Excerpt--Blue on Black
© Carole Cummings
It doesn’t start like this:
See, the thing is, it isn’t supposed to go this way.
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 Barstow?”
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. And 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 and glares.
“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 train station.
“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 relay.
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 following you.”
“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 exists.
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 too clearly.
“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 century, then?”
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 directing it.”
She’d flicked at the little train with its tiny motor and its tiny crystal making the wheels whirr and clack.
“’Lijah can open an artery and aim.”
This train… well. Bas had been expecting something else.
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 the shovel.
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 the roof.
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, but whatever.
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 fizz.
“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, “Lowen?”
“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 going.
“’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 himself comfortable.
“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 locomotive.
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 stomps out.
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 know that?”
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 and wirework.
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 make it?”
“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 case.
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 Bas.
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 kill for.
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 Bas feels.
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, mother-bear bitch.
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 welcome.”
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 car.
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 along.”
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 two years.
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 thought.
“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 run out.”
And that’s how Bas comes face-to-face with two dead men in less than a day.
Well. Kind of.