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Authors: Gregg Vann

Warden: A Novel

Warden

 

 

 

A Novel
by
Gregg Vann

 

Copyright © 2015 by Gregg Vann

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

 

Silver Rocket Press

Author Website:
Greggvann.com

 
For my brothers,

Michael, James, and Steven

 

I won the sibling lottery

PROLOGUE
Innocence Lost

Tana held enough wealth in her hand to never work again.

Ever.

And though her
job
was thievery, the small data-crypt would guarantee she never need steal anything else to survive. A pampered life of comfort lay ahead of her, with unfettered access to the very best that the city had to offer.

Well…that was the dream she had.

The reality was that she—that they—had been hired by someone else to steal the tiny storage device, and if they didn't take it directly to their employer when the job was complete, neither Tana nor her partner would live long enough to sell it to a third party. But it was a nice dream to have.

For a little while, anyway.

Tana closed up the safe and reset its internal alarm system, and then carefully removed each of the electronic bypasses she’d used to defeat it and get inside. As she reached over and shut down the dampening array, Tana saw the display set into the thick metal door flicker back to life, and she took advantage of the soft light emanating from it to examine the safe and surrounding area closely, searching for anything that might lead the authorities back to her. When she was satisfied that there was no traceable evidence, Tana lifted the flap on her breast pocket and dropped the data-crypt inside. Then she firmly smoothed her hand back over the flap to reseal it.

She broke the dampening array down into three pieces, and then folded up the small tripod it was resting on before meticulously returning each piece of equipment to its correct slot in her backpack. Once she was confident that everything was properly secured, Tana took one last look around the room, and then she crept back over to the open window and climbed outside—placing both feet down onto the single-person hoverlift tethered to the side of the building.

Despite her slight build the conveyance twisted sideways, sagging a few inches as her weight landed unevenly near the center of it. Tana repositioned her feet to balance herself properly, and then reached over to pull the window closed behind her. It re-sealed with a hiss as the building’s security grid automatically reset, and a glowing blue line sprang to life around the outer edges of the window. Satisfied that she’d left no signs of her visit behind, Tana gave the tether a sharp tug to release the clamp.

She felt a profound sense of relief as she began drifting down slowly from the 84th floor of the luxury skyrise—one of the most exclusive residential addresses in all of central Le’sant. But when Tana glanced back up through the darkness, she noticed a tiny sparkle of light where the tether had been fastened.

Shit
, she thought.
A piece of the clamp must have broken off when I yanked the release. But even if they discover it, there can’t be enough there to trace anything back to us.

It will be fine,
Tana Neng assured herself.

She gazed out over the vast metropolis in wonder during her gentle descent, marveling at the different shapes and sizes of the various buildings. A diffused glow radiated out from each of the well-lit structures, highlighting their profiles in the dark. Tana could even see people moving around behind some of the windows, as the well-heeled citizens of Le’sant went about their normal activities, oblivious to the thief in their midst.

As daily life played out in the nearby apartments—the occupants coming and going as their responsibilities demanded—the lights in the windows flipped on and off at random, creating a patternless flow that almost mimicked motion across the faces of the buildings.

To Tana, it appeared as if the entire city was on the move—Le’sant was loud and alive. The very air itself seemed to pulsate with frenetic energy, and the multitude of disparate sounds drifting up through the night air only added to the effect.

She became distracted from the view when a chill breeze blew across her eyes—forcing tears to well up, and distorting Tana’s vision into a kaleidoscope of refracted light. She squinted hard, and then brushed a sleeve across her eyes to dry them. Once she could see again, Tana looked straight down at the ground below, trying to gauge the progress of her descent. But despite the tremendous height, Tana wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t afraid of anything.

Not anymore.

She steered the hoverlift off to one side to avoid a lighted window, and then straightened it back out again, renewing her slow journey down to the street.

One day, I'll have enough money to live this life,
Tana thought to herself.
One day,
when I grow up…this will all be mine.

The winsome thoughts of a child; the halcyon expectations of a yet unrealized and unrealistic future. But her ideas and aspirations were perfectly normal.

Tana was only nine years old, after all.

But then she saw something that brought reality crashing back to the forefront of her mind, pushing her dreams of a better life aside like some soulless juggernaut. Tana’s heart sank as she looked out between two buildings, recognizing the deep blackness that lay far beyond them—a place where weak and widely spaced lights barely flickered. That was the
other
Le’sant, where she lived. The part of the city where food and electricity were luxurious and expensive commodities, and you did whatever you had to do to survive. The hoverlift dropped a little lower and Tana’s view of the Outland was lost, but it had already soured her mood beyond repair.

When she finally reached the ground, settling into a dark alleyway between the skyrise and its much shorter neighbor, Tana looked around cautiously before hopping off the hoverlift. As expected, the alley was deserted—just as it had been when she’d left less than an hour before. So Tana dismounted and switched off the hoverlift, and then she folded it in half before placing it inside the backpack with the rest of her things. The equipment she carried was the only thing they owned of any real value, and Tana had been taught to care for it accordingly.

What the—?

She detected a vague sense of movement off to her left, and then a knife flashed out from the shadows, slashing Tana across the forehead. But before she could cry out, a practiced hand spun Tana around and slammed down over her mouth. Then a wiry arm stretched across her chest—restraining her arms, and squeezing in hard from behind.

As Tana struggled to break free, wispy strands of severed hair flowed down over her face, riding a river of blood that stung both of her eyes. Her vision was reduced to murky, crimson-tinged shadows, but Tana didn't need to see her assailant to know who it was. A familiar voice whispered sharply in her ear—the words slicing through the air with the same clipped efficiency as the knife that cut open Tana’s scalp.

“You left something behind!” it called out caustically. “I was watching you through the mag-lens. There’s a flake of metal stuck into the facade of the building.”

Tana tried to reply, but her attacker squeezed even harder, making it difficult to breath.

“Silence! I cut you above the hairline so it won't be seen, but the next time you fail me I'll take an eye. Do you understand?”

Tana was growing dizzy. She didn’t know if it was from the large cut on her forehead, or the painful compression against her chest, but she realized she was very close to passing out.

“I said…do you
understand
me?” the harsh voice repeated, seemingly oblivious to Tana’s condition.

But then the hand fell away from Tana’s face and her assailant released her. She staggered forward a few steps before doubling over, struggling to regain her breath.

“Well?” the voice said impatiently.

“Yes, mother,” Tana answered, her voice contrite. “I understand. I promise you…it won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t, child. Your training is almost complete, and you’ll need both eyes for the rough life you have ahead of you. Now, let's get out of here before the police show up.”

As her mother spun around to leave, Tana felt for her own knife—strapped tightly at her side. She used both sleeves to wipe the blood away from her eyes and then Tana silently withdrew the blade.

“Hurry up,” her mother called out.

She was moving away from Tana now, and not bothering to look back. But if she had, she would have noticed an odd expression overtake her daughter’s features—a look she’d never seen before. She would have also observed an electronic billboard lazily drifting overhead, throwing multi-colored splashes of light down into the alleyway behind her. She could have watched those lights sparkle off the knife in Tana’s hand like tiny colored fireworks, dancing across its gleaming metal surface. But Tana’s mother saw none of it.

And that carelessness would cost her.

Tana ran up from behind and stabbed the blade into her neck—savagely pounding on the handle with her palm to slice through the vertebrae and rough cartilage. There was no struggle—the paralysis was immediate. And in those brief moments of life remaining after her spinal cord was severed Tana’s mother realized what had happened.

Good for you child,
she thought to herself.

You no longer need me…

CHAPTER ONE
The Vade

The Final Testament of Jorl Qiswa

The Vade Mecum: Chapter 8602. Verses 430-504

 

No one dies alone.

A single law that binds us all.

Exceptions exist, of course. And despite all of our technology, accidents do still happen—ending lives at unexpected moments when no one else is present.

Murder is also a valid excuse. But even then, you’re not
really
alone, are you? And in those instances, the killer can qualify for relief from the court if he records his victim’s last words—a mitigated penal sentence in most cases, or even an administrative acquittal depending on the circumstances of the killing. The victim’s final testament is the vital thing. The knowledge contained in those last utterances deemed even more important than retribution for the crime.

But if the killer is foolish enough to lie about that final message, or even worse, tries to fabricate something in an attempt to exonerate himself, then the penalty is much harsher, up to and including death.

And an opportunity for the murderer to give
his
own
last testament.

And nothing is considered more valuable. The thoughts produced by the final synaptic sparks in our brains, directed by a lifetime of experiences and collected wisdom, those are what truly matter. And they must all be collected and recorded in the Vade Mecum.

I know this process intimately because it’s my vocation.

I am a scribe for the Vade.

My life’s work has been to transcribe the final words of the dying, and then to submit those statements to the editors for inclusion in the great book. For twenty years, I have heard some of the most profane and gruesome confessions imaginable. Things never meant to be shared, yet in the end, couldn’t be left unsaid.

Some testaments are merely a single word, and even those are frequently parsed and indistinct. While others are several pages long, as the dying relate the tiniest minutiae of their daily lives. The length is of little import; it’s the substance that counts.

But for all of the profound revelations I’ve heard, and there have been many, there have also been countless cases of senseless rambling—occasions where the mind departed long before the body. These entries are referred to as the errata lines, and though they are often nonsensical—sometimes no more than barely discernible moans—they still get recorded in the Vade all the same. The sounds rendered into phonetic approximations, and then placed right next to the lengthy dissertations of dying philosophers.

Most of the dying try to make amends with friends and loved ones at the end, or enact last-minute preparations to extend their influence over the lives of others—long after their own time has come and gone. But others crave revenge, lashing out with diseased minds to say hateful things that stain the living, even as their own color fades away from the fabric of the universe. They are emboldened at the end—free to say what’s been hidden in their hearts for ages.

And protected by death from retribution.

I’ve learned to be dispassionate in the face of all these emotions—harden my heart to the good and the bad. And it’s been necessary, for never is a man more genuine a creature then at the moment of his death. The dying know that this is the end, and they take off the disguises they’ve spent a lifetime crafting. They drop all pretense.

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