Authors: M. S. Farzan
BOOK ONE OF THE NIGHTPATH TRILOGY
M. S. Farzan
Copyright © 2015 M. S. Farzan
All rights reserved.
For Mom, Dad, and Annie
My world, which inspires me to write about others
The act of writing may by nature be a solitary endeavor, but it is rarely done in a vacuum. I am deeply indebted to my parents, to Andrea, and to Brian, for their infinite patience in editing, critiquing, suggesting, supporting, listening, reviewing, and unfailingly, reading. I am also appreciative of Meredith’s incredible eye for design and generosity with innumerable proofs. Additionally, I am grateful for my monthly gaming group and best friends besides, who provide for some of the most ridiculous scenarios, which in turn spur the imagination to consider the most epic of stories.
In addition to the above dedication, this book is for anyone who has ever felt marginalized, isolated, or alienated for being different.
ribe hummed to himself cheerily as he worked the clothes hanger through the tiny crack. Slender olive fingers probed expertly at the window base, dexterously seeking the catch that would spring the sedan’s passenger door.
“Any day now,” he complained, feeling the metal slip along the inside of the door. Slowly, he slid the hanger from one side of the window to the other, nudging the antiquated locking mechanism within.
After what seemed like an eternity, the hanger caught on a thick piece of metal, and Tribe shifted his grip, carefully pulling on the catch without unraveling the hanger’s hook.
“Easy,” he cautioned himself.
Confident with the hanger’s position, the auric gave it a quick tug. The catch sprung abruptly, giving way under the sudden pressure, and unlocked the door with a faint click.
“Ace,” he breathed triumphantly, withdrawing the hanger silently and stowing it within a ratty knapsack. Taking a cursory look around him, he opened the car door and slid inside, shifting uncomfortably over the ancient gearshift and into the driver’s seat. As he suspected, the prehistoric machine had the most rudimentary of controls, without boosters or touch recognition. Apart from what appeared to be a more modern stereo system, the car’s interior looked like something found in a VR museum tour, although it was in much worse shape. The antique still ran on electricity.
Tribe pulled a digitab from his jacket and held it up to the ignition button, syncing the device with the car’s primitive computer. He tapped a few buttons and the sedan purred to life, humming softly as its console lit up with LEDs. Swiping through a few screens, he found the machine’s stereo system, and synced it with the device’s prized music supply. A turn-of-the-century hip hop track buzzed through the antiquated speakers, gently vibrating the car frame.
“Not bad,” the thief nodded to himself. Checking his side mirror, he put the sedan in gear while waiting for an opening in the nighttime traffic. Neon lights assailed his sensitive eyes as cars zipped past and above him, and he had to squint just to see the street behind him. After a brief wait, there was a short lull in the lower traffic, and he pulled the small vehicle into the roadway, immediately slamming his foot down on the acceleration pedal to blend into the flow of cars.
Speeding as quickly as the old sedan would let him, he made his way through SOMA and into downtown, ignoring the periodic flicker of blue lights overhead as the boostered vehicles passed above him. He slowed as he reached a traffic light, drawing an Oxidium packet from a pocket and slipping one of the small pellets into his mouth. The drug immediately took effect, clearing his vision and seeming to slow down everything around him. He tapped impatiently on the steering wheel in time with the music as the light ahead took agonizingly slow to turn.
As if in slow motion, the red light turned green, but Tribe’s heightened senses led him to notice a bit of motion out of the corner of his eye. Four NIGHT cruisers sped through the intersection’s bottom and upper levels, siren lights flashing silently and blue light spilling from their ceridium engine vents. Cars around and above him pulled up nervously to avoid hitting them and each other.
“Someone’s in a hurry,” Tribe said to no one in particular as he watched the agents speed away.
Karthax stood on the balcony, holding the digitab out in front of him. A sandy beach stretched out below, the Atlantic a sparkling blanket of jewels beyond. A balmy breeze caressed his dry skin, lightly ruffling his military fatigues.
“The wheels are set,” he spoke into the device. “Expect my call within the week.”
The figure on the digitab display grunted in agreement. “And if it fails?”
“That will not happen,” Karthax reassured him. The Inquisitor General paced along the balcony rail, the sun casting his craggy face in radiance.
“I require more than your personal guarantees,” the figure replied.
Expecting the skepticism, Karthax had his answer prepared. “The Destroyer will work for us on this.”
“The Betrayer does not work for anyone but himself,” the figure corrected him.
The Inquisitor General swatted at a fly buzzing near his face. “Nonetheless, he has agreed to perform any necessary cleanup.”
The figure considered Karthax’s words for a moment, long enough to make the human wonder if his display had frozen. Then it grunted again in agreement.
“I will await your call.”
The digitab clicked, and the display went black. Karthax pocketed the device, putting his burly forearms on the balcony railing and gazing out at the horizon. Below, the ocean lapped lazily at the quiet beach, tracing sparkling foam patterns in the sand.
Thog’run II handed the digitab to an advisor, settling back into his throne. The king put his hand on the large battleaxe resting against his leg, rocking it absently against the stone floor.
“Sire, if I may,” the advisor said politely, “it feels as though we have made a deal with the devil.”
Thog’run stared ahead, his calculating eyes piercing the dim light of the underground audience chamber. A guard shifted nervously nearby, uncomfortable with being privy to the conversation.
“It does feel that way, doesn’t it,” the auric king said.
The NIGHTs are excellent strategists, combatants, and mancers, but they have a singular vision of the world and its inhabitants. Would that they would see less black and white and more grey
-The Sigil of Sparks
ow many out there?” a voice buzzed through my earpiece.
I watched the city below carefully, standing stock still as the evening breeze whipped my coat behind me. The bright neon lights formed an iridescent halo through the layer of fog that had begun to coalesce, but I could still pinpoint a handful of signal markers within the haze. The ancient radio tower loomed behind me forlornly like a ruddy tuning fork sticking out of a concrete mound.
I tapped a button on my digitab, magnifying a selected portion of the cityscape through my lenses. “Three,” I replied. “Two on Columbus-Farrow and one downtown.”
I grimaced at the racism, but said nothing. Marking the three waypoints on my digitab’s city map, I hurried back to the cruiser bike.
“HQ wants you to prioritize the downtown storefront,” the voice continued. “Intel says that it’s set to go nova first, and there’s no telling what these gutter trash will do when we expose them.”
I nodded to myself as I mounted the cruiser, passing a gloved hand over the vehicle’s blinking security console. Its engine instantly came to life, cold blue light spilling out of the bike’s casing.
“Oh and, Nightpath,” my earpiece buzzed. “Bring me a couple of knife-ears as souvenirs, will you?”
I tensed on the bike, disgusted by the snickering I could hear in the background.
“That’s enough, Striker,” I said curtly.
The laughter stopped abruptly. “Just get it done,” the voice said, and the earpiece clicked.
“Jackass,” I spat, irritably flicking a dial on the bike’s handlebar. The cruiser jolted forward under my touch like an angry dog against a leash, the ceridium engine growling mutedly beneath me. I spun the bike in a quick U-turn and began making my way down the barren hill back to Old Market and the downtown signal marker.
The city was unseasonably warm, a sinking, dry heat that was only just being chased away by the fog. It had been a hot week, the one handful of days out of the year that the temperature came anywhere close to triple digits. I was sweating under my standard issue uniform and long coat, my hands damp against the cruiser’s metal grips. The neighborhood around me, no more than abandoned houses and empty lots this far up Twin Peaks, smelled of dirt and old pavement.
I checked the time in the corner of my lens display, which read 20:31:59. I had over an hour to get to the downtown location, more than enough time to neutralize the situation and make my way to North Beach. The storefronts, which represented over two months of undercover stakeouts, bribes, and interrogation by questionable means - what the NIGHT leadership liked to call “careful research” - represented the tip of an iceberg. A couple of tiny first-floor shops rigged to blow were nothing compared to the extensive terrorist network that was teeming beneath the city, and defusing them was no more than a lame PR move to demonstrate that the government’s pet protection agency still had jurisdiction at the civic level. As much as I hated to admit it, Striker was right about one thing: no one quite knew what the revs would do when they were exposed.
Tall, dimly lit apartment buildings began to dot the sides of the road as I made my way out of Twin Peaks and down Old Market. The project housing, which had been hastily built after the establishment of Aurichome to support the massive influx of human refugees, was an eyesore on what was otherwise a potentially picturesque landscape. Here and there, between the increasingly numerous buildings, I caught glimpses of the luminous city below, bustling with nighttime activity. I swerved between the few cars that were on the road this far away from the city center, accelerating as I neared the first row of neon-encrusted structures.
The change in architecture as I reached New Castro was as abrupt as it was symbolic, signifying a shift in population as well as resources. Old money had met new money on the outskirts of the city center and they both liked their nice things. Rows of erstwhile apartment buildings had been reclaimed and repurposed as nightclubs, VR emporiums, and vacation houses for the handful of moguls who had made a killing on the augmented reality media boom. Dozens of digads assaulted my senses as I sped through the vibrant neighborhood, pulsing asynchronously from AR-enabled monitors in front of each storefront.
The lower nighttime traffic increased considerably as I cruised through the busy district, slowing to a crawl as I reached the New Castro-downtown border. Tapping a few buttons on the cruiser’s console, I engaged the vehicle’s boosters, gently revving the ceridium engine and easing into the less congested upper tier.
From my new vantage point, I could easily see through the fog of AR animations and into downtown, and began to review the mission briefing from memory. The NIGHT intel had identified three underrace-owned storefronts that were emptied out and rigged to blow within fifteen minutes of each other. They were thought to be distractions from whatever scheme the revolutionaries had planned this time, which was undoubtedly above my pay grade.
I made a face, disgusted with how the NIGHT leadership and the government at large had let it get to this point. Locking people up, taking away their basic rights, and treating them as second-class citizens had always proven to be a surefire way to foment revolt. Remove everything they have to believe in, and they’ll make every effort to return the favor.
The worst part was the lack of any kind of accountability on the NIGHT leadership and politicians behind the current state of affairs. Any questions about the maltreatment of auric prisoners or rights talk in general would be unfailingly met with vague statements about internal defense, or even worse, feigned ignorance about the root cause of revolutionary violence, with some sideways remark about the rage plague and the need for greater Oxidium control.
I shook my head and refocused on the task at hand. By all accounts, it would be a standard breaking and entering job with minimal force; defuse the bomb and neutralize any hostiles. The NIGHT headquarters would dispatch heavier forces to the other two storefronts, which would undoubtedly see more resistance when the first place didn’t blow as planned. I’d be in and out in under ten minutes, tops.
I slowed slightly as I made my way deeper into the downtown district, which was no less colorful than New Castro with its towering, digad-pocked buildings that crowded together as if huddling against the fog encroaching from the Bay. Turning onto a small side street, I disengaged the cruiser’s boosters and coasted to the bottom level. The shift was almost deafening in its marked decrease in traffic noise and digads, with only a couple of trucks loading and unloading at service entrances and a few street people making their way through the night.
I checked my location against the signal marker that I had observed from the old radio tower, nodding to myself. If the NIGHTs’ informants were being paid the right amount, the signal marker they had set up would correctly lead me to a storefront two blocks away, without any paper or digital trail to identify them to the revs’ leadership. The auric king’s people didn’t take kindly to snitches.
I turned into a tiny cul-de-sac, passing a hand over the cruiser’s console to turn off the engine. I stepped off of the vehicle and unraveled my long coat, adjusting my lenses to see better in the dim light away from the main thoroughfare. Moving casually but silently, I walked to the mouth of the alley and peered down the side street towards the storefront, a modest corner location masquerading as a legalized Oxidium dispensary. Unlike the larger buildings surrounding it, the shop was comprised of only two stories, with dark, nondescript windows facing out towards the intersection.
Reaching into a pocket, I opened a small packet and slipped a ceridium capsule into my hand. I held it out in front of me and made several deft, practiced gestures, scanning the street around me to ensure that I wasn’t drawing any undue attention. With a final pass of my hand, I crushed the capsule and tossed the contents over my head in a brief flash of blue. I could feel my skin tingling slightly as the spell took effect, shrouding me in a gentle mist that would hide me from all but direct eye contact.
I quietly padded down the street towards the location’s opposing corner, filtering the different readings coming through my lenses and being recorded onto my digitab. A handful of night porters were working a block away, loading furniture into a large truck. Two street people slept under the cover of an awning, bundled even during the unusual heat. Several parked cars lined the roadway, all but one appearing cold in my IR scan. From my vantage, the storefront looked quiet and empty, as expected.
The timer on the upper corner of my lens display read 21:04:05, forty-one minutes before the place was set to blow. Plenty of time.
Giving the adjacent buildings a quick scan, I briskly walked across the street towards the back entrance of the dispensary, around the corner from the storefront. I sized up the wall in front of me, delicately placing a foot upon a jutting piece of stucco and using it to spring up towards a second-story window sill. I grabbed the sill with one hand and used my feet against the wall for balance, confident that if anyone happened to look my way from an appreciable distance, they’d see no more than a nondescript smudge on the wall.
Using my free hand, I pried at the window, feeling it give way easily under my touch. I opened it silently, gliding through the opening and into a long, unlit hallway that smelled heavily of damp wood and unwashed bodies. Several doorways opened into the corridor, with a stairwell at the far end that presumably led down into the Oxidium dispensary.
It took me all of two seconds to notice that something was wrong. I could hear soft sounds coming from the rooms opening off the hall, and a faint light flickered from the chamber closest to the stairs. I moved down the corridor and sidled up against the first doorway, trusting in my shadow shroud to keep me hidden from all but the most observant of spectators. I ducked my head in and out of the room, allowing my lenses to record its contents.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, and a terrible premonition began to snake its way through my subconscious. Hurrying to the next doorway, I quickly peered inside and felt my stomach tighten in response, either from the overpowering smell, anxiety, or both.
I crept back towards the open window, scrolling through my digitab to find the right contact and tapping a button.
“The hell you want, Nightpath?” Striker’s voice greeted me after a few beeps. “Don’t you have a job to do?”
“Piss off, Striker,” I retorted through clenched teeth. “Downtown doesn’t match briefing intel. There are people here, a lot of them, all ragers.”
“The hell does that matter? Do the job, man.”
“Damn it, Striker!” I clipped, looking around me to make sure I still hadn’t been noticed. “I’m saying it doesn’t make sense. Why would the revs blow up their own?”
“You get paid to ask questions, or you get paid to shoot people?” Striker’s voice buzzed. “Do the job.”
“Not innocents, prick!” I could feel my patience dissipating into anger. “Listen to me, Striker. There are
in here. Something’s not right.”
“Do the job, Nightpath,” Striker repeated, and the digitab clicked.
I growled incoherently at the closed line, taking another cursory look around me and noting the time. 21:12:04.
Two rooms were filled to the brim with people in various states of consciousness, vibrant in my lenses’ IR spectrum with the telltale fever of the rage plague. Aurics mostly, with a few humans here and there tending to them or keeping them company. Adults, children, elderly, young. By the size and number of rooms, I’d estimate over fifty people sedated and being held on the brink of lunacy.
“Piss,” I said again. The revolutionaries were known for their guerilla tactics and tenacity, not for their brutality. If the building was set to explode, the auric king would have blood of his own kind on his hands, which signified a new depth to his desire to control the city. It was a big play, but it didn’t change my objective.
I pocketed my digitab and crept down the corridor, back towards the stairwell. The building was stifling, hotter than the outside world with no hint of a breeze. I could feel a nervous sweat dampen my clothes under my arms and at the small of my back. I sidled past several other rooms and approached the lighted room next to the stairs. A faint murmuring drifted out from it and into the corridor.
Just as I reached the room’s open doorway, a tall auric dressed in street clothes and dangling with piercings walked out of the room, head down as he counted a wad of crumpled paper money. “Later,” he called over his shoulder as he turned the corner and trotted down the stairwell, oblivious to my presence.
I waited several beats until I heard a door close downstairs. Peering around the corner and into the room, I could clearly make out several figures in the dim light, my brown eyes picking up on tusks and horns while my lenses picked up the rest. Five aurics, all conscious, with no signs of the rage plague. Two human-sized pairs sitting at as many tables, with one gigantic troll of an auric propped up against a corner wall, all absorbed in their digitabs, which provided the room’s only meager illumination. Their superior vision wouldn’t need any more than that.