The paths of si first tr.., p.1
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       The Paths of Si: First Trail, p.1

           Ali Raker
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The Paths of Si: First Trail
Chapter 1

  So picture this. I’m walking down the rain slicked sidewalk in my thousand-dollar business suit, a gray skirt and matching jacket favored by the hordes of Gotham’s upwardly mobile executives, trying to step lightly so that my equally expensive high heels and hose don’t get drenched. In my left arm I’m clutching my attaché case along with a worn digidura, in my right it’s a thermos of scalding hot kif. My arms ache and I’m almost jogging along the street towards the Dresden Incorporated Alliance’s offices, my refuge from the grey skies and cold drizzle. Only five minutes separate me from a perfectly climate controlled cubicle, a cathartically long sip of kif, and the only peaceful slice of time I will have for the whole day.

  Don’t get me wrong though. I love the work and I couldn’t ask for a better position in the city. Gotham is the center of terrestrial commerce and DIA the center of that activity. Working on the 20th floor at age 25 is tantamount to winning the executive lottery, or at least it is if you’re into that sort of thing. And I most definitely am. I love the energy, the culture, the work. Whereas most everyone around me looks like they’re bent double under the relentless grind of sixteen hour days, five hour marathon meetings, merciless deadlines and a cruel, almost cannibalistic culture of corporate trench warfare, I find the entire experience invigorating. I’m almost like a diamond being formed in Terra’s dark depths, subject to colossal forces and epochs of relentless pressure, growing more brilliant by the day. I find myself completely unable to relate to the poor saps being worn down to nubs by an environment they apparently don’t understand or aren’t equipped to deal with.

  Me on the other hand, well, I’ll do just fine. VP by 30 and head of a department by 35. If I manage to pull off some fancy footwork I could end up on the board before I’m 40. At that point, as a board member, I’ll be authorized for rejuv, and then age won’t matter. I’ll be offered a conservancy position where I can take it easy for however many years, or given the green light to start vying for the top spot and the untold billions in dollars that that entails. I, of course, already knew which choice I would make by the second semester of Generals. I smile a wicked little smile then, as I round the corner onto Acheron Avenue, feeling content about my lot in life.

  I’m jarred out of my musings as someone slams into me the moment I step from behind the building. The collision sends my digidura flying along with my attaché case and I feel hot, sticky kif pour between the fingers of my right hand as almost half of the thermos sloshes out. I’m driven backward by the rain soaked figure and am now teetering on one high-heeled foot, trying not to lose my balance and go ass first into the wet sidewalk. At that moment I’m conscious of the fact that I would look most comical to my fellow DIA coworkers, my arms and foot splayed in an awkward imitation of a downhill skier.

  Slowly I regain my composure and feel an angry frown forming on my face. The person who’d bumped into me is sitting s in the drizzle that’s steadily picking up, gaping up at me like a fish. I open my mouth to say something terribly dry and sarcastic about his hand-eye coordination with a subsequent reference to his supposed performance in the bedroom. But the words never make it out of my mouth.

  The man is strange. Really strange, like from the boonies strange. The first thing I notice is his shirt. It’s a white buttoned shirt, complete with a pleated collar and cuffs, like what rural farmers and cowboys used to wear back in the Old West. In fact, his pants are denier blue cowboy pants. Many people associate the denier type fabric with the janitorial profession, seeing as it’s what pretty much every janitor in Gotham wears, but that’s actually not the origins of the fabric. I happen to know from a report I once did on colonial history that cowboys and cowgirls used to wear blue denier pants, also known as jeans, because the fabric was cheap and extremely durable.

  Anyway, he’s wearing authentic period pieces which probably cost him more than my whole wardrobe combined. He’s also wearing strange black boots with a rounded nose, instead of the standard square cut. I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything like it, didn’t even know they made shoes with a rounded nose. For a moment I flash on the space suits used by FASA cosmonauts, but I dismiss the thought out of hand. There is no way this bumpkin ever set foot inside a launch complex, much less managed to lift half a million dollar equipment from the secure facility.

  The man, no a boy of no more than 20 years, looks up at me with astonishment. I stare back at him equally astonished. Eventually he lowers his eyes which come to a stop by my feet. I follow his gaze to my digidura, lying by my foot. The fall must have bumped the power button and now it is displaying the 3D demographics chart I’d been working on for the past week. The digidura’s lying on the bottom of a shallow puddle, the green and blue colors of the chart giving the water an eerie glow.

  Then the boy does something inexplicable. He lunges forward, grabs the digidura with both hands and takes off down the street I’d just come from. I stare at his receding figure, speechless. I look for someone, anyone, to share an incredulous look with, something along the lines of, Can you believe his audacity? The nerve! But there’s no one there. In fact, there’s not a single soul in sight.

  I grind my teeth together and take off after the kid. I throw my thermos into a passing garbage bin, after all the lukewarm kif is probably rendered tasteless by the now torrential rain that’s soaking me to the bone. I pump my legs, conditioned by endless hours on the treadmill, and hear the heels on my ridiculously expensive shoes crack from the impacts of my stomping run. I can tell they’re ruined so I rip them off my feet and chuck them into a doorway without slowing. Now I’m barefoot and I’m going flat out after the kid.

  As I’m running I feel rage coursing through me. The kid just cost me two weeks’ salary and he’s running away with work that I must turn in by lunchtime or face the wrath of Pierre Allouché, my department head. It isn’t just a random report that the kid snagged, it is a crucial component of a massive probability workup we were doing on the Indo European commodities earning potential for the next decade. Without it, I may as well not show up at work. A week’s delay on this would cost Pierre his job and by proxy, everyone who worked under him.

  The kid is half a block away but I’m gaining rapidly on him. The rain is now pouring buckets and I can barely maintain traction with the slick sidewalk. I keep working my legs, glad I spent so much time in the gym. This run isn’t even making me breathe hard but the kid on the other hand is wheezing like he’s about to cough up a lung. I’ve almost caught up.

  He glances back and sees me running after him. His eyes go googly and his head snaps center front, his speed increasing to a full sprint. Now I’m having trouble keeping up and I fall behind. I watch him recede again. I growl in frustration and consider calling an Officer of Public Safety, but dismiss the idea immediately. They will find the kid but by the time I get back my digidura, I’ll be out of a job.

  The kid suddenly ducks into an alleyway and disappears into the gloomy darkness between two skyscrapers. I plant both my feet as if I was snowboarding and slide to a stop in front of the alleyway. A moment later I find my balance and I dive into the gloom after him. I rush forward into the damp darkness and reach out to him. I snag an archaic collar tail on his shirt but he yanks it out of my grip by leaning forward.

  “Ow! Okay lady, fine. Have your damned computer back.” The kid says in a strangely singsong accent. Definitely not a Gothamite. The computer he’s referring to is probably hick slang for the digidura. Funny term that, an archaic reference to silicon based electronic adding machine. He throws the digidura into a nearby trash heap and continues running. I slide to a stop and dive after the digidura. I lift it out of a pile of moldy rags and use my palms to sweep it clear of dirt. The
screen is still loaded with my chart.

  “Upload your complete data chunk to DIA net and send a department memo to Pierre. Let him know I’ve been mugged and will be taking a day to myself. Contact Department of Public Safety and relay my location and situation, then switch to prowler mode.” I order.

  “Ye’s ma’am.” Replies Twiggie. “Messages sent, confirmed receipt. Prowler mode enabled.” The screen goes dark.

  I breathe a sigh of relief. My job is now safe and LE’s on their way, homing onto my digidura. Heck, if this kid is some sort of psych case, I may even get some positive press out of this. ‘Journeyman executive helps apprehend escaped state ward.’ Yeah, that might just do it. Let someone upstairs hear my name today, then recall it a decade from now when my name lands on their desk along with a pile of other candidates. As they say, no press is bad press…

  I square my shoulders and gaze into the gloom of the alley. It’s a dead end; about a hundred yards up there’s another skyscraper towering into the gray skies. No way out.

  “Give it up kid, there’s no way out. LE’s on their way and once Twiggie gives them today’s data spike, you’ll be back in Alenhall Asylum so fast your head will spin.”

  I can’t make out his shape in the dingy darkness but I can hear confused shuffling. The kid’s mumbling something to himself. “I know this is the path. It’s allways the path. What’s different this time? Don’t tell me I’m stuck in this God forsaken Tim Burton reject dimension.”

  I can’t make sense of what he’s saying but his melodic accent is strangely hypnotic. I find myself straining to hear more of it. I shake my head. It’s best if by the time LE shows up I look like I’ve subdued the kid.

  “What’s wrong kid, cat’s got your brain?” I call to him, trying to zero in onto any response. The shuffling stops and I have the feeling he’s staring at me. I shiver.

  “Lady, it’s best if you stay the fuck away from me.” He says. It sounds like ‘fuck’ is another one of his strange slang terms, an insult perhaps. Like ‘shit’ for us city denizens.

  “That’s not gonna happen kid. LE’s only a few seconds out. Best if you just lie down and wait. Otherwise they’re going to zap you silly and then pump you full of Haldol. You know what that is, right? It’s a drug that turns you near catatonic. Real nasty, makes you want to shove an ice pick in your ear.”

  I’ve moved closer and can almost make him out in the darkness. The rain is now pouring like mad, plastering my shoulder length hair into wet clumps. The locks are almost glued to my suit. Even my underwear will be ruined.

  “Listen lady, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll turn around and run as fast as you can. Some crazy juju happens around me and I guarantee you won’t wanna be anywhere near here when it does.”

  Gotcha you dirtbag! I think to myself and lunge forward. I grab his wrist and clamp down. He tries twisting free but I’ve got a firm grip.

  “What the…” He says in surprise, but trails off when we’re both engulfed in a brilliant spotlight.

  I smirk in the darkness. Couldn’t have planned it better if I had an entire marketing team script it out, I think to myself. I wave to the LE, but instead of descending, the light moves forward until it’s almost on top of us. I can hear the deep thrumming of giant turbines and I’m suddenly not so sure that it’s LE who’s found us. There are no strobe lights, no Officers repelling down with zap sticks and glass shields. Which means that this is him.

  “Shit kid, run if you know what’s good for you!” I scream into his face and begin dragging him towards the back of the alley – there’s nowhere else to go. Maybe there’s a door or something. It’s either that or get captured by the freak in black. Now that will make an interesting piece of marketing. Who knows, I might even get a post-mortem promotion out of it, I think to myself grimly.

  I don’t have to tell the kid twice and soon we’re both flying towards the far wall. As we get near, the spotlight swivels up to illuminate the rest of the alley. I gasp in surprise; there’s no building at the end. The alleyway continues on. I look up, and sure enough there’s no building above us. As I look around in confusion, I realize that the alley must curve at a strange angle, thereby allowing for a narrow passage between the three buildings. My thoughts are interrupted by the escalating whine of the turbofans which reach a frenzied staccato. Every denizen of Gotham knows that sound, knows to make themselves scarce the moment they hear it. I pull my head down and break into a sprint. The kid falls behind and I almost yank his arm out of its socket. I look back to see the kid’s pale face, splattered with dirt and rain, gasping for air. He’s almost out of juice and the damn freak is gaining on us.

  “Keep it together kid or we’re both going to end up in some deep trouble.” I can tell he sees how frightened I am, how much I don’t want anything to do with the maniac chasing us. He grinds his teeth together and picks up the pace. We stumble forward in the stark angular light of the chase craft, almost tripping several times in the now foot deep rainwater. We make it past the current row of buildings and plunge into the shadow of the next.

  Suddenly the turbine’s noise falls behind. I risk a glance backwards and see that the craft has stopped dead in its tracks. It’s hovering in place and it seems some sort of milky curtain has come between us and the spotlights shining directly towards us. It’s as if the light is coming from behind an opaque frosted window. I slow down in surprised wonder.

  “Will you look at…” I mumble, coming to a halt.

  “Keep running.” The kid says breathlessly, “The area of effect is fifty yards behind us. If we don’t hurry, he could follow on foot.” I don’t understand but return to running anyway. Before I turn my head, I think I see a shadow descend in front of the spotlight.

  Great, the freak is chasing us on foot, right through the heart of Gotham. And with this rain it might as well be night. Can’t get better than this.

  “Shit.” I murmur to myself.

  “You got that right sista. We’re neck deep in the stuff.” The kid quips back, a wry smile curling up the side of his lip. He so pale he looks like he’s ready to drop.

  “We’re never going to lose him like this. The darkness only helps him. No one can get away from him in the shadows.”

  The kid glances down back at me, the smile evaporating. “Don’t worry, I’ve got something special for him. If he still catches us, he deserves to win.” Then he winks at me and I feel a flush on my face.

  “If you know what you’re doing…”

  He nods and suddenly he’s spinning me into his arms, embracing me and pulling me sideways into the wall. But it’s not a wall at all. It’s another alley. He drags me the first few steps and then we’re both running for our lives.

  As I run and shiver and sweat, I realize that even the kid, the country bumpkin, has to know what happens when the freak gets you. You get the special treatment, the psychedelic workup, the big permanent smile. After he takes you down into his lair, whatever’s left of you will be so messed up, so twisted to shit, that they’ll dedicate an entire branch of biology to try and understand what’s happened to you. So we run some more. Because that’s what you do when the freak is chasing you.

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