Chasing the Dragon (Quantum Gravity Series #4)by Justina Robson
Ever since the Quantum Bomb of 2015 things have been different; the dimensions have fused and suddenly our world is accessible to elves, demons, ghosts, and elementals—and their worlds are open to us. Things have been different for Special Agent Lila Black too: she’s been tortured and magic-scarred by elves; rebuilt by humans into a half-robot, part… See more details below
Ever since the Quantum Bomb of 2015 things have been different; the dimensions have fused and suddenly our world is accessible to elves, demons, ghosts, and elementals—and their worlds are open to us. Things have been different for Special Agent Lila Black too: she’s been tortured and magic-scarred by elves; rebuilt by humans into a half-robot, part-AI, nuclear-fueled walking arsenal; married to a demon; and is in love with a recently-deceased elf. It was confusing enough before she was catapulted fifty years into her own future.
Returning to the life of a secret agent, Lila finds herself left all of her former boss’s old offices and whatever mysteries they contain, as the elf has disappeared some fifty years previously. Appointed head of the new android division, she can see all too clearly what’s in store for her if the growth of the alien technologies in her cyborg body continue unchecked.
But there are more immediate concerns. Like resurrecting her lover, Zal. And her husband, the demon Teazle, is embroiled in a fatal plot in Demonia, and her magic sword is making itself happy as a pen whose writing has the power to affect other worlds. The world is off its rocker and most everyone is terrified of faeries.
And all the while, she hears the voices of the machine—material projections of an immaterial form, The Signal. The Signal talks constantly—if only she knew what it meant.
Chasing the Dragon is bright, fast-moving, and accessible SF that mixes in fantasy and a cool cult-lit sensibility to create a series that will appeal to all fans of Laurrell K. Hamilton and Peter Hamilton alike.
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CHASING THE DRAGON
By JUSTINA ROBSON
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Justina Robson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCold winds blew off the north shore and gave Lila a burning slap as they snatched foam from the rim of her coffee cup and flung it into her face. She let the scalding black stuff run down her skin without any reaction save a slight narrowing of her eyes.
The drink was cheap and it would have needed a faery cup to make it worthwhile, but just as the beans and the roast had been skimped on so had the cheap pulp cup. She swallowed what was left in three gulps and threw the cup into the trashcan next to her. It wasn't like they were queuing down the block to get the stuff.
The snack stand guy gave her a disturbed look as he pretended to ogle the latest copy of Succuperb! on his Treepod, but his attention was pulled away by another customer too hungry or broke to walk a block to a decent outlet. Lila took a final long look at the ocean and let the coffee soak into her skin. The taste taken this way was pure information, not involving tongue and nose or the beautiful crafting of a brain that created flavor out of molecular detection. As raw data she identified coffee. She knew it was bad, but at least her guts didn't feel offended. She briefly considered drinking all his coffee that way in the future but, then again, no. Pain was pain and the medicine had to go down the right way.
In her palm she ran her fingertip over her plastic cash card and read off the amount. It was so low. She would have reorganised a few zeroes with ease, but getting tagged for fraud didn't appeal to her sense of privacy. They could track the card position by satellite and pinpoint her in seconds. Then they'd find out she wasn't a registered citizen and send agents to collect her, or the rogues would read the signals and try to get to her first. Staying a step ahead of both of them was worth more than all the digits she could have fitted on the card.
She closed her fingers over it again and slipped it into her pocket, wondering for the millionth time what she was going to do about it. The lodgers in her old house just about paid for the bills and what food she had to have, but there was no extra. It mildly amused her that she would think of savings, of age, of the future when the present was so uncertain.
"Hey, aren't you cold, lady?" someone said behind her, not pleasantly, so she started walking back the way she'd come, down onto the hard sand and along the bay, aware that she made a distinctive and somewhat fey picture: a young woman with a pale tan and some freckles on her bare arms and legs, her dark and oddly patterned scrap of a dress blowing around her knees. The scarlet swatch in her unkempt lanky hair lifted on the breeze to show a scarlet shape like a paint splash on her neck and shoulder. It was far too bright to be natural. She was barefoot. It was February, and in Bay City that meant onshore gales and bursts of chilly rain or even sleet. Normal people, whoever they were, disdained chiffon and silk cocktail gowns and wore coats and boots at this time of year. Sensible people added a hat. The person calling to her was not wearing a hat.
He shouted after her, "Pookah scum!" in his breaking teenage voice, and his mates laughed in excited, ugly tones. She paid no attention. In such a public place they weren't likely to follow her far. But she felt the wicked spike of their attention snake out and touch her energy field, testing it for weaknesses. Time was she'd never have noticed that, and time was she'd never have given it credence if she had. Even if it had hurt her. Times had changed though.
Lila hardened herself against their hate and quickened the pace. Better to avoid any conflicts or scenes. She never lingered. They might find her interesting enough to take a picture of, send it across the 'Tree. Then anyone looking would know where she was.
In another world she would have had their heads for it.
The few people-fellow beach bums-who knew her figure from her daily walks were the only people she didn't mind looking at or being seen by. Most of them had the wits to notice her expression and left her alone whether or not they were curious about her. Many of them were the same as she was, outsiders for whom a nod and a glance is enough of a daily contact with others, and some of them were even demi-fey, she was sure. They were a little club of look-but-don't-touch people, nod-but-don't-speak people; allies as long as anonymity was maintained. But they were in the minority. Bay City was a social hub.
The city was a cosmopolitan, confident place these days, with few fey and fewer other foreign creatures. It had learned its lesson about romancing weird things the hard way, and nobody wanted to risk whatever wrath she or another nonhuman might be able to bring down on them. This made some people friendly, but it made more of them hostile. There were many faeries hidden in the world, many more than the openly fey. Demons and even elves had come in larger numbers in the last twenty years; in the elf case that meant nearly double figures. The children of their first human matches were adults now, and in spite of a repatriation epidemic Otopia was hardly the pure human place many wanted to believe. The teenagers who'd tried to insult her were examples of a deep schism; half the world was glad and half the world was furious at the changes. Lila had no time for any of them, but it wasn't possible to ignore the daily and awful evidence that the solid identity humans had felt for themselves had fallen apart and many of them weren't able to deal with the results in anything but negative ways. So they thought she was a faery. It wasn't entirely false. She was sure they'd have been much less glad with the truth and she felt grim satisfaction in that. She was worse. It was like an ace in the sleeve. It protected her from spite.
* * *
The man at the coffee stand watched her go, fingering the rabbit's foot he kept in his pocket. When she'd vanished into the drizzle beyond the boardwalk entertainments, he quickly recounted his money and checked the onions steaming in their steel tray. Faeries could turn things bad. He'd had a frog in the onion pan before now, and no knowing where it came from, but it had shown up not long after she'd been there for her one black coffee of the day, always at ten a.m. She'd made a face at the coffee. She often did that. But maybe that time it had been worse than usual. Supplies were short. He couldn't help what the wholesaler had, could he? He poked around the onions, but they were frogless.
"Get out of it," he said to the teenage idiot and his friends, watching them watch her go, their voices lewd and sniggering. "Go on."
"He's afraid of her," the insulting one said with contempt. "Maybe she'll turn the milk bad or something. Stupid old man." But the fuse on their malevolence wouldn't light. It was too wet and cold to start the revolution. They huddled together and sloped off to enjoy their alienation closer to the glittery lights of the pier.
Sometimes he wished the Hunter would come back for a day, to show these arrogant young bastards a thing or two. But then he remembered, and unwished it quickly, whistling and turning widdershins and throwing salt over both shoulders to undo his silliness. When he was finished he made another wish, the usual one, but he had no doubt that in spite of it she'd be back tomorrow.
* * *
Malachi also knew where to find Lila on a regular basis. He'd visited her every day for the last two months. Their conversations ranged from idle gossip to raging arguments, but he was the only one to do any talking. The most she ever contributed was a smile or a nod, a frown or a contemptuous wave of one hand to dismiss him or his point. Or both. Usually he managed to stick with her from the top end of the beach to where a fence cut off the public land from the expensive private homes two miles away. Even if they were just doing a silent vigil he made it that far, but then he had to go. His official lunch break lasted just an hour and the commute back and forth to the parking lot out here at the end of the sands meant he had twenty minutes to do whatever he had to do, tops.
Yesterday had been a breakthrough day, he reminded himself as he parked. He switched his beautifully soft suede pumps for running shoes and rolled up the cuffs of his heavyweight silk suit trousers, pinning them with hairgrips so there was no danger of them being ruined by sand or surf. He put the roll of his silk and wool socks into his top pocket and scrunched his toes where they were slumming it inside a pair of all-cotton footsies to protect them from the trainers. Then he got out of the car, wrestled briefly with his umbrella, locked the car, checked it, locked it again, looked around at the dull day and the sulky youths hanging around, and renewed the protective charms on the ancient Cadillac with a gentle caress to the hood that looked as if he might be checking for scratches.
The gesture made him scowl, even as he made it. It was pointless trying to conceal his feyness since he was far too well dressed and mannered to be human in this neighborhood. But he couldn't help trying. The coal blackness of him-an inhuman shade that sparkled-had been matted with the powders of glamour into African tones, and his orange eyes were hidden behind five-thousand-dollar shades. In the early days of his tenure here he'd never needed such things. He didn't understand how the humans could have gone backwards like they had. He was disappointed they seemed too weak to handle even the least of the Gifts and the least that the aetheric worlds had thrown at them.
Malachi was the last full-blood faery in public service in Otopia, and he was getting mighty sick of it. The only reason he hadn't left long ago was right now striding along in front of him in the worst rain of the season looking disturbingly like the previous owner of the dress she was wearing, as he recalled, another person he had known who had come to a bad end. Well, that might be premature. She'd never returned from her banishment in Under, so one couldn't say for sure. Only her clothes had ever shown up and he had to admit that it was possible, more than a little, that Tatterdemalion had never really been a girl at all. He'd started to think that the girl he'd known in the old days with her plain, forgettable face was maybe no more than a mannequin the clothes had stitched together out of aether and dream to give themselves transport and a voice. The dress had worn her, and when she was out of style or no more use, then it had put her away, that girl.
This theory had come to him a few weeks after he and Lila had made it out of Faery and found themselves fifty years too late by the Otopian clock, but although he always intended to tell her about it he never did.
He caught up with her without having to run. His strides could be as long as he liked without him seeming to hurry. He had to fight the umbrella against the gusty breezes, holding it out like a shield before him.
Lila acknowledged him with a slight raise of her eyebrows but her pace continued the same.
Malachi narrowed his eyes against the cold wind and winced automatically as he saw icy flakes hit the surface of her eyes and melt there. She didn't even blink. Since she'd worn the dress, the irises of her eyes had become a deep indigo colour, like the fabric's basic hue. Before that those eyes had been a robot's flat mirrors without iris or white, so that people always assumed she was wearing fancy contacts. She hadn't been. Most of her then wasn't human, but replacement parts. Now he didn't entirely know what she was. One thing he did know, she wasn't living at home, wasn't connected to any networks, and wasn't who she used to be three months ago. The longer her silence went on, the worse he hated it. Now he'd come with something she could really worry about, but he found his irritation emerging first.
"Are you going to keep up this silent act forever?"
"I'm listening," she replied.
He was taken aback. "My god, she speaks!"
Lila didn't say anything. The faintest hint of a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.
"Are you messing with me or are you going to talk?"
"You did all the talking," she said.
"I did all the ..." he cut himself off as something struck him. He didn't want to lose the moment. He even forgot the awful weather and the conviction it was ruining his coat. "What changed?"
"I've been listening," she repeated.
"I'm overjoyed that my repartee is so ..."
"... to the machines," she said, interrupting him and abruptly stopping so that he strode past her and had to come back, getting a face full of rain in the process.
He cocked his head. Her faint smile had become enigmatic.
"I thought if I just listened long enough that eventually it'd begin to make sense to me," she said. Water ran down her face and arms, soaked her dress. "They talk all the time. Little whispers. The ones that aren't here and the ones that are." The wind whipped her rat tail hair around her neck. "I kept thinking that I'd be able to figure out where they were by the signals, but even if I couldn't do that at least I'd know what they were saying. That's why I couldn't talk to you. I had to listen all the time, as closely as I could. I was determined to wait as long as it took for it all to fall into place." Finally she met his gaze with her own. She hadn't lied, she'd only omitted to say that she hadn't wanted to speak to anyone anyway, because she didn't know what to say. What could she say after what had happened? Zal was missing. She didn't even know if he was alive. She only spoke now because she knew it couldn't go on. Not speaking was not holding time still. It was not solving anything. But she felt she could talk about the least of the worst.
"They all talk, Mal. But it's not for us. I don't mean the rogues talking or the other agents the agency made. We talk to each other, or could. I mean the machines talk. More like sing. Or dance," she frowned. "Not good words for it. The machines talk all by themselves all the time. Here. There. Everywhere. I can't locate them because they're all here." She tapped the side of her head with a finger. "I can't separate them because there's no difference. I can't talk to them, none of us can. We aren't connected for it. I can just hear it, this shiver, this whisper, all the time. I think it's because I'm all machine now. It's like hearing a beehive, very quiet, full of meaning you don't understand because you are too big and too slow."
Malachi clutched the umbrella more tightly. Lila had been made by Otopian Secret Services into a cyborg, using technology obtained from unknown sources. She had been the first survivor of the process. The agents she spoke of were later additions, modelled on her own success. The rogues were those of their number who had left the service to live outside the law. Some were trying to return to a human life and forget their pasts, and the rest-they weren't human anymore. He didn't know what they were and they didn't know either. They called themselves rogues and considered themselves above and beyond human laws of any kind. They were a damned nuisance, with their gangland ways, but even though their continued existence was the Secret Services' fault, the management of their trouble fell to domestic lawkeepers, so until they started messing with otherworldly business they weren't his problem. Now here was Lila, telling him she could hear this stuff. He couldn't keep his own secret any longer.
"I got these," he held out a chip to her. It was standard issue data transfer. She pinched it between her fingers, and her eyes got a glassy look as she began to look at the pictures he'd given her, unfolding them into images that he'd seen and now tried not to remember. Unlike him, she didn't flinch at visions of apocalyptic slaughter.
She blinked as she closed the file. The chip seemed to have vanished, he had no idea where to. "He's been gone three months," she said, referring to the demon responsible for what she had just seen-Teazle.
"You know who that is in the picture?" It was the best way to say it. Who it was would have been more accurate. He hadn't been able to identify it himself. An AI had done that, after it had spent some time putting the pieces together.
"Madame Des Loupes," Lila said, and for the first time in months Malachi saw her composure falter. "Why would he kill her?"
Excerpted from CHASING THE DRAGON by JUSTINA ROBSON Copyright © 2009 by Justina Robson. Excerpted by permission.
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