I like to imagine there were more of us in the beginning. Not many, I suppose. But more than there are now.
We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else.
Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard.
Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there.
I had lived in that part of London that used to be called Islington since I was eight. I attended a private school for girls, leaving at sixteen to work. That was in the year 2056. AS 127, if you use the Scion calendar. It was expected of young men and women to scratch out a living wherever they could, which was usually behind a counter of one sort or another. There were plenty of jobs in the service industry. My father thought I would lead a simple life; that I was bright but unambitious, complacent with whatever work life threw at me.
My father, as usual, was wrong.
From the age of sixteen I had worked in the criminal underworld of Scion London – SciLo, as we called it on the streets. I worked among ruthless gangs of voyants, all willing to fl oor each other to survive. All part of a citadel-wide syndicate headed by the Underlord. Pushed to the edge of society, we were forced into crime to prosper.
And so we became more hated. We made the stories true. I had my little place in the chaos. I was a mollisher, the protégée of a mime-lord. My boss was a man named Jaxon Hall, the mimelord responsible for the I-4 area. There were six of us in his direct employ. We called ourselves the Seven Seals.
I couldn’t tell my father. He thought I was an assistant at an oxygen bar, a badly paid but legal occupation. It was an easy lie. He wouldn’t have understood if I’d told him why I spent my time with criminals. He didn’t know that I belonged with them. More than I belonged with him.
I was nineteen years old the day my life changed. Mine was a familiar name on the streets by that time. After a tough week at the black market, I’d planned to spend the weekend with my father. Jax didn’t twig why I needed time off – for him, there was nothing worth our salt outside the syndicate – but he didn’t have a family like I did. Not a living family, anyway.
And although my father and I had never been close, I still felt I should keep in touch. A dinner here, a phone call there, a present at Novembertide. The only hitch was his endless list of questions.
What job did I have? Who were my friends? Where was I living?
I couldn’t answer. The truth was dangerous. He might have sent me to Tower Hill himself if he’d known what I really did. Maybe I should have told him the truth. Maybe it would have killed him.
Either way, I didn’t regret joining the syndicate. My line of work was dishonest, but it paid. And as Jax always said, better an outlaw than a stiff.
It was raining that day. My last day at work. A life-support machine kept my vitals ticking over. I looked dead, and in a way I was: my spirit was detached, in part, from my body. It was a crime for which I could have faced the gallows.
I said I worked in the syndicate. Let me clarify. I was a hacker of sorts. Not a mind reader, exactly; more a mind radar, in tune with the workings of the æther. I could sense the nuances of dreamscapes and rogue spirits. Things outside myself. Things the average voyant wouldn’t feel.
Jax used me as a surveillance tool. My job was to keep track of ethereal activity in his section. He would often have me check out other voyants, see if they were hiding anything. At first it had just been people in the room – people I could see and hear and touch– but soon he realised I could go further than that. I could sensethings happening elsewhere: a voyant walking down the street, a gathering of spirits in the Garden. So long as I had life support, I could pick up on the æther within a mile radius of Seven Dials.
Soif he needed someone to dish the dirt on what was happening in I-4, you could bet your broads Jaxon would call yours truly. He said I had potential to go further, but Nick refused to let me try. We didn’t know what it would do to me. All clairvoyance was prohibited, of course, but the kind that made money was downright sin. They had a special term for it: mime-crime. Communication with the spirit world, especially for financial gain. It was mime-crime that the syndicate was built on.
Cash-in-hand clairvoyance was rife among those who couldn’t get into a gang. We called it busking. Scion called it treason. The official method of execution for such crimes was nitrogen asphyxiation, marketed under the brand name NiteKind. I still remember the headlines: PAINLESS PUNISHMENT: SCION’S LATEST MIRACLE. They said it was like going to sleep, like taking a pill. There were still public hangings, and the odd bit of torture for high treason.
I committed high treason just by breathing.
But back to that day. Jaxon had wired me up to life support and sent me out to reconnoitre the section. I’d been closing in on a local mind, a frequent visitor to Section 4. I’d tried my best to see his memories, but something had always stopped me. This dreamscape was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. Even Jax was stumped.
From the layering of defence mechanisms I would have said its owner was several thousand years old, but that couldn’t be it. This was something different. Jax was a suspicious man. By rights a new clairvoyant in his section should have announced themselves to him within forty eight hours. He said another gang must be involved, but none of the I-4 lot had the experience to block my scouting.
None of them knew I could do it. It wasn’t Didion Waite, who headed the second largest gang in the area. It wasn’t the starving buskers that frequented Dials. It wasn’t the territorial mime-lords that specialised in ethereal larceny. This was something else.
Hundreds of minds passed me, flashing silver in the dark. They moved through the streets quickly, like their owners. I didn’t recognise these people. I couldn’t see their faces; just the barest edges of their minds. I wasn’t in Dials now. My perception was further north, though I couldn’t pin down where. I followed the familiar sense of danger. The stranger’s mind was close. It drew me through the æther like a glym jack with a lantern, darting over and under the other minds.
Moving fast, as if the stranger sensed me. As if he was trying to run. I shouldn’t follow this light. I didn’t know where it would lead me,and I’d already gone too far from Seven Dials.Jaxon told you to find him. The thought was distant. He’ll be angry. I pressed ahead, moving faster than I ever could in my body. I pulledagainst the restraints of my physical location. I could make out the rogue mind now. Not silver, like the others: no, this was dark and cold, a mind of ice and stone.
I shot towards it. He was so, so close . . . I couldn’t lose him now . . .
Then the æther trembled around me and, in a heartbeat, he was gone. The stranger’s mind was out of reach again. Someone shook my body.
My silver cord – the link between my body and my spirit – was extremely sensitive. It was what allowed me to sense dreamscapes at a distance. It could also snap me back into my skin. When I opened my eyes, Dani was waving a penlight over my face. ‘Pupil response,’ she said to herself. ‘Good.’
Danica. Our resident genius, second only to Jax in intellect. She was three years older than me and had all the charm and sensitivity of a sucker punch. Nick classified her as a sociopath when she was first employed. Jax said it was just her personality.
‘Rise and shine, Dreamer.’ She slapped my cheek. ‘Welcome back to meatspace.’
The slap stung: a good, if unpleasant sign. I reached up to unfasten my oxygen mask.The dark glint of the den came into focus. Jax’s crib was a secret cave of contraband: forbidden fi lms, music and books, all crammed together on dust-thickened shelves. There was a collection of penny dreadfuls, the kind you could pick up from the Garden on weekends, and a stack of saddle-stapled pamphlets. This was the only place in the world where I could read and watch and do whatever I liked.
‘You shouldn’t wake me like that,’ I said. She knew the rules.
‘How long was I there for?’
‘Where do you think?’
Dani snapped her fingers. ‘Right, of course – the æther. Sorry. Wasn’t keeping track.’
Unlikely. Dani never lost track.
I checked the blue Nixie timer on the machine. Dani had made it herself. She called it the Dead Voyant Sustainment System, or DVS2. It monitored and controlled my life functions when I sensed the æther at long range. My heart dropped when I saw the digits.
‘Fifty-seven minutes.’ I rubbed my temples. ‘You let me stay in the æther for an hour?’
‘An entire hour?’
‘Orders are orders. Jax said he wanted you to crack this mystery mind by dusk. Have you done it?’
‘Which means you failed. No bonus for you.’ She gulped down her espresso.
‘Still can’t believe you lost Anne Naylor.’
Trust her to bring that up. A few days before I’d been sent to the auction house to reclaim a spirit that rightfully belonged to Jax: Anne Naylor, the famous ghost of Farringdon. I’d been outbid.
‘We were never going to get Naylor,’ I said. ‘Didion wouldn’t let that gavel fall, not after last time.’
‘Whatever you say. Don’t know what Jax would have done with a poltergeist, anyway.’ Dani looked at me. ‘He says he’s given you the weekend off. How’d you swing that?’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means you and your contraptions are driving me mad.’ She threw her empty cup at me. ‘I take care of you, urchin. My contraptions can’t run themselves. I could just walk out of here for my lunch break and let your sad excuse for a brain dry up.’
‘It could have dried up.’
‘Cry me a river. You know the drill: Jax gives the orders, we comply, we get our flatches. Go and work for Hector if you don’t like it.’Touché.
With a sniff, Dani handed me my beaten leather boots. I pulled them on. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘Eliza’s asleep. She had an episode.’
We only said episode when one of us had a near-fatal encounter, which in Eliza’s case was an unsolicited possession. I glanced at the door to her painting room.
‘Is she all right?’
‘She’ll sleep it off.’
‘I assume Nick checked on her.’
‘I called him. He’s still at Chat’s with Jax. He said he’d drive you to your dad’s at five-thirty.’
Chateline’s was one of the only places we could eat out, a classy bar-and-grill in Neal’s Yard. The owner made a deal with us: we tipped him well, he didn’t tell the Vigiles what we were. His tip cost more than the meal, but it was worth it for a night out.
‘So he’s late,’ I said.
‘Must have been held up.’
Dani reached for her phone. ‘Don’t bother.’ I tucked my hair into my hat. ‘I’d hate to interrupt their huddle.’
‘You can’t go by train.’
‘I can, actually.’
‘I’ll be fine. The line hasn’t been checked for weeks.’ I stood.
‘Breakfast on Monday?’
‘Maybe. Might owe the beast some overtime.’ She glanced at the clock. ‘You’d better go. It’s nearly six.’
She was right. I had less than ten minutes to reach the station. I grabbed my jacket and ran for the door, calling a quick ‘Hi, Pieter’ to the spirit in the corner. It glowed in response: a soft, bored glow.
I didn’t see that sparkle, but I felt it. Pieter was depressed again. Being dead sometimes got to him.
There was a set way of doing things with spirits, at least in our section. Take Pieter, one of our spirit aides – a muse, if you want to get technical. Eliza would let him possess her, working in slots of about three hours a day, during which time she would paint a masterpiece. When she was done, I’d run down to the Garden and flog it to unwary art collectors. Pieter was temperamental, mind. Sometimes we’d go months without a picture.
A den like ours was no place for ethics. It happens when you force a minority underground. It happens when the world is cruel. There was nothing to do but get on with it. Try and survive, to make a bit of cash. To prosper in the shadow of the Westminster Archon.
My job – my life – was based at Seven Dials.
According to Scion’s unique urban division system, it lay in I Cohort, Section 4, or I-4. It was built around a pillar on a junction close to Covent Garden’s black market. On this pillar there were six sundials. Each section had its own mime-lord or mime-queen. Together they formed the Unnatural Assembly, which claimed to govern the syndicate, but they all did as they pleased in their own sections. Dials was in the central cohort, where the syndicate was strongest. That’s why Jax chose it. That’s why we stayed.
Nick was the only one with his own crib, further north in Marylebone. We used his place for emergencies only. In the three years I’d worked for Jaxon there had only been one emergency, when the Night Vigilance Division had raided Dials for any hint of clairvoyance. A courier tipped us off about two hours before the raid. We were able to clear out in half that time.
It was wet and cold outside. A typical March evening. I sensed spirits. Dials was a slum in pre-Scion days, and a host of miserable souls still drifted around the pillar, waiting for a new purpose. I called a spool of them to my side. Some protection always came in handy.
The Book releases at a Crossword Store near you on 20th August 2013
Price: Rs 499
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Signing off for now
Until next time Geeks.