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Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2007

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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A frontier world on the back end of nowhere is the sort of place people go to get lost. And some of those people have secrets worth hiding, secrets that can change the future - assuming there is one....

Andre Deschanes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher who will forgive his murderous past - and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It's called the art of conjuring, and it's Andre's only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family - or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven's murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks, and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance....


Chapter One

THE MORNING AFTER HE KILLED EUGENE SHAPIRO, ANDRÉ Deschênes woke early. Before his headset warble ended, he rolled from the bed and landed palms-down on the deck of his bedroom. He slept in loose white trousers; nudity implied vulnerability. The raw breeze through the long windows above his bed roughened his shoulders, scalp, and nape. A clap punctuated each push-up, and he followed the set with five sun salutations to warm up and release his muscles.

He dressed and skinned and was out the door in minutes.

His footfalls chased him through the leaden morning. Roaches and rats scattered before him: humanity's companions all the way to the stars. The air was thick with the promise of rain; André's skin steamed before he'd run five hundred meters. The tide was in, the streets riding high on the pilings, and though he ran through a commercial zone, his filters held. Just one pop-ad penetrated, and he squelched it with an eyeflick.

In André's neighborhood, the streets were wood slat, floating piers independent of the houses and shops moored to them. They echoed under his running shoes, a hollow thump-thump-thump still unadulterated by other sounds.

He might have been the only one awake in all of Novo Haven. If he lived on Bayside, he would have seen the fishing boats and tenders sliding gulfward with the first light of morning. But from here, only thin channels of bay were visible between the floating streets and under the bridges, and the dinghies and scooters and small boats were still moored by the various steps that led up to street level. He passed more shops than houses; above them on the flat-decked, seaworthy cruisers were second-floor apartments with lifts or spiral walk-ups, but the lower levels had shuttered windows suitable for opening to catch sunlight and the attention of passersby. Ladders and gangplanks ran down to the water, where small craft waited and taxi drivers read the news and drank their coffee.

Andre ran by greengrocers and tackle shops, a geomancer's, an interface outlet, two brothels, a fixit shop for headsets and other implants, a skin-and-fashion store, a corner clinic, a beautician's parlor, and a Chinese restaurant. The bakery on Seagrove wasn't open yet, but good smells emanated from the back, and the clang of pans on counters rattled through the screen door.

He almost tripped crossing up onto the sidewalk beside the 400 "barge"--actually, a twenty-meter cruiser ringed with boardwalks and lashed to pilings. The barge was lower in the water than code permitted, and loosely moored. The sidewalk dipped alarmingly when his weight hit it, but he skipped a step and kept running. More cooking smells now, the distant sound of engines, lights flicking off over doorways as the landward sky paled gold. Someone ran on ahead, a woman with golden skin and black hair clubbed at the nape of her neck, her small breasts bouncing in a crimson sport top. He magnified her, recognized her, and decided she was a good enough reason to run faster. But she turned to port, down Amaryllis, between the white-and-pastel apartment blocks, and his road lay straight on. He didn't want to look too eager.

He wasn't jogging now but running, hard out, breath whistling between his teeth in misty streamers. His heels hit staccato, the street rocking under his stride. He counted breaths, pulling his elbows back each time his arms pumped, feeling the pivot and snap of each foot as it landed, as it left the slats again.

Running was good. Mornings were good. The wet air scraped his throat, chilled his lungs as he sucked it in, shoved it out again. Running hard, running cold, running over the water as the sun warmed the roof peaks and the streets began to hum.

His route was a circle. Or a ragged ungeometric circuit, which brought him panting back down Seagrove just as the bakery's armored shutters glided up, revealing the cheery blues and yellows of an interior bathed in full-spectrum light. Awnings, also automated, fanned out to shade the street. The light off the water would be brutal when the sun got past the rooflines. The fortune-teller next door wouldn't open until after lunchtime, but his awnings rolled out as well. A public service.

André let his pace drop to a trot, a jog, a stumbling amble. Sweat, and perhaps some condensation, slid down his chilled face, stung his eyes, and scattered off his nose. He slapped his biceps and thighs to get some heat into the skin, which felt like wax fruit. He set his status as unavailable when he ran--he liked the morning clean--but only an idiot would completely drop connex. So it was uncomplicated to check the price of bread on his headset. Citywide, it was a bit lower than the Seagrove bakery broadcast, but this was fresh and here and it smelled good. He transferred credit as he was walking up; one of the bakers, wearing a tall white hat and a skin that made blue and gold sparkles in the depths of her irises, handed him a warm semipermeable bag over the window ledge. "Thanks, Jacinta," he said. She winked at him, that eye flashing for an instant, brilliant gold.

André wasn't wearing a cosmetic himself, so he contented himself with a grin. He wiped sweat on his
bare arm, flicked the droplets over the channel, and watched the ripples as some lurking fish disappointed themselves on the mouthfuls.

Jacinta tapped a golden loaf steaming gently on a cutting board. It made a hollow sound. The scent rose sweetly. "Want a slice?"

It smelled of cinnamon and raisins. "Can't eat until I wash," he said. "But thank you."

Back at his house--the 1100 barge of Redbridge--he walked through the security field, which recognized the hard code access in his headset and let him in without so much as a tingle. He dropped off the loaf of rye, showered, depilated his scalp, trimmed his beard, and dressed. The sharp suit of gold-shot scarlet was Earth silk with an autofit. He inspected his image as rebroadcast into the headset, activated his stock ticker, chat boxes, news scroll, and the standard informational detritus of his daily connex. His cousin Maryanne thought he was weird to leave it off in the morning--she probably reached for her connex the way her great-great-grandfather would have reached for his glasses--but the run with nobody in his head kept him centered. He thought of it as moving meditation, one brief chance to arrive at silence before swimming into the currents of the day.

He patted his house on the door to let it know he was leaving, stepped into his work shoes, picked up his walking stick, and went.

It was early yet, and André was his own boss. But there were messages to be answered, and he had rules about bringing work home.

It took him longer to walk in than he'd anticipated, and not because he strode through morning traffic now. Halfway down Fairview, when the shakes from exertion had finally settled out of his calves, an attention signal pinged at the corner of his field. His heart skipped painfully when he caught the ident.

He slowed, turned as if watching a bird dip-glide across the water. He crossed wavering slats and balanced by the rail, the red blooms of a genemod geranium brushing his ankle. The woman who walked toward him through the crowd wore saffron: flowing trousers and an ankle-length open tunic over a white, square-necked blouse. Gold and citrine sparkled along the hollow of her throat; her hair was as sleek and black as it had been when he saw her running, but now it fell forward, framing her cheekbones and chin.

"M~ Zhou," he said, as she hooked the right-side locks behind her ear. "How kind of you to see me in person."

"Let's walk," she answered, taking his elbow and turning him with her fingertips, so he fell into step alongside her. They walked in silence along the awning-shaded street until he cleared his throat and glanced at her sidelong.

"Are we drawing out the anticipation, mambo?"

"Oh, very funny." There were more geraniums, their red as bright as snapping banners. The shopkeepers along this stretch had interplanted the stainless-steel city beautification buckets with kleenexplant and paperwhites, and the sweet aromas mingled with the sharp herbal note of the geranium.

Which made André sneeze. He filtered them out.

"Actually, it was a serious question. You must have thought about my offer." Or she'd not have come to find him, even if she had noticed him giving chase that morning.

"I wonder why you think you want to conjure."

Not an unexpected question, but he gave it a show of consideration. "Why I think I want it? Or why I do want it?"

"That's a question I can't answer for you." Her fingers had gone from resting lightly on the bone of his elbow to threading through the crook. He permitted her to steer him.

The crowds thinned as they walked, but the second wave would emerge soon--those who did not choose to separate their home and work lives but who telepresenced, and who came out for their daily bread and fish and produce after the rush had faded. Or those who worked on other planets, and could do as well sitting in a café under a parasol, uplinked lag-free through a quantum connection, as they could in an overpriced office on Bayside, where you paid for the view and walked sixty barges to the nearest coffee shop because the rents were so high.

"Croissant?" Ziyi Zhou asked him, gesturing to an open-air café with a few lingering customers.

"Maryanne will kill me if I don't eat at the office," André said, excusing himself with a one-shouldered shrug. M~ Zhou was holding his right arm. He rubbed at his beard with the left hand. "But I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee."

She stepped back, but not before she squeezed his arm. "You're good at that."

"Dodging questions?"

A good try, but she gave him not even a quirk of smile back. "Establishing a claim on people."

He shrugged again, acknowledgment this time, and spread his hands. He had to squint at M~ Zhou through the sunlight. Fat biting flies zoomed overhead, hunting in pairs; he swatted them away backhanded. Somewhere back there was a reptile brain that never quite trusted technology. She did smile this time. "Does that mean you're ready to answer the question now, André?"

"I can't imagine an answer that isn't something you've already heard a thousand times, M~ Zhou. Should I tell you that it's because I applied to Rim's Exigency Corps for training as a coincidence engineer when I was twenty, and the god-botherers wouldn't take me? That I never wanted to be anything else? That I grew up on the idea of the corps as the people who were going to save the universe? It's all quite embarrassing when you try to put it into words."

"So you're a romantic?"

He crossed his arms and felt the sun on his shoulders. The biters came back around, but this time zoomed off in pursuit of someone wearing a blue-lavender sunblouse before they got within swatting range. "I have to be."

Eyes wide, she looked up at him. "Would you hand a child a loaded gun, André?"

"Depending on the child--"

"--exactly. Depending on the child. Maybe one in a thousand, you could trust to do more good than harm with such a thing. So prove to me that you're that one in a thousand."

He hadn't expected it to be easy. "A virtuous life by example isn't enough?"

She snorted. "I know what you do. You have your own ways of influencing the future, M~ Deschênes."

A retreat from the first name. Calculated, like everything else about her. "It's a living. And that concerns you? Because I do adhere to certain ethical standards."

The twist of her mouth told him everything he needed to know. There was no point in arguing situational ethics in a society in which skinning, data mining, and routine privacy invasions were a matter of course.

André dated an archinformist. Personally, he thought what he did was more ethical. He just killed people. Cricket took apart their lives, everything they might have backed up, relegated to hard memory, recorded on their headsets or in the data holds. Only wet memory was safe from her and her data-mining fellows, both those who worked for Rim and Core--the Rim and Core of the Earth-settled territories, not the rim and core of the galaxy, though to judge by popular entertainment broadcasts a lot of people didn't know the difference--and those who went freelance.

And without people like her, without the absolute knowledge of the stuff of people's lives, the kinds of manipulations conjures like Ziyi Zhou and licensed coincidence engineers performed would be impossible.

Never mind skinning your boss into an anteater, or secretly holocording the girl in the next cube so you could take her home and do whatever you wanted to her avatar... Compared to what M~ Zhou did in running people's lives for them, determining their fates, André's professional modus operandi of a quick, untelegraphed, painless death was as humane as it got.

For one thing, if his subjects ever so much as knew he was coming, he had erred badly. He didn't take cruelty jobs. And an encounter with him was the best most of his subjects could have hoped for.

If he came looking for somebody, they'd earned the visit.

It was a more honest trade than conjure, he thought bitterly. How dare Zhou hold that over him?

But there was no way to say that, not when he was asking her to teach him. Because he knew what the next question would be, then--a reiteration. So if you think it's wrong, why do you want to do it?

And he knew the answer, too. Not just passion, though the passion was there, and he would have sold himself to Core to get it and taken their damned destiny lock, let himself be chained to their service forever. But something else, the thing he was scared of losing. And yes, he was aware of the conflict implicit in that as well, though he wouldn't call it--quite--hypocrisy.

Maybe bargaining.

What André wanted was control. And self-defense, of course, but to pretend that was all of it would be self-deception. He gave her the second half.

"I want to be able to take care of myself," he said. "I'll run up on people who have the mojo working for them. Who've paid somebody like you or Jean Gris or one of the others"--one of the lessers, because every other conjure in Novo Haven, hell, every other conjure on Greene's World, was lesser than Ziyi Zhou or Jean Kroc, who they called Jean Gris--"or who've sold themselves to Rim for the protection. And I need a little mojo of my own."

Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Bear



- DrNefario


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