< Shrinelands

Deep in a lofty high-desert river canyon replete with oak and scrub, there beds a stream that tumbles and slips and plays amongst water-smoothed boulders of large-grained red sandstone.

Minnow-shaped shadows swim lazy eddies, sniping floating larvae and water-insects, investigating the undersides of golden-hued flotsam delivered down stream-wrought sluices, where the curled leaves relax into exhausted pirouettes upon reaching slower water.

Above the tumbles of blackberry lining the banks, wood smoke rises from a glass-walled cabin, its black steel truss-angles soaring over warm oak decks. Inside, a cantilevered slab roof dangles orbs of warm light above autumn-colored furniture, made of dark steel and wide-woven linen textile.

Through tall glazed portals, the oak canyon gives way to pine forest - close and dense and brown and green; needle-drifts and vanilla-bark disappear into fading forest dusk.

Warm bright lux spills through the intensely tall wooden door opposite the creek, open against the brisk woodstove-tinged evening air. The thin dagger of light slices across the threshold, sisal mat and flagstone stoop, sliding over carefully-groomed boxwood topiary and darting across the white pea-gravel drive, where it climbs the hunter-green and chrome gloss of her ride and lays warm across her green velvet lap.

She releases the sticks and the craft settles with a sighing whine. A slender finger slowly teases the throttle down; switch and buttons cut power. She raises her gaze from the controls, which bathe her face in amber glow under the dark canopy-glass.

He makes a small wave from crossed arms and shifts his relaxed lean against the doorjam.

The words come quietly from across the drive, and form in her ears, amplified and relayed via bone-conduction communicator.

"Welcome Home," he says, as she steps from the Oft-Lux.

Cricket-dark, the creek burbles, starlight filtered by scrub plays across her fingers, held nose-close. The cabin looms dark above the blackberry bramble, blood runs black across the sandstone. It seeps into the rough surface and dissolves into tendrils into the slow current. His body lies on the warm red sandstone, lifeless.

"It's done," she whispers, and somewhere in the ether two worlds away, a message-alert pings.

Investigator Warnas yawned as he banked into a turn around a large thunderhead, turning his head to watch the lightning roil and flash.

"News" he said aloud to the empty cabin.

"Here's the latest from the Federated Continuum: " His fedcomm responded via the bone-conduction speaker implanted behind his ear.

"Yulia Obreskeyva filed a report via the node 'Extinction Moment' two hours ago that seems to be most relevant to your current assignment."

The fedcomm voice shifted into an artificial approximation of the author's voice, informed by her public identmodel.

"There hasn't been an assassination in the whole of the federation's thirty-seven years, since the beginning of the Interregnum following the Queen's death. Today, that streak is ended. It has been reported that executive Ian Ward was found murdered at his dacha in the mountains of Sedo."

A streak of lightning rose from the thundercloud directly under his ride, immediately followed by quiet, electronically-suppressed thunder. Warnas calmly slid the vehicle away from the mild danger as it continued flying along.

The computer with Yulias voice continued in a mocking tone.

"The 'noble' classes of businessmen, politicians, oligarchs, madames and playboys have enjoyed a period of relative stability in the corrupt order brought about by the AI revolution.

When the workforce was automated and the undeserving massess were placated or removed to the off-world colonies, there was little reason for the priviledged remainers to fight amongst themselves."

Warnas rolled his eyes at the vitriol and pushed forward on his right stick, sending the chrome ride gliding downward into the rain under the thunderstorm.

'Yulia' kept talking inside his skull from his implanted fedcomm.

"Post-scarcity gave the have-nots all the superficial trappings of wealth, and satiated their needs. They were content to spend the last of their decades engaged as socialites in relative luxury; permanent tourists and vacationers amongst the old world cities that are effectively their open-air retirement homes."

"The Nobles live amongst us, but invisibly - united and elevated by private information networks, encrypted and federated and accessed as easily as thought via subdermal interconnect. These federations give them access to private retreat-palaces in far-flung locations reachable only by personal transports - true freedom of movement - the only luxury denied to the rest of us who, by design, want for nothing else."

Investigator Warnas waved his right hand dismissively and the communicator fell silent as his craft slid through the oak canyon. As the elevation of the canyon changed the oak leaves to pinetops, he settled the craft onto the white pea-gravel drive beside the coroner.