Confused about what on earth this is? There’s an explanation here. In the meantime, bad, silly prose follows below.
The door to the barracks opened and a potent cocktail of smells, the dry, wretched tang of stale beer mixed with the acrid biting sharpness of the local spirit, wafted in. Markus glanced up, annoyed at his routine being broken. Six months of comfortable regularity since the transfer from the training base on Rhosix to Şcrade were shattered in an instant.
A large man, outweighing Markus by at least twenty kilogrammes and topping him by half a foot, tumbled over the threshold, toppling like a felled tree and smashing his face into the solid synthcrete floor.
“Shit, are you alright?” Markus had heard the door open and saw the man falling, although the sickening crunch that resounded round the empty room as he impacted the floor would have drawn his attention any time.
The man bounced up with the invincibility and vigour of the very drunk, and put a hand to his face to wipe away the wetness he felt on his lips. He discovered that where before a majestically aquiline protuberance had cut the air in front of him with the authority of a battleship, now his face was as sheer as a cliff. The cliff effect was completed by a bloody waterfall, so, numbed to pain by the extreme amount of alcohol he had consumed, he wandered over to the mirror to have a quick look at what interesting new shape his face had taken. Examining himself in the mirror, he caught sight of Markus looking at him with concern over his shoulder. He stared for a long moment, then returned to absent-mindedly jiggling his nose about his face.
“Seriously, that looks pretty bad,” Markus said to break the somewhat uncomfortable silence. “You want me to help you to the med room?”
The hulking giant turned round and a change came over his face like a curtain being drawn back, mild curiosity falling away to reveal a murderous rage hidden underneath. Anger flashed in his eyes, transforming him from a slapstick clown into the highly honed set of killing instincts that the military had trained him to become.
“Piece o’ shit,” he muttered, his voice made thick by the copious bleeding and the sheer volume of alcohol singing its way round his system. “You wan’ help me?” He spat on the floor, directly into a pool of his own blood. “Well, fuck you. You’re traitor, ’s’what y’are. Sooner take help from… from… fuck, somethin’ unhelpful ’fore you. Fuck you.”
“Look, you’re bleeding pretty badly. Just let me help you to the med room.”
“Fuck you, traitor.”
A pause in the conversation followed while the giant turned and calmly vomited onto someone else’s bunk. Markus took advantage of this to move towards him, hoping to grab him and try to do something before anything too serious happened.
He had misjudged his opponent. The man stood back up from his vulnerable leaning position, wiped his mouth casually with the back of his hand and grabbed Markus with the other one. The giant leaned in close to Markus’ face, almost overwhelming him with a stench of booze, sweat and nausea. Markus struggled to try and get free, but the man was still astonishingly large and strong and, despite his drunkenness, had Markus in a pincer grip.
“Know what we got for… f’r your little bi’ of… talkin’ back?” The giant occasionally had to stop midsentence to beat back a fresh batch of bile, before vanquishing it successfully and continuing.
“We got… extra fuckin’ pun’shment drills when you’re… ‘laxin’ in a nice cell. Fuckin’ screwed th’whole squad. ‘N’ then y’act like you’re too fuckin’… good f’rus when y’get back. Like y’r… too good f’r us, and too fuckin’ high ‘n’ mighty to serve. Too fuckin’ ‘ntelligent for the army. Piece of elitist, stuck-up, moody shit, s’what y’are. So… I c’n knock down a notch’r two now. Piece of fuckin’ no good…” The man kept muttering obscenities into Markus’ face, almost drowning him in a tide of liquor fumes. While the giant talked, one gigantic fist kept a hold of Markus and the other drew back at glacial pace.
The fist hung in the air, rope-like biceps and triceps uncoiling themselves up the man’s arm. It wavered, wobbling and unsteady. Markus looked up at his assailant’s wandering, unfocused eyes. The grip on his shirt slackened as the eyes squinted at his, and Markus reacted.
He whipped his right hand up, jabbing at the wrist holding him in place. With a yelp, he was free and scrambled away, leaving his attacker to lumber drunkenly after him. Darting past his bunk to grab his wrist unit and a coat, he snapped round and dove through the entrance to gain momentary freedom.
He burst outside and stood for a moment in a cloud of his own breath, misting and drifting serenely in the cold night air. He couldn’t go back into the barracks, and he knew that the man would come after him, so he set off, pelting into the dark and still night of a sleeping fortress.
He hardly even knew the layout of the base, and soon Markus discovered that he was tracing out one of the only known quantities in the whole labyrinthine complex. His feet were moving, reacting unconsciously to his need for motion, and he found himself taking his usual route from his barracks to his post, acting purely on instinct whilst his mind raced. He stopped, feeling he needed to gather his thoughts before he ran into someone and had to explain why he was dashing about the base in the middle of the night when he was off duty.
The options, as he could see them, were limited. The obvious thing to do would simply be to go to his post, talk to the on-duty guard and get his belligerent squadmate thrown in the cooler for the night. There were good reasons for finding some other solution, though. His squadmate was angry at him and threatening to beat him up because he was “too good for the squad”. Presumably, Markus thought with a grimace, getting a member of his squad thrown in solitary and the rest of the squad having their off duty time privileges lessened would really result in him gaining back that lost popularity.
So if turning to authority was out, what was there? It was then that Markus noticed that he was starting to get so cold he could barely feel his feet. So he had to go somewhere inside and heated, but away from anyone else in a uniform in case they questioned why he was hanging about, looking obviously flushed and suspicious. There was only one thing for it. He sighed and made his way over to the main gate.
The bored guard manning the gatehouse easily accepted his pass, and didn’t even question why an off duty soldier would be leaving base at night to go into a large city filled with alcohol, drugs and easy sex. Surprised at how easy this had been, Markus thought about turning round to go back and hide in the mess, but it was too late now. The inner gate had closed behind him, and asking the guard to open it again was beyond his fragile self-respect. And so, gritting his teeth, he trudged reluctantly forward to be waved past by the other guard and through the outer gate for his first close look at Şcrade.
The gate peeled back and he stood there, taking in for the first time the sight of the city he found himself in, his first venture outwith the confines of the ancient fortress they occupied a corner of. The new posting somehow seemed so new, so — for lack of a better term — alien. There were the buildings, the hive-like spires twisting unsteadily up into the sky seemingly supported only by a thin network of capillaries tying them to their neighbours, giving the impression that if one fell the whole city would collapse, even as they swayed precipitously after being gently buffeted by a passing cloud.
The city was made up of unnatural, impossible, twinkling, twisting spires of spindly light that climbed and climbed and climbed, the tips winking back at him from a thousand feet above the ground. The base of one of these hive-towers was opposite the gate, and he drifted over, stunned, to touch it, make sure it was real and solid and not a cold and shock induced hallucination. It looked as fragile as spun glass, as slender and unsteady as a spider’s leg, and yet it was huge, a stone and synthcrete foundation that supported the weight of thousands of souls hanging precariously above him.
He stroked the unfamiliar surface, worn and pitted by age and memories of violence for long-forgotten causes. The scars of time and the battles of centuries past were all that remained of those who had died in the shadow of this spire, one more chipped hunk of rock their only memorial. Markus realised he didn’t even know what race this planet had sheltered before the Federation came, or indeed any of its history. He had been so studiously ignoring the outside world, wishing so hard for it all to go away that he had no idea where he was or what he was doing. Then he noticed just how cold he was getting.
He looked around for somewhere to go. He had some change on him, and he supposed there would be a bar where he could grab some sort of corner table and sit for a while without disturbing anyone. The streets were dark and deserted, though, and he couldn’t see anything. Cursing his luck, and cursing the rage filled squadmate who had brought him to this, Markus set off into the night, checking to make sure that he had his blade strapped to his thigh. It never hurt to be prepared, and the narrow streets formed by the narrow gaps between the bases of the spires were both unlit and empty.
It was then that Markus noticed a blinking flash in the corner of his eye and turned. A green light winked at him from a panel in the base of the tower next to him, and he turned to look at it. It was the security control for the door set into the thick wall next to it, a slab of metal that looked just as secure as the gates on the military base he had just left. He looked at the panel and saw that it had a couple of buttons and some sort of hollow beneath them. He took a guess based on the old machinery lying in the shed back home and experimentally prodded one of the buttons. He was rewarded with a garbled squawk of some alien tongue from the hollow, and bent to reply, noting the well disguised camera that lurked in the shadowy alcove above him.
“Hi, I’m a newly arrived Federation soldier,” Markus stated to the door, feeling slightly foolish. “Could you please tell me where the nearest bar is?”
A croaky, frog-like version of English was spat out of the door, as if the owner of the voice was irritated at Markus’ presumptuousness. “Get here. Stop my time wasting.”
Markus was slightly confused at the cryptic statement, wondering if he had heard correctly, when the door hissed and retracted into a groove in the wall. “Very futuristic,” thought Markus sarcastically, wondering how the technology even still ran when it was clearly centuries old. However, he then stepped through the door and, for the second time that night, all thoughts were driven out of his mind as he stopped functioning in order to marvel.
The hall was vast, the curving walls of the exterior of the tower forming the boundaries that gently curved away into the distance before disappearing into the clouds of steam and smoke and vapour that was pouring out of the shacks and stalls that crowded the rough, unfinished floor. There were technically no interior walls, just a massive, low space packed to the brim with huddled shanties, built out of wood and cloth and scraps of refuse. Open fires burned here and there in the cramped alleyways created between the thin sheet screens that defined a house. Markus got the impression of a giant pit into which all the human waste of the city was being deposited.
Huge pans and bright colours marked stalls, hawking anything from jewellery made from pieces of what Markus recognised as spent rifle batteries, to huge bubbling lakes of mysterious foodstuffs, filled with ingredients that all had too many legs, despite the repeated imprecations of the stallholder that his was a vegetarian stand.
Stingingly acidic fumes were rising from visibly smoking alien liquors. There was an acrid, burning sensation in his nose as he walked past one food stall, breathing in the steam from a mysteriously simmering pan. The walls, where they were visible through the smoke and the steam and the network of refuse creeping slowly up them, were rough and coarse, pitted with the scars and memories of centuries. The electric sound of twenty languages and tongues and hisses and grunts and squeaks sparked across artificial alleyways barely wider than Markus’ shoulders. He stood and marvelled, letting the crashing rainbow of sense and input shatter over him and pierce him with a thousand gleaming fragments.
The low ceiling was stained with soot and ash, with the dirty smog from the fires and the people clinging desperately to it before finding one of the all too few holes that had been drilled laboriously in the wall. Flashes of brightness popped out unexpectedly, every homeowner trying to display their proprietary pride by decorating their hovel with some sort of adornment. Most of the scraps and rags of colour looked suspiciously like they had been liberated from the giant rubbish heap next to the military base.
A jostling to his shoulder awoke Markus from his reverie, and he started, remembering that he was trying to keep his guard up. He instinctively reached for his knife, but then forced himself to relax. He knew the rules for this situation; a section of his training on Rhosix had covered how to behave when on duty in various hostile environments. He stood tall and confident, whilst keeping his hand close to his armament at all times, and strode through the crowd. The great sea of people that was flowing about the hall parted before him, keeping their heads low and shuffling on their way as he made his way to the nearest stall. As Markus surreptitiously glanced around him, he scanned the vast mass of humanity that was flowing past. Countless people, squalid and poor, grovelling in the dirt of this giant slum as they tried to eke out another day of existence from the tight grip of death. He made sure his Federation military status was clear to try and deter pickpockets and, as casually as he could, sauntered to the nearest source of information.
As soon as it was clear he was approaching a particular stall, Markus was assaulted from every side by cries from the disfavoured vendors, selling their wares with desperate abandon as they promised unearthly delights and magnificent riches that he knew were unlikely at best. He reached his aim unmolested, however, and leaned in to talk to the tiny grizzled woman perched behind a huge, steaming wok which reeked of spices and well boiled carcass.
“Best stew in the tower, you know. You come here, you won’t go anywhere else.” She cut him off in a mysterious rasp, sensing that he perhaps wasn’t here for the lumps of gristle floating appetisingly in her pan.
“Sorry ma’am, but I’ve eaten already. Could you tell me where the nearest bar would be in here?” Markus’ politeness caught the woman off guard, and she looked at him for the first time, an expression of surprise on her face.
“The one where the soldiers go is down that staircase over by the wall. Down there and you’ll see the sign.” Having realised that Markus wasn’t going to buy anything, she dropped the mystery. Her croak wasn’t mystic any more, just a voice ruined by years of squalor spent breathing the fetid air of the enclosed slum. A born saleswoman, though, she added hopefully, “You wouldn’t like some stew to go?”
“No thank you ma’am. Much obliged for the directions though, thank you.”
Markus walked off, again keeping his hands close to the knife on his thigh and trying his best to avoid eye contact. He wondered briefly what she had meant by pointing him to the bar ‘where the soldiers go’, but it passed as he tried to remember what books were loaded on to his wrist unit. The sense of discovery was so incredibly new, and all the things he was seeing in the bowels of this tower so unfamiliar and fascinating that he felt he had to sit and read about where he was and learn more about this fantastically alien city.
He once again glided through a suddenly compliant crowd, as smoothly as if he were a ghost. People who were talking and arguing, laughing, interacting when they were walking towards him quickly fell silent as they drew near, keeping their gazes down and hurrying carefully around him. Markus was surrounded by a bubble of calm and space, insulated from the reality of the filthy hovels crowding round. It wasn’t a ghost he was like as he was drifting through the crowd, he decided; ghosts were supposed to be unnoticed, invisible. Instead, Markus felt uneasy, unsure about the amount of attention he was actually getting. It wasn’t that he wasn’t noticed, more that he was actively shut out.
His unease grew as he approached the staircase and saw that it was another island of calm in the otherwise bustling, constantly busy hive of the giant hall. No-one went down and no-one came up. Markus approached it with trepidation, wondering what sort of bar could be down a barely lit, deserted synthcrete staircase. He had already seen the way the denizens of this place looked at him — or rather, didn’t look at him. He stopped for a moment, weighing up why he was here in the first place.
Was going down this staircase into the unknown, in an environment he had never experienced before in his life, filled with people scraping out some sort of existence in ways he had never imagined the best way to find somewhere to sit down and keep warm? Because by this point, he should probably abandon the ostensible reason that had brought him here and admit it had become complete nonsense. The danger, the poverty; his imagination was running wild. Any reason he had had for leaving the base originally, even if it was just a surge of adrenaline at the time and he had panicked, were completely irrelevant now. Markus realised that his curiosity was stoked to a hot, burning flame by the sights, the sounds, the smells of this place. And he knew that he was going to go down that staircase and see the seedy underbelly of this place regardless of whether his brain felt it was a good idea or not.
Stomach lurching, he stepped towards the stair and started down. Every step felt like a mile, as he plunged deeper and deeper into the bowels of the planet. The flickering, multi-faceted light of the hall, the waves of low level noise and the pungent and tantalising aromas all dropped away as he fell slowly into a darkened pit, silent and stinking of urine. The nervousness in his gut grew. He could feel himself shaking slightly as he reached the last step and found himself on level ground.
For the first time since entering the tower, Markus felt like he could potentially be in some sort of trouble, and he gently rubbed the gem hanging round his neck, making sure it was still there. He knew it wasn’t the most valuable thing on him, but he would fight to keep it. He could barely see anything of what he presumed was a corridor which stretched out in front of him. All he could sense was the stillness and the stench.
He tried to fight down the urge to panic rising in his throat. The sense of solitude, the eerie silence after the constant chatter just metres above him; something didn’t feel right. The light trickling down from above caught a small pool of something glistening wetly on the floor, and Markus’ skin crawled as his imagination grew more and more agitated. Then, a slight buzz caught his attention and he flashed around, starting at the unexpected noise shattering the quiet.
A multi-coloured glow washed over him, bathing the bare, stained corridor in a soft, forgiving light. Some sort of sign had flickered on whilst he had been standing there, and he looked at it for a second before relief flooded him and he laughed out loud. In amongst the strange symbols and hieroglyphs and empty spaces where ultraviolet lights were, was one word he recognised, and the tension of his short — it must have only been a few moments — episode in the corridor drained away as quickly as it had built up.
In the dim light of the sign, he could see a motion sensor squatting awkwardly in a corner of the ceiling. His own tension must have been his undoing, he realised, as he looked down and realised he hadn’t moved his feet the whole time. ‘Scared stiff’, he thought to himself; the sentiment was truer than the trite saying seemed.
Still laughing softly at himself on the inside, he walked over to the heavy door underneath the sign signalling ‘BAR’ and heaved it open. A cloud of smoke and steam and chemical vapour drifted out, and, after a momentary pause, Markus plunged in for the first of what became many nights.
The military life he had come to accept over the six months of basic training had quickly become strange, changing from the familiar to the fantastically new in an instant. He had been used to the human base on Rho-D-6, a basic and spartan frontier outpost whose purpose was just to stand watch over some minor industrial interests. The brutal landsape of the young planet had just been a bonus when it came to breaking down the new recruits. Now he was in Şcrade, the capital city of a major Federation planet, a bustling warren of activity and industriousness and life.
The base was so much bigger, for one thing, and filled with so many more people in such a tight space. Markus had thought the base on Rhosix had been large and busy, but it was dwarfed by the giant, sprawling walled fortress that solidly imposed itself on anyone even looking near it. The fortress, like the rest of the city, was old, venerable even, dating from before the first major expansions of the fledgling Federation into nearby systems. Once Markus started to actually walk around the base, to pay attention to what was going on within it and how it functioned, he was awed by the scale and the efficiency, the magnificent ticking of a well-oiled machine.
The boggling and the gawping at hitherto unimagined sights were by no means the first thing he did when he arrived at the base. The amount of boredom that quickly set in was a surprising discovery in itself, after the initial training period of seemingly merciless and methodical punishment. However, after six months of basic training, the entire squad had been deemed ready for at least a semi-active deployment to a post which was reasonably quiet and uneventful. The realisation of how little he had to do in actual military life had suddenly dawned for Markus. A shift of guard duty; a shift of advanced training, mostly in the classroom; eating and sleeping. Every day was the same, and Markus ended up with a lot of free hours, especially while he struggled to adjust to the different length of day on this new planet.
At first, Markus had sullenly stayed within the massive complex and been to content to spend his time off writing to Lara back on Cernunnos. He had resumed the voracious reading he had started to keep him occupied during the long Cernunnonian winters when the farm was essentially dormant. His squadmates had shunned him, and he was left alone to pursue his solitary activities in peace. The few snatched moments he had when he was off duty and not performing some sort of other activity were the best moments he had, stolen fragments when he could concoct his own reality. The outside world backed off a little, and he could escape from life for long enough to pretend that the monstrous step of being conscripted for the next chunk of his life was simply a dream, a casual hypothetical dreamt up during a lazy afternoon in front of the fire back home, half-asleep and wondering.
Instead of exploring the city, or even the wider confines of the crumbling relic of a base they were stationed in, Markus spent his time alone in his bunk, poring over some book he had brought up on his wrist unit, studiously teaching himself new farming techniques and methods of crop and animal rearing. He was determined to provide Lara with the best possible life when he returned, and in doing so he was going to become the most advanced, cutting-edge farmer on the planet.
Now that he was looking around the city, though, new fascinations and possibilities filled his mind. The new posting seemed so strange, so very alien. The buildings, ancient and steepling, were unlike anything he had ever seen before, twisting and spiralling, divided into tiny cells teetering precipitously in the sky. They continued down under the earth too, turning the whole city into one enormous hive. The cramped, narrow, labyrinthine tunnels scraped out from under the surface, deep and dark and curling and burrowing to some great lair at the centre, lit dimly by unreliable electricity and covered in a permanent fall of rubbish and debris.
The poor of the city fascinated him, eking out some sort of living in the streets and the factories and the workshops, earning enough through the sacrifice of their own bodies that they might trudge back to their tiny cell in the sky, high and cold and dangerously unstable, or their claustrophobic tomb buried deep underneath the earth, to await their final demise and hope that the next generation might be able to live down a floor, or see the sun more times than they could count on their hands. The city was a vast network of misery and hopes all at once, a great throbbing heart of industry sucking in blood from its host and then pumping it away, only seeking more of the same to use and discard.
Markus was stunned by this, enthralled by the sight of so much he had never thought of or experienced before. Now that he had discovered what the city around him was like, he couldn’t help himself. In his time off, he would wander down to the slums in his casual clothes, dropping in to a dirty, crowded bar. He would watch a seething mass of pain and strangled longing roll in like a tide every night and roil on the dance floor, drowning their sorrow and yet revelling in it, celebrating the misery and sharing it with others to try and forget, if only for one night. Markus would sit and drink and watch, amazed and shocked and occasionally profoundly depressed. Then he would catch a glint of self-referential irony in the eye of part of the whole, knowing what it was doing and disgusting in it, while inviting him to join all the same.
And so tonight, as usual, Markus sat on his own in the bar, bathed in a gentle wash of rippling, changing light. The corner booth was dark enough for him not to see his own drink, a fact he was grateful for every time he frequented the cramped, dingy basement that passed for a high class drinking establishment in Şcrade.
The soft illumination of the neon lights, flowing through the electromagnetic spectrum, danced and melted in front of his eyes, occasionally submerging them as the bar was plunged into momentary darkness. Looking around in the half-light and squinting through the fog of ten different stimulants and depressants, Markus did his favourite thing and watched.
There was a scuffle at the door, men grabbing impotently at one another in their induced stupors, shouting incoherent insults. Markus sat and sipped his drink. Then the thought struck him that he might recognise one of the fighters from the military base.
Casting his gaze round the bar, he could see a group of soldiers stuffed into a dark booth, looking surreptitious. None of them moved to help their companion, or even indicated that he was a part of their group. Instead, they kept their heads down, and in turn, the soldier involved in the fight conspicuously avoided looking for help.
A large, tattooed man arrived, muscles bulging with enhancements and grafts, and pulled a vicious looking pistol. The weapon was heavily customised, looking if anything even more dangerous than its owner, with expensive looking add-ons to match the man wielding it.
The scuffle died out as soon as the new arrival spoke. Markus saw a large tattoo catch the flickering light, a symbol spreading across the crown of his shaven head. He didn’t recognise the mark, although to be tattooed across the man’s scalp surely meant that it had some sort of significance. That said, he was sure he’d seen other symbols on his limited wanderings around the city. He made a mental note to look it up when he had a chance, and refocused on the action.
Even the soldier seemed subdued by the arrival of the newcomer, although he, like Markus and every other Federation soldier in the packed bar, was out of uniform. The cluster of people that had gathered broke up and drifted apart, and the tattooed enforcer slipped his weapon back into a holster held subtly under his arm, gliding his way back into the shadows off to the side. He was almost unnoticeable now that it was quiet again.