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Excerpt for I, Of The Storm - Lower Heaven, Episode One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





Lower Heaven

Episode One:

I, of the Storm





By Benjamin Loomis

Copyright 2019 Benjamin Loomis

Smashwords Edition. Released by Free Radical Publishing.

Available in print via most online retailers.





Viva la.

Lets git it.





###



I

Behold Felix, fumbling to roll his dawn cigarette. His rat’s nest head looks ready to roll off his shoulders, bones barely keeping him upright in the bus seat, the complexion of a man twice his age. He is hungover, needless to say, and every bash of the brakes sends a spray of ribboned tobacco catapulting onto his lap. He tries for a minute more, rips his paper, gives up.

"I swear, these buses get shakier every month." he said, mouth dusty.

Vic thrust a cock-eyed look at him, the only kind he had. A childhood veteran of the turf wars that raged through the Causeway housing projects and the mangier bits of the island-city, Felix’s friend’s face was hatched with scars across his forehead and an oft-busted nose. Untreated snakepox as a kid gave his cheeks and scruff chin a nibbled look. When shirtless, his wiry torso was a scatterplot of daggerholes from his gutter upbringing.

In one fateful alley scuffle long ago, Vic had caught a brick-sock upside the head that cracked his left orbital, and the eye had never set right again. He could still see from it, but it dawdled and wandered, leaving the other side of his face rigid with overcorrected muscle. The same, golden hit had snapped off one of his front teeth, giving him a hole to spit and make disapproving sounds with.

"Its your hands bruv, dis bus ting ent moved inna minute."

"Ah."

"Cummon, were wastin daylight, lets git it."

Vic grabbed his parachute sack and piled out of the packed bus, knowing Felix would follow after groaning. They picked through the traffic to the sidewalk and began forcing through the pedestrians, inward to the city. The bus had at least gotten them off the Merit Causeway bridge where they lived, onto the island proper.

“Oi, dis foookin festival traffick!” Vic said, cricking his neck and hoisting his hood against the rainy season drizzle. They picked around the blocked intersection, feeling miniscule. The highrises rose on all sides, matching every person with a ton of cement. Temporary fences and warning flags diverted the normal flow of the street, turning the thoroughfare into a worksite. Inside, between the slow flowing pools and puddles accumulating in the cobbles, Civic Workers young and old were hard at work with the preparations. Functionary Square was always a site on the parade route, which meant it was a mess of tarpaulin-covered effigies and half-built bleachers for weeks before, making transit from the Causeway neighborhoods onto the isle of Heaven more abominable than usual.

Every year the Festival grew louder and grander, more bombastic in its patriotism. It needed to. There were two centuries of festivals before this one to top. The upcoming Festival of the Free, commemorating the 225th birthday of the City, was primed to be the biggest, free-est celebration ever.

For three whole days in the middle of the wet season, the whole city went on unpaid holiday to remembrance the day the City’s Founders, who against universal odds, survived the journey over the Poison Sea and crash-landed on the lake-island they now called home. This disparate pack of refugees spread their gaze on the barren rock they had found and named it Heaven. Over the next centuries they became its pantheon, their faces, words, and ideas of government elevated to a level near sacred.

They were fleeing the Old Continent, a horrid place, the History Book said. Life there was tyranny and oppression, ill-blooded dynasties and unending, machine warfare that molested the fallow earth until it could feed nothing. Those times were unspeakably dark. Apparently. No others had ever followed across the Sea after them.

Probably because the journey had been suicidal. No one then knew what lay behind the vast dark ocean. They sailed out on seven massive flying ships, the Arks, propelled by a mythical fuel that the Old Continent had used to build its cities and then grind them to dust with war.

They expected nothing, as the story went, but feared more than death to remain. By the skin of sublime improbability, rather surprising to the refugees who survived the months of flight, three of the Arks found something. After watching their sisters dive down into the steaming waters, the last of the old fuel dwindling, the Arks were delivered by miracle into the unknown, a whole new continent, unspoiled, bountiful, green. And on it, they endeavored with their lives to make a place for themselves that rejected everything about their homeland, rebuilding their society from scratch, with the principles and systems they and other seekers had only been able to whisper about in clandestine meetings from whence they came.

They crystallized on three ideas, to create a civilization that honored each person. Those notions became the City’s Tripartite Ideals: Merit, Logic, and Freedom for all. These Ideals emitted a noble miasma which every one of Heaven’s governing structures was built on, or at least justified by.

The Festival was a little silly, because after more than two centuries those three words were scant more than the boilerplate on coins and government archways. Even the highest echelons of the Wizard ruling class acknowledged this emptiness in private, Felix knew. Only simps saw the event as anything but a street-clogging, self-congratulatory show of civic pageantry, designed to repeat the Dream of Heaven to the next generation until they could repeat it to themselves. But after 225 years, Felix reasoned, the Wizards were obligated to make Festival of the Free a little larger every year. What would it say if they didn’t?

There were yells as they squeezed between the barricades and temporary worklamps pinching the traffic. Felix glimpsed the hold up. A flatbed autocart loaded with wooden planks had whinnied over. A soggy brigade of workers in orange coveralls were pulling the beams out of the road. He watched a team of drenched old men, legs ready to buckle, scraping a block off the cobbles that took six to carry. Mixed into the work crew were women and children as well, doing their best. Felix knew that if you looked close you could read the numbers tattooed on their necks, so he had no reason too.

Overseeing the CWs was a contingent of City Corps Rangers in their slick black overcoats, tripartite arm band, strapshots on their wrists, for if the law needed to be kept. Half were commanding the batches of CWs, the rest fended off the honking, hapless traffic. A Wizard hovered above the scene. He stood in a levitating cloche— a metal-and-glass chamber, domed at the top and flat bottomed like a bell. The transparent bubble sloped the rain off the Wizard, who was supposed to be monitoring the armed Rangers, but Felix was pretty sure he was reading a paperback instead.

Red mixed into the mud puddles the CWs splashed through, seeping out from the overturned tram. Everyone proceeded at pace, no medicvans were coming. Whoever was underneath that had accepted this as a risk. All of the orange-clad CWs had made the same deal. The Civic Works Progam was a social initiative created by the Wizard visionaries generations ago, to combat the then-still-early unemployment problem in the city, providing anyone who fell to homelessness with a job, a bed, three square meals a day. In return, you did the work the City assigned you. It had been a better deal before they moved the free housing out to the barges on the lake’s edge in the border wall’s shadow, back when the worker’s planted trees and picked up trash for their service, but overall better than dying of exposure, or getting your brainstem reformatted by the next Storm that passed over the city. All were eligible— hence the mixed ages of the work crew, setting up the Festival was light-work. Anyone more able-bodied was out on the floating farms, maintaining the dirty vitals of the city’s sewers, or had taken on other helpful tasks. By volunteering yourself (or by being prescribed duty for a crime) you were essentially converted from a citizen to an overhead cost on the municipal ledger for as long as your contract ran, or was renewed. It ended up happening a lot. The Wizards even threw in a nifty orange jumpsuit, and a free bit of body art. Everyone in Heaven was born with a Social Identification Number, but only Civic Workers got to have their SIN tattooed into their neck for free.

Felix sleepily soaked up the scene, gently knowing this was his destiny in a couple of years, if he didn’t die some quicker death first. He smiled at it, trying to enjoy his downward spiral for what it was, while it lasted. The bannered words above the workers’ heads encouraged all to embrace their role as defender of their city’s virtues. Felix didn’t know if he would even defend himself at this point, for all he was worth.

“Bruv, wotcha tink the Founders would say bout dis lot? Fookin mess erry year innit!” Vic said, brow creased as they pushed through the stymied crowd.

“They’d probably be looking for the nearest Ark and the next continent.”

“Haw! Prolly.”

They made it through the densest point of the bottleneck and had two meters to themselves.

“Right den—Nudda question. Listen. Izzit betta bein a slut, or a slave, wotchuthink?”

“Are those my only two choices?”

“Basically, yeh bruv.”

The two of them passed streetlamp after streetlamp, brightening the shadow cast by the wall around Zeliman’s Pyramid, one of the Heaven’s twelve Colleges. Felix couldn’t look up at the blue glass ziggurat, all passive solar leans and overhangs. He didn’t have faith he was really even awake, his meager belief system hadn’t kicked in yet. He was still running on autopilot, four hours of sleep and whatever last night had left in his bloodstream.

Vic, who was a bit more ready for the day, fleshed out his premise as they hiked along through the drizzle.

“See blud, we all are, sluts or slave, when it gits down. All us gotta work, pay the rent. Most mans out here: slaves. Mandem wake up, go ta work, do wot bossman say. Fired if ya dont. Same ting, erry time. He tell ya work harda. You says yeh, do a little more, til ‘e leaves, but you dont care, you work byda hour— clock-ridin, pullin dose good steady slave-wages innit? And bossman don’t really care, long as his bossman happy. He got his little slave-wage too, more than yours, cuz he manages mans like you.”

“Sounds right.”

“I bet. Your job, blud? At the boot store bruv? Total slavin. All the goons you work with at Pagerock, bossmans too. Slave ting, Day in. day out. Im not clownin it, I done worse, bare worse. You ent seen a fish-house, bruv, truss me.”

“Aren’t those just normal jobs?”

“They ent if ya go broke workin em! Only makin the money they let you, and never enuff. Maybe you useda could, one time. That’s why everyone thinks theyre just normal jobs, innit, but no one out here getting ahead. All the slaves dont realize. They ent even know bout the Wuss-Wen bruv.”

“Yeah.” He knew what his friend meant— the WSWN—the Way Shit Was Now. They talked about it so much they made up an acronym one drunken night. The mutual distrust, the hardness on everyone’s eyes, waiting for the next disaster, expecting stagnation at best. Not everyone named it but you could tell they felt it, heard them talk about or around it in different ways. You couldn’t avoid it, life in Lower Heaven was getting bad, and if you asked anyone older than you, it used to be better.

Felix didn’t know if that was true, but it definitely seemed busier than when he was young. Nothing ramped down in the city anymore. Even when the traffic turned the roadways to slow paste, for hours every morning and night, hordes rushed about at their business. They were getting caught in the upwell of it now, themselves adding to the morning crowd going out to begin the day. The avenue was already well-peopled, filling with the first shift workers, and the local auteurs who sold coffee, umbrellas, corn flautas, sticks of chicle, news rags, pig-stuffed croissants, and other sundries to them.

Felix fought to keep his drowsing head up, and his heavy pack from stumbling him into a sidewalk tortilla press. He held his breath, the smell of the warm, hearty food made him sick this early.

“It just dont work, dem type jobs, it dont, I done em.” Vic continued. “You cant expect to make it, only stay still, or fall behind. We gotta get in a different lane. You know wot dat means.”

“… be sluts?”

“True, blud, primo sluts! Like I’s sayin, last night. We ent workin for no wage no more bruv. We makin the moves. We takin risk, and gettin rewards. Beeg ting today bruv, truss.”

“Uh huh,” inserted Felix.

“Yeh, yeh.” his friend went on, amping himself up, “Honestly bruv, we been gettin fooked out here, and we ent got nuffin for it. Been playin the game the wrong ways.”

“Uh huh.”

“Uh huh.” Vic repeated. He turned and speared Felix with a Look from his good eye, the right one. He sucked the spot where his front teeth were supposed to be.

“Will you fookin wake up? Act like you bouta be somewhere.”

“Bleh, sorry.” Felix rattled his head for show. “That sangria last night really got me.”

“Lightweight,” said Vic. “Cummon.” He forced a few steps ahead, then slowed up for Felix, sauntering behind.

He really hadn’t meant to get drunk last night— but a 10-hour shift humping boot boxes the day before meant it hadn’t even been a choice, more of an instinct. And it wasn’t all his fault. Vic had come out with him too, and drank almost as much, and didn’t stop him. He shouldn’t be surprised, at least.

Trying to infuse a little pep into his step, clear the liquid cobwebs for his friend’s sake, Felix bounced to Vic’s side.

“Hey! No worries, I’m feeling good. We’re going to kick ass out there. Not like last time. All good! We’ll pull hella slugs.”

Vic puffed out air. “No slugs this time bruv.” he said, eyes mostly forward.

“Oh, right.”

They hit Perimeter Blvd. The crowds were already bad, the incoming Causeway flow injected into the uncompromising band of lateral traffic running either way on the flat stone road, which encircled the oblong island. The name was a misnomer now, as several blocks of development had been extended out over sections of the lake.

If Felix looked up, straight down the narrow line of Meridian Avenue, he’d see the Edifice’s glassy face staring back— the City’s original College and the high seat of the academocracy, the Wizard government, built into the small mountain in the island’s middle— so he didn’t look. The ruling class that lived there was comprised of Heaven’s most elite and learned, the best equipped to make decisions and laws for all the people, ascended by their peers to positions of power, as their level of personal excellence dictated.

The Perimeter/Meridian/Merit Causeway interchange was more fraught with people than ever. The cross street was jumping like a pot at full boil, everyone in a hurry. The roadway was bricked in here too. The everpresent cord of the street, the dense, slow-rolling autocarts delivering goods from one part of the city to another, and the smaller, solar-magic autos and cabbies that filled all of the space the trucks didn’t, making the actual roadway untraversable, for those keen to keep both feet.

A heavy sample of Heaven’s denizens clotted the wide sidewalks. Unassuming, bespectacled professionals swept past hunched clusters of hand-tatted Causeway kids tribed up on the corner. Package deliverers on all manner of one, two, and three-wheeled vehicles sliced between each. Merit Causeway was adjacent to the South Bank as well, so you got a lot of Zuri— the broad name for the hundreds of totem tribes that occupied all of the jungle lands surrounding the lake. Early on, right after the First Settlement, some enterprising Zuri tribesman had encamped on the island’s southwest crescent, forming their own new colony of sorts. This unresolved city planning issue remained so until Heaven’s borders grew to encapsulate the South Bank, also known as the Zuri Quarter, and began to question how much space the indigenous settlement really needed.

Felix scanned for any big clusters of totem outfits— panther capes, squawkodile masks, phoenix feathers— the ceremonial garms Zuri youth gangs put on prior to committing political actions. He didn’t dislike Zuri people, he had nothing against them. But with the WSWN, with all the rage bubbling around the South Bank, you had to stay alert.

They battled left, north, down Perimeter. Above the people and buildings they could see the Aeromobiles, lifting off and touching down from their destination.

Through the churning, Felix had been working on a new problem: he inferred from context that they were doing something different than usual, on this journey into the jungle. Vic must have told him at some point this week, but the space in his mind where the details should be was an embarrassing opaque fuzz. Plus, not knowing what they were about to parachute out of a flying vehicle to go do was a pinch unnerving as well. He used his lack of info to try and discover two things at once.

“Hey, so… we’re not not going after slugs this time because of last time, are we?”

“Nah.”

“Because those cliff ropes can get tangled really easily and take all day to untwist, and I know that now.”

“You prolly should know that bruv, but nah. Not you. Wot I said. Slugs are a commodity— steady buyers, but low sells. Basically slave work, innit? This will nab us some real dosh. Stacks bruv, real loot. Like I said.”

“Right.” Felix said, no closer. Which was actually fine, no matter. Felix was a firm believer that nothing really mattered at all in the world, but this especially. Vic was the licensed Jungle Ranger here. He’d shot Felix’s suggestions down a number of times in the previous, which was fair, because Felix knew nothing about hunting his friend hadn’t taught him. So it really didn’t matter what they were going after or what he thought of it, and he was perfectly fine with that. The less of his brain he had to use, the better. He was just along for the ride, providing moral support, observational humor and all that.

“Yep. And if all goes well, everyting is just fine, truss me. ‘Snot you.” Vic said, as Felix turned to cross the street. He hitched his shoulder and kept walking, making a two-note sucking sound with his teeth at Felix, to get him to follow.

“This way. We’re buyin a Gooli.”

II

The Aero Yard lay behind a high fortressed fence, spiked at intervals with control towers, their roof panels flipping constantly with colored semaphore flags. The hubbub of souls on the block was flattened by the noise of an Aero firing its rotors every minute or so, the silver-hulled bulks jumping the height of four stories with a start, levelling to a bee’s hover, before sliding up and forward into the sky as if pulled by a string.

Vic kept walking like he knew where he was going, Felix followed. When they reach the corner of the Yard’s palisade fence, they picked their way across the crosswalk and kept straight, so that the Yard’s slatted barrier was now an arm’s length to their left. Across the street from them, the block-and-timber structures that marked late-stage Heavenite architecture were spersed with Zilladon hide tenthouses, warty leather and dye hues making them look like huge sleeping creatures. Some were splayed open, as stores or little cantinas— they strolled on the edge of the Zuri Quarter proper now, a few blocks in and the road system would totally disappear into an uncharted, shuffling sea of tents.

“Mebbe if they built some real houses, no one’d wanna clear em out.” Vic muttered off-hand. It was something he’d said before. Felix just grunted, having no real opinion. They reached the far corner of the Aero Yard, where it shot off the edge of the island on an artifice of piers. They marched towards an open divot on the opposite corner block, the opening of a large orange tent that formed a courtyard, where Zuri were known to hire themselves out to Rangers and other adventurers outbound on a jungle hunt.

“So, we’re bringing someone else?” Felix said as they crossed the street.

“Yeah.” Vic said. “It’s time.”

“Nice! Hey, you wanna kebab for breakfast?” Felix said, his stomach starting to yearn.

A negative, reflexive sound came out of Vic’s mouth.

“Ya got dosh bruv?” he spat.

“No, okay, sorry,” Felix said, backing off.

“You shouda et at home. We just gotta make some dosh first. A guide’s gonna double, triple up wot we bring home usual.”

“Yeah, but what does one of those cost?”

“Lemme worry bout that— s’kay, s’long as were smart.”

“Sure, okay, sweet.” Felix gave an enthusiastic smile because that sounded good to him, he was glad Vic was doing something different, to get out of the funk he’d been in lately. And really, even if they did just end up doing a slug run, they’d be making toasts and flirting with the waitresses back at the cantina just a few hours from now, letting today fade into the next. So all good still.

The sound of shouting brought him back. An abscess of open space ringed a bedraggled woman at the tent’s entrance.

“Oohs, flya alert,” Vic said as they drew near.

The flyer stomped about, protesting. “MERIT, LOGIC, PEACE! When will the troubles cease! MERIT, LOGIC, PEACE, when will the troubles cease? THESE, THE PRINCIPLES OF OUR FOUNDERS HAVE BEEN FORGOTTEN! You there! You there! The time is come, are you prepared? For eleven score and five years, all of time! You there! What have you done? Whose city is this that is EATING ITS CHILDREN! SWALLOWING ITS YOUNG! And what have you done? The children, don’t you hear! No one listens, to the children, WHERE will they go? You there! Where will they go, oh, they don’t know! We must ask. We must demand. THEY know! THEY know, you bet THEY do in their towers, they watch all of us and know, you know and you know— you there! Do you believe that the terror of change will come? Do you know it believes in you? Do you hear me? Do you believe what the city is telling you! MERIT, LOGIC, PEACE—”

Her dress was well on its way to rags, smeared and ripped. A wood sandwich board with an illegible manifesto scrawled in hundreds of tiny red letters dangled over her neck. She roved back and forth, thrusting a haggard mass of handbills at anyone she could get close enough to reach.

By unanimous decision, all the strangers gathered were pretending the woman didn’t exist. Some put up a hand as they passed to blot her from their vision, but most walked straight by, letting her tirade bounce off their ears, denied entry.

“Huh, haven’t heard the “eating the children” one before, that’s creative.” Felix cracked, glancing back as the crossed the tent threshold.

“Bad way to go, getting et. Nothing ever gets you in just one bite. Ya get chewed up first, a bit at a time.” Vic said.

“Scuse me!” a city voice said behind them.

Felix turned as a reflex, the flyer women was following them. He made eye contact with a pocked and wind-worn face, polished to a sunburnt shine. That wasn’t a Storm symptom, though the crazed pupils were. It was just what happened when you had no home, living under the constant elements of the city. Still, she wasn’t an old woman as she appeared at first. Under the grime and the piercing stare was a young-ish face, they could have been the same class in Youth School. She was tugging on his sleeve, addressing him.

“Ay, ay, wha’gwan!”

Felix slowed and gave a charitable wave.

“Wha’gwan.” He greeted her back.

“Ay! You’re a Wizard, right?”

“What makes you say that?”

Felixletsgobruv—”

She raised her eyebrows like it was obvious.

“Felix. Felicitiares? Knew it. I’m from the LC, Logic Causeway, if ya new. You aint frumma Causeway with a name like Felicitiares. That’s a college-boy-wizard-type name, innit?”

“Yeah, but how did you know before he said my name?”

“Simp— Wizards walk with they hands in they pockets, like th’ent nothing to worry about out here.”

This was ironic, considering the source’s behavior, but apart from the unnerving look in her eye, the woman didn’t seem too ‘Touched when she wasn’t proselytizing. She could turn it on and off. She must not have been struck directly. He felt the eyes of the crowd, watching them talking. Vic was fidgeting next to him, deciding whether to just walk away.

“Hey…” Felix said, trying to affect kindness, and not glance around— “You should probably get going. Take a walk to a different neighborhood. Try to find somewhere to sleep or go inside for a while. You look like you need a break—”

“Nope, nope, nope, nope!” She was already waving her head back and forth by the time he finished, talking over him. She spread her arms in a wide V, indicating all of existence. “Not tired. Can’t be. All of this is ending soon, if we don’t act. Lots of work to do. It’s going to be okay though, I know what to do—just need your help, get some Wizard face-time. Someone high up. I have ideas, innit? Axiom One.” She pointed meaningfully at the first bullet point of her sign.

“Kay, I’m going.” Vic said, feinting away with his body.

“Wait just a second.”

“Bruv!”

The Flyer lady bulled on, not keen to lose her audience, leaving no space between words for breath.

SINCE the DISCOVERY OF HEAVEN, ELEVEN SCORE AND FIVE YEARS AGO, and the signing of the DEMARCATION TREATY of YEAR TWENTY with the ROYAL ALIEN BLOOD EMPIRE, which City of Heaven as the edge of the Big Clear Lake until YEAR 333, the city’s population has grown faster than THE FOUNDERS could have ever intended, AS YOU MUST AGREE.”

“Sure, I mean—“

“AXIOM TWO— As even SIMPS can see by the BROWNOUTS, FOOD PANICS, LAST SEASON’S ATTEMPTED COUP, ETCETERA, there is no MATHEMATICAL POSSIBILITY of the city’s still-growing population being supported even at present levels until year 200 when the Treaty’s terms end and the city can renegotiate its borders.”

“Right, everyone knows that. Hey, we gotta—“

“Wait! No, don’t leave, I’ll skip to the good part. Please listen! Here, here— Axiom Eighteen! With the ongoing instaBILITY—” she said, finally finding her level, “The Expansion of the CIVIC WORKER POLICY, the persistent disconnect of WIZARD LEADERSHIP from the people they have ascended to serve, the growing COST of LIVING, and the unwillingness of DECEPTIVE ZURI TRIBELORDS (here she reached a high point) in the city to reign in their people’s RAPING, STREET MURDER, and CHEM PEDDLING, there is NO CHOICE but to RECLAIM THE ILLEGALLY OCCUPIED SOUTH BANK, RETAKING by ANY MEANS, THAT WHICH IS OURS BY RIGHT, AND HERITAGE!!”

As a final flourish she thrust a handbill into Felix’s hand. He looked down at the stamped image— the silhouette of a dreadlocked head, with large drops of blood falling from the bottom, and a badly-proportioned axe above. GOOLI GO HOME, it read.

The crowd, more than half Zuri, was really listening to them now. He dropped the paper like it was on fire, backing up, raising his hands. Vic tugged him away, and he proffered the woman a weak no thank you, but it didn’t matter— she had gotten herself so worked up she had forgotten about them, slipping back into her one-person protest.

III

They tried to distance themselves as quickly as possible, under the Zuris’ glaring scrutiny. With the WSWN in full effect none of the tribesman were going to take a chance with the law by laying a hand on her, even if she was Stormtouched, but Felix could feel their caged anger seething across the courtyard.

“Ya wanna go agree with the crazy racist Stormtouched lady some more, blud?” Vic asked in a hiss as they sped.

“Sorry, I didn’t know! They aren’t all anti-Zuri. I was just trying to get her to go before—“

“Yeh, ya never know with em bruv, s’why ya dont talk to em, so ya dont find out.”

“Just trying to be— nevermind.” He knew what his friend would say.

“Yeh yeh right. Okay already, Now. Help me find someone who looks like they know big birds.”

“Birds?”

“Yes, bruv, beeg birds.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“The shovelbills! ‘member? Stripey feddahs, tallah den you, travels in gangs, big fookin beaks, ‘ll stab your eye out?”

“Right, right, feathers, I remember.”

“Yeh, the beaks n’ feet sell too, and the liver. Vic whispered. “Dont matter, well just plunk anyting at the Rangers Guild. Prices up all round. The labs are buyin em like mad, I been watchin it go. And ay, I tink I found something no one knows bruv. Cummon— Lets find someone who ent cost a milli.”

“I thought we were good on money?”

“Yeh, but these guys’ll hit you over the head on the contracts, ‘fyer not careful. We just want a one and done-just-today-type ting.”

“Who does big birds.”

“You clocked it.”

They walked into the tent away from everyone who had seen what happened, and looked around. The canopied square was full of jostling bravados, displaying themselves for the hunting parties that came, sweeping their gaze over the lot of them without commitment. All had assembled outfits that marked them somewhere between tribal warrior and street ruffian. The more fur, or scales, or teeth round the neck, the newer in town they were. The recent arrivals were marked in manner as well, they stood around, planted unblinking next to their weapons, no idea how to market themselves. Then there were those that had lost the feathers, and invested in a visored polyplax helmet, abandoned the braided belt for a bandolier, strapped with vials of healing potions, investing in the gear that made them career mercenaries, once a few successful contracts gave them a taste of what loose cash could buy you in Heaven.

These were the market leaders of the Aerohub day labor pool. In addition to upgrading their gear, they had developed a basic notion of advertising. The most assimilated of the warriors had camped themselves out and picketed the area with banners and flags, coated with pictographs of various beasts, numbers and rates scrawled next to them, lots of fine print like Vic warned. They formed little mafias that blocked the sidewalk and let the most fluent in the pack barter for them in choppy pidgin, leaving the solo arrivals to find space wherever they could in the periphery, to figure it out alone in the little unsanctioned meat market.

Felix shook his head to turn his brain on, and actually engaged his eyes on the scene around him. The stalls in the tented plaza formed a square within a square for you to walk around, the inner and outer ring flush with the day’s selection.

“Okay bruv, who looks like a good bounty hunta?”

“Well, technically, aren’t we’re the bounty hunters, so we’re hunting for a mercenary, to assist our bounty hunting?”

They side-eyed the hawkers trying to reel them, trying to learn something useful without obligating themselves. They walked down one side, sussing prices and specialties while avoiding eye contact with the pushier man-peddlers.

“Wotevah. All these mooks look like idiotes, posers, thief tings.” Vic said, of the assembled sellers they were passing.

“We could try the solos over there, they’re probably cheaper?”

“Yeh, all the rejects who cant hack it and virgins who ent never done dis.” He said, but they walked that way anyway.

Midway along the wall of unstalled guides-for-rent, there was a figure reclined, back against one of the wooden pillars rigging up the tent, ass on a barrel, head tilted back with a hood that fell past his nose, so they couldn’t see if he was watching or not. He was a picture of casual repose in a morass of posture and selling, no gaudy banner or hype-man. His only concession to branding himself was a rectangular sign propped up in front of him: KILLS EVERYTHING – NO CONTRACT NEEDED. They couldn’t see his face between the hood and the dreadlocks dangling out of it, but there was a different energy that stood him out from the rest.

“How ‘bout him? Lotta feather tats.” Felix said.

“Mebbe.”

They approached.

“Ay, hi, wha’gwan, Onga-longa.” Vic said, taking the lead.

The tribesman tilted his head up slightly and pulled the dreads out of his face. A stern set of dark brown eyes looked past a large, angular nose, and pronounced the word right in a deep voice.

“Olingolo go.”

“Eh, close. Everyting, innit?” Vic said, eying the sign.

“So far, yes.”

“Ha. Kay. So— shovelbills. You know dese birds, bruv?”

“Mmhmm.” He grunted back.

“Was that a yes? You know wot I mean bruv— shovelbills? Big bird-type ting?”

“Mhmm. With large claws. Eats eyeballs. Feathers are stripedy.”

“Clocked it. Was’ya rate den?”

“Five hundo.”

“Wot? For a day? Blud, you serious?”

“Are you?” he asked, unblinking.

Pfft. The most. I’m sorry, I thought you were someone who wanted to work today.”

“I do. For ones with five hundo for me. Refer to sign. Can kill everything.”

“No one out here chargin more’n a hundo or two.” He squinted at the guy, not a pretty sight. “How old are you even? Lookin a likkle youfish. You even done dis bruv?”

“Yeah, you think you’re worth five of those guys?” Felix said, pointing at a booth across the way. At it, a contingent of Midnight Leopard Boys (according to their banner) sparred, shadow-boxed, and arm-wrestled in full body leopard kit, pants and all, complete with an intact head that seemed to be swallowing the wearer’s skull. Their barker, a short fellow, zipped his head towards Felix, sensing the interest. Felix shoved his gaze back to the conversation, hopefully before it was too late.

“Chill, I got this— yehdoe, why shouldnt we rent man dem over dere?”

“You should. You cannot pay me.”

“Eh slow down, who said bruv? We just talkin, innit, okay, forreal— wots your low?”

“Five hundo.”

“Cummon! Ill do two. You cant be getting much work like dis.”

“I do not need much work like this.”

“Sounds like this guy really knows how to slut.” Felix said.

Shut it— so, wot, you do like a, a money back guarantee if we ent catch nuffin, or wot?”

The barbarian chuckled once. “Go to them. The contract-men. They will help you for your little bank.”

Vic sizzled, and pinched his temples. Felix tried to lighten the air.

“Hey, no worries! It’s cool. Sorry, if you don’t mind me asking, what tribe are you from? I don’t recognize your marks.”

“White Crow.”

“Oh, interesting, I never learned about that one. Is it a smaller tribe? Is your homeseat very far?”

“Not far.”

“Okay okay okay okay okay okay okay.“ Vic said, waving away their side-conversation with a brusque hand, “You ent got any contract.”

“No.”

“Alright… all your own gear? You gotta chute?”

“Yeh.”

Vic ran out of good questions, and began pivoting to excuses, not wanting to just look like a cheapskate.

“Right den, so…”

“Okay, super super, sign it here boss, good picks!” Felix felt a poke in his back.

He turned and saw a wall of purple.

“’Five of dese guys,’ Liken you say! My best Leopard boys, ch’yours for all day, all day.”

The barker, a shorter fellow, with big silver gems studded into his leopard head’s sockets, pressed a clipboard into Felix’s solar plexus. The dinky man looked a little bigger with his five muscled friends behind him.

“Yup, no money down. Chu first trips free. Super stuff boss. Sign!” A sinking feeling hit Felix. He looked at the guy with the crow tats, who just shrugged, still seated.

“Err, hey, wait, we were talking to someone already here—“

“Pah, the suckling, with no crew? Friend, look. Purple Leopards stand here and take his business all day mang, cuz we’re better. You look smart, you a Wizard or something? We got you mang, let me hook it up, come on”.

“Dont sign.” Vic said. “Ay. You and ya guys can all git with it, no one hired ya idyots.”

“Okay boss! Not problems. But thatsa cancellation fee tho, how chu wanna pay?”

“I dont, cuz I ent a fookin nonce.”

“Big agree here! Lets keep it one hundo. This best deal. No money down til second trip. Super deal, just sign.”

“Listen, please, This is a misunderstanding—“ Felix said.

“No can with the pay-pay? No problem! We comes with you on credit, no moneys down, comes with free health potion, free sky pass, first time, super good deal. Betta than dis guy, on the real real. Here!”

He just kept going. All of the promotional language swam into Vic’s ear, and some of it didn’t come back out. Felix could see his friend moving mental abacus beads around.

He was about to say let me read this, when someone screamed up front. A mammal-noise, unfiltered and surprised. It crimped the hairs on the back of Felix’s neck, and his head turned with everyone else’s. The noise repeated in tormented bursts. Everyone was coming out of their booths, moving to the middle of the square to stand on their toes for a glimpse.

“No, HAAAAAAALP!” The cry morphed into words, piercing over the heightened hush of the watching crowd.

The black van had blasted up onto the curb. Its suicide doors hung open like mechanical labia. Out of them, a pair of Rangers walked. Elite ones. Three-color armband, black overcoat—

City Corps Response team. The tactical echelon of the peacekeepers, the only group the Wizards paid to employ violence to get things done, the rest of the City had to do it for free. They were the ones who arrived when streets needed to be kept safe from rioters, saboteurs, looters, madmen, kidnappers, blatant pimps and chem pushers, escaped Civic Workers, grifters, drifters, vagrants, graffitists, the unlawfully assembled, flyers, child predators, and the homeless. Both carried a silver device slid over their right wrist, one part tight-fitting glove and one part halo encircling their hand around the thumbknuckle. The strapshot was a marvel in crowd control tech. It was sensitive to pressure and responded to hand gestures fluidly, so effective at its job it was unlawful for citizens to possess. Anyone could have one used on them though.

“They’ve got straps,” Felix murmured.

“Yeah, dey all do now bruv, wake up. Prolly they just keep em on net mode for her, too bad, blud. She a crazy racist ting.”

“No! Do you see? HELP!” The stormtouched woman cried, backing into the tent plaza. The thin crowd near the front moved out of the way of the black-clad lawmen. They approached her with slow, wide stance. Everyone was silent.

One of the Corps beckoned to her with a cupped hand. She darted backwards, and cried in anguish. The front of the crowd didn’t yield. Someone pushed her back towards them with a grunt. She stumbled, tripping on her signboard, almost fell.

They kept closing. Both lifted their arms, thumbs jabbing out. As their digits extended, the silver halo filament circling the strapshots made a click and a flash, and two white webs of plasma burst out to ensnare her.

She went flat out—the first plasma net went low and missed, scrambling with energy on the pavement as it faded inert. The second one hit her, but wrapped mostly the signboard. She clawed it off her neck and staggered up, scampering on bleeding knees scraped to tatters and scrambled right fast, to the wall. The men saw where she was going and dashed toward, as she grabbed at the rope line that tied down one side of the canopy tent.

Hauling herself up, she used the rope and the pole and the brick wall to brace herself but there was nowhere to go. In a second she had treed herself, but couldn’t get out of reach of the Corps, who came behind her and yanked at her legs and hips, breaking her hold, digit by slipping digit, sending her crashing back down to the pavers.

Then it was over. Her last sounds clipped off as the black bag slipped over her face. The second Ranger made a show of flipping her over, and binding her wrists and ankles with pack of cable ties at his waist, while the first walked and collected her sign, before they tossed both through the van’s waiting mouth. It clapped shut.

Some people clapped a little. Others just went back to work with a quick saying or jibe. The noise rose back to normal levels. Felix mopped the cold sweat from his face, and sucked in breath, trying to slow his heart rate and unsee all of that.

“Finally,” Vic said, sympathetic. “Dat one needed some help. Fore she hurt somebody, or got herself stomped out. S’good. Takin care ting.”

“Yeah.” Felix managed to say, from the back of the library of dark memories in which he now found himself. He knew what kind of help was waiting for her at the Colleges, in the labs. His old work study job. Don’t think about it, he told himself. He focused on just those words. Don’t think about it. Act normal. Stop shaking. Open your eyes.

An expletive from Vic made it easier. His friend was agog. Felix now became aware that all of the Leopard Boys were on the ground. Sometime in the commotion they had all six of them decided to take a lie down. A trickle of blood was sliding out of more than one of their hidden noses. The casual Zuri with the feather tats was standing up now, looking at them, face blasé.

No one around them had registered it yet, but they were starting to.

“Oh, fook—go, bruv, go, we ent need no guide, quick, fore they look—“

Felix obliged. They hurried back towards the front to leave, but found there was more to see. A bunch of guys were clustered in the front right corner, shouting at each other, and pointing up.

The tent was not designed to be ascended. Where the woman had climbed, a rope had pulled out of tautness, and this little change had put enough slack in the corner that the rain was beginning to pool. This was putting a growing sac of rainwater directly above their heads. It seemed simple to just tighten the slack, but all of the braided lines securing the canvas to the poles were linked together, so the time it would take to readjust one section would allow as much rain to accumulate on its neighbors. To truly fix it, you’d have to clear everyone out, and re-erect it from scratch. That was impossible obviously— not enough time, so there had to be some way to fix this one problem in isolation, or what a major design flaw it would be. No one there was agreeing on it though, or getting a cogent plan together. Meanwhile, the weight of the water was building, and putting more strain on the poles and other ropes, minute over minute.

Felix sussed the building tension on the lines: outlook not good. Some precocious individuals around started to leave the crowd and pack up their things, or just stood and left, noting what was about to happen.

“Hey, this whole thing is about to come down,” Felix said, in a detached, sing-song way, pointing at one particular strand of rope coiling and pulling thin. Vic looked up and came to the same conclusion.

Ooooh. Not good, lets bail!” he said, loud enough the people around them heard and looked up. They too saw they were already behind the power curve as far as getting out of dodge, and chaos multiplied. It was a stampede behind them by the time they made it to the threshold, people shoving one another to escape.

SNAP. The thin line broke. The half-ton of water went into freefall for a few feet, before being caught by what tension was left, doubling the strain placed on the remaining supports. This paradigm lasted for a few seconds, until the cumulative weight became too much for one of the middle posts.

It didn’t split and flatten down the middle all of a sudden like Felix anticipated. It yawed to the heavy side like a capsizing boat, which ripped all of the other lines still attached from their eyelets, so that the light side collapsed first, from the edges. The water, with no counterbalance, then crushed down to the ground, splintering the rigged-up posts, and finally deposited its reserve onto the square, smashing and flooding everyone and thing in it. Mortal cries emerged from the back of the wreckage.


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