Excerpted from The City Above and Below: Song of the Weaver – Book One (2018, Lamplight)
12.11.2387 – Planet Vellus, just outside Alba Calea
There he was and wished he wasn’t.
The voice of a young boy echoed in his head like the conscience he had long forgotten. It was the middle of the night on Alba Calea, right around 23:50 intergalactic standard time, and Par Riordan was trying to open the back door of a mansion. The knob jiggled but would not turn. Locked.
Here you are, and here I am, too. It’s a lovely night, don’t you think? At least I think it is. Where are we again? And why are we trying at locked doors?
Par got down on his haunches and brought his eyes level with the keyhole. It was simple enough. Keyway, deadbolt, cotter pin, tumblers… He closed his eyes and pictured the mechanism as he spoke to it like a man spoke to a well-trained animal, and soon everything turned and with a click the door swung slowly open. He let himself in.
Such a strange manner that you visit your friend. I never visited my friends this way. It’s almost like the two of you are playing some kind of game, isn’t it? If it is a game, I want to play, but I suppose you’ll have to tell me the rules first. No one can play a game properly until they know all the rules. Rules are an important part of life. You taught me that, remember?
Standing in the foyer, Par closed his eyes again to tune out the voice in his head and listen instead to the stillness of the house around him. It was a cloudless night, and there was little sound except for the breeze as it whistled though the apple trees outside. He released his Shade. A cloud of gray metal flecks blew out of his body as thousands of tiny nano-machines launched themselves from his pores and flitted about the mansion like mechanical gnats. Searching, they found the children asleep in their beds and the mother asleep in the master bedroom. They saw the night watchman still outside, meandering through a path in the orchard. They found the dog, and a few of the bots crawled up against the creature’s skin and injected it with a sedative. Everything and everyone was where they should be, including the man he planned to meet.
Par took off his shoes and closed the door behind him. There was no need to be impolite. He was arriving unannounced, after all.
It really is a game. All of it. It’s all a game that you’ve been playing all of your life, and not just with your friend the senator—you play it with everyone. I never really thought of it that way before. I suppose I have to play now…
Par found Senator Nerus Petronus right where he knew he would: In his study, reading a book. The Senator was a native Illyari in every sense. Pure human. Fifty-two years of age with silver hair and eyes as sharp as his mind. Nerus looked up as Par quietly shut the door behind him.
Par pulled out his revolver and, sitting down in the chair, he set the gun in his lap and folded his hands over top of it.
Nerus let out a curt laugh and pointed at the gun. “Is that for me?”
Par stared evenly at the other man and pointed at the table between them. “Don’t be silly. You have a message from Rufus.”
Lying on the table was Nerus’s communicator, its yellow light blinking with a new message. Nerus picked it up and scanned his messages. Par watched as the senator’s face slowly turned white. Nerus tossed the communicator back onto the table where it clattered against the polished glass. Then the senator turned in his seat to stare out the open window. A minute passed in silence.
“I’m sorry it has to be like this,” Par said as he stared at the carpet. Leaning forward in his chair, Par’s hands cradled his pistol like a cup of coffee. “If we could have done it differently, I suppose we would have.”
Nerus glanced at him. “Is she …?”
Par nodded solemnly.
“How did they get to her?” the senator asked. Par could hear the emotion that Nerus was trying to hide.
“We’re not sure. It’s likely they discovered the affair and then simply coerced her.” Par shrugged. “Or perhaps she went to them.”
“She would never…” The Senator’s voice was defensive now. Nerus stood and faced him. “Who sent you?”
Par let out a reluctant breath. “Critus. His orders. Though Rufus knows as well. I don’t think anyone else within the Alliance knows yet.”
“Yet. But they will by tomorrow.” Nerus looked back out the open window where the wind was once again rustling through the apple trees.
“I have done this to myself, I suppose.” The Senator sighed. “Will my family be looked after?”
“Of course.” Par pointed at the communicator. “Didn’t Rufus…?”
“He did, but I needed to hear it from you.” The gray-haired man craned his head toward the glass as if he were looking for something, but Par could see that his eyes were distant and far away.
Par sat back and nodded solemnly. “Of course. I’ll look into it myself once this is over.”
“Thank you,” Nerus said.
A quiet moment passed as the Senator stared out the window, and Par stared at everything that wasn’t the Senator. Finally, Par’s friend nodded to himself. “I suppose we don’t have a terrible amount of time, do we?”
Par shook his head.
Nerus glanced at him. “And I suppose you’re not here to give me a ticket off planet. Are you.”
It wasn’t a question, but Par shook his head anyway.
Nerus sat back down in his recliner. “Alright. What do you have?”
Par pulled a vial out from his coat and set it on the coffee table between them. The clear liquid wobbled against the glass. “Tasteless. Takes about five minutes. It’s like going to sleep.”
Nerus picked up the vial and held it to the light of his reading lamp.
“I suppose that’s about as much as anyone in my position can ask for.”
Then his eyes shot toward Par. “They’ll know, of course.”
Par shook his head. “They can suspect whatever they want. It’s my own invention. Leaves no trace. Looks like a stroke.”
Nerus unfastened the cap, took one last look at the ceiling as if imagining a last wordless prayer, and then downed the vial. Licking his lips, he returned both vial and cap to the table, then picked his book back up and continued reading.
It’s important to always play by the rules, and if you don’t know the rules, you have to ask. That’s what Mom told me, and so that’s what I do whenever I don’t know the rules of a game. That way I don’t get in trouble and no one can get angry at me. It’s never fun when someone is angry.
Par let out the breath he had been holding and watched Nerus read, waiting for some kind of reaction, but the other man never looked up.
A few minutes later, as Par had promised, the Senator’s eyelids began to drift slowly closed until they stayed shut. Then his breathing became deeper and deeper until he began to snore lightly. Par kept an eye on the wall clock. Around 0:14, Nerus’s body shuddered twice, and then was still.
I don’t like it when people get angry. Especially if they’re my friends.
Par rose from the sofa to check Nerus for a pulse. Nothing. He closed the Senator’s eyes and asked his Shade to check the house once more.
Then he asked it to move into the orchard, the front yard, the driveway. Then he called it back to him, and when it returned to the study it crawled back inside him like an old, dead friend. Everyone was where they should be. The children and the wife were asleep in their beds. The dog was asleep by the front door. The watchman was now circling around the front drive, lazily dragging his feet over the graveled road.
Par left the way he had come.