The Brightest Light
-a sample from the novel by Scott J Robinson
The lock gave in to his ministrations in less than a minute— just like old times— and Kade slipped through into a stairwell that seemed to echo back even the smallest sound. He climbed, slowly, carefully, pausing on each landing to cock his head and listen. On the first floor, the lamp lighting the four doors whined and spluttered, flickering fitfully with a cracked cylinder. On the next floor the lamp didn't work at all, but illumination fought its way through the dirty window overlooking the street and a door was underlined with light. Muffled voices came from beyond. Laughter. Life. Next level, the lamp showed a door off its hinges and graffiti scrawled on the wall. Kerig's moved— don't bother me. And She's like the air to me— foul and thick.
The fourth floor was dark as well. Kade leaned out the window at the top of the stairwell to look. A pair of lovers strolled along the street below. A lorry, laden with barrels, one crystal headlamp broken, edged between the crowding walls. When it was gone, nothing else moved.
Kade pulled on his gloves and mask and shifted his pack around to wear on his chest. He climbed out, standing on a ledge with his toes hanging out over nothing. He calmed his breathing. This was nothing he hadn't done before. It was exactly the type of thing he'd been dreaming of for ten years. This was where he was meant to be.
A lot of the city was spread out below him but most of it blended into a smudge of grey and black that was barely visible through the clouds. At the very front of the skyland, the Flight Tower and Administration Complex blazed brightly. To the left, to port, Kade glimpsed Whiparill through the haphazard constructions. It was about a kilometre away. From his position it just looked like more of the same. Another skyland was away to starboard. There was nothing to suggest which one it might be, but it seemed to be preparing to undock.
Down on the street three green-robed Pundits paused to lean against each other and sing a bawdy song that never seemed to get far past the chorus. Someone shouted at the men, but they took that as encouragement and sang all the louder.
Kade decided they wouldn't see him even if he fell from the ledge and landed at their feet. He closed his eyes for a moment then, slowly, carefully, sidestepped along the wall. Eventually, he reached a balcony and climbed the rail. His hands were covered with grease and grime. His back must have been black with the stuff, but there was little he could do. He switched his pack back again.
The roof of the laboratory building opposite was almost level with Kade's position. The distance wasn't great, but with no room for a running start it would be a close thing. Kade inspected the rail that came out from the wall. It was a fairly basic thing with simple curling balusters and bad welds. He would have done better in the first year of his apprenticeship, but at least it would give him two steps...
Kade had studied maps and plans supplied by the Skyway Men and knew there were no other realistic options to enter the building unnoticed. There were several things he could've done to make the task easier but he hadn't thought to be doing this without assistance. He climbed onto the thin metal rail, got his balance, "Here's to simple men and simple plans," and surged forward. The first step made the rail shake and screech in protest. The second brought a loud crack and a thrum of vibrating metal. He pushed off into the nothing as the rail collapsed beneath him.
And he was gone.
He wanted to close his eyes, but that was stupid.
He closed his eyes.
For a moment.
When he opened them again he wondered if he'd moved at all. The laboratory roof didn't seem to be getting any closer.
Then he was moving. Too quickly. Sailing through the air. Not going to make it.
Kade slammed into the edge of the roof. Winded, legs hanging over nothing. He tried to breathe, scrabbled for purchase, gritted his teeth against the pain of damaged ribs.
The singers in the street below fell suddenly silent. Kade continued to search for something to hold onto. Reaching. Desperate. He slipped lower.
"What was that?" one of the Pundits asked.
"What was what?"
He found the edge of a tile with a flailing hand, grabbed on and stopped. Still. Silent as well. He tried to look down. Had he been spotted?
"What was them words you were singing, Marat?"
"My pappy taught me them words when I was a boy."
"Was he drunk when he did it?"
"Probably." Marat didn't seem to care. He started to sing again and the three men continued their loud, discordant stagger down the street.
Kade breathed a painful sigh of relief and carefully pulled himself up onto the roof. Over the edge and onto the tiles he curled into a ball. Struggling to control his breathing he wondered if he could stay right where he was. But he couldn't. There was work to do. He crawled to the cell cluster arranged in the centre of the roof.
Kade paused, listening, and almost yelped in surprise when a handful of pigeons launched themselves skywards from among the cells. He waited, breath held, hand to his aching chest, to see if anyone had noticed the commotion. Seconds ticked by and he started to breathe again.
The cells— metal boxes that housed the crystal arrays— made up a security system that would be beyond most thieves. But Whiparill didn't have a permanent crystal-engineer so Kade had done what he could over the past ten years, reading books and learning as he went. He didn't have any qualifications, but he knew enough.
He spent five minutes locating the tamper array and, reversing one of his lock-pick pins, started to work on the screws. When the side finally came away, the crystals were revealed. A power cube, two cylinders, a cone and pyramid were bonded to a sphere. The whole arrangement hummed softly.
A minor change in the alignment of crystals could completely change the nature of an array and therefore the nature of a machine. It might turn the tamper array into a light, or a plate warmer, or something that didn't yet have a name. It could also set the alarm off or turn it into nothing more than a group of pointless crystals.
Holding his breath, he carefully spun the pyramid to the right. Not too far. The humming stopped. Nothing else happened. Kade started to breathe again and went to work on the next step. Black marks from his soot-covered gloves told the tale of the work he'd done. Fifteen minutes later he had opened five cells and rearranged seven crystals. Nothing had happened in the meantime and he took that as a good sign.
Finally done, Kade took a deep, painful breath and started to remove one of the roof tiles, gently wiggling it back and forth until the joiner broke and he could pull it clear. Three more quickly followed, leaving a hole large enough to climb through. Ribs screaming, Kade lowered himself into the ceiling cavity. He broke through some plaster and three minutes later was on the top floor, crouching in the shadows near a large, crystal-run loom. Strips of light stretched away from arrays set into the wall. He could hear nothing over the sound of his own ragged breathing. Nothing moved.
There was another cluster beneath a bench in the centre of the room. Kade pushed himself to his feet and went to look. When he pulled apart the first cell it took him several seconds to work out that the alarm wasn't even been turned on.
With a shrug, Kade undid the eight screws that held the cluster to the floor and carefully dragged the whole thing out of the way. Beneath was a hole and, with a prophetic wince for his ribs, he ducked down under the bench and put his feet into the laboratory below. As he lowered himself he was too busy thinking about pain to take much notice of anything else. It wasn't until he was crouching on top of a table that he heard anything at all. It was a moment longer before he realized there was someone in the laboratory with him.
Swearing silently, Kade slipped silently down to the floor. He had a quick look around by the faint glow of the security lights.
The room took up the entire level of the building. A dozen solid workbenches were arranged in several groups. Crystal shapers— centrifuges and moulds, lathes and a crystalis— and naked arrays threw crazy shadows. Temperance clusters guarded each corner of a platform used to keep experimental arrays under control. Shelves lined an entire wall and three men, dressed in black, were examining the contents.
Kade hadn't been spotted and he wasn't about to announce himself. These men had to be those he was supposed to meet in the Leaf and Stone, but that didn't really help. The men would probably react quickly and violently if they saw him, not waiting to check his identity. Kade was one wrong move, just a couple of seconds, away from death.
Looking down at his hand, he noticed that his fingers were shaking. He was sweating beneath his balaclava. His heart was racing. And he finally realized that things had changed while he lived on Whiparill. He had changed. Fitting back into his old life was not going to be a simple matter of just turning up.
Kade took a deep breath and watched the men as he tried to think.
One of them collected a cell about the size of a large book and stuffed it into a pack while the others rifled through a filing cabinet. They found what they were after— a thick sheaf of flimsies in a black box.
Kade wondered what he should do. Wait until they'd left? Then slip out and tell the operations manager that he hadn't been contacted? Or announce himself and risk a sword between his ribs before anyone had a chance to think? Trapped by indecision, trying to control his breathing, he crouched in the shadows. His fingers still drummed a silent tattoo against his leg. He thought he was going to throw up.
When they started to leave, any options Kade thought he had suddenly disappeared. They walked right past his hiding place.
"What's that?" The soft lisp of a dagger being drawn.
Kade's first reaction was to freeze, hoping the men would continue on their way. That was stupid. His second reaction was to jump to his feet and charge the closet man. That wasn't much better.
He dropped his shoulder into the man's solar plexus, knocked him to the ground. The knife clattered away. Kade's ribs screamed some more and he almost blacked out. But he kept his feet and spun.
"I'm Kade Traskel," he said, blocked a lunge from the second man. Kicked high. Gasped with pain.
"So?" The man snapped out a punch.
Kade swayed out of the way. Instinct made him grab the hand and twisted. A finger cracked, bent all the way back. The man hissed. Kade pivoted, drove his knee into his opponent's stomach. He followed up with an elbow to the head, a knee to the head— unconscious— and spun again.
He stared down the barrel of the pistol.
"I'm Kade," he said again, sucking in air. "I waited for you at the Leaf and Stone."
"You are one crazy bastard." The man's eyes flickered away, went wide. "Shit."
But the man wasn't looking at Kade. He shook his head, "Sorry," he whispered, tensed and fired. The gunshot rang out loudly in the confined space, echoed back.
Kade jumped and felt a flash of pain. It was his ribs. Only his ribs. As acrid smoke drifted up from the pistol, he turned around and saw a guard hitting the ground near the door. The shooter had already discarded his useless pistol. His companions were armed as well.
Kade didn't move. The man he'd knocked down in his original charge was upright again, muttering something as he helped his semi-conscious companion. Kade already forgotten, the three men headed for the door— apparently they thought they had bigger problems.
"I was supposed to meet you," Kade shouted at them, desperate.
They were gone in moments with just one glance back, and Kade still wasn't sure what had just happened. He looked at the shelves. The cell he was after was still there— they had taken the wrong one— but it was the size of a scooter engine. It was supposed to fit in the box he had in his pack. He had no idea what was happening.
"Thorn, damn it." The Skyway Men definitely weren't going to be happy, one way or the other. And the god of thunder and lightning wasn't likely to help, one way or the other.
Gunshots rang out. Two of them. Three. A scream. A shout of inquiry from out on the street. Reinforcements would be on their way.
The job wasn't going as well as it might. Just like old times, he thought. His bosses weren't going to be impressed, but maybe they wouldn't be surprised. He was on the edge of hysterical laughter. Everything was going to hell.
I hope you enjoyed the sample from Scott's novel, The Brightest Light.
Discover more of Scott's writing at scottjrobinson.com and scottjrobinson.wordpress.com Follow him on Twitter at @skywordz
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