In a dystopian world ravaged by war and environmental collapse, one man fights history to discover the truth about his wife and child.
After decades of war, the brutal Tathadann Party restored order toshattered Eitan City by outlawing the past and rewriting history. Memory is a commodity – bought and sold, and experienced like a drug. Henraek works as a Tathadann memory thief, draining citizens’ memories.
Everything changes when Henraek harvests a memory of his own wife’s death, in the hidden rebellion that once tore apart their city. Now he will do whatever it takes to learn the truth – even ifit means burning Eitan City to the ground.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Memory Thieves | Collaborators | Brothers In War | City on Fire ]
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Author hometown: Baltimore MD, USA
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The Rebellion's Last Traitor
By Nik Korpon
Angry RobotCopyright © 2017 Nik Korpon
All rights reserved.
Dust motes float in the manufactured light that sluices through my target's hallway. Muted explosions from outside this tenement, bombs maybe. Most residents walk down the middle of the floor and, over time, work some of the nails loose, so I creep along the edge to remain undetected. When I get to the door with 12B scribbled across it, I press my ear to the door and make sure it's quiet.
Inside the target's apartment, I take small, soft steps. A fan with stretched-leather blades pushes hot air around the room. The old man's clothing is scattered, most of it cut near to rags and stained with soot. Turned on end in the middle of the room is a spool that once housed the industrial wire used to power the water-drilling rigs that sprang up in the hills around Eitan City after the Resource Wars. A plate and a few pieces of silverware sit on top of the spool. The wilting dandelion perched in a can – the same thing my wife used to do – is so sad I can feel my heartbeat slow. He snores on a mattress in the far corner, the thin sheet covering him pocked with holes.
The two slivers of coal clack together in my pocket, and I'm sure this will be an easy job.
Tacked to the wall beside him is a newspaper clipping with a poorly focused photo. A quick glance is enough for me to recognize the article. It details the bombing of a Tathadann party community center during a failed rebel raid. The photo that accompanies the article is a picture of me, carrying a wounded rebel fighter away from the building. I read the article a hundred times the day it came out. I've seen it a thousand times more in my sleep.
The man snorts himself half-awake, mutters, rolls over and resumes snoring. His elbow nudges a green-and-white striped coffee mug. I inhale and blink a few times.
Hung beneath the newspaper clipping are a faded funeral card and a photograph of a log cabin, two men and a younger boy standing on either side of the cabin's doorway. They all smile the way fathers and sons do. Illegible writing crawls along the border, likely recording who's in the picture, when and where.
I look from the photograph to the funeral card and a phantom blade lodges in my gut when I realize that the boy on the card was one of my soldiers.
Riab was his name and he caught a gae bulg, one of our barbed spears, in the face during the failed raid I led. His blood splashed on my lips. The old man asleep beside me – his grandfather – is a shriveled, sadder version of Riab.
I pull the slip of paper from my pocket and scan the list of addresses until I find this one, check it, check it again.
This is deliberate, Walleus's sick idea of a prank, because this family has obviously suffered so much already without subjecting them to more. I wonder if he snickered as he read through the list before giving it to me, whispering under his breath, oh, man, Henraek is going to be pissed. Or maybe he cringed, sucking air hard through his teeth. For all I know, he didn't even look at it. In all the years I've known Walleus, the only thing I can get a steady bead on is the space his loyalty had just occupied.
But really, his reaction yesterday afternoon when receiving the list from Lady Morrigan doesn't matter, because I have no say in whose memories I harvest and my failure to do so will mean it's my back against the firing squad wall – again – not his. So I take a long breath, then resign myself to the job.
Kneeling, I lay out my kit on the disused produce crate that serves as a night table beside the bed. Two cloth squares and one pipette of iodine. A needle, two empty vials, a round bandage. And the two slivers of coal.
His hair is thin; the temple is easy to find. A drop of iodine hangs on the tip of the needle before I slide it in. I stretch his skin with my index and middle fingers, and with a little probing I navigate past the firmer portions of the temporal lobe until I find the soft section of his hippocampus and begin to bleed his memory cortex.
His eyelids flutter like a flurry of ashen moths are trying to beat their way out. Fingers claw and twitch. Slowly, the vial attached to the end of the needle fills with milky liquid. I shift him onto his side to help it flow faster so I can sooner leave him be.
As memory drains from his skull, I stare outside the single window in his apartment, Eitan City throbbing faint crimson. A red sky at night is a sailor's delight – but if the red is the flames of the Amergin neighborhood, a twisted collection of shanty buildings set ablaze ten years ago that continues to burn, and we haven't seen direct sun in thirty – then what do sailors know? This heat is tactile; instead of rain, we get condensation, languid smog that chokes the air. Each day we're convinced it's the day that smog will break, the day real light will cut through and actual water will fall from the sky. Each night, we go to bed thinking tomorrow, tomorrow will be the day.
I thought that way for years. It was one of the things that attracted my wife Aífe. She'd said that, even after all the fallout of the decades-long Resource Wars and the Tathadann-sanctioned death squads of the Struggle, I still hoped for sunlight, even though I hadn't seen it since I was a child. It was the perfect complement to her feisty cynicism, another way that our contrasts brought us closer, made the passion burn brighter and hotter than an exploding star. But now, I can't remember the last time I closed my eyes wishing for the sun. Oh, that's right, I can. And ever since I've been closing them wishing for nothing.
The old man's twitching becomes violent and it takes both of my knees to hold him still. I press my thumb against his carotid artery until he falls limp. I switch out vials, setting the one meant for Walleus on the floor beneath the bed and inserting another I'll sell on my own.
The vial fills – picnics and birthdays, the way young Riab liked his sandwiches cut seeping from his temple. Drip by drip.
Something reminiscent of bells rings out in the street, but it might only be shots from home-modified weapons. In the distance is the old county airport, which was converted into a food-augmentation factory after the Resource Wars and the ensuing chaos cured everyone's yearning for travel. The fighting started in the west, between competing resource companies – sort of like the old oil companies, but they'd harvested any profitable commodity, and they each had their own army for protection. They scrapped and clawed for any bit of land they could develop and exploit. Then conflicts gradually spread east with no heed for oceans or language, eventually crossing the channel and razing the fields of Westhell County. My father told me that the mountains gave him and the other fighters inside their watchtowers a better sightline, and with their rifles they were able to keep the hordes away from Eitan City, the largest city in Westhell. But by then it didn't matter, because the massive amount of chemical weapons the companies used to fight one another and harvest resources had already tainted the atmosphere and stopped the rain. Each new company that swept through promised the sun would melt the snow in the mountains and that would help us collect the water for our crops, but the people had already believed in too many lies and refused to accept any more. It was tragic, he'd said, that the people then believed the lies of the Morrigan brothers as they were building the Tathadann party, which capitalized on our fears and seething distrust of outsiders.
In the central park, I can see the dull glimmer of Regent Pond, a fetid repository for the run-off from Macha and the other center-city neighborhoods. Next to it is the pagoda where Walleus and I stood years ago, where my wife would proudly watch as we whipped the straggling few listeners into a fervor back during the early congregations that turned into our Struggle against the Tathadann. Even now, the irony in their name – which means something akin to unity in our slang – makes me smile like my teeth are made of glass.
A voice startles me.
"Who the hell are you?"
I spin around, almost pulling the needle from the old man's skull. A silhouette stands in the doorway, clutching a sack in his arm.
"Get away from him." He has the kind of voice that accompanies a face painted with scars. There's no wavering in it but the timbre is higher than his bulk would suggest. He takes a step forward. "Get that out of him. Now."
"Calm down." I realize how obnoxious that sounds. I know a man will kill for family without a second blink. Hand behind my back, I keep the vial level and the memories draining. It feels almost full. "There are no problems here."
The bag falls to the floor, spilling a survivalist cornucopia: two misshapen oranges, a chunk of bread, half a bottle filled with muddy brown liquor and a sprinkling of jagged metal shards. He takes two quick steps forward, a thick scar where his left cheek used to be, and I see the genes in this family are strong: this man is no one if he is not Riab's father, the other man in the cabin photo. I nudge the old man's head back so the needle won't snap, let my jaw go slack as the father's fist kisses my mouth. The man might have a glove full of iron rivets. It has been years since I felt something like that.
I stagger along the wall to keep the scuffle away from the bed. I rub the white dots from my eyes, and look up as he pulls something from his waistband. A flare gun, likely retrofitted.
The trigger clicks and I flinch.
He smacks the handle and I duck. Then he fires and a hundred tiny metal teeth chew the wall behind me. When he charges, I step to the side, sweep his leg and use his own mass to send his shoulder through the wall. The gun skitters across the floor.
Before I can inhale, I find myself with a knee on his throat, ready to crush his windpipe.
His face is the picture of repentance. Eyes beg for mercy.
Nostalgia sloshes around me: a man's life, violence in the air. My face must project indecision bordering on abject horror because the father swings at me, scraping some hidden weapon across my eyes.
I roll away but he's on me before I can sit up, his hands wrapped around my neck. His finger placement is wrong, though, and I'm able to swallow, to catch my breath, to say, "Be calm," before clapping my palms against his ears. He rears back and I pounce on him, cinching the crook of my elbow beneath his chin.
With one twitch, I could sever his spinal column. With one hard squeeze, I could pop his eyeballs from their sockets. With one well-executed yank using the right pressure point, I could remove his skull. But I swore to never take a life again. I took too many during the Struggle, ruined too many others.
Five seconds and he's swimming in his unconscious mind. He's not on Walleus's list, so I fold a sheet under his head then lower him to the floor beside his father's bed, his spine intact and my hands clean. I remove the needle from the old man's skull, swab the area with iodine and bandage it, then slip Walleus's vial into the protective padded case and put mine in the belt beneath my shirt and leather jacket, and gather my kit.
After removing every trace of my being here, I pull the slivers of coal from my pocket and stand between the two men, debating which one to anoint. The old man did nothing to deserve this but I understand the weight the father carries, how the soul of a son can be marred by his father's sins. I lay the coal on the old man's eyes, whisper be well into his ear then slink away. The two lie as quiet as an abandoned catacomb, full of cobwebs and dead skin.
Out on the street, a barker calls for patrons in the gilded doorway of a bar. Gold paint flakes away as if the building has eczema, revealing part of a pictograph etched into the wall, a symbol from one of the animistic religions in Amergin. I keep my hands near my stomach, shielding the vials from pickpockets and lumbering, drunken Brigus, the nomadic people who claimed the neighborhood as their own. In all reality, they could have had it, because no one else wanted it.
Repurposed air conditioning units sit in most of the windows, sucking moisture from the oppressive air to give these people something to drink. In Findchoem, my neighborhood, we can usually count on running water most of the week, even if it's varying shades of rust. But over here the Tathadann isn't concerned with placating the inhabitants, so water of any color isn't a given.
Children climb piles of discarded furniture and hunks of collapsed buildings in the alley, dirt and ash streaked across their faces. One stands at the top, holding a broken table leg in place of a scepter, shouting that she is Queen of the Struggle as the others scramble toward her, wielding makeshift versions of gae bulgs, hoping to steal her spot. My stomach clenches at her declaration. In the streetlamp's pulsing, their faces oscillate between playmates and ghouls.
Amid the wreckage of the Resource Wars, two brothers called Macuil and Daghda Morrigan came to the city from their mountain home several counties away. They mobilized bands of fighters, diverted the water from our crops to the city center, learned how to create food from chemicals, and drilled deep into the mossy boulders that covered the mountain, searching for wells, all with the vision of creating a city where, carefully allocated, the remaining resources could serve their optimal population. Which meant if you weren't optimal – like the Brigus, the Amergin, the other people who'd sought refuge in Eitan after being driven from the rural homes by resource companies – you were funneled into neighborhoods like this, stacked atop one another like cords of wood, waiting to be burned for fuel. Eventually things began to burn, but it wasn't the people.
Someone grabs my shoulder.
My fist curls as I turn, then relaxes when I see it's only Fergus. Once a fierce fighter, he's now gaunt-cheeked and sunken-eyed. He looks at me but his gaze is focused somewhere beyond, trying to remember what he was about to do. When you become accustomed to having memory fed to you, your brain has trouble creating its own. He's definitely not the worst lagon I've seen, nor the most tragic.
"Been looking for you," he says.
"You said that already."
He cocks his head, searching the air for his words, and I feel a little bad for messing with him.
"It's fine, Fergus. What do you need?" I keep my hands over my belt, guarding the vials. Regardless of whether or not they're a good source of supplemental income, a lagon is still a lagon and he will rob me as quick as buy a vial.
He scans the sidewalk, wary, as if those kids would care what he's doing. As if half of Eitan City isn't doing it too.
"You got something?" he says.
He shrugs, says, "Not picky. Someone old, but nothing creepy. No babies or bombs or nothing."
Fergus is one of the sensible ones, whatever counts for sensible these days.
He holds a clutch of folded bills.
"Sure." I turn away from him, using my back to block his line of sight, and pull out the vials on top. I hold them out, then snatch them away when I realize they're from Riab's grandfather. "Actually, this might be too much for you."
I don't know why Riab's family landed on my list, but I don't want to give away their pasts before I have the chance to find out.
After I take his money, I hand him two vials procured earlier in the day from a woman in Fomora, a neighborhood in the north of the city where the older – and forgotten – population tends to migrate.
He hurries away in the slow but frenetic way lagons do, probably to one of the abandoned basements converted into a lagonael den where he can view memory.
The Tathadann's goal had been to unify the people. But as their grip on the city tightened, anger burned inside every citizen who felt like a commodity, until the people finally did unify, and unified against the Tathadann. I was a teenager when my father was killed for speaking out against the party. It was filed as an accidental death, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but even at that age I knew better. A few years later, Walleus and I took up his mantle and started preaching against them. Our speeches attracted attention, then followers, then devotees. Then, when all of those who were dispossessed gathered as one, we became a movement. A rebellion. A mass of people with one goal: take down the Tathadann and reclaim the city as ours.
And we tried. And we fought. For ten years.
Walleus had seen the writing on the wall, that the Struggle was doomed, and defected to the Tathadann. I was captured while holed up at what I thought was a safe bar not long after the Struggle finally collapsed – everything we had built after the Wars falling beneath their feet, the smoke from scores of fires obscuring the sun that was supposed to save us, leaving the city in perpetual twilight. But Walleus bargained with his new leaders to secure my future as a memory thief for the Tathadann, instead of a target for the firing squad. He told me it was a coveted position, one that would afford me some security, and I could thank him later.
Excerpted from The Rebellion's Last Traitor by Nik Korpon. Copyright © 2017 Nik Korpon. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot.
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