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Blood State

By Raluca Balasa

1

Heads turned as General Lucian Devereaux crossed the entry hall, his boots clacking against red-veined marble. His officers in silver and black knew not to stare, but the scientists — those socially inept whitecoats — let their gazes flicker between his eye-patch and the heart-shaped parcel in his hand. He didn’t quicken his pace. Let them think what they wanted. Even some stupidity about his eye acting up because he was in love would be better than the truth.

(Image courtesy by Raluca Balasa.)

Green flashed through the skylight: another storm brewing. Lucian glanced up, hoping the patter of freezing rain against glass might calm him. Sometimes this skylight, and the unpredictable sounds and sights it offered him, was the only thing keeping him sane. Even through stone walls, he heard the ocean washing up the building with the high tide, as if urging him to hurry.

He tightened his grip around the package. The box’s contents slid from one end to the other like a slug crawling across pavement. Again, he felt that unfamiliar pressure in his chest, that cutting of breath. Why couldn’t he control it? Resorting to the patch was as good as letting everyone see that his left eye had turned blue since the parcel’s arrival.

Lucian took the stairs two at a time, letting the flow of uniforms and lab coats part around him. Even if they didn’t know his face — and they all did — they’d see the service stripes on his sleeve and know him for a general. But even once he’d reached the furnished upper level, people stared.

He rounded a corner and came into a wide corridor lined with conference rooms. The light here was a sickly, yellow-tinted white. He paused before the door with the silver-plated plaque reading Braith Council Chambers. Should he remove the patch? It was usually dark inside to accommodate those attending via projection; they might not notice the eye. His hand drifted across the patch, then returned to his side. He scanned his thumb across the sensor at the side of the door and entered.

The people around the table looked up. All four had answered his summons in person, though more than one seemed displeased for it. Lucian took the only empty seat and set the parcel in the table’s center. A chill emanated from the walls.

“General, Colonel,” he greeted the man and woman opposite him, then turned to the other two. “Doctors.”

Colonel Shvakova eyed the box with a half-smile. Her platinum blonde hair was pulled so tightly back it tugged the skin around her face. “Tell me, General Devereaux,” she said. “Which of us has caught your eye?”

General Acker chuckled nervously.

Lucian studied the package. Garishly pink, tied with red ribbon and wrapped in lace, it was the most hideous thing he’d disgraced himself to carry. “Fortunately, Colonel, this is not for you.” He opened the attached tag and read, “To: General L. Devereaux. From: A Secret Admirer.”

“So, it’s not from Kiraz?” Kartal pressed, his mustache twitching with his words. “What is it? Get to the point, Devereaux.”

His tone made Lucian’s lips tighten, but if there was one person Lucian hesitated to criticize in public, it was his father-in-law. He recalled the sight of the package at the bottom of his front steps as he’d prepared to leave for work that morning. It hadn’t crossed his mind that the box might be a gift from his wife; he’d perceived the threat at once. But now another thought hit him, one a loving husband would have seen sooner.

If this terrorist had gotten a parcel past his security, was Kiraz in danger?

No need to send Kartal into a panic with that. Lucian pulled off the lid and waited for the Braith to lean across the table and absorb the sight. Even from where he sat, he could smell the rot.

“Heavens!” Acker exclaimed, covering his nose. Shvakova raised a penciled eyebrow and Kartal cleared his throat.

“There’s a letter,” Min-Ji Song said. She alone hadn’t moved, neither to study the thing nor to recoil. Never distractible, Min-Ji. Lucian lifted the severed fist and pulled the scroll from it. Its fingers had stiffened around the parchment in rigor mortis, and if that wasn’t enough, the paper had originally been stapled to flesh so that Lucian had had to dig the metal out carefully, without ripping the paper. Chunks of flesh had come out instead, and now the hand looked diseased. He let it thud wetly back into the box. Blood smeared the cursive on the scroll, but Lucian had already memorized every word.

“Dear General Devereaux,” he recited. “I must say, I’m a fan of your work. Setting up a curfew, telling us it’s for our own safety in case of an ice storm, and then sending your men to kidnap unsuspecting Firsts from their homes. Now I understand why you’re doing nothing to stop the disappearances: you’re the one commissioning them. And for what? The concentration camp you call a research facility, the Cliffhanger. I don’t know why you’re experimenting on these people — what you hope to accomplish — and frankly I don’t care. I’ll get proof of what you’re doing. When I do, I’ll tell the world.”

Lucian lowered the parchment.

“This…terrorist names you specifically,” Acker said. Several of the Braith glared; Acker’s talent for stating the obvious was unrivaled. “I understand you value your privacy, General, but you must employ a larger entourage of guards.”

“You’re thinking too small, Roderick,” Lucian said. “How did he link my men back to the disappearances?” The disappearances had started long before his patrols. How else could he have convinced the Firsts to make a dent in their isolationist policy and let his men into their neighborhoods?

“It could be a she,” Shvakova pointed out.

“This is ridiculous.” Kartal clenched his fist on the table. “I’ve said from the start the Cliffhanger is a bad way to spend money. We should be trying to change our environment, not our people.”

“We need to send out an alert,” said Min-Ji, massaging her temples.

“Really, General Devereaux, your safety should be the first thing on all of our minds —”

Lucian held up his hand, and the Braith quieted like scolded children. The Cliffhanger’s secrecy, public security, his safety — all of that seemed less important than the question that had been on his mind since receiving the threat. “Whose hand is this?”

Shvakova leaned forward, unperturbed as she studied the appendage. Now that it had been inside for several hours, it had started bloating, turning green at the fingertips. The other members of the Braith grimaced, but Lucian half-expected Shvakova to take out a pair of lab gloves and start dissecting it as they spoke. He’d never seen anything disgust the woman, save perhaps Acker’s high-pitched laughs. “I’ll take it to the lab,” she said. “We’ll cross-reference the blood with our employees on file.”

“You’ll notice the terrorist has left the individual’s ring on,” Lucian said. Shvakova reached for it, but he said, “You needn’t, Irina; I’ve already looked at it. It’s engraved with a mountain lion.”

Acker muttered something unintelligible.

“So, we know that the victim works for House Devereaux,” Lucian continued, “and that the terrorist makes a habit of being out after curfew. Otherwise, how would he have linked the disappearances back to me?”

The table was quiet. Finally, Min-Ji straightened and pushed her horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “He plans to torture your fallen policeman, then — your kidnapper — for information about the Cliffhanger.”

“Min-Ji, please. I dislike that term.”

“Is it not kidnapping?” Kartal snapped. “We knew this would happen eventually.”

“Are you suggesting the terrorist is justified?” Acker demanded. Lucian normally appreciated Acker’s support, but this time he couldn’t help frowning at the way the older man came to his aid like a defensive parent.

Kartal reddened. “I’m saying the Firsts have reason to be furious with us if they find out what we’re doing at the Cliffhanger.”

“I don’t believe the terrorist is a First,” Lucian said. All eyes shifted to him.

“The letter targets you, General,” said Acker. “This person holds a personal grudge. Who else but a First would have reason to detest you like this?”

Many. So many, Lucian thought, but what he said was, “My police are the best trained on Tählti. I make sure they have enough stamina to take on a crowd, let alone a single renegade. Besides, one of the Firsts would overexert themselves in minutes against a Modernist like us. They might be better equipped to handle the cold, but the differences in their physiology mean they expend twice as much energy in cardiac output.”

“I don’t see why a Modernist would risk himself for a First by attacking one of your men,” Kartal grumbled.

It was true: there was no love lost between the two races. Still, the pieces didn’t fit. This was somebody who hated Lucian, to be sure, but not necessarily a First from the evidence presented.

“The hand is fresh,” Shvakova said. “It was severed last night, if not this morning. Whomever you had on patrol, General, I hope they know to keep their tongues.”

“It could have been preserved if it was stored outside,” Min-Ji added. “We’ll have to search the database for all Devereaux soldiers on patrol this week.”

Lucian made to rub his eyes, then hesitated when he remembered the patch still over his left one. The Braith shifted in their seats as if remembering it themselves. Blue…when was the last time his eye had changed to such a vibrant blue, the color for depression and anxiety? More than one of his fellow council members would read his concern in it — concern that had as much to do with the leaked information as it did his missing soldier. If he couldn’t even protect his own house’s men, how would he protect the Modernists from the coming ice age?

“Irina,” he said, and pushed the heart-shaped box toward the colonel. “This is for you after all. Please test this and tell me to whom it belongs.”

“What about the Cliffhanger’s secrecy?” Acker insisted. “Finding out who the missing person is won’t help us silence him.”

“The letter admits this terrorist has no proof. Even if he learns what we’re trying to accomplish, he still can’t verify that we’re behind the disappearances.”

“You are, Devereaux,” Kartal grumbled. “I didn’t vote for this.”

“Unfortunately, Idris, you were overruled,” Lucian snapped. Kartal glowered at him, but he pretended not to notice. Best not strain his already-tenuous relationship with his father-in-law.

“Our priority should be getting a warning to the public,” said Min-Ji. Her voice sounded measured as usual, but Lucian read fatigue in the way that she slumped in her seat. These years of unethical research had taken their toll on her. “We have a terrorist on the loose. The public would be willing to help us find him if we offer a reward.”

“Whoever he is,” Acker said, “he has as much military training as General Devereaux’s police force, if not more. We mustn’t underestimate him. He could become a national threat.”

“The Wanted signs go out in the morning,” Lucian said, and stood.

2

Dominic leapt out of bed, dragging the sheets with him. He felt disoriented, like he’d forgotten something but couldn’t focus long enough to figure out what. Alarms rang in his head. Get up, get up, get up!

He checked the barometric clock, blinking until he retained the flashing letters. An hour before second high tide. Second high…

A ten-minute nap had turned into six hours.

“Shit,” he muttered. There were some coins on his nightstand, though he couldn’t remember putting them there. A note in his own cursive scrawl said: Give to Leda. “Shit, Leda, that’s right. Keep the change, okay? I’ll walk you home if you’re scared to go out past curf—”

He turned. The other side of the bed was empty.

“Leda?” He stooped to snatch his trousers from the floor. Keys still in the pocket, wallet gone, snowy owl key chain missing. The bitch took his owl key chain?

“Damn it!” he yelled, and threw his pants at the wall. Six months ago, he could have pressed charges. Then again, six months ago he would have never hired someone like Leda. Now who would give a damn about a Whitelisted loser cheated by a whore?

No time to worry about it. Focus! He’d been sleeping for hours and hadn’t been to the cellar since this morning. The cellar? Yes, the cellar — your prisoner, you oaf! No time to grab real food for the guy, not now. Dried caribou meat and bread would have to do.

Dominic stumbled to the kitchen, took the half-eaten loaf of bread from the counter, and turned on the faucet only to see it sputter. Frost made vein-like patterns on the tap. The heat had turned off again.

Shivering, he returned to his room and threw on yesterday’s trousers, then a cotton shirt and vest. Freezing rain pattered his window. He reached for the cloak made of vat-grown bear pelt — no, not bear, he should wear the waterproof seal in this weather. Water… how was he going to get water? Giving the guy toilet water seemed inhumane, despite everything else Dominic had done to him. Maybe he’d collect some rain sluicing off his roof. He grabbed a blanket, wrapped the bread and caribou meat in it, and flung his cloak over his shoulders before leaving.

Rain pelted him outside. Dominic drew up his hood and activated the spikes on his boots. Moonlight glinted on the streets, sparkling on the icicles hanging off rooftops. There’d been a thing in the news about someone getting his skull split by falling ice, so Dominic steered clear of the awnings over shops even though they’d offer shelter from the rain.

This part of town had given him the creeps before he’d been exiled here. Now the exposed pipes around buildings no longer looked like snakes squeezing prey, and the cliffs circling the glaciated valley didn’t remind him of teeth or blades, but of natural protection from the wind. Not a bad place for a ghetto, really, so long as there weren’t many more flash floods.

Oh, shit. He’d forgotten water! Should he turn back? No, he couldn’t afford to meet one of Devereaux’s patrolling soldiers while he fumbled about. Capturing this one had been hard enough. He quickened his pace, tucking the food bundle into his armpit.

Funny, how unthinkable holding a prisoner would have seemed a year ago. He’d been terrified just going out after curfew. Looking over his shoulder as if someone were watching, scanning rooftops for imagined surveillance. He wouldn’t have gone at all if he hadn’t been following his brother, wouldn’t have discovered the beauty of the night.

Wouldn’t have learned that Devereaux’s policemen were kidnappers.

Get a move on, you lout!

A shiver gripped him. Dominic ducked and veered down a cobblestone alley between shops. His boots slid on the glaze created by the freezing rain, his trouser hems stiffening with crystals.

In front of a boarded backdoor at the alley’s end was the metal grate. He’d replaced its lock last night; the old one had looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Frigid metal burned his fingers even through gloves as he lifted the latch and pulled up the grate. He lowered himself into the cellar, kicking in the dark for the stepladder. When he hit flat ground, he reached into his pocket and flicked on his lighter.

“Sorry I forgot about you,” he called to the form in the corner. His switchblade rested at his hip, but he wouldn’t use it unless provoked. “Brought you some food and another blanket. Figured we could call a truce.”

The shape didn’t move. Devereaux’s men were trained to be sudden and unpredictable, so Dominic approached warily. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t want to cut off your hand.” He repressed a shudder, remembering the pop of the wrist joint under the pressure of his blade, how the man hadn’t done more than breathe sharply as blood washed over Dominic. He really hadn’t meant to cut it off; he’d been trying to break it so the guy would stop fighting. Turned out a flame dagger wasn’t like a kitchen knife, and both sides were sharp. “No hard feelings, alright? Devereaux can get you a fake one when I return you.”

Had that sounded objectifying? He grimaced. Why was talking to prisoners so awkward?

“I’m going to let you go if you cooperate. I just have some questions.”

He was closer now and could see the way the man had curled around his cauterized stump for warmth, could see his closed eyes, the stillness of his chest. Dominic’s breath caught as he passed the lighter’s glow over the body.

He’d let his one piece of leverage over Devereaux freeze to death.

“Goddammit!”

Dominic threw his lighter at the wall — throwing things had become habit since Aria left — then cursed when it fizzled out on the floor. In the dark, the voices in his head seemed to take shape before him. It was so much easier doubting himself, wondering why he’d thought he could do this. He held out his hands and moved sideways until he felt the wall beneath his palm.

You’re so busy wallowing in self-pity, you can’t see those around you.

Aria’s words. Well, how was he supposed to keep from self-pity when this sort of shit happened? He’d killed by accident again. That man might have been Cyprus, for God’s sake, under different circumstances.

No, he was missing the point. He’d never catch another one of these bastards, never figure out Devereaux’s plans now. What information he had was scattered and fragmented. Devereaux’s soldiers used curfew as an excuse to be outside patrolling, and to kidnap Firsts unseen, but why? If Devereaux wanted to eliminate the Firsts, he’d declare war — something he hadn’t done even when they’d demanded land back from the Modernists five years ago. He needed them for something. Something that could knock his ass from the throne of the Leader of the Modern World, if Dominic could prove it.

And maybe, just maybe, free Cyprus from House Devereaux’s chains in the process.

Dominic’s foot found flesh; the lighter had landed in the dead man’s hair. He patted the skull until he found his prize. Goosebumps rose when he grazed over the face, and he retracted his hand. Then he stepped over the body and climbed back up the ladder.

Outside, the moons peeked between parting clouds, lighting the sky enough to let him see the Mothership satellite in orbit. The rain had stopped and already the world was coated in ice. Even with the spikes on his boots, he’d have to be careful. Pulling his cloak around his neck, he swept back down the close.

Time was running out. Before Dominic’s letter, Devereaux had blamed ice storms for those few missing soldiers. Several nights at the Explorer’s Mast had confirmed it, as Cyprus spilled state secrets into his cup.

“If they’re stupid enough to forget their survival kits, good riddance,” he’d slur, one arm around Dominic’s shoulders, the other around an ale. “Men like that make us look bad.”

Us. Dominic had scowled. “Do you have to wear that thing off duty?” he’d said of the silver-lined cloak hanging over his brother’s shoulder, the Devereaux mountain lion sigil on his breast. “People are staring.”

“They’re not staring at me, Dom. They’re staring at us.”

A soldier with a Whitelisted, he’d meant. Dominic cringed at the memory, brushing the black spiral on his cheek. Frostbite, branded there by Devereaux’s men while Cyprus had been forced to oversee the process with his hands behind his back. Growing a beard hadn’t covered it, so Dominic had stopped trying. But since that day, Cyprus wasn’t the only one who looked at him differently.

“Ignore them,” Cyprus had said at the Mast, squeezing Dominic’s shoulders. Sober, he avoided touching Dominic in public. “I’ll take ’em all to jail if they keep staring. Hear that? Mind your damn business!”

And yet Dominic remembered the shame that had stung his chest as he and Cyprus exited through separate doors. He through the Whitelist exit, where someone had carved Die, Freaks! into the wood, and Cyprus through the main door while people lifted their hats.

Dominic squinted through the wind, beyond the ghetto and between the cliffs where the City of the Founding Houses sparkled. Silver turrets rose into the clouds, connected by tunnels and stone bridges. Devereaux would know him from the ice storms now. A few missing men was inconvenient, a personal threat delivered to his doorstep another matter. The Braith would think Dominic dangerous — a skilled fighter. Alone on the streets, he laughed.

A rustle from behind. Dominic sobered, curling his fingers around the hilt at his belt. The wind whistled between alleys and around chimneys. Dominic’s dagger hilt felt slippery in his palm.

He quickened his pace. Police didn’t patrol this close to the ghettos. The rustling might have been his cloak stirring in the wind. His breath steamed, surrounding him in mist. Or, no, the mist had crept up the streets while he’d been walking.

Not a bloody ice storm.

The hairs rose on the back of his neck as he felt a presence close in. He veered under the shop awnings for cover. He’d stormed out of his house without the mail he normally wore at work, where being impaled by ice was just one of the occupational hazards. In the past, it had proved useful against the policemen’s guns. Tonight, all he had was his knife.

The mist thickened until Dominic could barely see an arm’s length ahead. There were footsteps behind, he was sure of it. “Spare any counsel for a lost traveler?” he called, turning.

Devereaux’s men wouldn’t shoot unprompted. They would call a warning, flash their badges, and ask to see his identification. If he tried pulling his knife instead of his papers, they’d shoot. His shoulder still throbbed from the memory, and he’d been wearing his mail then. The right moment to pull his knife was while they were looking at his papers.

A dark form emerged from the mists. Dominic raised his hands as he’d gotten used to doing, inching back until his spine hit cold brick. “Sir? Do you need to see my ID?”

The figure advanced, and now Dominic could see it was one of Devereaux’s. He wore the black and silver of House Devereaux, and his cloak shone like liquid mercury in the moonlight. Instead of going for his weapon, Dominic kept his hands in the air.

He couldn’t see the face. What if this was Cyprus?

The man dug into his cloak pocket. Without thinking, Dominic yanked out his switchblade and threw it. The man dodged with a serpent-quick movement of his head. The knife knocked down an icicle behind him, which sprayed ice as it shattered on the cobbles.

The man stumbled. Dominic ran.

In the sunlight, it was easy forgetting that Modernists weren’t built for this weather. A First would use up twice the energy running but could manage it if fueled. Dominic, on the other hand, felt his muscles begging to stiffen. He choked on the air, eyes streaming from the pain in his lungs.

What the hell had just happened? He’d never been attacked by Devereaux’s people without provoking them. Devereaux must have really not liked his gift.

Gunshots broke the mist low to Dominic’s left and right. Lasers, not the titanium bullets he’d been counting on. If he survived tonight, he’d have to up his game.

He rounded a corner into a large plaza, his spiked boots catching a crack in the ice. Dominic fell face-forward as a bullet soared above his shoulder. He held out his hands, hardly feeling the bite of ice beneath him. From the way this man was shooting, at Dominic’s shoulders and legs, he had orders not to kill.

Dominic scrambled onto his back. Hail pounded like fists through the mist. He felt the blood pooling beneath his skin where bruises would form. He heaved himself up and stumbled to the nearest form he could make out: a fifteen-foot statue. Whether this man was a First or a Modernist — Devereaux employed both — he’d have also taken shelter if he was smart.

But where?

Huddled against the statue, ice pellets beating him, Dominic peered out. There wasn’t anything in this plaza save some stone benches and a frozen-over fountain. The man would be too big to fit under the benches, so where was he? Dominic’s mind screamed nonsense at him while he tried to think.

Obedience is the first duty of those sworn to House Devereaux.

He gripped his head in his hands.

Offenses that inflict the penalty of death include cowardice, abandoning your post, drunkenness at post, forgetting your survival kit…

The air was rich with the smell of iron. The warmth of Dominic’s blood on his face and neck quickly became cold stickiness.

Men like that make us look bad.

Of course — Cyprus’s Articles of Conduct handbook said all soldiers carried a survival kit! He had to get to the expandable fiberglass shield. The instructions told users to ignite it with their backs to something solid, which meant the man had to be crouched against one of the benches.

So Dominic dashed for the closest bench to the street. There he caught the glimmer of the shield — for once, what he’d expected to see. Even if the bastard saw him coming through the mist, he couldn’t shoot for the fiberglass around him.

Go now hurry go kill!

Dominic charged, not stopping even when he saw the man remove his shelter to take aim. Fire pierced Dominic’s right side. With a cry, he tackled the figure. They tumbled to the ground in a mess of limbs, and Dominic felt the coolness of his enemy’s flesh before he saw its silver hue. His head swam with pain and words, pounding worse than the hail. The soldier twisted. He was trained to move like a water serpent…Dominic couldn’t keep his blood-slick grip much longer…why should he keep alive…reason…eliminate threat…

The man’s head jerked suddenly. Wetness bloomed over Dominic’s hands, steaming in the night. His grip loosened as the weight beneath him went limp, and Dominic went limp too, sliding to the ground over the man whose head he’d just bashed into a stone bench.

The first person he’d killed on purpose.

The shield found its way into his hand, coming to life in a protective aura above him. Dominic’s resolve solidified with it. He might not be skilled, but he was dangerous. No going back on this terrorist shit now.

This is an excerpt from the novel “Blood State”. It is available at Renaissance Press or Amazon.
Edited by Marie Ginga.

Raluca Balasa holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her debut science fiction novel, Blood State, was released in September of 2020 from Renaissance Press or Amazon. Find out more at her website Raluca Balasa