Choices: Red Star Rising Chapter 1 (Preview #2)
Well dear readers, carrying on from last week’s preview the narrative proper is about to begin. If you’ve just joined us then you might want to start here at Preview #1: Prologue.
And if you need a little helping hand with names or concepts then check out the handy glossary.
Finally, one word of warning: contains strong language. (My father wasn’t a fan of it, but I did say that these people aren’t exactly the most erudite members of society.)
Roll The Dice
“There are those who have claimed that the Founding is nothing more than a fabrication intended to gloss over some aspect of history known only to the Guild itself. Yet I am disinclined towards the notion that the tale is an endeavour purely at deception. On the contrary, there is no reason to believe that either narratives – neither Flight nor Founding – are not based on real, historical occurrences.
Therefore we can safely assume that the First Founders were indeed real people forced to flee persecution, and in their exile eventually chanced upon Svecia and its deserted city. With them they brought their fickle deity of good fortune whom they must have perceived to have indeed been smiling upon them. That the Guild of Navigators and Cartographers was then established in order to explore and exploit the abandoned gateway system is an entirely reasonable result.
To instead attribute to them some eternal quality of residency stretches the credibility of anyone who would try to paint the Guild in such a fashion.”
Flight and Founding
Speculations on the History of the Guild
Tomme de Bargkas
One table, one chair, one window.
Somewhere, a fly buzzed in the expectant silence as the willowy youth called Shale waited. Frustration gnawed him. Beside him the gneblim Scamorza scratched behind an ear with tired resignation.
Shale ran a hand over his shaved head and studied the three people opposite him.
All three wore suits with red feathers in their lapels. Seated at the table, Monte Enebro, ursine and thick necked like he’d been chiselled from stone. Standing either side of him were the Juust twins: Kadaka, lithe with short bleached hair and ear piercings, and her brother Eesti who was nothing more than a slab of muscle under slicked back hair.
They shifted impatiently as, with slow deliberation, Monte Enebro took a card from the Deck of Paths. He threw a glance at the dishevelled pair stood opposite, flipped the card up before his eyes.
Shale grit his teeth.
Enebro placed the card down and when he spoke it was with the slow, deliberate tones of resignation.
“Someone,” he said, “Fucked up.”
“What do you mean someone fucked up?” Shale shot back. “What happened to our money?”
“Your money,” Monte Enebro fixed him with a look, “Was lost.”
“Our shipment,” Enebro explained, “Was intercepted before we could retrieve it.”
For a moment no one spoke. The fly circled, then bumped against the window.
Shale glanced at his friend. Scamorza shrugged and the youth turned back to Enebro. “You got to be joking. It took us over a year to put that money together.”
Enebro shrugged. Not my problem. He drew another card, cocked his head as if bemused at what he saw there, and laid it beside the others. The twins grinned, thinly veiled cruelty twinkling in their eyes.
“But you understand,” Scamorza said, “That was everything we had, right?”
“And my heart bleeds,” Enebro replied as he put the cards down and sat back in his chair, “But that’s life in the big city.”
“So you fuck up and we have to take the hit?” Shale barked as he shrugged off Scamorza’s hand. He gripped the table and stared at Enebro. Twins tensed up, hands on the pistols beneath their jackets, all too ready to clarify things for those too thick headed to understand. “You can’t do this!”
“I assure you that I can.” Enebro grinned to reveal his gold teeth. “If you feel unfairly treated, perhaps you’d like to take it up with the Birdeater himself?”
“Maybe I will,” Shale shot back.
Enebro shook his head and laughed. “You’ve got some balls, I’ll give you that, but as for brains, well…..”
“You guys don’t frighten me,” Shale sneered.
“How old are you lad?” Enebro asked.
“Mid twenties?” Shale shrugged. He wasn’t completely sure.
“That’s good,” Enebro growled, his voice a gathering storm. “Means you got plenty of time to get over it, so listen up. We’re in the business of making money outside of the law. You understand that difference, I assume, between the Guild and the Undervine?”
“I understand, but – ”
“Good!” Enebro snapped. “Because when you invest with us two things can happen: either you get double, or you get nothing. This time the Oltermanni found the shipment. It’s a bust. You. Get. Nothing.”
He leaned forward and picked up his cards.
“You fuck!” Shale twisted free of Scamorza’s grasp, and slammed his hands down on the table. Enebro didn’t so much as flinch, and Shale found himself face to face with a pair of quickly drawn pistols. Enebro grinned again.
“Easy now little pup,” Kadaka chided. “No need to get excited.”
Scamorza pulled Shale back, the youth’s face flushed with barely suppressed rage. Kadaka and Eesti leered.
“Now, if you know what’s good for you,” Enebro growled, indicating the door, “You’ll leave before I have to get nasty.”
“Wait, wait,” Scamorza said, holding up his hands. “Look, isn’t there something we can arrange? Something to get some cash going for another investment?”
Monte Enebro eyed the pair for a moment. He rubbed the stubble on his chin and shrugged. “I suppose we might be able to find something, but you’d have to start at the bottom.”
“No fu – ” Shale started, but Scamorza elbowed him in the ribs.
“And just what does that mean?”
“Tell them what it means,” Enebro prompted the twins.
“It means,” Kadaka smiled, “That the toilets will finally get cleaned.”
“Toothbrushes come as standard,” Eesti said as he performed a little scrubbing pantomime. Scamorza barely stopped his friend from jumping the table. Shale shrugged him off, but the hatred didn’t cease to burn in his eyes as Enebro held up his hand for decorum. The twins snapped back to silence, pistols lowered, but the smug glint in their eyes said it all.
“So we start at the bottom,” Scamorza acknowledged. “What then?”
“Well, if you can swallow your pride,” Enebro replied with a meaningful look at Shale, “Maybe, just maybe, we can find more interesting jobs for you to do.”
“Fuck off!” Shale spat. “You think I’m gonna scrub toilets until you find some meat-grinder to throw us into?”
“It’s that or nothing,” Enebro replied, eyes drawn to where the fly had come to land on the table. His hand slapped down so fast that the pair jumped.
“The choice,” he grinned with a flash of gold teeth, “Is yours.”
* * *
Ejected into the warm light of the waning afternoon, Shale made his feelings abundantly clear to the three laughing Birdeaters as they slammed the door in his face, then he and Scamorza brushed themselves off and straightened their threadbare clothes with as much dignity as they could muster.
Meanwhile, the curious eyes of the Pelardon Hills inhabitants were giving them both a once over. Their audience were mostly ordinary folk killing time with gossip while a few played street dice, but a couple of toughs who had been leaning against a wall straightened up in interest.
Scamorza grabbed Shale’s arm, but the youth shrugged him off and spat, then marched off across the street towards Pelardon Garden’s leaving a string of curses in his wake.
“Hey, it’s no good being pissed,” Scamorza called after him.
“Like I can help it,” Shale retorted over his shoulder. “I ain’t cleaning toilets for the fucking Birdeater.”
Scamorza trotted after his friend as they entered the Gardens through a neglected gate that was rusted open, the ‘gardens’ being nothing more than the bald crown of the hill fringed with sparse, wild undergrowth and a scattering of lonely benasque trees. Not far from the entrance stood a solitary bench, only partially vandalised and which looked out to the north. Shale took a seat and fished out a packet of Bonchesters, proffering one to Scamorza as he caught up and took a seat.
They smoked in silence.
“Well,” Scamorza sighed after a time, then tried to sound upbeat, “At least we got a choice about it, eh?”
“Not really,” Shale snapped and tapped out another cigarette. “Did you have a choice when your people kicked you out?”
The gneblim winced, ran a hand over his face at the sudden, bitter memory. “I screwed up. It wasn’t about choice.”
“Neither is this.”
“But at least we’d have a foot in the door.”
“I don’t want to join the Birdeater’s, Scar.”
“Well, we got to do something,” Scamorza replied. “We gonna start over?”
“Pfff! Life’s too short. We gotta get something quick or I’m gonna lose it.”
Scamorza didn’t bother to refute him and for a while they sat smoking, each to their own thoughts. Shale’s foot tapped in agitation as he looked out over the Bierkase. It was the home of innumerable workers and their families, along with all manner of low-lifers, gangers and small time businesses. Sure, it wasn’t the worse place to live but the low grade poverty was a long way from what the city could offer.
If only you are blessed with enough good fortune to grasp it, Shale quoted to himself. It was from some Guild blurb he’d heard on the radio the other day. His eyes responded by moving north, past the Bierkase, past the vast encircling highway of the Svecia Ring, and towards the centre of Asclepius. Within that ring lay the warehouse district of the Parenica that swarmed with transports ferrying goods back and forth across Lake Charolais. They were like lines of ants carrying vast fortunes of goods and materials, endlessly swallowed and regurgitated by the Guild portals on their bastion anthill island of Panquehue.
The centre of Asclepius. The hub to a hundred different worlds.
Even at such a distance the Guild’s towers dwarfed all else. The greatest of them, the Iona Cromag, speared the sky to catch the last rays of the setting sun. Its flanks were burnished gold. Thus was Asclepius known as the City of the Shining Spires; a place where fortunes waited to be made if only Sveciaost, the deity of good fortune, were smiling.
Shale squinted and tossed his cigarette butt on a collision course with the Iona Cromag. His eye followed it, past the tower and down the slope to where a lone figure was entering the bottom of the park. Shale sighed and stretched out the knots in his shoulders, then tapped out another cigarette as he pushed his thoughts around. As they circled they returned again and again to one, clear option.
He wanted to dismiss it because Scar would never go for it, but what else were they going to do? Find a job? Hustle up another batch of money? They had worked so damned hard to make that cash only for it to evaporate because of someone else’s incompetency…..
“Fourteen months,” Shale opined. “Fourteen fucking months! You’d think they’d have paid off the Oltermanni or something.”
“Maybe they did,” Scamorza mused, then brightened. “Why don’t we go back to Squirrel and ask if there’s anything we can get?”
“You serious?” Shale shook his head. “You know he’s one superstitious bastard, right? He’ll say he can smell the bad vibes on us, avoid us like we had some disease.”
Shale sighed and ran a hand over his head.
Together they watched the figure Shale had spotted earlier labouring up the hill toward them.
“Well, it could be worse,” Scamorza said for want of anything else to say.
“Are you gonna keep it up with the platitudes Scar?”
“That’s a nice, long word Shale. You even know what it means?”
“It means that you’re trying to deny the situation.”
“How so?” Scamorza frowned. “Sure, we lost our money. We can start over.”
Shale shook his head and muttered, “There’s no going back.”
Scamorza eyed him sidelong as he asked slowly. “What does that mean?”
“I quit,” Shale sniffed.
“Quit? Quit what?” Shale glanced at Scamorza, and the gneblim knew. He was incredulous. “You quit your fucking job?”
Shale shrugged. “I thought we weren’t going back.”
“Well, go back and – ”
“Not going to happen, Scar. Besides, they probably already got a replacement in.”
Scamorza clamped his mouth shut and Shale could tell he was trying to compose himself. On their right the climber had reached the brow of the hill, and as she came closer they saw that it was an old woman. She sent them a smile that was more gaps than teeth. Shale’s own smile was pained. The old woman shuffled off along the path towards the centre of the park as the pair carried on their conversation.
“We need to think of a plan or it’s back to the soup kitchens,” said Shale.
“Good job I like soup,” Scamorza grunted.
“Yeah, well, if I have to eat it for another fourteen months then I’m going to kill someone.”
Scamorza nodded. “You sure you can’t just ask your old boss – ”
“No! He’d never take me back, not after what I said.”
Scamorza rolled his eyes. “And just what did you say?”
Shale elaborated on the opinions she had given to her former employer and the directions she had given him with regard to where he might insert his job.
“Ah, quite the imagination you have,” the gneblim remarked. “Maybe you could put it to use now and think of something to get us out of the shit we’re in.”
Shale was about to reply when he spotted the old woman returning. She passed them, giving them a mysterious smile, and headed back down the hill.
“What was that all about?” Shale wondered. Scamorza shrugged and was about to speak, but Shale was up and walking. The gneblim followed. Up behind the trees they discovered one of the many local shrines that dotted the city, all nondescript and undedicated; you could make an offering to any god you liked, and so it contained melted candles, feathers, an old coin and a faded photo. Shale guessed that the old woman had left the fresh flower, wedged as it was in the cracked surface.
“You gonna make a prayer?” Scamorza asked.
“Fucker didn’t do us no favours, did he?”
“Perhaps cuz you didn’t offer him a prayer?”
Shale’s expression darkened as the gneblim laughed as he quoted, “That’s life in the big city.”
“Seriously, you want a punch in the face?”
“Hey,” Scamorza held up his hands, “Take it easy.”
“I can’t,” Shale ground out, then put his hand on the gneblim’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. They were two of a kind, outcasts who had found each other on the street and become friends for the past handful of years. Together they had hustled and scraped every credit they could, only to have it go sour and lose everything. And when you came up empty in the big city, what was left?
Shale’s mind turned again to the unthinkable. “Double or nothing,” he said.
“Double or nothing, Scar.”
Scamorza’s eyes widened. “You mean….?”
“Come on Scar, what else?”
“Anything but that!” Scamorza stepped out of his friends hands. “Sixteen Hells! You can’t be serious?”
Shale nodded. Scamorza stared in disbelief and Shale could tell what he was thinking because no one in their right mind would sign up with the Guild, no one but the foolish and desperate would take a dive through one of their portals in the hope that the roll of the dice would come up with a winning number. While ‘double’ might mean a find that would make you wealthy beyond your dreams, ‘nothing’ meant most likely dying in some unimaginably horrific manner.
And everyone knew: the odds were sorely in favour of ‘nothing’.
“I’m not signing up for a suicide mission,” said Scamorza. Shale rolled his eyes and made a face, ready to goad Scamorza, but the gneblim cut in. “You know that guy over in the Pultost I used to live with?”
“Sort of….” Shale waved it aside, not really knowing. Or caring.
“I heard all they brought back was his skin, like everything inside had been sucked out.”
Shale laugh was cavalier. “Sure sounds like a way to go.”
“But – ”
“You got a better plan?”
“How about anything but take a dive?” Scamorza shot back. “You know how many people come back?”
“About half?” Shale guessed.
“Half?” Scarmorza was almost incredulous, “Half? And how many get rich?”
“Yeah yeah, not many, but listen,” Shale pressed on with a gleam in his eye, “It’s gonna work. We’re destined right?”
“I thought we were cursed with bad luck a minute ago?”
“Well,” Shale shrugged, “That was before I prayed.”
“You did? When?”
“Listen, maybe that’s what the bastard wanted! That’s why we got screwed, because we’re meant to do it!”
But Scamorza wouldn’t consider it, and he made it quite clear that there was nothing more to say. They returned to the bench and smoked the last of Shale’s cigarettes. Far to the north-west the sun finally touched the tops of the Penamallera Mountains and as it sank the twilight edged in. The Shining Spires faded to dull copper.
“That,” Shale nudged his friend, “That is where our destiny lies.”
Scamorza rolled his eyes, shook his head. “Sure.”
Shale sighed, dejected. “Is this because you don’t believe in Sveciaost?”
“You know I don’t,” Scamorza sighed. “And neither do you.”
“That’s beside the point.”
“And what is the point?”
“Well, we gotta do something. There’s got to be a way for us to get some credits.”
“But Shale, a dive? You understand me? It’s no good if we die in the process.”
“So, you want to do it?”
“I already said. No!”
“Come on Scar, what you got to lose?”
The gneblim cursed under his breath, shook his head. Shale wouldn’t relent, and that was for the worse. Once his mind was made up there’d be no end to it.
“I’ll think about it,” Scamorza said.
“How about getting a drink?”
* * *
Above the entrance to the Gamonedo hung a sign which bore a heroic profile framed in silhouette against the rising dawn, noble features seeking the sky: Gamonedo, the revered hero of the Flight and Founding, the slayer of the great monstrosity Kachokabaro that dwelt in the catacombs beneath Panquehue.
The back-light fizzled and went out.
Shale and Scamorza paused on the steps and looked up at it. It flickered with a splutter of current, then popped back to life. With a shake of their heads the pair pushed on through the door and into the gloomy interior where less-than-heroic faces turned from their revels to stare. At the far end of the bar a screen replayed the day’s punishments in the Kopanisti, the screams and cheers suddenly loud in the silence. There were muttered remarks and the as it was quickly established that the newcomers were just another pair of nobodies and the denizens returned to the task of escaping sobriety by whatever means they could afford.
Awaiting them was the mustachioed and tattooed barman, Goya. Wide as he was tall, he had plenty of muscle beneath the fat. He’d lost an eye in a story he kept to himself, and for all that it was missing, the intensity of the other never failed to unsettle. He gave Shale and Scamorza the benefit of its regard, then held the glass he was polishing up to the light before placing it beneath a tap.
“Always good to see my two best customers,” he remarked as he pulled.
“If only it were true,” Shale said, taking a stool beside Scamorza.
“You wound me to the core,” said the barman as he filled a second glass.
“Uh huh. Thing is, you say it to everyone who comes in.”
“True, but I don’t like to show favouritism.” He gave them a wink, “And you two do look glum today.”
He put down the two glasses, yet did not relinquish his grip on them.
“Put it on the tab,” Shale said.
“You gonna pay it soon?” Goya asked.
“Of course,” Shale replied.
Goya relented, reluctantly, and went back to polishing glasses.
People came and went. Another round was sunk as they avoided the issue and idled away the time with aimless chat. Goya served another round, and then was it the fourth or the fifth? Shale couldn’t be sure. He shook his head, straightened up to find that they had reached the point where you find that time had grown fuzzy around the edges. At some point the view screen had gone off in favour of soft background music.
And his glass was empty. He tried to order again but Goya shook his head.
“You were good for it before,” he said, crossing his arms, “But I want to see some credits. Now.”
“We was fuckin’ robbed,” Shale grumbled, then slammed his fist on the counter and a string of curses slurred forth.
“Easy lad,” Goya said. His moustache bristled. “What’s the problem?”
“We’re broke,” Scamorza stated.
“Scar, shhh!” Shale nudged him in the ribs meaningfully.
“You have no money at all?” Goya asked.
Scamorza glanced at Shale, shrugged, and repeated the statement to the barman. Goya stared at them for a moment, then reached slowly under the counter. Together they tensed as a long, notched bludgeon was drawn forth and Goya held it up to survey its majesty by the neon bar light, his expression nostalgic. He ran a hand down it’s length like it was an old friend.
“This has been in the family for generations. My father told me that it was once wielded by this bar’s own namesake.” He shot them a look and they nodded like chastised children. “Gamonedo! Who fought Kachokabaro in the catacombs of Panquehue. You know the story I’m sure, that when all else had failed it was this trusty club that he used to deal the creature a mortal blow.”
Goya sighed, then turned his eye upon them. “I’d hate to have to use it for an unpaid bar tab, hmm?”
Shale and Scamorza quickly nodded again.
“So,” Goya continued genially, “How do you propose to fix our little problem?”
“Dunno,” Scamorza said and scratched his head.
“Sure we do,” Shale said, brightening. He slapped the gneblim on the back. “Just gotta grow some balls is all!”
“What?” Scamorza and Goya replied in unison.
“We gotta plan, right?”
“You better,” Goya growled. “I’m listening.”
“We’re gonna take a dive,” Shale said and turned to Scamorza. “Innat right, Scar?”
“Have you lost your wits as well as your money?” Goya spat. “That’s a one way ticket.”
“That’s what Scar says,” Shale replied.
“I do?” Scamorza mumbled, trying to catch up. “What we doing?”
“We gotta pay the fucking tab,” Shale said and put an arm around the gneblim.
“You do,” Goya stated.
“I see,” Scamorza nodded slowly. “And so we’re talking about taking a dive to pay for it?”
“He doesn’t sound very convinced,” Goya said as he leaned over the bar and fixed Shale with his eye. “You know how many people come don’t make it back, right?”
Shale waved it aside.
“And what happens if you’re one of ’em?”
Well…..” Shale searched for the right answer. It took a moment. “Ah, well, there’s a basic payment for volunteering.”
Goya nodded. Yes, and?
“We’ll get ’em to forwa – ” Shale burped, “Forward it on to ya. You know? Last of kin and all that.”
Goya brightened. “Well, in that case, allow me to get you two another round to celebrate.”
“That’s the spirit!” Shale slapped the counter enthusiastically.
“Wait a minute,” Scamorza interjected, “When did we decide this?”
“Just a minute ago,” Shale explained, “When we found we couldn’t pay our tab.”
“Ah,” Scamorza nodded as he tried to piece together the conversation, but it was all just components that he couldn’t assemble. He tilted his empty glass up and watched the dregs of foam sliding across the bottom as he settled on the one thing he knew. “Yeah, we got shit all.”
“That much has been made abundantly clear,” Goya replied as he put down two fresh glasses, “But thank Sveciaost for the Guild, eh?”
* * *
Inbar stood on the dark pavement, a rock in the stream of bustling pedestrians, and stared up at the façade of the local Civic Administration office. It was clean and white. Functional. Open day and night. In the window hung an illuminated sign offering citizen’s advice, application and permit services, and guidance for foreign visitors.
It was also where you went to sign up for a dive.
The technical term for it was a ‘Prospecting and Exploration Transfer’, and although it was purely a Guild concern, out here in the city all the paperwork was handled by the C.A. and its bureaucratic machinery. Machinery that was about to to hand himself over to, all for a chance to explore the unknown and find the unbelievable. At least, that was how the Guild pitched it to those desperate enough to give it a roll of the dice.
Deep down everyone knew what it was; a gamble, pure and simple.
But what did he have to lost?
He rubbed the stubble on his face as he pretended to search for an answer, but he knew he was just stalling. The answer was the same as it had been yesterday, and the day before that when he’d spent the last of his credits getting shit-boxed in a back street bar. This was the bottom, and at the bottom there were no choices, so he pushed open the door and stepped into the sudden warmth and light of the Civic Administration’s domain, ready to pledge his body to the service of the Guild.
It was quiet inside. The secretary at the counter looked up and smiled with typical business formality, and Inbar was about to approached when he noted a statue set into a small wall niche on his right. It was a bird, an image of Sveciaost in the form of a pyengana. He eyed it, sighed and then muttered a prayer. Propitiation made, he walked to the counter and exchanged greeting with the secretary.
“So, how’s it work?” Inbar cut to the chase.
“I assume that you want to pledge?”
“Not much choice really,” he sighed.
She nodded as if it was the answer she had been expecting.
“There’s a few details I’ll need to go over, but we can begin if you’ll just swipe your citizen’s card,” and she gestured to the reader. Inbar found his ID and for a split second his hand hovered, then slashed the plastic through the reader. There was a small bleep of recognition and no turning back now. The secretary began tapping on her terminal as Inbar leaned on the counter and scanned the impersonal waiting room behind him. A human youth and a gneblim were stretched out on a bench, sleeping.
“What’s with those two?”
“They came in earlier,” she replied, and with a hint of what might have been disapproval added. “They were drunk.”
“Oh,” Inbar replied. They were in a pretty sorry state. The youth was wiry and freckled with a shaved head, his pale skin like up in the mountain towns of Imsil or Mohant. There was something about him, something not quite right. The gneblim on the other hand was certainly what he appeared to be: scruffy, rough and dog eared. Weathered, thought Inbar.
“Sir?” the secretary said. Inbar turned. “There are just a few things that I need to cover before you’re accepted.”
“Sure,” he smiled.
“You will be required to pass a psychometric and physical examination before mandatory basic training – ”
“What kind of physical examination?” Inbar cut in.
“The kind where you show the Guild how good at running you are,” said the secretary, hardly concealing her peevish tone. “Are you good at running?”
“All my life,” Inbar joked.
Her face showed no sign of amusement as she continued. “Upon completion you will be provided a dive suit and basic equipment, and agree to transportation to an undisclosed location via the gate system. For this you will receive a basic payment of two hundred and fifty credits.”
“You also understand that the Guild takes no responsibility for any injuries you sustain from hostile elements?”
“Environmental conditions, life forms, or any other non-specific threats.”
The secretary continued. “And that you will also be the primary beneficiary of any discovery you make that is deemed profitable to the Guild and its interests.”
“Got it,” he nodded. “Guess that’s the bit most people understand.”
She gave him a flat smile. Of course it is, sir. “You may of course elect another beneficiary who, in the event of a non-return, will receive your pay. Typically this will be your next of kin but can be any elected individual or institution.”
Inbar shook his head. “There isn’t anyone.”
“In that case the Guild will retain payment.”
“Sure,” Inbar sighed. “Not like I’ll be needing it, right?”
“Indeed,” the secretary agreed. “All I require now is for you confirm your ID card again and take a seat with the other volunteers.”
Inbar took a space across from the two drunks and waited as the secretary made a call, and judging by her disgruntled expression no one was picking up. Inbar listened as she left a terse message. Then she checked her watch and shuffled her papers. Across from him the other volunteers were snoring softly.
He studied the two volunteers and allowed himself a grim smile.
Inbar could sympathise; they were probably just chancers like he was, out of options. He’d hit the booze too, knowing that he was likely to turn up dead if he stuck around the Bierkase. He’d pissed on the wrong toes, lost all his money and it was either run to the slums of the Kesong Puti or disappear where they couldn’t find him. It was suicide to stay, slow death in the slums or get lucky and get rich.
So yeah, he was a volunteer.
Time passed. Inbar dozed, woken a little later when a door opened and a young man in white overalls – a Guild mediator – sauntered his way into the waiting room trailed by two assistants. He exchanged quick words with the secretary, then made his way over and looked Inbar up and down. “You seem healthy enough.”
Inbar gave him a lopsided smile, shrugged. “Guess so.”
“You on anything? Got any problems?”
Inbar shook his head, glanced at the pair up the bench. The mediator followed his gaze and grunted. He prodded them both but they were unresponsive.
“They’re unconscious,” he observed. He rubbed the light stubble on his chin in thought and turned to the secretary. “Were they anywhere close to their right minds when they came in?”
“Is anyone who volunteers in their right mind?” she replied.
The mediator sighed. “Did they understand what they were doing?”
She tilted her head for a moment in consideration. “Well, they were quite clear that if they didn’t return then we should arrange for their pay to be forwarded to the barman of – ” she consulted her notes “ – the Gamonedo. Name of Goya. They were concerned that they hadn’t settled their tab.
“They signed up to pay a bar tab?” Inbar asked, then laughed.
“Does that count as being in their right minds?” the secretary asked the mediator.
“Sounds like as good a reason as any,” and he shrugged. “They look healthy enough.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to pass them, do you?”
The mediator considered, shook his head. “I’ll take what I can get when it’s quiet like this. At the end of the day they’re all just meat for the grinder.”
“They’re still people,” the secretary pointed out. Inbar shifted awkwardly.
“And thank Sveciaost they keep turning up,” the mediator said with a smile, “Or I’d be out of a job, eh?”
He signalled to his assistants to fetch trolleys for the sleepers, then beckoned Inbar. “You can follow me.”
As Inbar passed the secretary he saw her face wrinkled with distaste.
What he didn’t catch was the small prayer she whispered on behalf of himself and the other two, just as she always did for all the other volunteers. She’d seen the whole range in here, drunk or sober; the wannabes and the toughs, the brave and the foolish, almost exclusively impoverished. Gamblers and fools, the lot of them, but then there was no way to know just what dire straits might have lead them to the door.
So she whispered a small prayer to Sveciaost for them all regardless.
* * *
Basic training, as far as Shale was concerned, was all basic and not much training.
Once they’d been cleared by the mediator they were put on a Guild transport and Shale had wormed his way to a window seat. As it soared over Lake Charolais he was awed by the expansive view of the city. For a moment he felt the giddiness of something like destiny as they swept over the pleasure barges of the Kashkaval and on toward Panquehue. In the shadow of Iona Cromag they set down on a landing platform and were unloaded, processed and taken via elevator into the bowels of the island.
The training began in earnest that afternoon. Shale had been increasingly uneasy at the prospect of a physical examination, but there had been no turning back, and as it transpired there was nothing to worry about. All it comprised of was some running around, some star jumps, and then they had their eyes and ears tested before being fed and allowed to rest.
The next day they were introduced to the shooting range, and a day after that they were fitted for generic dive suits, utility belts and given a final shake down on the dive procedure that could have been easily condensed down to: “play it safe at all times.”
When the third morning came they were given a light breakfast before being told to suit up, and it wasn’t long before the dive party ascended the translation platform, about to be flung through a portal into the unknown.
Shale took a deep breath as the light began to rise…..
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