Relldan Gant believed in magic. Not the pale, false magics of techniques, the system of power manipulation that conjured fire and wind in the modern age of AW 1254, but real magic, the magic of wizards from long-ago times. Rell was as sure of it as he was sure of anything.
Of course, that knowledge didn't come easily. Rell's parents worked for Global Envirotech, the planet Palm's largest biotech corporation. Each day, they worked to bring new understanding to the way life worked, then to move beyond it, to shape air and water, plants and animals, even people. There was no magic in the corporate enclave where they lived.
Rell had turned to other sources, to books and the holovid, to find his magic. He'd devoured the stories, then had gone on to the history, had debated it in datanet forums, what had really happened in the past. That was how he'd found Katzi. That was confirmation that magic was real.
He'd been involved in a recurring online debate at the time, an exchange of messages on the wisdom of studying magic in the current era. Rell had posted a short essay which essentially claimed that an entire field shouldn't be condemned by errors in judgment which were the responsibility of people. The Esper rebellion on Mota, which had led to Mother Brain being given complete control over that planet, had not been because of Esper magic but due to their own arrogance, their unwillingness to accept the new society which Mother Brain had brought for the benefit of Mota's people. Rell was certain, though, that the Espers' selfish clinging to their prestige didn't make magic itself the cause of the rebellion. In the aftermath, people had avoided it because of the link to the Espers, but that was only an overreaction to the bloodshed and destruction.
Katzi had read his posts and agreed with Rell's conclusions. She'd written to him directly, and they'd struck up a friendship. Rell had even gone so far as to form a crush on her. It would be wonderful, he thought, if they could meet one day, kindred spirits reaching out to one another. Like him, she was a G-Tech corporate kid, but living in an enclave in Camineet.
Then, one month ago, the doorbell had rung and there she'd been, standing on his doorstep! Her parents had been transferred to Bayamare and she'd wanted to surprise him. He'd certainly been surprised, and had taken it upon himself to show her around. He'd also been surprised when, at the end of the evening, she'd grabbed his face between her hands and planted a sizzling, no-holds-barred kiss squarely on his mouth.
Apparently, he hadn't been the only one with a crush.
They'd been going out together ever since, and Rell had spent the entire time bewildered that someone like her was interested in him. Katzi was two years older, to begin with, and there was a big difference between sixteen and fourteen. She was beautiful, too, the kind of girl that guys tried to put the moves on (Rell had to admit that it gave his ego a pleasant jolt when Katzi would spike some guy's plans flat when they were out together.). She was more outgoing, daring, and fun-loving then Rell had ever dreamed of being.
No, Rell didn't have to ask whether there was magic in the world. He knew.
That evening, Katzi had showed up for their date in a tight black mini, black stockings, ankle boots with two-inch spikes, a midriff-baring halter top slashed in red and gold, and a black leather jacket. Her hair was blonde and worn in silver-tipped spikes, a gold ring glittered in her navel, a crystal dagger hung from her right ear, and six rings in her left ear were linked by a delicate chain. A temp tattoo of a thorn-stemmed rosebud snaked its way up her belly. To Rell, she was like some exotic spirit who'd settled into his world for reasons he could only guess at--but wasn't going to question.
"Hey, Rell, you look cute! C'mon," she said, grabbing his hand between her lace-gloved palms, "we are going to party tonight!"
"What?" he stammered. "I thought we were just--"
"Not," Katzi told him as she pulled him down the walk from his family's home, "when I have these!" She flashed two four-inch plastic light-gel tubes, each with a pair of crescents drawn on the side so they were silhouetted against the blue-green light.
"What are those?"
"Passes to the hottest rave this city's going to see all month! ZX Fire, Airlight, Mekloth, all the big names are going to be playing there, and we're going to dance until our feet fall off!"
"I didn't think G-Tech would like something like that on their property."
Katzi got a case of the giggles.
"It's not in the enclave, silly! They're holding it in an old factory in Bayamare East. Major industrial mood, y'know; steel and magic all night long."
Relldan gulped. He glanced around himself at the clean streets, the neatly manicured lawns, the attractive duplexes and shady trees. For all he'd complained about Global Envirotech, he'd grown up in the safe and secure surroundings of the enclave, was educated in a corp-owned private school, shopped in corp-owned stores, and saw movies in corp-owned theaters. The greater Bayamare archopolis that surrounded the enclave was new ground, the unknown and unexplored
Katzi saw his thoughts written in his expression as easily as if he'd had a display screen on his forehead scrolling them by in words.
"C'mon," she urged. "Think of it as an adventure, Rell. You know, kidnapped by the faerie queen and lured off to another world for a night of revels."
The funny thing was, that was exactly how he thought of it. To Rell, Katzi was an exotic and mysterious creature, and Bayamare really was a strange land, tempting and dangerous.
Magic, he decided, was where one found it.
"Okay, I'll go."
"You will?" Her face shone with happiness. "Wonderful!"
"Do you have passes?" The enclave's security was two-way; children could only leave with their parents or with transit passes authorized by corporate officials. Rell's suggestion, though, just got Katzi to giggle again.
"Passes to go play at an underground rave? I don't think so."
"So what are we going to do?"
"Babe, we are going to get sneaky!"
Katzi pulled out her fuschia-striped IMVE palmcomp and took a look at a couple of files. Despite her wild, party-girl, anything-goes attitude, she was also a very organized person who planned ahead meticulously and logically to carry out her ideas. If she'd just been carefree and silly, Rell would never have fallen so hard.
"Okay. We've got to get over to the MultiMart on Market Cove in the next ten minutes to catch our ride."
They didn't quite run, but it was a very fast walk that took them over three and a half blocks. Instead of approaching the convenience store (which although not a G-Tech company the local franchise was undoubtedly owned by a Global subsidiary), Katzi took Rell around back. They peeked around the corner.
"See that truck?" she said. "That's our way out."
It was a supply truck, there to make sure the shop had enough Mega-Hot Links and ChocoFizz to keep the masses in junk food. At the store's supply entrance, the assistant manager was signing a digipad to acknowledge the shipment. Neither she nor the driver was watching the truck.
"Let's go!" Katzi whispered.
They darted out from the corner to the back of the truck. A quick tug slid the rear door up about a foot, and they scrambled through the gap, not wanting to open it any further for fear of making too much noise. They were inside quickly, and Katzi shut the door again. There were a few tense moments--would the driver check the back, or worse yet, lock it? None of these things happened, though, and soon Rell heard the rumble of the engine and felt the jolt of motion.
"This truck will take us through the gates and out to Bayamare East," Katzi said, checking her palmcomp. "The supply warehouse is right on the fringe of the neighborhood where we're going; it'll be a short walk."
"How did you find out about this party?" Rell wondered.
"Word of mouth. You know, one guy tells someone, another guy tells someone else, and it gets around. As soon as I heard about it I knew that I had to go, and that I had to take my guy with me."
"So you've been planning this for a while as a surprise?"
She shook her head, then winced as the truck hit a pothole.
"Ouch! That's one nice thing about the enclave; at least G-Tech fixes the roads. Nah, I only heard about the rave yesterday, so I had to move pretty fast. I'd have given you a heads-up if I could, so you'd know what to wear and stuff."
Rell plucked at the front of his T-shirt. It was his fave, a black one with flames in shades of luminous blues and oranges. It always gave him a good feeling to wear it; the mystic fire reminded him of how he felt about Katzi.
"Should I have changed?"
"Nah, you'll be fine. That shirt's pretty cool anyway. Shoes could use some work, but nobody worth knowing cares what you've got on your feet so long as you can do something with them. Chill clothes are nice, but anybody who worries about them's got major head rot."
Rell was glad to hear her say that. He had to admit, more than once he'd felt completely intimidated by her style and flair, style that he didn't have. It was good to know that there were other things she wanted in a guy, things that went deeper. Katzi had told him that before, several times, but hearing it was definitely a good thing for his insecurities.
The truck made a couple of short stops on the way for traffic-control beacons and similar things. Each one made Rell's heart jump into his throat with the thought, This is it! Finally, though, the truck actually was stopped and the motor shut off.
Katzi stood up and brushed off her skirt.
"Okay, Rell, let's get ready."
The back door slid up, and Katzi was off like a shot. Rell followed her instinctively, jumping out of the truck past the stunned driver in his brown-and-green uniform.
"Thanks for the lift!" Katzi called merrily, and then the two of them were sprinting around a corner, then another in a zigzag pattern. Rell glanced back; no one was giving chase.
"It's okay," he said. "We got away!"
Katzi slowed to a stop immediately.
"Good," she breathed. "These boots do nice things for my butt but they're a witch to run in." After a second, she looked around and said, "Relldan Gant, welcome to Bayamare."
For the first time he took a good look at his surroundings. The summer sun was setting, and the city lights starting to peek through the gathering dusk. This area was an industrial district, full of factories, warehouses, and manufacturing plants. Some were lined up row by row, while others had fenced and gated perimeters. Back the way they'd came, many of the buildings showed lights, vented plumes of steam, or spat clouds of smoke upwards from towering stacks, but nearby things were different; the buildings were still and quiet.
Katzi checked her palmcomp again, accessing a city map.
"Okay, it's just four blocks from here. Let's get this party started."
A low-voiced, throaty chuckle answered Katzi's command, and Rell nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Well, now, you took the words right out of my mouth."
They seemed to melt out of the shadows, from alleyways and dark patches, until a half-dozen of them surrounded Rell and Katzi in a loose circle. Four were male, two female, ages spread between twelve and twenty. Their clothing varied, but each was marked by a red bandanna around his or her throat and a tattoo on the right cheek that looked like a heart split by and iron spike. They carried weapons--a length of chain here, a steel combat knife there, a length of metal pipe. The butt of a pistol protruded from one's waistband, presumably what they called a "one-hit wonder" on the holovids, a cheap sonic gun that slagged itself out after a few shots. One, a girl of about nineteen who was bigger and taller than most of the guys, had a full-length sword, three and a half feet of blade looking lethal and deadly. There was only one thing they could be.
Rell could see it, now. This area of the industrial district had been abandoned for whatever reason by the corporations. That left plenty of empty space for people to move in, from squatters looking for shelter to crooks looking to deal. With them...came the gangs.
A hot spark seemed to ignite itself inside Rell's gut. Fear and adrenaline coursed through him.
He grabbed her hand as he bolted for the biggest gap in the circle, one leading to the mouth of an alley. Who knew where it led, but maybe it was someplace where there would be DLE agents, or at least some other gang's "turf" that the ones after them didn't want to enter.
He was wrong on both counts. It ended at a fence, nine feet tall and topped with wire. Someone, though, had cut a hole in the links so that there was a gap, and the two kids squeezed through into an abandoned plant site. Their feet hammered over hard ground, bare except for stubborn clumps of weed.
Rell's lungs burned with the exertion as he sprinted towards the plant, which loomed up like a great block of stone, an ancient castle capped by the twin spires of its smokestacks. He'd never been very good at sports, and Katzi was hampered by her boots, so they couldn't run forever. Maybe, he thought, if they reached the building they could find a place to hide, or maybe a weapon. Something!
There was a door on this side of the plant, and they headed for it, feet pounding hard on the turf. Rell reached it, grabbed for the knob.
It didn't turn.
Panting for breath, he tried turning it the other way, but that didn't work either. Whomever had abandoned the factory had locked it up on their way out.
"Nice try, kids, but it won't get you anywhere."
Rell turned. The gangers were there, and this time, there were no gaps in the circle. The spark burned hot and bright inside him, fueled by terror.
"Let me guess. A couple of corp babies out for a night on the town?" It was the leader who spoke, a big guy with electric-blue hair. "Figured you'd get some excitement by coming out into the real world?"
"Should have stayed safe in your holes," chimed in one of the females. She caressed the flat of her knife almost lovingly. "This is our turf. Come here uninvited, you've gotta pay."
Rell reached for his wallet. Maybe they'd settle for taking their money. When he brought it out, though, the gangers burst into laughter.
"Now that's a corpboy for you!" one cackled.
The leader slapped his pipe into the leather-gloved palm of his left hand.
"Kid, when we say pay, we don't mean meseta. We're talking street cred here--blood."
The spark blazed up hotly. Rell's skin was tingling with the heat. Fear was a knot in his stomach.
"The thrill's pretty hot, though," said another ganger. "Whattya say, girlie? Wanna make it worth our while to let you live?"
Anger leapt up, bright red hate born from the fear, and the spark caught flame, becoming an inferno.
"Keep your filthy hands off her!" Rell screamed, and thrust his hand towards the leering ganger. Like he was an Esper on the holovid, fire burst forth from his palm. It wasn't a technique; you had to study techs--they were a rigorous system, almost scientific.
Magic! he realized exultantly as the fireball crashed into the ganger's chest, the blast knocking him over. I...can do magic! He saw the shock and fear on the other gang members' faces. A corporate kid who could throw fire wasn't such easy prey!
The cold touch of the pressure injector against the side of Rell's neck went almost unnoticed, but the effect of the drugs it contained did not. The spark died out, then his limbs went numb, and finally he collapsed to the dirt. Blackness caused his vision to narrow, like he was looking through a tunnel, and then swallowed him entirely.
Katerina slipped the empty injector back into her jacket pocket.
"Good work," she told the gangers. "That was exactly what we were hoping for."
The leader's eyes narrowed.
"You're paying us to throw a scare into a guy. You didn't say anything about him tossing fire around."
Kat's hand went into her pocket again and came up with another injector.
"Here," she said. "Consider it a bonus." She flipped it to the ganger.
"Monomate. Healing med; it should patch up your friend there. Use it on him or don't; it's up to you and I don't really care. Now, get the hell out of here."
The ganger snarled.
"Cold witch. Maybe we really ought to warm you up."
"I wouldn't advise it."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Because my ride's here."
The roar of an aerocopter's rotors grew out of the city's background noise as it descended towards the factory yard. A spotlight beam stabbed out, illuminating the scene in frosty blue-white light.
The gang members took the hint. By the time the copter touched down and the first armored troopers disembarked, they'd pulled a fast fade.
"Hurry up and get him aboard," Kat ordered. "We don't want to keep the doctor waiting."
PROJECT FILE: "Neo-Esper"/SUBJECT: A07/ENTRY#0096/7.14.54
The first initial success of the project has been achieved. As previously noted, subjects were identified from the medical databanks of corporate employees and families by Manxham genetic screening. Those individuals identified as possessing a genetic profile suspected to be associated with the use of energies identified as "magic" were noted. Such individuals were then exposed to a variety of psychosocial conditioning through corporate-controlled media and environments to guide their personalities towards a strong association with magic.
When it was judged that the programming could proceed no further, subjects were placed in an artificially induced stress situation in order to stimulate subconscious initiation of magic use. Subject A07, placed in apparent life-threatening danger without a means of escape, reacted by the use of manifested fire. Witness report by the control agent verifies that this was not accomplished by any known technique. Subject A07 was subsequently taken into custody and transferred to corporate research facility Nuala-II.
Initial analysis suggests that the force tapped by Subject A07, while not a true magical "spell" did in fact emanate from outside the individual, which is the hallmark of actual magic use. It is possible that Subject A07 is manifesting a form of proto-magic, power of the same basic nature but lacking in the Esper rituals and training developed to render the power use more efficient. Comparison with Subjects A03 and A12 is recommended.
[cc to Division Sub-Chief Escobar]Anticipated time until generation of viable Neo-Esper prototype is estimated at thirty months.[end cc]
ENTRY LOGGED BY DOCTOR MARLENA LE CILLE