SHIFT sneak peek!
It is officially less than two weeks out from SHIFT being out to the world. So, here's a sneak peek of Nikolai, Val, and the world of Helios coming to you on May 2nd.
| ONE |
City of Helios - present, Year 2203
Thomas had blown up the chemistry lab not once, not twice, but four times.
The first couple of times were by sheer accident. The others were just for the hell of it.
Nikolai smiled at the memory. It had been twelve years since he’d seen Thomas, shortly before they were set to graduate. Thomas had not been born of Helios, but he had always strived to belong to it. While Nikolai had usually given him a good laugh or a snicker at each mishap, Thomas would jot down what went wrong and move forward, a smug smile resting in the corner of his lips. He wasn’t the most conventional chemist, but so few rarely were.
They were young men, then.
Nikolai looked at Thomas’s face now, and his smile quickly faded. Thomas’s hair was shorter than he last remembered, strands of dull mahogany hanging in his eyes. The time had not changed his sense of style–he was always dressed to impress, a lesson instilled by his father at a young age–but the clothes hung on him now. Muscle had dwindled away to lean tissue, at best.
His eyes were different, too. The last bit of that young mischief left a dull glow in his irises, like fossilized amber. Former laugh lines were mere creases, and small bags had formed underneath his lower lashes. A remnant of that smug smile echoed in the corners of his mouth.
“Good looking cat,” a voice purred out from beside him.
“Look who’s talking,” Nikolai replied, their joke lost in the distraction in front of him.
Nikolai could feel Val’s feline eyes on him as he sat crouched on the street. The rain wasn’t helping him feel less heavy. His gaze never left Thomas’s. He was afraid he’d disappear should he even take a breath.
“You know this guy,” Val realized. When he nodded, she twitched her tail back and forth. All thirteen pounds of her let out a shiver. “I’m sorry, Nik.”
Nikolai scrunched his nose, pushing away memories flying around his head. He watched the rainwater catch against Thomas’s left cheek. Rivulets of crimson pooled in the asphalt cracks by his feet. The shock had made him forget the lack of circulation in his legs. He stood up slowly, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and flexed his ankles. Against his better instinct, he tried to focus on the hint of smile instead of the bullet hole in the right side of Thomas’s skull. The rain had collected inside of it, swelling the exposed tissue.
Val let out a small chirp before stepping closer. “You sure you’re up for this?” she asked, looking up at him. Her pupils were large discs in the dark, hiding the blue of one iris and the honey-gold of the other. Her black fur had melded into the night but was coming more to life now–a corporeal shadow against the coming dawn. She was expecting him to turn away, expecting disappointment.
Nikolai let out a long sigh and shook the rain from his hair. He looked at Thomas’s hands. Blue-violet powder stained his fingertips. The rest of his hands were covered in burns. His body reeked of brimstone and Chinese gunpowder tea – the familiar stench of illegal powers.
“No, but I need to.”
“Wepa,” she muttered under her breath. Her normal excitement for a grisly murder to solve was underplayed by the scene at hand and Nikolai’s stoicism. “So, what do we have?”
Nikolai remembered the chemistry lab. The third time, it was crushed moonstone, and it left everyone in the class seeing flash spots for a week. He had cursed at Thomas for hours. “Thomas Whitmire, age thirty-two, graduate–no, former student–of the Theia Institute, chemist. Judging from the injuries and residue on his fingers, he’s...he was involved in the Elixir ring.”
“I’m catching at least one other scent here, but it’s faint,” Val muttered as she paced around Thomas’s body, her attention and ears flicking back and forth.
“Think you can track it?”
Val paused, shaking a bug out of her left ear. “No, a few feet out at most. They’ve covered their tracks well.”
The rain had started to let up, leaving them both cold in the dwindling night. Nikolai looked up to the corner of the street. The streetlights attracted wisps to their turquoise halos, creating dancing shadows along the façades of the gray and white Victorian-style flats scrunched together up and down the street. No one had good lawns here. Over in Moon City, where powers couldn’t survive, there were so many great lawns, so much more space. Rushes of wind mussed Nikolai’s hair, and his eyes drifted to the silhouettes of cars flying above them. They left dizzying tracks of warm white and ember red lights fading among the mist.
Down the street sat the city library which housed The Causeway, the only known gate between Helios, Moon City, and the rest of the world. Perhaps Thomas had been on his way home but decided to do some business along the way. In all the years he’d known Thomas, out of all the times they went through the Causeway together, he had never once been invited to Thomas’s home.
“It’d be wretchedly boring, Nik,” he’d tell him. “Let’s rent a flat and be done with it. Father will pay, of course.” Nikolai wasn’t sure if he had been running or if his father had been pushing him away. It had all seemed so trivial at the time.
“Oh, hello,” Val said, breaking Nikolai’s concentration. Val ducked her head and pushed her nose halfway into Thomas’s pocket. She pulled out a bag of shimmering pills. There was a medley of different colors, each for a specified power. Invisibility Ink, a metallic blue, was a bestseller amongst non-powered criminals and made up most of the bag. “Sorry to say it, but we’re stuck with this one.”
Nikolai whistled for an analyst, clutching the bag with a tighter grip than he intended. She must have been new; Nikolai hadn’t recognized her among the regular crowd. She was a Hybrid, genetically half-human and half-Augur, ice blue skin complimenting her ebony hair. She seemed like the right amount of settled and nervous. “Time of death?” he asked.
“Around oh-four-hundred. Body was found a couple of hours ago.”
“Who found it?”
“The shop owner on his way in, sir. He’s given his statement already. Scene has been recorded.” Nikolai squinted at the apothecary a few paces in front of him. The windows were dirty and covered with old ads promoting potions for great skin care and erectile dysfunction. Even this realm had modern grievances. They covered up faded Anti-Augur propaganda, the lettering so old the colors had long turned monochromatic. A much more simplistic ‘Primes are assholes’ swirl of aqua graffiti was sprayed next door on the gray brick. An ongoing battle, even in text.
Nikolai dropped the bag in the Hybrid’s gloved hands. “Take it to evidence, please. Has a sample been taken of the residue on his hands?”
“On the way to Headquarters now.”
“Nik, I got something,” Val interrupted.
“Nikky, I got something here, I can feel it!” Thomas’s voice echoed in Nikolai’s ears as the memory of them studying in the dorms flashed in his mind. He tried to shake it loose.
“Can I get your pretty hands to check this out?” Val asked. She sat in front of the brick wall a foot away from them. Nikolai snickered. He waved his hand in an arch across the length of the wall. His own power pulled at the air between them, a magnet beckoning for any hidden moonstone to come out of the cracks. Light fed and reacted to him – he could push and pull it, control how much was in a room or how much darkness. Sometimes, he couldn’t control it at all; the rare instance when his emotions overtook rational thought and left him with nothing but shattered lightbulbs and a headache akin to a hangover. Lines and curves began to appear in blue-violet tones, the light seeping out like pixie dust. Nikolai stepped back. Val jumped onto his shoulder to get a better look.
“Twenty-three-BB?” she purred. “Think it’s a passcode of some kind?”
“Maybe,” he replied. Something crept in his gut, which made him doubt his words. He looked back at Thomas and exhaled. His breath was a fog in the incoming morning. “I don’t think he was trying to smuggle out, I think he was trying to run. Someone was chasing him. He left the message in case he got caught. Must have used the Elixir to do it.”
“Message to whom?”
“That, my dear Watson, is an excellent question.” He felt the flip in his stomach again as Val jumped down and continued to look for a scent. He watched the sun begin to come up over the line of houses, the rosy-orange entangled with curlicues of chimney smoke. The rays turned the bright neon of the City Centre into an aurora borealis framed by sharp angles. Cars flying to their early morning destinations popped up as dizzying flecks across the horizon. The tall, pointed peaks transitioned into smaller, rounded domes of museums, observatories, and the roofs of wealthy residents. Domes tapered into cement neighborhoods peppered with large birch and ash trees. The Prism Forest and its towering, wooded mountains loomed in the west, while the border between Helios and Moon City cast a filmy glow between the two to the East.
Helios was a realm hidden from the outside world, tucked away in a pocket of the universe, unseen, created and protected by an asteroid which landed in Moon City many centuries prior. The moonstone which had come from it had changed everything and everyone since–genetically evolving some of the human species to have powers. But Helios was a haven, one where you had to stay within its walls in order to keep that power. The realm triggered the powered being’s genetic markers; once they left, they were just like any other human or animal.
It certainly didn’t stop people from trying–trying to escape Augurs and Helios or trying to be like them. Some were perfectly fine with being without powers, wanted to, gave themselves the moniker of ‘Primes’ to make themselves feel better at the end of the day.
There’s nothing wrong with just wanting to be normal, Nikolai often thought.
The smell of hotcakes crept into his nostrils. It had been ages since he’d had a decent breakfast. He looked behind him to find the analyst still waiting there, her nose twitching with each raindrop that fell onto her cheeks. “You–name?”
“Alessandra. Allie is fine. Analyst and EMT.”
Nikolai gave her a small smile. “Allie, any other evidence found nearby? Anything left on the victim’s person?”
“No, sir. Well–”
She walked past him, leaning toward Thomas’s head, and motioned to his neckline. “He has some skin irritation here near his clavicle. My guess is he may have had a necklace and it was pulled off at some point. Nothing too harsh, taken off a day or two ago.” Nikolai looked up at Allie then, unsure of how to process what he had heard. His wrists had begun to itch, and his thumb and forefinger twiddled with one of the brown leather cords encircling it. He gave her a nod of dismissal.
He looked back at Thomas’s neck, watched as the rain made watercolors of the blood haloed around him. Another flicker of a memory sparked in his mind – the two of them eating take-out on their floor. Study guides and notebooks surrounded them, highlighted with every color of the spectrum. Thomas was always the more organized of the two while Nikolai was fine with reading through Rorschach splatters of sauce and tea stains.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Val asked.
To Nikolai’s own surprise, he scoffed. It was tinged with bitterness. “Twelve years ago.”
Val attempted to give a low, long whistle, but it came out as a bubbly mew. She knew when it was okay to pry and when Nikolai’s patience was paper thin. She kept a pushing remark to herself, and he was grateful for it. He was drowning in thought, rewinding back to all the possible scenarios. “We were good friends back at Theia, roommates.”
“You were pretty close, then.”
“Apparently not as much as I thought.”
Val gave him a patronizing glare he had long gotten used to. “Oh dear, sweet Nikolai. He was a chemist.”
He shook his head, shaking the rain off the collar of his coat. “He was clean. I’d know if…”
If he kept a secret, Nikolai finished in his mind. The lie whirled like smoke and refused to come out of his mouth.
“Detectives,” Allie called out. Nikolai didn’t turn, but Val swished her tail at Allie in acknowledgment. “Chief wants you on the comm.”
“Oh goody,” Val remarked, the statement drenched in sarcasm. “Our fearless leader beckons.”
Nikolai walked over to Allie and took the communicator from her hands. A hologram popped up, lighting his face with shades of blue and green. “Hey, Chief,” he greeted, trying to keep his voice poised.
A sharp-edged, oval face greeted him in response. “I hope you have good news for me,” the Chief said, skipping all pleasantries. Chief Wyn Garnet was not one for small talk. He had been on the Force in Helios for twenty plus years, a trusted figure in the city despite not having powers himself. The Elixir epidemic in Helios had taken a toll on him since it first started eight years prior. The bags under his eyes were raising competition with the few laugh lines he had left.
“Found Double-I on the victim, but evidence so far suggests a different motive. I don’t think he was trying to smuggle out. He left a message, a code. Allie should be forwarding the records right now.” His eyes lifted up to Allie and she nodded in response, her ice blue fingers typing into her data pad. Nikolai wiped the rain from his face. “Full disclosure, sir.” Chief Garnet waited, the muscles in his shoulders immediately tensing. “I know–knew–the victim personally. He was an old friend at the Institute.”
Nikolai watched the Chief as he exhaled through his nose and crossed his arms in thought. The Force had a firm rule about personal cases. It was likely Nikolai would have to recuse himself to avoid personal bias. Val nudged the back of Nikolai’s leg. He glimpsed down at her, her squinted eyes and pursed mouth silently screaming idiot. He held his response in, waiting for Garnet to speak. The hologram flickered as the Chief’s arms released from their knot across his chest and rested on the desk in his office. “Finish up and report to HQ. We’ll discuss arrangements.” The light flickered off, and Nikolai passed the data pad back to Allie with a heaviness that hadn’t been there before.
“Don’t say it,” he blurted to Val as he turned away. When he saw Thomas’s body, now covered with a sheet, he turned again to face the apothecary. The sun was starting to come up from the tops of the buildings now, blinding Nikolai with a fractured reflection in the dirty window. People were starting to wake; windows and doors were opening with curiosity, sparks of powers coming from animal Hybrids, and Augurs with wings were zipping past with inquiring eyes. Nikolai hated the attention on a normal day. The added weight of this particular corpse made him want to immediately retreat back to bed.
Not that he’d sleep, anyway.
“Oh, I will say whatever I damn well please, thank you, and I’ll start with why.” Nikolai stuffed his hands in the pockets of his coat as if the answers would be there, touching his fingertips. “You are so self-righteous that it physically pains me.”
“You’re being patronizing. We do this one right, Val.”
“When have the rules stopped us before?”
“We do it right, Valária. And that’s it.” His voice was rocky, causing ripples in the space between them.
Val let out a low, short growl. She swished her tail back and forth a couple of times before settling around the curve of her leg like an outline. He knew she hated when he used her full name.
Val, or her last name, Edison. Never Valária. He had sprung it out like a dull knife.
“Fine,” she muttered before turning away and raising her voice at the first person she came across. “You, yes you, make sure the examiner gets the record, and get this place cleaned up before morning rush.”
She wasn’t wrong. He knew that. Rules were merely guidelines to them. Garnet knew this too and conveniently forgot or forgave. They were the best detectives on the Force for a reason and kept on for their unconventional and unique talents; however they decided to play the game worked in the best interest for Helios in the end.
The rain had finally stopped. Nikolai scratched the back of his neck, feeling the muscles tighten and spasm around his spine. He could feel the past few nights’ insomnia deep in his bones. An image of Thomas appeared once again–an afternoon spent in the library preparing for an anatomy midterm. He remembered how much Thomas was fascinated by the human nervous system.
“A traffic jam of electricity,” he once called it.
“Just looks like a batch of stringy noodles to me,” Nikolai had jokingly replied.
“And you call yourself a powered being.”
Thomas had teasingly begun to call him Noodle after that.
Four weeks later, Thomas had disappeared into the night.
Gone now, was all Nikolai could think. He squeezed either side of his neck to release the tension. He pictured Thomas’s own neck and the pull marks on his skin where a necklace used to be.
You can pre-order the e-book of SHIFT here, or order the paperback on its release date of 05.02.22!