Excerpt--Blue on Black
It doesn’t start like this:
See, the thing is, it isn’t supposed to go
He’s a goddamned Tracker, he’s a goddamned
good Tracker, better than anything else the Directorate’s
got, and the swagger that comes with that has been earned a
hundred times over, sometimes in blood, though, okay, let’s not
get all maudlin and dramatic. The point is, he’s not supposed to
be caught wrong-footed. And he’s certainly not supposed
to be staring down eight barrels of a spin-cylinder street
cannon in the back of a train station in godforsaken Harrowgate.
That’s supposed to be the Agent’s job.
Poor guy. Stupid fucking idiot.
“You Barstow?” the man with the gun asks.
He’s tall and rangy, rough-looking and sallow-skinned, with
patches of beard going wild and scraggly. It’s dark and Bas
can’t see the rest of his face very well, just a stubbled
sloping chin beneath the shadow cast by his wide-brimmed hat. He
looks tough as rusty nails and just as pleasant.
Steam hugs the ground and wreaths the hem
of the man’s long dirty coat, clings, and thickens the reek of
dirt and sweat that wafts from the man every time he moves. Bas
can even smell it through the fug of smoke and engine grease
coming from the station, and all of it combined pricks at his
eyes and makes them water. No thick, sundrop-yellow of psyTech
hazing at the periphery of his vision and something earthy, like
mushrooms, on the back of his tongue; no blue edging that says
“kineTech” and somehow tastes of wet cedar. Bas’s mind processes
“nonTech” before his eyes bother to fully assess his current
situation. Still, though, the gun—Bas can see that just fine.
“Who’s asking?” Bas says from his crouch.
He’s somewhat pissed off, so it comes out a growl.
Smooth, Bas, he tells himself.
Keep it smooth. He can still salvage this.
“I en’t playin’ games.” The housing of the
barrels turns and a cylinder clicks into place. “Are you
Bas peers down at the agent’s body, blood
still seeping in a rivulet from the knife in his throat, the
heat catching the chill of the desert night and wisping steam.
Aaron, Bas thinks. The guy’s name was Aaron.
Bas didn’t know him well. Hadn’t cared to
get to know him. Just another Directorate Agent who’d
maybe gotten a little too cocky. It happens.
“Yeah,” says Bas. “Yeah, I’m Barstow.”
He isn’t. No one is, not really. It’s a
cover, a standard one used by Trackers when they need a
ready-made thug reputation as an in with bands of thieves and
murderers, and then that same cover is handed over to the Agents
along with the case once the Tracker’s job is done.
Bas is a Tracker, not an Agent. Trackers
track. They don’t do the set-them-up-then-take-them-down
part. They do the sniffing out and the pointing, and then they
let the Agents take over.
Bas knows the Barstow cover well enough to
fake it. He’s been Barstow plenty of times. Hell, he’d done most
of the legwork on this particular case, and he’d done it as
Barstow. And someone needs to get into Stanslo’s Bridge.
“Well, Barstow.” It sounds like a sneer.
“Ye picked up a tail.” The man jerks his chin down at the dead
Agent. “Thought you was supposed to be all....” He smirks.
“Well. Better ’n this.”
Bas doesn’t let it sting. Because the
Agent got a touch careless in his relative inexperience with
this kind of assignment, and this guy got unbelievably lucky but
is just too stupid to know the difference. What a fucking waste.
Bas doesn’t answer the insult; he merely
gives the man a slow blink, flat and unimpressed. And he stares.
It unnerves the guy. It always unnerves
the blustery, petty wannabe-tyrant types. Bas can see the man
trying not to shift, but he does eventually. And when the man
realizes he’s on the edge of squirming, he sets his scruffy jaw
“Name’s Fox,” he says, trying for
arrogant. He gives a pointed glance at the agent’s body. “And
yer welcome. Fer takin’ care o’ yer tail.” He lifts his chin,
smug out of all proportion. “Followed ye all the way from the
inn, that ’un.” He grins, mean and with teeth that make Bas want
to rear back and grimace. “Not very saddle.”
Bas is pretty sure the guy means “subtle”,
which, yeah, okay, Aaron had maybe slipped up, contacting Bas
one too many times while they were in Harrowgate pretending not
to know each other, and if Aaron had been more careful, Bas
wouldn’t have even seen him unless he’d looked for him. So,
okay, not subtle, but fucking hell, saddle, and why are
all the stupidest ones the ones with the biggest guns?
“Uh-huh,” Bas says, bored, and starts
going through the Agent’s—Aaron’s—pockets. “Tell me,
Fox,” he says, casual, as he digs out Aaron’s billfold and the
silver pocket watch the guy never seemed to stop fiddling with.
He slides them into his own pockets and waves down at the body.
“This guy look like a cutpurse to you?”
Bas watches Fox’s eyes as he—for the first
time, Bas would wager—takes in the fine cut of the trousers, the
heavy nap of the coat. Fox’s face slides into confusion first,
then annoyance. Bas doesn’t wait for him to think up a clever
retort. Because he’d likely be waiting a good long time.
Saddle, for fuck’s sake. With a disdainful grimace he
doesn’t try to hide, Bas pulls the palm-sized flat oval of
obsidian out of Aaron’s breast pocket and lets it catch the
greasy light coming through the cracks in the boards behind the
“That’s a scry mirror,” Fox says.
Bas rolls his eyes. “Not quite as
stupid as you look.”
Fox looks Bas in the eye with a crooked
set to his jaw. “He was scryTech.”
He was. Class 5. One of the reasons the
Directorate had insisted on sending him here, inexperience be
damned, because Harrowgate’s Relay Office had been unreachable
for months, and only a scryTech of the highest Class could hope
to get a message across the span of the Territories without a
Bas rubs at his mouth and sighs. Because
it’s all part of the mystery he’d thought had been confined to
Stanslo’s Bridge and hadn’t found out any different until he’d
gotten to Harrowgate. He’d seen hints the moment he’d stepped
off the train, but the semi-mummified body nailed to the Relay
Office doors was what made him understand that, whatever
malevolence Stanslo’s Bridge was exuding, it was leaking and
spreading. There was no way to tell if the body had been the
scryTech the Directorate required every Relay Office to employ,
but it wouldn’t really matter in the end. The place had been
boarded up and caked in dust, and the body had been wearing a
Relay Office patch on the sleeve of its torn and rotting coat;
Bas is no necroTech, but he doesn’t think he’s too far off in
guessing the body had been there for months.
“They’re trying to cut off communication,”
Aaron had said—whispered it, really, urgent and avid-eyed, in
the back of the tavern where he and Bas pretended to have just
happened into a game of darts between two strangers new in town.
“The only way to get word in or out of here now is the train,
and Stanslo owns the line.”
Bas blows out a long, heavy breath. “Yeah,
he was scryTech.” He shrugs. “Which means you’ve just made the
Directorate dreadful unhappy, ’cause when it comes to dead
Techs, they don’t fuck around.” He gives Fox a level stare.
“Well done, you.”
Fox’s eyes narrow down to slits. “He was
“And he would’ve lost me once I got
on the train to Stanslo’s Bridge, wouldn’t he.” Bas lets it
rumble into a low snarl, brusque. It shuts Fox up, so Bas shakes
his head and says, “Look, we’ll keep it between us, but if
there’s shit coming down from the Directorate for this, I intend
to stand well clear of the stink.”
Fox seems to chew on that for a moment
then his thin mouth stretches out into a smarmy brown-toothed
grin. “Fuck that. Where we’re goin’, Techs en’t no better’n
anybody else and the Directorate en’t got no reach.”
Bas merely lifts an eyebrow. And waits.
And stares some more.
Fox apparently takes it as a challenge
this time, because he puffs up and snaps, “Yeah, you’ll see,
smartass. You’ll see things that’d make coddled Techs and
Directorate fucks cry for their mams. Stanslo’s Bridge en’t got
room for the delicate.”
Okay. So, Fox is the kind of stupid
that’ll turn out to be useful, and all Bas’ll have to do is get
him just the right amount of riled. Because with one brash
outburst, Fox has just pretty much confirmed all of Bas’s
suspicions and several of his theories.
Before this part of the Territories was
part of the Territories, there was such a thing as Tech hunters
and hired guns and slave traders, and it isn’t like it’s ancient
history. It had been happening in Bas’s grandparents’ youth, and
eradicating it is part of the reason the Directorate came into
the power it now enjoys. A hundred years ago, Bas’s talents as a
Tracker might well have been pressed into service hunting down
Techs for the auction block. So it’s not exactly a stretch to
imagine it hasn’t been entirely stamped out in places where the
Directorate’s presence isn’t much of a presence. At least as far
as the Tech part of the population, it’s why the Directorate
It’s why Bas signed with the Directorate
right out of the Academy. When you have a little brother who’s
not only psyTech but Class 4, you learn to recognize and guard
against exploitation and abuse at an early age. Their parents
had been careful, and Mo is more than capable now of taking care
of himself, but there had been a time when Mo was small and
unskilled and he’d needed a big brother who knew what kind of
spark to watch out for in another’s eyes.
Bas sees that spark in Fox’s eyes a little
“So,” Bas drawls, sliding it into more
syllables than it needs and letting the corner of his mouth pull
down, impatient. “Do I get to see all this some time this
Fox doesn’t answer, just keeps staring at
Bas, gaze narrow and shining in the dark. Bas stares back,
because what the hell, it’s worked so far.
It works this time, too. Fox looks away
then gives a grunt, and an annoyed jerk of his head toward the
station. “Got any bags?”
The train is nothing special. It surprises
Bas. He’s seen the drawings and schematics that Kimolijah Adani
was working on, had seen the Tech working, the little
model train zipping across the floor, impossibly powered by
nothing but gridTech somehow locked in a tiny crystal attached
to its chassis. No hooking into the Grid conduits, no wires
strung to a gridstation with a dozen or more gridTechs powering
it. A gridmotor that ran on gridstream that couldn’t be inside
that crystal because gridstream can’t be directed like that.
Except it was.
“It can be directed,” Resaniji
Adani had told Bas, almost sneering at him, like he should’ve
known. Kimolijah Adani’s big sister was fierce in her
still-vibrant grief for her brother and her da. And a little bit
scary. “You just have to know how. Like bleeding, ’Lijah told me
once. You cut your hand and you’ve got blood leaking down your
arm. You can’t really aim it, right? It just sort of dribbles
out and goes the path of gravity and least resistance. But what
if you opened an artery? Instead of dribbles, you get a geyser,
and then it’s not about controlling the flow anymore, it’s about
She’d flicked at the little train with its
tiny motor and its tiny crystal making the wheels whirr and
“’Lijah can open an artery and aim.”
This train… well. Bas had been expecting
It’s a steam locomotive with a few boxcars
hooked to it, and that’s it. Someone checks the last coupling
and someone else pulls an empty trolley down the ramp of the
last car and sends a wave to Fox. Fox waves back then tells Bas,
“C’mon, let’s go check for stowaways.”
There are none, and Bas honestly can’t
imagine why there would be, but he checks among the sacks of
grains and barrels of ale and feed. “Get a lot of stowaways, do
you?” he asks Fox.
Fox snorts then rolls a gob of snot up
through his sinuses and horks it out the door into the dust.
“Not from here.”
Bas stands beside the car amidst the smoke
that chugs from the idling engine and clings to the ground, and
he thinks, Well, this just keeps getting weirder and weirder.
He doesn’t say it, though. Obviously.
They shut up the doors, lock them, then
Fox chivvies Bas up the metal steps into the cab. With a smirk,
he directs Bas to the stoke scuttles beside the fuel hatch.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Bas says, eyeing
Fox shrugs. “You wanna drive, then?”
Bas squints at the dials and levers and
various switches. He gives Fox a glare and picks up the shovel.
It’s loud once they get going, the
thack-thack-thud of the wheels on the tracks rhythmic enough
that Bas uses its cadence to dig-pause-chuck, dig-pause-chuck.
The mindlessness of it is strangely soothing, settling Bas’s
head and dulling the anger at the complete waste of having to
leave that Agent dead in an alley like a forgotten smudge of
flotsam. Bas sinks into the rhythm and the buzzing silence in
his head, and decides not to notice how time just… slips. It’s
good, because the noise prevents talk, and the last thing Bas
wants to do is talk to this Fox. He ignores the dark, shapeless
whirr of desert vista winging by him and the passage of the
minutes then the hours, and thinks of nothing but his grip on
the shovel, the blisters he can feel sprouting on his palms, the
stretch and pull of muscle and sinew.
He resists the spiral of theories and
conjecture that pulls him down a path that will inevitably and
invariably lead him to thoughts of Kimolijah Adani. Because Bas
has obsessed about it all for going on three years now, and
there’s no point in wasting time pondering a dead man. Better to
figure out how he got dead, and then, since Bas is here and all,
planned or unplanned, figure out a way to make someone pay for
it. Bas doesn’t have time or headspace for anything else. He
needs to start being Jakob Barstow.
It’s the early hours when Fox gives Bas a
“Ho! Belay the fires, now” and Bas abruptly thumps back into his
own head, peers around him to get a look out the windscreen. He
doesn’t see anything for a long spell—just blank dusty landscape
and the sporadic stubble of scrub—and then he does. A shabby
shanty of a way station squats on a latticework of tracks in the
middle of the desert.
Fox brakes with a concentration of which
Bas hadn’t really thought him capable. “We switch here,” Fox
says as they pull up to the station, and Bas doesn’t have to ask
to what. He can see the other train even in the dark.
“Why?” he asks instead. “Why didn’t that
train just come out to Harrowgate?”
“’Cause it’s how it works. If you don’t
wanna walk, you’d best come on.”
Fox doesn’t wait for Bas, just jumps down
from the cab and heads off to the other train. Bas follows,
taking in what he can. He only really sees a black outline
against a black sky, but he knows this is what he’d expected to
see back at the station in Harrowgate. He can smell it.
It’s all laced monochrome in the dark. The
silhouettes, when Bas blinks, are edged sharp behind his eyes in
the blue-black of gridTech, so thin he almost can’t discern it
with the not-vision of his tracking senses, but now that he’s
not inhaling stoke smoke and rank sweat, he can almost
taste the faint-faint-faint pepper of ozone, and he knows,
he knows exactly what he’s looking at.
A dim blue current flitters in starts and
stops over the skin of the cab, giving Bas a glimpse at
something almost bullet-shaped and sleek; it loses the illusion
of novelty and polish when Bas’s eyes adjust and he sees the
quill-like projections and bulky… something-or-other mounted on
Bas doesn’t remember the spiky poles and
conduit and sparking wiring atop the locomotive as part of the
little toy train he’d seen back in Kimolijah Adani’s ruined
workshop, but he remembers the drawings that had been in the
notes over which Bas had pored while he’d been trying to catch a
whiff of a trail. The poles and wires and flickers and flowing
gridstream make the locomotive look like it’s topped by a
lustrous blue crown. With, you know, weird spiky tines like a
dilapidated fence and enough current to beef ten men on contact,
It looks like it’s been thrown together
out of spare parts. And it sounds like it’s on its last legs.
The locomotive whines as Bas and Fox approach it, spitting
filaments of blue sparks all over the skin of it, some of them
shooting off in all directions and catching at whatever
drift-scrub rolls by on the steady breeze over the flat hardpan.
It revs for a second then sputters out with a tinny, shrieking
“Don’t touch nothin’,” Fox cautions,
motions for Bas to stop where he is and ventures ahead. “En’t ye
got this thing goin’ yet?” he yells, and someone inside the cab
curses—a rather eye-popping stream of it—and throws a wrench out
through the open door. It just misses Fox’s head. Bas can see
Fox’s hand twitch toward the small four-barrel on his hip, but
he only snarls, “Knock it the fuck off, princess, else—”
“What d’you think I was trying to do?” the
other voice snaps, then, “Just hang fire, I’m almost there.”
Fox is pissed off, Bas can tell, but he
doesn’t do much more than fume. He side-eyes Bas, as though
looking for a reaction, and when he doesn’t get one, he calls,
“Yeah!” comes another voice from inside
the cab, then the sounds of tools clanking and that other voice
cursing again, and then someone stands silhouetted in the dim
light pouring from the open side of the cab. “He’s almost got
it,” the man tells Fox. He’s big, bigger than Bas, and his skin
is as dark as stoke.
“I already heard that one.” Fox leans to
the side and spits. Again. “How long?”
The man—Lowen—shrugs and wipes his hands
on a dirty rag. “Needs to be soon. Can’t run for powerful long
in the heat and night’s shinning out.”
“No shit. Why d’you think I asked?”
“It’s not like he’s not giving it his best
go, Fox. He doesn’t want to be stuck out in the middle of the
desert all day any more than you do.”
“Yeah, you keep coddlin’ the princess,”
Fox grumbles and jerks his chin at Bas.
Bas would really rather get a look at that
engine, but he can’t think of a good reason the hired gun he’s
supposed to be would care. So Bas follows and then does as Fox
tells him as they maneuver the steam engine on the switch tracks
and decouple the cars that hold the supplies they’d hauled here.
It’s not as complex as Bas had thought it might be, at least not
for him since he’s not the one driving the engine. Fox looks
like he knows what he’s doing, but Bas nonetheless makes sure to
stand well clear of anything that looks like it might crush him
or cut him in half when it moves.
The other train—the one Bas is already
thinking of as “the gridtrain”—is still where they left it,
still shooting off sporadic sparks and jets of gridstream, and
there’s still the occasional spate of filthy cursing coming from
inside it. So Bas assumes whoever’s in there hasn’t yet got it
“’S all we can do for now,” Fox says with
a grim set to his mouth, and then he spits. Again.
Bas tries not to roll his eyes as he
follows Fox to the tiny boxcar that apparently came with the
gridtrain. It turns out to be a hobo’s notion of a passenger
car. Two shabby, knob-legged couches that look like they came
out of a brothel’s parlor line the sides. Fox flops onto one of
them and kicks up his feet. With something close to a fond
smile, he reaches behind the couch and pulls out a long, thick…
gun, Bas supposes; has to be a gun, though not like anything Bas
has ever seen. There’s only one barrel, to start, it looks more
like ceramic than metal, and the trigger’s more like a toggle
and it’s wired. Fox trades it for the big eight-barrel street
cannon he’d been carrying, cradles it across his chest and makes
“Stay in the car,” he tells Bas. “You
touch the wrong thing, you fry, and I’ll have wasted a
pain-in-the-ass trip for nothin’.” He shoves his hat down over
his eyes and doesn’t say any more.
Bas sits across from him with his small
leather pack at his feet and stares out the open door at the
desert dark. He doesn’t try to engage Fox in chit-chat, because
he’s supposed to be Jakob Barstow, and anyway, Bas thinks Fox is
only good for the kind of information that comes through gossip
and griping, and Bas is not in the mood. Also, he already thinks
Fox is an asshole, and neither Bas nor Jakob Barstow suffer
assholes. So Bas keeps quiet and watches dust and more dust, and
tries to pretend he doesn’t want to launch across the seats and
rip Fox’s face off for whatever part he played in getting hold
of the designs for that train and for what happened to the man
who made them. Because that peppery scrim has been on the back
of Bas’s tongue for a long time now, he knows its blue-on-black
shapes like he knows his own face, and he knows it came from a
young genius gridTech whose experiments and designs came to the
wrong attention and got him killed. The fact that these men are
using those designs like they have the right makes Bas’s teeth
tighten and his fists clench.
It gets dangerous very quickly, the
too-real possibility that Bas will do something violent that he
shouldn’t while Fox is just lying there like some dirty little
desert lord kipping while his minions scurry to please him.
Patience is the largest part of tracking, and though it’s the
part Bas likes the least, there’s no denying it’s the part that
nearly always pays off. And he needs to get into Stanslo’s
Bridge. So Bas sucks in a long, calming breath and eventually
goes back to the door, leans out of it, and watches the
That can’t be safe, he thinks,
watching the currents travel the length of the locomotive’s
casing and wondering how anyone inside it isn’t cooking. He
remembers Kimolijah Adani’s commentary on the drawings—safety
and grounding and problems with containing the current—and Bas
supposes he’s seeing proof that it’s all been gotten around
somehow, but he can’t fathom how. Still, it’s happening, it’s
real, it’s working.
Well. Bas supposes it’s been known to
work, anyway—it appears to have gotten out here on its own
power, at least—but there’s obviously a problem with it, or Bas
assumes it wouldn’t be whining and stopping like it is.
The sound of metal-on-metal doesn’t let
up, a steady clang-clang-clang ringing out over the bleak
hardpan. Someone says something in a gruff, irritated tone—Bas
is pretty sure it’s Lowen—and then someone else answers back in
a smoother, higher voice, young, but Bas can’t make out what
either of the apparently two men are saying. The clanging rings
again, faster and more urgent, then that second voice rises in
both volume and intensity, before the first voice bellows
something and the clanging stops. There are a few mutters and
then Lowen throws open the side door of the locomotive and
He doesn’t look as angry as his tone
implied; he looks concerned as he turns back to shout over his
shoulder, “You’re running out of time, damn it!”
“You think I don’t know that?” the other
voice yells back. “You think I don’t fucking well
Lowen opens his mouth, as though to
retort, but he pauses instead, shoulders slumping, head shaking
in what looks like regret, and he looks up at the sky. The
banging and clanging starts up again. There are sparks flying
out from the open door now, too. Bas can’t see much, but he can
hear, and whoever’s in that cab can curse like nothing Bas has
ever heard, and he’s lived on the road with rustlers and
highwaymen, so that’s saying something. The low, grinding
strains of “Motherfucking, cocksucking son—of—a—bitch!”
in rhythm to the banging almost make Bas snort, but then there’s
more commentary on sons of whores and doing things with dogs no
one should know about, let alone do, and then there’s something
about mothers and coyotes that makes Bas widen his eyes and
blink away the sordid mental picture with a rather prudish
grimace. So, all in all, it’s not hard for Bas to keep quiet,
since he’s already pretty much speechless.
Fox snorts behind him, and Bas can’t tell
if it’s in his sleep or in reaction to the filthy commentary.
More sparks fly out of the cab, and then
there’s an almighty buzzing sound that segues into a whine, and
a blue glow blooms out over the locomotive’s skin and the rigged
lattice of wiring on its roof. The cursing cuts off in favor of
an exultant “Yes!” as the engine howls to life, that blue
glow narrowing into streams of crackling currents that feed
outward from the cab and go spidering up along all the conduit
Lowen abruptly jolts back from it and to
the side, like it’s zapped him or something, but Bas thinks, if
it had, any moves Lowen would be making would be the jittery,
death-dance kind. That’s a heap of current roping halfway freely
all over the locomotive. That singular pepper-ozone taste blooms
at the back of Bas’s tongue, fills his mouth, and the gridstream
pulses with a blue-black phantasm underglow that Bas can’t see
with his eyes but he can see it nonetheless. Bas sucks in
a long, calming breath, because he’d known, but to see
it, to see what’s left of someone so promising, to understand a
man had been killed for it, and to see it used by those that
must be responsible....
Bas wonders if he’ll blow his cover if he
just knocks Fox galley west for no reason, or even shoots him.
It would fit right in with the Jakob Barstow cover, surely, but
it wouldn’t do the job he’d come here to do. It would probably
only get him dead or left out in the middle of the desert, which
is pretty much the same thing. Harrowgate is a long way behind
when you’re riding shank’s mare.
Lowen has drifted back, eyes still on the
sparking engine, then he pauses. With a sigh, deep and loud
enough Bas can hear it from where he hangs out of the boxcar,
Lowen shakes his head then ventures closer to the engine. He
stops when he reaches the door.
“Can you power it down so I can get those
tools out of the hatch?”
There’s a long moment of nothing, and then
the other voice says, “I don’t think I want to. What if I can’t
start it again? And it’s getting close.”
“I don’t know.” Lowen takes off his hat
and scrubs at his short dark hair. “Not exactly safe to—”
“Nothing about any of this is bloody
safe, is it. Just leave it. They’re not in the stream, so
there shouldn’t be a problem, and cutting the engine again isn’t
worth the risk.”
Lowen squints up at the sky, eyes
following a falcon that circles overhead. “It’s only an hour or
so ’til dawn and you haven’t been wearing the bracelet since—”
“Yeah, I know, Lowen.”
Lowen pauses with a heavy sigh. “Can you
“I’ll have to, won’t I?”
Lowen seems to think that over for a
moment, obviously unhappy with the answer, but he nods anyway.
“I’ll ride back in the car,” he answers. “Could use the sleep
anyway. Back ’er up and I’ll do the coupling.”
Bas doesn’t offer to help as Lowen directs
the locomotive over the switch tracks and hooks up the supply
cars Fox had hauled from Harrowgate. Again, it doesn’t take very
long, so Bas can only assume it’s a routine well-practiced, and
it’s finished with minimal fuss.
Aching for a chance to have a look inside
that locomotive, now that he’s watching it actually work—sort
of—but afraid of getting anywhere near the seemingly wild
gridstream flowing all over it, Bas only watches and thinks,
I was right.
“I think they killed him for his designs,”
he’d told the Directorate wonks, back when all of this was just
the bones of a case submitted for analysis. “I think they got
just enough information out of him in exchange for contraband
crystals to understand the potential of what he was working on,
and then killed him for those unfinished designs half the
gridTech academia were salivating over.”
The Deputy Minister had made grumbling
noises about this is why Techs should fucking well listen
when we tell them not to go walking into shit-storms. Bas
had merely nodded agreeably and accepted when he was offered the
When the coupling is apparently complete
and the freight cars secure, Bas backs up to let Lowen into the
tiny boxcar-turned-passenger-car. Lowen gives Bas the once-over
as he squeezes by and flumps onto the couch opposite Fox.
“So.” Lowen relaxes back into the leaking
cushions and rubs his chapped hands together. “You’re the new
guy.” He’s got one of those strange guns, too, and he props it
in the corner near his elbow.
Bas only gives him a look from beneath the
brim of his hat and goes back to watching the gridstream quiver
over the locomotive.
“Ah,” says Lowen, big white teeth almost
glowing reflected blue when he smiles. “The talkative sort. No
wonder Oleg liked you.”
Oleg. One of the “recruiters” for
Stanslo’s Bridge; Bas had been working him and his partner,
Dutter, for close to two years, gaining their trust and building
on his own fake reputation as a highwayman and murderer, until
Oleg had finally made the offer Bas had been waiting for.
“Suit yourself, then,” Lowen says then he
too tugs his hat down over his eyes and settles into the couch.
He doesn’t cradle his gun the way Fox does, but Bas thinks it
would be a mistake to assume he couldn’t get to it quick enough
to make it not matter.
Bas snatches at the edge of the open door
when the train finally lurches into forward motion, and he leans
against the side of the car when it begins to catch its swaying
rhythm. He leaves the door open. The desert night air is cold
enough he can see his breath, but he doesn’t want to sleep like
the other two and he doubts there’s coffee service.
It’s different than any train Bas has ever
been on before. Instead of the heavy ka-chunk ka-chunk of
wheels on tracks, there’s more of a wheezy hum, smoother
somehow, and it just has a lighter feel to it. Instead of the
thick haze of stoke smoke and steam, there’s a hot reek of burnt
gridstream and a charge to the air. It’s sort of exhilarating,
because Bas has no doubt whatsoever he’s riding on a train
that’s being powered solely by gridTech, and he’s pretty sure
he’s one of a very few to even see something like this, let
alone get a demonstration.
It takes a little bit, but it does
eventually occur to him that that’s likely the reason for the
switch and the way station. Harrowgate is isolated, yeah, and
even more so now that there’s no more Relay Office, but people
do live there, and rumors do find a way of traveling long
distances. If Stanslo doesn’t want anyone outside of his little
desert barony to know he’s got what looks to Bas like a train
that runs on independent gridstream, then he’d do best not to
let them see it at all.
I was right, Bas thinks again and
blinks when his jaw clamps too tight and his eyes narrow down to
angry slits. Kimolijah Adani was killed for his designs. And
now I’m riding into hell’s teeth on one of them.
The important thing to understand here is
that Bas is not in love with Kimolijah Adani. That would
just be stupid. For one, Kimolijah Adani is dead, so what would
be the point? And anyway, Bas had never even met the man labeled
a “whiz kid” by his Academy professors and a “potentially
dangerous genius” by a select few Directorate personnel who
learned rather quickly that, if they felt the need to say such
things, they should do so outside of Bas’s hearing. Which was
only because Bas didn’t appreciate the cavalier attitude to such
a brilliant mind lost so tragically, and not because Bas had or
has any emotional attachment to a dead genius.
And, okay, he may have formed some
kind of weird, esoteric... connection or something, nothing
based in reality, because in reality, you can’t make a
connection with the dead. It’s just that Bas has been studying
Kimolijah Adani for nearly three years now and a bit of
vicarious attachment is inevitable.
“Shy,” Kimolijah’s sister had told Bas,
“but a bit of a smartass when you got to know him.”
“Bloody feral on goal,” his crossball
teammates had professed, “but the first to offer a hand after a
match, win or lose.”
“Smarter than anyone else in the room,
even his professors,” the Academy Minister had sighed sadly,
“and yet practical everyday life seemed a touch beyond
Kimolijah. He spent so much time inside his own head, you see. I
don’t know if he’d have been able to even so much as buy a loaf
of bread if you sent him to a market full of bake shops.”
Bas thinks all of it is very, very close
but not quite on the mark. He’s seen the journals, he’s
read the diaries, he’s pored over the schematics and the notes
and the equations. He’s seen a limitless mind unfold over
blotted pages and doodled margins that were never meant to be
seen by anyone but Kimolijah Adani himself, and the personality
that had wedged itself determinedly inside the barbs and whorls
of the hastily scrawled commentary had somehow spoken to
It said: the most shocking thing about
it all is that all this unchartable genius could be contained in
a single mind.
It said: and no one really gets
it, because all of the snarky wit and singleminded drive to
achieve is obscured beneath the spiky characters turned to
scratched brilliance with every stroke of inked theorems and
hypotheses laid over the individuality within the intellect.
And it said: this is a mind men would
It had made Bas view with bitter regret
the one year gap between the time he’d graduated from the
Academy and the time Kimolijah started. But for a few years and
a few miles between them while they grew up on opposite sides of
Knapston, they might have met, spoken, become....
So fine, okay, Bas may have fallen
into some kind of... overly attached fondness, but if he had, it
was with the mind he’d watched unfold all over those journals
and blueprints. Grand and dazzling and horrible and tragic. No
one would likely ever know the scope of the potential that had
been lost with Kimolijah Adani. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone
that Bas had formed a bit of a... okay, it’s an obsession.
What of it? Where’s the harm? It’s not
like it hurts anyone, and it certainly kept Bas on task and
searching when real information ran scarce. Never fall for a
mark, never fall for a victim, the number one rule in
Directorate covert ventures, but this isn’t the same. Kimolijah
Adani was never a mark and it doesn’t count when the victim is
already dead. The Directorate isn’t looking for him. They’re
looking for—Bas is looking for—Mariella Crocker, Class 4
weatherTech, who disappeared almost four years ago and whose
trail Bas had eventually tracked to Castle City. Just east of
Harrowgate. The connection to Stanslo is something the
Directorate believes; the one to Kimolijah Adani is something
Anyway, it’s not exactly the first time
Bas has halfway fallen for someone who lives only between the
pages of a book. So what?
It gets dreadful hot powerful quickly when
the sun goes up. It takes no time at all for the heat to rise
and make Bas sweat beneath his leather duster. He keeps the door
open. It doesn’t make it any less hot, but the wind that slides
in with the train’s acceleration at least moves the air around.
The heat and the rhythm and the sway make him a little sleepy,
and he thinks about using some of Jakob Barstow’s dickish
tendencies and dumping either Fox or Lowen off one of the
couches—preferably Fox—but he decides it’s probably not a good
idea to lower his guard enough to sleep in their company anyway.
When the boredom starts to get to him, he
pulls out a few of the illobooks he’d brought with him to pass
the time on the train out to Harrowgate. He’s read them all
before, but he didn’t want to risk bringing and ruining new
ones. A guilty pleasure, or maybe it’s more like escapism of a
sort. Illobook heroes, after all, never have to do paperwork or
get nagged by their mothers or have to make a stop, dog-tired,
at the markets before they can go home because all the food
they’d left in the pantry before the latest three-month
assignment has surely sprouted legs by now and wandered off to
find better accommodations. Compared to the decidedly
unglamorous life of a Directorate Tracker, illobook heroes have
it pretty damned good. Directorate Trackers, after all, stay
dead when they take a mortal wound on the job; there are no
miraculous recoveries explained in unlikely exposition and
over-the-top dialogue in the first few panels of the next issue.
The book’s pages flutter in the wind, so
Bas angles at a slant to block it. He sits right beside the door
and squints at the colorful artwork against the sunlight,
pulling his scarf up over mouth and nose to minimize the dust
and heat sliding into his lungs.
Magic Man, year 5, series 2, issue
9. Bas traces the bold lines of the colorful illustrations as
Casius Cruel threatens the honest, hardworking citizens of
Crosstown and Magic Man grandly thwarts him. For probably the
first time in his life, the illobooks don’t hold Bas’s attention
for very long.
He leans out for as long as he can, wind
and dust in his face, to have a look at the engine. The
odd-angled poles and conduit he’d only seen silhouetted a few
hours ago now wink in the sun and look even shabbier and more
idiot-rigged than they had before. Atop and dead-center of the
engine’s cab sits what looks to Bas like some kind of gun
turret, but he can’t imagine defense against bandits would be a
problem out here. He looks up at the sky, but all he sees is
another circling falcon. Or maybe it’s the same one, following
the train. Either way, it’s not exactly like it’s any kind of
threat, so it still doesn’t explain what a turret’s doing on top
of a train.
It’s harder to see the gridstream that
flows over the locomotive in the daylight, but Bas can
see it, and even if he couldn’t, he can taste it. He wonders
exactly how it’s running. Gridstream, of course, but it would
take at least six or seven Class 5 gridTechs to power it enough
just to start it; he can’t even guess how many it would take to
run it this long. He thinks about the dynamic crystals in
Kimolijah Adani’s designs and how they’d been a new discovery
only several years back, how the Directorate medTechs had done
some experimenting with them until it had killed two of them and
then the Directorate had banned them altogether, because Bas
hadn’t been kidding before—when it comes to the safety of its
Techs, the Directorate can be a protective, possessive,
He thinks about how Kimolijah Adani had
been using the crystals in his designs anyway, and how those
designs had made Bas almost hyperventilate at the possibilities
when he’d had a look at them. He thinks about how there’s only
one source for those crystals, and how Kimolijah Adani and his
da had somehow ended up nothing but blackened bones, smoldering
away in the workshop behind their tinker’s shop, after a cryptic
series of communications with the man who owns that source.
“A fucking overload,” Resaniji had
said. “Like ’Lijah’s some kind of tweenie moron who doesn’t know
more about the Grid and how it works than the goddamned
‘experts’ at the Directorate and anyone else in the world.”
Having seen Kimolijah’s work and spoken
with his professors, Bas hadn’t been able to argue. Kimolijah
had been working on the design for years, since before he even
started at the Academy. A genius whose work would have been
astounding for someone thrice his age, and was all the more so
considering he hadn’t even graduated yet. The loss is
incalculable. The brilliance of the science alone, the
unrealized potential, the loss of that incredible mind before he
even had a chance to put theory to practice….
Bas had seen it—in every diary he studied,
in every schematic, in every theory and equation he couldn’t
quite understand, but he’d known what he was looking at was
big and unique and near-blinding in its virtuosity.
There are idea people and then there are
engineers and then there are the builders and testers, and
rarely do those separate entities coalesce in one person.
Kimolijah Adani was that rarity. He thought things up and then
he built them, and if the parts to build them didn’t exist, he
built those, too.
Looking at the gridstream climbing all
over that engine, knowing where the design and the gridTech
itself came from, Bas feels a deep, vicious anger bubble in his
gut. One way or another, Baron Stanslo is responsible for a
Directorate Agent lying dead in a dusty alley, so horribly far
from home. And now there’s no doubt in Bas’s mind that Stanslo
is responsible for Kimolijah Adani and his da dying in their own
workshop, not even enough left of them to bury.
Someone needs to pay.
By the time Bas feels the deceleration
pulling at his ribs, the sun is starting to slide lower in the
sky. They’d gotten underway right around dawn, and Bas guesses
it’s late afternoon by now; three or four hours maybe ’til
full-dark. It’s taken him this long to realize he hasn’t had
anything to eat since lunch yesterday.
He’s dragged out and sore and hungry, so
when he leans out and spots a smudge of color in the limitless
buff of desert sand, he thinks whatever’s coming, he’ll figure
out how to make it work. That’s got to be some kind of station
up ahead; it’s too rectangular to be part of the desert. Bas can
see a shabby little town creeping out behind it, a small ridge
overlooking it, and the continuation of the tracks sidling out
into the blank beyond, all the way out to the Dead Lands, for
all Bas knows.
Fox startles from his hours-long doze with
a thick snort and tips his hat back up from where it had been
covering his eyes. He looks around, blinking and squinting, then
gives Bas a sour once-over. Lowen wakes more smoothly, sitting
up and stretching and giving Bas a grin that Bas thinks might be
mocking, but he doesn’t know, so he only stares.
Turns out it is a station. Well, at least
an attempt at one. More like a big semi-open pavilion with thin
walls to deflect the wind and some kind of rickety annex jutting
askew from its side, but Bas supposes it’s the closest to a
station as is possible all the way out here. Outbuildings are
scattered around it like a child’s blocks. Lofted, towerlike
contraptions dot the place at irregular intervals, tall arms
stretched in a V with wires strung across and humming with
gridstream, bellies inset with great, wooden tanks. They look
like the soulless, mechanical Deathbringers from Planet
Horror—year 14, series 2, issue 5. Bas wants to think of
them as stunted water towers, maybe, which would make sense in
the desert, but water towers draw up from the ground with the
tank at the top; these look almost upside-down. And anyway,
where do you get water in the first place to put in them?
They pull into the meager shelter of the
station, and though it’s all rather flimsy, still Bas can feel
the immediate drop in temperature once they’re out of the
midafternoon sun, can breathe a touch easier as the train crawls
to the center of the shoddy station and wheezes to a halt. The
blue flicker of gridstream is brighter now, and it flares to
almost blinding for several seconds before there’s a
high-pitched whine and then everything goes out, stops, and then
there’s nothing. It’s like some weird kind of suspension, a
pause in movement and breath and thought while the green ghosts
of blue gridstream fade at the backs of Bas’s eyes and the
burnt-sky scent of it winnows back down into the dry, prickling
tang of empty desert air.
He’s eager, but Bas tries not to show it.
He stands from where he’d been sitting on the floor,
half-dangling out the open door, but that’s all he does. He
waits for Lowen or Fox to make a move. He probably shouldn’t
have. Because the first thing Fox does when he’s done stretching
and grumbling about an empty belly and not enough sleep, is to
point his weird gun at Bas. He’s got a glint in his eye that
makes Bas think he’s just looking for a reaction, so Bas doesn’t
give him one.
“Don’t go wanderin’ off,” Fox says, eyeing
Bas through a narrow squint. “Boss’ll wanna give ye a proper
Bas lifts an eyebrow. “Kinda why I’m
here.” He doesn’t go for his weapon; he’s an ace shot, but not
much on the draw. He keeps his hands still.
Fox props the gun over his shoulder with a
smirk, his mouth twisted sour again, like he’s disappointed Bas
didn’t give him an excuse. “Is it, then,” he says, narrow-eyed,
then he tilts a look at Lowen and brushes past Bas out of the
Bas wants to ask what the hell that’s
supposed to mean, but he doesn’t think he should. He doesn’t get
a chance anyway.
“Where is Stanslo?” a shaky voice asks as
soon as Fox steps down. It sounds like the one from before, the
one that was inside the locomotive, and so must be the engineer,
but Bas can’t see from this angle and he doesn’t want to take
his eyes off Lowen.
“I reckon he seen the train pull in like
everyone else,” Fox answers, a lethargic drawl. “He’ll be
The other voice barks, “No, I need to see
him now, it’s crawling up my fucking arm!”
“Then you should be better at your fucking
job,” Fox says then growls an order to someone named
Merrin to go fetch the boss.
Footsteps, and then everything goes quiet.
Bas just keeps staring at Lowen, trying to
look bored, and then he really is bored, because it takes
for-fucking-ever. But that could just be because time has seemed
to slow down and center on the fact that Bas is actually here,
in Stanslo’s Bridge, where he’s been trying to get a foot in for
He knows he’s sweating, and he hopes the
heat is a good enough excuse, because he really doesn’t think
it’s a good idea to show any kind of weakness right now. So he
thinks about the complete hard case Jakob Barstow is supposed to
be, lets his eyes go cold and his shoulders relax and his
fingers make a show of twitching just at the tip of the butt of
his six-barrel, tucked up into its beaten holster at his hip.
“Gonna stretch my legs,” Bas says, going
for a lazy drawl, satisfied with the roughness of his throat
from the dust. It gets into you here, grit in your nostrils and
sand crunching between your molars.
Lowen merely shrugs, giving Bas another
grin, and though he does reach over and pick up his gun, he
doesn’t point it at Bas or object.
Bas waits it out for a full count of
twenty before he makes a show of rolling his eyes and sighing.
He turns slowly and steps down from the car onto the oiled dirt
of the station’s floor.
He sees very little that tells him
anything of value—just a bunch of mechanical equipment and
spools of wire, and a wall on the far side, the door open and
hanging crooked, through which Bas can see more equipment and
scattered… stuff. He mentally labels it “workshop” and decides
to have a look as soon as he thinks he can get away with it. Bas
stares around the station, taking in what he can: the shelves
and the tools and the crates of parts and conduit, the obviously
half-finished projects sitting on benches and puking out wires.
It stays quiet for long enough that Bas wonders if this is the
end of the world and Bas is the only one left in it with only
Fox and Lowen for company. And isn’t that a depressing
“Oh, grand,” a voice mutters, kind of
thready and just to Bas’s side.
Bas hadn’t seen him sitting there before.
Slumped, really, ass parked on the metal step that leads into
the cab of the locomotive, scuffed boots planted on the oiled
dirt floor, gloved hands dangling between bent knees, and a
curious expression tipped up at Bas.
“Another one,” the guy says, a twist to
his mouth. He gives Lowen a dirty look. “You didn’t tell me
this was what Fox was picking up in Harrowgate.” He shakes
his head and turns back to Bas, a flat once-over. “And here I’d
thought the apparently endless supply of assholes had finally
And that’s how Bas comes face-to-face
with two dead men in less than a day.
Well. Kind of.