He stilled the beat of this city, its heart bound in his control of the flow of the ebbs and the lulls of the concrete’s soul.
Magic was dying. But mages? Hiding, rotting, fading? They were still kicking and ticking.
And mana, with its rubber melting, soul filling hymn, thumped in between the holes in his mind.
In that eternal moment, the whole city burned against his grey helmet’s reflective visor. The flashing eyes connected to the Cotnet boards streamed the race, while faker bloggers sang online about loser amateurs like him. A Milanston camera flashed to his right, as Erica captured his life through her dark lens. After tonight, Cecil had lived enough as a faker. There was nothing left. He sped past that asshole Cutter, Leland Durant, who screamed with his fish lips about him cheating, sweat staining his face, his cheeks constricting like he had to take the biggest shit in his whole life.
Hundreds of black and gold phantoms, mana hazing, formed from the crowds’ signatures. Years of training in Sumser under Mama’s watchful guidance, he pissed it all on racing now—holes in his mind. The world shifted through a blackwater soup, it all processed too fast for him. Nah, that wasn’t right.
Rather, everyone else was too slow.
At the finish line, Marc was waiting for him. He had the prize money in hand, while he donned those out of pair black slacks and suspenders from a fifth century Dirkian department store. Matriarch, the guy needed to lose that nine-to three look he kept rocking. Still, he was the best damn organizer in the southern board, especially in Prade’s faking underground.
Cecil licked his lips, another victory, the last one, came. Too bad, Durrrrant. He smoked Leland and the others in a gold haze, they were skidmarks in his mirror lens. He had no love for a punk ass thug. And then the world returned to the blares and screeches of low circuit singers and high-top queens and kings like Molly Winters on the holos. The bass beats buzzed around the city and in this back-alley no nothing race.
In the throng of bodies, people who were somebody in this town were all here, gossiping and posing for the holos. But only some mattered to Cecil. Like old Ben Anais, the former king of the underground in his dad’s day, with his lady friend. She wore black thick waves, blue eyes that clashed or meshed with Ben’s southern blues, and a face that could cut his helmet to pieces. Ben still lived for the underground. He gave a friendly nod to Cecil. Cecil’s work order was coming up next week, and something else Erica mentioned to him.
Great, another “tour” of the Runner’s world.
Race was over, everyone could go home. They screamed his name, cheering for the second-best racer in the underground. It wasn’t all that bad.
“Light.” Cecil killed the engine, cig tucked between his grey gloves. Marc lit em up. Nicon (fake nicotine), clogged his lungs, kept him fresh and ready. Erica, fox-faced and with that Fateless damn camera, got her fill for the night: another memory of the underground in her lens. She’d call it ‘insurance’, he’d call it another security policy. Two-thousand marcs for this race: a good cut. Cecil gave Marc his usual donation. Too much Marc said, why are you so clean?
A screech rang out from the low risers above. The crowds huddled together, no one whispered that word. Silence in a slice of the city that never stopped thumping to the beat? Unheard of.
Pop. He grafted a field around the drag, no one the wiser. Erica’s hair was floating upward, the mana particles scattered in all zigzags. That’s not possible, that cry was something that shouldn’t be in the world. Mema’s detailed accounts of them, their gold eyes, their thirst for mana, where was it? Cecil clutched his racing jacket, his nerves constricted inches under his flesh. He couldn’t remember it. The holes in his mind robbed him of it back then.
Back then, what the fuck did he lose!?
In the frozen crowds, his living god, the Black Rider, the current king of the underground, remained trapped in the moment. Uncle Alex’s “Union Man” guitar solo shredded in his helmet’s HUD feed. In the middle of the golden hazed main drag of Illusion, she emerged from the nothingness of static and Ansem providing new casters to kill your old enemies’ commercials.
He removed his helmet, struck by her shining façade. She was Illusion. The girl held out her hand, come to me, she was probably saying. Sofie opened her mouth, no lyrics poured from her lips, and the world came crashing down, a great fire consuming him, her, and the whole block. Then there was nothing, of course. It was just a trick of the mind. Cecil shouldn’t be cutting back on the pills, Doctor Dipshit’s orders.
“I got some great photos,” Erica said, jumping on the back of his bike. Thunk, his bike rumbled up and down on the concrete. Marc asked if they were dating and Cecil laughed, that was rich coming from him. Erica didn’t laugh, but she did sport that foxish grin like she knew more than everyone in the world.
Show your real self? That was her mantra, her guiding principles through the countless nights he showed the Runner’s world—his world—to her. And she made it all the better.
Still, who the hell talks like that in this day and age? It didn’t matter, he’d hear it from her when they got back to their shared complex. Cecil wasn’t a mage anymore, he was an amateur idiot who was getting sloppy.
He stuffed back Ben’s cut to Mark, the King deserved his due. The Black Rider wasn’t there, the bastard wouldn’t just come out for an amateur like him, no matter how good he was. Marc gave a wave, going to size up and cash out the rest of the skidmarks. The boards were already hollering about his usual stellar performance. How’d he move so fast? He shouldn’t be able to weave so efficient.
Mana, Cotnet strangers. But they wouldn’t know. His world was the old order, and Cecil could never truly live in the new one. How could he?
He was a mage, down to his clan colors he wore day to day, night to night. A blue streak here, a blue pant leg there.
And faking? It just didn’t have the thrill it did two years ago.
Erica poked his side, get a move on, and he shook his head. “Right, I know. Let’s develop those photos, Foxface.” He was at her mercy for another night of ribbing, prodding, and whole…that damn photo—why hadn’t he covered himself back then with the towel? He sighed, a part of him secretly loved her nonsensical ways. When Erica came into his life, it was like—
“Show me the Runner’s world,” she whispered her mantra, asking him that ridiculous request like that early Junas night when they first met. He was all alone, and then she came into his life.
The crowds yelped his name, demanded another race. No more time for fakers. Only the king could give him the closure he needed. Ride, Umbar son. He had morning runs and Miriam would chew his ass out after that screw up last week. He gripped the clutch, hit the sweet spot, pulled the throttle, and darted through the crowds. Erica grabbed him suddenly, muttering her next scheme, that wicked gleam in her green eyes, and they broke a hard eighty in under five seconds on his Lancer. Dad’s work. And Matriarch damn did she ride.
For a moment, in a dimly lit alley to his right, a black and gold figure illuminated. She glowed as bright as the lights that shined every night in Prade. Her face cracked into a twisted grin, gold eyes. He blinked. Then she was like all the other rumors and horseshit urban legends in the capitol of the fashion and music scene.
“Cecil,” Erica said.
Magic was dead. And he buried his great-grandmother’s life work into another frivolous race. It was a disgrace to Mema Irene’s memory. To—
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore.
Another night of staring at his holo screen, another night of Erica working on her next Watercolor 105 project. He couldn’t remember the name of the professor half the time. His Nightstalker took a blade to the head. It was the same hacker who had harassed him the past few months, repeating the message on his thin holo. Wonderful, next thing you know he’ll be shitting up bacon logs like the Exodus trailblazers back when the Confederacy got its start down south.
Erica worked on her newest piece, an abstract thing he didn’t pay much attention. Easel, dirty water, inks, portraits of Molly Winters, the Mardin Sisters, even the old Fateless, Christopher Bronson, adorned her relatively sparse apartment. The thin wall between them was something they agreed to: her terms, not his. She smiled, holding it up. Her dark prize, and his biggest regret.
“I’ll find you? I’ll find you? It’s the same nonsense.” He shut Witch Lord off. He’d have to talk to Graham about it. Maybe G had a better idea. What did he do to deserve his nights off rookie shifts and races, and Erica’s camera pranks? He clicked through his history links.
Hometown history. The Sumser Defense and she chimed in, “The Sumser Defense? You read up on that every week. You can find that in any history book.” She rolled her eyes, decreasing the opacity of their shared wall. Not now, Erica, I just got my ass kicked by ten-year-old, I bet. As if she could read his mind, she beamed, seizing the moment. “Do you want to see the real self? Yours and this city?”
Cecil gave her the saddest look, like she would never be able to use mana again. He shook his head, leaned against his swivel chair, eyeing her. “I don’t care about the past.” Which was a load of crap. Where was his past? Buried somewhere back in Sumser and the holes in his head. And what happened earlier tonight? Sofie and the Rider? That weird cham-cham trip? He grabbed his pills, jammed them down his throat, and his condition reset. Ahh, minty fresh. Erica bit on her lip, watching him take his dose. She said nothing, but she recognized it.
Erica showed him his picture of his ‘happy time’, and then held her fingers up like a camera pin. He grumbled, Matriarch damn she got him good. She wiped the dust from her eyes, slapping her knee. “Every time,” she said.
“With your face you could charm the Matriarch and swindle the Chosen, Foxface.” He played along, indulging their routine. But he kept pretty stone face, he couldn’t have her thinking he actually wanted her strange company.
“I’ll keep it in mind. And no, I won’t be reading the article on the Watcher’s so-called shrine. I like observing your world, not some dead Trinity man’s grave.” She raised the opacity, their walls divided them again.
“Watercolor?” he asked. He imagined her laying in bed, that goofy fox print t-shirt she always wore. She flipped every joke he cracked and made it her own. She did it to piss him off, of course. But he did deserve it for that one stunt he pulled back when he first showed her his races. He smiled, shut off his holos, and flopped into his bed.
“I’ve got the list. Make sure you remember this time,” she said, sighing, her sheets shuffling. She had bacon breath still from their Beef Queen bag left in her room. He lowered the lights, turning down the virtual display. He got a great deal from the landlord: Dad’s persuading, but Mum knew the guy from years back with Stella Laine. That was a woman he did not want to ever meet again. Uncle Al, stop sending my tape to her every month.
“Night,” Erica said. And it was just him. Sofie burned in his memories, Erica’s image flickered against hers. He recalled it as he drifted to sleep, the face of a Distorted he couldn’t remember. Erica’s eternal phrase always played out in his dreams, night after night since they met.
Who was the real you? It gnawed him every day since—damnit, he couldn’t remember. It hadn’t come back. Damnit.
Miriam, of course, chewed his ass out. Docked him for muddy boots and an unkempt hat. He waited in traffic, yawning out last night’s race. Get this package and make it fast, Miriam told him. You don’t mess with Ironsides ever, she’d trained dozens of top Runners across the Union and his father put in a good word for him. Miriam didn’t much care for the Umbar, but she was a Karstel transplant by way of the Shattered Lands. No, so was his father. He glanced up, running through horns and drivers too slow to get through the main drag. Oh, excuse me, guy flipping me off. He zipped past the morning congestion.
Beep, beep to you too, jerk off.
The Great Temple of Prade loomed in the city’s center, as he weaved in and out of the morning traffic wars. Holo billboards and signs for the evening venues were off. He putted past the Museum of Science and History. Old clock tower’s face was still a mess from that storm last year. Bummer, it was a great piece of Pradian history. A holo shimmered across the top of its entrance. The newest exhibit displayed a 3D glaring Distorted, he shuddered, and photos from the Shattered Lands disaster sixty-six years ago. “It’s been that long?” He gripped his jacket, the pills were losing their effect.
He finally crossed the main drag, parked his Lancer on an adjacent sidewalk, and his future he left behind shined in front of him, as he swaggered through her glossy doors. Sanctuary College, the top music school in the entire city, it beat out all the others, and his uncle was likely the lover of its founder. Thirty years of cranking out top hits, producing the kings and queens of the high circuit, and he told his uncle to go to take a hike. Singing wasn’t a career, it was a hobby to whistle to when working on his engine back in Sumser. It was either that or become like the Strackman and go plug away on a computer for five years.
He passed the front desk student volunteer. She was reading a digmag and pointed to the elevator. Opacity up and she blocked him out of her super duper morning! No love for a Runner? That wasn’t uncommon.
“Cecil, what are you doing here?” His granduncle, Doctor Yorin Hargrave, came craning up. The Trinity must really hate him. He started ranting about appointments, needing to him soon. Cecil couldn’t stand to look at the man. The way he talked? The way he spoke about mana and nerves? And all the clinical molasse about how ardium empowered them under their meat suits? It was the same way he thought when he was practiced his discipline, night after night, in his dinky apartment. Yorin was his future if he didn’t find something outside of the underground fast.
“I’m keeping up with the doses.” He waited for the package’s owner to arrive. Ding, ding, here it comes. The elevator roared down, and a woman, oh, Matriarch, nooooooo! It was her. She hollered on the phone with Uncle Al about recognizing it was him, why didn’t he come to her school, and she held her finger up to wait for her signature. Damnit, Miriam, I don’t need this, he lowered his black Runner’s cap while his uncle tapped his wrist. Of course, let’s make sure your pet project—and Cecil’s life preserver was working.
“It works fine. I’m not abusing the limits or going over the count.”
“It preserves your system, keeps you from losing control.” Yorin stuck his serpentine nose close. He looked exactly like Mema Irene on a bad day, an amused scowl stretched across his face forever. “I need that data for my tests and my own patients. You know we’re doing good work.” And Cecil’s client at last got off the phone. Thank you!
“Yes, he’s here. No, I don’t know why he’s a Runner. Anyways, bye bye, Alexie.” Stella Laine murdered her phone into her designer bag, grabbed his signature board, and signed it clean. Yep, circuit queen flourish. “You could do so much more, Hargrave. I’ve heard your demo, your voice. You’re rough.” She held her manicured fingers out, displaying her school’s white walls stacked from front to back with dozens of gold albums and people who would be remembered for a century to come. “But Sanctuary could make you a star.”
She had a good sales pitch. “I appreciate the offer, Miss Laine, but I’ll pass. Uncle, I’ll see you on the operating table.” He couldn’t resist getting a dig in. Yorin peeled his lips back into a viper’s sneer, his eyes thinned. Oh, boy, Cecil would pay for that later. He gulped, turned around, slinking past a dirty brown shoulder crop mound of locks who ran up to Stella. Cecil took the signature and tipped his cap to the former circuit queen. Uncle slithered over to Stella and whispered in her ear.
“It’s him? I see. Are you sure?” She studied Cecil. Huh, that’s right: He did nerve work on Laine long ago. Well, couple hours to himself now. He’d kill some time at a net café before his ten o’clock class.
Cecil, she called to him. Their link instantly reformed. The static hissed in his head, and he—it couldn’t be her. No, it was. Standing in the middle of Sanctuary, bacon breath, nights under the Sumser sun, working on songs, there was too much static. The holes in his mind fissured whenever he tried to recall it. The pain was like a seven-hundred-pound amp being dropped on his head.
“Sofie, what are you doing here?” She was a ghost he didn’t want to know anymore. She pushed the link between them to the surface, their strange condition no one else knew.
“Well, your uncle put a recommendation in for me and Stella’s been my coach the last two years.” She raised her caterpillar eyebrows. Cute. That’s what she was getting at, huh? Good old Uncle Al put in a word and now two years later here she was. This could have been them, the two of them together. If only he hadn’t been so s—it didn’t matter anymore. He wanted to run away, to just leave it behind as they caught up. She was Stella’s golden girl now, on her way up, and he was just a memory in her mind. But she’d kept their mental link open. So, did she still…
Are you still having the nightmares and headaches? She reflected in the glass pane, Illusion’s traffic whizzed by outside. He wanted to puke, her piercing thoughts ruptured into his skull, her anger, her…
“No,” he lied. She knew that wasn’t true. But she played along to make it alright. It was too much. “It was great seeing you, good luck with everything.” He bolted out the door, sprinting around a corner. She chased after him but didn’t approach. She couldn’t reach out, he’d left her behind as well. Fool, he’d been a fool to leave things unsaid.
I didn’t want to leave it like that, Sofie said. Cecil caught her out of the corner of his eye.
He spat up spittle, adjusting his cap. Class soon, he couldn’t worry. He strolled real cool like across the street, avoiding traffic like the unfortunate Carcer gulls that got caught in them every morning. He walked up to his bike, hopped on, and put everything in order. Sofie folded her arms, she puffed her cheeks. Some people recognized her, and she flipped on the circuit charm. Sure, I’ll sign an autograph for a fan! Last night came back, her phantom burning and the world tumbling down.
He played the bastard, smiling wide and cruel. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not a kid anymore,” he said, swinging out to catch the backside shortcut to Miriam’s next lecture.
“I’ll see you soon,” Sofie said, finished with her adoring fans. He would, given the fact Miriam would likely keep him as Stella’s Runner. She lingered at the door, her nails scratching the sleek slab. “Come by soon?” And she slipped back inside.
He couldn’t escape the past, last night reminded him of that.
The Illusion haze ate his visor, as he sped back to the Runner’s training garage for a tune-up. Everything was changing again. And then, the black and gold phantom appeared in front of him. She curled her talons, a great wave—he swerved around a sedan, dropped a field, and she tilted her burning face, inches from his.
She could move through the field. That wasn’t possible. No one could do that. No one. His heart pounded, the field collapsed, and the phantom vanished. Prade thumped to the beat that never stopped.
It was a new day in Prade, the City of Illusions.