Read the First Two Chapters of Technomancy: Book Two of the Nightpath Trilogy!
Work on Technomancy: Book Two of the Nightpath Trilogy is well underway, and I'm tremendously excited to share the prologue and first two chapters! Read on, but be forewarned - there are plenty of spoilers if you haven't finished Book One!
-M. S. Farzan
Technomancy: Book Two of the Nigthpath Trilogy
Andrew Alyawarre hung his head in his hands, desperate. The figure on the holodisplay in front of him continued to speak, filling the small hotel room with its androgynous monotone.
“This does not have to be difficult, auromancer,” the voice said dispassionately. “Complete the task to our satisfaction, and she will be released into your custody.”
The big man sat up straight, letting his curly black hair slip through brown fingertips. He squinted at the holodisplay, staring as though his eyesight could penetrate the vaguely humanoid form on the screen. Several acerbic retorts came to his mind, but he knew that the representative on the other side of the holodisplay – whoever it was, and wherever they were – would not take kindly to his sarcasm.
Andrew spoke honestly. “At what cost?” His voice, ordinarily deep and smooth, was hoarse with emotion.
“The question is not of cost, auromancer, but of ability,” the holodisplay voice responded quickly, misunderstanding his question. “If you can perform the task adequately, the repercussions will be of no concern to you.
“I will send the coordinates to your digitab immediately,” the figure continued. “Utilize the credit account you have been provided for any necessary transactions.”
The holodisplay flashed once, illuminating the sparsely furnished room in brightness, then fell dim. Andrew sat in the darkness, staring at the empty holodisplay, his mind half a world away. The vertical metal cylinder that housed the machine’s innards offered him no answers, and the sparsely furnished room was quiet except for the continuous buzz of traffic coming from the single-pane windows.
The man slowly let his head fall back into his giant hands, and wept.
Damara Drivas liked baseball more than she liked magic, but while one was a hobby, the other kept the lights on. She kept the midday game tracker running on her lens display while she worked, directing her attention now and then to the corner of her vision to keep up with the score and highlights.
“Our issue is not with his eligibility, Inquisitor,” the party representative repeated, drawing Damara’s attention away from the game-in-progress statistics. “But with his status. Neither the NIGHTs nor the federal government know where Karthax is. Otherwise, I’m sure they would have court martialled him by now.”
Damara let her gaze rest on the politician, expertly masking her contempt for his feeble attempt at drawing information from her to bolster his position. She looked at him blankly, her warm brown eyes inscrutable, and rested her cheek on a delicate hand as though considering her next comment with great care.
Expertly, she pierced a small blue stone set within her earring with a finger, allowing a tiny gasp of azure vapor to escape from within, unnoticed by the oblivious man in front of her. She allowed the silence to stretch between them uncomfortably as the ceridium vapor snuck its way through her nostrils and into her body, silently empowering her with the means with which to work her craft. When she spoke next, it was with power.
“Let us concern ourselves with finding the Inquisitor General,” Damara said at last, her dulcet tones having a hypnotic effect on the hapless politician. She could see his eyes glaze over subtly as the magic took hold, snaking through his subconscious and nudging him ever so gently to respond more agreeably to her.
“And while we do that,” she continued, confident in her ability to sway the weak-willed politician, “your factors will set the stage for his triumphant return to Washington.”
The fat man nodded slowly, his jowls bouncing as any vestiges of resistance to the stunningly beautiful woman sitting across from him fell away. Somehow, he felt as though he could trust her, and that her ideas, while across party lines from his own, would benefit him in some way.
“I’ll do it,” he said, “although I can’t promise compliance from everyone else.”
Damara smiled a winning smile, allowing herself the slightest bit of pride in how easily the meeting had turned in her favor. She sat back in her chair, the waves of her dark brown hair cascading down her shoulders.
“Let us concern ourselves with that as well,” she said again reassuringly, tightening the noose around the politician’s mind with her magically-enhanced voice.
The man nodded again mutely, inspired by the conversation and unaware of the magical intervention. He rose to leave, allowing the Inquisitor to peer again at the statistics on her lens display.
A fielding error during play had allowed the opposing team to score, putting them ahead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Bases were loaded, with no outs.
Damara sighed irritably at the politician’s back as he left the room.
Kwame Daigan climbed, and kept climbing. The trail to the mountain fortress had been eroded by time, and was no more than a suggestion carved into the near-vertical cliff face.
His strong, dark hands knew the mountain well enough, and his aging but powerful legs propelled him ever forward. A long, embroidered jacket lined with white Tibetan lamb wool protected him from the cold wind that pressed him against the rocks. A wrapped package, as big as his torso, was strapped to his shoulders with twine, still warm even in the plummeting temperature.
Soon enough, he reached the cave opening, stepping surely around the rocky entrance and onto the smoother path within. The wind stopped abruptly as he entered the grotto, reduced to a plaintive howl behind him. The cave was cool and damp, with the faint aroma of brimstone and something more metallic, which to anyone else would have seemed pungent, if not slightly revolting.
To the auric, it smelled like home.
He shifted the package on his shoulders and marched forward, through the small passage and into a massive cavern, carved from the same stone as the mountain encasing it, but with walls that had been smoothed as though with a giant spoon. The grotto lacked a ceiling, allowing the evening starlight to bathe the area with radiance. Precious and semi-precious crystals sparkled in the dim light, veins of splendor within the silky grey stone that was marred only by scorch marks at intervals along the walls.
At the center of the cavern lay an enormous beast, a dark and foreboding presence in the otherwise wondrous cave. It was coiled like a snake, its front and rear paws tucked beneath its massive girth and its triangular tail framing its muscular body. Two black wings sat folded across its back, and a horned, angular head rested upon the stone floor towards the cave opening. Here and there, a metallic scale on the beast’s body glittered from the starlight, easily as brilliant as the crystals set within the walls.
“What have you brought?” the beast asked, its multi-toned voice booming across the cavern walls. Although spoken at no more than a whisper, the question still shook the mountain, requiring Kwame to set his feet firmly beneath him.
“Dinner,” the shadowmancer replied, untying the package from his shoulders and dropping it in front of the dragon. He unwrapped it carefully, revealing a medium-sized mountain goat that had been freshly killed and drained of blood.
The dragon’s eyes remained closed, but it inhaled through a nostril the size of Kwame’s head.
“Not even breakfast,” the beast taunted, exhaling. A gust as strong as the outside wind, but smelling of fire and metal, hit Kwame squarely in the chest, causing him to take a step backward.
“No appreciation from an old fool,” the shadowmancer replied testily.
One of the dragon’s eyes opened at that, its nictitating membrane sliding back to reveal a sparkling green orb spattered with flecks of gold. “Only an old fool expects appreciation for that which is duty.”
The silence held, as did the dragon’s gaze, boring into Kwame like a green and gold laser.
The shadowmancer broke first, laughing harshly into the dimness. “My apologies, Zzethromandus. This was all I could find on the way here,” he explained.
The dragon guffawed as well, a grating, bellowing sound in the hollow cavern. “No harm, old friend,” it said reassuringly. “It shall be my breakfast.”
Ponderously, the beast pushed itself up onto its forelegs, opening its other eye and shaking its wings free from slumber. It moved its head from side to side and opened its considerable maw in what looked like a yawn, revealing rows of dagger-like teeth.
Without preamble, Zzethromandus darted his arrow-shaped head towards the mountain goat, plucking it from the floor delicately with his front teeth. He flexed his powerful neck to toss it upwards, then caught it deftly in his open mouth. The dragon bit down once, scissoring meat, bones, and fur within his maw, then swallowed the rest of the animal whole.
Kwame stood politely, ignoring the sickening sounds emanating from the dragon’s mouth and the bits of blood and bone that rained down in front of him.
At length, Zzethromandus eyed him piercingly. “What do you want?” the dragon rumbled.
The shadowmancer cleared his throat. “A war is coming,” he said openly, knowing that the dragon would see through any prevarication. “I need your help.”
Zzethromandus picked at his giant teeth with an equally long and yellow forenail. “You orichites and humans are always warring about something, if not the other,” he boomed.
“We prefer ‘aurics,’” Kwame boldly corrected the dragon, whose knowledge of humanoid species was centuries old and in clear need of an update. “And this war will be of the kind that will arrive at even your doorstep, if you don’t act upon it presently.”
The dragon cocked its head to the side, considering. He looked at Kwame like a giant bird examining its prey.
“It has been long, by human and dragon standards, since I went to war,” Zzethromandus said thoughtfully.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Kwame replied quickly. “If it does, I’ll need much more than just your help.”
The dragon laughed again, a terrible sound. “Since when did you become so unruly, Kwame Daigan?”
The shadowmancer sighed, wiping his forehead with a swarthy hand. “I’m just tired, and old,” he said.
“What does that make me?” the dragon asked wryly.
“I’m not here to talk about auric rights; I’m here to talk about baseball. We’ve got three more games in this series and I’m just trying to win games for this team. If you want to talk politics, you can ask me in the off-season; if you want to ask a question about baseball, ask.”
-Alina Hadzic, post-game interview during the 2068 Global Series
The door buzzer beeped, a merciful reprieve from the constant racket. I rummaged through the couch cushions, extricating my forgotten digitab and pushing a button to answer the intercom.
“Yeah?” I said, putting the digitab up to one ear and a finger in the other to block out some of the sound.
“Eskander?” Alina’s voice buzzed through the digitab’s speaker. “Are you there?”
“Hey! Hang on,” I replied, ducking out of my living room and out of the way of a soapy sponge flying out of the kitchen. “Sorry, what’s up?”
“You haven’t answered your phone in two days,” she admonished. “I came by to make sure everything’s alright.”
I shut the living room door behind me, muffling the cacophony of yelling, television noise, and banging of pots and pans. The skinny entryway of my apartment was a disaster, and I stepped around a morass of shoes, umbrellas, toys, and not a few shopping bags towards the front door.
“Yeah, sorry,” I repeated, pulling the digitab away from my stubbled face. “It’s kind of a mess here.”
I heard Alina sigh into the intercom, and felt a little guilty. “How are you?” I managed weakly.
“Fine,” she said curtly. “Are you going to let me in?”
“Sure,” I said dubiously, looking down at my undershirt and sweatpants. I wasn’t expecting company. “Are you downstairs?”
“I’m outside your apartment,” the Pitcher growled, exasperated. I could almost hear her eyes rolling at me. “You gave me the passcode to the building, remember?”
“Right, right,” I said, jumping as a shoe or some other object hit the living room door behind me. “Just a second.”
I clicked off the intercom through the digitab, looking down the long hallway that ran parallel to my apartment’s front wall. A large, sunburst-shaped mirror hung at the far wall to my left, at the end of a corridor that led to the place’s only bathroom. The image that greeted me was little better than the chaotic entryway, and more disheveled. My normally brown hair was almost black from not being washed in several days, sticking out to one side unfashionably. My pointed nose and angular cheekbones were comically accentuated by my three-day beard, and dark half-circles could be seen under my brown eyes even at this distance. My slightly pointed ears poked out awkwardly, making my neck look abnormally long, and although my body was tanned and muscular under my shirt, I had undeniably gained a few pounds.
I brushed a hand perfunctorily through my hair, which only swept it from one side to the other, and hastily grabbed a grey zip-up sweatshirt from the pile at my feet, thrusting my hands through it and dropping the digitab. I stepped over a rubber skateboard and punched a number into the front door’s security system, turning the key that was already sitting in the physical lock.
I opened the door as nonchalantly as I could, leaning on the frame and trying to use my body to hide the clutter behind me.
“How’s it going?” I said casually.
The Pitcher glared at me, her blue eyes gleaming, and lips pursed in irritation. A wayward curl framed the left side of her face under her baseball cap, and she wore a simple blue jumper and tight jeans.
“Fine,” she said for a second time, looking me up and down. Her look softened somewhat as she saw my condition, laugh lines creasing slightly at her eyes. “Better than you, I guess.”
“It’s been rough,” I said honestly.
Her brow furrowed as she took in my outfit, and I noticed that my sweatshirt felt a little snug. I realized belatedly that it was a woman’s jacket, and two sizes too small. I was not covering myself in glory.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
“Um,” I hesitated. The living room door opened behind me, letting in a clamor of voices and mechanical sounds. A short, portly woman with graying hair stuck her head into the hall, putting a soapy wet hand on the outer doorknob.
“Eskander,” she said, “will you please tell your sister that her children cannot play in the kitchen while I’m...”
Her voice trailed off as she saw Alina, standing perplexed in the doorway. The woman looked from her, to me, and back again, equally taken aback.
“Who’s this, Eskander?” she said imperiously.
I hung my head, defeated. “Mom,” I said, uncomfortable, “this is Alina. Alina, this is my mother.”
“Oh, really,” my mother said without missing a beat, her tone simultaneously warm and inviting towards Alina and admonishing towards me. “I have heard so very little about someone so very pretty!” she said, entering the hallway and wiping her hands on the corner of her apron.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Aradowsi,” the Pitcher said smoothly, extending her hand.
My mother grabbed it greedily, pulling Alina in for a hug, which the half-auric returned politely. She then hooked an arm around the Pitcher’s elbow, steering her towards the living room door.
“Arabiyya-Ferdowsi,” the older woman corrected, shooting a withering glance in my direction. “Some of us are not ashamed of our heritage.”
“Mom, I…” I protested.
“Come, dear!” my mother continued, ushering Alina through the doorway. “You could not have come at a more perfect time. The whole family is here!”
A deluge of sounds flooded through the open door, children’s voices mixed with the blaring of sports noise and TV announcing. I looked over at the sunburst mirror once again, shaking my head at my reflection, and followed my mother and Alina into the room.
What was ordinarily a tidy living room had devolved into complete chaos. An uncountable number of toys were strewn haphazardly around the floor, and a fort made from couch cushions partially blocked the entrance to the kitchen to the left. Empty juice containers and snack pouches littered nearly every furniture surface, and three of the room’s several digital art frames stood askew against the cream walls, pushed askance by tiny, sticky hands. Two small children jumped up and down on a small loveseat to the right, yelling unintelligibly at one another, while a young woman, holding a tiny baby, tried to interpose herself between them. Across the room, an older man sat on a cushionless couch watching the giant ARTV in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the bedlam.
“Artin,” my mother called to the man, holding onto Alina’s arm like a vise. Receiving no response, she tried again, louder. “Artin! ART!”
The man started, looking over, surprise in his almond-shaped eyes. His balding brown head still had several strings of grey hair, which did nothing to hide his long ears.
“What is it, Beybun?” he protested. “The Union are up two-nil!”
“Bah, turn it down,” my mother demanded, nearly shouting over the television noise and children arguing. “We have a guest!”
The sight of Alina was like a hot knife through butter in the frenzy. My father’s eyes narrowed as he put together the pieces, and he reached a hand out to tap the digital console embedded in the couch’s armrest, muting the ARTV. The younger woman turned from admonishing her children, stopping in mid-sentence and looking at us quizzically. Even the boy and girl stopped their jumping and yelling.
“Art, Suzan, this is Alina,” my mother said into the sudden silence, gesturing at the Pitcher beside her. “Eskander’s friend,” she added meaningfully.
My father was the first to react, springing spryly from the couch to shake Alina’s hand, deftly freeing her from my mother’s grasp. “Nice to meet you, nice to meet you,” he said in slightly accented English. “My daughter, Suzan,” he waved a hand towards the younger woman behind him.
Alina reached her hand out to my sister, who managed to clasp it around the baby in her arms.
“Hi,” Suzan greeted her warmly, her face changing instantly from chiding mother to friendly host. “We’ve heard so much - and not enough! - about you,” she said, glaring past Alina at me.
I made a face at her and walked over to the ARTV, passing a hand over a separate console and putting it to sleep. My father looked over at me accusingly, clearly more interested in the soccer match than the current discussion. I waved at him angrily, gesturing towards Alina and my sister, which earned me a grunt of mixed irritation and resignation.
“Thank you,” Alina said genuinely, reflexively adjusting her baseball cap. “I have to say the same, as Eskander speaks about his family quite often.” I beamed at that, looking at my mother pointedly.
The Pitcher leaned down to look at the two rugrats, who were suddenly shy, peeking out from behind my sister’s legs. “This must be Perinaz and Alex,” she said, smiling at them. They looked at her curiously, their eyes large and softly pointed ears twitching.
“Yes, and Memet,” Suzan answered for them, offering the cooing baby. “Would you like to hold him?”
“Sure,” Alina said dubiously, taking him into her arms.
“Suzan, will you help me in the kitchen please?” my mother asked pointedly.
“Yes, mother,” my sister said, giving Alina a winning smile. The two children followed her, looking back more than once at the Pitcher.
We stood there awkwardly in the suddenly quiet room, Alina bouncing my tiny nephew upon her chest, and my father looking from her, to the augmented reality television, and back again. I cleared my throat and gestured towards the loveseat.
“Want to sit down?” I offered.
Alina looked up from Memet, seeming to have gotten the hang of holding him. She nodded politely.
I walked her over to the small sofa, snatching a model cerujet sticking out from in between the cushions and placing it carefully on a side table. The Pitcher sat down gingerly, still gently bobbing the baby, who seemed content for the moment.
My father had taken up his post on the cushionless couch, his liver-spotted hand hovering longingly near the ARTV console built into the couch arm. I crossed the small ocean of toys to join him, brushing the plain fabric beneath me perfunctorily, trying to sweep it free from crumbs. The older man looked up at me quizzically as I sat down, and I sighed, nodding my acquiescence.
Energized, he waved a hand over the couch arm, and the ARTV burst into life, its centi-core ceridium processor instantly displaying the in-progress match in full 5D. Twenty-two soccer players appeared on a vibrantly green pitch in front of the ARTV, their three-dimensional holograms hovering several feet off the floor. A recognizable bouquet of grass, freshly draughted beer, and the unmistakable tang of sweat wafted through the room as the ARTV’s pheromone adapter simulated the smells of the stadium. The couch and loveseat, connected through the network to the ARTV’s motion simulator, vibrated and pulsed with each kick of the ball, and every contact between players. The sounds of players yelling, sportscasting, and ambient crowd noise assaulted our ears, causing me to wince. Even Memet burbled loudly in protest.
I pushed a button on the console embedded on my side of the couch, dialing down the non-visual stimuli to a less offensive level. The roar of the stadium reduced to a muffled din, while the couches rumbled considerably more softly and the pheromone adapter consolidated the ambient aromas to a single faint odor of lawn shavings.
“Still two-nil,” my father said quietly, reading the score banner that floated above the moving players. Having lived the first thirty years of his life in Eurasia, and the following forty on the East Coast, he was both a dedicated soccer fan and an uncompromising Philadelphia Union supporter. Being a relatively recent retiree, he was loath to commit to any activities on what he simply called “matchday,” which had already provided for a number of scheduling mishaps during my family’s visit. It didn’t help that neither my mother nor my sister shared his love for the game, or sport in general, and took the brunt of his intricately detailed explanations of which midfielders were to be sold to whose team, and what the ensuing tactics should be. I, on the other hand, had inherited the sport gene, and so had my sister's children, but even we had our limits.
“So,” my father said abruptly, and a bit too loud for the small room. “Eskander tells me you are a diplomat of some sort?”
“That’s right,” Alina replied, smiling charmingly above Memet’s tiny head. “I’m the Consulate to Aurichome here in San Francisco.”
“Uh huh,” my father said, not really listening. “And when did you start doing that?”
“About a year ago, when your son became King Thog’run’s Chief of Intelligence.”
The Pitcher, seasoned from years spent in the media limelight and a bartender besides, was an expert at getting people to talk. She shifted Memet on her shoulder and tugged on a sock that he had been trying to kick off.
“What do you think about Phillie’s chances for playoff berth this year?”
My father looked across the room at her, as though seeing her for the first time. “Pretty good,” he said slowly, gauging her interest. “If they can get their back four to hold a line longer than two minutes.”
“Their defense is spotty,” Alina agreed, “but they need to stop hoofing long balls over the top if they want to start dictating pace and possession.”
“Exactly!” my father exclaimed, excited to have someone with whom he could talk shop. “You’re from around here, so tell me this: why haven’t the Earthquakes fired their manager after seven-”
“Lunch is ready!” my mother chirped cheerily, bustling into the living room with an enormous tray of plates and bowls, all covered with heat-containing polymer tins.
My sister followed her, shuttling a trestle table that had been moved to the kitchen to make way for the pillow fort. She was taller than me, and thinner, but had the dark hair and swarthy complexion that all of us shared from our Kurdish heritage. She took more after my grandmother’s auric gene than I did, the tips of her long, pointed brown ears almost touching the side of her head. Not expecting company, she was still dressed casually in a grey sweat suit, minus the zip-up hoodie that I was now wearing.
Perinaz and Alex followed her in from the kitchen, uncharacteristically quiet. With the addition of Alina to the small lunch party, my sister and mother had undeniably lectured my niece and nephew about being on their best behavior, which was sure to last for at least two minutes. Perinaz, the older one, was the spitting image of her mother, save for the bouncy curls that framed her angular face. Alex took more after his father, who had stayed in Philadelphia to look after his burgeoning digitab application business. The little boy had a mischievous, round face with tousled chestnut hair, and clung shyly to his sister’s sleeve.
“Alina, I do hope you like our food,” my mother said, waiting patiently for Suzan to set up the trestle table amidst the sea of toys. Satisfied that my sister had placed the table on a solitary patch of even ground, she set down the tray, handing me a bundle of plateware to distribute.
“Oh,” Alina said politely, readjusting a now-sleeping Memet on her shoulder, “I’m sure I will love Kurdish food-”
“Cheesesteaks!” my mother exclaimed. She began snatching polymer tins from the plates and bowls and stashing them under the table, revealing a ridiculous spread of fresh buns, cooked beef, pressurized cheese, and innumerable condiments.
Ordinarily, the rest of the family would have descended upon the meal like a band of rabid animals, but with a new guest, the mood was considerably tempered. I got up to hand out plates and napkins, and my father tore himself away from the match long enough to help himself to a cheesesteak with fixings. My sister offered to take Memet from Alina, who complied gratefully, smoothing her shirt and joining the rest of the family in putting together lunch.
When everyone had prepared their respective plates – my mother looking after Perinaz and Alex, who were particularly fussy about their food – my father resumed his perch nearest to the ARTV, and my mother took my seat on the cushionless couch. I sat in between them, while Suzan excused herself to put Memet in for a nap. Perinaz made herself comfortable in the entryway to the pillow fort, looking a little like a wolf pup in front of her den. Alex sat down bravely next to Alina on the loveseat, staring at her with his round hazel eyes and ignoring, for what may have been the first time in his life, the food in front of him.
“Are you my uncle’s girlfriend?” he asked suddenly.
To her credit, Alina didn’t flinch at the question, and instead looked across the room at me over her plate. “I don’t know, Alex,” she said impishly, still staring at me. “Why don’t you ask your uncle?”
I coughed around a mouthful of cheesesteak, nearly spilling my lunch. I was wholly unprepared for this conversation alone with Alina, not to mention with my entire family present.
“Now, now, Lexi,” said my mother, using my nephew’s nickname. “It’s not polite to ask people about their relationships.” I was skeptical, knowing that I would receive an earful about the topic when Alina wasn’t within earshot.
“Are you a half-auric like pop pop?” Perinaz peeped from the pillow fort, her high cheeks already smattered with cheese.
“I am,” Alina said, giving the little girl a winning smile. “My father is an auric, just like your great-grandmother.”
Seemingly satisfied with her response, Perinaz resumed devouring her child-size sandwich. Suzan returned from putting Memet to bed, and stooped over the table to prepare lunch for herself.
“Alina,” she said warmly, “how did you and Eskander first meet?”
My sister and I ordinarily get along famously. Having grown up in three different countries, two of which were still auric-human warzones, we learned to rely on each other in the way that only children of war can know. Our parents, who had been raised during times of relative peace, were able to cope with the auric revolutions that had rocked modern Kurdistan, Ukraine, and countless other countries in the thirties and forties. Suzan and I still retained some of that survivor mentality running from refugee camp to camp, thinking of home as a transient place and clinging to one another, and our family, instead of locations.
Once in a good while, however, she would say something that pushed a button in the way that only siblings could do. In one seemingly earnest question she had put Alina on the spot, prompting her to reveal the underside of her early days working as a fence for the revolutionary kingdom of Aurichome.
“Suzan…” I began, reproach in my voice.
“At They Might Be Giant,” Alina interrupted me, referring to the sports bar that she had owned since returning from the Fourth Gulf War. “Eskander came in when he was just promoted to Nightpath, and we made a connection.”
She wasn’t lying. I had come in to meet her, several times, in my early days working for NIGHT. What she didn’t mention is that every time I visited her, it was to inquire about certain revolutionary informants in the city that were outside of the purview of the Pacific South NIGHT headquarters on Alcatraz.
“What’s a night bath?” Alex asked, stuffing the remains of a fried potato in his mouth.
“Three-nil!” my father jumped out of his seat at the edge of the couch, nearly dropping his forgotten lunch plate. Our seats buzzed faintly with the goal, and the player holograms ran across the vividly green pitch to celebrate with a section of fans that was closest to the field. For his part, my father clenched his fist victoriously, peering closely at the three-dimensional stadium with the gusto of a child appraising a freshly made sand castle.
My mother clucked at him irritably. “Sit down, Art,” she said, ripping off a tiny piece of her sandwich and handing it down to the opening of the increasingly precarious-looking cushion fort. A tiny hand snatched it and retreated, Perinaz having made herself comfortable within.
“A Nightpath,” my mother said, glancing testily again at my still-celebrating father, “is someone who protects humans from auric revolutionaries.”
“Here we go,” Suzan said sardonically, reaching for a handful of fried potatoes.
“I didn’t protect them, mom,” I said, feeling my blood pressure rise with the direction of the conversation. My parents also knew which buttons to push. “I gathered information about revolutionary movements to better serve interracial relations-”
“Bah!” my father said, sitting down and joining the conversation for the first time. “He was a patsy, telling tales on his own people for the good of the government. I’m glad he’s working for the one true king, now.”
“In any case,” my mother continued speaking to Alex as if she hadn’t been interrupted, “your uncle served as a secret agent for many years, until King Thog’run made him his spymaster.”
“Chief of Intelligence, mom,” I corrected.
“Who’s Thog-a-run?” Perinaz’s muffled voice carried through the walls of the pillow fort.
“King of Aurichome!” my father was an expert at carrying conversations while keeping his eyes glued to the ARTV. “Champion of the underraces and regent of San Francisco.”
“What’s an underrace?” Alex said thoughtfully. He had unconsciously scooted over on the loveseat and was now resting his head against Alina’s arm.
“It’s not a nice word, Lexi,” Suzan said quickly, brushing her fingers with a napkin. “When people like your great-grandmother started living underground because they looked different, and had nowhere else to live, humans started calling aurics ‘underraces.’”
It was a half-truth told to a child to keep him sheltered from real-world ironies. With the discovery of ceridium, a new stable and reproducible element that now powered over a third of the earth, the first generation of aurics began appearing in urban centers where ceridium was prevalent. It had unlocked a genetic mutation that had lain dormant for centuries, remembered only in myths about fantastic non-human creatures and the existence of a magical ingredient known as blue orichalcum.
In the twenty twenties, green researchers had struck gold – or, more accurately, blue – with what they called ceridium, an azure-hued synthetic version of blue orichalcum which could be manufactured, recycled, and importantly, monetized. It now powered everything that only fossil fuels once could, and most things that they could not, from flash-frying stoves and anti-gravity boostered cars to augmented reality digital ads and cerujets.
The return of ceridium saw a resurgence of schools of magic as well. Equipped with this missing component of spells, charms, curses, and worse, fringe groups began experimenting with ancient texts that had required the element to function. It wasn’t long before unofficial institutions for the advancement of magical education began to crop up, which were in turn quickly quashed or regulated by the powers-that-be.
World governments weren’t far behind. The United States provided a model of paramilitary response to the rapidly expanding communities of ceridium-unlocked races and magic users with the National Intelligence Guard of Human Technology, or NIGHT. The public-facing mission of NIGHT, and national organizations like it, was to facilitate relations between humans and the new races, while enforcing the regulation of newly-discovered magics, including terramancy, pyromancy, and shadowmancy. It housed elite intelligence specialists such as Nightpaths, Daypaths, and Inquisitors, whose namesakes were drawn from their respective specializations as well as jurisdictions. In practice, the organization enforced the will of the government in a fashion that was much more surveillant than it was inclusive, which was not unfamiliar to the American populace.
The “underraces,” as they were called, were treated on a spectrum that ranged from mild suspicion to open hostility. Human societies, raised on the xenophobia of red and green scare tactics from previous generations, were all too ready to turn their attention to a new common enemy. The new races were genetically identical to humans except for a tiny mutation that, when exposed to ceridium over an extended period of time, resulted in several different sets of phenotypic variation. Dwarves were, as expected, shorter and stouter than humans, with small and sometimes curling horns protruding from their foreheads. Trolls were considerably larger, with hulking frames and flat faces marred only by giant protruding noses and floppy ears. Gnomes were child-sized, bald, and for the most part genetically myopic. The rest of the underraces were recognizable only by a handful of observable features, whether they be the short tusks and flat noses of the so-called low aurics, or the almond-shaped eyes and curving, leaf-shaped ears of high aurics.
In some places, they were mocked, in others, persecuted. With the exception of a small minority of forward-thinking communities – specifically those which had themselves experienced some ongoing form of marginalization – the underraces were initially viewed as aberrations of humanity and not to be trusted. They lived a harried and harrowed existence on the fringes of society for nearly a generation, until public interest groups began to force the greater society to make space, literally and figuratively, for the rapidly growing underrace populace. Second generationers were gradually accepted into the general workforce and even public office, although old perceptions were very difficult to change. The duality of the “underrace” moniker held, as the new races largely lived underground in the crowded human metropolises, and were overall treated as second-class citizens.
It all changed with Thog’run II.
In an age of unprecedented surveillance and documentation, it was perhaps ironic that very little was publicly known about the auric king’s childhood and early life. A first generationer born to a small farming family in central California, Thog’run had only showed up on government records as a teenager, beginning with his enlistment into the military. The armed forces comprised one of the first avenues of underrace participation in wider society, as it had been for minorities before them, and provided a venue for Thog’run’s particular brand of strategic genius. He quickly made a name for himself as a lieutenant and then captain in the Third Gulf War, but became inevitably disillusioned with the ways in which underraces would give their lives for their countries, yet still endured second-class status when they returned home. Shortly after the war, he went to ground, disappearing once again from the books.
It’s unclear whether Thog’run knew which way the wind was blowing, or if the wind itself marched to the tune of the immanent auric king, but when he resurfaced, there was hell to be paid. The Fourth Gulf War was in full swing when Thog’run’s revolutionary forces commandeered a military base in the Marin Headlands of Northern California, with the name “Aurichome” on their lips. Caught with their pants down and their military elsewhere, the United States government and the NIGHTs quickly capitulated the region in a matter of days, allowing the revolutionaries to set about building their new capital a figurative stone’s throw from the Pacific South NIGHT headquarters.
Thog’run immediately called the underraces from around the globe to ally with Aurichome, granting them sanctuary and even offering amnesty to human individuals and nations who recognized him as king. He gave the underraces a name: aurics, which was an interpretation of the historical term orichites, itself used to describe races affected by blue orichalcum in ages long before. Its root also shared the name with an ion of gold, suggesting the value of the aurics’ worth, rather than the deficiency represented by the “underrace” moniker.
In the years that followed, Thog’run and his constituents had built Aurichome to a nation-state that rivaled most small countries in influence and military strength. A recent failed attempt by the NIGHT leadership in the form of William D. Karthax, the erstwhile Inquisitor General, to unseat Thog’run had resulted in Aurichome annexing San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Karthax’s treachery had been exposed, Thog’run gained official political recognition for Aurichome from the U.S. government and the NIGHTs, and I got a new job. It had been a long year of building and rebuilding since then.
“So are we underraces or aurics?” Alex was asking, drawing me out of my reverie.
“Both,” Suzan replied smoothly, “but being called aurics is much nicer.”
Alex nodded, satisfied with the response for now. He fidgeted with a button on his pants, still leaning against Alina.
“Alina,” my mother began, changing the subject, “you should speak with Art about baseball! I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about.”
My father drew himself away from the soccer match for the briefest of moments, again looking at Alina as if in a new light.
“Hadzic?” he asked, recognition finally dawning in his almond-shaped eyes. “Relief pitcher for the Giants for the sixty-eight series?”
Alina touched her cap in recognition. “It was a tough one, but we ground it out.”
My father looked from Alina to me, approval written all over his face. “Impressive,” he said.
I blushed uncharacteristically.
“Actually,” Alina said, putting her arm around Alex comfortably, “the reason I came by was to remind Eskander about an upcoming charity event sponsored by Aurichome. The King is sponsoring a Veterans’ All-Star game this weekend, and I’ll be pitching an inning or so to represent the National League West.”
I nodded, remembering the details without needing to look at my digitab’s calendar. “I’ll be there, Alina.”
“I want to go!” Perinaz’s voice piped from within the pillow fort.
“Me too!” Alex said, snuggling closer to Alina on the loveseat.
“Well,” Alina said, looking at me for endorsement, if not consent, “I’m sure we could easily get tickets for all of you, if you’d like to come.”
I shrugged, resigned. It would be a mess trying to wrangle my family at what was going to be a work event for me, but I couldn’t see a way out of it.
“Sure,” I said.
“Yay!” the children yelled in unison. My father grinned at the prospect of going to a live sports game, particularly one in which he now personally knew one of the players.
“It’s a date!” my mother said, beaming.
He has betrayed not a person, nor only a people. He has betrayed an idea, that there is such a thing as birthright, that there is such a place as homeland, that there is such a truth as justice. He destroys nothing, betrays no one, more than himself.
-Thog’run II, King of Aurichome
To say that the rest of the week passed eventfully would be an understatement. I’ve learned the hard way that the whims of my family can be as capricious as they come, and have long resigned myself to having very little going according to plan while they visit. In the days leading up to Alina’s charity game, I counted no less than three trips to the Wal-Amazon Center, a giant multilevel shopping arena in Daly City, south of San Francisco. Getting in and out of the Center was a traffic nightmare, but Alex or Perinaz would inevitably lose a shoe or need a new toy, and my family was keen to get out of my small apartment, for which I didn’t begrudge them. I was asked more than once about my relationship with Alina, and wasn’t relishing any further awkwardness by seeing her in a public setting.
Coordinating an outing to the mall or multiplex required no small amount of effort, but trying to wrangle the whole family to get to an event on time was an entirely different endeavor. We had to wait until the Giants, who were playing away in Chicago, finished their game so that my father wouldn’t have to watch it on the ARTV in their rental van, which made him motion sick. We were dangerously close to being on time, and had to return to my apartment twice to pick up a pair of shorts for Perinaz, who was warm, and a bag of freeze-dried banana chips for Alex, who was hungry.
It was difficult to imagine what getting to a baseball game in San Francisco must have been like in the years before antigravity boostered vehicles. As it stood, we sat in thirty minutes of upper level traffic traversing the two crowded city miles between my apartment and the stadium. Non-boostered merging cars languished in the gridlock below us, fighting for supremacy in the weekend rush. My family’s rental van was serviceable if not fancy, and glided silently through the city streets with a ceridium-powered engine that must have been built in the previous decade.
The delays from my sister’s children and traffic meant that the beginning of the game started without us, so we all followed along with the ARTV in the center console of the vehicle. The audio from the van’s outdated multi-speakers blocked out Perinaz and Alex’s quarreling in the very rear of the vehicle, although I could see in my rearview mirror Susan and my mother turning in their middle seats in an attempt to mollify them. My father alternated between glancing at the action on the holodisplay between us, and sticking his head out the window in the hopes that the fresh air would ameliorate his queasiness.
The world had changed irreversibly with the introduction of ceridium and its subsequent revelation of forgotten races and magics, but some things were eternal. Baseball was among the latter.
Sports had always provided a sense of the familiar during times of political turmoil, and the unrest posed by the introduction of the first underraces in the twenty twenties presented an ideal opportunity for strengthening civic tribalism. Nations at war with themselves over the citizenship status of the new races were all too happy to pledge their allegiances to local teams that fit the overarching narratives of us versus them, even as ticket prices broke more records than did athletes, and teams became franchised to an extreme state of corporatization.
Incredibly, the constant civil wars that wreaked havoc on the Middle East pushed the globalization of previously single-nation sports to a new level. After the discovery of ceridium, Western powers slowly attempted to remove their oil-stained fingers from the area, and found that their interests were still too entrenched to support the surreptitious exit they had intended. The Third and Fourth Gulf Wars were fought over the course of decades, on the initial pretense of protecting strategic territories from the uprisings that took place as larger communities of underraces struggled to establish themselves. Unspoken was the undercurrent of war for war’s sake, the ghosts of history rearing their heads in a region that no longer held any interest in reconciliation.
Sports, however, leveraged the seemingly contradictory aspects of the human psyche that found comfort simultaneously in globalization and xenophobia. Governments and people – the U.S. foremost among them – enjoyed participating on a global stage, if only to prove to themselves that they were better than their neighbors. The self-proclaimed World Series, for example, which had paradoxically only included baseball teams from the U.S. and Canada, provided the groundwork for the first quadrennial Global Series in the thirties. The Global Series took a page from the World Cup, Olympics, and similar sporting events and invited over thirty countries to take part in a three-week festival every four years, and had named champions from six different nations since its inception. It, along with other global competitions, served as a lightning rod for public nationalism that could be peaceful in times of war, fraught as it was with its own brand of politics and institutionalized racism.
Alina Hadzic, my sort-of girlfriend, was a prime example of how politics and baseball could come together for better, and undeniably for worse. As a player, she was the consummate relief pitcher, with a nasty curveball that could leave even the most aggressive power hitter looking. The first half-auric woman to play in the majors, she exploded onto the scene with a no-hitter in the 2062 World Series, followed by another championship and three record-breaking appearances in the global competition. The sport had rarely seen an athlete with her unique brand of raw skill and unflappable confidence in the face of high-pressure moments. In my very biased mind, she was the best pitcher of her generation of players.
It all changed with the Fourth Gulf War.
In what seemed to many among her peers as being an impulsive and racially-motivated decision, Alina enlisted in the military to, as she explained in a press conference after her retirement game, serve her country’s interests instead of her own. She was deployed within a year, and what she saw and experienced while there changed her, and not for the better.
Alina had always been a savvy player in the media, and quick to downplay her minority status as an auric female in a predominantly human male game, but upon her return, she became extremely vocal about the second-class citizenship of the underraces, along with the U.S. government’s inability to ameliorate their condition and NIGHT’s continued exacerbation of the issue. Her hard-won celebrity platform deteriorated as her newfound alignment with Aurichome became apparent, and she settled into relative anonymity as the owner of an underrace-friendly sports bar, They Might Be Giant, in the Richmond district of San Francisco.
Among her own, however, the aurics still knew her as their Pitcher. She had traded fame for dedication to a cause in which she believed, and was rewarded, through events that had transpired a year ago, by becoming King Thog’run’s hand-picked Consul for Human-Auric Relations. They Might Be Giant was no more, having been destroyed by the blast of an entromancer’s incantation, but Alina still had her curveball, and a battery of terramancer spells from her time as a soldier.
It had only been a year since Aurichome had annexed San Francisco, but Thog’run’s memory was long, and his court had immediately begun planning events to leverage what relationships existed between the underrace nation and the city that housed the Pacific South NIGHT Headquarters, the seat of NIGHT power in California. The Golden Gate Bridge, which had stood dark and solemn for many years, had reopened to much fanfare after the deposition of the corrupt NIGHT Inquisitor General, William D. Karthax, last year, and friendly sporting events that brought auric and human athletes together in competition were almost painfully obvious in their attempt to demonstrate unity.
Today’s game was one such event, pitting veteran stars of the National League against those from the American League in typical baseball fashion. It would be Alina’s first pitching engagement since her retirement game, and I was unsure of how she would be received by the teams and their spectators. There was no love lost between herself and her erstwhile fan base, but with Aurichome on the rise, it was indeed a brave new world.
We arrived, parked, and made our way interminably to our seats after spending half an hour or more purchasing so many hot dogs, sodas, and popcorn that it would appear to an onlooker as though none of us had eaten for a week. When we finally sat down in our row, about halfway up from the field and facing third base, we had missed the first four innings and were forced to wait for a pitching change.
It was a beautiful day for baseball. The 1:05PM start time for the charity game ensured that Aurikar Park, as the stadium had been renamed, would benefit from the last warm rays of a Bay Area summer sun that refused to concede to autumn without a fight. The ballpark smelled like grass and peanuts, and the air was heavy enough that if one was romantic about such things, one could imagine the scent of pine bats and oiled leather gloves on the warm wind that capriciously graced the one hundred and twenty thousand spectator seats. Small drones flitted about the park, recording the action from innumerable angles or delivering concessions to fans in their seats.
To our right, on the second level of the park behind home plate and below the press box, sat a very motley array of dignitaries, security guards, and officials from NIGHT and Aurichome. I easily spotted Marguerite Liu, or Madge, as I knew her, NIGHT’s newest Inquisitor General, flanked by Striker Johnson, my former dispatcher and Madge’s personal security, and another Inquisitor whom I couldn’t recognize from this distance. Striker’s cybernetic arm and breastplate glinted menacingly in the midday sun, the Nightpath having chosen to keep them exposed intimidatingly by donning a simple combat vest and fatigues. A handful of other NIGHT agents and personnel sat placidly in their section.
To their left sat King Thog’run and his court, unmistakable in their archaic blue and white livery that was emblazoned with the seal of Aurichome. Two small pennants framed the king’s seat, dwarfed by his incredible stature that, even while seated, was frightening. Every now and then, the broadcast feed would cut to a shot of him and Madge as if to demonstrate their shared enjoyment in the event as a show of solidarity, but while Madge was animated about the game, Thog’run was implacable. His beady black eyes were cold and hard, even on the ARTV, and his monstrous visage was only reinforced by the yellow tusks that protruded under his pronounced porcine snout. His signature topknot was braided, as if for battle, and he sat with the erect posture of a soldier, rarely turning to one side or the other to give the appearance of making conversation with Madge or one of his own lieutenants.
Next to him was Fazgha Hezdottr, Queen of Aurichome and a devastating low auric terramancer in her own right. Several rows behind them sat their firstborn, Thog’run III, amidst a host of other family members, security, and emissaries. None of them looked comfortable, except for Vasshka “Doubleshot” Lestrage, a revolutionary who had been in service to the crown for longer than I can remember. The dwarf sat a short ways from the crown prince with her booted feet propped up on a railing, somehow drawing from a cigar in a stadium that had long ago prohibited smoking. A wide-brimmed black hat shaded her face from the sunlight, undoubtedly blocking the view of the person seated behind her.
I snickered, feeling a little weird about not being seated among the Aurichome contingent, given my status as Chief of Intelligence, but it was just as well. Given the clown show that my family’s current visit had proven to be, I was happy to not allow their admittedly well-meaning shenanigans spill over into my work life.
Our section, although featuring an incredible view of the pitcher’s mound and the general action, was more functional than ostentatious, with simple plastic seats and cupholders and palm-sized AR displays stationed between every other seat back that piped in the live broadcast feed. You could sync a digitab to it to hear the announcers calling the action while it happened, but as a purist, I settled in with a comfortable sigh to watch the game the old-fashioned way.
“I’m bored!” Perinaz said imperiously, her little feet not quite touching the cement floor below her seat.
“Be patient, Naz,” Suzan admonished, gently bouncing a sleeping Memet in a reinforced cloth wrap that clung to her chest. “Alina will be up to pitch soon. Won’t that be exciting?”
Perinaz looked dubious, but managed to sit quietly while my mother doused her and Alex with sunscreen.
It took a couple of scoreless innings, which my father and I watch with rapt attention and the rest of the family tolerated, until Alina was called up to the mound. She strode up from the bullpen with the confidence of a bullfighter, dressed in the orange and white uniform of her home team, the Giants, her name and number emblazoned on the back of her jersey. To my extreme delight, she was greeted with a raucous ovation from both the aurikar contingent and the stadium at large, and acknowledged the crowd with a simple touch of her cap.
As a right-hander, her body turned in our direction as she took the mound, her feet pointing towards third base as she stared at the catcher behind home plate for her quick warm-up. She had been called into a two-on, no-out situation, which, my father attempted to explain to anyone who would listen, meant that the previous pitcher had allowed a runner each to reach second and third base, without having successfully struck out any batters.
In a regular season game, it would have been a high-pressure situation, given that the relief pitcher would have had very little room for error. The game was tied at 2-2, and if Alina gave up a single, the American League team would likely score to go ahead, and it was late enough in the game that such a thing could spell victory.
This being a charity event, with nothing riding on it except pride, the pressure on Alina was more imagined than real, it being her first public appearance after her retirement game and everything that ensued after her deployment. The game, I knew, and what it represented, meant more to her personally than to anyone else on the field.
Yet, if the Pitcher felt any nervousness, none of it showed as she completed her warmup, leaning down to grab the chalk bag at her feet to dust her fingers with it as the next batter walked up to the plate.
Alina set up for her first pitch, her right foot just barely touching the rubber strip at the apex of the mound.
The ballpark, ordinarily filled with ambient chatter, home team chants, and the incessant hum of concession drones, seemed to hush, having unknowingly been waiting for this moment for a decade or more. The Pitcher stared emotionlessly at the catcher across from her, shaking off the first call that he proposed, then nodding at the second. She looked down briefly, as was her habit, then wound up, lifting her left knee to her chest and turning her hips to release the baseball from the tip of her right hand with a grunt.
The pitch crossed the distance in a flash, disappearing into the catcher’s meaty glove with a thud. Fastball, 94 miles-per-hour, just a little inside. It was a mean, challenging first pitch, and the batter watched it cross over the plate for a strike.
Some small applause resounded around the ballpark with appreciation for Alina’s daring and accuracy, particularly after so many years away from the game.
“Fast pitch,” my father said appraisingly. I nodded.
Alina set up again, turning her head from home plate to second base and back again to check on the two runners at second and third, although they had nowhere to go, even if they were to decide to steal. She again shook off the catcher’s first two suggestions, being satisfied with the third.
She wound up and released with another grunt. The nasty curveball, her signature pitch, made its way from top to bottom of the strike zone, again to nestle safely in the catcher’s mitt. The batter swung for power, too early, and almost spun around with the force of his missed swing. Strike two.
“Is that Alina?” Alex asked belatedly.
“Yes, Alex,” my mother said, shushing him.
Alina pitched the curveball again, a little lower, and the batter didn’t bite, earning a ball. The catcher threw the baseball back to her, and, after checking the base runners, Alina set up for another pitch.
I looked over to Madge and Thog’run’s section, which was rapt, along with the rest of the stadium. Even the king seemed to be more at attention than usual, if such a thing were possible, and Doubleshot had sat up straight, which was saying a lot for her.
Alina released her pitch, another fastball, inside, 96-miles-per-hour. It was almost exactly the same pitch as her first.
The batter took the bait, swinging for the fences, but was too slow, striking out. A bit more applause greeted the Pitcher as the opposing team player walked back to the dugout, and Alina stoicly received the baseball from the catcher and set up for the next player.
“She’s really good,” my father offered, and I couldn’t agree more. I had seen her in battle action with a magically-enhanced ceridium orb that Gloric Vunderfel, our friend and Thog’run’s Chief of Technology, had created for her, but somehow watching the mundane version was more authentic and inspiring.
The second batter faired similarly to the first, with Alina striking out the left-handed hitter with a cunningly-placed cutter that moved towards his hands as it tore across the plate. The crowd began to start voicing its support, applauding each of her well-placed strikes and groaning in dismay when a ball was called in favor of the opposing team.
The third at-bat was a battle, the batter reading Alina’s pitches well and foul-tipping a few to stay alive, building up to a 3-2 count. The catcher took a moment to walk up to the pitcher’s mound, covering his mouth with his glove as he and Alina talked over a potential strategy.
“See, they have three balls, and two strikes,” my father explained, pointing up at the gigantic scoreboard to our left that displayed game and player statistics. “If she throws another ball, he gets to walk to first base.”
“I know how baseball works, dad,” Suzan said, dexterously opening a bag of chips for Perinaz with one hand as she supported Memet’s bundle against her chest with the other.
“I was telling your mom,” my father retorted.
“I know what a walk is, Art,” my mother admonished.
My father gave me a helpless look, and I just shrugged.
Alina set up again, checking on the runners, and settling in to pitch. She threw a filthy, oily hanging curveball, almost a slider, that somehow managed to move from outside of the strike zone to drop right over the plate into the catcher’s waiting glove, which he brought up to center to frame the pitch and sway the opinion of the umpire squatting behind him that the ball was hittable.
The umpire stood unceremoniously, calling it a ball.
The crowd erupted in boos and catcalls as the batter tossed his bat to the side and trotted up to first base, creating an even higher-pressured situation based on what the stadium at large – or, at least, the National League and home fans – thought was a bad call.
“Why are they booing?” Perinaz asked, genuinely interested, although most likely because it was Alina pitching rather than due to any real enthusiasm for the game.
“It was a good pitch, but a better take,” I said, as though that explained everything.
“What’s a ‘take?’” Alex queried, his mouth full of popcorn.
“It’s when you don’t swing at a pitch,” Suzan said before my father could answer.
“What’s a pitch?” Alex asked.
“When you throw the ball,” Perinaz said admonishingly, grabbing her seat arms and turning towards her brother, as though he had forgotten his own name and was asking the group to remind him.
The fourth batter walked up to the plate, a burly right-handed human woman whose name escaped me, but who had played in the majors and served in the military around the same time as Alina. She was known for being a power hitter, having set the record for the most home runs in a single season by a female player. She scuffed her shoes on the dirt next to home plate, making a little divot for her to stand in, and touching her helmet superstitiously before gripping the bat with two hands, awaiting the first pitch.
Alina stared ahead, her eyes barely visible under the brim of her baseball cap, the warm wind briefly setting her pony tail fluttering behind her. Three runners stood at her back and sides with the bases loaded, the game suddenly pregnant with excitement and anticipatory energy.
The Pitcher looked down, then up, moving through her windup and release. Fastball, 98 miles-per-hour, right down the throat of home plate. It was as bold of a challenge as a pitcher could muster, and she threw it perfectly.
The batter, to her credit, would not be outdone, and she swung, with a severe, graceless chop that would have felled a redwood tree. She caught the tail of the pitch, sending the ball careening into the spectator seats, foul.
Pitcher, batter, and catcher reset, along with the rest of the field players and runners, who had moved away from their bases to lead off in case of a hit. The crowd seemed to take a moment as well, having held its collective breath for the beginning of this matchup.
The second pitch came, almost the same as the first, but off-speed, 92-miles-per-hour, to throw off the batter’s timing. The batter swung, missing it completely. Strike two.
The crowd began to pick up momentum, smelling blood. One by one, sections began to stand, cheering incoherently or chanting Alina’s name, willing her to strike out the batter to end the inning. The call of “Had-zic! Had-zic!” became a percussive litany that filled the stadium, and to me at least, felt symbolic of something that I couldn’t discern in the excitement of the moment.
I found myself standing among them, my parents and sister doing the same, with Suzan encouraging the kids to stand on their chairs so they could see over the crowd in front of us.
“Had-zic!” I said, almost compulsively. It was difficult not to get swept up in the excitement.
Alina threw her next pitch with a grunt, her curveball, hoping that she had worked up the batter with the previous two pitches and would get her to bite. The catcher collected the baseball just outside of the strike zone, and the batter took it, not swinging. Ball one.
The crowd, myself among them, exhaled, waiting for the players to reset their positions before taking up our chant anew, and with more force and bluster. Even Perinaz and Alex stood attentively, Alex on his tiptoes, enraptured by the game of chess between Pitcher, batter, and catcher.
Alina stared, emotionless, callous, hard, at the catcher, flicking her head to the side curtly to shake off the first three pitches he suggested. With two strikes and one ball, she had some room to not throw a strike, but she clearly had no interest in anything but. The Pitcher wanted to end this, as efficiently as possible.
She set up, looking from second base back to home plate, her right hand curled around the baseball in the protective leather of her left hand glove, two small drones hovering twenty feet above her to capture every bit of the Pitcher’s movement in detail. Alina wound up, her body coiling like a spring, the stadium thrumming with power and deafening with the roar of her name.
Out of the corner of my eye, far to the right, I noticed a sudden movement in Madge and Thog’run’s section behind home plate.
Alina released her pitch, the grunt of her effort lost in the din of the crowd.
The batter swung, connecting with the ball with a crack, her bat breaking in the process.
The stadium held its breath, its abrupt silence creating a vacuum in the late summer air.
The ball rocketed over the infield, Alina and the rest of the ballpark turning to mark its trajectory as the base runners began their movement.
A cry pealed from the section behind home plate.
I heard, rather than saw, one of the outfield players catch the fly ball as it made its way to – but not past – the dirt warning track that encircled the field, my attention drawn to the commotion in the dignitary section. The people around me, my family included, were jumping up and down, cheering, as Alina completed her shutout inning with a stunning display of skill and ferocity, but I saw none of it, my eyes fixed on the unfolding scene.
A group of thirty or more spectators, dressed in ordinary civilian clothing, was battling its way through the guards that surrounded the aurikar and NIGHT contingents, who seemed utterly unprepared for an attack. Thog’run’s revolutionaries and Madge’s NIGHT agents, with few exceptions, were struggling to unholster their weapons as they were accosted by fans that surrounded their section.
In the midst of everyone was the most physically imposing man I have ever seen, an enormous human with curly black hair flowing behind him and muddy green tattoos covering his bronzed skin. He yelled as he cut a path through the aurikar and NIGHT guards, wielding an incomparably huge greatsword with two hands. Both he and the sword sparkled with an eerie blue light that stood out brightly against the carnage that trailed in his path.
“Get away,” I said, moving in the direction of the commotion. No one could hear me in the excitement of the game, and I pushed past Suzan roughly enough that she jumped back, startled.
“What’s going on, Eskander?” she exclaimed, clutching Memet protectively.
“I said get away,” I yelled, taking half a second to look back at her, reaching for the off-duty ceridium pistol hidden at my hip.
What she saw in my eyes, I couldn't be sure. But it scared her, and I felt a twinge of emotion that shamed me. I softened my expression.
“Go, take them,” I pleaded, waving towards the rest of the family, who began to look up from the game. “This isn’t good,” I added.
“Eskander?” I heard my mother saying to my back as I drew the pistol, cursing myself for leaving my nightblade at home.
“Where’s he going?” my father asked.
“We’ve gotta go,” my sister said, her voice turning to iron as I jumped onto the arm of a chair, trying to make it around the startled fans to the nearest aisle. I silently thanked her for not questioning me and trying to get our family out of harm’s way.
By the time I had picked my way to the aisle, the crowd had settled from the initial excitement of the flyout, and was slowly turning its attention in confusion to the melee behind home plate. Even Alina, I saw from one of the AR broadcasts, was turning in consternation towards the activity, her hand still lifting her cap to the fans in appreciation for their support.
Without hesitation, I grabbed a ceridium capsule from my pocket and crushed it, muttering the words to an incantation as I leapt from a plastic seat back into the air. The shadowmancy spell opened a gaping black portal in front of me, transporting me just over a hundred feet to the next section, where I hit the ground running.
I wasn’t close enough to do any damage, and had to repeat the spell, crushing another capsule to power my jump through the shadow ether, reappearing past groups of onlookers that were beginning to panic and heading for the exits.
It took me an excruciating amount of time to reach the struggle, made more difficult by the sheer amount of people in my path. The would-be-assassins were in full assault on the aurikar and NIGHT forces by the time I arrived, the giant making his way ever closer to the center of the section, where a number of guards were attempting to usher a reluctant Madge and Thog’run away from the action and into the relative safety of the spectator tunnels that led away from the seating.
Not having a clear shot at anyone near the royal party, I focused my attention on the giant, who painted a huge target. Sighting down the pistol, I fired a silent ceridium bullet towards his sizeable torso, only to see it harmlessly dissipate into the blue glow that surrounded him.
I didn’t have time to consider the situation as an assassin to my right removed his blade from the neck of an aurikar guard and swung it with precision at my face. Cursing myself again for not equipping my nightblade, I caught his wrist with my free hand, smashing the butt of my pistol into his face. A muffled cry escaped his broken lips as I ducked under his arm, using the force of the motion to bring his body downwards as I swept his feet out from under him with my trailing leg. He fell to the concrete, unconscious.
I ran down the row of seats, jumping over assassin and guard bodies, finally reaching the heart of the fray. Striker was shouting instructions at the NIGHT agents embroiled in protecting the dignitary group from the assailants, his large metal frame interposed between the retreating NIGHT and Aurichome leadership. Aurikar soldiers fought alongside Nightpaths and Daypaths, their blades and spells making quick work of the would-be assassins now that the elite warriors and agents had recovered from the initial attack.
None of them fought as ferociously as the giant, who, from this close distance, could be heard chanting a battle cry of some sort, in a language that sounded tribal and unfamiliar to me. It was melodic, percussive, and terrible. Suffused with power, the spellsong lifted and fell with every chop of his greatsword, which was swung with deadly accuracy. He made his way ever closer to the retreating royal party, and although I was confident in their own ability to protect themselves, his was a magic for which I knew they would be wholly unprepared.
I had to stop him.
Doubleshot appeared to my right, her twin ceridium pistols smoking with blue light and her wide-brimmed hat somehow still stuck to her head. Errant trails of fiery orange hair peaked out from within, the only signs that the dwarf had seen battle action.
“I’ll try to get his attention from the flank,” she said gruffly.
I nodded, gauging the distance, and crushing my last ceridium capsule to shadow step into melee with the giant.
I stepped out of the shadows into his path just as he grabbed a NIGHT agent’s face with his thick, hairy hand, tossing her into the seats below like a ragdoll. He looked up at me, startled, but continued his haunting song, lifting the greatsword over his head to strike.
Now, in front of him, and in peril, I was able to take his measure more clearly, and was unhappy with the result. He was nearly seven feet tall, and as wide around as a troll, his mouth foaming with saliva as the magical words of power escaped from his lips. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, as though in frenzy, but there was a cunning within them that frightened me. Tearstains marked his dark complexion and ran down a thick black beard, and there was a timbre to his voice that cut to my core, almost buckling my legs with emotion, right under the swing of his glowing sword.
He was weeping.
With nowhere to go in the skinny row of seats, I dashed forwards, under his chop, driving the blade of my free hand into his exposed throat, hoping that it would be a soft spot on his muscular body. The strike connected, and he choked for a split second, his song faltering. The protective glow that surrounded him flashed, and Vasshka took the opportunity to fire her pistols at him from behind, which caused him to roar in pain.
The giant recovered quickly, swatting at me with a hairy paw. I had run out of room, and he hit me squarely in the face, tossing me unceremoniously over the chairs to my right. I attempted desperately to twist my body into a roll, but landed painfully on a plastic chair back, knocking the wind out of myself.
I heard Striker’s voice yelling obscenities, and the blaring of drone loudspeakers as they instructed stadium security to continue to escort audience members out of the building. I forced myself to sit up, scurrying gracelessly over the plastic chairs as I tried to follow the giant, who had reached the mouth of the tunnel through which Madge, Thog’run, and the others were escaping.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the melee ended. Inexplicably, as though on cue, the giant and the remaining assassins dropped their weapons, surrendering. The giant fell to his knees, dropping his greatsword to the floor with a clatter. NIGHT agents moved quickly to restrain him, while aurikar guards knocked out the other assassins.