. “Not including Cheven.”
“She was the only one I saw.”
Raven kept wondering what would make this small faction of The Blank betray the rest. They all had to be in on it. Raven almost felt sorry for Art and the rest, believing everyone in the rebellion was loyal.
The air began to change. It felt drier, more normal. They were closer to the outside. Raven’s body slightly stiffened as she realized they would soon be out in the open. She felt Art and Jimmy steel themselves as well.
They came upon a cave with a wide opening. Much of the tech Raven had seen in Cheven’s office was there – in its final form. There were scramblers, short range teleporters, weapons and a few pieces Raven did not recognize. Coming upon the outside opening, they peeked around the wall and observed Cheven directing the four others as they got land transports in place in order to load the contraband. And them. Raven saw the cannisters of knockout gas that was to be used to keep them under until they could be moved.
“We have to get their weapons,” Raven whispered. Common sense told her that at least two of them would bring in the cannisters. Acquiring their weapons would be easier with their targets having their hands full. Jimmy nodded at her and quietly made his way to the other side of the cave to give them another tactical advantage.
Two of the henchmen jumped out of the transports and picked up the cannisters. The other two walked over to join Cheven in a cigarette break. Raven took a deep breath as the two designated to deploy the knockout gas got closer. As soon as they got inside the cave, Raven and her compadres pounced upon them before they could react.
Of course, the scuffle attracted the attention of Cheven and the other two. Even with Art’s help, Raven had trouble getting the weapon as it was hanging off a shoulder from a strap. She did manage to fire a shot off to the henchman at Cheven’s side, dropping him with one try. The other henchman headed straight for her as Art managed to knock out the one they were wrestling with by elbowing him straight in the face. Jimmy still struggled with two of them while Cheven decided she was best needed to take out Raven.
Art had taken the gun, so Raven found herself hand to hand with Cheven, slightly reassured she was wanted alive. She heard the sounds of struggling and shots behind her as she locked her arms around Cheven’s head. But Cheven proved to be unusually strong as she lifted Raven off her feet and dropped them both as she planted her knee right in Raven’s abdomen.
Stunned and winded, Raven managed to cling to Cheven and regain her senses. She pushed Cheven off her just enough to grab her face and plant her thumbs over Cheven’s eyes.
Cheven did not even scream.
Instead, Raven found a strong right hook connecting with her left eye. The dizzying blow blinded her momentarily. She reached for her belt, but Cheven was back on her with a sleep hold that could have her out in seconds. Raven felt herself drifting, but she reached up and roughly connected her forehead with Cheven’s. This time Cheven was stunned but still did not seem hurt. With her belt in her hand, Raven took advantage of Cheven’s temporary confusion and wrapped the belt around Cheven’s neck, squeezing with more strength than she should have had.
Cheven fought as a reflex, but the belt crushed her pipes in all the right places. Raven heard more shots behind her and finally an end to the battle just as Cheven’s plastic body gave out.
Jimmy and Art walked up behind her where Raven sat wearily on the ground with her hand still around the belt. Jimmy realized what happened.
“Fuck she’s a clone!”
Art knelt next to Raven and turned Cheven’s body on its face. Both he and Raven raised the shirt, revealing the clean incision that opened Cheven’s human body from the bottom of the back to the bottom of the neck where all her insides had been removed and replaced with some of the finest cybernetics known in the UCNSS.
“What do you wanna bet they don’t even know she’s been dead for some time?” Raven said. “Bet they don’t know they’ve had a spy in the ranks.”
Art said nothing. For once, he was out of the loop and his faith in his own organization was shaken.
“We have to tell them.”
“We can take her body along with the rest of this stuff,” Raven said looking around at the cache. Plenty of room to load it in Little Wing.”
“I’m sure you guys will be happy to get this stuff,” Jimmy said through his split lip. “So much will come in handy.”
“Let’s get to it,” Raven said, standing and stretching her sore body. “I don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to.”
A couple of hours later, Raven got back in the pilot seat and set the course for Troiwee. Despite the soreness and fatigue from reloading and unloading Cheven’s body and a stash of tech that would give The Blank a much needed boost, she insisted on heading back right away. Cheven might not have been a willing traitor. Her body may have been used after she was murdered. The thing that unsettled Raven was not knowing who would have done it. Someone other than the UCNSS and Blue Nova was after her and she did not know who.