CHAPTER 1: Sacred Covenants

     Declan’s words ring in my ears on the ride down from the sky-level.

     Mr. Blue’s the one who’s trying to kill us.

     My mind rebels at the very idea. Mr. Blue holds Leton’s Blue Guard in the palm of his hand. He’s in charge of enforcing the laws the High Council lays out, protector of the citizens on every level of the stacked-city from Ground Zero to Level 13. 

     The previous Mr. Blue died unexpectedly only two weeks ago. Rumors say Mr. White, the halion Peace Keeper leader, had a hand in it, though no evidence has been found to support the gossip. The current Mr. Blue hasn’t been in office long enough to plan and implement a coup against a family of the High Council. He should be too buried in paperwork and firming up his hold on his new office to start scheming already.

     Connor’s fingers brush against mine, and I shift to press our arms together, drawing comfort from his calm strength. Of all of us, he took the news with the least reaction, his thoughts buried behind a calm expression. I glance up at him to find his grass-green eyes already on me. He bends to press a kiss to the curls on top of my head, and steadiness flows through my limbs. 

     Without saying a word, he reassures me that we’ll figure this out. That everything will be okay.

     My focus shifts to his twin, Felix, who paces with restless energy in the narrow confines of the lift. He vibrates with energy, his messy black waves sticking up in every direction as he runs his hands through them. 

     Declan leans in the corner of the lift, his hands white-knuckled as he grips the railing for support. His golden-brown eyes lack their usual sparkle, his auburn hair limp. His skin, sallow with dark bags under his eyes, makes him look like he’s knocking on death’s door at this very moment.  

     Mr. Blue’s the one who’s trying to kill us.

     What must it have been like to watch his parents die, to watch his sister-in-law, whom he hated, pass so unexpectedly from this life, to watch his brother slowly slip toward the same end? Pain constricts my heart. While we spent time arguing amongst ourselves and complaining about classes, Declan had been fighting for his life. 

     I curse myself for how long it took to figure out his coded message, to realize he was Rim Jumper, reaching out for help through the racing forums. What if I had never checked? My heart picks up speed. What if his message had continued to go unread? What if Nikola hadn’t returned to Academia for Planetary Alliance, APA, with me? If my selfish desires to escape my family’s censorship had been heeded, Nikola wouldn’t have been at the school to provide the final key to reaching Declan.

     Connor’s pinky hooks around mine, pulling me out of the spiral of what-ifs before they swamp me.

     The lift slows to a halt, the door swishing open to reveal a shadowed hallway, and Declan pushes himself away from the wall with a groan.

     Felix leaps to his side, sliding his shoulder under the other man’s arm. His murmur breaks the silence, “You shouldn’t be out of bed. What if this makes your condition worse?”

     “The Rothven physician says I’ll recover, so stop worrying.” But he leans on Felix nonetheless. “There’s an office at the end of the hall.”

     We walk off the lift, our pace slow to compensate for Declan. As we pass the darkened doorways, I peek inside, curious where we are. If my visual of the city map is correct, we’re just outside of Central Plaza in the business district, but the empty offices give no hint to the building’s purpose. 

     At last, we reach the end of the hall, and Declan reaches out to open the door. Like the sky-level, the security panel here is shut off, the indicator lights dark. Is the power to the building shut off? Who would do that? It leaves Levels 12 and 13 vulnerable to anyone who finds their way in. The holo-sky offers a hidden pathway between the levels, allowing people to move without detection through the city.

     As the door swings inward, blue light spills out, along with a throaty voice. “Took you long enough. I was about to skip out, mate.”

     Recognition hits, and I glance up at Connor to see if he caught on. He gives me a tight nod, his face devoid of emotion.

     “Skittles, you rat bastard,” Felix hisses without any hesitation. “I don’t know if I want to hug you or punch you!”

     “I’ll go knuckle to knuckle with you any day, kid.” Amusement fills her voice. “But first, drop that sack on the couch over there.”

     Felix helps Declan into the room, and we follow.

     I spot the Night Pirate right away where she perches on the padded arm of a chair, a patch of darkness in the dimly lit space. She wears black from head to toe, with not a bit of reflective surface on her. The material, halion made, absorbs light. Even her black hair is matte and seems to absorb the blue-light. Tattoos cover her face, crosses and hashes interspersed with dots that mean something to other Night Pirates. When I asked about them once, she told me she’d be more than happy to explain just as soon as I earned one. They cover most of her visible skin, helping her to merge in even more with the shadows. 

     At Lights-Out, she blends in, night-goggles barely able to pick her out, which is an oddity of its own since night-goggles pick up heat as well as reflection. It’s as if Night Pirates are a species all their own. I’m sure Skittles would be tickled at the thought and even encourage it.

     “Sparks, good to see you. And Blaze, a pleasure as always.” Skittles nods to us in greeting, then gestures to the other seats in the room.

     While Declan called this an office, it more resembles a place of leisure, with soft, padded furniture and low tables. A bar on the right, behind two padded chairs, holds a carafe and glasses to offer refreshments to visitors. 

     Felix helps Declan onto the loveseat on the left, propping him in the corner. A second couch sits at a right angle along the back wall, and Connor and I settle on the side closest to them, our thighs pressed together, though the cushions allow seating for three. The opposite knee bumps against Declan, and a small part of me sighs in relief that he’s really here. We’ve been apart for so long that this almost feels like a dream.

     Skittles swings around and slides into the chair she perched on. “Have any trouble finding the way?”

     I stare at her in surprise. “Those were your markings?”

     She flashes her blackened teeth in a broad smile. “Who else would tell you to follow the rainbow?”

     Connor pushes his glasses higher on his nose. “An actual map would have been easier.”

     “Can’t have those floating around,” she scoffs. “Then everyone and their mother would be sneaking into my home.”

     I peer around at the stark walls, devoid of any decoration. “Your home?” 

     “What, a pirate can’t have a bit of class?” Her lips purse. “Gotta have somewhere to rest my weary bones.”

     I shake my head in confusion. “But, how?”

     Owning anything in Leton requires a dat-band. The slender bracelet every citizen wears around their wrist holds their entire life, from their history to their bank accounts to their ability to move between levels. Without a dat-band, you’re stuck to a single location, denied access to the giant lifts and teleports that jump people across the city and between levels. Without a dat-band, there’s no food coupons or clothing stipends. It’s as if you don’t exist anymore. Night Pirates give up their dat-bands, if they ever had them, to embrace the life of true lawlessness.

     Skittles wags her finger at me. “Never you mind the how. And don’t think you can come here at will. Once you get your pretty selves back into the sky, my security reactivates and not even your sneaky Secretary will be able to crack my codes.”

     “We need to hurry,” Declan cuts in, his voice weak. “They’ll notice I’m gone soon.”

     Skittles’ lip curls in distaste. “Yes, your babysitters are annoying buggers.”

     “Tell us what’s going on.” Connor leans forward to prop his elbows on his knees. “Why didn’t you call us?”

     “Ashley, my brother’s wife, confiscated my palm-port as soon as I arrived back at Arrington Manor. She put a freeze on all my calls, too, blocking my classmates’ numbers and names even in the household ports.” He rubs a hand over his tired face. “She said it was so I could put my complete support into assisting my brother in his council duties.”

     “I’m glad she’s dead,” Felix mutters, then glares at Connor and my aghast expressions. “What? She was an evil bitch. I’m not going to waste time pretending to miss her.” 

     “Good for you,” Skittles purrs. “I always knew you’d be the bloodthirsty one.”

     Declan reaches out to grip Felix’s knee. “I’m not sad to see her gone, either. I just wish it hadn’t come at the cost of the rest of my family.”

     “I’m sorry for your loss.” I reach across the space that separates us and clasp his hand. 

     Connor murmurs his condolences, too. 

     Declan nods wearily. “Thank you.” Then he clears his throat. “So, that’s why I couldn’t call you guys. I’ve been searching the house, but I have no idea where she hid my palm-port, and my brother refuses to tell me. He’s not thinking clearly and worried I’ll expose what’s happening in the family. We can’t be seen as weak right now, or it could cost us the fifth council seat.”

     Bitterness fills his voice, and I can’t blame him. Keeping up appearances is possibly killing his brother.

     He drops my hand to clench his fist in anger. “Ashley didn’t think to block me from the racing forums, though. Unfortunately, my old handle was obliterated once my brother learned of our races, so I had to come up with a new name.” He smiles at me. “I was hoping you’d catch the reference.”

     I stare at him in confusion. “What reference? I was completely lost.”

     “Told you you were being too obscure,” Skittles mutters. “Should have just gone with Blaze2.0 like I told you to.”

     Declan’s brows pinch together, his gaze intense on me. “You know.”

     I shake my head, not getting what he’s trying to say.

     Beside him, Felix’s eyes narrow. “When you’re healthy again, I’m going to punch your face in.”

     Declan’s eyes widen in surprise. “What?”

     Felix tosses Declan’s hand off his knee and stands, then circles around the rectangle coffee table to plop onto the free cushion on our couch, his arms folded across his chest. 

     “He’s talking about your guys’ plan to jump cities in a couple years.” His chin juts out. “Rim Jumper. Fucking ridiculous.”

     Declan’s lips part before he turns an accusing stare on me. “You told him?”

     I shrug, less guilty than I thought I’d be at revealing our secret. “It came up. We’re dealing with it.”

     Felix kicks one foot up to rest on his knee. “Just so you know, Sprinkles is staying with me and Connor.”

     “Now you’re just being petty,” Connor scolds. “This isn’t the time to discuss this.” He checks the time. “We have less than two hours to get back to school before our absence is noted.”

     “So,” I interrupt before we get too sidetracked, “you contacted me through the forums, hoping I’d recognize it was you. How’d you even know I’d check them? I haven’t since last Fall-Cycle.”

     Declan’s hands open in helpless frustration. “I didn’t have any other option. I messaged Felix and Connor, too, but they never checked the forums. You can’t imagine how happy I was when you responded, Sparks.”

     Warmth fills my chest at the desperation in his face. I can’t imagine how alone he must have felt this whole time, surrounded by death and unable to reach out.

     Connor, ever the level-headed one, speaks up. “How do you know Mr. Blue is behind your family’s assassination, and how is Skittles involved?”

     Skittles waves an imperious hand in the air. “When you lot failed to respond fast enough, Blaze here turned to me for help.”

     “Because when the law is out to get you, the lawless ones come to help?” Connor says drily.

     Skittles snorts. “Not likely. He’s paying me.” She rubs her fingers together in the universal sign for money. “I’m a consultant.”

     Felix snickers, leans forward, and high-fives the pirate. “Good for you.”

     She grins proudly. “The Arrington House is going to buy me a lot of shine.”

     Shine, in Night Pirate lingo, can mean anything of value, and what they value isn’t always what legal citizens would consider worthwhile. She could be using those credits on anything from bags of rice to investing in more property.

     “You’ll earn every credit.” Declan’s attempt to look fierce falls flat as he leans against the padded arm of the couch, his exhaustion deepening. “As for how I know Mr. Blue is behind this, my brother is the one who said so. I have no proof, and he’s not lucid enough to explain, but I can’t take the risk until I know more.”

     “Then it could just be your brother’s delirious ramblings?” Hope fills Felix’s voice. 

     “Not likely.” Skittles leans forward to prop her elbows on her knees. “We pirates are always interested when there’s a change in government. Never know when we’re going to get a Mr. Blue who’s bent on cleaning up the city. This new one seemed especially green for the position, so I went snooping. A lot of more qualified people were passed over to put this one into office, and many of those who protested suddenly found themselves deported or died in the line of service. It’s more than a little suspicious. Especially since it coincided with the old Mr. Black being ousted.”

     Mr. Black is the figurehead who runs the legalized underground in Leton. Living in such tight quarters, even criminalized activity must come with a certain level of organization, and that’s what Black Corporation provides. It’s a given that people will break the law, and Mr. Black keeps us out of complete anarchy. Unlike Mr. Blue and Mr. White, the role of Mr. Black doesn’t come through election. It comes by underhandedness and betrayal, a change in office often coming at the death of the previous Mr. Black. 

     To have both Mr. Blue and Mr. Black change figureheads at the same time was unprecedented in Leton history and shut the city down while contracts were renegotiated. 

     “You don’t think some gang member just saw an opening and went for it?” Felix asks. “With the new Mr. Blue taking over, the old Mr. Black must have been distracted. He could have just let his guard down.”

     Skittles shakes her head. “Lannike was as paranoid as they come. The only way to get to that old bugger would have been when he felt most protected. Rumor says he was taken out while meeting with the new Mr. Blue.”

     Ice runs through my veins. The covenant between Blue, White, and Black is sacred. They must all trust each other to some extent or risk the city splitting itself apart. 

     Skittle leans back in her chair, her gaze jumping to each of us in turn. “You lot have a joint takeover on your hands. Arrington is just the first family of the High Houses to feel the effects.”

Copyright © 2019 by Lyn Forester

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© 2016 by Lyn Forester