After massive climatic upheaval, few pockets of civilization survive in a new Dark Age. Nova Byzantium, the world’s last empire, contracts with Alkonost mercenaries to defend its territory and interests. Above this terrestrial chaos, in the orbital city of Al Fadah Madina, an Islamic caliphate attempts to preserve mankind’s heritage by employing “archivists”—agents who scour the dying Earth to collect technological artifacts. A former Alkonost mercenary, Uri Vitko, is one of their best archivists—at least as long as he can manage to please the caliphate, avoid the empire, and stay alive…
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July 2163 C.E.
Uri propped the bipod on a railing of the India Tower and peered through the rifle’s telescopic sight. The archivist had no target, the scope merely provided a better view of Mumbai’s suffocating southern peninsula below. A dead zone had drifted in from the Deccan Plateau, carrying in the flashover remnants of an immense methane fog. Its vapor crawled through the city, asphyxiating any unprotected creature still at street level. The top floors of the city’s skyscrapers provided sanctuary from the oxygen-starved murk; the miasma was too heavy to reach the upper stories.
Uri had taken refuge in the tower—once a four-star hotel—just north of the Colaba District. For a quarter ounce of gold, he’d rented the relatively safe space from the local Thuggee warlord: a few barricaded floors five hundred meters up equipped with a generator and water purifiers. An archivist, he spent most days reconnoitering, sifting through the city’s remains for relics and artifacts. At night, when the streets seethed with desperation, the place provided an oasis from the bedlam below.
But he’d been there a month and the Kali phansigars were growing suspicious. Uri knew if he lingered much longer, they would sniff out the archivist in their ranks. Known agents of Al Fadah Madina were regarded with hostility and suspicion. Mumbai could soon turn dangerous.
He took down the rifle, sat on the unmade bed, and sipped the last of his Laphroaig, a serendipitous acquisition from the ruins of the hotel’s bar. Fortunately for him, both the Thuggees and the scavengers who had come before him had missed the single bottle of fifteen-year Scotch.
Uri pulled a box out from under the bed; symbols of Kali were inlaid on its surface in a mosaic of tropical hardwood. Inside lay an artifact of rare design, a ritual item the Thuggees used in their dark ceremonies: an elaborate “mask” resembling a desiccated cephalopod stranded by high tide. A set of ten notional arms, no doubt a reference to the Dark Mother’s Mahakali form, radiated from the translucent cerulean “face.” Blazing red eyes and small black lips completed it. This mask must mean something special to the Thuggees who saw Kali as their protector. Underneath was a set of tea compacted into domino-sized bars with what appeared to be Sanskrit writing on each. Were they used with hot water to marinate… clean… make an offering to the mask? Who knew?
The object’s bounty was paltry in exchange for the risks Uri took to pilfer it. Insinuating himself into the Thuggee cult—masters of deception themselves—was an ordeal he did not wish to repeat. To do business, he had aided the brutes on one of their raids—an ambush of a local rival clan. Posing as a gun for hire was no problem for Uri, but concealing his identity from Kali’s disciples had proved challenging. An archivist—many would term him a thief—hiding among thieves was not as simple as he had envisioned.
Now he was running on borrowed time; the phansigars would soon discover their object had been stolen from the temple and, as a stranger, he would be swiftly suspect. They’d be after him soon, garrotes at the ready.
Uri slipped his console from his pocket and scrolled through his communiqués from the caliphate, safely orbiting above the ruin of Earth. There was no name associated with this particular procurement request—a fetishist perhaps? Despite their piety, Al Fadah Madina was known to harbor a few hedonists. The sheikhdom’s love for the world’s rapidly diminishing Cognac was proof enough of that.
Taking a closer look at the mask, small intricate patterns emerged from its cartilaginous skin. The object possessed a technology Uri recognized but couldn’t place. Small geometrical webs of articulated hydraulics spiraled from its red eyes like a tangle of nerve fibers. Held to the light, the web of circuitry permeated the translucent artifact. He could see why the Al’ Madina sheikhs might want it. The mask was a rare example of fractal bioengineering—grown, not fabricated.
Uri closed the wooden box, slid it into his backpack, and checked his console again. He needed to get moving. After receiving his last transmission, Al Fadah Madina started readying a logistical drop. Touchdown was somewhere off the coast, seventy-five kilometers. Uri had already hired a dhow to bring him to the intercept point, and the boat would be waiting at the Gateway of India in a few hours.
He folded his rifle and activated his enrichment hood, a bellowed mask capable of filtering and collecting oxygen in jowl-like bladders. With carbon dioxide partial pressures measuring above critical threshold on the streets below, he’d need the headgear to make it the few kilometers to the boat.
From the penthouse deck, Uri surveyed the listless metropolis one last time. The sun’s iodine rays struggled to penetrate the atmospheric turmoil. Like a cypress swamp, the inversion layer lapped at the skyline’s base. The archivist plotted his route: a quick jaunt down Marine Drive, east past Nariman Point, beyond the long-abandoned arabesque of the Maharastra police station, and then Mumbai Harbor, where—he hoped—the dhow would be waiting.
Nothing moved. The jaundiced city was a primordial morass, inching backward toward the Triassic. Its misery was Uri’s fortune, however, the city’s fetid avenues too anemic to molest a lone archivist.