Chapter Zero


London on Level 9 was always pissing with rain. It dripped, molasses slow, thick with the cumulative weight of shadows cast by the Levels above. This close to midnight, the very air sagged with relentless damp.

Corinna adjusted the surveillance feed in her visor. “All this for water,” she said, rolling her neck.

Beside her sat a ghost. “Our thief is early, for once,” Peter said, mild with a plan well-oiled. “If he does turn out to be one of Robert Langley’s, then Robert needs to hire some better runners. This one is painfully amateur.”

Up until now, the Langleys and the Ardens had a rather symbiotic relationship. Robert Langley ran a comprehensive logistics outfit, including cold-chain and specialised transport for Arden Pharmaceuticals.

In his spare time, the old man also ran the largest glass cartel in Europe.

Corinna’s lip curled. “If he belongs to Bobby, then someone’s been lying to me.”

“And if you were anyone else, that nickname might earn you an unpleasant visit from some unsavoury gentlemen.”

“That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”

Peter snorted, checking his handgun deft passes of one invisible hand.  Corinna could feel the film of heat in the air, even without her aptitude. Peter uncurled his fingers, bringing them back into view one by one, displaying a meticulous and unusual level of fine control.

“Robert’s turning 150 next April,” said Peter, wiping down the dashboard of the cab. “You’d think someone would have managed to poison him by now.”

“And? You want me to send flowers?”

“I want you to be careful,” sighed Peter. “Men like Robert don’t get that old without pruning risk. You’re not untouchable.”

Corinna laughed. “Everyone and their dog lives past a hundred these days. Bobby has earned a fortune thanks to me.”

“Don’t let your grandmother hear you say that,” said Peter.

“Ha. Which one?”

Peter snorted. “Both. However, since I owe my life to the good graces of Beatrice Arden, I’m speaking of your paternal grandm—”

“You owe your life to me.”

“Yes. Quite,” said Peter. A pause. “I still think we should’ve left Robert out of this. Could have just tipped off the police and the media. I’ve been watching these kids for months; we know all their stash houses and routes for heaven’s sake.”

“You’re really fucking chatty today,” said Corinna. “There’s no guarantee the police will let this go public. Not in their interest right now, with the election in a few months. This needs to get media coverage, for me to make an example out of these parasites.” She combed back her hair. “Even Mr Robert Langley knows better than to steal from my family.”

They watched a figure in Arden Pharma uniform swipe through two sets of security doors on the surveillance footage.

The building housed a CM15 distribution facility, fresh vials having just arrived for the week from the manufacturing plants. Like most stratified cities, London’s irregular climb upwards meant that the water treatment infrastructure was forcibly decentralised. When conventional filtration began proving ineffective at the turn of the last century, it spurred an arms race between pollutants and new purifying compounds. Indeed, ‘CM15’ wasn’t the latest iteration of Arden Pharma’s ubiquitous water purifying compound – but the name had stuck.

Their thief paused for the biometric scanner.

Wordlessly, Corinna and Peter left the cab.

Waving of her hand, the nearest streetlight stuttered long enough for them to cross the narrow street. They stepped between two buildings wedged close as crooked nicotine teeth, buried beneath the hooded lip of a motorway.

Peter slipped from focus, leaving only a bare shimmer; heat above chrome train-rails.

There were a handful of ghosts in London. It was one of those aptitudes that technology had rendered cinematic only, but still…something about invisibility remained alluring. Useful in a fight if your opponent didn’t have heat-mapping eyewear.

They made their way through the building with a careless disregard for cameras and security. It wasn’t really a ‘break in’ when you owned the place.

They caught up with their thief in less than thirty seconds. Corinna could see him in her visor, examining a tablet next to a palette of grey cases. She flicked the visor up to crown her hair, slicked back and white-blonde against the lead of her suit jacket.

She nodded, once.

Peter kicked open the door, bursting into the room as a shift of air.

An answering clatter: their thief cursed. Peter ducked left and Corinna went right. She slowed her stride, ankles turned out as if approaching a dance floor. Ozone frayed between palm and glove.

A lady did not rush.

“Hello Tim.”

The man froze. Behind him, sealing off the other exit, was a faint silhouette of refracted light. Peter.

Timothy Hersch didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on Corinna, dry with contempt. He straightened slowly, gaze darting to the doorway. “Miss Arden,” he said. “Sorry, you caught me by surprise.”

Corinna tilted her head. Was there any fear? It was hard to tell for certain, without her twin here to act as the world’s most accurate emotional barometer. But Javier was allergic to anything illegal and would have insisted on leaving things to the police. Corinna rarely involved him in any fun these days.

“Hm. You do know who I am,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Tim, knuckles white on his tablet, breathing shallow.

Corinna took another step forwards, relishing the way Tim flinched back when she lifted a hand. She rested her palm the edge of a padded case. “Then let’s get to the point. You’ve been very naughty.”

Tim’s gaze darted rapidly. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said, licking his lip. “I’m just running the standard spot checks ahead of dispatch.”

“A dispatch for a little flat on Level 3?” Corinna snorted. “Perhaps you thought no one would notice a few missing vials here and th— ah-ah!”

Tim had turned to make a run for it – only for an invisible force to swing him around by the shoulders, wrenching his arms up behind him. Tim shrieked as Peter materialised, a shit-eating grin slowly re-appearing as he let the invisibility drop like water.

Localising in this fashion was extraordinarily difficult but Peter always knew how to entertain her. These things were always more fun with theatrics. Corinna shot him a promising look beneath her lashes.

“Jesus Christ!” Tim shouted, wild with a hindbrain kind of fear that everyone had for things that go bump in the dark. He struggled, terror lending vigour to his desperation. “You’ve got ghosts on payroll now?”

“Boo,” said Peter, flat tone at odds with the amusement in his eyes.

“I wasn’t finished,” said Corinna.

“There’s been a misunderstanding,” Tim said in a rush, “please—”

Corinna yawned. “You seem to be under the impression that I’m here for some kind of confession,” she said. “We already know everything. You were hired because of your activism, not despite them.”

“I really don’t know what y—”

Tim’s voice cut off in a gurgle, courtesy of Peter’s elbow.

“Manners,” Peter cooed, “the lady’s talking.”

Corinna glanced at the digital read-out set into the chassis of every shelf. It glowed 23:45 in chemical green. In her periphery, every cobot was frozen as planned.

Plenty of time.

“We’ve known about you skimming the stock for a while now,” said Corinna, reaching into her jacket and pulling out a slim, flat case. She set it down on the nearest surface, unhurried. “You should have stuck to making snarky placards and sitting in the street, like the rest of your Sixty-Fourther friends.”

Tim’s jaw worked, no doubt swallowing a few choice words.

Corinna opened the case, lifting a loaded syringe free of its protective foam bed.

“I’ve got friends expecting me,” said Tim, breath stuttering. “Someone’s gonna notice if I don’t turn up.”

“Oh, we’re counting on it,” said Peter.

In the face of their composure, Tim rapidly lost his own. “Fine, you can’t prove anything anyway,” he said, struggling harder, “just throw me to the police then. Go on!”

“Mmhm,” said Corinna, tapping the syringe. “They’ll find you later.”

Hersch’s eyes tracked the movement with undisguised horror.

Corinna stepped in close, just so she could see the syringe reflected in his pupil. His breath was tepid with sugar and cola syrup, coming fast and shallow. She held up her free hand close to his face and ignited a small ball of fire, rolling it like a coin above her gloved knuckles.

Tim’s pupils stuttered like the the movement of his throat. Corinna allowed the flames grow until it hovered above her palm, inches from Tim’s eye.

“Shit, you’re crazy,” Tim wheezed, “shit, shit.

Corinna snapped her fingers shut, flames vanishing into her fist. Three minutes. “Whatever,” she said, “I’m bored now. Arm, please.”

“No, no, wait!” Tim screamed as Peter clamped a gloved hand around his left wrist and offered the arm to Corinna. “You can’t do this. Shit, shit, wait—! I don’t want—!”

Corinna slid the needle home, pressing down on the syringe, eyes never leaving Tim’s face. It was a rictus of dread, an honest expression at last.

“Say ‘thank you’,” Peter hummed, “you know how much clear-cut glass goes for these days? This is high quality stuff. You’ll feel real good in a minute.”

“Fuck you…t-that’s too much—”

The drug was kicking in fast, slurring Tim’s words.

Corinna placed the syringe back in its case and tucked it into Peter’s jacket pocket. She palmed his lapel. “Time’s up,” she said, “leave that with him in the car.”

Tim slumped, gaze skittering back and forth between Peter and Corinna. “…What’r y-you gonna do to me?” he asked, hands clawing at Peter’s arm.

“Us? Nothing,” said Peter, pulling Tim bodily towards the exit. “You, on the other hand, had a wee accident main-lining glass.”

Corinna dumped a few cases of CM15 vials into a nondescript bag. The squeal of Tim’s sneakers on the tiled floor was crawling on her nerves.

The boy was still blithering, voice wet and wavering. “I’ve never done glass, I don’t want—”

“Exactly,” said Peter, “newbie mistake. Glass is tricky to dose, but you wanted to try it. Great dreams, they said. Happens to the best of us.”

Corinna flipped her visor back down, pulling up the surveillance feeds. All clear. She opened the door for Peter. “Are you going to read him a bedtime story as well?” she snapped. “Remember to change his shirt, I don’t want a bad press photo.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Peter, grunting as he hauled an increasingly delirious Tim out the back door.

Corinna tapped her earpiece. It rang exactly three times before someone picked up.

“Evening.” A pinch of Cockney and a punch of tobacco.

Corinna’s lip curled, because here in the rain and rot, she did not have to hide her disdain. “This is a courtesy call,” she said, not breaking her stride, “our friend’s going home soon. No one touches what’s in the car.”

“The lads know,” said Robert Langley. “I trust your dog can keep everything else clean.”

Corinna looked to Peter, a mere silhouette in the dark. “Thanks for the cab,” she gritted out. “I’ll make sure there’s extra CM15 in the next shipment.”

“Good girl,” said Robert, words like whiskey poured over ice with a shaky hand. “It’s been a while since we’ve caught up. My boy talks about you all the time. You should bring your body-double, for a drink and a game.”

It was not a request.

“That’s not Jav’s scene, but I’ll speak with him,” Corinna conceded.

“Hmm,” said Robert. “Well, send my regards to Bea.”

“I will,” said Corinna, and hung up before she was forced to thank him twice.

The cab was where they’d left it, across the narrow road. Even through the rain, Corinna could hear the sharp zip of plastic on metal as Peter shoved Tim into the front seat.

A flicker of movement in her periphery.

Corinna glanced up at the office building overlooking the street, cataloguing its facade. She was mostly blocked from view, thanks to an overpass, but a few floors were in her line of sight. The skin between her shoulders itched with paranoia. Had that window been open earlier?

The rain wasn’t helping. Corinna pushed her senses outwards: she could feel the presence of the idling car engine, the heavy thrum of the gridded electromagnetic rails above them. Stepping out of the alley, she tore off one glove to feel the lattice of energy more clearly through her palm.

Something hit Corinna hard between the ribs.

The pain slammed into her chest just as the ground did. Corinna bit back a scream, head cracking against concrete as the impact took her clean off her feet.

She’d been shot.

Someone had fucking shot her.

“Rina!” Peter shouted.

Corinna threw out her hand towards the direction of the sniper, adrenaline blowing her senses wide open. Suddenly she could feel the heat of two living bodies a few meters away, a few streetlamps still running old bulbs, the echo of a gas tank in the building behind her. Everything dripped with vivid colour, the way one’s vision sharpened right before the crash, before everything tilted straight into pain, pain, pain

Most people believed firestarters were immune to fire, to firearms, to anything that sparked. Centuries of popular myth and cinema had painted a very flattering picture: firestarters walking through burning houses, forests ablaze, starting wars with upraised palms.

But in truth, firestarters had flesh that burned just like any other tangible, blooded thing. Their bodies simply knew how to control the flames before they turned to ash. For the most part, it was instinctive, reflexive.

Nobody ever talked about the sheer fallibility of human reflex, or the fact that the bullet was separate to the combustion. Firestarters weren’t bullet-proof, especially against something she didn’t feel coming.

The second bullet though: that she did anticipate.

Corinna felt the tell-tale flare of combustion and yanked as hard as she could.

There was an answering burst of orange-yellow in the pupil of one window: a heart-stuttering crack followed by a resounding bang. A rifle, imploding mid-shot.

Satisfied, Corinna let her hand drop, trying to breathe through the pain that was wiping her vision white. She couldn’t see anything except the rain in her eyes, her visor cracked. Water slowly soaked her hair. She could make out the dark shape of the car, and she coughed. Funny: she couldn’t taste any blood.

She couldn’t taste anything.

“Fuck,” a hand ripping at her shirt, slapping her cheek. “Rina! Stay awake!”

An alarm began wailing.

“Sniper,” Corinna managed between her teeth, “m-my gloves—”

“I’m calling the hospital, St Ophie’s is minutes away,” said Peter, one hand still a lead-press weight against the goddamn hole in her chest.

Breathing was like sinking slowly into a bed of razor wire.

“N-not one of ours,” Corinna choked, spitting out blood. The ground was cold against her cheek, “they’ll ask ques—” She heaved, or tried to: there was too much air in her chest. “Get Jav.”

“You’re not going to make it,” Peter shouted, “something might have nicked the — Yes, I need an ambulance, 29-year-old female aptee, gunshot wound, left chest. Firestarter.  We’re outside Bright’s, on Heygate, Level 9.

As if it were happening to someone else, Corinna felt Peter removing her visor, earbuds, and remaining glove.

Corinna could finally taste the blood now, in her nose and throat, filmy with the grit of rain. “Did I get them?” she coughed. “Peter. The window—”

“Stop talking, I’ll take care of the sniper—”

“Shut the alarm up.”

“I’m a ghost, not a fucking healer!” Peter shouted. “Do you know what your brother is going to do to me if I let you bleed out? He’ll melt my brains where I stand!”

With the last of her adrenaline, Corinna grabbed Peter’s wrist. He hissed with pain, nose flaring at the smell of burned skin and leather.

“Amateur,” she hissed. “Go!”

Peter stared at her for a split moment, then he slapped something onto her chest wound. It stuck to the blood on her skin, slick and viscous. He placed her own palms down on top of the crackly first-aid film . “Fine. Put pressure on this,” he said.

Corinna jerked, heels scraping against the concrete. “Jav,” she choked out. Her vowels were swollen with blood, but she was mostly irritated at the hole in her lung that was impeding her speech. Peter had better not leave any blood prints in that car, she thought.

Peter’s face was very pale. “Keep pressure on that. Ambulance will be here soon, just stay awake,” he said, getting to his feet. “I’ll call Javier.”

Corinna started to count. She didn’t remember stopping.

©  Frances Wren 2020-2021, all rights reserved.


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This was so exciting! In the beginning I kept trying to figure out what was going on with the world and the two characters (150 years old? ghosts? handguns?) and I really like how it was so intriguing it kept me reading, and that by the end of the chapter I wanted to learn more about Corinna’s and Peter the ghost’s origins, especially their powers. That remotely exploding gun was so badass and the writing feels so fresh.

By Frances Wren

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