Tenebrae

By

Lois Cloarec Hart

 

[Tenebrae: From the Latin, literally “darkness.”]

 

“Get down!  Get down!  Get down!  On your faces!  Hands behind your heads!  Now!”

Half a dozen black-suited, body-armoured and visor-clad guards rushed a young couple and forced the man and woman to the concrete floor.  A snarling attack dog was restrained as he slobbered over the prone bodies of the unfortunate duo. Their dazed toddler howled when he was pushed away from his parents.

Like everyone else in the cavernous processing hall, Zeve froze, staring at the drama that was taking place just up the line from where she was standing. 

The child, tow headed and probably no more than two years old, cried out and tried to wriggle past the formidable ring of guards to reach his mother.  Again he was roughly pushed back.

Zeve longed to rush to the child and swoop him up in comforting arms.  Familiar with such scenes, which had erupted often over the years as she had waited in the endless lines to cross the border, she was well aware that any movement she made would bring the wrath of the guards down on her head, too. All over the hall, line upon long line of frightened people remained motionless and silent as the incident played out. 

A stocky guard, indistinguishable from his colleagues except for the muted combat insignia of a Central Security lieutenant that could just be detected on his shoulder, barked out orders, then as the couple was being hauled away, he seized the sobbing child.

It seemed as if every person in the hall held their breath as the small boy fought to get away from the hand that dangled him in mid-air.

Please don’t hurt him.  He’s just a baby, Zeve mentally beseeched the lieutenant, but still didn’t dare to move.  She watched in horror as the guard drew back his fist as if to strike the child, only to lower it when an approaching CS officer snapped out an order.  The lieutenant unceremoniously dropped the boy and turned away to follow his detail, which was dragging the struggling prisoners toward one of the side exits. The boy tried to run after them, only to be intercepted by the senior CS officer, who picked him up with visible gentleness before she too followed the detail. 

Zeve stared searchingly for insignia on the shoulders of the anonymous officer, then sagged with relief and concealed a tiny grin of recognition as the major slid back her visor and spoke soothingly to the terrified child.    

Though the officer’s face was turned away so that only the boy could see her, a subliminal gasp of shock echoed through the hall from the people watching the unprecedented spectacle. 

While the major carried the child toward the exit through which his parents had been dragged, stroking the boy’s back as any mother might do to calm her own child, Zeve quickly regained her sang-froid.  Though she had no illusions that the CS were any kind of cyber constructs or demi-gods, as the truly superstitious whispered, with few exceptions, she had also rarely seen much evidence of humanity in her numerous passages through this border crossing.  CS guards were to be avoided, or if contact was absolutely necessary, they were to be treated with the utmost deference.  Neither she nor any of the other petitioners in line at the hall would have been shocked to see the CS lieutenant casually snap the boy’s neck to stop his crying.

Thankful that the child had ended up in the arms of one of the few CS officers she knew could be trusted not to harm him, Zeve returned her attention to the line that had slowly begun moving again.  The two men in line behind her were discussing the scene they had all witnessed.  Though their garb and prominent ID passes identified the men as government officials, which gave them a modicum of immunity from Central Security scrutiny, they nonetheless spoke in hushed tones.

“Do you think they were Reverites?”

“Could be, I suppose, but if they were already under suspicion as traitors, how did they get past the retinal scans?  You'd think they'd have stopped them at the first checkpoint, long before they got this far.”

Zeve puzzled about that, too.  Everyone ran a gauntlet of identity checks before they were even allowed into the processing hall.  The retinal identity scans alone were supposedly foolproof, and all citizens were scanned, fingerprinted, and implanted with identification chips at birth.  The vast CS data banks held every bit of information on every life, even those of the Central Security and Covenant officials themselves.  No citizen was exempt, and all foreigners had to submit to the same procedures before they began the lengthy screening process for entry into the country.

One man looked around furtively and lowered his voice to the point where Zeve could barely hear him. “I saw a report last week that the Reverites might have recruited some Hackers.  Word has it that the rebellion is back in business again, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”

“Hackers?  No way!  Why the hell would a Hacker give up the good life to help a bunch of rag-tag democracy lovers?”

Zeve couldn’t suppress a shudder at the contempt in the man’s voice.  In this land, democracy had become a pejorative decades earlier, as people willingly gave up their civil rights for the illusory promise of security after the Terror Wars of the early 21st century.  Liberty was still an ideal, if not always realized, in her country, which over the years had been forced to resort to acquiring its own nuclear capability to fend off its neighbour’s prevailing and overweening ideology. 

Despite the lukewarm, but long-lived détente between their two adjoining countries, she had to endure close scrutiny each time she crossed the border.  Given their near universal preference for a moderate, centrist government, all of the citizens of Zeve’s country were viewed as potential subversives, but since she had crossed the border every few months for years now without problems, the CS had come to regard her as a harmless eccentric.  Few of her countrymen made such journeys these days, unless on business, and the lines were mostly filled with travelers returning to their own homeland from abroad.  However, she had very personal reasons for hazarding the dangerous trip on a regular basis, and each incident such as the one that had just occurred made her own position more precarious. Seeking a distraction, she focused her attention on the conversation between the two border crossers behind her.

“Beats me.  But if the Covenant launches another purge, maybe it’ll free up space for my kid.  I’ve been grooming him to be a Hacker since he was born.  It’ll put us on Easy Street if he gets selected next year.”

“Lucky bastard.  My kid’s too goddamned dumb to even qualify to take the entrance trials.  Wasted half my annual allotment getting him additional tutors for the last ten years, but he couldn’t hack into —”

The man’s words were interrupted by a semi-muffled pair of booms, and people shifted uneasily throughout the lines as the rows of CS guards lining the balcony that overlooked the massive hall brought their weapons up in a wordless warning for those in the queues to remain docile.

One of the men gave a nervous titter.  “Guess they were Reverites after all, or they wouldn’t have executed them so quickly.”

“Die today, or die tomorrow after a hearing — what difference does it make, really?  What I don’t get is why they didn't use the ‘garbage disposals’.  It’s a helluva lot quieter and there’s no mess to clean up afterward.”

Zeve shuddered at his casual use of the euphemistic term for the government execution chambers.  Originally developed to deal with the problem of growing masses of urban garbage, the machines used an advanced form of energy to literally disintegrate whatever type of matter was thrown into them.  The prototypes initially had fail-safe safety features to prevent their operation should human biological matter get mixed up in the mounds of refuse, but CS scientists quickly bypassed that obstacle and the machines had proven invaluable in the pacification blitz of ’33.

The first man jerked his head at the long lines of people surrounding them.  “I think that’s the point.  A firing squad may be old-fashioned, but do you think any of this bunch is thinking of causing trouble after seeing and hearing what just happened?”

Zeve had to agree.  Everywhere she looked, she saw body language that bespoke submission.  People kept their eyes cast down and moved only as ordered by the nearest CS guard.  There were very few children, but those present were kept under rigid control, though even those as young as the boy who had been carried off generally knew better than to cause a fuss.  The young ingested their parents’ fearful caution along with breast milk, and they were inculcated with an unquestioning obedience to the Covenant and its enforcement arm, Central Security. 

She felt sick at seeing what the once proud people had devolved into, but she resolutely pushed the feeling aside, focusing on the need to remain calm and controlled.  She had long ago mastered biofeedback techniques to counter the unavoidable manifestations of stress inherent in any border crossing, and no one who looked at her would guess that she was anything but what her retinal scan professed her to be — a professional historian and longtime employee of the Cameron-Zeldhof Research Foundation. 

Though the Covenant strictly limited the historical education of their own population, viewing such information as dangerously inflammatory, they maintained a bilateral exchange program with Zeve’s organization.  She knew they did it simply to allow their own operatives access to the international resources and extensive research of the Foundation, but it suited her purposes, and the purposes of the Foundation, to allow such access on a carefully controlled basis.

Mindful that she was approaching the secondary screening booth where any slip of the tongue or flaw in her documents would mean immediate arrest for unlawfully trying to enter the country, Zeve emptied her mind as much as possible, falling fully into her professional persona as she quietly plodded along in line. 

 

##

 

CS guards never exposed their faces while on duty, a practice dating to the early days of their ascendancy.  As Central Security stealthily infiltrated all branches of the government and successfully installed their puppet regime, the Covenant, cells of rebels who fought fiercely and tenaciously against them had targeted CS guards for assassination.  Though the rebellion had long since been crushed, CS personnel still placed a premium on secrecy, both to protect the identities of their members and to enhance their fearsome aura of omnipotence.  They even encouraged the rumour that the CS breeding and training reservations were actually a cover for the production of some sort of superhuman man-machines.  Central Security standing orders forbade any social interactions with the cowed populace, who naturally shied away from all possible contact with their black-suited overseers.

Safely in the security complex away from public view however, all visors were pushed back, and the CS major, still cuddling the frightened toddler, saw a familiar face frowning at her as she walked down the access corridor towards a CS sergeant.

“And what exactly do you plan to do with him, Major?”

“Get him back to his parents and safely on his way as quickly as possible, Ike.  But if I hadn’t grabbed him, Tanner would’ve...”

The major saw the sympathy in her friend’s dark eyes even as he shook his head warningly.  Lowering his voice, Sergeant Ikemba warned, “Tanner is just looking for an excuse, Ci.  You have to be more careful.”

Whatever she might have said in reply was cut off by the twin booms sounding from the direction of the interrogation rooms.

“Son of a bitch!” 

Her vehement curse caused the boy in her arms to flinch, and the tears she had soothed away began again.  She thrust the wailing boy at Ikemba, but the sergeant refused to take him, moving instead to block the major’s stampede toward the origin of the noise.

“Don’t do it!  You can’t help them now, and if you go off half-cocked, all you’ll do is reinforce his suspicions.”

Acknowledging the wisdom of Ikemba’s words even as her soul raged at Tanner’s insolent sadism, Ciannic forced herself to breathe deeply and focus on the boy.  He was an orphan now, and as such, was bound for a CS nursery.  He would be raised as an obedient cog in the organization that had slaughtered his parents without a second thought.  She allowed herself a brief moment to grieve for the boy’s fate, before gently handing him to a corporal who had come to respectful attention two feet away.

“Good thing he’s not a couple of years older.” 

She nodded at Ikemba’s words, knowing that Central Security would have designated the boy as hopelessly corrupted had he been even a year older.  His fate then would’ve been that of his parents. As Ciannic watched the corporal disappear with the boy down one of the myriad of hallways, she wondered which fate was worse.

“I have to talk to you.  But not here,” Ikemba insisted.

Ciannic looked at her friend intently, but his impassive face gave nothing away.  She led the way to her office, one of the few areas that by virtue of her command position and rank wasn't monitored.  Once inside the large, but sparsely furnished room, she gestured Ikemba to a chair, closed the door, and took her seat behind the desk. “All right, what is it?”

“Tanner.  I think we have a big problem with him.”

“You mean other than the fact that I’ve got a psychopathic loose cannon under my command?  Why on Earth would you think that’s a problem?”

 “I’m serious, Ci.  Britt’s latest report makes it clear that Tanner has growing suspicions about you.  He’s too intimidated by your authority to accuse you openly, but his type never works openly anyway.  He’s been ranting about how you should stick to paperwork and policy, and leave hall discipline to him.  Britt says he sneers at how soft you are, and raves about how a woman isn’t up to border duty.  Every time you have to travel, casualties go up 17%, but he’s too smart to give you anything to call him on.”

Ciannic nodded wearily.  Her sergeant was right.  Tanner had been her second in command for only a year, but he had been subtly bucking for her job almost from day one. 

 “They weren’t even Reverites, you know — those kids today.  They were just unlucky enough to cross Tanner’s radar for whatever reason, and I didn’t act quickly enough to save them.  Damn it!  I didn’t expect him to move so fast.”

“He probably executed them two seconds after he confirmed their identities, Ci.  There was nothing you could’ve done.”

The two wallowed in bitterness for a moment, then Ikemba straightened in his chair.  With an instinctive look around, he whispered, “You can’t go out there again this shift.  I know she’s crossing today, but you just can’t.  I’ve got to get back to monitoring detail in a few minutes and I’ll let you know if anything happens, but you have to stay out of the hall.”

Ciannic absorbed the acrid truth of her friend’s words and reluctantly nodded.  “I know.  But it’s been so long —”

“And it could be eternity for both of you, if you’re not more careful.”  He practically hissed the words, his passionate eyes imploring her to caution.  “You’re off shift in a couple of hours.  You’ll be able to slip away and see her then, but don’t jeopardize it by doing anything stupid now.”

Tired eyes regarded the sergeant with amusement.  “You really are the most insubordinate trooper I’ve ever had in my command, you know that?”

He grinned, his white teeth highlighted in his dark face.  “Yeah, but I’m also right.”

“I know you are.”

“So you’ll wait here?  No going out to the hall again, no matter what happens?”

“I’ll wait here like a good little major, I promise.”  She pressed the button that opened the top of her desk onto a detailed holographic map of the border area under her command.  “See. I’ll just sit here and catch up on my reports.  She’ll never even know I’m on duty today.”

“She’ll know.  She always knows, though I have no idea how.”

Ciannic smiled, the first genuine smile in far too many days.  “She does, doesn’t she?”

“Careful, Ci.  One look at that face and all Tanner’s suspicions would be confirmed.”

“Not if he didn’t know who I was thinking of.”

“Well, Britt says Tanner knows you’re damned sure not thinking of him that way.  She says that’s what got him suspicious in the first place.  Apparently not long after he was posted here, he went through channels to see if he could get you assigned as his repro partner.  I don’t doubt that he figured with his family connections it would be easy.  He must’ve exploded when he found out that you’d gotten an exemption.  Britt figures he planned to impregnate you to get you out of his way long enough for him to consolidate his position here, and he was furious when he found out that avenue was closed.  Our contacts in the department say he’s been trying to find out what justification you have for the exemption.  He wasn’t too happy when Britt was assigned to him, mostly because it forestalled his efforts to get your exemption lifted.”

Ciannic shivered at the thought of being assigned to one such as Tanner.  Given her rank and long years of loyal service, she would have had right of veto, although she would have been forced by law to accept another if her exemption was overridden.  When the Covenant had completely closed off immigration after the Terror Wars, they had been forced to institute draconian reproduction laws in order to maintain the population levels.  Even though limited immigration had been reinstated forty years later, exemptions from mandatory breeding regulations were few and far between.  Although the issue was moot for now, it galled Ciannic that Tanner had the arrogance to pursue it.  The thought of even touching him made her skin crawl. “How the hell does Britt stand it?”

“She grits her teeth and remembers why she volunteered, I guess.  The information she’s gotten us is invaluable, and you know it.  Without her, we wouldn’t be where we are now.  She’s hacked so far into Tanner’s family connections that the Covenant can barely make a move without us knowing about it.”

“God, she deserves a medal for service above and beyond!”

“She’s not the only one, Ci.  We all know what you’ve put into building the organization back up.  We also know that you could make a life away from all this, and not one of us would begrudge you leaving this nightmare.”

“She would.  Even if I wanted to go, I don't think she'd sanction me leaving until the job is done.  She puts her life on the line every time she crosses the border, but she swears she won’t quit until the Covenant and CS are dim memories.”

Ikemba shook his head in rueful admiration.  “Hell, it isn’t even her concern, really.”

“She’d disagree with you there, old friend.  She’d tell you that it’s everyone’s concern, inside or outside of the border, even though she doesn’t really expect to live long enough to see the rebirth of freedom.  She’s as stubborn and willful as the day is long.”

“And you love her.”

“And I love her.  You know, my less noble side would go nuts if I couldn’t see her every few months, but a big part of me wishes that she’d stop crossing and let someone else run the risks.  No other courier has managed to last for so many years.  Her luck’s bound to run out one of these days.”

“Not if you can help it.”

“No, but what if I’m not on duty, or what if I am, but I’m not quick enough, just like today?  And God forbid that Tanner clue in to what I feel for her.  If he figured things out, her life would be measured in seconds.”

“We couldn’t do what we do without the help of our friends on the outside.”

“I know.  I really do.  And she’d tell you herself that she’s only one of tens of thousands that are working for our freedom, but...”

“But she’s the one you’d lay down your life for.”

“In a heartbeat.”

 

##

“Documentation.”

Zeve quietly handed over the electronic records required and extended her arm to have her identity chip read.

“Professor Elizabeth Zeve.  Cameron-Zeldhof Research Foundation?”  The CS screener looked up, and Zeve nodded.  “Business or pleasure?”

The screener’s question was an ironic holdover from a century past.  There was little enough pleasure for citizens themselves under the Covenant’s reign, and rare were the foreign travelers who visited the sequestered land for recreational purposes. 

“Business.  I’m scheduled for two weeks of research at the James A. Mercedes Institute under the auspices of the Committee for Historical Re-evaluation.  Professor Ahmed Grady is my contact there.  His name should be on my records.”

There was a long moment of silence as the screener compared her retinal scan with her ID chip, and cross-checked her documentation.  Zeve knew everything was in order, as always, but that never prevented the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.  If you were arrested at this point in the crossing for attempting an illegal entry, there was no appeal.  And if her true purpose were ever detected, there was nothing anyone would be able to do for her.  There would be a long stay in the nearest interrogation centre, and once the CS had extracted every bit of information they could, there would be a quick trip to the nearest garbage disposal.  Her government and family wouldn’t even be notified; she would simply be one more of the millions who had disappeared over the last century without explanation.

“All right.  Your documentation is in order.  You may pass.  Next!”

Zeve picked up the documentation that had been imprinted with an official clearance seal, and slid it back into her bag as the men in line behind her stepped up to the booth.  She had only taken three steps, barely enough time for a sense of relief to register, when a coarse voice snapped out, “You! Stop.”

Instantly Zeve halted, waiting for instructions with her eyes downcast.

“I’ve cleared her, Lieutenant.  Everything was in order.”

Zeve was grateful to hear the voice of the CS screener from just behind her, then her heart sank as the harsh voice snapped, “Did I ask you?”

The screener was instantly repentant.  “No, Lieutenant.  My apologies, Sir.”

“You.  Follow me.”

Zeve trailed the CS lieutenant on numb legs, sickly aware of the eyes that surreptitiously followed her progress.  She knew that whatever sympathies the onlookers might have for her, their overwhelming emotion would be gratitude that they hadn’t made whatever mistake she must have, and that this time at least, they were spared the special attention of the CS.

Fighting back the rising nausea, she tried desperately to focus on her biofeedback techniques in a vain attempt to calm herself.  She had no idea why she had been pulled out of line, but her only hope of continuing on her journey was to project absolute innocence and ignorance, and pray that whatever had brought her to CS attention was innocuous enough to be easily explained away.  There was no thought of trying to make a break for safety.  Guards and dogs would bring her down within seconds.  Nor was there anywhere for her to run, because the safety of her own land lay back behind numerous checkpoints and guard posts.

Zeve noted that she was being led to a door in the opposite direction from that through which the unlucky young couple had been dragged such a short time ago, and she didn’t know whether or not to take that as a good sign.  When they reached the door, the lieutenant placed his hand on the ID reader.  The door swung open to reveal a long, darkened hallway lined with about a dozen doors, roughly ten metres apart.  In the distance, Zeve could see the descending twilight through a barred window at the far end of the hall, but she grimly refused to allow herself to long for the potential safety of the world outside.  She needed to focus on making it out of this hall alive.  If she did so, there would be time enough to revel later in the quasi-freedom of the open air.

The lieutenant had been swaggering down the hall in front of her, obviously completely unafraid of having his back turned to her.  Zeve acknowledged wryly that it was a justifiable confidence.  Long before she was allowed into the processing hall, she had been thoroughly scanned for anything remotely resembling a weapon, and as a female civilian clearly outweighed, out muscled, and out trained by the CS officer, he had nothing to fear from her.  Her organization hadn’t even bothered with more than rudimentary training in self-defence arts, since guile, intelligence, and stealth were their stock-in-trade.  If she were to get out of this, it wouldn’t be by physical means.

Or would it?  Was that why he pulled me out of line?  Oh, my God.

Zeve knew it had happened before, and though CS Command officially frowned on it, they tended to overlook the occasional rule bending by lower ranks as long as it didn’t get out of hand.  She had never worried about it before because she was hardly a femme fatale.  Certain that her cloak of dowdy academia, far from youthful face, and unflattering hair and clothes would protect her, she had never even mentally prepared for the possibility.  Now her mind raced frantically to deal with this new scenario.  On the positive side, if her interrogator were simply interested in letting off some carnal steam, once he was done, she would likely be allowed to go on her way.  On the negative side, she wasn’t sure she could steel herself to just submit the way they were trained to in most situations.

Survive.  Survive, and eventually you can put this behind you.  Survive and you’ll see her again.  Do whatever it takes, even if he...

The lieutenant stopped and again deactivated a door lock.  When the door swung inward, he stood in the entryway and jerked his thumb to indicate she was to go inside.  She tried to slide by without touching him but his bulk made that impossible, and she shivered as she set down her bag and stood silently surveying her surroundings while he locked the door behind them. 

The room was glaringly white, lit by the same blinding lights that illuminated the processing hall and made it difficult, even painful, for those without visors to see.  A table with a built-in monitor and control panel, and two metal chairs were the only furniture, and she was alarmed to notice the absence of the omnipresent security cameras.  If this were to be an official interrogation, there should have been cameras to record the whole thing.  CS were sticklers for keeping records, a fact that had assisted her organization more than once.   That a room without recording devices even existed scared her more than anything that had happened thus far.

“Sit.”

Swallowing hard, Zeve did as ordered, finally looking across at the lieutenant.  Much to her shock, he pushed back his visor, and her wavering optimism that she might escape unscathed slipped even further.  The face that stared back at her was almost ridiculously boyish, with full pink lips, rounded, clean-shaven cheeks, and an upturned nose with a scattering of freckles.  Only stony, pale blue eyes that stared at her with dispassionate malevolence belied the baby-faced image. 

The officer casually took the chair in front of the monitor and, without a word, entered a few commands.  He didn’t address her further, and she sat quietly waiting as he perused whatever information was on his screen.  After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up at her. “You’ve crossed the border four times in the last year and a half.  Why?”

“I’m a historical researcher for the Cameron-Zeldhof Research Foundation, and under the terms of the ’85 bilateral agreement, I’ve been working with Professor Ahmed Grady at the Mercedes Institute.  My trips have all been properly authorized by your government’s Committee for Historical Re-evaluation.”

“Do you think I care about some useless government committee?” 

His tone was remarkably light, but Zeve had no doubt that she was on dangerously thin ice.  “I — I really don’t know, but I simply meant that I wasn’t trying to enter illegally...”

“That will be for me to determine.”  He leaned back, a small smile on his youthful face.  “Does your work involve statistics?”

Zeve blinked at the apparent non-sequiter, then slowly nodded.  “It can, sometimes, depending on the area of research.”

“You wouldn’t think my work would involve statistics, would you?  I mean, I’m here to guard my nation’s borders and weed out the undesirables.  What on earth would a bunch of dry old facts and figures have to do with that?”

Feeling distinctly like a helpless mouse being toyed with by a powerful cat, Zeve shrugged slightly, but remained silent.

“And yet, statistics can illuminate some very interesting patterns.  I’ve taken the liberty of entering your travel statistics.  Would you like to know what they tell me?”

Zeve hoped that the shiver that ran up her spine wasn’t visible to the unnervingly affable man across the table. 

When she didn’t answer, he smiled.  “I think I’ll share them with you, and perhaps you can enlighten me as to their exact meaning.”  With one finger, he spun the monitor around to face her side of the table, but Zeve couldn’t tear her gaze away from his face.  There was something maliciously triumphant in his icy eyes —something that seemed far in excess of the situation as she was aware of it.

“You really should look at the screen.  I’m rather proud of my research.  After all, it’s taken me almost two months to pull it all together.  Now, I’m not a professional like you, of course, but I think that what I’ve uncovered is certainly well worth the effort.”

Zeve tore her gaze from his face and looked at the screen.  It took all of her self control for her not to gasp as she saw three long columns, cross-indexing several years worth of information on her movements, known or suspected Reverite activities, and her lover’s official and unofficial travel records. 

Oh, my dear God!  Ciannic.

“No comment?  Oh dear, how disappointing.  And here I thought I did such a wonderful job of correlation.  The conclusion seems obvious to me, and, I have no doubt, will also be crystal clear to CS Command when I show them that their precious Major Ciannic is nothing more than a Reverite whore.”

Zeve was amazed that she managed to summon a steady voice to reply.  “I’m really not sure what you’re showing me.  I’ve heard of the Reverites, but I’ve certainly never had anything to do with the organization.  And I don’t know who this other person is —”

“Lies bore me.  You will stop lying to me now.  This ‘other person’, as you put it, is your lover and your liaison with the Reverites.”  He stood and leaned across the table, his eyes now glittering with anger.  “Which explains so much.”

“No, I’m sorry.  You’ve mistaken your data somehow —”

Swiftly the lieutenant shot his cuff, revealing a control bracelet on his wrist.  Jabbing a button, he watched as Zeve screamed and fell to the floor, writhing from the pain caused by the activation of the electrical grid embedded throughout the chair. 

“Let’s try this again, shall we?”

He rounded the table and bent over her.  Unable to resist, Zeve was roughly picked up and planted back in the chair.  As she stared in horror at her tormentor, she didn’t miss the sadistic glee in his eyes.

Ciannic.  Oh, love...

 

##

 

The major rubbed her forehead, trying to ease the nagging headache that had formed the instant she had heard the twin booms signaling the death of two more innocents.  She allowed herself a moment to wonder if it was all worth it.  Their resistance organization had grown tremendously in number since they had been all but eradicated in ’33, but they were only a drop in the bucket compared to the strength and numbers arrayed against them.  It was a fight with no end in sight, and a big part of her wanted to withdraw from the field of combat permanently.  Despite her earlier assertion to Ikemba, she knew that Zeve really wouldn’t hold it against her if she chose to defect, but she also knew that her lover wouldn’t give up just because she was no longer her liaison.  So, as much as she longed for a quiet life with Zeve in a place where the CS was someone else’s problem, she couldn’t abandon the fight.

Trying to focus her tired eyes, Ciannic surveyed the map that now displayed a holograph of the entire northeast section of her country.  For security reasons, the Reverites trusted little to recording or communication devices.  As much as possible, orders and information were transmitted verbally through their growing network of agents.  Their own scientists had refined a system to enhance memory to the point where every member of the resistance had near-eidetic capabilities, an invaluable if archaic tool in the face of an enemy who had every modern advantage. 

Now the CS major put the finishing touches on the next Reverite action entirely within her mind.  When she met Zeve later, she would pass on the information, and her lover would disseminate it during the course of her official duties. 

She was deep into setting up a coordinated timetable for a triple hit against Covenant facilities when her door unexpectedly slid open and Ikemba slipped inside.  When Ciannic glanced up in puzzlement, he motioned her to silence until the door had shut fully.

“What...?”

“He’s got her, Ci.  He took her right out of the hall.  Tanner has Zeve.”

She shot to her feet.  “What?  When?  Where did he take her?”

“About ten minutes ago.  I couldn’t get away because Colson came in just then and I couldn’t take the chance of calling you.  Tanner took her to Alpha section, but they’re not showing up on any of the cameras.”

“Then he’s got her in 06 or 08.”

Ikemba nodded grimly.  “He must.  Those are the only rooms we can’t monitor.”

They exchanged bleak glances, both well aware of what was in those two rooms, and that few people emerged from them unscathed.

“I’ve got to —”

“I know.  Go.  I’ll take care of the cameras, but don’t cross the hall.  Use the sub-corridors. I’ll make sure there’s no record of you entering Alpha section.”

Ciannic slammed her hand against the door control, then as it slid open, did her best to project a calm, unhurried image as she stepped out of her office, Ikemba right on her heels.  Praying that no one would stop her with official business, she strode briskly down the hall as her friend returned to the surveillance-monitoring department.  She wanted desperately to run, but knew that would only bring unwelcome and time-consuming attention.

Leaving the main throughway as soon as the hall was clear, Ciannic ran down two flights of stairs to the sub-level and ducked into the maze of maintenance corridors.  With no one to see her, she broke into a run, blessing Ikemba as doors opened automatically in front of her.  She knew Ike must be watching and activating the controls for her.  It was only moments before she had navigated past the hall and arrived at the stairwell up to Alpha section. 

As the last door silently slid open for her, she took a moment to listen.  There was no sound in the hallway ahead of her, but that wasn’t surprising.  Room A-06 and its twin, A-08 had been deliberately soundproofed when built, and though Alpha section had rarely been used during her term of command, they were still maintained to CS standards.

Flipping her visor forward to provide her with better visibility, Ciannic emerged into the main hallway.  She had analyzed the situation as she ran, and decided there were two options: either Tanner had selected Zeve at random, as he had done with previous victims when he was in one of his more sadistic moods, in which case her rank and authority should be enough to stop him; or he had somehow stumbled on Zeve’s activities or relationship with her, in which case her lover was in imminent danger and she had to be prepared to stop Tanner permanently.  She wasn’t sure yet what that would involve, but her hands unconsciously flew to her belt, checking and rechecking her weapons.

Ciannic reached the entrance to A-06 in seconds, and she wasted no time in accessing the control.  The door slid open on a nightmare scene.  Tanner was perched on the edge of the table, hands comfortably crossed on his lap as he grinned down at the sight of Zeve lying on the floor.  The woman was quivering uncontrollably, and the smell of scorched flesh and cloth was unmistakable.  The major could see her lover’s limbs convulsing, and she was blinded by a raging need to tear Tanner apart. 

The lieutenant looked up as the door opened and smiled at the sight of her.  “Why, Major Ciannic, what a pleasant surprise.  Do come in.  We’re just having a little question and answer session here.  Sadly, Professor Zeve is not being particularly forthcoming with the answers, and is paying the price for her recalcitrance.”

Despite her determination to maintain a professional facade, the major’s words came out in a savage growl.  “Tanner.  What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Why, my job, of course, Major.  This is what they pay me for, after all.”

“And two murders weren’t enough for one shift?”

He shrugged nonchalantly.  “Murders, Major?  I’d hardly call them that.  I’m just doing my duty, protecting my country.”

“From harmless history professors?”

The moment the words were out of her mouth, Ciannic knew she had made a mistake.  She knew too, by the triumphant gleam in Tanner’s eyes, he had picked up on it.

“So, you know our little pigeon here, do you?”

“I know everyone who crosses regularly.  That’s my job.”

Never taking her eyes off Tanner, Ciannic had been easing her way around to where Zeve lay on the floor.  She was within inches of her lover, when the lieutenant lifted one finger and touched his remote wrist control. 

The chair had been knocked over and was lying across Zeve’s legs.  Ciannic had been hopeful that her lover was unconscious, as her eyes had been closed and she had been silent and still except for her body’s uncontrollable shudders, but as the chair activated, a thin scream erupted from Zeve’s throat. 

With one swift kick, Ciannic sent the chair flying across the room, then spun and dropped to one knee as she reached for her weapon.

“Uh, uh, uh, Major.  I wouldn’t do that.”

Ciannic gritted her teeth at the mocking tone.  Her brief second of inattention had given Tanner a chance to draw his weapon, and it was focused unwaveringly on her.

“You just stay down there.  I rather like having you on your knees to me.”

Refusing to respond to the taunt, Ciannic dropped her fingers to Zeve’s neck, finding an alarmingly thready pulse.

“Oh, don’t worry, I didn’t kill her — yet.  I have to give credit where credit is due, though.  She didn’t give you up.  Didn’t give up the rest of the Reverite scum, either, but then I’ve only just begun.  I have so many wonderfully creative ideas on how to persuade the two of you to disclose what I want to know.  I’ve never had a pair of perverts to play with.  It will be such fun.”

Ciannic made to rise, but Tanner shook his head and leveled the weapon on Zeve.  “Now, what did I say, Major?  In case we’re not clear, while I’d be disappointed to lose your little partner in crime, a disloyal Central Security Major is going to be my ticket to Command anyway, so if I have to dispose of her immediately, I will.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Lieutenant.  All this nonsense is going to buy you is a quick trip to the brig for insubordination and threatening a superior officer.”

“I know exactly what I’m talking about, Major.  You’re a damned traitor.  And a pervert to boot.  Hell, exposing you as one or the other would’ve been a feather in my cap as it was, but both?  They’re going to rip those stripes off your shoulders and hand them to me.  Of course, then they’re going to rip you apart inch by inch, but hey, you’re the one who made the bad choices, so you have only yourself to blame.”

As he spoke, Tanner rose and backed away from the table toward the door, his weapon steady on the two women.

“I can’t believe how easy it was to take you down.  Execute a couple of nobodies as a distraction, and it was a piece of cake to steal your whore right out from under your nose.  Even if you weren’t a degenerate, you’re one shitty tactician.  I wouldn’t follow you to the mess hall,” he spat contemptuously, but Ciannic refused to acknowledge his taunts as she waited for the slightest opening to rush him. “You know, it took me a while to figure you out, but I should’ve gotten it right from the beginning.  You had every opportunity: you came from a long line of CS officers, you got the best training, the best assignments, the best personnel assigned to you.  You were the CS golden child.  You could’ve gone all the way to the top, just like your mother did.  But your kind doesn’t have any loyalty.  You’re a fucking disgrace.  I hope they hang you by the heels in Covenant Plaza, and her right alongside you.  I thought we’d exterminated your kind, but it seems like every generation breeds more.” 

Tanner shook his head scornfully, but as he opened his mouth to continue his diatribe, the door behind him slid open smoothly, and an arm snaked around his neck, breaking it in one quick snap. 

Ikemba dropped the body, closed the door, and crossed to where Ciannic was gathering Zeve up in her arms. “I’m sorry. I got here as quickly as I could. Is she all right?”

Ciannic smoothed the dark hair back from her lover’s pale face and patted away some drool with her sleeve. “I don’t know.” She worriedly looked up at her friend.  “How much time do we have?”

“Ramón’s covering for me, and no one’s noticed your absence yet, as far as I know.”

The major heaved a small sigh of relief.  Ramón was one of theirs and could be relied on to erase their tracks as far as possible.

“Britt?”
          “I sent her the emergency signal, and she’s busy planting evidence.  By the time they realize that Tanner is missing and check his home, they’ll come away convinced that he was a low-level Reverite.  She’s rigged it so it’ll look like he thought he’d been discovered and took off.  No one’s going to miss that bastard, not even his own family.”

Zeve stirred, and a small whimper nearly broke Ciannic’s heart.  She rocked her and whispered soothingly, “Shhh, love. You’re all right now. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

Ikemba dropped a reassuring hand to her shoulder. “Stay with her; I’ll be right back.” 

He turned away and stooped to sling the corpse of the late, unlamented Lieutenant Tanner easily over his shoulder.  The instant he stepped out of the door, Ciannic’s attention was entirely on the woman resting uneasily in her arms.  Small tremors ran through Zeve’s body, and she still hadn’t opened her eyes or acknowledged Ciannic in any way.

“Come on, sweetheart. Let me see those beautiful brown eyes of yours. I need you to look at me, love. I need you—” Ciannic choked over the words, and she was helpless against the fear that swept through her. “Please, please, love. You have to be okay. Don’t leave me. I couldn’t stand it.  Zeve, please...”

“Won’t leave...”

The muttered words were almost inaudible, but Ciannic had never heard anything sweeter. “That’s it, love. Stay with me.”

“Knows, Ci. He knows ’bout us.”

“Shhhh, he’s not a threat anymore. It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Clearly exhausted, with her body still shivering from the aftereffects of her ordeal, Zeve regarded her lover with absolute trust through half-open eyes. 

Ciannic leaned down to brush her lips against the woman’s forehead, then wrapped her more securely in her arms, humming wordlessly as their proximity comforted them both.

Zeve closed her eyes again and Ciannic let her drift off. She didn’t know what setting Tanner had used on her lover, but she was hopeful that it hadn’t been too high. Given that he had clearly intended to keep both of them alive for a prolonged period, she suspected that he had done just enough damage to get her attention.  With any luck, Zeve would recover quickly.

But where?  How do I get her home from here?  There’s no way I can just carry her to my office, and if I disappear two hours before my shift is over on the same day that Tanner disappears, it’s going to be damned difficult to explain.

Ciannic was pondering several different plans when the door opened on Ikemba again. “It’s done?”

The big man nodded. “It’s done. I reprogrammed it so no one will know the Alpha garbage disposal was used today. Ramón knows to erase the central record, and he’s going to clock me out at the end of the shift.  He was slated to take over from me anyway, so he’ll just keep on working.  As long as no one comes looking for me, it will be fine.”  He shook his head as she tried to protest. “No, Ci. You know as well as I do that your absence is far more likely to be missed. I know half a dozen ways out of this hellhole; no one will notice us. Now, let me take her and you get back to your office.”

Reluctantly relinquishing her place, Ciannic stood back as her friend lifted Zeve with surprising tenderness and cradled her against his chest.  She picked up her lover’s bag and slung it over Ikemba’s shoulder. “Where will you take her?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know later. Just trust me, okay?”

“You know I do.”

He flashed a grin at her and was off out the door before she could even caress her lover one last time.  She quickly straightened the room, noticing for the first time what was on the monitor.  Shocked at how detailed Tanner’s investigation had been, she studied it quickly, mentally noting where they had given themselves away, and filing away that knowledge for later. When she traced the source of the documentation, she found that her erstwhile lieutenant had apparently concealed his little project by keeping it out of the official system. 

Though Ciannic worried that Tanner might have shared his discovery with others, she thought it more likely that he would have kept it to himself, paranoid about losing the potential career advantage it gave him.  Making a mental note to have Britt do a more exhaustive search of Tanner’s home records, she set out to delete the file and any indication that the monitor had been activated at all. Her efforts wouldn’t fool a Hacker, at least not until Britt worked her magic on it, but it would suffice for a cursory examination, which was all they would need during the initial stages of the hunt for the missing officer.

With one last sweep of the room, she stepped out, closed the door, and activated the sterilization procedure. Given the nature of the room, the ability to cleanse it after an interrogation was paramount. Within moments there wouldn’t be so much as an epithelial cell to indicate that any of the players had been in the room.  The hall was another matter, but she would dispatch Ramón to do a more thorough cover-up when his shift ended.

On her way back through the sub-level corridors, Ciannic reviewed all their actions.  Thanks to Ikemba and Ramón’s quick thinking, the official record would show Tanner taking Zeve to Alpha section, and then releasing her a short while later.  Her records, duly notated, would show that she passed into the relative anonymity of the transport station five minutes later to travel on to her destination.  Professor Ahmed Grady, a Reverite with high-level connections and substantial influence within the Covenant, would confirm her arrival at his institute, if necessary. When Tanner was finally missed, thanks to Britt’s genius, it would appear that he had disappeared somewhere after the time he checked out at the end of his shift.

  Ciannic was relatively sure that they had covered all their tracks, but it had been done with such haste that she worried they had missed something.  She was uncomfortably aware that her organization would not necessarily have gone to such lengths for other Reverites. It was understood by all involved that the welfare of the organization far surpassed that of any member, and if anyone was caught, their only duty was not to reveal any information to the CS. If they could be rescued without endangering the organization, they would be, but otherwise most chose to die as quickly as possible to limit the dangers of breaking under interrogation. 

Though it made her feel guilty that she hadn’t held her own lover to that standard, Ciannic was profoundly grateful for the loyalty of her cadre. Ikemba, Ramón, and Britt had swung into action without a moment’s hesitation, and because of their allegiance, they had all survived — this time. Whether they would survive the next time would depend on skill, timing, and old-fashioned luck, but at least there would be a next time. 

As Ciannic emerged into the main corridor and headed for her office, she was relieved to see that everything looked routine. No one even gave her a second glance as she stopped at the monitoring office. A swift exchange with Ramón ensured that the final details would be taken care of, and with that she returned to her office, knowing that the next few hours until she heard from Ikemba would be some of the longest of her life.

 

##

 

Epilogue:

Ciannic wasn't able to join Zeve for almost a week after Ikemba smuggled her to a safe house. Tanner’s disappearance raised a bigger commotion than they had anticipated, and she couldn’t slip away unnoticed.

Ike assured her that Zeve was being well cared for and would recover swiftly, but not being able to rush to her lover's side nearly maddened her. Fortunately the major's subordinates assumed it was Tanner's defection that had left her in such an ill humour, and even Ikemba and Ramón kept well out of her way.

Finally, Britt’s brilliant electronic forgeries convinced even Tanner’s family that he was a traitor, and after a brief, intensive search, he was consigned to the CS alert list along with thousands of other citizens. 

The issue was allowed to fade, in large part because CS Command was mortified that a member of their elite officer corps had turned traitor, but more so because Tanner’s influential family, humiliated that he had disgraced them, buried the issue so deep that even in the bygone days of a free and investigative press it would never have been unearthed.

Ciannic used her influence to arrange a promotion from within the ranks, and gratefully turned the reins over to the newly commissioned Lieutenant Ikemba as she departed for an overdue leave. Within hours she was at her lover’s bedside, and she had remained there constantly in the days since, despite Zeve’s entreaties to at least go out and get some air.

“Stop hovering, Ci. I’m fine — really. You’re like an old mother hen sometimes.”

Zeve’s warm smile took any sting out of the words, and Ciannic grinned abashedly as she sank down on the edge of her lover’s bed. “I know.  I’m a pain.  Sorry about that.” A soft hand settled on her thigh, and she stroked the thin fingers gently.

“It’s okay, love. I know I gave you a scare.”

“A scare?  I guess if you call being terrified out of your mind a scare, then yes, you certainly did give me a scare.” Ciannic shuddered and closed her eyes, trying fruitlessly once again to erase the nightmare image that had greeted her when the door of A-06 had slid open.

“We all know the risks, Ci. It happens. I’ve been lucky — a lot luckier than some of our friends.”

“But what if your luck’s run out now? What if someone eventually puts two and two together, and connects Tanner’s disappearance with him pulling you out of line?  What if —?”

“Shhh, love. Don’t you trust your people?”

“You know I do. Britt’s the best in the business, and Ikemba and Ramón are almost as good as she is at manipulating records and creating red herrings.”

“Then trust that they’ve covered our tracks.”

The major couldn’t look at her lover, staring instead at the drab wall at the head of the bed. “It’s not a matter of trust. It’s — fate, I guess. We’ve been daring the odds for so long. It can’t go on forever.”

Zeve’s soft laugh and the gentle hand rubbing her leg only reminded Ciannic all the more acutely of what she stood to lose — of what she had almost lost.

“Tchh, one of the regime’s elite believing in luck? I thought they beat all those notions out of you in boot camp.”

“In kindergarten, actually.”

Their shared laughter, though melancholy, at least got Ciannic to lower her gaze and face Zeve fully. “I’m serious.  We have to talk about it.”

Zeve struggled to push herself up, as Ciannic hurried to plump the pillows behind her. Once settled, the historian fixed serious eyes on her lover. “You’re right.  We should talk about it.” When Ciannic opened her mouth, Zeve shook her head.  “Hear me out first, love.”

The major nodded and sat quietly, watching the unusually open play of emotions on her lover’s face.

“Please don’t think I make these courier runs for the thrill of it. It scares the hell out of me every single time. I swear I lose five pounds before every border crossing just because I can’t keep anything down. Do I wish I could stop doing it?  Absolutely. Would I like to forget what’s happened over the last century and just enjoy my own small life? God, yes.  Would I love to meet you on my side of the border and take you home for the final time?  You have no idea how often I dream of that.”

Zeve’s head dropped wearily for a moment, and Ciannic watched her, fascinated at this rare insight into her lover’s emotions.  She laid a hand on the historian’s hair, stroking it softly until the woman looked up again.

“The problem is my profession. I’ve spent years analyzing how it all happened — how a political and cultural darkness crept over the land while people were too busy or too scared or too oblivious to notice. It’s an insidious blight, Ci, and it won’t stop at the borders of our two countries if given half a chance. You, and me, and Ikemba and Ramón and Britt and Ahmed — and the tens of thousands of people who risk their lives every day, we’re the firebreaks stopping the flames from finally consuming the ideals that once lit up the world.  And maybe it wouldn’t make a difference if the two of us gave up and left the fight. Maybe we are just two tiny, replaceable cogs, but then again, maybe we’re not. If we stop trying to change the world, maybe Ikemba will think of his two little boys and what would happen to them and Ilea if he’s discovered. Maybe Britt would remember the special hell reserved for turncoat Hackers, and flee for her life. Maybe Ramón would decide that if we can be selfish, he can too. With what he knows about the Reverites, he could ensure himself a life of luxury and ease if he double-crossed us.”

“He wouldn’t do that. None of them would.”

“I know, and that’s the faith they have in us, too. That’s all we have, Ci — our faith in each other, in our beliefs, and in our cause. That’s what binds us into a force stronger than the CS and Covenant with all their weapons could ever be. We all have so much to lose, but if we quit, we’ll have lost something even more precious than the lives of our loved ones’.”

Ciannic sighed heavily. “It's bigger than we are.”

“Yes, but it’s not just the cause. We can’t desert the people who’ve fought beside us, who believe in us the way we believe in them. Look how your people scrambled to rescue me. We could never forget that. If we broke faith with them, it would destroy us and our relationship.”

“You make it very hard to disagree, my love, but tell me — do you see light at the end of the tunnel?  Do you think the darkness will lift at all in our lifetimes?”

Zeve contemplated the question silently for long moments.  “I can’t promise that. But if it doesn’t, we’ll at least have laid the groundwork for future generations to continue the fight. And if nothing else, we can live with the knowledge that we’re trying to do something. It may not be much, and I can’t decide for you, but it’s what I have to do.”

Ciannic shook her head and slid down on the bed until she was lying beside her lover, arms loosely around Zeve’s still sore body. “I really hate your idealism, you know.”

Soft laughter echoed in her ear. “No you don’t, love. You’re just as bad, if not worse, actually, because you have to face it every single day and I only have to run the gauntlet every few months.”

The CS officer tried to argue, but gentle fingers stilled her lips. “My two weeks are almost up, Ci. Ahmed’s done a great job of covering up my absence at the Mercedes Institute, but he’s not going to be able to account for why I missed my departure date if I don’t show up at the border. You know I have to leave tomorrow.”

Ciannic burrowed her head under Zeve’s arm. She was due back from leave the next day too, but she didn’t know how she could let her lover go. It was never easy to part after their too short times together, but this time was going to be hellish. They had spent many hours over the last few days simply seeking comfort in each other's arms, craving the reassuring joy of warm, familiar skin next to them. 

Though the historian’s injuries were not completely healed, they had found gentle ways to make love, laughing at their awkwardness even as they reveled in the pleasure of their connection.

And now it was time again to part.

Closing her eyes tightly, Ciannic abandoned herself to the moment, soaking in the nearness of her lover and resolutely ignoring the diminishing hours they had together.

Zeve wiggled down until she was lying flat, holding Ci tightly. “I’ll be back in a couple of months, sweetheart. I swear I will.”

Ciannic just nodded at the whispered words and held her lover more desperately. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t want to go, but you know I have to.”

“I know.”

“We only have hours left, darling.  Let’s make them count.”

Ciannic lifted her head and met Zeve’s intense gaze.  “Every minute with you counts more than I can ever tell you.”

“I know, love.” 

And as Zeve slipped her hands under Ciannic’s shirt and eased farther into her embrace, the inexorable passage of the hours and the cause that consumed them became irrelevant — if only for the moment.