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The Burning Light

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The Burning Light

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Author: Rob Ziegler
Bradley P. Beaulieu
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing, 2016
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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic
Dystopia
Singularity
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Synopsis

Disgraced government operative Colonel Chu is exiled to the flooded relic of New York City. Something called the Light has hit the streets like an epidemic, leavings its users strung out and disconnected from the mind-network humanity relies on. Chu has lost everything she cares about to the Light. She'll end the threat or die trying.

A former corporate pilot who controlled a thousand ships with her mind, Zola looks like just another Light-junkie living hand to mouth on the edge of society. She's special though. As much as she needs the Light, the Light needs her too. But, Chu is getting close and Zola can't hide forever.


Excerpt

One
We Want the Vector

Three months ago...

They came to the first junkie at a landing maybe fifteen floors up. Matted hair hid her face; geologic layers of filth caked her skin. She sat cross-legged and blissed like some old ascetic on a mountain. She stank.

Solaas leveled his carbine at her. Goggins moved to grab her. The woman was oblivious.

She was tapped in, burning in the Light.

Colonel Melody Chu's mind reached out to her troops, her words an electric flicker of pure thought:

Don't even bother with her. She's just a junkie. We want the vector.

A column of bramble and vine grew up the stairwell to a hole in the roof, a pale coin of light far above. Chu and her Gov troops continued to spiral upward, up, up, up, sweating in mirror black graphene armor, lugging their electromag carbines. Four months here, and Chu knew this was what they would all remember. The Sisyphean grind of climbing these old towers, the saturating miasma of sewage rising off the canals below. New York was a ruin of shit and stairs.

My point is, Chu said as they climbed, those old religions were on to something. I like sin. I like the idea of it. They'd passed a street preacher outside the building, his little boat moored to the top of a light pole protruding a few inches above the canal's brown surface. In it he'd stood, bearded and wild. He'd gleamed with a wrath verging on joy, and ranted at them about Jesus. Jesus and salvation and Hell--his mind had reached out, briefly connecting, flashing images of crucifixion and fire. It had gotten Chu and her XO, Lieutenant Holder, talking.

Some of that God stuff's alright. Holder's mind leaned against Chu's, a perpetual offering, sharp as a blade and poised, awaiting her command. He was small, but solid, dedicated, the only one of her troops not raised in a Gov soldier collective. It was why Chu had chosen him. The others, their empathy had been groomed out of them--but not Holder. And empathy, Chu figured, was a useful compass, even if sometimes it got in the way. It was their mission to save people, after all...

Holder's words came as a shuffle of memory and thought as he followed her silently up the stairs. There was a worship group up in the woods not far from my collective growing up. Mostly Amish, I think, but they'd thrown together pieces of the Koran and the Gita, too, and some of the other old books. Nice people. Weird, no doubt, tapped in to each other nonstop, feeding each other verses. No conversation even, just pure scripture. You'd run into them on the road or someplace and it'd be this biblical feedback loop. Crazy. Good folks, though, real decent, all about service and compassion, shit like that. Always helped us pull in our wheat. He reflected for a moment. Made great cheese.

I don't mean the stories, Chu told him, Jesus and Allah and God. I don't care about God.

A-fucking-men, chorused several of her troops, and dry chuckling broke their silence. Four months their minds had been connected. They'd begun to share the same sense of humor.

I'm talking about sin, Chu said. Sin I get. Sin and repentance. Sin and salvation. Right and wrong. Consequences. Punishment. Her mind opened to Holder and her troops. She let them feel her certainty, wrapped them into her personal memory of the street preacher--railing at them from the far side of a madness built of brimstone and visions of angels, but righteous, brimming with his cause, fierce.

Chu related to the man.

We are standing at the edge of the end of the world, she said.

She knew her reputation within the Gov collective. Captain Ahab Chu. She'd brought down whole collectives, and many of her superiors thought she was too quick on the trigger--especially after Latitude. When Latitude had come down, it had hit everyone where it hurt: in their balance sheets.

Obsessive. Precipitous decision making. These were the assessments made by functionaries higher up the food chain. After Latitude, Chu had presented her superiors a real problem. The abrupt extermination of six thousand people had struck them as... an overreaction. Yet no one could argue she wasn't effective.

They'd solved it by promoting her. After Latitude, they'd given her carte blanche to pursue the Light wherever it turned up--but with only a single squad: eleven washouts and Holder.

For her troops it was exile, far from the upriver promised land of cush overwatch postings in bloated finance and trade collectives, where the pay was good and the bribes were better. Exile, and her troops knew it. But Chu had won them over, cajoled them, harangued them, overpowered them with mission focus. She had personally stared into the Burning Light--and the Light had stared back. She knew it was coming. As they climbed the stairs, Chu let her troops feel it:

I have seen the Light! And the Light was no white whale. It was a shark, a marauder. In her bones Chu knew this. And her troops, they were not outcasts. No, they were righteous. They were her crusaders. They gave her Amens!

Why's the Light got to chew on all these stankass junkies down here in New York? Solaas lamented. Chu felt his fatigue, heard his ragged breath echoing in the stairwell.

Moron, came Goggins, it doesn't pick them because they're junkies. It makes them junkies.

Yeah, well, it'd do my esprit de corps a shitload of good if it showed up once in a while in some posh Montreal whore collective.

Amen!

Goddamn.

I'd fight that fight.

If the Light showed up in a whorehouse, Solaas, Holder said, we'd have to reassign you on ethical grounds.

Why's that, Chief?

Gov doctrine specifically prohibits interfamilial combatants.

I don't get it.

Couldn't very well have you fighting your mother, now, could we.

You know my mother, Chief? A sly flicker played across Solaas's mind. Are you my father?

Fucking A right. and I'm gonna whup your ass, son, you don't get up those stairs. Like sunlight off water, the joke reverberated among them, laughter playing across their minds, pushing the incessant churn and turn of the stairs to the background. Then it faded, the joke, the laughter, replaced again and always by the stink, by the grind, by the eternal climb.

That mean I get to call you Daddy?

Chu let herself smile.

* * *

They found the vector on the thirty-first floor. By some miracle the level hadn't been stripped by scavenger gangs. It was a maze of glass, steel, stained drywall, and rotted industrial carpet--a moment two centuries old frozen in time, unpeopled, caught in perpetual nightshift.

It was what passed as a security team that gave up the vector's position.

Goggins, on point, extended the spy eye, a black glass marble on his flat palm, beyond a blind corner. Its vision of the hallway beyond filled the minds of Chu and all her troops.

Well this is something new.

Through the spy eye, they all saw: four young bangers crouched around a lantern before an empty doorway. They were shirtless, tatted up with ink--not junkies themselves, just hired hands, hustlers getting paid for a night's work, AKs slung over shoulders or propped against the wall. Two played dice, the other two passed a joint back and forth. The apotheosis of readiness and discipline. Chu almost felt sorry for them.

We got the drop, Holder figured, no problemo.

Chu unbelted a flash disc, the size of an old silver dollar her father had shown her once. Her mind touched her troops, calm, emphatic.

Goggins. Solaas. High, low. Go on the flash. Professional groupings, nice and tight.

Chu rolled the disc down the hallway. Lightning flashed. Thunder pounded the air. Goggins and Solaas stepped around the corner, Goggins high, Solaas low. The pock!-pock!-pock!-pock! of hypersonic ceramic rounds scorching the air lasted less than a second.

Clear!

Chu stepped around the corner. Through a curl of white smoke she saw the bangers, all four of them shredded, utterly still.

Good work. Her mind leaned against Goggins and Solaas, laying on the positive vibes, like scratching two cats behind the ear.

The room beyond had once been a bathroom--robbed now of all its porcelain and stalls, just a hollow square with holes in the floors and walls where piping had been stripped. The vector sat there on the floor.

It isn't Zola, Chu observed. Holder gave her a look and she immediately regretted showing her disappointment.

No, Colonel Ahab, that is not your girl from Latitude. But a vector's a vector, correct?

Chu swallowed bitterness. You are correct.

Just a kid. Goggins knelt beside the vector as the troops gathered up. Can't be older than nine.

Goggins wasn't joking. The boy was barefoot, starved-looking in a stained T-shirt so big it reached his knees. Like the junkie they'd encountered below, he sat lotus, unaware of the troops standing over him, his mind deep in the Light. He was the anchor, the physical center around which the other junkies had arranged themselves in a sphere throughout the building. A halo, they called it. Through the vector, this kid, they connected to the Light.

Just a kid... , Goggins repeated, distantly this time, and Chu realized he was reaching out to the boy, testing his limits even as the boy was touching the Light.

Goggins! Filter up! Chu ordered. We take no chances in this unit.

Yeah, dipshit. Solaas slapped Goggins's shoulder, hard. Don't get any on you, man.

It was true. Chu knew from experience. The Light had touched her once. The memory wrapped her psyche like enflamed scar tissue. A memory she'd shared with her troops so they'd understand what they were fighting, and why.

Joy had been a kid too, like this boy. And like this boy she'd sat at the center, within a little paper-walled classroom. A spontaneous halo, they'd called it. Bodies lay all around her. Chu's teachers, friends, her parents. Gov troops who had come to the scene. Bodies, fallen over one another like fish dropped from a net. Dozens of them.

Her sister had surveyed the death, and her eyes had belonged to someone else, empty except for curiosity. When she'd seen Chu, standing stunned at the doorway, she'd smiled beatifically and lifted her hand, beckoning for Chu to come closer. And then the Light had reached out--

Chu drew the pistol from her hip.

Colonel! Holder reached out a hand to stay her, but not quick enough. Chu pressed the barrel against the kid's forehead as the memory washed over her. Moments ticked past. Her troops watched her. Her hand trembled.

The kid opened his eyes. He gazed up at Chu, the same empty-but-clear expression worn by ancient Buddhist statues. The same expression Chu's sister had worn. He smiled.

"I remember," he said. "I remember you." Chu felt it: the lighthouse strobe at the edge of her consciousness. It pulled her, grew brighter, tickling those places where she was most vulnerable, those places torn by loss.

A warm sensation rose up within her. The Light reached out, full of promise--

Chu raised the pistol and clubbed downward, hard and fast, clocking the kid across the temple. He went instantly limp. Chu holstered the pistol, then turned and walked away, her troops parting before her storm. For the first time in days, she spoke aloud.

"Bag the little fucker."

* * *

When Chu and her troops returned to canal level, junkies were still fleeing. They clambered into homemade canoes and kayaks, gondolas, old rowboats into which they'd jerry-rigged sails. They cast looks over their shoulders at the Gov troops; the fear in their eyes made Chu laugh.

Her troops ignored the junkies. Their boat, a sleek katana-class interceptor, was tied to an old flagpole protruding from the building's side. With its black diamond-plate decks and miniguns and electric props, it was like a barracuda here in the old city, a thing of startling wealth and ingenuity, of predatory speed. Goggins and Solaas hauled the vector aboard, stuffed into a black canvas bag, inside which he'd begun kicking.

Take him below, Chu told them. Give him another injection. Make sure he's out. In a day, maybe two, they'd give him to their contact a half-day up the Hudson, who in turn would pack him in a Gov transport and send him west, for Grandma and the scientists she kept in her employ.

The street preacher still stood in his little boat. He yelled at the sudden exodus of junkies, yelled at the emerging troops. He lived for moments like this, Chu was pretty sure, the transient illusion of a flock to shepherd.

You know what scares me? she asked Holder. They stood side by side against the katana's deck rail. Every time I catch a glimpse, every time I feel the Light, it's just like when I was a girl, seeing it for the first time. I want to go in. I want to let it take me, just like it takes these fried-ass junkies. Even after everything we've seen, I still want it. How do you fight something that makes people want like that? How did you fight sin?

For once, it had begun to rain. A wall of cool mist had boiled up out of the Atlantic and now it swept north, swallowing Manhattan's old square monoliths in a blanket of white.

I hate this city, Holder said finally, beads of mist clinging like mercury to his crewcut. He gazed up the canal, a canyon of vine-wrapped ruins. Chu followed his eyes to where larger, faster boats--boats with multiple sails and rows of oars--had appeared from around a corner a few blocks up. They'd begun to close on the fleeing junkies.

Labor traders.

They'd gather up the junkies and sell them off to the scavenger gangs, to whore shops, to black-market ship captains. The ones too weak for work, they'd dump overboard. Groups of these traders had begun tailing the katana: where Chu and her troops went, junkies fled like rats.

It's no wonder the Light shows up here, Holder said. A single patrol for the whole city... how many halos you think are going on right now?

The source says nine. But we won't reach any of them in time.

Exactly. We pop one, three more spring up in its place. We're rowing against the current here. Holder sucked his teeth. Maybe Grandma can pull a string or two, get us some more troops?

Grandma burned her bridges keeping me out of the stasis tanks after Latitude. She doesn't have any strings left to pull.

The oversight committee then?

They'd have to believe there's a credible threat. Chu gave Holder a look. They haven't seen the Light.

Up the block, grappling hooks flew. The Labor boats began reeling in the smaller junkie boats. There was yelling. There were harpoons. There were guns. An idea occurred to Chu.

You say we need more patrols. You are definitely not wrong. She let the thought dangle like a rope between them, let Holder grab hold, pull it in. And the Gov won't give them to us...

Holder eyed her, skeptical at first, then nodding as he tasted the idea. His gaze went back to the Labor boats, and now he smiled. We buy them.

Chu nodded. We buy them.

Grandma's got chavos?

The one thing she does have.

Gentle precip scoured the shit smell from the air. It dimpled the canal with tiny silver rings. The street preacher, still railing, leveled a finger at Chu. She nodded to him, and smiled. His hand mimed a gun, aimed at her, and he winked: bang!, a moment of connection, as though this ruined city had just offered up in totem its strangest and most beautiful creature.

His sermon didn't miss a beat.

Chu turned her face up into the rain, and let herself be cleansed.

Copyright © 2016 by Rob Ziegler

Copyright © 2016 by Bradley P. Beaulieu


Reviews

The Burning Light

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  (11/25/2016)
The Burning Light

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  (1/19/2017)

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