The following is an excerpt of a novel in progress.
Delta Identification and Reporting
– Official Delta Anti-Terrorism Authority publication –
Per the Delta-Deviance Articles, Article I, Section 4, citizens of Atollis must report all sightings of unregistered Deltas to the DATA within 24 hours on penalty of jail time. If a citizen has reasonable suspicion that an individual is an unregistered Delta, they are urged to leave an anonymous tip at a DATA precinct. Community vigilance keeps Deltas who intentionally evade detection from committing acts of terrorism.
Should a Delta’s abilities manifest between DATA testing dates, the Delta must self-report within 12 hours. Deltas who self-report within 12 hours will be registered with the DATA, tattooed, and suffer no legal consequences. Deltas that do not self-report will be subject to incarceration or will be presented alternatives to incarceration.
The Dispersed One
The Dispersed One could not see, so he would have to feel. That was the first riddle.
Mind seemed to be matter. He could feel his essence stretch and stretch, thinning until his edges were blurry.
He thought first of being like sand born aloft by winds. He dismissed it—this must have been something he’d pondered on many a waking. He was too far dispersed. Thinner than air itself. He was sure that there was more of him beyond the limits of his senses, too far off to feel. But at least he had senses. A consciousness that began and ended. He knew, surely as time’s passing, that the lucidity would be brief.
This time was different from other wakings. His liminal space felt fuller. His prison of suspension had become denser and so too had he. He still seemed to be in the in-between space: both in the material world and not. That not-here-nor-there was the foundation of his oblivion.
But from within oblivion, something had pulled him to one. There was a tug. An old, calm presence. Faint, but steady. Mooring. It had drawn him here like metal filings through a tarry expanse of stars.
In the eons he’d been trapped this way, it was the first time he’d felt it.
The Dispersed One had felt many impressions in his time. Oceans receding. Cities rising from ruined rubble. Wars. Humans killing and crying, living and dying.
He’d felt presences like this one, yes—presences like himself. But they had always been larger. And never so deeply familiar. This presence was far older than the others—as old as he was. It sat in the material world like a whiff of a half-remembered scent on a breeze. Musk and antlers. Decay under white fungus.
The Dispersed One strained towards it. Strained limbless and blind among stars. Images surged over him. Great stag among wolves. Mycelium connecting towering oaks. Roots exploding from ground to form a figure. Silhouette against celestial sun.
The Dispersed One strained. He might be stretched beyond comprehension, but he did not deal in coincidence. These stars were his eternal fate-watching eyes. He willed them to direct him where he needed to be—to bring him closer. Possibilities for the future blurred around him like light trails, darkening as they approached the event horizon of the Sight. Each streak was sucked up and snuffed in succession. They had only ended so finally once before. It was a portent. There was a dark and spreading malady across the material world. And he wouldn’t be able to stop it this time.
The Dispersed One willed himself to be taken where he was needed—to warn those that could face it. He could not sustain himself in the material world. But he could plant a fragment.
Find me, Ronan.
Knowing that it was better than killing was never much consolation.
Hunt or be hunted was the reality of what Seia did, but she knew where she was sending her fellow Deltas when she caught them. The Axium was worse than lethal punishment—it drew out your end.
Seia feigned interest in the produce section of the 24-hour market her target was loitering in. The woman picked through a fruit display for something unbruised, clearly in no rush to go back out into the chilly city streets of Atollis. The lights of the market might be painfully bright, but the store was heated, and busy with occupants of the West District buying what they needed to get through another night.
The woman’s dark bun was streaked with early grays and fading turquoise. As far as Seia was concerned that made her ‘Blue.’ She didn’t know Blue’s real name, and couldn’t afford to.
Dyed hair was unusual for someone of Blue’s age, which Seia was putting in the late thirties by her crow’s feet. That was on the older end for a Delta, and nearly double her own age. Blue must have been one of the very first to have been turned into freaks by the Delta Storm. Combined with the pale purple tattoo on Blue’s right hand, which marked her as only an air-manipulating Venti, Seia was surprised that another gang hadn’t picked her off by now.
According to Korrith’s notes, Blue came to this store on the same day every week before walking home to Lestview Avenue. Blue wasn’t going to make it home tonight.
Seia moved to the aisle’s end cap, closer to the entrance. Blue glanced up, and Seia grabbed a pack of chips and pretended to read the nutrition label.
Blue looked up frequently, and this late at night in the West District, Seia couldn’t blame her. The West was the drain that the most unsavory or unfortunate citizens of Atollis spiraled to the bottom of. Blue angled herself to block a security camera by the door and slipped a papaya low on the display into the pocket of her fraying olive coat. It was the third item she’d pocketed. The Venti started towards the checkout, and Seia put the chips back.
Someday, if Seia saved up enough to leave the Drakons, she’d be stealing fruit again too.
Pulling the hood of her own jacket further forward, Seia slipped her hands into her pockets, then stepped out the sliding doors into the crisp, autumn night. Her breath clouded in front of her, reflecting the neon of West Row’s bars.
The cold should have stung. It dug into the rowdy passersby like claws, making them draw their jackets tighter as they scurried indoors. The Delta concentration was high here, and they hid their gloveless hands in their pockets. Her own tattoos were hidden under gloves—breaking the law was less dangerous here than drawing the eyes of those who flouted it. But the lack of chill against her skin was a constant reminder to Seia that her body had been altered in ways she’d never asked for.
Seia crouched off to the side of the store in a wavering pool of LED light, then untied and began to retie one of her steel-toes. People wearing cheap jeans and expensive sneakers strolled past. Bodies reeking of smoke and alcohol on their way to get more.
Blue’s scent emerged shortly: a cheap, lavender body spray attached to that long, olive jacket. Seia kept her eyes down, waited in order to create some distance, then resumed tailing.
Blue weaved through the bar goers with practiced ease. It meant Seia had to pay attention. Blue moved much the same way Seia did, keeping to shadows as shops gave way to slanted and crumbling apartments, taking unnecessary turns every few blocks.
Seia momentarily lost her when Blue turned a corner and a car playing pavement-thumping music sped by. But she latched back onto that fake lavender scent and followed it through the stench of gasoline and garbage rotting on curbs. Seia’s heightened sense of smell meant that she was constantly assailed by the streets’ reek, including the piss.
The condos grew taller, making their chase ever more like a cat after a mouse in a maze. The number of people out dropped. When Blue turned onto Concorra Street, Seia started to close the gap. The trap where Vonn lay in wait was only a block away. The Drakon lackey she’d been assigned to make the hit with would be growing impatient.
Lights fled the windows as they pressed farther from West Row, and deeper into the West District’s bowels. Seia was fine with the dark. It wasn’t safe for her—or anyone with a Delta tattoo—at any time, but night made people honest. If she was going to jump someone or be jumped, this was how she wanted it done: Atollis’ starless sky above and shadows at her sides.
When Blue passed the multi-story apartment building with the cracked stoop that marked the pinch point, the woman paused like she’d stepped on a trip wire and turned to face the mouth of an alley. Immediately, Seia flattened herself against the apartment building, underneath the stoop. She could just make out the sound of Vonn’s raspy voice coming from the alley, beckoning Blue closer. Blue began to slowly shake her head. After glancing furtively in Seia’s direction, the woman darted into the alley.
Seia followed fast behind, stopping just at the alley’s edge to listen as Vonn acted his homeless Delta role. He was the perfect manipulative minded Drakon for the job.
“…Thank you, thank you, sister,” Vonn rasped.
“Sorry I can’t do more. I’m not much better off—the groceries are for family.”
“No, bless your kind heart, sister. May Inyami protect you.”
“Might she protect us all.”
The prayer to the unlistening goddess was Seia’s cue. She breathed in deeply through her nostrils and tensed her muscles. Her skin horripilated, and she felt the familiar hot-water sensation of the Change flow over her body. Cartilage crackled as her ears grew more pointed and nose blunted. Places that had looked impenetrably dark became saturated with various shades of grays, and she was further inundated with the micro-scents of mildews and stagnant water. The hair on her arms thickened, and a fine gray fuzz grew on her face, melding into her jagged undercut. Her nails came last, solidifying into sheathed, cat-like claws.
For the job, she could bear it.
Picking out a glint off of the puddle that she and Vonn had made earlier, Seia jerked her hand then twisted it, rapidly freezing the water and spreading it out below Blue’s shoes.
Blue turned to leave and fell hard onto the pavement, grocery bags bursting and scattering microwave meals.
“Aye! You ok?” Vonn rose from against the wall as if to help.
Blue cursed. She tried to regain her footing but slipped.
Seia drew her collapsible staff from her belt. The unnatural heft of the small cylinder was comforting. The ability to do damage.
Vonn gripped Blue’s shoulder as if to help her steady herself.
In one movement, Seia darted forward, extended the staff, and shoved the weaponized alloy length against Blue’s throat.
Vonn flipped open a serrated switchblade. Any sounds in the alley were chased off by the screech of sliding metal. Blue went rigid.
“You have two choices. You come quietly, or bruised and out cold,” Seia whispered.
“Come… where?” Blue’s Adam’s apple bobbed against her staff.
Seia didn’t answer. She just pressed the staff a little harder into Blue’s throat.
Gingerly, the grappled Venti raised her hands above her head, giving Seia a close-up of the slitted, pale purple triangle on her right hand.
“You’ve got the wrong person. I’ve done nothing to any of the gangs.”
Again, Seia offered no response.
Two fingers on Blue’s tattooed hand curled, and Seia felt the air around them stir. She jerked the staff into Blue’s windpipe, bracing the woman’s body flat against her own. Blue choked, and the air slackened.
“How about you just focus on getting enough air to breathe?” Seia said.
“We can take you quietly, or since you didn’t play nice, we can add bloody to that original list,” Vonn added.
Seia’s face was practically pressed into Blue’s hair, but she didn’t need to see Vonn’s face to know that his lips were turned up. It was the look that all the Drakons got when they were toying with captured prey.
“We’d rather the first option, but we’ll do either,” Seia said.
“She’d rather the first—I wouldn’t mind beating the tar out of a windbag.”
Blue’s breathing was labored as she lifted her gaze from the knife, which Vonn now pointed at her sternum, to the staff Seia had pressed to her throat.
Then she froze.
Seia twisted her grip on the staff, hoping to obscure her claws.
“You’re a Changed,” Blue said, incredulous.
Seia offered her silence, but her heart pounded in her chest. She was terrified that Blue could feel it beating into her back. That Vonn could hear it. “That’s none of your business.”
“Look,” Blue started, “I don’t know how you got involved with that man, but you don’t have to do this. Let me go. I’ll help you fight him.”
“She’s not stupid, windbag. We’d skin her alive,” Vonn growled.
Vonn was right. Not about the Drakons. She’d survive them—Korrith had made sure of it. But she’d never survive Atollis. You can’t even help yourself, let alone me.
It took Seia too long to say so. Blue took advantage of the hesitation. One instant Seia was holding the Venti, and the next, the space around Blue exploded with air. Seia flew backwards and her shoulder collided with the wall.
There was a sickening crack, and white pain flashed across her vision. Seia gasped and tried to right herself, but the alley swam with inky blots. Vaguely, she registered her hood falling around her neck.
Blue was upright, something metal in hand.
Seia shook the spots from her vision and forced herself up.
Blue locked eyes with her, and the Venti’s features fell.
Seia knew what Blue meant. It was what everyone meant when they saw her Changed.
Blue looked her up and down like she was re-assessing Seia’s being, her eyes roving from Seia’ heavy boots to her too-large jacket and angular, furred face. It made Seia want to gore a hole in her.
“You’re a dual-Delta for Inyami’s sake,” Blue said.
“I know full well what I am.”
“I don’t know how you got in with him”—Blue gestured to Vonn, who had picked himself up and was standing back, wary now—“but you don’t have to do this. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Seia’s eyes met Vonn’s.
The beginning of glee she saw there—the anticipation that he could always be one step from putting her in a cell too—reminded her who she was.
“You’re wrong. I do have to do this.”
Blue’s eyes narrowed, and any softness she’d shown evaporated. Her age gave her power a sudden weight.
“Traitor.” Blue shoved her hands forward.
Seia tried to dodge, but another invisible gust caught her in the stomach, knocking her back to the ground. Wind yanked up on her clothes. Blue was right above her, a knife flashing, and Seia barely shoved her staff upwards in time to block. The weapons clanged together, and the knife flew from Blue’s grasp.
Blue grabbed at Seia’s staff, trying to yank it free of her grip.
Seia strained to keep hold; her forearms burned and injured shoulder screamed.
The staff began to slip from her fingers, and, in desperation, she unsheathed her claws and raked them across Blue’s hand. The ripping was sickening, but Seia squeezed, digging into muscle.
Blue howled and pulled away.
Seia leapt to her feet, and in a fluid arc, sent the butt of her staff careening into Blue’s head. Metal cracked against bone, and Blue groaned and fell into Vonn’s arms.
“You could have… helped,” Seia gasped. The alley was fuzzy.
Vonn shrugged. “That’s what we have you for. And besides, you’re supposed to be the one who makes sure the goods come in undamaged.”
He looked at Blue’s unconscious body and laughed. “Though that’s quite the bit of damage—they won’t like her hand being like that in the arena.”
No, they won’t. Seia fought to catch her breath, but her heartbeat was wildly out of control and her shoulder throbbed.
She was going to have to make this up to Korrith. Seia retracted her staff with a click. She re-sheathed her claws, trying to ignore the wet feeling of Blue’s blood buried under her fingertips.
The groceries had been scattered across the alley. They were never going to make it to Blue’s family. Neither, Seia realized belatedly, would Blue. You stopped thinking like that when you didn’t have family to return to.
Blue had called her a traitor. And she was.