Warden: A Novel (2 page)

They become

And while there have always been a few unwilling to speak—defiant and uncooperative for whatever secret reasons they hold in their hearts—most take their responsibility to the Vade seriously, knowing full well that their final testament is the only thing that still gives their short lives purpose.

The Vade Mecum has long been the sole repository of what passes for religion in our society, the font of knowledge that we all turn to when faced with troubles in our lives—when we need a sense of direction in uncertain times. There is something in it for everyone…for
And no matter what your circumstances, you can always find a passage to help guide you. Someone has walked a similar path before—faced the same struggle—and their experience lives on in the Vade.

Many regard the book as the sum of all knowledge, the collected wisdom of every human who has ever lived on this planet. And being associated with it is a high honor indeed. So you can only imagine my excitement when I was summoned to see Nedol Cedef, the Grand Editor of the Vade. And when I was chosen above all other scribes to develop a deciphering algorithm to sift through the century’s worth of errata lines, seeking clues to their real meanings. The hope was that we could finally glean the truth of those speakers’ last thoughts, uncovering the wisdom now lost to us in the convoluted mazes of incomprehensible gibberish.

I dove into my work at once, excited by the prospect of making a real contribution to the Vade. And I knew that my efforts would be tangible, and long celebrated by those who came after me. In my hubris, I became convinced that other scribes would surely benefit from my labors—even long after I’d left my own testament in the Vade.

But I had no idea how wrong I was. About everything. Or the horror and death my work would bring down upon us all.

Two weeks after I finished my program I sent it sifting through the bulk of the great collection, starting at the very beginning of the colony when the two ships first left Earth to bring our ancestors here. And it was on the second day that I found it—a message that would fundamentally change everything we knew about the Pardon War and its aftermath; the real truth about the greatest hero our planet has ever known; and a secret that would launch a bloody revolution to turn our society upside down.


If I’d known what my discovery would bring it might have tempered my excitement that fateful evening. Maybe I wouldn’t have run to Editor Cedef’s office, but instead, haltingly shuffled forward—unsure if it would all be worth it in the end. But it’s far too late for recriminations now. What’s done is done. I know my part in this and offer no excuses. But in truth, it was really that cursed thief who set us down this path. She alone bears responsibility for unleashing this hell.

And as I look out through the window now and watch the city burn, I can see the ashes of her efforts drifting down from the sky.

Lightly dusting the bodies in the streets.

Yes, this all truly began…

With her.

A Low Profile

, I’ve told you a thousand times…I can’t move this high-end stuff. It’s just too hot. As soon as I put it through my usual channels the police will kick my door in.”

Tana Neng smiled, doing her best to ignore the disheveled mess of mechanical oddities and dusty old artifacts strewn about the tiny shop. “Then put it through your
channels, Cobin.”

He looked surprised. “How do you—? Oh, never mind.”

The old fence looked her over closely.
How much she’s changed,
he thought to himself.
When we first met she was just a little girl—lethal and proficient, yes, but small and fragile as well. And now…such a beautiful thing. How old could Tana be these days? Twenty-five? Twenty-seven? If I was thirty years younger… Hell, who am I kidding? Even if I wasn’t.

Tana watched the man standing behind the wooden counter ponder, trying to guess at the various schemes going through his mind. She knew that Cobin was just as ruthless as any member of Le’sant’s underground economy, and if he could twist this situation to his benefit, he would. Tana didn’t trust him—trust anyone for that matter—but after she’d freed herself from her mother’s control all those years ago Cobin had been one of the very few that agreed to work with the underage thief. Some saw his willingness to buy her stolen merchandise as exploiting a child, but Tana knew it for what it really was: a path to survival. So over the years she’d grown comfortable with Cobin. Wary? Yes, but comfortable.

“I have no idea what channels you’re talking about, of course,” he said.

“Of course.”

“But I will ask around, nonetheless. I make no promises.”

Tana favored him with another smile. “I wouldn’t believe you even if you did.”

So pretty and wise,
Cobin mused.
that skin…so white that it’s almost luminescent. If she were larger she could almost pass for one of the First Ones.

Tana had her raven-black hair pulled back tightly in a simple ponytail, making it easy for Cobin to be drawn in by her radiant blue eyes.

If she didn’t dress like one of the downtrodden, and would put on some makeup for Barent’s sake, Tana could fit in almost anywhere in the city, including the Central District.

Is that how she did it?
he wondered.
Did she disguise herself as one of the Collective to liberate their belongings?
But then Cobin looked at her body again—noting the lean muscle and natural fluid movements. And he realized that Tana truly was a talented and gifted thief. She had the physical ability and mental talents to get into anyplace she wished, no matter how well it was protected.

Cobin reminded himself to check his own security precautions after she’d left.

“Then it’s agreed,” he said. “I’ll make some discreet inquiries about these.”

Cobin pulled the twin pistols from the silk-lined box and held them up in the light. As he turned them over in his hands to get a better look, the gleaming metal barrels sparkled, sending flashes of light throughout the small room. He knew what they were, of course, a ceremonial graduation set—stolen from one of the Collective, no doubt. Each of their representatives was presented with a pair when they were elevated to the higher ranks of government—a custom stolen from the Wardens, Le’sant’s elite military group. And by the looks of these, it was someone very high up indeed. Cobin didn’t think he’d ever seen reproductions of this quality before, and knew they must have cost a fortune to produce. That meant the owner would certainly be looking for them, and would make the pistols difficult, if not impossible, to unload. But if he could pull it off, Cobin knew he would make a pile of money big enough to stand on.

“Give me a few days and I’ll let you know something,” he said. “I’ll have to hold onto them to show potential buyers.”

“No problem,” Tana replied. “I can always steal them back if you hold out on me.”

Cobin thought.
I definitely need to reinforce my security.

Tana pulled open the well-worn door leading out of the small shop and stepped into the busy street—one of many such thoroughfares that wound their way through the southern part of the city. She looked back at the sign above the door and suppressed a chuckle. Antiquities and Small Electronics Repair, indeed. Any antiquities were of dubious provenance, and the only electronics Cobin repaired were the types used by the shadiest characters in the city—bypass rigs, field dampeners, serial lock interrupters, and the like. But this place was an open secret. The police didn’t bother Cobin as long as he didn’t go too far, and as long as he provided them with helpful information about his more successful and troublesome contemporaries. The authorities had much bigger fish to fry, and Cobin was more than happy to help them cook his competition. It was yet another reason that Tana chose to shun the bigger players.

She’d always focused on the higher-end goods, even when she was a child. The objects that were more difficult to both acquire
dispose of. Part of this decision, a rather large part, was due to the sheer challenge of it. But it also meant that Tana didn’t need to constantly steal in order to maintain her lifestyle. She could make enough in one haul to match what the daily thieves did in a month…often, even more. But you would never know it to look at her, or by where she chose to live.

The fences that handled such expensive items paid handsomely for them, but they were far too visible for Tana’s comfort. And the police always took a strong interest in their operations, so Tana had stuck with Cobin through the years. It may have meant less money in her pocket, but Tana had never been arrested. For her, it was decent trade-off. Tana already took enough chances on the heists themselves, she didn’t need danger on the backend as well.

As she began walking to her apartment Tana pulled her cloak around herself tightly to fend off the growing cold. The further out you went from the city center, the more the planet’s real environment began to exert its influence. And even though the frozen wasteland surrounding Le’sant was nearly half a kilometer away from where Tana lived, here in the Common Ring, she felt like it was much closer today. It was absolutely freezing outside, and she couldn’t imagine how those in the Outland—the outermost ring of the city—even survived. But then Tana remembered from her own time growing up there that sometimes, often actually, they simply didn’t.

Despite the cold, Tana ignored the moving sidewalk and decided to make the short walk to her apartment the old-fashioned way, one foot after another. The motorized walkway was one of the few modern conveniences the Collective installed in this part of the city—back when they were still actually developing Le’sant. But those municipal projects had ended centuries ago, and now the residents mostly fended for themselves. Except for those living in the Central and Middle districts, of course. They continued to have everything…as always. One of Tana’s neighbors nodded to her as she opened the front door, strolling into the foyer of her run-down apartment building.

“Byr,” she said.

“Hey, Tana.”

The man jerked a thumb toward the back of the building. “The power is out again so the lift is down.”

“But the sidewalk outside is still running,” she protested.

“I saw that too,” Byr replied. “I think it might be a billing issue.”


Tana mounted the stairs and made her way up to the sixth floor, barely breaking a sweat as she moved.
Third time in just two months,
she thought to herself.

Tana knew it wasn’t the landlord’s fault; if your tenants didn’t pay, it was hard to keep up services. But the outages were becoming more and more frequent, and if they continued, she would have no choice but to move somewhere else.

When she finally reached the door to her apartment, Tana unlocked the myriad security devices running down both sides of it—including one that would push out a cloud of paralytic gas if triggered—and then she pulled the door open and entered the small dwelling.

“Ident confirmed,” a mechanical voice rang out. “Entering standby mode.”

Tana patted the floating defgun like a waiting pet, not the lethal weapon it was. The small disk, no bigger than her clenched fist, was trained at the door, hovering approximately head high. Its barrel trailed her movements as she walked across the room.

“Shutdown,” she stated flatly.

The gun returned to its charging station, resting on an old bookshelf near the door, and then it slowly settled down into it. The defgun had been active for several weeks now, so Tana thought it was a good time to recharge it—then she could re-deploy the device before she went to sleep.

Tana dropped onto the couch and glanced around the small apartment, noting that everything was just as she’d left it. The tiny, unused eating nook was still full of sealed crates, each housing part of Tana’s collection of stolen objects—the ones she’d chosen to keep over the years. The neatly stacked metal boxes were mostly stuffed with jewelry and small antiques, as a reserve to sell later if things got bad, but there was also some unique tech stashed in them—things that had piqued Tana’s interest, and she was reluctant to part with.

Just to the right of the nook sat Tana’s minimal bathroom, and it represented the last of the apartment’s amenities. There was no bedroom; Tana slept right on the couch where she was sitting.

It may not be much,
she thought to herself,
but it’s a lot more than many others have.

She looked over in the corner and saw that the emergency generator had sprung to life when the building went dead, sending power where it was needed throughout the room—including a makeshift workbench running down the longest wall of the apartment. The flat surface was completely covered with the tools of Tana’s trade, many of which had been modified to accommodate her own unique style of thievery. Satisfied that everything was in order, Tana leaned back and kicked off her shoes.

Maybe if Cobin gets a good enough price for those pistols I can finally move in closer to the city center,
she thought to herself.
Maybe it’s time.

Tana already had a good deal of cash stashed away; she’d learned to be very frugal as a child. But she knew that moving to a better part of town would mean more expenses, and that meant more work—which invariably, lead to greater danger.

There was always a balance to maintain.

“Screen on,” she called out.

A video newsfeed began playing on the wall monitor in front of her, but noise rising up from the street below made it difficult to hear. “Volume up by two,” Tana directed, and the sound level rose up loud enough to drown out the interference.

A Collective representative was talking about the next day’s festivities; it was the annual celebration of Sergeant Barent’s Day. The scheduled citywide parades and ceremonies were meant to mark the victory of the prisoners over the guards and colonists five centuries earlier—the epic struggle between the First Ones that had shaped their entire society. But unlike most of Le’sant’s population, Tana was neither excited nor impressed.

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