Read Before Use

The basement of Satellite City’s main library was made up of several levels dug deep into the earth. Even this early, several hours before dawn, each level was filled with scholars poring over old documents, students fetching and carrying, and stewards and handmaids scurrying about. Alia flashed her cartouche at the attendant on duty and wound her way down the wide stairs to the level where one of the most extensive collections of pre-Catastrophe literature in the land was housed.

The staircase was crowded with people coming up to the main levels or heading deeper into the underground caverns. At the topmost levels of the basement, the walls were lined with brick and the floors covered in plush carpets, but as one descended, the brick gave way to raw stone and the ground became uneven, littered with rock and debris. The air grew colder as well and Alia shivered as she continued down.

At the bottom of the stairs the rock walls were damp and the high cavernous ceiling was lost in gloom. Everlights hung in sconces along the walls feebly lighting what they could. They were the latest victims of the city’s energy crisis. The vast generators that powered the city were slowly failing. No one knew why—let alone how to fix it. There were fears that the weather machines that made life beneath the dome possible would eventually shut down. But Alia was convinced that somewhere among the vast records in this underground cavern was the answer; she just needed to know where to look.

She slipped her pen and notebook out of the carry-all slung across her back, and rolled up her sleeves. She looked about, making sure she was alone. In the four years that she’d been coming down here, she’d never seen another soul this deep in the library’s vaults. The texts housed here were written in an ancient dialect of her homeland, Zahabad, and none of the city’s academics had ever bothered to learn it. Clenching her left fist, she flexed a mental muscle. Her hand burst into flames, but she did not burn. With a swirling motion, she turned the flame into a small ball of fire and launched it into the air. It hung above her head, high enough to avoid the risk of burning any of the ancient manuscripts, but still bright enough to illuminate the space around her. Hitching her bag more firmly over her shoulder, she moved deeper into the cavern.

By the time Alia emerged from the library’s basement, the sun was setting on the horizon. She was tired, hungry, and in dire need of a bath. But there would be no time for any of that. A ping on her AI told her that Shiloh Kestrel wanted to see her immediately. She sighed.

The family homes of the Great Houses were located in the part of the city known as the Scions’ Quarters. Here, modest but immaculately constructed homes were surrounded by manicured hedges planted in intricate arabesque designs. Gravel-lined pathways were flanked by shrubs of lavender, rose, hibiscus and violet. Even the benches, nestled underneath shady flame trees, were padded and comfortable. The lack of walls or fences suggested a pleasant communitarian spirit, but anyone who knew about Satellite City’s politics knew that the Houses were locked in fierce competition with each other. Those who fell afoul of this carefully camouflaged rivalry could be counted on to never repeat the mistake.

As Alia hurried along the garden paths, her heart leapt when she spied a familiar figure. Gilead Two Rivers was a solid man of middle height but he gave the impression of being taller. He smiled when he saw her, his grey eyes sparkling with good humour, and she fought to tamp down the heat that began to smoulder somewhere in middle of her belly.

“Good morning, professor,” he said. She returned the greeting coolly, careful not to meet his gaze. Like her, he was a professor of antiquities. But unlike her, he did not teach at the prestigious City University. Once a brilliant scholar, Gilead had dropped out of the Academy following a scandal with another professor’s wife. Now he specialised in procuring hard-to-find objects for collectors. It would not do for a full member of the Academy to seem overly familiar with a rogue scholar—at least in public.

And he certainly had the look of a rogue about him. His jet-black hair was in sore need of a trimming. It hung past his shoulders in fat, shaggy curls, giving him the look of a savage from the Forest Tribes. His tunic was of the finest linen but wrinkled, and open at the collar revealing a hint of the muscled chest beneath. His black scholars’ vest was dusty and he wore a pair of loose trousers over old leather sandals.

“We missed you at the last evaluations,” he said, blocking her path. “I heard you were ill?”

“I was,” she said tightly. The annual intelligence evaluation was a test only non-Scions were required to take. She had pretended to be sick to avoid the humiliating ordeal, even though she knew it would cost her lecturing privileges. What did it matter? She was barely allowed any classes anyway.

“I trust you are recovering well?”

“As well as can be expected,” she replied as she moved to go around him.

“I should think so,” as she passed he leaned in close to whisper, his breath hot against her neck, “given I was your carer.”

The smoulder flamed to a sudden heat that tore up from the pit of her stomach and she nearly dropped her carry-all. It was times like these that she was grateful for her Zahabadi heritage. Her brown skin was dark enough to conceal her blushing.

Gilead laughed. “Good day, professor,” he called as he moved off. But Alia was too flustered to respond. She was grateful too for the gathering gloom. In the twilight, no one would be able to see the steam that rose from her clothes as her body warmed up.

By all the gods, she thought, that man…

When she got to Kestrel House she took a moment to compose herself. Calming thoughts of water worked best. Few knew of her true nature, or the powers that accompanied it, and she meant to keep it that way. Besides, it did not pay to show weakness when among the Scions. With this one least of all.

Finally, she climbed up the front steps and rang the bell above the door. A serving girl answered the door and led her through the house. Shiloh Kestrel was standing on the veranda overlooking the inner courtyard. He was tall, even for his people, and his silk kimono did little to hide his powerful physique. Like all pure-blood Scions, he was bald, his silver hair shaved close to his scalp. Pale, colourless skin that seemed to glow in the gloom had given rise to the rumours that the Scions were not human. But Alia knew that was not true.

“Have you found it?” Shiloh asked without turning.

“No,” Alia said flatly. “If I had, you would know.” If Shiloh was irked by the sharpness of her tone, he did not show it.

“I have word that some of the other Houses have joined the search,” he said. Alia groaned inwardly. It was no secret that all the Great Houses were scrambling to find the city’s next new source of power.

“Perhaps if I still had my team—” she began, but Shiloh silenced her with an imperious gesture. He turned and fixed her with a hard stare.

“My mother may have had the wherewithal to indulge your academic fantasies, but I do not. The only reason I haven’t cut off your funding and sent you back to your homeland is out of respect for her poor health. But my patience is wearing thin. If this book of yours truly does exist, you will need to find it, soon.”

Alia fought to contain her anger. In Zahabad, she had been the Ivory Tower’s leading scholar in pre-Catastrophe texts. It was why Shiloh’s mother, Ramah Kestrel, had personally recruited her to come to Satellite City. However, few in the city shared Ramah’s vision. Alia still remembered the scowls of disapproval from the Scribes at the university during her intelligence evaluation last year. Despite her credentials and consistently stellar performance on those tests, many of her colleagues were still unconvinced that a woman born outside the dome could be worthy enough for their ranks. If Alia lost the support of House Kestrel, she would have to return home in disgrace. She shuddered to think what would happen to her should she be so shamed.

“If the other Houses are getting involved, that must tell you something,” Alia said.

“A delusion shared does not make it reality, professor.”

“The Mechanichron is real, Shiloh. The Ancients had a source of unlimited energy that powered all their artefacts. The specifics of it were written down in a text accessible only to Master Builders—all their records reference it,” Alia said irritably. She had to explain this each time they met. “This text must have been hidden away to protect it from the destruction of the Catastrophe. It would have been far too valuable to leave unprotected.”

“Then find it,” he snapped. “You have one week.”

As she was led out to the front door, Alia fumed. He hadn’t even given her a chance to tell him what she’d found that day: A reference in a pre-Catastrophe text which mentioned a Master Builder facility nearby. However, it lay beyond the protective dome of the City, in the area now known as Raven’s Crag. Without a security team, venturing off-grid would be suicidal, but what choice did she have?

It was well after midnight before Gilead came home. Alia had fallen asleep on his fold-out couch when she heard the authorisation beep from his key code. Leaping up, she ran to the front door just as the apartment’s automatic lights brightened. She was waiting for him as he entered.

“By the sword!” He swore in surprise when he saw her. “What are you doing here?”

“Where have you been?” Zahabadis always answered a question with one of their own. The lights quickly dimmed, but they were bright enough for her to see his bruised features and the way he cradled his left arm. “What happened to you?”

“Ran into an old client of mine,” he said wearily as he brushed past her and lowered himself painfully onto the couch. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Alia went to fetch the first aid kit. It was not the first time she had tended unexplained injuries on Gilead. His was a dangerous world and Alia had learned not to ask questions.

He was sitting on the floor—the couch had obviously been too much for him—and was taking off his shirt when she returned. She could see his body was in no better shape than his face. Three angry gashes stretched across his right shoulder. Slipping onto the couch behind him, she ran a UV wand across the wounds to disinfect them. Then she sprayed an aerosol dressing which would harden into a flesh-like graft and help stitch the lesions together. The rest of his bruises would heal in time.

When she was finished, Alia leaned back and studied him. He lay splayed out against her legs with his eyes closed, his chest gently rising and falling. Tenderly, she ran a finger along his cheek tracing the rough stubble of his beard. Despite his mystery, he was the man she loved. Could she really involve him in the misadventure that finding Mechanichron might become?

She slipped out from behind him and rose to put away the first aid kit, but he grabbed her hand and pulled her down on top of him.

“Thank you,” he murmured as he wrapped his arms around her. “Let me repay your kindness.”

He kissed her deeply and her body warmed to him. He often teased her that she was like ice—because it had taken months of relentless pursuit on his part before she had showed him any affection—but the truth was that she had burned for him from the moment they’d met. Her hesitation had been born out the struggle to control that fire. Even now when she was with him, she had to be careful. Detachment worked best. She observed his caresses with an artists’ eye, noting the contrast of their skins—his cured leather to her rich earth. The way his square hands were crisscrossed with scars as they explored the hidden depths of her body. She listened to her moans of pleasure, co-mingled with his, and dissected them for pitch and volume as they climbed to climax. But her control always left her, and in the end she would be forced to withdraw lest the flames of her desire set them both alight. Only in the aftermath of their union, as the conflagration inside her banked down to its embers, did she recall her purpose.

“Take me to Raven’s Crag.”

“What?” His eyes snapped open. “Absolutely not, it’s too dangerous!”

“I must get to Raven’s Crag and you are the only one who can take me there.”

“Why in the seven hells do you want to go there?”

“I can’t tell you that. Suffice it to say, it’s important.” She squared her shoulders. “You will be well-compensated,” she added.

“You have no money, unless the Academy is suddenly paying in more than sweet titles.” But something on her face must have told him she was serious.

He sighed and leaned back.

“As you wish. Only pray that the gods lay us both a straight path.”

It had taken two days to arrange everything: false cartouches, travel supplies and—most importantly—for Alia to smuggle out the ancient text that had referenced Raven’s Crag from the city library. It was a slim volume that had been slipped in between the covers of another tome, both of which were old even before her people had settled in the Land. If she was caught with it she would likely be exiled on the spot. But it was their only clue to the location of the Mechanichron.

Getting out of the city had been easier than she’d expected. A quick scan to make sure they had no contraband technology and they’d been able to board a caravan going to one of the northern kingdoms. Everyone joked that leaving Satellite City was easy; it was getting back in that was the problem.

“Where are we?” Alia asked when they disembarked in a shallow valley several hours later.

“Just east of the Plains,” he said. “Raven’s Crag is about half a day away.” She nodded at that. Half a day of walking would not be too taxing.

It was still a few hours before dawn and the air held a hint of frost. Out here in the world beyond the weather controllers, it would be winter soon. She could see the white wisp of the city’s near-transparent dome on the horizon. She turned her back on it and walked on.

“You seem very familiar with the wilderness, for a scholar,” she joked. “Do you sneak out of the city often?”

“Often enough,” he said, shrugging. “I suppose not having any students gives one a lot of free time. And it helps to not have the Council of Scribes breathing down my neck.”

“Yes, they are good at that…” Alia trailed off. “Is that why you left the Academy?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours.”

“I’d like to hear it from you.”

Gilead snorted at that. “If you must know, she wasn’t married when we first met. We’d known each other since we were children and we’d made a pledge that should I became a full professor of the Academy, we would marry. I kept my word, but when we went before her family, they opposed our union. She was a daughter of a Great House and I, a nameless bastard of the Forest Tribes. She married another and for my impertinence, I was stripped of my position.”

A silence hung heavy between them and for a time all that could be heard was the crunch of their boots on the gravel.

“That was a grave injustice,” Alia spoke finally. “What does it matter that your mother was not city-born? You gained a full professorship with one of the finest institutions in the Land. You are more than their equal.”

“I don’t need you to tell me that,” he said, roughly. He glanced back at her and blushed when he caught the look on her face. “But it does help to hear it once in a while,” he said with a wink.

Alia laughed and looked up to the cloudless blue sky ahead of them. What she saw made her mind go blank.

“What’s that?” Alia fought to keep the fear out of her voice. She’d never seen dragons in life, but she’d seen plenty of pictures of the mangled remains of their victims—eaten, it was said, while they still lived. A flock of them was cresting over the horizon. Gilead cursed softly.

“Do you know how to use a bow?”

Without waiting for her answer, he produced a crossbow and a quiver full of metal-tipped arrows from his large rucksack of supplies and thrust them into her hands. She notched an arrow into the dock and lifted the bow to her shoulder. Gilead squinted into the oncoming flock and suddenly looked ill; they were heading straight towards them. From the belt around his waist he pulled out a hunting knife.

“Run.”

He sprinted toward the nearest range of boulders scattered across the valley floor. Alia gripped the pommel of the crossbow and took off after him. Years of city jogging and a long, lithe frame allowed her to easily keep pace. She prayed to all the gods old and new that they’d make it to safe ground in time.

They didn’t.

The air was suddenly filled with the sound of beating wings and the shrill cries of the creatures. From the sky above, an ink-black creature bore down on her and she caught the gleam of a claw seconds before it gouged long furrows along her right shoulder. She threw herself onto her back, twisting her body away from it, and managed to point the crossbow up and fire. The bolt connected with a satisfying thud. The creature screamed in pain—a sound that was oddly human—before it veered away, leaving her sprawled in the dust. The contact hardly slowed the others and they zipped past, skimming the air just above her. Finally, when the last of them fluttered over her, she sat up and looked around. She saw no sign of Gilead.

“Gilead!” she called out, but all she heard was the chirping of strange birds in response. “Gilead!” she called again, fighting the rising sense of panic within her. If anything happened to him, she would never forgive herself. Before she could call again, she heard a groan behind her. She almost cried with relief when she saw him emerge from behind a boulder.

“Are you alright?” She asked as he reached her.

“Are you?” He asked. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak just yet.

“Good,” he said softly. Then she saw him catch sight of her right shoulder and frown. His eyes slid over the blood and torn cloth and he turned away. The act stung her in a way she could not name.

“Let’s go,” he said curtly. And he walked off.

They got to Raven’s Crag just as the sun began to dip in the sky. The crag was a single tower of red rock jutting high into the sky like a finger accusing the gods. It was a monolith so vast it took a full hour to circle it. Unlike the surrounding hills, its sides were smooth as glass, broken only by a few ledges of rock that jutted out from its face. Local legend said that the crag had once been a home of the Ancients and that deep in its bowels secrets from before the Great Catastrophe still lay. Alia believed it was more than legend.

On the way, they had fought off more wild creatures and had to flee a band of marauders. Wracked with exhaustion they fell into a tired heap at the crag’s sandy base and stared up at the rock with the sun setting behind it. The air was cooling quickly and Alia could feel the chill seeping into her bones. Her wounded shoulder ached and she clenched her jaw to keep from shivering. She willed her body to heat up, warming her. As usual, she had to be careful not to get hot enough to burn.

“We need to build a fire,” she said when she felt strong enough to talk. Gilead nodded wearily. He hadn’t quite recovered from his beating earlier that week and she could see the walk had taken its toll on him. He was pale and shivering, his eyes like hollow bruises. He struggled to his feet and went to search for firewood.

She reached into her robe to make sure the slim volume she’d smuggled out of the library was still strapped to her waist and then took the opportunity to tend her injuries. She slipped her shirt off her wounded shoulder and shone a light on the long gashes. They looked oddly familiar. She nearly dropped her torch when she realised why. She had seen wounds exactly like them not more than a few days ago. On Gilead.

She waited until full nightfall, after they’d built a roaring bonfire, before she spoke. She had been careful lighting the kindling, but she couldn’t resist playing with the fire. As Gilead drowsed opposite her, she surreptitiously manipulated the flames into creatures that had only previously existed in her nightmares.

“How long have you known about the Mechanichron?” She asked finally. It was not quite a question and Gilead did not seem surprised to hear it. He sat up and stretched with a sigh. The warmth seemed to have strengthened him as his face had lost its pallid hue.

“For the last year or so.”

“So who are you really working for?”

“The House of Crow,” he said simply, almost sadly. “My mother was a warrior from the tribes of the Forest Omin and my father is Obed Crow.”

She nodded curtly, taking deep breaths to fight the shock. She’d been sleeping with the son of House Kestrel’s foremost rival. “Then why are you helping me?”

He shrugged. “Because you are a brilliant scholar whom I can never hope to equal. And because, unlike Shiloh Kestrel, I know you’re right.”

Unbidden, she recalled the first time they’d met in the gardens of the Scion’s Quarters. She had just arrived in the city and had been so lost in the scenery that she hadn’t seen him walking up the path. They had collided in that comic way only seen in stage plays. How he had smiled when he apologised… She felt a stab of pain that was almost physical and she fought to keep her tears in check. She would not cry in front of him. She would not.

“So, it was all a lie,” she said flatly. “Did you ever love me?” She hated the note of pleading that had crept into her voice. He set his jaw stubbornly and looked off. He glanced back at her and let out a long breath.

“We are both pawns in this never-ending game between the houses, Alia,” he said softly. “You of all people should know that.”

The next morning they made their way into the crag. The entrance was a crumbling archway that could be easily missed if one did not know where to look. Beyond it was a flight of steps carved out of raw stone that climbed upwards into darkness. Clenching both her fists, she set her hands to a controlled burn and turned the flames into a massive ball of fire that hung above them.

“You’re a firestarter,” Gilead gasped.

“And you are a midnight man.”

His face darkened at that. “How did you know?”

“Oh come now, did you think I wouldn’t notice how good your eyesight is at night? Or how dim the lights in your quarters are? The genetically-modified always know each other.”

“Do you think this changes anything?”

Alia shrugged. He was right, revealing her powers had been a foolish move. But for some reason she had wanted him to know. She had wanted him to see her as she truly was. Perhaps there was a part of her that hoped it would make a difference.

“You’re not the only one with secrets,” she told him coldly. She moved into the tunnel, not caring if he followed or not.

The steps continued relentlessly upwards, occasionally branching left or right, or dead ending at a stone entrance. This far from the grid, they had to rely on their own knowledge of the language of the Ancients to decipher the security technologies that guarded each entrance and work their way deeper into the facility.

They found the chamber almost by accident. A right when they should have gone left and there it was beyond an open doorway: A library.

Inside the chamber, Alia shrank the ball of flame to keep it from setting anything alight at the same time brightening it until it shone like a small sun, as she did whenever she was in the basement of the city library. In the sharp light they saw that the room was actually several levels of balconies whose walls were lined with books. Each level was linked by a winding flight of stone steps at the centre of the room which led down into darkness. Alia moved to the nearest shelf of books and read the titles printed on their spines. She was shocked to find she recognised the language they were written in. It had one of the most popular dialects among the Ancients just before the Catastrophe. She had been right: Raven’s Crag was a Master Builder facility, and likely a repository of much of the Ancients’ knowledge. Further investigation revealed that the library’s filing system was similar to what was still in use in Zahabad’s Ivory Tower.

The Mechanichron itself was nestled in between other tomes discussing the philosophy of engineering. She felt an involuntary surge of joy as she cradled the book in her hands. At long last, it was real. It was heavy, its covers made of a wood-like material that had probably perished with the civilisation that invented it. Gingerly, she opened it and began to read the first page, but she barely had time to turn the page before she felt the cold of a blade at her throat.

“Hand it over,” Gilead whispered in her ear. She closed the book and passed it over her shoulder to him. Something white-hot through blazed to life within her and for a moment she was tempted to set both him and the book on fire. As if reading her thoughts he sheathed the hunting knife and came to stand in front of her.

“By all the gods, I wish it hadn’t come to this,” he spoke with such sadness she almost believed him.

“You don’t have to do this, Gilead. You said yourself, we’re just pawns. They don’t care about us. We could leave the city and disappear.”

“And where do you think we’ll go, hmm? To my mother’s hut among the Forest Tribes? Or to the backwaters of your homeland? If I bring back the Mechanichron, I’ll be granted a full reinstatement to the Academy; my father might even recognise me as his rightful heir.”

“You really think they’ll accept you? You’re just like me—”

“I am city-born with the blood of scions running through me. I am nothing like you!” Gilead snarled, cutting her off.

The savagery of his response took her aback, for in it she caught the same contempt she saw on the faces of Scions whenever they thought she wasn’t paying attention. It dawned on her that this was why Gilead had never spoken about his parentage. It wasn’t an attempt at mystery, it was shame. For the first time, Alia realised she was seeing the true man behind the smiles and the jokes. She felt as if a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head, and all thoughts of fire fled from her.

“No. You’re right,” she said. “You are nothing like me.”

With that, he hit her with the book.

When she opened her eyes, she was outdoors and the ground beneath her was hard and rocky. She looked up and the sun was blazing with noonday strength. She had a headache and, touching the side of her head, she could feel the bruise that had formed when Gilead had knocked her unconscious. Gingerly, she got to her feet and studied her surroundings. She had to clap a hand to her mouth to keep from screaming.

Just beyond her—no more than an arm’s length away—the ground ended in a dizzying expanse of sky. She was standing on one of the granite slabs that jutted out from the smooth sides of the vast rocky crag. Above her, the cliff continued straight up, its top lost somewhere in the clouds. She was gripped by a sudden feeling of vertigo and for a moment she thought she might faint. Alia backed away from the edge until she felt the cool touch of a stone entrance behind her and took several deep breaths till the feeling passed. Her mouth was still too dry and she desperately needed to urinate.

She turned and scanned the rock door behind her, but there were no buttons or pads, no way to open the door. She was on the wrong side of the entrance. Slumping against the rock, she slid to the ground in despair. Gilead Crow had lied to her, stolen her life’s work and abandoned her to die. He was gone; she was sure of it. She thought of the feel of his lips on hers and waited for the familiar heat to flare up in her. It did not. Instead she felt cold, like something had died inside her, like she would never know warmth again.

She wrapped her arms around her knees and heard the crinkle of paper. Reaching into her robe, she brought out the slim booklet that had led her out here in the first place. She hadn’t told Gilead what she’d noticed in reading that first page of his book. She had made a mistake. The Mechanichron was actually two volumes which described a single mechanism. The book Gilead had taken away only contained illustrations of the mechanism in various states of assembly. The slip of papers she held was the machine’s instruction manual.

She reflected on the few years she’d spent in Satellite City. Built by the last remnants of the Ancients to protect themselves from the effects of the Catastrophe, the city had become an oasis of technology in a world that still lived by sword and stone. But perhaps it was time for their machines to die. Perhaps if the dome were to come down, the proud scions would finally be forced to open up their city. Maybe, in time, they would come to appreciate the richness of the worlds beyond their own, and understand that they were no better than those they scorned.

The thought warmed her. Smiling, Alia began to heat up her body. Soon she would be on fire—and so would the book. This time, she would let herself burn.

Chinelo Onwualu

Chinelo Onwualu is an editorial consultant living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is editor and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction, and chief spokesperson for the African Science Fiction Society. Her writing has appeared in several places, including Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, and Ideomancer. She has been longlisted for the British Science Fiction Awards, the Nommo Awards, and the Short Story Day Africa Award. Find her on her website at: www.chineloonwualu.me or follow her on Twitter @chineloonwualu.

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