, the first book in the Chronicles of Xannia.
Book One of the Chronicles of Xannia
A Fine Line
Ducking through one of the large, back double doors of Professor Denali’s cube-rider, I second-guessed myself as I scanned the open shelves. Every fibre of my training as a Contractor with the Facility tore at the ethical implications of digging through a client’s personal files. But this is important, Taya. It goes way beyond job ethics. Silence is not an option.
I forced my breathing to deepen, slowing my heart rate, to clear the adrenaline from my body. It was one of the first techniques taught at the CTF – Contractor Training Facility. The idea of ‘mind over matter’ had not been easy in practice, but once I learned it, nothing could stop me.
The files themselves were pristine red folders of varying thickness located in chaotic and random stacks on the clear shelving unit. They looked identical, save one with a thin vertical black mark on the base. The paranoid professor did not want anyone going through his research. He almost fired me, the day I started on the project, for trying to categorise and organise his haphazard stacks, but not before I noticed the file with the mark and looked at it.
A crackling sounded outside. Dammit! He’s supposed to be across the lake.
My shoulders stiffened. I listened carefully for any other sign of the professor’s reappearance. The wind shifted and a faint rasp wavered in the mid-morning heat from the dry grasses surrounding the smallest of three lakes in this region.
No one appeared.
I turned from the shelving and strode back to the double doors. If I was caught, I needed a good excuse for being in here. I pocketed one of the stoppered vials I needed for the research from a rack by the doors. The reflective metal above the triple row of individually- suspended samples caught the edge of my sightline. For a fraction of an instant, I stared back into my large black eyes beneath my work cap, framed by bronze skin and red s-shaped tattoo-like birth markings of various sizes, known as coliths. It was an imperfect reflection, but then again, so was I.
My eyes asked the questions I fought to ignore. So then, what are you doing? Do you realise the consequences?
I snapped my head away from the reflection and returned to rifling through the wall of folders.
Three weeks ago, when I’d learned that Professor Denali registered with the office for a Contractor to fill a three-fer, a position equal to three lab technicians, my radar for the unusual triggered. Less than a year ago, the professor had been discredited in court and his ecological research into the stability of verrin, the life- sustaining liquid for all Xannians, was deemed compromised, due to report falsification. The scientific community ostracised him. Only the Facility knew he’d reactivated his research into the natural sources of verrin and the liquid’s chemical makeup. I capitalised on his request for a Contractor willing to enter the Expanse on a daily basis. The controversy surrounding the work, and the man himself, bothered me from the start.
The fact that Denali was taking his theories so far beyond civilization and so near the death zone of the Deserts, made even the top Contractors nervous. With my habit of craving challenging assignments, this not only gave me the opportunity to work in one of the scientific fields I excelled at, but also to learn the truth about his research.
I moved from one stack of files to the next, from one shelf to another. He never puts it in the same place twice.
The Press hadn’t been permitted into court hearings, and the Kronik, the governing body of councillors and the honorific term used for the head ruler of Xannia – made the final ruling on Denali’s case behind closed doors. I allowed myself a brief smile as I thought of Zaith, my best friend, who happened to be one of a few reporters to interview the professor after the trial. She too believed a cover-up was in play, and she knew the right way to break a story. My contract forbade me from discussing work-related issues with non- Facility personnel but Zaith had taught me when to bend the rules.
Zaith didn’t know it yet, but she needed this information.
The thin black mark called to me like verrin to a dying man. Gingerly, I slid the file out from the bottom of one of the precarious stacks, past the raised base of the clear Plexiglas cabinet. Shifting through previously scanned pages, I spotted fresh ink in the middle of the folder. With Vitexid’s Lakes lying so close to the Deserts’ border, the professor did not want to risk losing any data stored electronically, should a pocket of charged magnetism blast through the Expanse. I never thought I would have need of the old skill of writing without a stylus and responsive screen, but here it was a daily occurrence. Yes. This is it – he’s getting closer to the truth.
I scanned the new notes, committing to memory each paragraph as a separate picture and internalizing my sense of the current atmosphere as a trigger.
As the weight of Denali’s words registered in my mind, I rasped air into my throat. The letters swam on the page. A convulsion shivered its way from the base of my neck down through my arms and into my fingers. The pages I held echoed my shudder.
“Holy Trinity,” I whispered.
A twig snapped. I shoved the file back in place, steadying those above it, closed the protective door, and backed out of the vehicle. Taking the vial from my pocket, I held it up to the bright rays of the second sun, Beta, to better illuminate the thick pearly-orange liquid inside. Although I faced the tube, my eyes tracked the professor as he flattened more of the reeds and grasses between the current verrin sampling station and the rider.
I walked several paces back to my spot by the lake, the smallest site we’d visited during our first week out here, and set the vial on the trampled grasses. I made comparison notes between the sample and the lake before me.
I heard the crisp sound of a page turn as Denali flipped through the report I’d printed for him that morning. A grimace crawled across my face as I thought about riding to work with the professor. He was usually late, and he was always grumpy. It was so much easier to get lost in a crowd on public transport and be left to my own thoughts, than riding with a miserable old photon who wanted nothing to do with me. Owning my own rider wasn’t practical. Contractors had free access to public transportation, and usually the jobs I took were within city limits.
The rider creaked as he entered the back. I sighed, shaking the tension from my shoulders. Trailing my fingers back and forth in the verrin, I created deep swirls in the viscous liquid. I hadn’t realised just how thin the verrin back home was becoming. Looking at the thick, life-sustaining ripples, I leaned closer for a better view. Denali had said to check for darker, muted patches of orange.
Scanning the surface, I focused on the hazy reflection bobbing back. The natural hue of the verrin distorted my Matin heritage by washing out the bronze skin and turning my deep-red coliths a hue closer to rusty orange. There were few colith markings on my face, as was normal for most Xannians, but a particularly long thick wave extended from the right side of my chin and down the length of my neck. A shorter, thinner squiggle nestled by my left ear along my jaw line.
I marvelled at how the loose strands of black hair escaping my cap and the unique black tracings around the red coliths stood out bold and clear. Strange how the colour black is altered so little by verrin.
I stared at the reflection of the embossed emblem on my black hat. A light-grey inverted triangle sat beneath the outline of a dark-green circle that crossed the tips of the triangle. What caught most people’s attention though was the thin, three-sided natural bolt of red lightning crashing through each side of the triangle. The red capped letters, CTF, were more a formality than a necessity. Every citizen learned to distinguish that symbol from a young age. It represented more than its slogan of Strength, Power and Unity.
As a member of the Contractor Training Facility, I represented less than one-percent of Xannians who were capable, both mentally and physically, of graduating the daunting prerequisite training in order to work for the government’s most esteemed public service outlet. Held to a higher standard than most people, I still managed to fight my way through the trials at the Facility faster than anyone before me.
My mind flashed images of the pages I’d just scanned, taunting me. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the code but sometimes interpreting the ethics of a situation were far greyer than I liked. Even so, I would never compromise a Contract.
I took a shallow sample of the darker patch of verrin and wiped the excess drips from the tube onto my dark-green, Facility-issue work pants. I labelled the newest sample, making sure to keep a steady hand for clear and legible letters. The professor and I collected data from various sites in and around the Expanse, with particular attention to the natural verrin lakes first discovered by the early immigrants travelling from the Ancient City. Vitexid the Waylayer was the first to map this area, and so the lakes and this region were named after him.
As Denali and I studied the local flora and fauna, we extracted verrin samples on a regular basis, not only from the main lakes but via exploratory holes, using compact boring machines to get to areas where the underground springs and rivers flowed closest to the surface. This week we were back at the third lake – the most dramatic data coming from this site.
Holding the two vials against the arm of my lab coat, I compared colour and viscosity. Lifting both tubes up to Beta, I squinted. The back door of the rider slammed shut, and the crackling of dry grasses drew nearer. Another page flipped.
I could sense what was coming by the way Denali held his body and the aura of tension clinging to him, but I tried to analyse the two tubes anyway. With so much information vying for precedence in my head, it was no surprise that I couldn’t concentrate. Besides, if I didn’t look at him, he might not speak to me. I could only hope.
I had learned not to converse with the professor for any reason, shy of a major revelation in the research. A guarded and fickle man, his suspicions of everyone and everything irritated me from the moment we met. He constantly hovered over me as I worked; an irritation I managed to deal with, so long as he didn’t actually call my efforts into question.
Setting down the vials, I hastily wrote out my notes. Denali’s double shadow crossed over me as I set down the clipboard beside my knees. I could imagine his mind buzzing as he flipped through the report. Stay calm. Breathe.
“Ms Jutaya,” he blustered moments later. “You failed to state in this summary the development of new life forms in the surrounding soil bed.”
I stood up.
He shook the report at me, inches from my nose. I did not flinch. Being shorter than this middle-aged man nearing his seventies, he often attempted to use his height as an intimidation tactic.
Usually, I could meditate through it, zone out. But the file with the black mark changed all that.
“I can’t afford mistakes. There can be no question of authenticity. You have no idea the severity of the situation face…”
“On the bottom of page–”
“I should have known you weren’t old enough…” His vocalised thought trailed to a murmur.
“Professor, if you would–”
But he wouldn’t listen. He turned from me and stalked away, grumbling about the current state of the planet and the impertinence of youth today.
I frowned. I knew very well what he was up against, but he was mistaken about that report. He’s mistaken about me.
Shouldering my canteen and grabbing the two vials, I followed him over to the sampling site. He’d been working to fix the machine for the past two days. We needed viable samples from the bottom of the lake – comparative samples necessary today or he stood to lose the overall results of the last week’s worth of findings.
Stiff shoulders crept towards my ears, matching the tension in my fists; they throbbed as my nails dug deeper into my palms. Calm down. Back away. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.
Moments of his persistent griping about my organizational habits slammed into my mind, his constant complaining about my age, his lack of trust toward me. Regardless of my own agenda, I would never endanger anyone or anything as important as this project. My title alone demanded respect, and he hadn’t shown a nanite of confidence in me or my training. My jaw clenched as the anger of the past three weeks mingled with the return of frustrations I hadn’t faced in nearly eight months.
Denali hunched over the verrin-sampling device to watch as the latest trial sample rose out of the pond. The seal appeared intact and the vial pristine. It worked. My breathing technique forgotten, my patience training now battled with a high-strung will.
Logic nipped at my neural pathways, but something deeper in my soul clawed to the surface and broke through the carefully-mortared bricks of my wall of calm. I leaned over and snatched the vial with the latest sample from the machine. This was the only way for him to listen to me. Denali bolted up and slipped on the mucky bank, temporarily submerging his left foot.
“What are you–?” he sputtered, shaking his leg.
“Now, you listen, Professor.” I twirled the tube through the fingers of my free hand. “I can understand and even sympathise with your nervousness about the need for complete accuracy on this project. It doesn’t surprise me that you’re anxious about someone ruining your work again, but I am a Contractor.” And even though I plan to leak this information, it won’t be done in a damaging way.
I had to believe that – it had to be true. I gripped the oh-so-important vial in my fist. My mouth went on autopilot.
“My meticulous training to be a knowledgeable and efficient assistant and to uphold moral guidelines most commoners don’t even know exist should always remain paramount in your mind. That report…” I pointed with the vial to the pocket of his lab coat, “… has extensive information about new life forms in its detailed, highlighted subheadings.”
I stared the old Shimug down. The professor’s breathing betrayed his waning years. He stared back at me with dark-blue coliths scrunched around haughty black eyes, stark against his grey skin. He looked like a fool. Now that the beast was free, I stopped fighting and gave over fully.
“The point of a summary is to be brief and give an overview of the main report. I clearly mention the evidence of new life at the end of the last paragraph on page three.”
“They give me a child
to work with,” he said. “They restrict me to dealing only with the CTF, and only with one assistant, and expect me to maintain perfect records for their eyes only – impossible! If I hadn’t checked up on you, my notes would be a mess. Am I to believe that you are actually capable of handling the positions you’re here for? The Kronik is delusional if it thinks I can make progress by triple checking a teenager’s work while completing my own studies. This is preposterous.”
Heat flared up the skin of my neck, warming my cheeks.
In a low voice I said, “And you never found a single error in all that time, did you Professor
?” I spat his title at him and tossed all three verrin samples at his chest. He fumbled the catch but ended up holding the vials tight. Safe. I turned, chin up, and walked away.
Knowing my voice would carry, I didn’t bother to turn around as I said, “Don’t forget to text ‘position legitimately terminated’ when you submit my last credit statement to the Facility.”
I now had a couple of miles to trek before I could catch public transport back to Darzeth-Prime. It was a dry, dusty, dirt road that meandered its way back to Vrazeth’s borders, the last town before the Expanse. The breeze cooled my cheeks and my temper. Where did that come from?
I rubbed a hand over my face as if to scrub away the memory. This wasn’t how a job was supposed to end, and I certainly didn’t need my superiors at the Facility judging my work ethics again.
Lately, I’d found it difficult to complete an assignment to its official contracted date. Sure, the shorter tasks were easier to finalise, but on the longer projects, something always happened.
Over twelve months ago, I worked with a local architect as Liaison and Design Interpreter with the construction crew for a new public recreation centre; he blamed me for misreading the specs, and costing the company extra in materials and supplies that hadn’t been budgeted. An Ethics Committee representative agreed that I had not been mistaken but still removed me from the project because the architect claimed I was too green to realise the error between the accounted budget and the required materials.
And then, nearly eight months ago, I was fired
from the Platinum Hall Contract when the Site Manager refused to use me to string the lights, even though they were short-staffed and I’d been hired to fill that position. As the CTF’s first graduate under the age of twenty-one, and a teenager looking younger than I actually was, these kinds of issues had never really cropped up with the Facility before. I was ready for anything, but the world, it seemed, wasn’t ready for me.
The Gamma sun, smallest and palest of the three, crept above the horizon as Alpha, more commonly known by its spiritual name, Zola, squatted mid-sky, halfway through its daily cycle. I straightened the canteen around my neck, and removed my cap to let the breeze dry my sweat.
My watch-com beeped. It was the Training Facility’s tone. Denali wouldn’t have reported me yet and, since it was just a text, I flipped up the face of the watch-communicator. ‘New Possible Assignment’
flashed across the small grey screen. Clicking to accept the one-liner, a concise synopsis of the available work appeared. Jobs only came through my request portfolio if they didn’t conflict with a current contract. I rarely got updates since my selection parameters were a little out of the ordinary – but then, so was this new job. ‘Position for a guide into the Deserts.’
The trip date and duration were listed as ‘TBA’
“This is insane, even for me,” I said, and hit the delete button. Nobody went into the Deserts voluntarily. Nobody was that irresponsible; it had to be a joke.
I tapped the screen for voice recognition. “Zaith Beji.”
Since I now had the rest of the day off, I had to get a hold of Zaith. We had a lot to discuss. Tossing my cap up in the air with my other hand, I caught it on my head, jammed the bill down to shade my eyes, and kicked at a rock on the road. After the third buzz, Zaith answered.