Time at last for Part 3 of Avarice. If you’re just joining the story, you can find Part 1 and Part 2 right here at the Oktopod blog. As a quick refresher, Matthias Cole has returned from the wilds to a walled city. It was a place he narrowly escaped a few years earlier, and he would never have returned if his infant daughter hadn’t gotten sick. Now he’s back inside and working for the omnipresent company that runs it all.
Let’s dig in.
Chapter 3: Gottlieb
The streets of the Outreach glowed red from countless oil fires, their flickering light given volume by the thick haze they coughed out. The air was so thick with smoke that Matthias could only barely make out the glittering glass spires of the Interior looming in the distance, their needle-sharp peaks disappearing into an all but forgotten sky. That place was the home of Windsor-Vitality—the company—a crystal castle forever looking down in judgment on the filthy urban sprawl that knelt at its feet.
The Interior was sterile and pristine, while the bustling Outreach teemed with life. It was crowded at all hours of day and night with throngs of warm, unwashed bodies marching sullenly or huddled in corners, downcast faces stained with dirt and soot, watching one another with suspicion. The stench of them, sweat mixed with refuse, was inescapable, and the warmth threatened to smother Matthias where he stood.
It was good to be home.
Jagged buildings lined the streets, risen straight out of the cracked pavement like rows of crooked teeth. Each was covered in its own collection of graffiti, obscuring whatever garish hue it had originally been. The scene was visual chaos, color without focus or pattern, like the unswept litter of a long passed parade.
Signs hung above doorways, scrawled with simple drawings illustrating the goods and services available within. There was no writing anywhere. Education simply didn’t exist in the Outreach, although some crude math managed to survive out of necessity. Most merchants were able to at least count their stash of water tokens, and figure their profit margin at the end of the day.
As he went, Matthias allowed his shoulders to hang slack and he kept his face hidden beneath an oilskin hood. His posture projected weakness and despair, casting aside any unwanted attention; there was nothing in the world easier to ignore than the destitute. He’d used that tactic a thousand times before, but the performance was a shade more convincing now.
Hidden in plain sight, he surfed the street currents, ebbing and flowing with the crowds as they drifted through the slums. Even after years exiled in the wilds, he retained the right instincts. He slipped through traffic, gliding from one surge to the next, from street to alley and back again, until he finally found himself in his old neighborhood.
Gottlieb looked pretty much like every other part of the Outreach. It was an unwashed and chaotic mess, like a scattering of half-burnt photos. Its air was murky, its buildings ramshackle, its people intricately tattooed and covered in filth. Shrill merchants shouted above the din in search of customers, every now and again joined by a distant terrified shriek that went ignored. Those were the cries of endless victims being beaten or raped, always another block away. Always out of sight.
Wherever he looked, muscle-bound thugs wandered the streets in gangs, every manner of armament brazenly on display. Matthias had no trouble distinguishing the upstarts from the major players; the former carried chains, lengths of pipe, and warped blades, while the real threats bristled with bodymods, crude back alley implants that bent their flesh and bone into biotechnological weaponry.
A tense sort of peace existed between the gangs, always balanced on the tip of a knife. It survived through the promise of vicious retaliation. It was the peace of a cold war married to the law of the jungle.
Matthias dizzily wandered the maze on leaden feet, through the last shred of the sun’s red light and deep into the night. An unending webwork of lines and wires always hung above him, giving the impression of a massive cage.
Every so often, another series of black stone steps descended down into the ground, but Matthias knew that they offered no escape from the makeshift prison. Instead, they led to something far worse: the Under, an even more conviluted labyrinth tucked away in the coolness of the Earth where the suffocating darkness was all but complete. It was home to the frayed fringes of humanity who no longer cared for the light of day, and strange bazaars that flouted what little law remained in the Outreach. For any number of excellent reasons, Matthias preferred to remain up above.
Even on his home turf, he found it difficult to keep his bearings. In the four years of his absence, buildings had come and gone, and where one road had been, there were now sometimes two or three splinter alleys with strips of clumsy shacks separating them. Every time he thought he was on the right track, he found himself at another dead-end, overlooking one more elbow of the city’s twisting, refuse-choked river.
It was only after he gave in and admitted to being lost that he found what he was looking for. Three chipped steps led down to a sunken doorway, the tarnished sign above it blank except for a pair of arrows pointed toward the ground. He’d found The Faster Downs.
The air inside was heavy with hushed conversation and the smell of burning hash, and the low moaning of a strange flute sounded from the far corner. The patrons were unruly—even by Outreach standards—and Matthias could feel forty sets of hard-set eyes pressing on him the moment he crossed the threshold. He drew his hood tighter, dropped his head another inch and waded in.
It only took a moment for the pressure to disappear. Matthias’ despair was an effective cloak against interest, marking him as just another broken soul in a world overflowing with the same.
He walked up to the bar, pulled out one of the pressure-molded stools and collapsed onto it. Days of quarantine followed by hours of wandering had taken their toll, though he hadn’t fully appreciated the weight of it until he was finally at rest. Distant regions of his body ached and throbbed with a relentless rhythm, and he pushed the pain aside.
A mountainous man stood behind the bar, idly polishing a glass with long arms covered in spiraling dragon tattoos. He had a head shaped like a bullet, and a blank expression that probably hadn’t budged in years. Without turning, he pounded a stone fist into the bar and said, “No beggars. Bugger off.”
Matthias dug a 1-quart token out of his pocket and pushed it across the sheet-metal bar. The coppery coin drew out a high-pitched tone, and the pits and divots of its surface glinted in the fire-light. “Whiskey,” he said.
The towering bartender reached out to snatch up the coin, but before he could, a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. It was old, scarred and sinewy, covered in ridged tendons pulled taught like steel cables.
It was a familiar hand. Matthias had seen the back of it more than a few times.
He shifted his shoulders and peered out from beneath his hood, finding a face of wrought-iron staring back at him. It was an old face free of wrinkles, too stern for time to wither, with deep-set eyes that burned blue like a pair of pilot lights.
“Son of a bitch,” the old man growled. He had a voice like a gravel pit. He reached across the bar with his other hand and threw back Matthias’ hood, then latched onto the collar beneath it. “Goose?”
Matthias winced. He hadn’t expected something so simple as a name to hurt so much, but it did. The last time he heard it, it had been on her lips. “Long time no see, Royce,” he said, wondering if he’d just made a lethal mistake.
A thousand questions and a half-dozen threats danced behind the old man’s eyes, but none of them stepped forward. He finally released his grip with a grimace, saying only, “Your coin’s no good here.”
So that was it. Matthias wasn’t welcome, but at least he was still breathing. He snatched up his token and was half-way off the stool when he realized that Royce was pouring a pair of shots.
“Be a shame,” Royce said, “you run outta here without a word again. Be a damn shame. Start lookin’ like a habit.”
Matthias settled back into his stool and did his best not to smile. After a moment, he looked Royce in the eyes and said, “Look, I don’t know how to say…”
“Don’t say anything son. It don’t need sayin’. If she was breathing, she’d be on your arm. Saw that in both of you the day ya met. Way things work in this city, I don’t want to know how she went, either. Better I don’t.”
Matthias nodded solemnly and downed his shot. Royce followed suit. The whiskey tasted like battery acid, and burned twice as nice. The glasses weren’t empty a whole second before the old man moved to refill them.
“Truth is,” Royce went on after a spell, “I ain’t never seen her smile before you came through that door. Not a once, but you lit her up like a damned flower. You made her happy, and that’s enough. A sight more than most of us get.”
The words stirred memories of that smile, her pale blue eyes glittering like cut sapphires, but Matthias pushed them away before they could do much harm. He tossed back his second shot, and Royce matched him, then refilled the glasses at a more leisurely pace.
Matthias’ world was beginning to float a little, and his hurt felt just a bit more distant, but he refused to let himself enjoy it. He couldn’t afford to let those worries get too numb while there was work to get done. Not while those bastards had Ellia. “Lookin’ for work and a place to rest my head,” he said.
Royce gave him a knowing nod. “Yeah. Had that look about you. Sorry to say I ain’t needed help since Ape joined on.” He motioned to his bartender with a stubby thumb. “Good one, him. Loyal, and one hard look hushes the natives.”
Matthias gave the huge bartender, Ape, a more thorough once-over. The man towered nearly seven feet tall, but there was more to him. Something was seriously off about his proportions. His arms hung further down than they should, and looked oddly mechanical. Beastwork implants, Matthias realized. With those particular mods, he could probably punch straight through a brick wall and keep swinging.
Matthias didn’t particularly want to test that theory. “Understood,” he said.
Royce motioned around the room. “Always jobs about, though… of a sort. Fella like you won’t have trouble finding coin. Meantime, I can offer you a pallet to sleep on. Not much, but all I got.”
“More ‘an I deserve.”
Royce grinned a crooked grin that curled his fat lips and revealed a flash of stained teeth. “Don’t you ever fret over what a man deserves,” he said, and downed his shot. “In this cesspit, you take what you can get, and maybe sometimes give what you can spare. Spend too much time thinking about what folks deserve, and it’ll fill your heart full of murder.”
Matthias didn’t want to chew on that thought. Instead, he emptied his shot and waved Royce off before the old man could pour another. Then he quickly scanned the room, but failed to find the face he was looking for. “Does, uh… Ashur still hang around here?”
“Whaddyu think,” Royce replied. “Never can get rid of an asshole like that.”
“Suppose not. Probably outlive us all,” Matthias said.
“And hate every damned minute of it.”
Matthias choked out a tiny laugh. A runt laugh. It was all he had in him. “Know where t’ find him?”
“Around,” Royce said sardonically. “You know how that one operates. Never works out of the same hole for long. Not real big on repeat customers. He’ll turn up sooner or later, though. Always does.”
Matthias nodded, but sooner or later wouldn’t cut it. His schedule demanded sooner, and he started thinking about how to make it happen.
Next week, we’ll be covering the fourth and final part of Avarice. Tune in then to see how it doesn’t end!