NB - I plan to be very grim in this. If you don't like losing your lunch, please don't read if you struggle to play zombie games.
The air was electric, the night that the thief crossed the slums, certain that tonight, after so many nights of frustration he would finally locate the card player.
It was not an easy journey.
But only months previously, war had raged throughout the hive city. Well, it may have been the entire world, the entire system, the sector, the galaxy. Maybe. Whatever the truth of it, for the men, women, children and whatever else that lived in the polluted slums of the lower hive, those who called those run down tenements home, war had come to the hive city. It may have affected the spire, but who cares about the rich? They can rebuild and repay. Irreplaceable relics were suddenly easily replaced, and priceless antiquities suddenly had monetary value to the mega rich.
The Hive had a name. Of course it did. But what it was, the slums had forgotten, and neither did they care. It was just "The Hive" to them.
Mutants, Lost and the Damned, Daemons, the creatures of chaos, all had stalked the streets of the hive, committing unspeakable horrors - not unspeakable as how terrible they were, as if it was out of choice that they were unspeakable, you must understand. But unspeakable horrors, in that those horrors that were committed had no name - there was no way of describing exactly what they did.
The slums had been destroyed - the rich would laugh and joke in their rebuilt palaces, villas and mansions, that it looked no different now than it did before the war. But the truth was so much more different. Months of an attempted insurgency had seen much of the population slaughtered, and much of the buildings destroyed as the mutants ripped them apart in their retreat. Well, retreat was the loose term for it. It was more to do with them moving on to better targets once they'd had their fun. Still, there were pockets of resistance every step of the way in the process of rebuilding. Daemons and mutants buried in collapsed buildings, the dead buried in mountains of rubble - nurturing the dead, like bulbs ready to sprout - clogged the streets.
The more "accessible" districts of the slums themselves, ones which had not seen too much fighting, or ones which were "protected" by Arbites Safehouses and Compounds were often relatively intact, yet the elegant facades bowed outwards dangerously, their foundations growling.
In the three months the thief had been plying his trade in the south quadrant, he had become used to navigating the urban wilderness. It came to be that took pleasure in its desolate splendour, appreciated the lilac dust thrown up from the broken stone. Its trade squares were so unnaturally quiet; the sense he had, trespassing here, that this was what the end of the world was like.
By day there were even some land marks by which a traveller would be able to mark his route - broken signposts which would be dismantled and used for some ingenious, and ultimately wasteful venture, the destroyed power grids, the bridge over the effluent river, the clock tower of the chapel, the outhouses of the circus freak shows. Ramshackle, they were, but still they were part of the Slums - for people who had nothing, they had been testaments to their efforts. Yet now, even that civic beauty had been ripped from the hearts of the dwellers.
This wasn't the thiefs home. No, he had no home. Hadn't for a decade. A nomad. A Scavenger. For a time, the Hive had offered him sufficient pickings to keep him there. But, once his energy was recovered from having trawled the depths of the slums, it would be time to move. But, while the first signs of a new dawn murmured in the air, he lingered here. Enjoying the freedom of the city.
There were hazards, certainly, but then again, for a man of his profession, when were there none? The war years had polished his self preservation skills to the utmost, and the brilliance of those threats did little to intimidate him. He was safer here than the true citizens of the Hive, the few bewildered survivors of the holocaust who were gradually beginning to filter back into the Hive from the dug in rat run recesses in the lower mines. Looking for lost homes; lost faces. They scrabbled in wreckage, or stood on street corners, and waiting for the Inquisition and the Arbites to take them away to a better life. The thief knew better. Their souls would be saved, but the price was the forfeit of their life.
New barricades by bored, yet over eager arbites recruits, the paramilitary forces with their rifles, shotguns, mauls and attack dogs systematically reclaiming order from the confusion. Where once they wouldn't have been able to stand without being lynched by gangers, they divided and subdivided the ground as they would, eventually cleansing each square, each building, each room, each cupboard; like eventually they would the whole lower hive.
Curfews and Barricades did little to hobble the thief. His coat contained identification papers of all that he would need, and those that he wouldn't; some forged, most stolen, and the shredded roof tops were as much a highway for those whose trade was in the shadows as the roads. What they lacked in credibility, he made up for with a supply of Lho Sticks and other illegal and immoral mediums, which was supported by his repartee, all of which he had in abundance - for he would often bribe with the cigarettes, only to steal them back as he walked past. They were all a man needed in that city, in that year - to feel like a Lord of Creation, the Emperor, a God.
And such creation! No need here for either appetite or curiosity to go unsatisfied. The profoundest secrets of body and spirit were available to anyone with the itch to see. Games were made of them.
Only the previous week, the thief had heard tell of a young man who played the ancient game of cups and ball (now you see it, now you don't), but substituted, with the wit of the insane, three buckets and a babies head.
The was the least of it; the infant was dead - the dead don't suffer. There were however, other pastimes available for hire in the city, delights that use the living as their raw material. For those with the craving, and the price of entry, a track in human - and not so human - flesh had begun. The Arbites, no longer distracted battle and bored of merely hauling in innocents - loosely called; there were no innocents in the city - had rediscovered the delights of the pretty young things - and there was profit in it, as the gangers were quick to discover.
Half a load of bread could purchase the refugee's - boys and girls alike, many so young and with the universal refugee haircut, it was difficult to tell until it was too late - for the buyer as well as the refugee, for many such "mistakes" didn't see the light of the next morning. Often, they were used many times, their complaints ignored in the dark, and often silenced by the dissatisfied with a blow to the head with a rifle butt or shock maul, a knife in the guts. The artwork their entrails made was a beautiful sight to the jaded eyes of the thief, but he had not the care for either the delights in that sin, nor its cessation.
Such casual homicide was overlooked in a city where tens of thousands had died. For a few weeks - between one regime and the next - anything was possible; no act found culpable, no depraving taboo.
A boys brothel had been opened up in one of the eastern districts - the underground salon stocked with the child, all slimmed from the malnutrition of the war, and tight as a connoisseur could wish - yet the word was that it was popular with the officers and the merchants. It seemed that in the wake of the sins of war, paederasty was a popular hobby.
Sport of a kind was more cheaply available. Dog fights were popular. In the past, thoroughbred and mongrels selectively bred for their fighting pedigree had fought the weakened and malnutrition curs brought in off the street, but now, these weakened and malnutritioned curs were ever more savage with the strength of the mad and the dying, and quickly, the rich who participated soon realised that the meagre winnings were not enough to cover the loss of a prize dog.
It was an appalling spectacle, yet unlike the molestation of the children by the upper classes, this sport excited the thief, where the randomness led to good betting, and the sheer violence committed in those few short minutes of the fight elevated his adrenaline to giddy levels. He'd once made a tidy profit one night by putting money on a runty, yet cunning terrier, who'd bested his opponent three times its size by chewing off its testicles.
And if after a time, your taste for dogs, or boys or women palled, there were more esoteric entertainments available.
In a crude amphitheatre, dug from the debris of the chapel of the Holy Saint Jouran, the thief had seen an anonymous actor single handedly perform the heretical tale of a faustian pact. Although the thief's High Gothic was far from perfect, the performance had made a lasting impression. The story was familiar enough for him to follow the action - the pact with the Daemon, the debates, the conjuring tricks, and then, as the promised damnation approached, despair and terrors. Much of the argument was indecipherable - yet the twin roles of the temptor and the tempted still left the thief's stomach churning.
Two days later, he had gone back to see the play once more, perhaps speak to the actor, only to see his summary execution by an Arbites Kill Team. mural. It seems that the performers enthusiasm for heretical text had been interpreted as anti-Imperial Propaganda. Watching from his hidden alcove, he watched as the actor was carried naked up a ladder to a lamp, and a noose placed over his head, only to be lowered slowly so that he would strangle to death rather than the mercifully quick neck break. The thief watched as the joy decayed from the actor - and then saw the arbites raised their rifles and begin to pour las bolts and stubber fire into the body, until the officer raised his pistol, and aimed at his neck. The resultant shot decapitated the body, leaving the head peculiarly tied to the noose while the body crumpled to the ground, the crimson life falling to the ground.
The sight pacified the thief - left to rot, days after the execution, the skull had been eaten away by the caustic air of the factories, leaving a half rotted appearance, the eyes ripped out by the crows. However, the corpse merely confirmed that the confused feelings the actor had aroused were iniquitous; if this was the state to which his art had brought him, the man had clearly been a sham. His mouth gaped, but the birds had taken his tongue as well as his eyes. No loss.
Besides there were far more rewarding diversions. The women the thief could take or leave, and the boys were not to his taste. The gambling however, the gambling he loved, and always had. So it was back to the dog-fights to chance his fortunes. If not there, then to some barrack room dice game, or in desperation, betting with a bored sentry on the speed of a passing turd in the effluent flow of the river.
The method and circumstance mattered little to the thief; he cared only to gamble. Since his adolescence, it had been his one true vice; it was the indulgence he had become a thief to fund. Before the war, he'd played in casino's in the Spire, in the space port loading bays, the PDF barracks, and the arbites safehouses. Chemin de fer was the game, yet roulette was not something that the thief was averse to. Now he looked back at those years through the veil war had drawn across them, and remembered the contests as he remembered dreams on waking: as something irretrievable, and slipping further away with every breath.
That sense of loss changed however, when head about the card player. Mamoulian, they called him - who it was said, never lost a game, and who came and went in this deceitful city like a creature who not, perhaps, even real.
But then, after Mamoulian, everything changed.
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