Chapter 3: Urban Decay (1)
HORIZON’S CROWN CASTLE 5
Varrett hauled his reluctant ass out of bed. 05:02 his bedside clock said with an obnoxious neon-orange flash of light and a quiet buzz. He swatted for it — and much like every other morning, the stupid clock dodged him. All while being perfectly immobile.
Oh, how he’d have liked to be immobile too; stay flat on his back in his room and let Horizon’s Crown do its thing out there without him for a day or two. Yep, of course he had a room. Nothing near as spacious as Naemie’s bedroom (which he’d totally been in before), but big enough for a low bed with a reasonably comfortable mattress, a desk of the orderly, yet cluttered variety, a dresser with the drawers never closed, a standing mirror in a corner, and enough floor space left to allow for one Varrett-sized klutz getting laid out face first.
Because sitting up had been one thing. Blearily rubbing at his face and forgetting he’d dropped his pants next to it? That was a different story altogether. One that ended with his feet tangled up and the floor saying Hi by smacking him in the chin.
“This is going to be an amazing day,” he mumbled into the dusty carpet and wondered if, maybe, just maybe, he should have stayed in bed.
But then who’d earn all the credits he’d thrown at Clive yesterday?
Ten minutes later, and he’d herded together his work gear, slapped it on, and was busy latching his vest shut while he sifted through a handful of messages that’d come in overnight. They scrolled by at the edge of his vision: two repair offers for the water boiler, a garage bill with a countdown crawling towards zero at the bottom of the message, three variations of Hey, V, would you mind [insert errand here], and one from Naemie with a— woah, hello —attachment. Plus a bunch of spam. Because where would civilization be if no one tried to sell you snake oil cures for the known universe’s most terrifying virus or add another inch or so to your dick?
It’d be— once and for all —over.
He dismissed his veil and pulled the last latch on his vest tight. The thing wasn’t anywhere near as fancy as the shit Castle Guard gave to their crew, but it did its job. The front and back mesh protected his vital chest bits from bullets wanting to get intimate with them, and the firm upright collar offered rudimentary protection against snapping jaws.
Everything else was up to his quick feet.
With the vest secured, Varrett started a pre-flight check; once a necessity taking him up and down his Hawk’s diagnostics, now a routine that kept him from forgetting anything — and forcing him to come back upstairs, only to realise Pipe had changed shifts for no other reason than to fuck with him.
First things first: Glock L9— a distant relative to its Earther ancestors —in thigh holster? Check. Extra pair of mags on the vest? Check. Knife for delicate situations? Hatchet for all the prying and chopping? Expandable charge baton for when you wanted to leave a dent? Check. Check. Check.
Earbuds in pocket? Yep. Keys? Present and accounted for.
And last— but not least and all that jazz —Varrett leaned in front of his standing mirror. Even on a good day the thing struggled to provide any reflective surface, because, hey, where else was he supposed to hang his good shirts, but with a bit of cocking his head from side to side and a swipe at a dangling arm sleeve, he managed to catch a look at his exceptionally tired face. He frowned. His cheekbones and nose sported lines of recycled sunburn. The short crop along the sides of his skull was in the process of outgrowing its welcome, and his disaster hair a, well, disaster. He snatched one of the countless headbands dangling from his dresser— a simple one, dyed a faded turquoise —and tied it in a sloppy loop, then shoved a bunch of stray black locks under the cloth, hitched the headband a little higher so it wouldn’t cover his brow implant, and finally took a moment to flick his thumb over his chin.
You need a shave, dude.
Still handsome though?
All systems go.
Varrett grabbed his pack, slung the single, tight strap over his torso, and dragged his still reluctant ass out of the room.
Mom was up. She’d deposited herself on the couch, a wread-sheet on her lap and a shy hint of dawn meandering through the window at her back.
“Come home whole,” was all she said to him.
He summoned a smile, promised with a nod, and went to beat CA5TLE’s morning rush down.
Other than the drip of water and the echoes of his footsteps, the garage was blissfully quiet. The air was cool and smelled of comfort. Gasoline. Oil. Metal worked to death, and spilled coolant no one ever bothered sweeping up.
He cracked a tired smile and made his way past rows of vehicles parked under a squat ceiling. The rides— cars, trucks, bikes, repurposed police cruisers and even a fleet of three busses —all had seen better days. Days when you didn’t have to secure your windows with wire mesh or reinforce your bumpers. Not because fuck pedestrian safety on principle alone, but because these days jaywalking assholes wanted nothing more than to claw through your windshield and rip your neck out.
No neck generally equalled a real bad time. And not only did Varrett like his own neck, he was also rather partial to good times.
God, was he ever gonna get one of those again? Uninterrupted, preferably?
Back to moping, Varrett beelined for the Runner station.
The station stood off on the far left— from where it could lord over the entire garage —and it was empty. Safe for Olof, anyway, who sat at the back behind a chaotic desk (even by Varrett Vild Vickers standards), his chin down like he was about to nod off. But Olof never nodded off. Ever. Even if he looked the right mix of tired and bored for a man who managed to always be here when Varrett came by, and yet also seemed to have a life past him fixing for all the Runners.
Maybe he had a twin.
Or maybe he was an old-timey wizard. An Earther fairy tale one, anyway. Not the very real Aestling ones. Weird how you had to be specific like that, yeah?
Varrett had yet to figure out which one it was. Twin. Wizard. Wizard-twin. A mystery for the ages.
“You’re at it early, V,” Olof said, not looking up.
He was a short, broad man with bulky shoulders and a thin hairline retreating from a very large forehead. He was also an absolute hoot when drunk and had a rich baritone singing voice. An outdated veil visor rode on his nose, its interface pane and frame a lot thicker than those of newer models.
Varrett slid into the small station, his boots padding over a carpet so worn it bared the floor underneath. Olof was not big on upkeep and it showed. Peeling walls. A rattling air con. Rickety chairs chained together forming the please wait here line, and an overworked coffee machine in a corner that served whatever stale grounds the Runners managed to find. The only new things in sight were two polit campaign posters.
Vote for tomorrow. Vote for hope. Vote Eddie Isaac, read the red and yellow one. Someone had scribbled heckin’ between Eddie and Isaac, which Varrett assumed to be a compliment.
Next to it, un-edited, hung the green opponent: Stability. Perseverance. Ivone Morais sees to your future. And such a charming future it was, he thought a bit grimly.
He’d made it all the way to Olof’s desk and still hadn’t been looked at once. “Hello to you too, Olof. How’s garage life?”
“Grmbl,” was what he got for that.
Aaallright. No small talk. Got it.
“You, ah, got any fares?” Varrett leaned forward and rested his knuckles on the table, careful not to knock over any doohickies.
He frowned. “For real, man? Nothing? What about repairs? Requisitions? Shit always comes in overnight.”
Olof’s veil backlit. Blurred letters and numbers scrolled by on its inside, tracked lazily by Olof’s eyes. “How’s your casting?” he asked flatly after a few long seconds of skimming his records.
Varrett screwed his lips up. “As sad as it was yesterday. I got a bunch of gremlins, but that’s it.” Because while Varrett was a lot of things, a NetCaster was not one of them. Code, hacking, programming — they did his head in about as much as Soulsology (or soul physics, depending on who you asked). Give him a proper physical lock and it’d come apart at the tips of his fingers; or give him a coughing engine and he’d make it purr. But miss him with firewalls, spell seals, or Aesten-made tech running off the concept of his own soul.
The first ones were just whack.
The second one downright spooky.
“Too bad. That leaves you with the first registered fare at ten, two passengers booked for Castle One. No scheduled messages. Nothing broke overnight that you have clearance to get within spitting distance of.” He paused. His brows pinched and he smacked his lips. “Go back to sleep, V. Or sit down and wait. With your mouth zipped, God be willing.”
Varrett squinted. His filter whooped— triumphant and full of itself —and spat out all the evidence he needed to know that Olof had been about to say more before he’d changed his mind.
Said filter had nothing to do with his right veil or the neuralware jacked into his brain. Nope. It was all him; a way of seeing that he’d picked up back when he’d been no more than an opinionated bean pole. It boiled down to everything he noticed getting sieved and labelled: Important or irrelevant.
Like a furrowed brow. That was important. Or the soothing gesture of smacking one’s lips. That was, too.
“Nuh-huh, you got something. Spit it out.”
Olof finally looked up. He even lifted his veil visor up onto the spacious parking space that was his forehead.
“I got one open req.”
“I’ll take it.”
“It’s in Old Yarrow.”
Varrett’s sense of self-preservation— that little shit —screamed at the top of its lungs. He snatched it by the throat, shoved it into a soundproof box, and slammed the lid on it.
“I’ll take it,” he said, again, the smile he put on totally not wooden.
Olof sighed. “It’s your funeral.” He leaned to the side, ejected a shard from the computer console tucked under his desk, and chucked it over the table.
Varrett caught the circuit chip with a quick snap of one hand, tipped it against his brow in a mock salute, and took off to earn his little brother’s keep.
There were three things citizens paid Runners to risk their lives for:
Strictly speaking, the three castles provided all anyone needed. They gave you shelter. They fed you. They handed you a routine— more often than not without your say in just what that routine was going to be —and the company of your miserable neighbours. But everything else had been abandoned. Left behind. So what’d you do when you wanted more than to scrape by, more than survive day after day? When you dreamt of living for a change, but all that had been your life was out of reach?
You took your spare castle credits and waited for someone to make your dream come true.
Varrett slid the shard into one of the two slots seated behind his ear and summoned the job details with a flick of a finger and a conscious thought.
Now if only Old Yarrow wasn’t two districts deep into HC’s exclusion zones that’d be great, but beggars and choosers and that sort of bullshit, right? He pinched his fingers to dismiss his veil and navigated the parked vehicles until he got to his (literal) corner of the garage where he rented two spots. One was occupied by an attitude-rich fastback coupé carrying all the tell-tale signs of Revenant proofing. Wire grids over the windows, armoured wheelhouses, hardened bumpers, the whole nine yards. Plus that special Vickers touch under the hood. Its roof rack was empty, waiting for cargo, and it’d been white when he’d bought it. Now it was hey look, isn’t that a nice stash of spray cans in various shades of fuck you coloured.
Unlike the usual Runner Cabs— which looked, behaved, and drove like tanks rather than road-legal cars— the coupé was reasonably nimble. But four wheels were four wheels, and between Old Yarrow and here the roads had been left as they’d been when HC had died; slammed with traffic jams.
“Next time,” he said as he popped the trunk open to fetch his helmet, giving the colourful disaster a tender rap of his knuckles before locking it back up.
Today, he needed something that could squeeze. Something with a bit more grace. Two wheels. Not four. And honestly? He preferred it that way. For a lot of good reasons.
When Horizon’s Crown had gone from home to prison— when all the life and opportunity had been stripped from it —Varrett had abandoned a great deal of things and lost a great deal more.
The motorcycle he swung a leg over had been amongst them. It creaked in greeting as he leaned back. The leather seat— real leather —was a familiar comfort. So was the jingle of the key with its hawk shaped metal tag and the soft click of the key sliding into the ignition. He turned it.
Every bolt on the bike he’d put there himself. Every coat of steel grey and moss green he’d sprayed on carefully and meticulously, not on a whim because he’d found a crate of cans like what he’d done with the coupé. Him and dad, anyway. They’d built the bike for HC’s wild outskirts at first. For the Elpis jungle, not the city itself. And that made it a twitchy, agile beast ready to soak up rough bumps like a champ.
He hadn’t been able to leave it behind. To forget it. To let the Memory of late nights in the Vickers garage— with an HC radio station on and warm, untouched beer on the bench —fade.
Still neck-deep in grief, Varrett had gone back for the bike even as all that dust made from blood, tears, and loss hadn’t anywhere near settled.
He stuck his head into the helmet and shoved his foot down. The engine turned over with an eager rattle-roar.
It’d been the first time he’d gone after Memory.
Leaving CA5TLE was easy. No one cared who left. It was the coming back in bit that had its own song and dance, neither of which Varrett was looking forward to.
He pulled out of the underground garage, right into an early Horizon’s Crown morning. That meant heat. Shitty humid heat pressing down from clear skies and lodging itself into the city streets, even while the sun remained hidden behind the Shearside Hill skyscrapers while it worked on rising its fat, hot ass over the horizon.
Shearside Hill, counterintuitive to its name, was not, in fact, a hill. It was flat as a board, at least by HC standards. Least until people had started plonking high-rises everywhere and it’d all come together to give the district a hilly skyline. At its centre— its peak —stood Castle 5.
Shearside’s arcology was a trio of interlocked towers made from stacks of steel, glass, and tons of greenery. It’d been a symbol of luxury once; progress piled onto progress, a city within a city for those with the means — though not enough of those means to afford the bragging rights for Castle One, Two, or Three. Then HC’s populace had started tearing each other to shreds, and CA5TLE had become a whole lot more important. And it’d had to change. Gone was the sleek, clean look. Solar panels and wind turbines covered every inch of level surface it could spare, labouring to keep up with the lack of a stable power grid. And what had once been parks (mini jungles, really) up in the sky now struggled to feed the castle’s citizens.
Varrett had always thought it’d looked neat, ever since the Vickers had settled in HC. From a distance, anyway. He’d never dreamt he’d live in it one day, let alone up in the penthouse floor of the middle tower.
Which, by the way, still cost a fortune.
Just not because the view was nice, but because someone had decided to stuff the undesirables up there. As long as they could afford rent, anyway.
He threw a look back and craned his neck up in an attempt to see home, only to get an eye-full of early sunlight that’d somehow managed to bounce its way from glass pane to glass pane.
It blinded his left eye and made his right veil dim trying to compensate. So he fished his sun shades out from a pocket, popped them on, and revved the engine to declare his presence to the world with a throaty whine.
Things were deceptively normal at first. Peaceful. But the deception only lasted for about as long as Varrett could hold an uninterrupted moment of silence in his head. Which was to say not all that long. He always had something going on up there.
Was it always a useful kind of something?
Hell no, but who didn’t, on occasion, ride their bike out into purgatory and suddenly come to the powerful realisation that beanbags were just boneless couches?
You need therapy, buddy.
Contemplating beanbags and therapy, Varrett rolled up to the eastern checkpoint, a crewed barricade about eighteen feet tall and pulled up between two buildings like a dam. Well- not like a damn. It was a dam, something the Revenants could wash up against like a tide, blunt their teeth on, and then fuck off back into the rest of HC once they’d grown bored.
Warning signs had been glaring at him all the way up to it; bright and neon and not overly polite.
EXCLUSION ZONE AHEAD
HC CITY QUARANTINE
And then there was the small print, the bits that declared Monarch void of responsibility for the loss of limb, life, or humanity, and that if he lost the latter, re-entry could not be guaranteed.
Varrett rubbed at his neck. Welcome to the real Horizon’s Crown, he thought, passed the checkpoint gate with none of the heavily armoured guards giving a fuck where he was going, and left all pretence at normalcy behind.
What you could have earlier contributed to urban decay between the castle’s front doors and the dams thrown up around it, was now obvious and naked destruction. Not disuse. Not neglect. Horizon’s Crown had been a war zone and out past the checkpoints no one had bothered cleaning up after the battles had been fought and summarily lost.
They had bothered pushing cars out of the way, at least, shoving them up onto the sidewalk to allow traffic through. Varrett’s back pinched with the memory of too long days spent pushing and pulling and heaving. He didn’t miss his first job assignment. Nope. Not one bit. It’d paid fuck all, the hours had been shit, and the Revenants a lot bolder.
Lots of young people with good backs had died clearing the roads.
Cleared only though, mind you. Not cleaned.
Between boarded up windows, perpetually shuttered doors, and all those QUARANTINE, DO NOT OPEN signs in various states of falling apart, the street was choked with trash and debris and accented with stains of God-knew-what that stood the test of time and rain.
But hey. Not everyone was a loser out here. The greenery was having a blast. With no one left to trim them, decorative trees and shrubbery had grown out of bounds of their designated you belong in this pot areas, and lanky grass sprung out of moss covered cracks in the asphalt or out of piles of waste as the Elpisan jungle worked tirelessly on reclaiming its lost territory.
Fair, Varrett though, and threw his bike into a sharp turn left at the next four-way intersection. A flock of birds— Elpisan Swifts —scattered in front of him, carried off on their shiny black wings, their forked tails spread wide, and their small lungs caw-warbling up a storm. Two of the black winged devils hung back, taking advantage of their buddies having bailed. They were tearing at something vaguely arm shaped.
But never mind the birds.
Past the bend, members of Horizon’s Crown’s largest demographic loitered openly in the street. They went by many names. Elpisan’s Plight. Revenants. Zombies (if you were an Earther, anyway). And so on and so on, with all those shitty mutations popping up as the virus ran its course calling for an entire dictionary dedicated to slapping labels on things that’d been people once.
Take these fuckers for example: Slow. Dumb. With spark-less eyes. They clustered in small groups spread out across the street, some reasonably whole and others missing entire chunks of their anatomy. Like an arm.
Him and the bike attracted an unfocused, unhurried kind of attention. Engine noises had stopped working them into a frenzy some time ago. Probably once the sun had started drying them up and they’d stopped being able to give chase. Now all they did was drift into his general direction, their steps clumsy, before losing interest when they realised he wasn’t about to stop and wait for them.
Varrett wove the bike past a shambling pair. Torn, soiled clothing hung off them in tatters. One had been a classy black suit and tie sort of guy, his filter supplied unnecessarily, the other a jeans and sleeveless hoody dude, whose jeans had been entirely torn off at the front and— Jesus fucking Christ I did not need do see that.
Anyway. Maulers. Their name said it all. They mauled you when they got you.
One lunged when he passed by, its fingers crooked like claws and a hungry moan stretching its mouth into a rot-toothed maw.
Varrett jerked the bike to the side. The grasping fingers missed him by a mile.
A breeze in his hair, Varrett kept following the streets he’d had to relearn after the fall. And, no. He didn’t need a map. He navigated them just fine, following one slanted SOS sign to the next, turning at the blown out falafel joint, and heading straight for what’d been an arcade with a ridiculous red bull mounted at the front. The streets clogged with pileups he avoided, sticking to those where he could slip through, or where Runners had thrown makeshift bridges over the husks of cars.
With every turn of a corner, the air thickened. Got heavier. Hotter. That he couldn’t keep up the momentum the more distance he put between himself and CA5TLE wasn’t helping.
Oh, and it really stank.
Always did down here. A constant Eau De Toilette of Dead City, if you will. Now with bonus decay, a side of rot, and those extra sewage notes guaranteed to make you a hit at any apocalypse afterparty.
He scrunched his nose up. Varrett liked parties. But this one had gone on for long enough, so if someone’d please send the guests with the gnashing teeth home, that’d be awesome.
By the time he reached Old Yarrow, he’d gone from cruising to inching through the heat. His hair clung to his skull under the helmet, the shirt under his vest had fused to his skin, and everything sucked.
Despite the heat— because Revenants liked it about as much as he did —the streets were a lot more crowded here. Unfamiliar with how to best get his ass into Old Yarrow uneaten, he’d had to stop and get his bearings at one point, and a Mauler had taken that as an invitation. It’d come at him from the side with shuffling steps and Varrett had shoved it away with a kick. The thing had fumbled and teetered and he’d sent the bike up a plank, right across a rickety bridge bolted to flattened car roofs.
Thank fuck for long legs.
But, seriously, Old Yarrow was a pain to navigate and he already hated it. The district had no arcology, not a single skyscraper, and was a bumpy affair of soft hills dotted with residential buildings holding on to an old Earther flair that felt woefully uninspired. Every building was an identical concrete block; square, twelve stories tall, flat roofs, and balconies having off their sides. Wiring stretched between them like a lazy spider’s afternoon web, and the streets dividing them were narrow. Too narrow.
Varrett was reasonably mad. Not suicidal.
His eyes flicked up to the overpasses that’d grown around and over the district. They were a lot more inviting. He summoned his veil, pinpointed the building he had to get to, along with the floor he’d need, and hatched himself a plan and route. One that might just work.
After that it was just a matter of finding a parking spot.
And hey, tell you what. You thought parking in HC had been bad before?
Yep. It had been. But now it was a fucking nightmare.
Groaning and bitching, Varrett wove the bike between cars atop the overpass until he’d lost the lethargic Mauler trail he’d picked up and finally found a reasonable stretch of asphalt behind a van with two blown tires. He choked the engine off, slid from the saddle, and gave himself a moment to make sure the bike was reasonably tucked out of sight. Even if the chances of other Runners coming out here were slim, you never knew who might have settled down around here with all that free real estate ripe for the picking.
When he’d reassured himself— and when no Maulers had come to welcome him to the neighbourhood —he hung his helmet from the bike, moseyed over to the edge of the overpass, and looked between the blocks of residential buildings. While their architecture was identical and uniformly dull, the people who’d lived in them had given them character. Made them theirs. They’d put up colourful shutters, hung wind chimes and pots from their balcony ceilings, and set up tiny tables and chairs or even cushy couches.
And then the apocalypse had happened and the makeshift flags had come out. Frayed and faded bedsheets and blankets hung from balcony railings, all painted over and carrying messages that shared a very specific tone.
NEED FOOD, WATER
HELP, WE HAVE CHILDREN INSIDE
Except for one, which someone had decorated with an erect penis.
Varrett rolled his eyes, muttered, “Stay classy, HC,” and got himself into a working mood.