“In a major breakthrough in an ongoing investigation, authorities have the figure they believe to be the leader of the terrorist group behind the Blue Nova Star bombing. Just hours earlier, Security took into custody a man known only by the name Eltsyrk. Eltsyrk was found on one of the remote colonies in Seix, where it is believed the terrorist group has its base. So far, Eltsyrk has refused to talk and has also refused legal counsel. Security has been tightened on Unone where Eltsyrk will be taken to await charges and an eventual trial where he will surely be sentenced to exile on Heifri…”
They headed back to Nesake’s place as soon as they heard. Chessy was still with Nesake along with Jihm and Moana. Tobi was enroute with two others. Nesake’s usual “help” sat in their corners in the restaurant while an unaware waiter and store clerk tended to the weigh station. Raven had never seen a “closed” sign on the place, so she guessed that closing the station altogether was not an option. They especially had to be careful not to arouse suspicion now that the leader had been caught.
“Just wish Dex was here,” Nesake said as her unsteady hands poured coffee for each of them. “We knew there was a chance and Eltsyrk was willing to take it, but Dex was on the inside and knew how to get around.”
“We might still be able to contact Dex,” Raven offered. “I’m sure you guys have some access to comm devices. We can rejigger these little babies here and even get visual contact.”
Nesake’s skeptical visage told Raven she trusted UCNSS technology as much as she did. “As far as UNCSS is concerned, these devices got destroyed with the craft,” Raven offered. “They won’t be looking for them. They lost the track on these as soon as that craft blew. We can do this. We can talk to Dex without them knowing.”
She saw then that Nesake didn’t really have the doubt even though she needed the verbal reassurance under the circumstances. Raven knew how it felt to just have the need to hear it out loud. Nesake found a telecaster that needed to be put to use and handed it to Raven.
“We all knew the risks when we signed on. Eltsyrk knew not to expect any special treatment and not to expect us to take any unnecessary risks if he was somehow caught.”
Dex’s face loomed from the monitor of the telecaster. Raven saw no dismay, not even hardness at the suggestion that they wouldn’t make an effort on Eltsyrk’s behalf.
“Eltsyrk isn’t weak,” Dex continued. “He won’t betray us. He’ll die first.”
Raven threw up her hands in resignation. Sometimes there was no getting through to The Blank. The cult-like devotion to which they showed the cause was sometimes inspiring; other times, it only infuriated her.
“I understand the need for sacrifice, secrecy and all that, but there’s also a time to consider that maybe not everyone should be treated like a pawn. Making UCNSS think we made everyone disposable might not be the bargaining chip you think. How do you think it looks if we just let all our people die once they get caught? They can spin that. Even without the star, they have the power to influence us to their will. If we show them that we’re willing to sacrifice for our people, not just some abstract cause, then that’s how we win. We have to have the will of the people not involved on our side too or did you not calculate that when you decided to take on the mighty UCNSS?”
She wasn’t much for hero speeches, but Raven decided to reduce the time it took for the words to form in her mind to escape her lips. It seemed to have worked as she saw everyone in the room become quietly contemplative, wondering if they should break protocol from the master plan. Then they all turned to Dex.
“We all know that Blue Star is simply an extension of UCNSS… or vice versa. The one thing we learned from that company is the power of perception: build an image so solid that even those who usually know better eventually begin to believe. It was a struggle for me sometimes, thinking maybe I was on the wrong side.”
Dex sighed, uncharacteristically letting down that guard that kept members of The Blank reassured. Raven saw some resignation in the eyes but still some consideration. If Dex was anything, it was calculating. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Dex spoke again.
“Eltsyrk won’t be expecting it. That’ll be to our advantage. It’s also the perfect chance to show who we really are, take back the narrative and control it the way we need.”
The air that escaped her mouth made her feel lighter, relieved even. She had no idea how much say she had in the organization, but Dex’s importance was not lost to her. Going against Dex could have made the others question her commitment, but Dex had gone along with her. She began to feel like perhaps she was beginning to belong in The Blank, to The Blank.
“That’s a fine sentiment, Raven, but we’re overlooking one thing: where do we get the firepower and the willpower to use it?”
Tobi’s voice sounded particularly hateful to Raven at that moment. He had a point, but the loss to her credibility was not what she needed right then.
“We can find a way, Tobi. It’s not all about kicking down a door and shooting up the place. We can come up with a plan. We can decide who gets to sacrifice their lives even since you’re all so hellbent on seeing your own people die. But the UNCSS will know that we’re willing to take the fight directly to them and we’re not hiding because we’re afraid.”
Tobi looked at the others and realized he would be outvoted on the matter if it came to that. Raven knew the worry in his eyes held no fear, just the precaution that this plan that deviated from the tenets of The Blank he had studied all his life could backfire if they weren’t careful.
“I’m coming with you.”
The Dexter test was created to make sure only the most qualified operated vehicles whether they were land transports or larger crafts. The test differed at different levels for vehicles but the basic premise of the land transport test involved making a decision within a matter of seconds. The testee faced a fatal dilemma: swerve the vehicle into the way of traffic in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian who inexplicably steps out in front of the vehicle.
Of course, those who did not make a motion to swerve automatically failed and avoided a life sentence on Heifri by agreeing to never attempt the test again, thus forfeiting their legal right to drive. Those who swerved too late but still hit the pedestrian had their privilege to test for a license revoked for a year while they went through extensive therapy and took measures to improve their reflexes.
Those who managed to avoid the pedestrian would hit another vehicle. The test was designed so that this could not be avoided. The response to this also determined whether or not the testee was deemed fit to operate a vehicle or should be banished to a lifetime on Heifri. The scale for this was much more arbitrary, often falling on the shoulders of some lower level bureaucrat to decide. Unfortunately, the decision usually depended upon the type of day they’d had.
Fortunately, the UCNSS still had an appetite for bread and circuses. If The Blank timed it just right, they could infiltrate the procession to transport Eltsyrk to Unone along with someone who had just failed the Dexter test.
“The person on duty controls the machines that do the monitoring,” Nesake explained. “They rarely look at faces, even for someone who’s failed the test. Since you’ll fail by hitting the pedestrian, you’ll immediately be processed with the ID you have under your fingertips.”
Jimmy sighed, nervously evaluating the possibilities should this seemingly simple operation go wrong. He knew Raven and Tobi would be close by and had a plan to get both him and Eltsyrk away. Worse, Art was staying behind on this mission. But the thought alone of being in custody made him break out into a sweat, especially with the Dexter test. Even kieras who found themselves answering the test incorrectly found themselves banished to Heifri, their money and influence not enough to buy themselves out. If he had been on speaking terms with his parents, they would be able to buy him out of a failed Dexter test.
It was never difficult to get scheduled on a day that coincided with the scheduled procession. Since, the UCNSS still loved its bread and circuses, outkasts knew to be ready to participate and get free “bread” during the rare time it was available, when they were allowed to leave the shadows and give the UCNSS a chance to show its “generosity.”
Furthermore, it gave the citizens of the UCNSS a preview of what was to come when Raven Moody herself was caught. The terrorist leader may have been the one to give the order, but Moody was the one who carried it out. Conspiracy was punished but not as harshly as actually killing. Interestingly, this particular law heavily favored kieras who hired kastouts to commit murders for them.
The Blank found the time the leader was to be paraded through the streets on the way to transport to Unone. Jimmy was scheduled to fail the Dexter test an hour before the scheduled transport. This way he was guaranteed to find himself scheduled for immediate transfer so that security did not have to make an extra trip on someone who so surely belonged in exile.
The trick for The Blank was to make sure their person on the inside got the assignment to transport Jimmy and not betray them. If all went well, the inside person would pick up Raven and Tobi on the way to the transfer point while attention and security details were focused on the ticker tape “parade” given to Eltsyrk. They could only hope that what followed didn’t result in a situation that cost innocent lives.
About an hour before Eltsyrk was to be scheduled to be transferred, Jimmy, as Henry Miles, failed the Dexter test. As planned, Nomen was on shift and given the last minute task of moving the new case to Unone where he would be processed for exile on Heifri. Nomen chatted affably as the land transport rolled through some of the barest terrain on Troiwee, the terrain mostly inhabited by kastouts because keiras had no desire to put an effort into making the terrain habitable enough for luxuries.
Jimmy couldn’t see out of the heavily tinted windows and felt himself getting lost somewhere along the bumpy road in an unfamiliar part of the planet. He fidgeted nervously through his restraints when the vehicle stopped suddenly. He breathed a little easier when Nomen let Raven and Tobi into the back with him. At least if he was actually being taken to prison, he was being taken with people he liked.
“I’m nervous, too, kid,” Raven said to Jimmy. “The back of a Security vehicle is the last place I ever want to be, but it doesn’t look like we’re being set up.”
“Yeah I know,” Jimmy said as Tobi released him from the restraints without the need of official codes. “But when we finally get there… well we might have to…”
“But they’re gonna kill him. We can’t let that happen. It’s time we stop treating this operation like it’s made of disposable toy soldiers. Who’s gonna want to join a resistance that lets everyone die? I understand wanting to keep it all secret to protect the mission, but the game has changed. It’s time to change the strategy along with it. Our being outsiders shouldn’t matter anymore.”
Jimmy seemed somewhat comforted but still held skepticism in his eyes. “I understand why people don’t trust the kieras. It was our kind that tried to leave behind the kastouts when the rollouts started centuries ago. We were supposed to be the best of our kind, so we thought the systems were ours to colonize alone. Then we realized we didn’t want to do the actual work. Yeah I know it was centuries ago, but I guess some wounds run too deep.”
Raven nodded and handed Jimmy his scrambler. They were almost there.
Eltsyrk had prepared for a moment such as this all his life. 84 years was still a long time even though humans lived much longer than this on average. It was even longer when you spent each moment of that time expecting death to meet you face to face at every turn. But his whole life had been about The Blank and from an early age, he was told he had to be willing to make this sacrifice.
He was no less willing now that he was given a time of reckoning, but he’d hoped his death would occur much more swiftly, not a slow tortuous breaking of his spirit on Heifri. The thought of Heifri struck a fear in him that even his lifelong training could not quell.
But for the sake of The Blank, he stood brave. He bravely stood in the back of an open land transport as it slowly displayed him in all his bright leisure finery to make him more visible against the stark dullness of his surroundings. He remained stoic as kastouts pelted him with rotten fruit provided by the UCNSS, apparently unquestioning why food was allowed to go bad for such an occasion when many of them starved to death each day. He allowed himself no resentment as he saw kastouts fooled by distraction because they were taught no differently. He knew this spectacle would change some minds, though. He knew there would be a few to see through the facade of the UCNSS. It was for them he would endure this.
He looked down at the now heavily stained leisure clothing when he got to the end of the “parade” route. The stench would not be bearable even to a wild boar. He had no idea if this was to be the only clothing he was allowed on the ice planet to add further to his humiliation. He expected no humanity, not from an empire. Not even from an empire that purported itself to be anything but.
He saw another land transport approach in the distance. He recognized it as a prisoner transport. Someone else was making the trip to Heifri by way of Unone with him. At least he would have someone to talk to on the way and take his mind off what was to come.
The transport navigated its way through the crowd that seemed unphased that an authorized vehicle needed to get through. That was when Eltsyrk noticed just how large the crowd was. Security forces were dispersed throughout the crowd, but they appeared lax on the actual security, perhaps hoping an incident would occur.
He was restrained. If an assassin somehow made it to the transport while the security forces were somehow “occupied,” he was defenseless. Eltsyrk now understood why he was given such a public spectacle before he was taken to Unone: the UCNSS never intended for him to make it there alive.
The prison transport stopped only a few feet away. Most of the crowd turned their attention to the transport, but he noticed a few moving toward the open vehicle in which he stood. Perhaps it was best he died here rather than reach Heifri. He was ready.
They activated the scramblers and readied their weapons. Raven hoped they wouldn’t have to use them, but she knew odds were against that chance. She had to be ready to kill if necessary.
She heard the roar of the crowd long before they opened the doors to see it. This could work to their advantage – if they managed not to hit an innocent bystander should they have to deploy weapons. Raven took a deep breath and listened for the sound of Nomen unlocking the door. Through the scrambler, she saw his face give them the nod.
It was time.
He instinctively fought back. Eltsyrk couldn’t dodge the strike fast enough to avoid it altogether, but his assailant was thrown enough to miss the target of Eltsyrk’s chest. The would-be assassin was about to strike again when the bullet made a clean entry through the neck.
Silence. The roaring crowd was at once stilled at the sound of the weapon then the fall of the assassin. Then they noticed the anonymous trio in scramblers.
And the chaos started.
kastouts who only seconds before had jeered and sneered at the supposed enemy of the UCNSS now turned their frustrations on the mighty empire itself. The UCNSS had not anticipated this level of dissent, especially not aimed at their own security forces. So they were outnumbered. The weapons did not effectively scare the kastouts who had nothing to lose. When the weapons were aimed, the kastouts fought back with a rage embedded in them from previous generations.
Amidst the chaos, Raven made her way to the open land transport where the uprising had inspired Eltsyrk to fight back and not give in. The crowd got a collective hand on one of the UCNSS’ assassins and made quick work of creating a corpse. One of the assassins got close to her, but she was faster. The one who had gotten to Eltsyrk planted a blade in his shoulder, still missing the heart as intended. Raven crushed the skull first before taking the point blank shot.
“It’s okay,” Raven said as she managed the restraints. “We’re going to take you to Nesake.”
“Nesake.” His voice barely made it above a whisper, but Raven heard the relief in the one word he spoke. She ignored the blood that smeared on her clothes as Eltsyrk leaned heavily on her for support as they headed to the prison transport. The crowd barely thinned out as more people stayed to fight than fled to safety. A sporadic weapon firing broke through the crowd’s roar as it grew more demanding for blood.
“She got him,” Nomen called to Jimmy and Tobi when Raven managed to get Eltsyrk to the vehicle. He opened the door for them and didn’t stop the few kastouts to took the opportunity to jump into the transport with them. He knew others would follow in the other transports that were confiscated from security. The others would somehow follow once they found out where they were headed and who they really were.
The sound of the crowd grew fainter as the transport headed back to Little Wing. Nomen helped them board Eltsyrk then went to explain that they would only be able to take a few others but had to leave quickly because the leader needed medical attention. The rest would have to follow him and risk a longer trip by land transport. They had to be willing to take the risks.
Some of the worst off maneuvered their way onto the shuttle. Nomen promised to use whatever means necessary to get new recruits to Nesake’s place within the next couple of days.
“Guess I know where you’ve been now,” he said to Raven. “Just today I had a secure job with the government. Who knows now?”
Raven clasped his hand in a brotherly gesture before closing up the craft and extending her silent hopes he would make it. But for now she couldn’t dwell on it. She needed to get Eltsyrk to Rotterdam.
Nesake had their local doctor ready by the time they brought Eltsyrk to her place. They took him to the underground room and set out working on the damage the stabbing wounds had caused. Now all the rest could do was wait.
Raven sat opposite Nesake in the booth as they both nursed hot cups of coffee while Raven described the scene at the near public execution.
“It was like a light came over them,” she said. “One second they were baying for his blood, demanding it even. But when Tobi dropped the first assassin, it was if the veil was lifted. Like all they needed was that moment to find it in themselves…”
“That’s kind of like how it happened for you isn’t it?” Nesake asked. “You had it all there right in front of you, but you needed something to confirm it. Now look at you. You’re turning out to be one of our greatest assets.”
Raven couldn’t help the slight smile she yielded to the compliment. “And we feared they would use this to make us look like terrorists. I mean they did try. I saw the telecast. But the people know better now. They’ve seen it for themselves and the UCNSS knows it can’t simply spin this and expect everyone to accept it as the truth. They’ve lost the soul of the systems. We might not have it yet, but the fight is there. Everyone will have to make a choice. Everyone will have to take a side.”
Nesake nodded and slowly sipped at the hazelnut flavored coffee. They quietly listened to the sounds around them. Nesake’s place was a little busier than usual. Many of the rooms upstairs were now occupied and she expected to be at full capacity by the time Nomen reached them in the next couple of days. Raven figured out then why most of the rooms stayed empty most of the time, but she knew Nesake had prepared.
Yet the downstairs around them was eerily quiet as they all waited on word of Eltsyrk’s condition. No one rummaged through the store, the restaurant was devoid of the light conversation that usually accompanied a meal between friends or among family. Instead they all listened to seconds tick away while waiting for Vershan to emerge.
Raven felt like she could hear the heartbeat of everyone in the restaurant when Vershan walked in. His pale but handsome face told them everything before he ever said a word.
“We couldn’t stop the bleeding in time. He bled out before we could do anything to save him. I’m so sorry.”
Everything stopped at that moment. Raven couldn’t even feel her own pulse when Vershan verbally confirmed their worst fears. But the one sound she never expected to hear snapped her out of her confusion. Nesake had begun to sob.
She went over to Nesake in the booth and wrapped her arms around her, comforting her in the only way she knew how. She heard a few of the others leave the restaurant to go upstairs perhaps to tell the others the news. Soon the news would spread across the entire UCNSS. Eltsyrk, the leader of an underground terrorist organization, had died.
The mistake would be to think that they had cut the head from the organization and that it would not properly function without it. But The Blank had prepared already, anticipating the moment a leader died during a time of crisis. Once the word got out, the next in line would step in and take them to the next phase of the plan. In this case, they would go to war.
Raven knew then that The Blank would cease to be The Blank. She was right that they no longer needed anonymity to protect themselves. Becoming public and exposing the UCNSS for what it was would be the only way to move forward. Because of this, The Blank could be no more. They were now The Resistance.