Sweat. Blood. And something that is beginning to die.
The scent-sight of what locals call civilisation does not faze me as they once did. Lived here long enough to know survival is primary, sanitation – a distant tertiary.
The humans call this place a hive. Uncountable million-millions live in this place. Districts, sectors, prefectures, each more than a planet worth by itself, cobble-fused together into something grossly out of proportion.
Human offal. Human waste. Septic pipes lining against the cafe’s walls send bubbling liquids and semi-solids down, down, down – down over the heads of humans less fortunate, who will then do unto others below as has been done unto them. What happens on the lowest floor, when humans run out of heads to shit on? Thoughts of a younger I.
Young. Was, once. Part of a warband. Led by Shaper. Many good memories. Few bad memories. A single, terrible memory. Now I work alone. No kin watch my back for duplicitous employers. No kin carry me to a secure nest when I am injured.
No kin die if I make a mistake.
There is some good in working alone.
This hive has a name. I cannot pronounce it. This suits me just fine.
It suits my employer just fine.
Soleiman de Galzin. Trader. Killer. Employer. Mover of illicit goods. Harmless trinkets, part fake, part real. Some I recognise: sharp-ear fabrics, tight-sealed carafes of drinks popular with Friend T’au, artworks, scrimshaws, etchings from half-dozen provincial foreign-peoples. Others, I can only make guesses. Odd weapons Soleiman dares not actually fire, bartered-for second or third or fifth-hand from another trader like himself. Words bound in animal skin – and machine slates. Old things and new living alongside each other.
It is a very human thing, the anachronism. Some humans use spears. Others, las-guns, or if sensible, solid-slugs. A few even use strange machines left behind by ancestors greater than they are, careless as to how it works, only that it does.
The son refuses to surpass the father.
They do not live long. Thirty human-years. Some, seventy, if cursed to live long. The dirt and grime of thousand-thousand years of lives passed down by fathers and fathers’ fathers weigh down on them murderously heavy, lining brows and creasing skin before their time, like Shaper who has eaten badly and will die from shortened life-span.
Soleiman is not one to follow his father’s father’s footsteps. He is a self-made man, as he enjoys telling me, though he thinks me incapable of meaningful communication. Dumbness, humans think, is trait possessed by those foreign-peoples who do not understand their own discordant tongue. This lends my employer certain freedom of tongue when we are alone. Makes him say more than he aught.
Never seen reason to make him stop.
‘Grik, my boy,’ he says. He is drunk. Enjoys the blue carafes more than he should. Never indulge from own stock, I think. My name is not Grik.
I am sidetracked.
‘Grik, my boy, this is it,’ he says. Drinks. Continues. ‘The last job. No more swindling midhive socialites with some xeno farmer’s Venusine idol. No more mucking about in an empty world to fake a few tablets of fuck-all to peddle to a clueless collector. Do you understand what I mean? This is it! Our last merchandise! And then, retirement.’
It is a book he means. Black leather, lower-case T embossed on front. Old-fragile papers, made of wood-pulp, not animal skin like usual-human documents. Two there were, both sealed in time-stopping boxes. Soleiman opened one. Book turned dust. Wisely, he refrained from doing same to the second.
‘A genuine artefact from the time before…,’ employer waves vaguely, ‘time. Before your savage race even knew how to shoot. Before the Apostasy. Hells, maybe even before the Emperor Himself!’
He makes hand-folded sign, old human superstition when invoking name of their god.
‘Just need to wait for that buyer, and we’ll be out of this wretched hive,’ he says. ‘Then maybe we’ll drop you off in some blueskin world, let you hitch a ride back to your friends with your share of the prize. Eh?’
Soleiman is an honourable human. Better than most. Would not have taken up the job, elsewise.
Sweat. Blood. And some things that are very dead.
Deaths are nothing new to smell in a human-hive. What is new is that they are close and unusual. Burning skin, overheating air, thick propulsion-powder smell of large caliber rounds – bigger even than that of the oversized pistol Soleiman carries, and only sometimes uses.
There might be screams. I cannot hear them. Café owner’s soundproofed the place to keep out the sound of poverty that surrounds his establishment. Blasts some human music into the rooms in tinny speakers in place of industrial grind and overflow of septic pipes. His very own little midhive.
I do not swear. There is no one here who would understand, as one of the People would understand. Instead, I balk away from the only door in the chamber, rifle in hand.
Soleiman notices. ‘Trouble?’
‘Burning dead,’ I tell him. ‘Big guns.’
‘I don’t smell anything.’ Human noses are stunted, pitiful things. He pulls out his gun anyway. ‘Are you sure?’
I nod. Soleiman is smart. Should know when to bail. I wait for the command to run. Soleiman is the employer. He makes the call.
He makes the wrong call. ‘We stay. We’ve risked too much to get this far. Probably some low-scale turf war between gangs, anyway. Eh, Grik?’ Then he takes another gulp of the damned alcohol-drink, pistol in hand. That is when I realise: he is not himself. The drink has emboldened him. Caused him to take risks he would not.
Should never indulge from own stock.
Soleiman is an honourable human. Better than any I ever met. Honours promises, pays without too much grumbling. I settle down, knowing death comes too fast to argue his drunk mind away. I raise my rifle against the door.
About the Author
Troy is a 40k RPG GM who really, really, REALLY wants to be a player for once. He fancied trying out one of these flash fiction things that he hasn’t done in a few years as a practice.