The Skin of the Earth – Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Daniel did his best to remain as neutral as possible. “What do you propose?” He was disappointed to hear the annoyance in his words.

Sundown was still smiling. “Three questions. You get two out of three right by the time we get to the Junction and I’ll let you keep playing detective with me.”

Daniel chose to look straight ahead rather than allow Sundown’s continuing pleasure at his frustration further seep into his body. “And who’s going to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t correct? You?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “It seems a little stacked against me.”

She let out a snicker. “Welcome to the boden.”

As more of the city sailed by, Daniel knew he had no choice. “Fine.”

“Such a good sport,” Sundown said. Her right hand abruptly hit the shifter and the entire slider dropped a few metres in the air, along with Daniel’s stomach. Just as quickly, she hit the stick again and the vehicle surged upward, effectively passing — albeit illegally — a slower moving transport that had been in their way. “I’ll give you an easy one to start,” she decided as the slider levelled out again. 

“Magnaminous,” Daniel muttered.

“Okay, so what’s this then?” Sundown made a sweeping motion with her hand.

Daniel looked at her, confused. “The dashboard?”

“Expand your FOV, newb,” she instructed. “This.” Another sweeping motion. “That which we are currently travelling.”

Daniel looked out the front window again, noting the cardinal LEDs of the vehicle in front of them. Ahead the trafficway stretched on, transports, carriers, delivery vehicles … every so often there would be a floating buoy blinking either green or yellow, marking off the designated branches of the traffic lanes. “You mean the Skyways Grid?” he said after a moment.

“Yeah,” Sundown said, sounding almost frustrated. “The Grid. What is it?”

Daniel waited for her to continue. Instead, silence hung between them. 

“You giving up already Spoons?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he admitted, hoping it might placate her. Sundown’s response was simply more silence. He leaned back in his seat, thoughts falling out as he tried to find the answer she was looking for. “It’s a measure overseen by the Transit Authority. It keeps the burg’s traffic ways separate from level to level so that all of the lanes are parallel to each other. It keeps them organized.”

Sundown let out a huh that was almost a nod. “Organized. That’s a very politik way of putting it.”

“Let me guess, I got that one wrong?” Daniel closed his eyes, wishing away this entire predicament.

“You didn’t get it right,” she said. “The Grid was put in place to keep things neat and tidy, just not in the way you’re thinking. It’s a digital screen that keeps everyone in their place. Even if I managed to overclock this slider and get her up to the midburg lanes, do you know how long it’d take before I got stopped for an 11-60?”

“In the himmel, they simply use drones to manage traffic violations.”

“—probably wouldn’t even have levelled out on a mainfare. You know what happens if we get a call for homicide down here?”

“Is this the second question?” Daniel asked pointedly, feeling defensive in anticipation of his partner’s snark.

“Take a listen,” Sundown replied from the side of her mouth. “I’m schooling you, Spoons. We get a call for a single homicide — on a good day, standard procedure is this. Hope and pray that whoever got turfed deserved it. I’ve got bigger things to worry about.”

“This is the part where you tell me I’ll never be able to understand the way it is down here? Is that correct?” Daniel remarked, looking out the passenger window again, if only to spare himself from Sundown’s smirk.

“Nope,” she said resolutely, causing him to turn back to her, surprised. “Anyone can understand it, it’s dealing with it that you cut your teeth on.” 

“So I’ve failed your first question,” Daniel surmised.

Sundown shrugged. “You were half-right. I’ll give you half a point.” She hit a button on her steering wheel with a thumb, then reached over him and opened the glove box, pulling out a sort of metalwork badge with a clear, smooth crystal set in the middle. The badge was about half the size of her palm with a geometric design etched into it. The gem and the designwork gave it an ornate look while the metal it was made out of seemed to be entirely industrial, possibly even carbide. Within the etchings, there even seemed to be that familiar blue-white sheen of circuitry. “Know what this is? Don’t worry, this isn’t part of the test.”

“No,” Daniel answered honestly.

Sundown sat back up, eyes on the trafficway for just a moment. She held the badge in her palm out in front of Daniel. “They call it an arcane field generator. Some Falcons, well some of them that have magic, use it instead of the grav suits. Most just call it a bubble. Creates a protective field around the wearer, but only if that person has magic — that’s what it uses as the power source.”

“For a boden detective, you seem to get your hands on a lot of magetech,” Daniel remarked.

Sundown continued, unfazed. “It uses an opening word to activate, but I don’t know which one, or which language. I hope you’re good at languages.”

“What?”

With a flick of her fingers, Sundown flipped the badge so that the pin side faced up. She smacked it onto Daniel’s chest just above the harness that bound him to the seat. He felt the slightest prick of pain as the edge of the pin pierced his skin, then a strange, warming sensation. Before he had time to protest, the slider was dropping out of the trafficway again. Sundown hit the shifter and yanked on the steering wheel at the same time. The slider veered to the right, one side pulling up against the sharp turn. Daniel was slammed against the passenger door and then he wasn’t — the door opened with a whoosh and a gust of air took him in the face. He was dangling from the confines of his seat, the details of the boden below a blur of urban pastiche —

“No–”

“LOLA, release passenger.”

The straps around his chest and wrist withdrew.

“No!” Daniel spilled from the slider, falling, dropping through the air like all those stones he used to kick off the edge of the himmel. All he could see was brown — brown buildings coming closer and closer, details becoming finer and finer each second. His hands shot out in front of him, vainly attempting some sort of protection. Protection

Opening words.

“Patentibus!” he screamed, though the rushing air stole the sound away. The air sliced at him and throttled his body as he plummeted.

Anoígō!”

“Kai!” The lines of the buildings were reaching out to him. He could see exactly where he was going to hit–

“Abierto!”

A pinch at his chest, and then a sizzle. Electricity exploded out of the badge, crackling the air. Suddenly, he was enveloped in a charge of energy that spread from him, creating a sphere around his descending form. A bubble. The air inside was thicker, gelatinous. The world was tinted in blue and distorted, warped.

Still, the bubble did nothing to slow his descent. Another scream escaped him as he careened towards a shoddy roof made of rusty corrugated tin. The bubble hit and sheets of the old metal went flying. Daniel bounced along with the sphere as it fell between two buildings, ricocheting off one brick wall to the other. The bubble finally hit the corner of a dumpster and went spinning down the alley, rotating independently of Daniel as he swished about inside. A few metres past the mouth of the alley, the bubble came to a stop, running out of momentum. 

The energy crackled again, and then suddenly Daniel was on all fours, his knees thoroughly in a mud puddle, in the middle of an open lot that was surrounded by brown brick buildings on all sides. He found himself clutching his chest where the badge hung from his shirt, heaving as though he had just run a marathon. His brain was searching for pain — surely, he was injured — but, apart from being winded, he realized he was perfectly fine. This information did not assuage him, however, as Sundown’s slider settled down gently a few paces away.

“You’re insane!” he barked hoarsely as his partner exited the vehicle. She was smiling, because of course she was.

“Relax. I have orders to keep you alive. You really think I’d risk my pension just to watch you become a smear on the ground?”

Daniel focused on breathing for a few moments before attempting anything else. He heard the crunch of Sundown’s boots as she neared. She crouched down, cocking her head in appraisal.

“So you do have magic. That wasn’t in your file.”

“You read my file?” Something about that made Daniel laugh out loud. Endorphins from the adrenaline rush, he decided, still breathing heavily. “My chest feels a little funny,” he said after a few more exhalations.

“Yeah, on second thought, you might want to re-position that bubble. Probably shouldn’t have put it so close to your heart.”

Her laissez-faire tone sparked a glare from Daniel that he could not hide in his current state. He grit his teeth and Sundown just smiled wider.

“Looked like a wild ride.”

“And if I didn’t have magic? If I hadn’t been able to figure out the right word in time?”

“Please,” Sundown stood. “You have some serious trust issues, Spoons.” She looked over to the slider. “LOLA, suspension. Arbour.”

A bright orange beam of light shot out from the front of the slider. Daniel was engulfed in a buzzing sensation that threatened his stomach. He shut his eyes against it, warding away the want to vomit. When he opened his eyes again, he was floating above the ground.

They called it a personnel diffusion beam, used for pacifying crowds or holding multiple perpetrators at once. He had seen it used before to break up riots and had heard about it during training in the academy. Sliders weren’t typically equipped with such interventions, but Daniel was quickly coming to realize that Sundown’s vehicle was anything but standard issue. The diffuser would have had to have been deployed fairly close to him during his descent in order to catch him properly; he hated to admit that he did not doubt Sundown’s driving skills to make that happen.

“Can you-”

“Yeah. LOLA, halt suspension.”

The orange light disappeared and Daniel fell the few centimetres back to the ground, his knees splashing the mud puddle anew. Slowly, he picked himself up, rubbing at his kneecaps before stretching to his full height. Sundown walked back to the slider.

“So, that’s it?” Daniel said, exasperated. “That wasn’t even a question.”

“Sure, it was. I just didn’t ask with words.”

 

©MSR 2020

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