By Sabrina RG Raven
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BOOK ONE: BLANK
When I was born my parents wept. Not in joy like most parents do, but in sorrow.
Everyone in the world is born with a tattoo that matches their soul mate’s. We couple for life. I have no idea, even now, how it all works, how that soul mate is always close enough to be found, but I am blank. That is why my parents wept.
The hospital put me in isolation, capsuled in a humidicrib, encased in plastic, hoping that a mark would appear in time, like the spots of a Dalmatian puppy. But I remained blank. They took blood samples, and skin scrapes. They bottled my tears and called in healers. They genetically tested me, looking for missing markers and the like. They found nothing out of the ordinary. I was a healthy baby who grew into a healthy toddler.
My parents searched my skin a thousand times, praying that a mark would appear. It had never happened in my town – a blank child – at least not in the past 100 years of records. There were rumours, rumours that left me isolated and my parents embarrassed.
My sister was born when I was three. She had her mark emblazoned on her calf, the same place as my mother. They named her Joy, as they were finally going to be able to get past my deformity. My name, Almara, meant one who is alone. I guess they were right.
There was nothing but stories of people like me. Eventually though I was ignored enough to make my life liveable. I went to school but was sat in the back, so as not to disrupt the other children. I was a curiosity but I needed more than being the blank child in my life. I worked hard at school and did as I was told. I got good grades and my parents were proud, but I was never acknowledged for them. I was ten when I started looking through the town archives.
The archives were housed in the basement of the town library. The librarian, Mr Elwood, was used to me being in the building, it was a good place to escape the stares and whispers of the locals. My parents were content with me being there as long as I was out of their way and not getting in trouble. It was safe there and I felt safe too, surrounded by books and data drives.
I had asked Mr Elwood about the archived town records, but he would just ruffle my hair and tell me I would be bored in there, steering me towards the children’s library. One day I overheard an adult ask for access to the archives and Mr Elwood shuffled through the stacks of books, leading the man into the antiquity section of the library. I followed behind, darting from shelf to shelf to stay out of view. When you spend your life trying to avoid stares you get good at walking as softly as a cat and blending in to the background. I was good at being ignored now.
The vanilla like scent rose from the old pages of the antique book section, cracked leather sent swirls of warm dust into the air. I loved that smell. I heard the hushed voices stop as they drew up to a door. It was dark wood, with a metal keypad on the side. I darted to the next shelf to get a better angle on the keypad.
4-6-8-2 Mr Elwood typed in. 4-6-8-2, 4-6-8-2, I repeated in my head, locking the number away for next time. The man slipped into the room and banks of fluoro lights lit the white room beyond as the door swung shut with a sigh of hinges.
I scuttled a few rows over, just in case. Mr Elwood knew I loved the smell in here so I slipped a tome from the shelf and began to look it over. A History of the Oasis. Herios was my City, built on old forests with a thriving paper industry. I flicked through the pages, gently leafing through the history of my family home. We were Herians going back five generations. This book concerned itself though with wars and industry, and not so much the people or where the population originally emigrated from. I knew that most Herians were from the mountains and beyond; my family from the beyond part. I closed the book with a sigh and a small puff of dust, and was sliding it into its spot on the shelf when Mr Elwood appeared beside me.
‘Almara, what are you doing back here?’ he said with a smile as the book returned to its place in the shelf.
‘Just soaking up the smell, Mr Elwood,’ I replied with a laugh.
‘A young lady like you shouldn’t be digging around in the dust of these old shelves. Why don’t you head back to the children’s section? We got some new books in this morning that I just finished putting on display.’
‘But the old books are interesting,’ I said, trying to think of a better excuse. ‘It’s for a school report anyway. Just looking at the old history books. Stuff from before the war. If I could get into the archives…’ I grinned, knowing his answer.
‘We’ve spoken about that before. You don’t need to go into the archives. Anyway, if you need pre-war history, you’re better off going into the Libriophile system. The pre-war books are in there and much easier to read than these old things.’
‘It’s just not the same. And there’s nothing else for me to do, so I don’t mind spending the time.’
‘Well don’t stay down here too long. You’ll end up all dusty. Your parents won’t like that.’
‘Yeah, I guess,’ I mumbled, knowing full well my parents wouldn’t give a damn if I came home soaked in blood, let alone dust.
Mr Elwood smiled and wandered off, whistling a quiet melody that echoed through the shelves. I heard the town clock chime half past five. I had half an hour until the library closed. The archives would have to wait until tomorrow. I went to the history section and grabbed a few books to take home. I had read so many books on history that I didn’t need the books, but I hoped to find something I’d missed about being blank in one of them. Maybe one day I would find answers as to what I was, and what being blank meant. There had to be more than meaning I was meant to be alone.
The clock chimed 6pm as I walked through the heavy doors of the library and down to the bus stop. The man from the library was there. I glanced up at him, trying not to draw attention to myself. I was envious of him. If I were an adult, Mr Elwood would let me into the archives too. He held a wad of paper in his hand, printouts of plain text, still curled on the corners from the warmth of the copier. I sat on the bench seat and tried to read the documents in his hand but he soon shuffled them into the bag he had slung over his shoulder.
The bus pulled up and we both got on. Soon I was home and sitting silently at the dinner table as my family talked over me as usual. I was their broken child and Joy had news. She had found her soul mate.
Joy was eight when she found her soul mate. He was six and named Wellen. He lived in the far district but soon his family would move so that he and Joy could grow up together. He was an only child so that was protocol, although my parents moving would have been considered fine I guess, seeing as I wasn’t really needing to be considered. It’s not as though I had a match. To them I was barely a person.
This was how it was. There would be a betrothal party soon. Not that they would marry for many years, but a soul mate was a soul mate and that link was established as soon as markings were matched. Being so young, this was seen as a good sign. Their lives would be long and plentiful together. Later matches were much more common, usually not being found until late teens.
I smiled in congratulations but it was like someone had punched me in the chest. One more blow to my deformity. I pushed my half-eaten dinner away and excused myself. My mother sighed and nodded her approval as I walked away. I couldn’t handle the excitement. I knew I should be happy for Joy, but the hollow feeling in my chest was just too much for me.
I pushed my way into my room and looked at the pile of books on my desk. I grabbed the one on top and flopped onto my bed. How many times could I read it trying to find answers? After a few pages, I began to doze when a knock at my door startled me awake.
‘Almara? Can I come in?’ It was my mother. Her voice was soft and cautious, unsure of how I felt about Joy’s pairing.
‘Sure,’ I mumbled, half asleep. I was not in the mood for this but what choice did I have. I pulled myself into a sitting position against my pillows as my mother settled at the foot of my bed.
‘Almara, I need to talk to you about your sister.’
‘I know, she’s pairing. Her betrothal party will be soon and I will need to give a speech as her older sibling. It’s fine. I’ll do it.’
‘No, it’s not that…You can’t be at the betrothal.’
‘What? Why?’ I surprised at the fierceness in my voice. Sure, I wasn’t feeling all that good about being left out of tradition but she was still my sister.
‘The town bylaws prohibit you from being there. We were hoping to have more time to tell you.’
‘But she’s my little sister! I’m only ten! Maybe my marking will appear later. Everyone has them. That’s what the history books say,’ I spat, throwing the book I’d been reading at her.
‘No! I will be there. What else am I not allowed to do that you haven’t told me about?’
‘Almara I… I don’t know. Your father is looking into it. See if we can get you dispensation so you can be there.’
‘I shouldn’t need it. I’m her sister! I’m your daughter! I belong there as much as any other person.’
‘We will talk about this more in the morning. I’ll give you time to cool down.’
‘Cool down? I am not going to cool down and forget that I’m a non-person because of a birth defect. If I am, it’s as much your fault as it is mine!’
My mother recoiled like I’d slapped her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sorry that I failed you. If I could fix you I would. You know that Almara.’
‘There is nothing WRONG with me,’ I screamed.
Mother stood and walked out the door, taking one last glance back at me before pulling the door closed.
I was awake now, all drowsiness flooded away with rage. I had a lot of anger for a ten-year-old. I had to find out what I was. I had to. Tomorrow there was no school. Tomorrow I would go into the archives.
As the sun rose I snuck out of the house. Well I tried; my mother was up, sitting in the kitchen over a cup of coffee. She was waiting for me.
‘Almara, where are you going?’
‘Does it matter? I’m not a person in this world, am I?’
‘Sit down. We need to talk.’
‘No. I need to get out of this house before I explode,’ I snapped at her.
‘SIT DOWN,’ she barked at me. I don’t think my mother had ever raised her voice at me. I pulled out a chair and perched on the edge of it. I refused to get comfortable as I knew what was coming was not going to be either pleasant or acceptable to my sensibilities, but I remained quiet and she just looked at me for a while. She looked tired, weary, her eyes sunken, the bruises of no sleep colouring the skin below her eyes. She hadn’t slept either.
I opened my mouth to say something, too agitated to sit in silence, the code for the archives rattling through my head: 4-6-8-2, 4-6-8-2. She got there first.
‘We need to talk,’ she said, her voice back to the gentle tone I was used to from her, but I could hear a tremor in it.
‘So you said,’ I mumbled, beginning to fidget under the table.
‘I’m going to have a talk with the town council today. The lawmakers have granted me a meeting.’
‘Yes. About your status in our society. Not just for the betrothal ceremony for Joy but in general. There must be a precedent set and as much as it pains me to go against our laws, I don’t agree that you are any different to your sister or the other children in this world. Blank or not.’
I didn’t know what to say. My mother was a person who never went against the grain, never spoke up, her quiet voice was always a sign of her docility not strength. My father was much the same. I was the thorn in their side and I always thought that if they had to make the choice they would choose the law over me. Maybe I was wrong.
‘You can’t come with me though, and your father can’t know. Not yet anyway. He believes we must follow what we are told, to the letter. I can’t do that. You’re my daughter and I can’t let you miss out on things that are a part of all lives. There has to be other blank children out there. I can’t believe you are the only one. I’m sorry though.’
‘I’m sorry if something I did caused this…issue. I’ve tried to think about it, tried to work out what I did wrong. If I ate something that was wrong or I just did something…I don’t know.’
‘Mum, it’s not you. I’m just different. You always told me I was just different, not disabled, not a freak, no matter what others said. I’m an anomaly.’
‘And you are wiser than I am it seems. Where are you off to this morning in such a rush?’
‘The library. I want to get there as it opens so I can get the best books.’
‘You and your books. Go have fun. Don’t forget to stop for lunch. I know how you can get lost in your thoughts. Can I give you a ride there or back?’
‘I’ll be okay. And mum? Thanks.’
I got to the library as Mr Elwood was unlocking the door.
‘You’re here early Almara?’
‘Early bird gets the best books…okay that didn’t work the way I expected. You know what I mean.’
He ushered me in as a group of university students began to file up the stairs. They always got here early so I knew I could disappear into the throng and sneak into the archives. I walked towards the children’s section and into the reading alcoves. A few other kids ran in giggling, throwing themselves onto the beanbags on the floor, books folding under them. I winced at the damage they were doing. But I couldn’t worry about that now. I pulled a novel off the shelf and tucked it under my arm and began to head over to the rows of antique books.
A few adults milled around in the aisles, but most of the students usually preferred the Libriophile system. Less effort was needed to search the database system for information and eBooks than was needed to troll through the dusty books in here. But some knew that it held some hidden gems that could mean the difference in grades in their studies. I was in the row I had squirreled away in the day before and could see the door for the archives from here. I heard someone coming so pulled a book from the shelf, pretending to read. They walked past and I moved to the next row over.
It was empty, as were the next two rows, much to my joy. I wandered towards the archive door, my eyes darting from side to side, my ears pricked to hear the slightest noise of oncoming people. I heard someone clear their throat from a few rows over, coming towards me. I slid to the floor, resting my back against the wall under the keypad to get into the archives and pulled the book from under my arm and began to read.
I needn’t have worried. The woman walked right past me disappearing into an aisle five rows down without even a glance in my direction. I was invisible. I waited a few more minutes, and nothing but silence followed apart from the rustling of pages from rows away. I got to my feet, tucking the book back under my arm and turned to the keypad.
4-6-8-2, 4-6-8-2 I whispered on a loop under my breath. I hope I’d remembered it properly. Would an alarm sound if I got it wrong or would the door just not unlock? I took a deep breath, my heart throbbing in my ears, and punched the numbers in. I turned the handle on the door and at first it didn’t seem to want to turn. A string of whispered expletives left my lips and then I heard a click, and the handle turned. I pulled the door open and slipped inside into the bright lights of the room beyond.
The door clicked shut behind me and I heard the lock reactivating. The room in front of me was bright. It was stark white in comparison to the old-world charm of the library building. Dark wood and rich carpeting gave way to white tiles and metal shelves. Five metres in was a set of stairs and beyond that a room stretched as far as I could see.
Banks of computers were interrupted by more shelves and filing cabinets, all gleaming and striking in their order. I didn’t know where to start. I realised I was still holding my breath. I exhaled and slowly made my way to the nearest shelf. My footsteps echoed across the cold tiles. The temperature in here was so much lower, goose bumps pricking at my skin. I pulled out the light jacket I had in my bag and pulled it on. It wasn’t much but it would have to do.
The books here looked strange, and until I was up close to the shelf I didn’t realise why. The covers of these books weren’t made of paper or leather. These covers were metal; hinged folders made to resemble books, their spines blank save a number stamped into the metal. I shrugged and reached for the book nearest to me. 1251-235135-456. I recoiled at first as the cold of the metal bit into my fingertips. I pulled the book from the shelf and marvelled at the lightness of the volume. I had expected it to be heavy with its metal cover but although the cover was thicker than the leather covers of the antique books, the metal they were made of must have weighed barely anything.
I flipped open to the title page, not sure what I was expecting. Laws and Protocols volume 456. I looked at the other volumes on these shelves and saw that the last number of the books started at 001 and finished at 963. I went back to the book and checked for an index. Anything to help me locate a relevant book to look in but it seemed I was out of luck. Looking at the subject headings there didn’t even seem to be any obvious grouping system for the subjects. This volume was about pet ownership and car licensing rules. How those two connected I had no idea.
I took a few steps to the left and pulled volume 568 from the row below. I opened it and again was confronted with random subjects: sewage and drainage regulations, and town parade ordinance. Who wrote these things?
I looked behind me and down the stairs to the banks of monitors. Maybe a search would help.
I put the metal cased volume back on the shelf, absent-mindedly wiping my fingerprints off the metallic cover. I wandered down the stairs and sat at one of the computer units. I could hear a hum of power but couldn’t see a switch to turn it on. I tapped at the keyboard to no avail.
‘Work damn you,’ I muttered.
Command not valid, said an electronic female sounding voice.
‘Uhhh… Monitor on.’
The screen flickered into life. Okay voice activated. This was new. I’d heard of these systems but then what was the point of the keyboard?
‘Search blank children,’
4056 documents available.
That was certainly more than I was expecting.
‘Search blank children, records of birth.’
20 documents available.
‘Search blank children, records of birth, current.’
2 documents available.
‘Show documents,’ I said, not sure what the result would be of this command but what harm could it do.
Enter pass code.
Damn it. That was the point of the keyboard then. Could it be as easy as entering the door code? Would I be that lucky? I pulled the keyboard towards me, my fingers hovered above the number pad. Alarm bells rang in my head, imagining real alarms ringing if I entered the wrong code. Surely they would allow for human error and give a few chances before alarms would sound.
I tapped the numbers out carefully, making sure every keystroke was spot on. 4…6…8…2.
At first nothing happened, and then the screen went blank. I froze, awaiting the wailing of sirens and rushing of people. I knew I shouldn’t be here, that much was clear. Then the smooth electronic voice came from the computer.
One document released. Document opening.
It worked! Well it half worked, but this was the furthest I had ever gotten with my searches.
A large spreadsheet opened in front of me. The large monitor showed lists of names and lists of births and deaths. It seemed to be a full population record of the town. A new tab appeared for each year at the bottom of the page going back 20 years. This would take ages.
‘Filter document, show blank children.’
Again the screen went blank for a moment. Maybe I had broken it. After a minute, I was thinking maybe I should give up when the document flickered back onto the screen. It was a single database. No tabs this time. There were a lot more names on it than I was expecting.
I hit the down arrow key on the keyboard and scrolled until I saw my name. There were still several names below mine too. These couldn’t all be blank children. I’d never met another like me, and then I noticed the last two columns: status and deceased dates. Just the few names around mine made my head reel.
Three deceased kids in seven? Even I knew that was an awfully high mortality rate for kids under ten years old. But the status column certainly piqued my interest. Secured? Unsecured? What did that even mean? I scrolled back up the list skimming the column. At least a third of Blank children born in the past 10 years were deceased, several missing statuses peppered the report but most common was secured. Secured how? Secured where? And why was I one of the few unsecured.
I scrolled back up to the top of the page and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen from my bag. I began to write down the names and birth dates of the children marked as unsecured. It seemed the older the children got the fewer they became. The oldest was 15. After that deceased was the most common status.
Out of around 200 names there was a total of 24 names on my sheet of paper. 14 of them were under five. So where were the other 10 and why had I never seen them or met them? It was a big town but there were only three schools and gossip still flew hard and fast, especially among the mothers’ circles. Joy’s betrothal announcement would already be in the ears of most school kids and their parents.
I needed to find out more about this secured thing.
‘Search blank children secured.’
2 documents found.
‘Search secured children facility.’
1 document found
Enter pass code
I typed in the same code as before and waited. The screen went black; I assumed it was loading and sat back waiting. Then the screen flashed red.
Security level incorrect. Please Enter pass code.
Well that’s not helpful, I mumbled under my breath. ‘Override security code.’
Insert security override.
This was frustrating.
‘Show sample document.’
Document description loading.
Blank Security Protocol
Facility location and listing security level 5.
Documentation contained is for use by Authority officials only.
Enter pass code.
Knowing I didn’t have the security authority I sat there, not sure what to do next.
Enter pass code.
Why did it keep asking me that?
Enter pass code.
Uh oh. I started to panic, this didn’t feel good.
Enter pass code. Code 645 protocol will activate in 10…
I smashed the keypad 4-6-8-2.
Code incorrect. Enter pass code.
The screen turned red. I jammed my paper into my pocket and stepped away from the screen.
‘Shut down,’ I yelled at the screen.
Command unavailable. Enter pass code.
Command unavailable. Code 645 protocol will activate in 5…
‘Override code 645 protocol. Exit. Abort.’
The screen began to flash. This was not good. I looked back at the door into the library. A red flashing light began to glow above the door. That would make escape harder. I looked the other way into the rows of cabinets and shelves beyond the monitor bank. I was small. I could hide. I took off into the shelves as the alarm began to sound. My chair clattered to the cold floor as I heard doors begin to open from the walls of the archives and footsteps rush in.
I ran down the rows, my sneakers squeaking against the tiles, the sound drowned out by the alarms. As I slipped in between two large metal filing cabinets, I saw a glimpse of two people flash past the end of the aisle. It was so bright. There were no shadows to hide in. The sirens stopped but the red lights stayed flashing over the harsh white of the banks of bulbs inlaid in the ceiling.
I could hear yelling, voices echoing off the walls. I looked back up the aisle and realised that there was no way I would go unnoticed here between the cabinets. So far, my aisle was empty but I didn’t know for how long. I looked across at the shelves running down the other side of my aisle. There was a gap but I wasn’t sure if I could fit into it. I was small though and there was at least a semblance of shadow under there.
With one last glance, I rolled across the floor and squeezed in under the shelf, pulling my bag in with me. I tried to quiet my breathing but I’m sure that my heart beat alone was vibrating its way across the floor and into the feet of whoever it was looking for me. No wonder Mr Elwood had never let me in here; he was just trying to protect me.
I closed my eyes and felt the tears welling, trying to escape in fear. My mother…what would they do to my mother?
The voices were coming closer to me.
‘Down this aisle.’
I held my breath.
‘Any word on an ID from head office yet?’
Spots began to dance across my vision from lack of oxygen.
‘No ID but it was someone small, probably female.’
I tried to inhale as slowly and quietly as I could to refill my lungs. My hands were shaking.
‘How did they get in here?’
‘That fool Elwood probably. He’s been out of the department way too long.’
I was managing to breathe a little easier now.
‘It looks like whoever it was is gone.’
My hands still shook as I saw feet appear in my range of vision.
‘Can’t be. Internal lockdown means she’s in here still.’
The footfalls stopped. A pair of black shoes stopped a few metres from where I lay under the shelf. I held my breath again. How silent could I be?
I heard a crackle of a headset but couldn’t make out the words. All of a sudden, a hand clutched at my ankle. I screamed and grabbed onto the leg of the shelf.
‘Almara Henricks, under the power invested in me by City Ordinance you are under arrest for trespass and treason against your City. You will remain silent unless asked to speak. As you are a blank child you will be remanded in a facility suitable to your condition until proceedings can be completed.’
I continued to cry out at my captor as I felt my body dragged into the light. I was small and nowhere near strong enough to resist, especially as a second set of hands grabbed at me, pulling me out from under the shelf. I thrashed against them, feeling my bag connect with the face of the woman holding my arm.
I felt something cold press against my neck, then a sharp, cold stabbing of a needle through the muscles and then everything went black.