Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Making Your Bones: Bloodshed

Summary: As an adventurer, what do you do when a man you revere asks you to commit murder, offers you protection, and you’re not even sure that it’s wrong?

Jon Dart is a new graduate of the 14-year Starling & Shrike detection course. He was raised to be a deadly mercenary investigator, and he has just been briefed on his first contract: seeking out threats to the International Aviation Summit which will transpire a few days hence in the City of Diadem.

His briefer, Joshua Currant, was a member of an elite internal affairs squadron with a dark reputation: the Council Inspectors. Currant let it be known to Jon Dart that the best outcome of his contract would be the death of a wayward agent in Diadem, a boy by the name of Daniel Stanton, and that Jon would be protected by the Inspectors if he were the one to do it.

Here's an audio recording for travelers and hobbyists.

Jon Dart sat in the back of a biplane that was flying over the sun-tressed sea. He felt like he was alone, transported by a dream onto a solitary journey. The only sign of the pilot was his leather cap, which sat low before the burning blades. Jon held up his eyes and looked for the first signs of the city of spires called Diadem.

It wasn’t Jon’s first time flying. He’d gone to Cape Cittacotte as a boy for a kind of cultural experience. Those arid days walking through the hot stone shrines of the heroes had transfixed Jon’s imagination. When he left Cape Cittacotte, it wasn’t so much that he wanted to be one of the mighty stone demigods; it was that he wanted to win their respect. He wanted to measure up to what the gods had given him, too.

There were cults like this in many nations. Starling & Shrike, his home city, even had one. Those who practiced it cultivated their reverence for the ancestral detectives.

Some participants chose a specific ancestor to be their North Star. Others cast their eyes further back in history to the bygone seekers of the earliest age. They discovered deeds to guide them in their days of flux, so that they could shape their portion of history just like their ancestors had.

Some people thought of these figures as merely good examples; but others believed that the city’s martyrs and heroes watched over and blessed them.

Jon admired the Grayscale Saints, who were a sect of itinerant ascetics from Starling & Shrike’s history, but he didn’t want their life of stricture. He wanted to live. He wanted to experience everything that this epoch of steel and engines had to offer to its victors.

The pilot pointed at the far horizon. Jon saw a splintering ridge emerging from the waves. There were green fields and a bright white network of towers and skybridges beyond it.

“Is that Diadem?” Jon screamed. The pilot gave him a thumbs-up. 

Jon noticed other planes in the sky as they drew nearer to Diadem. Biplanes, triplanes, and the enormous, nine-winged enneaplanes. Some of them were drab, workaday, unpainted, or brown like the biplane that bore him up, but other aircraft dazzled with heraldry like oil-painted knights, or were emblazoned with the proud fighting crests of the city-state air forces. Jon remembered his fantasy of owning a biplane painted with the golden vaults over azure cosmos of a starling’s shining coat.

Their biplane flew above Diadem and Jon could see clearly how the skybridges interlocked the towers. It was a network which no doubt served as a stabilizer as well as a skyway.

The towers were much broader than Jon had thought, and he figured every story could stand up a village. 

When he looked through the towers’ fluted walls, many girt with colonnades or otherwise open to the air besides the beams of their foundations, he saw that each tower contained great open spaces: whitetabled dining halls hung with golden chandeliers, heliopoli scriptoriums windowed in crystal, museums where sailing ships and skeletons hung in mobile from the ceiling all, and a thousand homes, corridors, crooks and nooks which pressed resplendent against the outermost hem of every tower. Their balconies and bridges extended their reach and receded into the darkness. Interlacing corridor tunnels let in light but not sight.

Jon gripped the rim of his cockpit. What was this magical place?

Their biplane began to dip, and John felt his stomach fall out of his ass. The pilot turned towards one of the gleaming walkways interposing the towers.

“Pilot, what the hell? We’re gonna hit that bridge!”
“Calm down! That’s where we’re landing, kiddo!”

Jon leaned forward in his seat. His heart was pounding as the biplane flew above the landing strip and centered itself over it. The runway terminated just several hundred meters ahead of them, at a great hangar bay gaping darkly in the side of the far tower. It seemed that there were already dozens of aircraft parked on this bridge. There wasn’t much space for their own biplane to touch down. Jon figured there was nothing to be done but to keep his faith in the pilot and gird himself for whatever would come next. He closed his eyes as the airplane descended into the bridge. There was a bump and a screech, and Jon was yanked forward. Multicolored wings whipped past them in a blur on either side.

Finally the biplane rolled to a lurching halt in front of the cavernous hanger. The pilot smoothly taxied the biplane into a spot that was between a tangerine triplane on the left and a bulldog-stout, Dalmatian-spotted biplane on the right. The latter had mailbags hanging from the rear stabilizers like a pair of nuts. That mailman was a cheeky bastard.

The propeller cut off and spun to a halt. The pilot propped himself up on his elbows, and turned around to look at his cargo.

“Man, I was worried coming in but I guess you know your stuff! I woulda thought that was dangerous!”

“That was fucking hairy, actually,” said the pilot, “Diadem’s never been this goddamn packed. But I’ve only ever landed on this one strip and we didn’t have enough gas to get to another city.

“Ah… all right,” said Jon, feeling a mix of emotions, “Thanks.”

“No prob. I’d love to stay and show you around the hangar bar but I gotta fuel up and split. Got a young detective going to Mandrake in a few hours. Be grateful you’re here and not there.”

Jon shook the man’s hand.

Planes buzzed in and out and the wind lapped at Jon’s hair, but all and all there was a great stillness and silence this far up in the air.

Heat was shimmering beneath the planes that taxied by, and men in smoke-stained boiler suits hauled fuel lines and toolboxes between the triplanes and biplanes. Jon decided he’d pick his way under the wings and give each craft a once-over on his way.

First was a clean white biplane. Even the rivets were perfectly covered in paint. The plane had Ascension Aeromarine stenciled in precise red lettering over an alternating assembly of red and tangerine lines. This plane had been made by the world’s most prestigious aircraft manufacturer. Crystalline perfection was their raison d'être. 

The next biplane wore livery bands of forest green and purple superimposed over a sea-green hull. It had a blazon on its tailwing of a pair of murderous swordfish weaving around a bomb like a caduceus. Below this and to the left was stamped 1/325TH INTERCEPTOR. Jon thrilled at the sight of this word. There were two images of planes which had been painted just before the tail stabilizer; one was painted like a monarch butterfly, and the other one like an owl moth. Bold block lettering laid across the body of the plane read TROUTBRIDGE MARINES. Jon noted this communique was dotted with actual bullet holes. He glanced around for a moment to see if anyone was watching, and he then ran his finger through the holes. He peeked through one of them but didn’t see any damage to the machinery inside.

Jon walked to the front of the plane and he noted a pair of black, greasy .30 caliber machine guns lurking away behind the varnished wood propeller. He walked away from the mustang with tears in his eyes.

He moved towards the edge of the landing bridge and saw an odd plane suspended on a wooden ramp. The ramp held the plane in place and kept it pointed downwards right off the edge of the bridge. The bottom of the plane was cloud-white but its body was unpainted wood. There were no signs of a propeller or landing gear, but the rudder seemed to be functional.

A pair of men were sitting on upturned milk crates smoking and playing cards. They had on prairie-green battle fatigues and each of them had his web gear sitting around his feet. The web gear had an assortment of canteens, magazines, knives and grenades, as well as some odd beads on lengths of twine. One of the men had a worn leather map case draped across his chest.

They looked up at him.

Jon had elected to change out of his traditional garb before the flight. Now he wore a charcoal blazer and slacks with a white collared shirt, black Oxfords, a black belt, and a dark brown leather cap. He had his .45 semiautomatic and a pair of spare magazines holstered inside his waistband at the small of his back.

He carried no identification. The Lord Mayor knew he was coming.

He’d brought two bottles of bourbon in his blazer. One of them was a famous label which had had the alcohol content surreptitiously increased, and the wax seal restored seamlessly. It would be considered an honor almost anywhere to have had this bottle shared with you.

The second was a brand popular among soldiers, sailors, stevedores and navvies. It had been copiously ‘enhanced’ with alcohol, sugar and caffeine, and Jon had a few amphetamine pills which he could slip in if need be. Someone who’d been sufficiently dosed would probably cause a scene and a distraction. Damage to his credibility was a side effect.

But Jon had no reason to share this out now.

He’d also brought a silver pocket watch in his coat, and it hung from a stainless steel chain to a crossbar tucked into his pants pocket. This was a gift from his mother, but he was nonplussed about it. Like it or not, Starling & Shrike had raised him, not her. This was the tragedy of every agent’s life. And of their mothers’.

“What’s up?” said one of the soldiers, shifting his cigarette to the other side of his mouth. He had sharp, black, slicked-back hair and he looked up at Jon with an ambiguous expression.

“Just checking out the planes,” said Jon with a smile.

“Oh? That ain’t a plane,” he said, looking back down at his cards. The other soldier had taken his eyes off Jon, and he played a card.

“What is it then?”

They glanced at one another. The second soldier, who was burly and had soft, unruly brown hair glanced up at Jon and then back at his companion.

“You wanna tell him?”

“Who gives a shit? It’s clear as day. It’s a glider. Do you know who we are?”

“Not yet.”

“Diadem Dragon Dragoons. That’s our dragon. Somebody comes moseying on up the prairie, the yokels down there blow the whistle and we pile on our baby and set sail cross the wild blue yonder.” Jon glanced through one of the porthole windows and saw a long steel weapon rack with rifles and submachine guns chained to it.

“You fight the bandit tribes,” said Jon.

“Yeeeup. And outlaws, and whoever else. And if somebody started some shit on our bridge here, too, they’d find out real quick what we do.” He was scrutinizing Jon brashly.

Jon nodded and walked to the edge of the bridge. He glanced over the side and saw the land between the towers was an agricultural patchwork. There was golden grain, lavender, cardamom and tulips, like a segmented spice box in a marketplace.

“Thanks,” said Jon. He walked over towards the shady hangar which was yawning into the vast stone tower before him.

It was a dark, busy place that hung with thick chains like a concrete jungle. Workers in boiler suits were pushing double-decker steel carts here and there. Jon glanced up, and he was surprised to see dozens of airplanes hanging from the ceiling, each one apparently awaiting its turn. Most of them looked like they were local civilian planes and weren’t even associated with the Aviation Summit; Jon noted with irony that this was the least convenient time for to fly.

“Champ, whatcha looking for?” asked a potbellied riveter with a pitted face.

“Well sir, I’m here for the Aviation Summit and I’ve just found my way off the tarmac-“

“Oh yeah, say, there’s a tourism, uh, place a few stories down, dunno where it is exactly but they’ll get you started. Here,” he set his grease-stained hand on Jon’s shoulder and pointed deeper into the hangar, “head over there by the offices. Take the stairs down. You’re gonna start smelling food; that’s where folks’ll be able to tell you where the travel guys are at.”

“Thanks! Really appreciate it,” said Jon.

“Yeah no problem. Enjoy the Summit,” said the worker. He gave a polite, tobacco-stained smile and continued on.

Jon headed across the hangar and found the offices which were set into the wall. They had little wires running crisscross through the windows and Jon could make out men in slacks and shirtsleeves leaning over desks and against filing cabinets.

He passed them by and descended the staircase. Compared to the bustle of the airstrip, it seemed forgotten and deserted.

It began as a stairwell in the manner of a subway, but soon it became a narrow winding tunnel like the secret bowels of a castle. Wood-paneled hallways with tan and green tiles branched off incongruously from the guts of the bare stone edifice, but Jon didn’t smell food and he began to feel uneasy. He kept on descending, and gradually, unevenly, windows began to appear in the tunnel walls. He looked through them and forgot his worry completely.

The tower’s great interior, voluminous, irregular, a cavern-complex shadow-bound by vestibules of light.

What once began chthonic pit was turned about and given vent where windblown skylight buttresses seduced the upward eye.

So made a somnambulant ridge where roving winds had bent the boughs the statuary city proud, cathedral of the sky.

The avenues of Diadem were labyrinthine and hidden, but the tower’s fluted outer walls were such a honeycomb of gaps that every tunnel-corridor was bathed in light by portal.

The broadest open promenades were seen but given mystery by fading light of evening time, the dawning of the night, a half-light ushered happening upon the house of drama.

Now this wasn’t the most efficient use of space, but the people of Diadem obviously didn’t care. Jon had seen the scaffolds. They weren’t finished yet.

He thought with a pang:
Why can’t we do something like this with Starling & Shrike? Most of what we’ve got are these sober, cream-colored edifices? And why are so many of our homes just whitewashed or stucco?

Per capita we’re the richest city-state in the world. We could hire fucking Diadem to spruce up what we’ve got. What have I been missing out on? 

There were architectural blueprints engraved into every wall of Diadem. This was their favored art. Every depiction had a little copper plaque containing some specifications and an explanation. Jon figured this all was basically decorative, like they’d made their city into a museum for the world’s most unusual buildings, until he saw a group of men in officewear making a careful etching of a blueprint on the wall of a florist’s. Jon reminded himself that he was in a building like that.

The lines of the blueprints formed ornate, baroque, geometrically recursive or narratively depictive sigils. Each story of a Diadem tower was a story, a painting, a sigil or a woodblock incantation. Not just on the walls. In the walls.

Jon shook his head and looked down through the open vault of the tower. Spiral staircases slunk down and entwined in true lovers’ knots beneath him. Weaving walkways connected to crescent-moon verandas which laced away from the venous thoroughfares on the inside wall of the tower. Houses, shops and storerooms were built right into the skin of the building, and a lot of them lay open to the breeze through alabaster-clad colonnade curtains.

Finally, below several stories of this, Jon made out a floor. It was shimmering greenstone with a variety of round white tables set with pitchers and unlit candles. A cafe or something. That was where he’d begin.

The corridor opened up into one of the hanging verandas set against the tower’s inner wall. There was an insurance actuary’s office to Jon’s right, and beyond its smoky windows he could make out the prairies illuminated under silver skies.

He went to the end of the stairs and stood in an almond-shaped archway for a moment just taking in the pavilion. He gazed across the white tables which were spread in the center of the pavilion. Many men and women were sitting in little iron picnic chairs that’d been painted murky green. This place was clearly the first port of call for a great many travelers. Jon could see their luggage, which was set about their feet, and many of them were wearing heavy coats and scarves from their icy journeys.

Jon’s eyes started to fall across the women. They were laughing, smoking, drinking coffee, leaning back and forth, crossing and uncrossed their legs, stroking their hair like cats, sauntering back with their dresses cut into eye-illuminating perfection. God! What marvelous creatures! None of the stiff sobriety of Starling & Shrike girls in training, or the quiet detachment of the permanent residents. These women were in blood red, lime green, orange sorbet, and they had their soft shoulders showing. They were like ripe fruit. Jon could feel his heart beating in his nose. He saw a waitress walk by, and she was trousered and shirtsleeved like a Starling & Shrike agent. Jon’s eyes followed her articulating ass but then quickly darted back to the magical creatures who were enjoying the leisure of the day.

Okay, get a grip, motherfucker, he told himself. Go get a coffee.

Jon looked around. There was a little dessert stand with eclairs, neat slices of crumbless cake, little porcelain bowls with torched custards, and a long loaf of coffee cake which was being cut to specification by a man in a short, cylindrical hat. There was a greenstone coffee counter where porcelain cups had been placed for customers who came and went. Espresso machines hummed and hissed.

Jon walked over to the serving counter and bladed his body between an older man who smelled like fabric and gin and a young woman who leaned on the counter just tapping her fingertips. Jon wanted to face her but didn’t, swearing he’d focus on his next move instead. The buttery smell of the fresh coffee beans was enchanting him. This place was overwhelming.

“What’ll it be, chairman,” asked a server, giving Jon his attention.
“Do you serve snowmelt?”
“What’s that.”
“Nevermind, just a coffee.”
“What kind of coffee?”
“Ahh… espresso.”
The server turned away. The great old shoulders of the man in front of Jon blocked his view, but he heard the clink as the young woman’s coffee was served.
“Thank you,” she said, and he could sense her moving away. Even her little voice was thrilling. He wanted to rush over and take a big whiff of her hair but he kept himself contained with a slight smile.

The server set down a little white cup in front of Jon. Espresso in Starling & Shrike was like the dark rich earth of a breadbasket; this espresso was like a desert washed with saltwater.

Jon put down a copper and took up the cup. He turned around, and as nobody was approaching he leaned against the counter and took a sip. Well, there’s something familiar.

Everyone’s busy, he thought. I need a friend.

Jon looked around and saw a newsstand set deep into one of the pavilion’s stone walls, which were smooth and dark-bluish. He walked across the pavilion, glancing into the vaulted chamber above which was circled at intervals by the verandas of the upper floors. Jon felt that each must have its own inner life removed from all of the others.

When he got inside the well-lit newsstand he took a position between the racks of periodicals. There were specials set out for the Aviation Summit, and it seemed like newspapers from a lot of different cities had been brought in for the perusal of their visiting citizens.

A few headlines stood out.

The Feast of Salt and Oranges
Gasper Mirchame proclaimed Lord of Leagues. Forty Guilder foremen assent and attend, Syndicalists abstain. Assenting foremen renamed ‘foramen’

A Refrigerated Fleet
Isabel Industries achieves the improbable in the rollout of a hitherto unannounced refrigerated fleet. Maxwell Landry signs exclusivity contracts with several city-states and for the supply of imported food

Jon saw a man come into the newsstand and stride with intention to see a particular magazine. He had tufty amber hair and he wore a soft brown leather jacket with fur on the inside, and corduroy slacks. Jon could see he wasn’t looking for something to kill time with, nor was gazing about to take in the strange city. Ergo, he was probably a local.

Jon sidled up to the row where the man stood, studiously studying the racks of periodicals. Jon surreptitiously noted the man’s gaze, which fell on a section of magazines which were emblazoned with similar images.


Jon was very pleased, and he looked over at the man with genuine surprise and curiousity. This would be easy.

“You into airplanes too, huh?” Jon asked.

“Oh yeah,“ the man said in a friendly way, “I actually work a few floors up from here in the hangar. It’s been heaven this week. Every darn model there is on earth is landing right at my place of business. See, it’s one thing to see it on the cover, but it’s another for it to be live and in person. I’ve been remembering why I took this job.” He smiled genuinely.

“I know!“ Jon said, “It’s been super cool to see all the planes in one place. What’s your favorite so far?"

“Gah, let me see,“ said the man, running his hand through his hair and looking up into the air a little, “There was this sleek little number from Gables, it was built like those black motor cars that the Individualists have been going around robbing people in. She was curvaceous, but mean. The propellor had this white rubber rim, and then there was a closed cockpit with tinted windows. Oh, then there was the Prince of Kadwa. Those crazy bastards put, like, a scarf made out of a carpet onto his plane. It had all these long golden tassels. Maybe it was supposed to be a flag? The whole thing looked like a guy in a keffiyeh. The body had this rich rawhide wrap, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Wasn’t the scarf on the tarmac?”

“The Prince, he reeled it in when he was landing. Then, I saw this flying limo by Ascension Aeromarine. It was pearl white with these bright blue windows. The whole thing was a… like a cream cigar. Now, a guy like me doesn’t have any right to be sweet on a plane like that, but hey, what can I say. I can’t imagine how they keep from swaying with such a big body behind the wing assembly, but those bastards could make a jackhammer fly. And make it beautiful, probably."

“So what do your tastes usually run to?"

“Oh, boy… depends on the day. Give me a… give me a brick-red Galliote Buillion. I’ll twist that puppy till the wings fall off. Oh, maybe an electric blue Virtuoso, God, see ya later. She’s gonna be humming me to sleep when I’m sailing for the horizon. What about you?“

“Gotta admit, I think I’m a little bit more martially inclined. I just saw a Troutbridge Marines interceptor when I was coming off the tarmac. I almost proposed. She was a mean machine, had a couple of kills on her, too, I think Cynthians by the way they were painted.”

“Glory, glory, my oh my. Well I don’t work on Diadem Air Force too often, but I have been seeing military arrivals all the time. Phew, there’ve been some sexy, sexy bitches falling on my doorstep alright, I just saw the latest Archzenith fighter-bomber. Fucked up what they did to Palmgrove, but God, this thing was like… some kind of great big flying witch. Dark wine color, bomb bay opening up like this… gaping maw, you don’t wanna look up and see that thing about to drop on your head. It had little, spindly wings, super maneuverable for a bomber. Those specs, they’re a national secret, but I know she can dive like a peregrine.“

Jon shook his head. “Man, I wish I could fly. I’ve only ever been in a couple planes even though I love em so much.“

“Well shit! Come take a flight sometime! Most of us up at the airstrip fly, you know. We’ve gotta take the planes out after we fix em. We got all kinds of models strung up in the hangar right now, every last one’s gonna need to get saddled up and taken out for a ride before we can give her back. You’re gonna have to trust my mech abilities, of course.”

“Oh, yeah, I’d love that,” Jon said. Then he hesitated, and said, “I’m Jack Rigney, from Gables. I’m just here for the Summit. On vacation. Seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I hear ya, man. I’m Donahue, Langston Donahue, but call me Don.“ They shook hands. “Look, I gotta head back to the hangar since I was on a smoke break, but why don’t you drop by around four sometime, and we’ll go get a drink and shoot the shit?“

“Yeah, sounds great! Say Don, before you go, I really just landed and I don’t know where anything is. Could you maybe point me to like a visitor’s center or something?“

“…Yeah, Do you one better. Come on and I’ll show you something really cool.“

Jon followed Langston through the circle of tables and down a cool, stone-clad corridor which wound back and forth like a tentacle. Jon realized they were crossing one of Diadem’s many footbridges. Some of them were open to the air and had shops, houses, even stables built on top of them, but this one was just narrow, secluded, and covered with an arch-shaped roof.

“You got a notepad?” Don asked
“K, great, I’m gonna show you a directory. This thing’ll blow your socks off.”

They walked into a stone-domed hall that was oriented around a dias with a strange, spindly structure on top of it. A few tourists were standing around gazing at it or pointing out specifics to one another. 

It was a great diorama of the city-state itself. It appeared to be fully depicted, but its segments were sliced apart like salami so there was room between the floors for the viewer to see their contents. The individual floors and skybridges were held aloft by thin crystal cylinders.

Jon looked at the surface of the floors and noticed that the contents of each room had been carved into the stone itself. Some of the stone segments were blocked off with single phrases, such as “residential”, but others were intricately detailed with extensive descriptions. Some of the newer stone segments even had business hours and the names of the owners; clearly this whole structure was modular so that the floors could be subbed in and out without disturbing the ones above and below them.

“Wow,” Jon said.

“Yeah, this has been a big help actually, even for the ones who live here. Alright buddy, I’ll let you have at it.” He clapped Jon on the shoulder. “See you soon.”

“Thanks, Don, yeah, see you soon.” The man departed. Jon stood for a moment as he disappeared.

Damn! Jon thought. I actually like that guy.

See, there were four educational paths at Starling & Shrike. Undercover, Signal-Infiltration, Forensic-Criminological, and the Finance Agents. 

Jon was an Undercover Detective. His specialty was HUMINT.

Now, Undercover Detectives had a set responsibility during the opening phases of an investigation: source development.

This made complete sense to Jon as soon as he’d landed. He probably would have done the same thing even if he hadn’t been trained to.

What he hadn’t expected was feeling so beholden to a source after five minutes of conversation. Jon had a real sense of affection for Donahue.

Now, he knew the priorities. Agents came first. Mission came second. Sources came last. Sources were cigarettes. Don’t get too attached.

“I don’t give a shit,“ Jon said. “That guy’s a Starling & Shrike agent as far as I’m concerned. I’m gonna look out for him if I can.“

He turned to look at the great diorama. The whole thing was a uniform granite, except for a single model room which was illuminated with a gold plating. HERE YOU STAND was etched into it.

Jon started tracing his finger around. He looked every tower up and down.

City hall, city hall…
His finger stopped and tapped.

Starling & Shrike Contracting Office.

Maybe I could go see that Contracting Officer. Could find out about Dan Stanton before anything else. That way, I might find out about that mystery before he splits, and maybe have something for the Lord Mayor too before I even meet him.

Shit, Jon thought, that’s what I really wanna do. He checked his pocket watch. 1:31PM. I’ll be damned if the CO isn’t in. He glanced around until he saw City Hall and marked it in his notebook for later.
Ok. Let’s do this thing. 

Jon stood in the breeze of a great open hall. It was enclosed by pale columns and between them he saw the sea and the prairie far beneath. In the center of this grand chamber there was a huge beehive-shaped edifice that blossomed out from the bottom and then got narrower towards the top. It had stairways running up the side like a ziggurat and it was sectioned into stories with shops and offices inside them. Each story had a walkway around it which was built on top of the businesses beneath. 

Jon walked around it at a distance until he saw a clean, whitewashed office between a candy shop and a solicitor. The storefront had a sign reading “Starling & Shrike” which hung from a wrought-iron fleur-de-lise above the door. Little black and white ceramic quadrilaterals hung from the sign like the hem of a scarf, or piano keys, and they gave off a subtle, ethereal chiming in the wind.

Jon took a flight of steps between a barbershop and a greengrocer and glanced through the Contracting Office’s window. There was only a lace curtain woven into birds between reeds and rushes.

Jon walked in and found a neat reception area. It had fat leather armchairs with ample armrests and creaseless seats, and a great right-angled desk, upon which sat a lime-green writing pad and many golden pens in a bowl for arak. Unusually for Diadem, this room had rich, varnished hardwood floors. There was a door in the far wall. It was next to the desk and there was a clear path to it from the door.
A young man sat behind the desk. He wore a white collared shirt, a gray sweater vest and spectacles. He was leaning back with his hands behind his head, but he sat up and laid his arms on the table when Jon came in.

“Good afternoon, how can I help you, sir?” asked the young man.
“Jon Dart, I’m an agent. I’m here to see the Contracting Officer, but I don’t have an appointment or anything.”
“Ok, do you have any papers or symbols?”
“No, I’m slick.”
“Ok. Let me talk to the CO.”

The young man got up, knocked on the far door and went in. Jon set his hat and coat on a light tan tree behind him and turned to face the door.

It opened up and an older gentleman appeared before it. He had brilliant blue eyes, white hair and beard, and he wore a brown tweed suit with black shoes, a white shirt and a red vest. He stood in the doorway and smiled.
“Yes sir.“
“Welcome. Come in. George, make sure any guests are comfortable until Jon and I are finished.“
“Will do, sir.“

Jon walked into the Contracting Officer’s study. The walls consisted of dark wood shelves that were filled with books which all seemed to be falling apart from abuse. There was a cherrywood desk with a directional lantern and a large glass mug of tea. Bobbing in the mug was a tall steel thimble filled with tea leaves and herbs; this was steeping the water.

“Are you thirsty, Jon? You must have just touche down.”
“I’m good, sir. First things first. I had some coffee when I landed.“
“A true son of the mountaintop. Please, make yourself comfortable.“ He directed Jon to a stately Davenport which reminded Jon of a piano with velvet keys.

“I’m sorry sir, but I just now decided to drop in and I haven’t asked your name.“
“Gerald Baysinger, and I’m pleased to meet you. Inspector Currant sent me your dossier, and your instructors seem to feel that you have great potential.“

Jon’s heart lifted. He was surprised Currant had thought to send his file. “Thank you sir. I know my marks were… a little specialized to one side, so I’m glad they think I’m salvageable.”

“I share their assessment. You have great insight and adaptability. If you’ve faced harsh criticism from your instructors, it’s because they think you’re hesitant to turn your abilities upon the mundane. Why is that?”

“Oh… to be honest, Mr Baysinger, it’s like… things that I don’t want to do seem like living death to me. I can’t argue for it, I’ve been fighting it for a while now, but that’s how it seems to be.”

“Where is your focus?”

“I guess it’s where the rubber meets the road, sir. I feel like I can take on anything if I can just get to grips with it. And I usually can, in some way or another. But, it’s all the stuff before that that seems to… come less naturally for me.”

“We work in an elusive profession. Both to acquire, and to execute. It’s not always so easy to get to grips with our quarry; if it was we wouldn’t be necessary. You seem to have an uncanny ability to spot victory in the midst of a moment, but after thirty years of fieldwork I can tell you that if you haven’t built your investigation on bedrock, you will not be able to grab it. You’re a Social Detective. What are some things that go into an investigation before the resolution?”

“Source development, key actor dossiers, cross-referencing, and demographic context analysis.”

“How might each of those support you reaching and winning in the final moment?”

“Well, sources can tip you off, and you can even bring them along if you think they’ll help. So they might see something you don’t, and that can save your life. Then key actor analysis is critical cause if you don’t understand the ministers and social leaders at play in your area then they can try to cut off your investigation, but if you do then they can be sources or give you resources you never could have hoped for otherwise.”

“Good, good. And how could it make you fail if you don’t do these things?”

“Well, no sources, no info. So it might turn into a cold case and that’s humiliating for a Starling & Shrike agent. No key actor dossiers, maybe I misunderstand one of them and they find some way to effectively cancel my operation. Or worse, they show up with some goons and that’s that. Cross-referencing, maybe I believe some bad information and go after the wrong guy. Demography, I just don’t realize why someone’s doing what they’re doing, what they need or who’s influencing them, so I predict their behavior dead wrong and the case flatlines.”

“Good. All of those are possible. They represent gaps in your armor, Jon. They’re where the rain gets in. If you neglect them regularly then your foe will discover them. And once he’s gotten through your gaps, he can defeat you and move on to the ones you care about. Our people must often serve as a bulwark against disaster, Jon. Far more will depend on you than you think in the course of your career. But you have proven that you’re up to the challenge. Now, build bedrock into your investigation, and your inspirations will be unstoppable. And you’ll find more mystery, magic, and opportunity in this world than you dare imagine.“

“Thank you for that, Mr Baysinger.“

“You’re very welcome. Now, tell me what brings you to my office.“

“Sir, I understand that you once taught Daniel Stanton during a class on civics, and that you’d seen him here in Diadem recently.“

Baysinger’s glow receded, but he was clearly ready for this question.

“Yes. I’m glad you are the one asking after him and not Inspector Currant. Daniel had his own ideas about the way the world was set up and civics didn’t figure into it except as a concept to disguise social control. The very existence of such a concept seemed like a kind of sick betrayal to him. 

Stanton disappeared soon after his graduation but I saw him a week ago. He was speaking with a group of Anarcho-Syndicalists who were out pamphleteering in the Navel of the Mount tower. Whatever interest he has in them, it will not be a genuine desire to take part in their movement. Daniel is too cynical for Syndicalism.

Perhaps some lost and bitter people plunge themselves into social movements, and Daniel is lost and bitter, but he is not cut from that particular cloth. The Syndicalists for their part believe that mankind is a brotherhood of sorts, but that a cabal of greedy men are holding down and dividing good people from one another. Daniel sees the entire human race as evil, hypocritical, and irredeemable backbiters.“

“Did he ever say why?“

“I believe that he felt betrayed by all the people around him. He felt that he had been sabotaged when he could have been nurtured. Indeed the other children were very cruel to him, and I thought that some of the disciplinary actions that the administrators had inflicted upon him were excessive. But he was not without help, and he was not without virtue. He was hostile, but not to the point of derailing his education.“

“That is one of Daniel’s enigmas. He had a hatred of our system and for our way of life. He said that he had been enslaved, and would be forced to hireling for strangers. This is, indeed, a common criticism of Starling & Shrike. And insofar as a four year old cannot choose the course of his or her life, there is truth in it. But, no one must complete our education who is unwilling to do so. Daniel spoke bitterly about his life, but never did he attempt to leave Starling & Shrike to seek his destiny somewhere else. I suppose there was never another option which he had the courage to face. He saw his way forward with us. He attended his classes, making those around him unhappy, and he completed his assignments with minimal effort and maximum spite. His papers for our civics class were brutal, disgusting, and disturbing. I didn’t fail him because I felt that I could not reach him with a second pass.

I tried to show him that there was a light to be found, even in the depths of his training, but he could not see me as anything other than the apologist of an infernal machine. A capo in my own enslavement. And so I let him pass out of my presence, if not the back of my mind, until I saw him again here in Diadem. It has occurred to me many times since he left that I should have brought up his conduct, his character with the Council, but this would probably have ended his education. At the time I was unwilling to completely write him off. I thought perhaps life could teach him the things that I could not. But his abandonment of his first contract and his subsequent disappearance seem to indicate otherwise.“

“What was his first contract?“

“It was to find a little girl who’d gone missing in Periapt. When Daniel disappeared, Starling & Shrike was forced to swear off any payment and send a Council Inspector to pick up the trail. By the time that happened, human traffickers had already sold her into slavery in Bounty. No one has heard from her since.“

Jon glared into a bookshelf, then said,
“What would you do if you were in my position, Mr Baysinger?“

“I would find Daniel, but I would do so with great care. Talk to him. Try it once. See if he’s opened himself to the light, even a crack. But if he hasn’t, don’t try to persuade him. Don’t make him into a cause. Try to learn if he’s planning to hurt anyone, but remember that he has yet to break any of our laws yet with the exception of breach of contract. He’ll never represent us again unless he makes good for what he did. I have little faith that he will do that. Let him become a recluse again if that’s the only path he believes is open to him.“

“I understand, Mr Baysinger. I appreciate you taking your time to talk about this.“

The old man nodded and they both stood up.

“Before you go, I have something for you. Before I became a contracting specialist, I did thirty years of fieldwork, forensic-criminological, many of them alongside Jove Currant, whom you’ve met. I passed up the opportunity to become an Inspector and it’s unlikely I’ll return to fieldwork. I have something here that has served me well in my time, but I think now it would be appropriate to pass it on as a graduation gift.“

He took a key from his breast pocket, unlocked a drawer and drew out a long scarf from where it was rolled up within. Baysinger unfurled it and looked at it for a few moments. It was electric midnight blue. It gleamed like polished metal, and as Jon gazed at its surface, every glint seemed to be differentiable into a dozen smaller lights. It was like looking into a cosmos where all darkness had been stripped away.

“This fabric cannot be broken. It cannot be torn, burnt, or meaningfully stretched. Be wary of things which seem supernatural, Jon. Most men who meddle with them become irreparably damaged, or are made into the pawns of entities which they cannot comprehend. But remember that not all mysteries are like this. Some of them are treasures.“

“Thank you, sir.“ Baysinger handed Jon the scarf and he held it up. It was light in his hands, admittedly beautiful, but the fabric felt more like sandpaper than silk.

“Don’t concern yourself with how I got this. It came to me as it’s come to you: unexpectedly. It has served me well all these years, and I have not seemed to have become cursed or more any more deranged than can be expected. This will not protect you from gunfire, the fabric would simply enter your body, but if you tie it together and you will find that there are many uses for an unbreakable band.“

“Thank you, Mr Baysinger, very much. I’ll come back and tell you what happens if I find Daniel. Maybe he’d want to talk to you again without everyone watching.“


They moved towards the door and Baysinger opened it for Jon. A woman in a black veil sat on one of the plush leather chairs, wiping mascara-stained tears with a blood red handkerchief. Waiting to arrange a contract. Jon took his coat and hat, went out onto the raised walkway and made his way down to the great columns that supported this chamber. He leaned a hand against one of them and gazed out into the green fields and the setting sun.

He looked over the nearest towers and saw pullies hauling bales of wheat from the fields beneath up into windmills which were set into the skin of the towers themselves. The ground grain was then lowered back down to bakeries near the bottom floors. Jon had gathered while traversing the city that once upon a time there were grooved slopes inside of the walls for bakers to roll down their loaves to the lower floors from their bakery-mills, but this fell out of favor when the production of food in Diadem was privatized. Now, delivery boys used handcarts to get bread wherever it needed to go.

Jon knew he wouldn’t make it to City Hall before close of business without sprinting. He could afford a day to get settled in.
But how to spend the night?

Daniel had been spotted with the Syndicalists. They was the only lead he had. They were the ones he had to find.

Jon walked until he found an industrial district. This was more or less a great cylindrical chamber of chains; mainly huge dark chains which were linked by smaller, brighter chains to pulley assemblies, and then finally to caterpillar-banks of levers and latches. This was a general-purpose workshop: the chains could be used to suspend machinery in need of repair, to bring pieces of heavy metal together for welding, and to pull apart unused equipment for scrap.

The clanking and rattling in this place was overwhelming at times, but moment-to-moment it was mostly concentrated in the upper reaches of the chamber where the heavy chains slithered around each other, touching the place with a constant metallic murmuring from above like a sea of steel fabric.
Many men were hard at work here, but Jon spotted one who was alone smoking a cigarette. He still wore his heavy gloves and a welding mask set atop his head like a visor.

Hey brother. I’m with the Union out in Gables. Here for the air show. Where’s the meet at?
Hey, how you doin boy. Yeah we got one tonight actually, it’s at eight over in the back at Nine Archers Carpentry. Come on down. Guilders are coming too.
Oh, which Guild?
Think aviation, woolmen, florists and drapers. Need a smoke? 
Sure, thanks. Should be interesting. So many hats in one ring. Never heard of a florist’s union. I guess it’s good that we got the bases covered.
Yeah, I hear you. Dunno. Over in Gables, you been gettin’ any… weird stuff comin’ out the pipe from Leagues?
Yeah, matter of fact. Rules and whatnot. Weird. ‘Items’, gotta have here and there. Very ritual, not very Union.
Yeah… that’s one reason we’re not meeting in Union Hall. We don’t want none of that crap. If we got together at the Guild headquarters or local chapter we gotta do all these dumbass facing movements and say a bunch of cracked-up stuff. What’s the deal?
Dunno. Might be we can talk to the guilders about it later.
Yeah, well they ain’t too happy about it either, but, seems like Leagues is startin’ to care more about the ‘International Guilder Front’ than the Union nowadays so they’re keeping their claps shut about that. We’ll see, he said conspiratorially. 
Jon tipped his hat.
Right. See you later, brother.
See ya.

Jon walked away. He’d smoked the cigarette without any restraint and it was starting to make him dizzy. He hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and he realized he hadn’t eaten in just as long. Time to take a walk and sniff out some provender.

He ended up in a bistro with these giant brass-tacked leather armchairs that sat on swivel poles up in front of a bar which divided the kitchen from the diners. The armchairs had flanges on either side of the sitter’s shoulders that reached so far forward, it was like having your own booth. You could see the customer next to you’d hands and his food, but otherwise he had his privacy. Flame was bursting out of the pans as the cooks worked on them, and the place had a sizzling warmth to it. Jon settled in with a sensation of extreme comfort.

He ordered some coffee, some fried toast that’d been soaked in bacon fat, a board of chicken liver pâté for the toast and some pickled garnishes, and a salad with chèvre, chopped beet and pear slices. Jon finished his toast and pâté before passing out in the gigantic armchair, totally weighed down by his coat.

He woke up. A chef was tugging at the silicasilk scarf from across the bar.
"Hey, buddy, my art’s getting cold and I can’t stand it."
"Sorry," said Jon. He shook his head and checked his pocket watch. The Anarcho-Syndicalist meet had already started.
"Ah, shit!"
"Oh, somewhere to be?"
"Yeah! Food was great, though." Jon put his money down, turned his chair out sideways and headed for the door.
"I can put that salad in the freezer if you want."
"Don’t worry! I'll make it up to you!"

Jon ran up to the woodworking shop. Seemed to be closed and deserted. Dark inside. He put he put his ear to the glass. He could hear a murmuring going on inside. Jon tried the door and it was unlocked. He just walked into the shop, and suddenly he could smell trees from all kinds of far-off lands- cedar, cypress, soft pine. Diadem wasn’t anywhere near any forest. It was all imported. Jon saw a light beneath a back room door, so he went over to it. He heard a female voice speaking very deliberately. Well, nothing else for it. Jon let himself in.

The room was a brightly-lit sanding chamber. There were a couple of big fans which blew the sawdust out back of the shop where it easier to sweep up and dump off the tower.

The whole room had wooden benches across the walls like a sauna, and a bunch of men in gray officewear and work clothes sat in circle while two people were having a discussion in the center of the room. There was a young girl of maybe twenty sitting on a high stool. She had straw-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail, a sharp jaw and a sharper expression.

There was a rough coffee table between them that was clearly made by and for the carpenters. It was pockmarked with ashes where they’d stubbed out their cigarettes. The girl had spread out some notebooks, manifestos and scratch paper.

Now across from her, there was a large doughy guy in his early forties. He had on a gray blazer with some steel blue slacks, and a great big wool scarf that he’d dyed in aquamarine, and Jon decided he must be a woolman. He tugged on his dark mustache and started twisting his big, liver-spotted hands as the girl spoke.

“Even you have to admit it: the purpose of a guild is to set commodity prices so that people who’ve left the workforce can use what they’ve learned to exploit the rest of the population.”

The woolman’s face clouded.

“Hold on now. That’s a syndicate.”

“You are a syndicate.”

“You watch that tongue, young lady. We Guilders don’t exploit anyone, we stand up to it. When the kings try, we’re the ones who say, ‘you need us.’ You need the workers.”

“Then join a union. Unions do everything guilds do except for setting the prices that fleece the common man and woman.”

Now, saying this to a woolman was an obvious provocation. 

“You have no idea what you’re trying to talk about. And what’s your beef, anyways? Ever since Lord Mirchame came up, we’ve never had a problem, Guilds and Unions. I don’t see how you stirring up this kind of trouble serves any of us.”

“‘Lord Mirchame’? You see that, everyone? A guild’s entire enterprise is nothing more than a stratified capitalist rent-seeking racket in which the Guilders do little or no work but take the maximum flesh possible out of their daytalers, the people who actually produce what the guilds attempt to control. You wanna be the lords and the capitalists. Not the workers.”

“Wha- how can you say that? I’ve sheared more head with these two hands than you’ve had hot meals! You’d better give Lord Mirchame some goddamned respect, pup! After everything he’s given the Unions!”

“Bribes. The lifeblood of the workers, extracted, which he expects us to lap up like vampires. His money? That’s a relic. That system’s on its way out. It’s ephemeral. For us it’s nothing but a scaffold up to a better way. We’ve taken it, but we’ve taken it with distaste. You’ve been drinking it up like schnapps ever since you left the workforce.”

“And what the hell do you do, little girl?”

“I break the ideas of bourgeois little tyrants like you, that’s what. Here’s an idea for you: your time’s up.”

Fuck you! he grabbed his hat and stood up. The other guilders followed suit, glowering. You all rot in hell! Our guilds are united! Who needs you syndie pricks, anyway!” He stormed out. The other guilders followed, donning their hats one-by-one. The girl’s face was flushed and glowing. Her eyes were blazing like a cat goddess before a sacrifice. Most of the Syndicalists had started looking around at each other worriedly, but no one said anything to her while she put her notepads and such away into her carpet fabric messenger bag. The Syndicalists started drifting out into the wood shop, and Jon heard uneasy conversations starting outside of the door.

A boy walked over to the girl from a wooden bench. He was roughly her age, but he was lanky, gaunt and pale, with unkempt corn husk hair and a brow that was shining with grease. He wore a short black pea coat made out of felt, and a pair of olive slacks.

“That was incredible, he said enthusiastically, meet you at Playwright’s?”

“Sure,” she said, glancing at him briefly as she tucked away her drafting pencil into a spacious hip pocket.

“Okay, cool! See you soon, Sarah!” He stood still for a few moments like he was expecting a hug, but she just slung her tartan messenger bag over her shoulder and went straight out the door.

The man who Jon had spoken to at the foundry leaned towards him.
“Real spark plug, that one.”
"Yeah. Everyone on board with that?”
“No. But she’s fierce. She’s shown up to a few meetings so far. Turns out she was trained in Leagues. Political philosophy. So as far as a lot of the folks here are concerned, she’s the authority.”
“I thought Leagues was giving us the cold shoulder.”
“Not all the way apparently.”
“What’s her name?”
“Sarah Seravies. She isn’t from Diadem. I don’t know where she grew up. Maybe in a furnace.”
“And what about her boy?”
“Jonas Pinkerton, that one. Dunno where he works. I do know that if he tried to show up to my crew he’d get his hide roasted off him. That’d do a boy like that good, but I’ve never seen one like him stick around. The work’s too hard for your generation, though you seem like a stout kid.”
“Well, thanks. Say, I’ll see you around, skip.”

Jon gazed over at the boy. So that was Stanton. There he was. He’d lost the bright expression he’d gotten when approaching the girl, and now he had on a livid mask of sour doubt. He wasn’t interested in pleasing anybody else. Stanton breezed on out of the wood shop. Jon followed suit, but he didn’t follow Stanton. No reason to take a risk. Jon knew where they’d meet.

He arrived at Playwright’s and looked through the window. Not too busy, not too loud. Perfect. He saw that Stanton and Seravies were already sitting at the bar. Damn it. He’d hoped Seravies would make Danny boy wait. Well, time to play catch up.

Jon walked in. He looked everywhere but at the two of them. He ordered a double whisky poured over maraschinos and found a table to eavesdrop on the cynic and his Syndicalist. It turned out Jon couldn’t hear shit over the hubbub, but he got the gist.

Dan clearly thought she was beautiful, or at least attainable, and he sat facing her with a hand on his chin, his elbow resting on his knee. She was erecting ideas in the air with her hands and took little notice of his gaze. She sat facing the room but spoke into the horizon; her hard eyes were fixed on a theoretical future and she held up invisible superstructures around her.

This all continued for a while, but then she got up, gave Daniel a little wave, and left the bar. Dan Stanton watched her go, he just kept looking out the door with his face fallen in discontent. Finally he made a stiff turn to face the bar, and he leaned over his ice tea with his shoulders hunched up.

Jon got up, walked across the bar and put his hand on Daniel Stanton’s shoulder. Jon gave him a bracing squeeze.

“Hey brother, I saw you over at the meet! Can I getcha a beer?”

Stanton shook Jon’s hand roughly off his shoulder and gazed up at him in pissed off disbelief.

“Hey, find someone else, ‘brother’. I’m not interested in the bitching of the peons.”

“Wha-what do you mean?” said Jon, affecting a degree of dismay, “Weren’t we just talking about- about things at the meet?”

“Ha. Please. That’s all just stand-up comedy.” Stanton turned his stool around to face Jon. “You’re a sucker if you think your ridiculous union’ll do anything for you when the chips are down. Those piggies up there you hate? They’ve got the deck stacked ten miles deep on top of you.”

“Wha- what do you suggest?” said Jon with all the earnestness he could muster.

“Stop chasing your fucking tail and get serious.” Stanton lifted the corner of his pea coat to show Jon a silver .45 automatic in a hip holster. The gun was straight from the Starling & Shrike armory.

“Get one of these. Get revenge. On every son of a bitch who ever stepped on you. Cause that’s what they do, that’s what they are, and that’s the only thing they’ll ever understand. Every motherfucker who ever bent you out of shape, every… pig who ever fucked with your destiny. You fuck with theirs. That’s the point of your stupid movement, right? That’s why you’re a pinko. You think you’re enslaved, but you don’t have any idea what that means. I do, so take it from me, bud. You think your little utopian dream is gonna get you what you need? I’m telling you, it’s only gonna help the bastards get their hooks in even deeper. And then you’ll never escape.”

“You’ve been enslaved?” Jon asked with false credulity.

“Yeah. All my life up til when I escaped, about six months ago. I was born into slavery. I never had a chance for a life. And every day, I got shit on. You don’t know what people are like til they’ve got every part of your life under their boot. People are monsters. Animals. Insects. Demons. And you think by going along with them they might recognize you somehow. Maybe ease up on you. That they’d even help you. No. So, syndie, hear me when I say your little union is gonna eat you alive as soon as they’ve finished with the capitalists. On to the next course.” Stanton laughed darkly.

“How do you figure?” Jon asked interestedly. Stanton glared at him.

“Because I know people, stupid, that’s how. Try doing anything for anyone and see how far that takes you. Someone’ll be waiting to sabotage you. And then when you fail, the whole group’ll mock you. Your friends’ll start avoiding you, girls’ll start laughing at you, and then the golden boys’ll chase you into the fucking cold. And if you ever try to do something for that group, you’ll be completely fucking ignored. You think you can ever recover from that? I’m done trying. You should wise up. But you won’t. Because you have no idea what I’m talking about.” Stanton turned back and put his arms on the bar.

“So, once we level out society, you’re saying everyone’s going to turn on his neighbor?”

“I’m saying everyone’s already turned on everybody, except when they’re too scared to. I already told you that’s how people are. We’re demons. It’s a world of fucking giant spiders.”

“Hmm. I can see being enslaved taught you some things, philosophically. Did you learn any skills or coping mechanisms?”

Stanton scrutinized Jon for a second. But then he answered.

“Yeah. I learned to lie, cheat and steal.”

Jon squeezed his glass, but he gave Daniel a little rictus smile. 

“I guess that’s a slave’s life, then. You must have had to-“

“No, that’s what they taught me. They taught me how to be a fucking goon for incompetent foreigners. That way I could make the motherfuckers who’d enslaved me even richer. But they were slaves too, they’d just decided to suck on the dick that’d been fucking em.”

“I see. Like a grifter with a gang of pickpockets, huh? Like a crook who passes on his skills.”

”More like a gang of pimps who were trying to make me a whore. Six months ago they sent me out to get fucked and die, but I wouldn’t do it. I’m on my own now. I’m free. And I’m gonna make the motherfuckers who crushed my soul for fourteen years pay. And every piece of shit who propped up their system, and everything they love, too. They’ve had enough time loving what they have. I’ve had no time like that.”

“Were you enslaved in Bounty?”

“Enslaved in Bounty? No, motherfucker, do I look like I’d last a day in the mines? I already told you they raised me to be a…” Dan Stanton narrowed his eyes and looked Jon up and down. “Yeah, you don’t look like you’ve done a day of work in your life. What kind of syndie are you, anyways?”

“I’m a scrivener. I do minutes and ledgers.”

“Huh. Well why don’t you fuck off, now? What the hell do you want from me, anyway?”

“I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not what syndies do,” said Stanton with alarm. “Also, you dress way too clean for one of them. Like a tourist.”

“I’m from Ascension. I work in aviation.”

“A syndie from Ascension?” Stanton said no more. He got up with his hard and sad eyes fixed on Jon, and then he stalked out of the bar.

“Shit,” Jon said aloud and he darted over to the front door. He cracked it open a little. Stanton was standing right in front of him. He was waiting for Jon to do that.

“Don’t follow me,” Stanton said hoarsely. Jon closed the door.

“What are you doing?” called the barman warily. 

Jon ran past the counter and the bathrooms in a state of action-hypnosis and crashed through the back door.

Jon found himself on a small stone promenade which dropped off into space with no railing. There was a constant gentle breeze, and the sun was setting like a silver dollar dropped halfway through the horizon. Little bits of brown tobacco were blowing into the crook where the walkway met the wall.

Jon ran along this strange constant balcony until he arrived at an archway that was girt with vines. He darted through it and arrived on a deck that encircled the courtyard below.

There was a rippling pond in the center of the courtyard. It had a garland of lilies and toadstools, and there was a big wet standing stone kneeling at the heart of it. There was a tiny hole at the top of the rock from which water poured, wetting it darkly. 

Jon saw Stanton disappearing down a corridor but the boy looked back up at Jon as he went, livid, baleful and grim.

Jon ran forward, vaulted over the balcony, dropped down painfully into the courtyard, and started to circle around the pond on the far side of where he’d seen Daniel so as to get a safe view of where he was going.

Jon looked around the corner of the corridor and leapt an inch into the air before he even knew what he was seeing. Daniel Stanton was at the far corner of the corridor where it turned into a staircase, and he was leaning halfway out and pointing his pistol at Jon.

Instantly there was a deadly spike of light, a tremendous bang, and something cracked past Jon’s ear like he was hearing time and space splitting like a stone. Jon ducked, banged his forehead hard on the raised concrete side of the pond and rolled gracelessly so that he was behind the standing stone. There were two more shots as he rolled; he guessed that he’d exposed himself as he spilled and sprawled into cover. He glanced up and there was a little haze of dust rising from the concrete rim of the pond. His forehead throbbed painlessly.

Is he shooting at me? Jon thought in disbelief. He can’t be shooting at me. No way. He glanced around the corridor for other potential pursuers, but if anyone had been following Daniel before they were gone now.
Well there’s no one else he could be shooting at! Goddamn! That motherfucker! What the fuck did I do to him!? 

Jon reached back and pulled out his own .45, disengaging the safety. The gun was heavy in his hand but intimately familiar. Suddenly Jon had a moment of clarity: no Starling & Shrike agent fresh out of the schoolhouse could have missed those shots. Either he didn’t want to kill me, which I doubt cause he gave me a fucking haircut with that first one, or he hasn’t practiced in six months!

Jon shook his head. Blood was trickling into his eyebrow and he wiped at it with his sleeve. His eyebrow filled with blood again almost immediately. Shit.

He put a hand onto the old brick floor to brace himself. The bricks emanated in concentric circles from the standing stone at the center of the fountain, which Jon was presently regarding; which side to emerge from? Stanton might figure I’ll come up on the other side from where I went down on, but then he’ll second guess that too and figure I’ll come up on the first side! Fuck! 

Jon fished a silver coin out of his pocket. Heads left tails right. He flipped it as loudly as possible so that (assuming Stanton wasn’t deafened by the gunfire) he’d know that there was no way of predicting where Jon was coming up. Tails! Jon dropped the coin into the water for luck.

He slid out along the little wall just enough so that he wouldn’t be flush with the standing stone, then he rolled onto his belly, raised his pistol so that it was just below his eye, and then sprang up so that his gun and his eye were just above the lip of the rim.

There was Stanton, who opened fire instantly but his shots were nearer to the standing stone; little chips of concrete and dust blasted Jon in the face and knuckles, and he was winced as he fired. The silver .45 leapt up and down rhythmically before before his eyes as he fired into the darkening blur of the corridor. He shot all eight rounds and then fell panting onto his back, hands slick, his heart hammering.

The first time Stanton had shot at him it was like it was an accident, without any valence besides danger, like jumping out of the way of a falling ladder. The second time Jon had been shot at, during the exchange, it was like Stanton’s bullets carried a wall of fire. Incredible intensity was radiating from his adversary, a profound malevolence, an evil magnetism.

Jon dumped his magazine, thrust up his pelvis just enough to retrieve another, slid it in and stuck the spent little silver tower into his coat pocket. Then he ran a hand over every part of his head and shoulders except where he’d bashed his skull.

Ok, he thought to himself as he slid home the receiver of his .45, there’s a chance this motherfucker has the exact load I do. Think he did a mag. So let’s keep score…

Jon slithered to the other side of the pond from the standing stone. This was his likely move but at least Stanton would be forced to completely reset his aim. Jon got set, then popped up again- gone! The motherfucker was definitely not there!

Jon stood up, got a two-hand grip on his pistol and advanced down the corridor where Daniel had been, walking like a hunter so he could minimize his footsteps. Psychologically it was like pushing through molasses. Maybe Daniel’s ears are ringing too bad to hear me too, thought Jon.

He saw bullet holes in the brick wall around the corner. He gave them a quick count; Fuck! Impossible to say how many had struck the wall. The impacts were too clustered in the brittle brick and the bullets had fragmented beyond quick recognition.

When he reached the stairs, he got on his belly, moved to the center and did a pop-up over the edge. Damn it! The staircase just led down into another darkened corridor, and there wasn’t any sign of Stanton, who was probably just running for his life now.

Jon got up and sprinted down the stairs. His blood was growing hot. That motherfucker was not gonna get away! He shot at me, I had to shoot at him, this is going to turn into a whole thing. I’m not coming away from it empty-handed.

This place seemed to be a nexus of maintenance corridors for inspecting the foundational pillars which ran up through the tower from their anchors in the earth, and then various control points for the city’s water and sewage systems. It was a spare, dark and utilitarian place. There were no windows; just a few antiquated gas lamps at the end of each hallway. The place reminded Jon of the shoothouse. He knew Stanton would feel the same way.

Jon strode forward as silently as possible, his pistol raised, passing beneath numerous pipes and telegraph wires. The corridor turned several times but it didn’t branch out. Finally the hallway ended in a single doorway on Jon’s right. He could see it opened up into a room which buttonhooked back along the wall he was traversing.

Jon came right up to the empty doorway, hesitated, and then threw himself through the doorway into the wall on the other side. He fanned his pistol across the room- the whole place was pitch dark. With real dread, Jon realized that Stanton was probably drawing down on him from some corner at that very moment.

Jon had just violated a decade of diligent shoothouse training by chasing down quarry who knew he was being pursued. He’d done it alone, and he’d moved along a predictable channel with ambush point after ambush point. He was three-for-three on the biggest no-nos, so desperate was he to catch his first man. Now Jon would probably get his just desserts when Stanton shot his brains out with .45 caliber hollow points.

Jon held his pistol up, pointing it here and there. He thought about emptying his magazine in a spread across the room but decided to shepherd his rounds for what they were worth. There was a gas lamp almost right overhead by the doorway but it was kept very dim; Jon reached a hand up and found a little flange on the side of the lamp for controlling gas flow. Jon turned it one way and it went out. He turned it the other way and it flared into a vibrant illumination, blinding him for a moment. He closed his eyes and dropped to a knee, raising his gun up to the center of the room. Jon blinked. His knee was soaking wet. 

Jon’s vision cleared. He was in a smooth, square concrete room for mops, cleaning supplies, and piles of absorbent sheets. These were well-placed because Stanton was laying on his side with his back to the door and the room was soaked in his blood.

Jon pointed his gun straight at Stanton’s back and considered riddling him with bullets, but decided that he could do that if he so much as saw a twitch. Jon noticed that his mouth was filling up with spittle and he was puckering. This was an odd time for that. Jon began to take steps forward and his heart lurched as he slid a little in the viscous blood; after that he moved deliberately, testing every footstep before moving up the next one. Stanton must have collapsed and then dragged himself to the center of the room. Fuck, he thought, that’s a lot of blood.

Stanton, he called hoarsely. His voice sounded weak and distant.


Jon arrived over Stanton’s body and peered across the top of it. The boy was deathly pale. A pool of dark blood had blossomed from his mouth which seemed unduly vast given how little Daniel opened his mouth.

Jon started to get lightheaded from all the blood, and everything in his field of vision turned a pale yellow. His head was pounding gently and it was like an aural fog had descended upon his hearing. He fought back nausea and took a knee briefly just in case he would faint. A thousand interlocking amber rainbows threatened to consume his vision and pull him out of consciousness, but he furrowed his brow and the ethereal fog cleared. He swallowed carefully, stood up, and looked at the corpse again. It was still somehow the man that Jon had killed, but it was very quickly becoming an object.

Fuck, he thought blearily. I’m not gonna make the gendarmes carry this mess up to the pond. Jon holstered his pistol, leaned down and grabbed the corpse by its lapels and attempted to drag it over the slick concrete to the doorway but slipped, falling on his ass in the blood. He put his hands down into the thick, warm smear and pushed himself back up to his feet.

Jon hauled the limp but stiffening man into a sitting position. He took a knee between the corpse’s legs, and with burning fingertips he pulled the dead man up so that he was sitting on Jon’s thigh. Jon leaned the dead man onto his chest, took him by his belt and lifted him up over his shoulder. Jon stood up with great effort and shuffled his fell cargo out into the hallway. As he walked, blood and shit started dripping from Stanton’s pant cuff onto Jon’s shoe. Jon’s vision was still yellow and his ears rang oppressively.

He carried the corpse down the corridors, which seemed endless without the adrenaline, and up several flights of steps, breathing deeply through an open mouth. The weight of the body seemed to match the oppression of his senses. Finally Jon reached the final stairway and carried the dead man up step-by-step until he reached the top.

“There! Freeze, motherfucker!” came the scream. Jon froze, unable to think all of a sudden.

“Drop him!”
Jon was terrified. He awaited the bullets.

“I said drop him, motherfucker!”
Oh shit! Jon’s heart skipped a beat. They were talking to him! Jon leaned forward a little and let the body fall. There was a loud smack as Stanton’s head bounced off the bricks.

“Hands up!” Jon complied. This revealed his holstered pistol.

“Gun!” one of them shouted and Jon glanced up at the ceiling, fully expecting to be pierced through now. “Don’t move one fucking inch!” Jon carefully set every muscle in his body in balance so he could comply. He heard boots coming down the corridor.

“God! Look at all that blood!” came another voice.

Jon didn’t make a comment. Someone took his pistol, and another grabbed him by the arm and roughly threw him onto the dusty bricks before handcuffing him. One of the gendarmes opened Stanton’s shirt and whistled. “That boy’s toast.” One of the gendarmes stepped on Jon’s back, and he felt a muzzle come to rest at the base of his skull.

“What the fuck was this about?” asked the gendarme who had his gun to Jon’s head.
“I’m a Starling & Shrike agent! That guy shot at me!”
“Yeah, right after you guys had a little spat at the bar, huh. Where’s your ID?”
“I didn’t bring any! The Lord Mayor’s expecting me!”
“If you’re Starling, why don’t you have an ID?”
“In case anyone searches me!”
“You’re an idiot. Take him the fuck away.”

Jon sat in a tiny cell that was bare except for a steel bucket. The gendarmes didn’t want to put him in with the rest of the night’s haul in case someone had heard he was Starling & Shrike, so they’d put him in solitary confinement instead. He’d have preferred some company, even from crooks.

Jon was thinking about Daniel. Now that this was over, Jon didn’t hate his adversary. He felt like maybe if they’d grown up together, he’d have been able to stand up for Daniel, and just maybe this wouldn’t have had to happen. And, he thought, I always loved to read about the outside world. History and culture. Maybe I could have shown him that there was a life out there, and that he was big enough to find it. Jon shook his head. Daniel, it wasn’t easy. It was brutal. We didn’t have much of a childhood. God, when you’re in the middle of it, it feels like it’ll never end. But then it does, and you and I were the freest men on earth when we met. I wish we could have traveled. I could have taught you. I wish I could have taken you all the places that I wanted to see. All the places that I wanted to go.

Jon smiled a little.
But now I might not get to, even on my own. He looked at the incandescent gas lamp hanging from the whitewashed concrete ceiling. I don’t know how this is gonna turn out. I’ve never heard of a case like this.

Jon heard footsteps coming down the hallway and stood up painfully. His ass felt pulverized and his legs were dead.

A gendarme walked up. He wore blue fatigues and a steel breastplate, and carried a tin plate. There was a little pile of cold peas with corn kernels, and a single dry chicken leg. It was the most pathetic meal Jon had ever seen. It made him choke up a little just looking at it. He took the plate through the slot and set it on the floor. He’d had one meal in almost two days, but he wasn’t that hungry.

Jon heard more footsteps. It was Gerald Baysinger. His hair was mussed and he wore an old brown overcoat. Clearly he’d come straight out of bed.
“Jon,” he said, “are you all right?”

Jon leapt up painfully and rushed to the bars.

“Mr Baysinger! God, it’s good to see you!” Indeed, Jon felt like he was seeing an angel.
“I take it you are, then. Your forehead looks cut, but scars aren’t a problem in our line of work.” He gave a bracing smile. “Your next date’ll appreciate it.”
“I’m so sorry you got pulled out of bed! What do they want next?”
“Don’t worry,” said Baysinger, raising a hand. “They just sent a messenger boy and I thought I’d come see how you were doing.”
“What’s going to happen next?”
“They’re going to question you.”
“Are you going to be there?”
“No, but I’m prepared to intercede if they come to a drastic conclusion. Most likely they’ll seek confirmation of your identity first. This won’t be a problem, though someone will need to travel from Starling & Shrike. This is an operation where you could have brought identification, Jon.”

“I’m sorry.” Jon felt crushed. Who knew how long this would take? His first contract, and his reputation, were ruined on the first night of his career.

“That’s alright,” said Mr Baysinger, “there are times when when you shouldn’t carry it. But you are among friends, despite all this,” he gestured to the cell. “Tell them the truth. Diadem is not so corrupt that the truth will work against you.”
“Thank you, sir. I mean it.”

Baysinger nodded with satisfaction. More footsteps came down the hallway and Baysinger glanced to his right. A man in a white suit with a gray cravat came to the bars.

“It’s time.”
A gendarme opened the door. Jon walked out. Baysinger patted him on the shoulder as he passed. The man in the suit led Jon to a small room with wooden facade walls, a green carpet, and a number of spare wooden chairs. The man in white sat down in a chair and indicated Jon sit across from him. The gendarme stood behind Jon at a slight offset, and Jon could feel his presence looming.

“My name’s Nigel Garland, I’m head of the Diadem Security Commission. Normally a case like this is underneath my wheelhouse, but it seems that our friends from the mountaintop have decided to use our city as a holmgang spot, so I’ve had to get involved.”

“Not at all,” Jon said, “I believe that the man I killed was plotting against Diadem!”

“Is that right? On what evidence?”

“He spoke of ruining everything that those who had collaborated with his oppressors had ever loved. His oppressors were Starling & Shrike, in his eyes. He must have been talking about Diadem.”

“That’s pretty vague. Might have been bluster. Or venting. Plus you two came straight from the bar. What was your beef?”

“It’s complicated…” Jon thought for a moment, and noted a look of impatience appear on Garland’s face. “Daniel had just come from a Syndicalist meeting. He went to the bar with a girl; an activist who’d been trained at Leagues. She really gave the Guilders hell, and they ended up storming out. Anyways, she left and I came to talk to Dan. He was not in a good mood. I tried to play the Syndicalist, but I think he caught on, then he left. Said not to follow him. Well, I did follow him. He started shooting and the rest is history.”

“The fucking Anarcho-Syndicalists… now I probably have a fucking Syndicalist plot to deal with, huh.” He shook his head.”

“Wait,” said Jon, “I didn’t get that impression. Daniel is- was deeply embittered. At the whole world, really. He didn’t care about Syndicalism at all. And the Syndicalists didn’t even mention Diadem. I think he might have been acting alone. He was gonna do something drastic, but I really don’t think he was in cahoots with the Syndicalists.”

“Hmm. This girl, I want you to find her. If you get out of here.”

I’m sorry sir, but I can’t agree to anything just yet, I need to talk to the Lord Mayor still.” 

“You didn’t even talk to the Lord Mayor before you shot someone?”

“Things happened fast. I didn’t expect to find Stanton on my first night.”

“Guess you work fast then. Alright.” He glanced up at the gendarme. “You guys should take a leaf out of this kid’s book.” Garland looked back at Jon. “Assuming any of this is true. We’ll get to the bottom of it. In the meantime you’re gonna sit tight until a Starling can verify you. Stanton checked in with the Residence Bureau when he got here. He gave proof of his citizenship. You didn’t. He had his ID on him. You don’t. So we’ll see. For all I know you’re a Cynthian Knight who just murdered his tail. That said, it isn’t illegal to follow someone in public. If someone’s following you, you kick their ass and get the gendarmes. You don’t start shooting.”

Garland stood up.

“Starling & Shrike’s been notified. Someone’ll come ID you. I hope for your sake they do that, cause I want to find out about these fucking Syndicalists.”

The Commissioner nodded to the gendarme. “Back to his cell.”

Jon opened his eyes, looked up and saw a grinning, silver bearded face on the other side of the bars. It was the Council Inspector, Joshua Currant.

“Goddamn, brother! You had some dangerous game on your first rodeo.”

Jon felt like he’d fallen fifty feet onto bricks. He pushed himself onto his knees, and his right side felt like it would fall apart like a rotten marionette. He put his hand on the wall to get himself on his feet.

“Inspector Currant? How are you? What time is it?”

“Morning. Got a flight as soon as I saw the telegram. You’re good, kid. The door’s unlocked.”

“Oh, man…” Jon staggered to the bars and opened them. He carefully straightened himself upright.

“First day first kill and you nail a Starling & Shrike agent, hoo wee! That has to be some kind of record. Well, I’m proud of you, kid. You got the fuck after it, that’s for sure.”

Jon nodded his acknowledgement.

Nigel Garland came walking up the hallway towards them, looking grim. Currant continued,
“Man, this is what I love to see. Young pipe hitters getting out there and bringing death to the unrighteous. Wew. Nothing feels better than shooting motherfuckers in the face, man. It’s better than sex.”

“Huh,” said Garland, then looked at Jon. “Dart, big news. The boarding house where Stanton was staying- the receptionist’s been murdered. Someone beat her to death with a hammer. Don’t worry about the Lord Mayor, I sent him a note that we could meet tonight at Dalmation’s. Right now I need you to get over there and dust down the scene, find out what the connection was to Dan Stanton. Then report in. Plan on getting to work finding that girl-“

“Holy shit,” Currant cut in loudly. Garland looked at him irritatedly. “I don’t think you’ve read the contract, jim. Let me help you out. It says hunter-gather roving security, NOT service by direction. That means he does whatever the fuck he thinks is needed and you pay him, got it?”

The commissioner looked at Currant angrily but he didn’t say anything.

“Listen. I will crush whole planets before I let you fuck with this investigation. So take your foot off my detective’s nuts, or I’ll assume direct control of the situation and grease every crook in Diadem. You think Jon waxing that freak was a shitshow? I’ll give these tourists a bloodbath they’ll never forget, and it’ll be *completely* *legal* per the Lord Mayor’s contract. Do want that for your airshow?”

“Ok, whatever,” Garland said with spite. He looked to Jon, but not Inspector Currant. “You do what you’re trained to do. I don’t give a shit. But I think you know what’s gotta happen.” He gave Jon a pointed look and then stalked away.

Prick,” Currant said.

Jon and the Inspector walked together to an atrium near the gendarmerie’s nerve center. They stopped by a statue of Saint Nina, a teacher who suffered great torture at the hands of raiders rather than tell them the location of her students.

“This is a conspiracy if I’ve ever seen one, and I’ve seen shitloads of em. Jon you’re dealing with some bad motherfuckers now. But just remember one thing. That Stanton kid might have been a pencil dick, but he trained just as long and hard as you did on the exact same hammer and you still outshot him. However scary the sons of bitches who walloped that poor woman might be, there’s no competition in this world for skill and diligence. Wait till you hip throw the first knuckledragger who tries to pull your head off, and you’ll see what I mean. They just don’t get it.

Anyways, I gotta split. I’m glad I could rely on you. I had a feeling you were the right man for the situation. Believe me, those of us who’ve reached the highest level are gonna be watching your career with interest. So far as we’re concerned, you’re one of us now, and we take care of our own. Keep doing the shoot-him-‘fore-he-runs-now with any fink you catch up with and keep me posted.”

“Sir,” said Jon.

They shook hands and Inspector Currant disappeared into the crowd.

Jon stood still for some time.

No, he said to himself. I won’t do it. I won’t murder them. I won’t hide them in the darkness. If anything I’ll bring them back to Starling & Shrike so they can be examined. In the light. I don’t care what the verdict is. We have to know why this happens. Why people go rogue. So no murders. No damnatio memoriae. This isn’t just something for the Inspectors to just sweep under the rug. If I find any more like Daniel, I’ll bring them back. We have to understand them, even if it hurts us to know.

But first I’ll find whoever murdered that innocent receptionist and blow the lid off of his every secret.

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Art - First Run