Jos is a young woman who has grown up in the slum of New Chicago, she feels like a helpless product of her environment. Intolerance plagues her world as the scales of injustice weigh favorably for the rich and powerful.
The original souls of New Earth become restless when a violent activist starts causing trouble on their behalf. When Jos discover her ex-boyfriend and the only boy she has ever loved is leading the destructive group, she begins to wonder if they have the right idea. Especially a
Skating across the rooftop, I focus on the sheet of scrap metal that’s propped against the building's cornice, and pray I have enough space to gain momentum. The ramp nears, and I brace myself, sinking low into the bend of my knees. Then jump.
There is a millisecond of weightlessness, then I yank frantically on a chain attached to my harness. Large mechanical wings, crafted from hundreds of tempered chromite feathers, span out on either side. I gasp as a current of air pulls me, upwards.
The wings are my best friend Reia's latest creation. Their impossibly thin plumes match the ones on my night owl goggles. She made those too. The girl’s a genius. Her gadgets are insane. She knows how much I love owls. Even though I’ve never seen one in real life. They didn’t survive the migration to New Earth.
I want to be amazed as I glide over the dark, desolate streets of New Chicago. The air is fresher, damp, and a little salty. This far off the ground, the sickly sweet aroma of the jade flowers no longer smothers me. Despite the name, they’re more like weeds than flowers, and they grow everywhere, along the northern coast.
However, it's not the smoothest ride. Thick strands of coppery curls are whipping around me, obscuring my vision and the straps of my new appendages are digging into my pits as I dangle precariously. A glide bar might help. I'll suggest it to Reia once she forgives me for testing the wings without her.
I needed a distraction. It’s been almost a month since Levi was released from correctional. It’s not like I expected some lovey-dovey reunion where we live happily ever after, have a bunch of babies and wither away together, but I thought… I’d at least be somewhere on his ‘people to see’ list. This late night excursion is meant to keep me from hunting the man down and demanding answers. Idle hands and all that.
It’s late, nearly midnight, I think. The streetlights are barely visible through the thick fog that has settled in the crevices of the waterfront town. Lights, reflected from the night sky, dance across the water. If gravity wasn’t taking such a toll on my equilibrium, it might be majestic, exhilarating, even.
A flash in my peripheral vision causes me to look back. I discover another flaw in Reia’s design. The large angel like wings create a significant blind spot. A beam of light settles around me, and my weight shifts when I turn to search for its source. The wings become unbalanced. I begin to plummet and my stomach drops. Desperately, I adjust my harness in time to glide into a landing.
In my mind, I see myself touching down on the wheels of my boots and spinning gracefully to a stop.
In reality, I am moving much too fast as the roof looms up to me. When my wheels make contact with tiled cement, I slide across the rooftop, arms flailing. My feet fly up, and my head hits the floor, wings crushed beneath me.
My world explodes. Sparks of bright color and light dance behind my eyelids. Then the distant roar of an eagle eye reminds me why I was so urgent to land. I’m pretty sure the lights I saw were coming from the surveillance craft. Eagle eyes patrol the streets at night, looking for offenders. New Chicago has a zero tolerance policy for rule breakers.
Sitting up, I twist to examine the wings. Many of the delicate calami are bent. Reia can fix them but it doesn’t look like I’ll be flying any more tonight. I’m only a little disappointed.
I can hear the eagle eye getting closer. I pull the chain to retract my wings, and flick a switch on the heel of my skates to draw in the wheels. Then I creep to the edge of the roof. Looking down into the dark abyss nestled between the non-descript brick buildings, I can see the distinct outline of a recessed doorway through my goggle’s night vision lenses. Then I spot a pipe running vertically along the wall, a few feet away.
The pipe is hot, but my thick gloves make the scalding heat feel more like a gentle warmth. The large circular brackets, that secure the pipe to the exterior of the building, make decent climbing holds. I ease myself quickly but carefully down the edifice, avoiding the eruptions of steam that occasionally seep out of the duct’s corroded gussets.
It takes a few minutes for the eagle eye to reach me. The resounding howl from the aircraft's propellers gets louder as it approaches. I slip into the building’s nook, and tuck myself into the shadows. The alleyway lights up as the eagle eye passes. Holding my breath, I press myself deeper into the alcove. The gusts, worked up by the rotating blades, send litter and debris dancing down the narrow walkway. I bite my tongue, swallowing a squeal, when I feel something tiny skittering across my forearm. My whole body twitches with the urge to flee.
I exhale deeply as the light fades, the air settles and the deafening whir of the eagle eye wanes. Shivering in disgust, I leap out of the dank corner, brushing imaginary bugs out of my hair. At least I hope they’re imaginary.
Peeking around the corner, I ease out of the walkway. The eagle eye is hovering above the pavement, several meters away. There are men on the small barge, peering over the sides, watching the street below. I walk slower, obscured by the darkness.
I stick to the shadows as I make my way home. Although the eagle eye has moved on and won’t circle back for a while, patrol officers still roam the streets. They aren’t as easy to spot as the eagle eyes, and are a lot harder to outrun.
Though I try to stay vigilant, the silence causes my mind to drift. Levi’s face floats to the surface of my thoughts. I don’t like dwelling on things I can’t control. It serves no purpose. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make the thoughts go away.
A man’s low whistle jars me from my self-pity. His song is low and deep, full of nostalgia and melancholy. There’s something familiar about the sound. I sneak closer, sheltered by the gloom.
The man leaning against a street lamp, one foot resting casually across the other, is tall and intimidating to those who don't know him well. Once upon a time, we were friends. Now, however, the insignia on his navy blue pea coat marks him as one of Lord Underwood’s officers and my natural enemy.
I pause to study his profile. His dark skin and angular features make him appear more menacing then he actually is. Despite his casual demeanor, I can tell by the tension in his jaw, as he looks at his watch that his aloofness is just an act.
I think he’s waiting for me.
“I’m going to pretend that you came from the other direction because you saw me out here and knew I wanted to talk to you,” He says turning towards me as I approach.
“Okay, then I will pretend I wanted to talk to you.” I smirk to let him know I am at least half-joking.
“One of these days Jos, that sharp tongue of yours is going to get you into trouble.” He laughs. Its jovial sound tugs at my heartstrings. I miss him.
“That’s what they keep telling me,” I retort.
“How have you been?” Brody tilts his head peering at me sideways as he asks. I hate when people do that. Who the hell is he to feel sorry for me?
“Fine,” I say with a shrug. I tuck my hands in my back pockets to keep from fidgeting.
“Have you heard from him,” Brody asks
I stare at him. He already knows the answer. Everyone did. I can’t go anywhere without someone commenting on how sad it is. That’s the problem with small communities. New Chicago may be the 39th colony but the Northside Harbor is a world all its own.
“I’ve heard rumors,” He continued.
“Yeah, me too.” I stare at him with my lips pursed and my arms crossed
“He’s hanging out with the IA,” Brody says referring to the Invisible Army.
“I doubt that,” I snap, “The IA is just a bunch of punk kids who like to fuck shit up when they’re feeling ignored. That don’t even sound like Levi.”
“Something’s changed, Jos.” His voice is firm and his gaze steady. “They’ve become organized. They’re holding meetings and recruiting kids. They’ve even taken over the Lost City. They’ve been especially active for the last month.”
The Lost City is an underground nightclub, set up in some of the old catacombs built by the original settlers. The underground labyrinth was built as a sanctuary, in case of war, during the first generation. Hundreds of years later, they had been mostly abandoned, until someone suggested to the council that it could be used as commercial and industrial space. The tunnels beneath the harbor have mostly been converted to warehouses and factories, except for one strip of shops, known as Bourbon Street, set up along a large musty corridor that leads to the Lost City. Uptown, there are posh markets and recreation areas to escape to on raining days under Central City and the Southside cul-de-sac.
“I haven’t heard from him.” There’s a choke in my voice as I try to make sense of the information. Why would Levi be hanging out with those kids? “Can you blame him?”
“It wasn’t your fault, Jos.” Brody steps towards me, hand extended, but I step back. He shakes his head in frustration. “Neither one of us could have done anything to help him. He made a choice.”
I look up at him, blinking back tears. I know Brody’s right but I’m not sure if Levi would agree. If only he would talk to me.
“Yeah, he chose to protect me,” I yell, “ You too, for that matter. I doubt you’d be in uniform today if it wasn’t for him. You’re a traitor, Brody.” My eye twitches at the words, regretting them instantly, though I won’t take them back.
“I did what I had to do,” Brody shouts back, then closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He continues in a softer voice. “It was my only way out, Jos. I haven’t forgotten where I come from, but I am trying to make the harbor a better place to live.”
“By harassing the same people you grew up with?” I cross my arms and glare at him through squinted eyes.
“When have you ever seen me harass anyone,” Brody asks throwing his arms up, frustration apparent on his face.
It’s true. Brody is one of the few officers who try to get along with people, though no one made it easy for him. Most of the bluecoats treat the people in our side of town like inmates or herded animals. I sigh and roll my eyes in defeat. “I need get inside,” I mumble, shuffling my feet.
“Yeah, just please don’t get caught sneaking around after curfew. It’s not worth it,” He stuffs his hands in his pockets and steps back to let me pass.” Nice wings by the way.”
I glance back and wink before jogging across the street and slipping into the back door of the three-story walk up. I sneak up the stairs, automatically skipping the steps that creak. It’s quiet. Everyone’s already in bed.
When I enter the room I share with Reia, I hear the light wispy sounds that she makes when she’s sleeping. I kick off my skates, and step carefully over piles of discarded clothing, before sliding down into the futon, spread out on the floor. I am careful not to nudge Reia in the process. She starts to mumble unintelligibly under her breath, and I freeze, then sink down into my pillow when she quiets again.
It takes me a while to fall asleep. Levi's steely grey eyes keep dancing across my subconscious. Tomorrow is the festival of souls. He's sure to be there. What if he won't talk to me? What if he hates me? The questions continue to plague me until I finally drift off to sleep.
Everyone's already awake when I drag myself out of bed. Ignoring the mirror, I clomp across the room tripping over clutter on the way to the lav. I know that falling asleep without washing my face is bad form but I just never picked up the habit as a kid. My mother wasn't around to teach me those kind of things. She died, in a fire, when I was little and I was left to figure things out for myself. The madams at the girl's home where I grew up weren't much help.
An hour later, my caramel skin is glowing and the jasmine oil Riley pinched for me, made me feel pretty. I don’t condone stealing, but it’s hard to chastise someone when they’re handing you a bottle of rare essential oil. Jasmine doesn’t grow naturally on this planet, which makes it a rare commodity and very expensive. I kicked the mess off to the side as I dipped back into the room. Still wrapped in a towel, I added my dirty clothes the pile. We really need to clean up. This room is a sty.
It doesn't usually take me long to get dressed. I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of gal. I’m not a fan of the extravagant costumes that the wealthy wear as daily attire. However, today is a festival day. Even the working class will be dressed to the tee. I love the decorative masks that people wear on festival day. There’s a sense of anonymity that breaks down the barriers of class and brings us together as a society.
Despite the occasion, I decide to keep it simple with a pair of slim fitting dark wash jeans and a not quite white peasant’s blouse, with puffed sleeves and a ruffled bodice. As an afterthought, I grab a vest out of the closet and slip it on. I love the rustic feel of its dark brown worn leather and tarnished buckles. I don’t love the bit if exposed flesh between the top of low riding jeans and the hem of my blouse. I shrug then pull on my favorite boots.
Then I grab the bronze mask, I bought last week off the dresser. It’s decorated with a white silk rose, peacock feathers and chocolate pearls. It had been expensive but I loved it too much to walk away.
I find the rest of my roommates in the kitchen. Reia has her face buried into her itab. Pyke and Riley, Reia's twin brother, have their heads bent down whispering in conspiratorial voices. They've been like that all week. I know it has something to do with the upcoming demon fights.
Pyke plans to enter Yoshi, our sixth and unofficial roommate into the competition. Unofficial because he doesn't need to eat or sleep. As long as he spends time in the sun every day, he doesn’t need to use any resources at all.
Yoshi's not the only demon in the family. Digit is a clockwork fairy that Reia built a few years ago. The demon that inhabits the tiny creature has more than enough spirit to compensate for her size. Yoshi on the other hand is such a dim and fragile soul. He adores Pyke. It's such a contradiction from the clunky bulkiness of his physical exterior. He was Pyke's first project.
I've never seen Yoshi or Digit’s true form. Their souls are attached to their tech. Not too many people can see spirits. I only know one other person who can. Despite their lack of corporal presence, original souls are not that different from humans. In many ways, they're far more enlightened. I can understand why most of them don't want to give up their freedom for a mechanical prison, just to be acknowledged. Yet lots of them still do.
I once overheard Yoshi and Digit talking while everyone else was asleep. They both missed the freedom they had before. They couldn't interact with the world around them and that made them lonely. However, despite their physical form, they still can't feel anything. Before, they could connect with each other, metaphysically. Now they are trapped in their techs. They don't have the nerve endings to feel matter, and their casing keeps them from feeling each other.
At least they didn't end up as service Techs. Those souls become slaves to cater to the whims of the wealthy. Yoshi and Digit know if they ever wanted to be free and return to their true form, they could. That's not always the case. There are people who believe that humans are better than the original race, and that by accepting human tech, the spirit is offering themselves up for service. It's all a bunch of crap if you ask me.
"Pops was here earlier," Reia says without looking up. "He wants Riley and I to man the booth while you and Kai to run numbers."
"Oh, come on." I throw my head back in exasperation. "Why can't Pyke help you out, then Riley can work the crowd with me. The guys at the pub love Riley,"
"I gotta help Pops in the shop," Pyke says. There's something about the way he looks me so hard in the eye that makes me squint curiously at him. I don't trust people who stare me in my face when they talk. It takes too much focus and makes me wonder what they're trying to hide.
"Fine, but Kai just spends the whole time flirting with anything with breast. You should have seen the way he had old man Waters blushing last week." Nobody laughs.
"Jealous?" Kai's voice startles me.
I turn just in time to catch a dark bundle. It's my messenger bag. I must have left it at his place last night. I roll my eyes and turn away before strapping the satchel around hips and securing it to my left thigh.
"Hardly, the point is… I don't need your help. You'll just slow me down," I say, turning back to face him, arms crossed. His lip twitches as a mischievous grin spreads across his face as if he’s fighting the urge to respond.
I stop, slammed with a realization. People in the harbor talk. Even if there isn't anything going on with me and Kai, beside the occasional night of abandonment when I am feeling restless, people in the harbor still talk. Levi could have heard about it.
It's not like I would have hid it. If he asked, I'd tell him the truth. It was just sex. I barely like Kai. That's probably why I hooked up with him, in the first place. He was just a distraction, a way to kill time. Still, Levi might not understand
"How'd the wings work?" Reia asked grabbing my attention.
"Uh, they have a few bugs to be worked out, and I a few of the feathers may have gotten a teeny bit bent, but beyond that, they were awesome." I flashed my most sheepish smile. She just shook her head. I knew she wouldn’t make a fuss. It wasn't her style.
"Gravity," She asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Freaking laws of physics,” I joke, “always messing up a good time."
I grab an antique pocket watch out of my messenger bag and glimpse at the time, before tucking it into my back pocket. We needed to get going if we planned on getting set up before noon. The tube will be packed.
An hour later, we are all weaving through the crowded streets, heading to Rickshaw Park. It's nicer on this side of town. The streets are cleaner and people are dressed nicer. Men wear brightly colored vests and grandly decorated top hats, while women are stand around looking uncomfortable in tight corsets and full skirts. Many carry frilly satchels and parasols. Though I feel underdressed and a sense of inferiority threatens overwhelms me, I wouldn't be caught dead in anything that could be described as frilly.
Reia idles up beside me and hugs my arm. She knows I hate festivals. I prefer to stay on my side of town, where I belong. I'm slightly jealous of how comfortable she looks in her simple summer dress. Her slightly freckled skin seems to glow in the sunlight and her long, straight strawberry blonde hair drifts lightly in the breeze. Her mask is covered in small delicate white flower petals layered over each other to imitate feathers on an angel’s wings and attached to her face with long pale blue ribbon tied behind her head.
"Wow, look at all these people." Digits high-pitched voice startles me as she buzzes up and lands on Reia's shoulder. The sun glinted off the tiny silver gears in her wings. The detail in her delicate structure is amazing. I remember watching Reia bent over her worktable, with her jeweler's lenses strapped over her face. Digit stares back at me with blinking brass eyes as I studied her.
"How can you be so excited about this," I asked her. "They're basically celebrating the slavery of the lost souls."
"No, they are celebrating a major advance in technology and history. We're not all enslaved. Some of us are even quite happy at times." Digits words came out in a persistent squeal. "The only difference between us and humans that originated from the first planet is our exteriors. Someday, someone will find a way to give us a genetic form and we will all be exactly the same. In a hundred years no one will be able to tell who originated from which earth."
"Pops said the booth was on the east lawn, across from the big fountain," Reia interrupts, stretching her neck to see around the crowd. "He set up next to Madge's books"
“Ha, have fun." I grin up at her.
"What? I like Madge."
I shrugged. I like Madge too, but the woman could go on for hours about how she can trace her descendants all the way back to the first colony. Maybe she can, but who cares. She grew up in the harbor just like the rest of us, and as far as I know so did her mother.
We find Pops chatting with Madge, boxes stacked all around the booth. Pops must have had a couple of his other guys drag everything out here early this morning.
Pops owns a second hand shop. People sell him their old junk and he fixes it up. Pyke and Reia help. Sometimes people give him things as collateral on a loan. It’s mostly odds and ends, gadgets and stuff, but he also sells vintage clothes, jewelry, antique furniture and old books. Local artist even bring him pieces to be sold on consignment.
Reia and I drop our stuff on the makeshift counter, and Digit flitters over to Pops and teases him about his top hat.
Although Pops is a Northside native, he's still considered a gentleman on our side of town. Some people like to call him the unofficial mayor. Though Pops considers himself a businessman and a diplomat, and nothing more. He practically raised half the kids on the streets, including me. He offered to be my sponsor when he found me sleeping behind a dumpster after running away from the girl's home for the third time. I was 14.
I take a deep breath to chase away the memories, and get a strong whiff of the sickly sweet smell that taints the air all over the city. The odor is even more abrasive than usual. I look down and find that I am standing in a patch of Jade flowers. Reia bends down to pick a bunch and stuffs them in her pouch.
Though Jade flowers are actually a weed, their shiny deep green blossoms are very beautiful, and they're dead useful. The petals make a great sweetener for baking and tea. In the center of the bulb are little blue seeds. They can be used to make a sleeping drought or calming elixir. The stem, which is bitter, has medicinal purposes. However, the leaves that are dangerous. Like the stem, they are milky and translucent, but the leaves have tiny blue veins, and can cause severe hallucinations if ingested. Too many can be deathly.
The pungent air makes me feel woozy. I look around for Kai. He's standing a few away talking to a petite little brunette in a pink day dress and matching mask. I sigh. If I interrupt him now, he will think I'm jealous.
There’s a dark leather-bound book sitting on top of a stack in front of me. I pick it up and run the spine under my nose, breathing deeply, like a wine connoisseur might do with a with a finely aged pinot. I smile. The rich musky scent drowns out the sour smell of the weeds.
"Kai," Pops yells and Kai turns his olive green eyes my way. He exchanges a few more words with the girl then jogs over. I try not the notice the way his muscles move beneath his clothes. I won’t deny, the guy is gorgeous. He's tall and athletic, with golden brown hair that always looks like he's just rolled out of bed. The problem is, that nobody knows how attractive Kai is, better then Kai.
"Okay guys," Pops says addressing me and Kai. "Make sure you stop in at the blue clover. That's where all the die hards hang out, and don’t take bets from anyone on the list." I pull out my itab and pull up the barred list. The names of all the people who are too deep in debt, pop on my screen. I nod and nudge Kai towards Main Street.
It’s going to be a long afternoon. The demon fights are the biggest night of the year. No doubt everyone will want a piece of the action.