Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
Book One of The Osiris Project
E. J. SWIFT
night shade books
© 2012 by E. J. Swift
This edition of
© 2012 by Night Shade Books
Jacket Illustration by Sparth
Jacket design by Victoria Maderna and Federico Piatti
Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich
Edited by Jeremy Lassen
All rights reserved
Night Shade Books
For my parents, Andrew and Veronica Swift
e sits on the balcony with his legs hanging over the edge and his face pressed between two railings. Beyond the bars lies the great vault of the city and its pale roof of sky. He does not see an architectural masterpiece, although there are lines of beauty here that exist nowhere else. What he sees is a maze of luminous shapes, ignited by the sun.
He has spent hours in this space, high in the eyries of Osiris, where gulls and other birds wheel and screech their hunger. Sometimes he stands and leans over and peers into the depths of the morning mist. Other times he perches on the railings, with death at his side like a neighbour. Occasionally he sleeps. The cold is hostile, and he is not dressed to face it. He wakes in the frost, trembling, surprised still to be here.
In the brittle air he feels, acutely, the internal heat of his body battling with the outside draught. His blood pulses, torrid and bright. His heart tattoos a rhythm in his chest. Icy stone pushes against his bare feet. When the storms come, the elements sweep around him in multilingual conference. Rain lashes the windows and his skin, wind claims the moisture back. He has forgotten that he is afraid of storms. He turns his face to the heavens and closes his eyes.
Once, people came and found him here. They spoke to him, and when he was silent they begged him to talk and when he talked their eyes grew strange and harboured clouds. But it has been a long time and the findings are things of the past, things that lie almost beyond the reach of memory. He holds onto only one. He cannot remember her name, but she tumbles through the world: bold, vital and violent. He cannot let her go because she knows no fear.
People still watch, although he is unconscious of their surveillance and the whispers that shroud him. These stories skip along bridges, ride up and down the glass lifts. From unseen lips, they echo in the hollows of a dozen ears. They make good copy. There are episodes when he leaves the balcony, even leaves the penthouse it is attached to, and then the Reef field buzzes and tingles in the keys of many different voices. But days pass, and his expeditions become rarer. He keeps time for the city, watching it dissolve around him.
He knows there is something he has to do. A mystery he has to solve. It is in the water. It is in the ice.
One morning, in the lilac hours before dawn, he lifts his arms as if they are wings. They have spoken at last. It is in the water, he knows it now. He climbs the railings. For a moment he poises, absolutely still. The city is hushed.
But now he hears it. At first barely audible, then louder, as it has been growing these past few months, or even years. Hooves beating on the skin of the waves. They run like streamers in the wind. Foam flies about their salted coats; the horses.
No one is awake to see him fall. His body hurtles earthwards, faster than the diving gulls, faster than a rumour. The air rushes against him. Windows flee his reflection. He crashes into the sea and vanishes instantly beneath the surface, leaving only a faint trace that is quickly gone.
1 ¦ ADELAIDE
delaide first felt something was wrong in the aftermath of the speech. Her father had voiced the formalities, and now those who remained had the chance to speak to the family. The guests were tentative. They offered their sympathy like a gift, of whose appropriateness and reception they were as yet unsure. Buoyed by weqa or coral tea, a few dared to meet Adelaide’s eyes, but most looked at the bridge of her nose or into a space over her shoulder. She watched them hunting for the right words. They wanted to say something. Or at least they wanted to be seen to say something. Unfortunately, none of the usual phrases—
we’re so sorry for your loss—
were much use. How do you condole for a missing person? How do you grieve?
Her father had managed it very well. It was a month since Axel’s disappearance, and Feodor had staged this event. He named it a service of hope. The phrase was written out on a diminishing supply of cards, by hand:
the Rechnov family invites you to a service of hope for our son and brother, Axel.
There was no order of ceremony on the cards, but it was firmly established in Feodor’s head. First the assembly, with a pianist providing background music. The repertoire was classical; nothing too well-known, or too sentimental. A few words explaining the situation, for protocol’s sake rather than to fill anybody in. And then Feodor’s speech.
He spoke adeptly, as he always did, his voice carrying to every nook of the panelled suite. The rooms were quiet and graceful, their walls striped with narrow ribbons of mirror, red cedar and sequoia. Subtle lamps drew out the natural richness of the wood, whose polished surface gathered hazy impressions of those who passed. Other than the ferns and a scattering of tables and chairs, the rooms were unadorned. They were also windowless. Adelaide’s brothers had hoped that the informality of a small, intimate space would make for a more congenial atmosphere than was traditionally associated with the Rechnovs.
At the walls, security guards stood rigidly enough to be all but invisible. Only their eyes, constantly roving, revealed alertness.
Adelaide had wedged herself into an alcove. The space was wide enough to seat two people, but Adelaide crammed her legs in too, denying anyone else access. Two things separated her further from proceedings: a lace veil covering the upper half of her face, and the fronds of a metre-high fern. From her semi-hiding place, the rooms, full of figures and reflections, did not look quite real. She couldn’t help hearing her father though.
Incense and cedar permeated the air. Adelaide hadn’t eaten all day; the sweetish smell and lack of food were making her feel nauseous. She loosened her tie and undid the top button of her shirt, and felt a little better.
“…finally, the family would like to thank you for your continual support and your generous messages. We await news of Axel with anticipation, and as always, with hope.” There was a pause. Adelaide knew that Feodor was taking a pinch of salt from a tin and throwing it, in the direction where a window would have been. “Thank you, once again.”
Syncopated claps rang through the rooms. When the sound died out there was a difficult silence, before murmurs and music recommenced. The service, despite the oration, remained unresolved.
Adelaide stayed where she was and wondered what she should do next.
Feodor’s speech had already triggered numerous arguments amongst the family. The idea of the service was despicable to Adelaide. Nothing, she knew, would dissuade the family, but she spoke out nonetheless.
“Nobody understands Axel, not before and certainly not now. Nothing you can say about him is worth saying.”
Those words resounded only a fortnight ago, and they had all been present, sitting around an oval conference table on the ninetieth floor of Skyscraper-193-South. It was neutral ground. Beyond the immense glass window-walls, Osiris lay bathed in a clementine sunset. The city’s conical steel towers were burnished gold, and as a flock of gulls swept past the scraper, their wings caught flashes of red as if they were afire. Adelaide paid no heed to the view; she had seen it all her life. Her attention flicked between her grandfather, her parents, and her two other brothers. Dmitri’s fiancée was not at the table. The Rechnovs were clannish. A matter of blood was a matter for blood.
The meeting was the first time Adelaide had spoken to any of them in months, and she was wary. She seated herself at the south end of the table, deliberately facing everybody else. Her mother’s eyes, the same green as Adelaide’s and Axel’s, pleaded with her for compassion, or perhaps for leniency. Viviana would try to use the catastrophe as a catalyst for reconciliation. Adelaide folded her arms on the table. The wood was cool on her bare skin, but sweat lined the hollows of her palms. A grain of salt for every harsh word, she thought. For every tear.
Feodor cleared his throat. He thanked them all for being there, a sentiment clearly directed at Adelaide as the estranged member of the family. Then her mother stood up. She had the blanched face of someone who had not slept in days. Adelaide hardened herself against sympathy.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Viviana. She stopped, and for a moment it was not clear whether she would continue. Then she seemed to gather her strength. “I’ve been thinking about what we should do,” she said. “And I think—we must have a—a service. Some sort of gathering, so that people can pay their respects. To commemorate Axel.”
It was the wrong choice of word. Adelaide knocked back her chair as she stood, words feverish on her lips.
“How can you even think about saying that? We don’t know Axel’s dead. We have no idea where he is. You just want him gone so you don’t have to worry about him showing you all up any more.”
“Unjust, Adelaide,” said Linus mildly.
“Is it? I don’t think so. Feodor paid for just about every shrink in the city but he wouldn’t set foot in Axel’s home. None of you would. Deny it if you can.”
After that there were tears, and shouting. Only when her accusations ran dry did Adelaide look at her grandfather, his shoulders stooped, weariness articulated by every line in his face. He was still, except for his hands, one resting on top of the other, shivering every now and then like two dry leaves stirred by a breeze. He was old, the Architect, over ninety years old.
Something about her grandfather’s silence induced Adelaide’s own. She returned to her seat, and folded herself inward.
The rest of the family accepted her retirement as a compromise and for an hour they tried to discuss objectively what form of service might be held. Her brothers decided that Feodor must say something. If the entire script could be reported in full, it eliminated the necessity of delivering a press statement. Adelaide listened and said little more. She felt numb. She wished she could expand that emptiness until it filled the cavern in her chest.
Viviana talked about the candles she wanted with a specificity verging on the deranged.
“We’ll have a large red one directly beneath Axel’s photograph, and smaller orange ones surrounding it. I’ll arrange them in a half moon shape, very simple… And then the layout repeated on each table, I suppose it will have to be the same colours, orange and red, or red and orange, we must put the order in with Nina’s…”
“You know, I’m not sure about having the photograph,” said Linus. “It might give the impression Axel’s dead.”
“But how can anyone think about Axel if there’s no reminder of what he looks like?” Viviana’s eyes glistened. “We haven’t seen him… in so long.”
“That is a consideration,” Feodor said. “When was the last time anyone had contact with Axel? A year ago? More?”
He did not say,
apart from Adelaide
, which would have been a concession. Viviana was incapable of replying. She buried her head in her arms, strangling her sounds of distress. Streaks of grey meandered through the deep red of her hair, almost conquering it at the roots. Adelaide wondered how much of that was a recent development. Her mother was a strong woman; Adelaide could not remember ever seeing her cry.
“I saw Axel eight months ago,” said her grandfather. “After Dr Radir’s last report.”
“Did you? How was—” Feodor stopped himself. “Oh, there’s no point.”
“He was the same,” her grandfather replied.
The last remnants of pink and red light infused the room, rendering its occupants unnaturally soft. The room hushed under this elemental spell, and the heavier mantle that fell with it, of guilt.
“What will you say it is?” Adelaide’s voice startled her, reinserting itself into the discussion almost without her consent. The others looked at her with equal surprise.
“What will you call it? I mean—the gathering, or however you’re going to describe it.”
That was when Feodor came up with the phrase service of hope. He said this was the reason they were holding it, so they might as well make their intentions clear. There was no verbal dissent. Viviana got up and went to stand by the window-wall, staring vacantly out as though the regimented rows of skyscrapers would yield the whereabouts of her son. She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, her arms cradled. The familiarity of the pose unnerved Adelaide. For the first time that day, she wanted to reach out and pull her mother back.
They progressed inevitably to the content of Feodor’s speech. No-one could work out how to talk about Axel’s life without implying that it was over, which as Feodor pointed out, would be a strategic blunder. At the same time, Viviana was adamant that her son’s achievements should be mentioned. In the end they agreed that Feodor should compose the speech and send it to the others for approval.
Discussion returned to the mundane. Dates and times. Who should be invited. Where it should be held. They hammered through decisions with a rigidity of conduct, faces disciplined tight. Only at the end did anyone raise the question of the Council investigation, and then it was in passing—Dmitri mentioned to Feodor that they had been asked for access to Axel’s bank records. Feodor frowned and said he supposed they couldn’t refuse.
Such easy capitulation infuriated Adelaide, but she saw no profit in expressing it. The choice had been made a long time ago. She no longer warranted a say in Rechnov affairs.
Two weeks later and here she was. From the alcove, she watched the guests circulate, half eavesdropping on their conversations. The whispers made her angry. Axel had been whispered about for too long.
Adelaide’s mother had chosen her candles and arranged them in small clusters on every table. Even grouped together like that, the flames they emitted seemed frail. Viviana sat at the head of one table as if she were holding court, but the glass at her elbow was untouched and she displayed no interest in conversation. A pocket-sized version of the photograph eventually designated inappropriate lay on the table in front of her. From the briefest of glimpses, Adelaide knew that this had been taken some years back. The directness of Axel’s gaze was a shocking memory.
A curious mix of people had come. There were a few wild cards—she noticed Zadiyyah Sobek, head of the electronics corporation, chatting to one of the family Tellers—but most were her father’s crowd, either politicians or other venerated family members. They had split into cliques. The Dumays, of Veerdeland extract, occupied one corner. The Ngozis, descendants of the Pan-Afrikan Solar Corporation, whispered in another. Adelaide’s father and brothers worked the rooms, careful to acknowledge every guest.
The Rechnovs traced their own roots to the Sino-Siberian Federation. At its conception, the City of Osiris had attracted the world’s most brilliant minds, rich and poor, from the northern hemisphere to the south. Looking at the assembled congregation, Adelaide felt that there was little evidence of that intellect visible today, and particularly amongst the Councillors.
With their upright carriage and pinched expressions, they were easy to spot. Some of them wore the formal session surcoat over their suits, the sweeping garments giving them the appearance of doleful bats doused in cherry juice. Linus and Dmitri had already established themselves within the illustrious hallmark of the Council Chambers. Linus’s personal mission was to convert his sister. He liked to dangle words like future and ramifications under Adelaide’s nose, fish on a hook she never bit. As a Rechnov, even a renounced fourth gen one, Adelaide retained the respect, prominence, and wealth afforded all of Osiris’s founders: this was her inheritance.
But she had her own name now. Adelaide Mystik. She had her own set, too. They were known as the Haze. A few of them were here, distinguishable by their roving butterfly wariness and adherence to fashion. Beneath cloche hats, the girls’ lips were matte in red or mulberry. Their diamond-patterned legs shifted as they tested standing in one spot, then another. The boys, usually so at ease, loitered self-consciously amongst the Council members and founding families.
Adelaide saw Jannike, one of her oldest friends, bend over to say something to her mother. Viviana did not glance up.
A smattering of reporters completed the parade. Some of the krill journalists had attempted to glam up their shabby hemlines with a belted coat or a hat, but nothing could disguise their insidious manner. Perhaps it was the proximity of these conflicting factions as much as the event itself that produced such an air of uncertainty. A Councillor bumped into a socialite and both parties blushed and fell silent, alarmed by the prospect of conversation. Under other circumstances, Adelaide might have found the interaction comical.
Her part had been clearly appointed.
“Just show up and don’t cause a scene,” Feodor had said.
“Fine. But that’s all I’m doing.”
“I wouldn’t trust you with anything else.”
“You’re wise,” she said, though she bit her tongue not to let her resentment show.
So she had stayed on the edge of things, waiting with almost malicious intent for another unfortunate to approach and offer some convoluted form of condolence. She imagined herself glittering like some hard bright object. Go on, she willed them. Try me. But fewer and fewer people did. The rest of the family were more accessible, even her mother. Her own friends seemed confused by their leader’s withdrawal from centre stage. They clung together in tiny shoals, chattering over the rims of their glasses.