Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.
Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.
Wenthi's skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália's presence as she haunts his mind.
Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion.
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"The steel cruisers are out tonight, my friends. Boys and girls get something thrumming between your legs, and find communion with your spirits. Faster, faster, let the speed fill you, and chase down the night. Rattle some cages!"
The cool alto voice crackled through the tinny speakers of the transistor radio dangling over the kitchen stove. The message was just a brief interruption of the usual bullshit, and then with a burst of static, the prop broadcast kicked back in.
"—doing YOUR part for the war efforts, paying back the debt we owe-"
Nália Enapi tuned that out. Same old bullshit she heard every day, every sweep, without fail. The important thing was the interrupting signal.
"Was that for you?" Queña Povo asked. He and the cousins, about to sit down to their rationed portions of rice and beans, all looked to Nália. He lowered his voice. "Was that her?"
"Yeah," Nália said, pushing her bowl to one of the cousins and getting up from the table. "Got to ride."
"Don't bring that back here," Povo said. "We can't risk it."
"I know," she said, grabbing her denim coat. "This is just on me." She went out the door.
Of course Povo couldn't risk it. He—not actually her uncle, nor were his kids her cousins, but they were family enough—was baniz caste. Trying to pass as jifoz caste like Nália. Living illegally in Outtown with forged identity cards. Castejumper. An offense that would get him a life sentence in the Alliance work camps. Nália wasn't going to bring trouble on him or his kids.
And the trouble was out there. She had barely gone down the steps from the fasai—the room above the machine shop she shared with Povo and the cousins-and walked across the street to the phonebox when a pair of Civil Patrol came right up to her.
"You got cards, jifo?" one asked. Like most tories, he was rhique caste. Bootlickers working for the Alliance nucks, privileged due to having only a little native blood in their veins.
She produced her identification. Her cards were legitimate, but that didn't stop these tories from squinting at them and holding them up to the sodium streetlight. "Where you off to at this sweep?"
"I got a call to make," she said, pointing to the phonebox.
"Calling for myco?"
"Just calling a couple lovers for tonight," she said. "Can I go?"
They scowled but handed her the cards back, waving her off. She hurried over to it, waiting for them to be out of earshot before dialing in her exchange. They had already found another jifoz to harass. As the call rang through, her eyes focused on the prop poster plastered on the wall next to the phonebox. Couldn't round a circle in this part of town without seeing one of them. This one had three folks in coveralls building a warplane, with PAYING IT BACK painted along the bottom. Someone had scrawled "nix xisisa" across it. She knew only a few words of old Zapi, but she knew that. We have paid too much.
"Well?" the woman said when the call connected. Nália recognized the voice—Nic, the woman who had recruited her. Her only contact with the cell so far.
"The message came," Nália said. "This is Nália."
Nic sighed. "Did you already park your cycle?"
"In the alley as usual," she said. The alley led behind the machine shop, and that was where she always kept her baby, so she could see it through the dirty window next to her cot.
"There's the taco cart at the mouth of the alley. Get yourself a nice dinner, and your date tonight will meet you."
Her date. As in her partner for the job she was about to do.
Nic had already disconnected.
Nália glanced about to check again for tories-they were gone for now-and made her way to the cart, sweet smells of pork and corn roasting wafting into her nose. Her stomach growled in anticipation of the rare treat of Ziaparr street tacos. Normally she wouldn't dare the extravagance of even an ear of grilled corn. Not with the small amount of extra coin she earned on top of her ration chits.
If the job went well, she was promised coin to spare and a place in the cell. That money could help Povo and the cousins a lot. If it didn't go well, she'd likely be tethered by the tories, so she might as well have one last decent meal.
"Two sweet pork," she told the cart chef. "And an ear."
"You want the raina on that ear?" he asked. He took a good look at her, and nodded. "Yeah, you want the raina."
He was right, she wanted the spice. He could plainly see she was jifoz, like him. Not that any overcaste rhique or, spirits forgive, conceited llipe folk would be buying street tacos in the Miahez neighborhood, unless they were the posers trying to act authentic. But even they wouldn't come dressed like she was, cycle cat style, in hard raw denim, stained with grease and oil from engine work.
"That's nine and two," the cart chef said as he handed her the corn.
"I got it." A slick young man with smoky dark eyes came up and handed coins to the chef. "And a pair of tang chicken for me."
"I don't need some—" Nália started.
"You're Nália, right?" he asked. "Enzu."
Her partner for the job. "Where's your cycle?" She greedily bit into the corn, slathered with spices and salt and lime, pure joy on her tongue.
"Down the alley, like I was told," he said. "Yours the cold blue 960?"
"Yeah," she said.
"Style, girl," he said with a disarming smile.
The radio dangling over the food cart, this one playing some old Intown brass, crackled out again, and the cool woman's voice came back in. "Spirits and skulls on the dark ride, friends. The time is ripe." Static again, and the music went back on like nothing had happened.
"That's the signal," Enzu whispered, nudging her on the arm.
"What is?" Nália asked as the cart chef wrapped up sweet spiced pork and onions into tortillas, slathering them with roasted tomatillo sauce.
"On the radio," he hissed. "That's Varazina. She's calling to us."
Nália grabbed her tacos from the vendor and ran down the alley slope to the bottom of the step, where her Puegoiz 960 was leaning against the cracked concrete wall. The blue and chrome beauty could clock nearly one-fifty kilos per sweep, and that was with cornering the curves of the aqueducts. She figured on a straight run, she could hit three hundred. Nália had worked with the cousins to crank its engine power so it ran like a 1296. When Nália was sitting on her 'goiz, she was lightning on two wheels, she was fire and steel powering through Ziaparr streets.
Of course, she rarely built up much momentum before reaching a patrol checkpoint.
Pausing before getting on her cycle, she took a bite of her taco. Savory pork and spicy tomatillo created an explosion of alchemy on her tongue.
"Hold up," Enzu said, catching up to her. "I like the hustle, zyiza, but there's a reason for the tacos."
"Because they're delicious?" Nália asked through a mouthful.
"Yeah," he said with a far too pretty smile. Back in the sodium light of the alley, Enzu looked like he might be a perfect example of jifoz beauty: dark eyes—that lit up with every one of his smiles—which complemented the tawny bronze of his skin. His black hair was slicked back, like how most of the jifozi cycleboys would do it, and his dark denim slacks and jacket hugged his thin frame. Nália was wearing the same thing, of course, but the curves of her hips strained the copper rivets holding the pants together. The cousin who had passed them on to her had been a skinny rail. "But that's not all of it."
He opened up a small leather pouch and sprinkled a bit of powder on her taco.
"We need to run on the myco?"
He nodded. "You've ridden on it before?"
"Yeah," she said, hesitant to take a bite. Everyone she knew had tried the magic of the myco with some willing flesh. She wasn't opposed to doing that with Enzu before the night was over, but his expression told her that wasn't what he was thinking. "Oh, you mean on the cycle. No."
"Be ready," he said, sprinkling some on his own taco, and then biting into it. "When you get up to speed, that's when it really kicks in."
She finished the taco, disappointed that it now had a slightly bitter aftertaste. Getting on her cycle, she asked, "Where's the run?"
"Just keep up," he said, getting on his own Ungeke K'am. A Sehosian cycle, which seemed like treason to Nália. It was all compact and polished casing, no style or character. It was elegant, but it wasn't beauty like hers. His looked like it had just rolled out of the factory, no personality. No love. That said, it had more power and speed than a regular 'goiz 960 ever would.
But Nália wasn't riding a regular 960, and she sure as shit wasn't a regular rider. She kicked the engine on, a glorious roar of petrol and steel that echoed through the alley. Putting on her helmet, she said, "You're going to regret that one."
"I better," he said, kicking his cycle up. His purred like an angry cat, ready to pounce. Not bothering with a helmet, he was down the alley like a bullet.
Nália was not about to let herself get outridden by any fool on an Ungeke, and she cranked the throttle to rush after him. Out of the alley, she chased him around two curves, dodging cable cars and trucks round the circles through the Miahez neighborhood. She hit cruising gear as she caught his tail. He roared up Avenue Nodlion, weaving in between the idling autos that lined up for half a kilometer for their petrol ration from the fuel station at the circle. She was going to burn through a quint of her month's supply on this raid tonight, so she needed it to keep her riding tight.
She needed this to pay off. For herself, for Povo and the cousins.
And, in some small way, for all their freedom.
Enzu signaled he was dropping right, which made no sense, since there was no turning circle coming up. Then he swerved off the road, through a bombed-out empty lot, and fell out of sight. She had no idea what crazy shit he was up to, but she was committed now. She followed right after, loose gravel in the lot flying behind her as she cranked her cycle into racing gear. If he can do ninety-six kilos across this lot, she'd do one-oh-eight.
The heat from the engine crept into her thighs as she crested over the bank at the edge of the lot, and the ground dropped out beneath her. She fought the urge to brake and pull back, and she saw Enzu hurtling down the dry aqueduct gully that divided Fomidez from Miahez. Under the bridges, under the checkpoints. And he was really racing, nearly one-twenty. She wasn't going to be shown up. Not here, not tonight.
She landed hard, wind racing as the cycle threatened to skid out underneath her. She leaned left, pulling herself up and revving the throttle hard. One-eight kilos, gear shift. One-twenty. One-thirty-two. Passing gear. Closing the distance to Enzu.
Then he was there. On her bike with her, his arms wrapped around her waist.
And she was on his, holding on to him.
"What?" she shouted, almost losing her cycle as they went into the dark of the water tunnel.
"Keep with it," he whispered in her ear. "Keep your velocity. That's what powers the myco. Pulling us together."
Then it was her on the Ungeke, him on the 'goiz. No, she looked over her shoulder to see herself on the 'goiz, charging through the water tunnel like a bullet from a gun. She was on the Ungeke, but she was Enzu. And Enzu was her. And she was also still holding on to him from the back of the cycle, and being held.
All while hammering around the curves of the aqueduct gully.
She had had a few rides of the myco, usually while bedding down some piece of pretty flesh who had done the same. Sex on the mushroom was a trip—every touch linked bodies, sensations reverberating, nerves firing together. Feeding off each other's pleasure.
But nothing like this. That was a pale echo, a memory of touch compared to this.
"Too much!" she shouted. She let go of the throttle and let herself slow down to a stop. Still herself, still on the 'goiz. Enzu passed her, then slowed and turned around, stopping in front of her.
The intensity faded, but she could still feel him. His heart beating in his chest, his pulse racing, the rumble of his engine between his thighs.
"It's all right," he said. "We're synced for now."
"For . . ." She wasn't sure which mouth she was talking out of at first. "For how long?"
"Hard to say," he said, idling his cycle and getting off. "The speed, that's what binds us. The faster you go, the stronger the bond. More intense, and you can feel each other even when physically apart. It lasts longer too, maybe all night? Maybe longer."
"I don't know if I like you that much," Nália said. "Why are we doing the run this way?"
"So we can do everything we need to as one," he said. "And even then, it's going to be hard." He moved closer, gingerly touching her hand. The sensation was electric, a circuit closing in her body as she felt every inch of him, become her. "Are you all right?"
"It's . . . it's . . ." She closed her eyes and let herself flow into it. Like when she rode her cycle. Revving the throttle, being one with the machine. Faster, faster, faster, filling her spirit with the thrill of speed.
Her eyes were closed, but she could still see. See herself, through his eyes.
She opened her eyes. "I've got a handle on it, I think."
"Good," he said. He looked up at the railbridge spanning over their head. "Because the job is going to come thundering through here, and we need to be ready. Ready to race?"
She smiled, and powered up her engine again. "Always."