30 - The Other City

Archie was fiercely proud of his chemAR. It was a true innovation of the people, one of the few. Though he was thankful for all the technology of industrialist provenance available to him, through the genius workings of Old Jardinia’s greatest, it was nice to have something he could develop and improve upon it himself.

Of course there were augmented devices of industrialist design available. One notable variation was a sort of contact lense. Some people would use it for gaming, wayfinding and browsing. The copious ads made it incredibly distracting to use, dangerous even for workers, drivers and pedestrians. The cost of removing the ads was now prohibitive for all but the highest earners. The inundated tech also had a habit of killing, or at least being implicated in the deaths of some of its most enthusiastic users. They were often run over by lev-cars, or falling off buildings and cliffs, spurred onward by the virtual paths and distracted by the vivacious and voluptuous endorsements. It was one of the rare miscalculations by an industrialist, for a product to not become immediately widespread. The technology was pleasantly functional, but in this case, the business sense was particularly bad. The negling success of this particular industrialist was enough to remove them from contention for a gilded resemblance on the Grand Kilo.

This chemAR, it wasn’t sold in stores or by any one company, it was a solution of available chemicals that would produce mild, precise hallucinogenic effects when exposed to the appropriate electrical charges before dosing.

The base level solution provided a sandbox for anyone to produce visual and auditory augmentations based on data loaded into it, by a simple device attached to the solution’s container.

The nature of a single deployment solution was of an unfortunate rigidity. The crude augmentations were unable to be modified once placed in a receptacle at the base of the neck. This limited the available interfaces. The chemAR was mostly used for way-finding in unfamiliar areas, and for productivity enhancements. Many people had permanent receptacles on the base of their necks, a base level body modification that many tattoo or body-piercing shops would be more than willing to provide. Archie had used the chemAR daily for many years, and had experienced no serious side effects so far.

When Archie was working, he usually loaded in a chemAR that would keep a visual account of his productivity, spurred on by subconscious visual signals. It would record any notes he’d needed to take. Any alarms reaching his ears would have a visual cue to where and what they were for. A simple flick of his eyes to the left would show him a countdown until lunch, snack breaks etc.

Things like counting, and one’s position in the three-dimensional world were handled by the subconscious, triggered by the appropriate visual cues. This freed up the mind for workers to focus completely on the task at hand. Code libraries had been developed and passed around for things like the Map of Greater Jard and the Traveller’s Places and Things of Note.

The Old Jardinian elite were loath to use the scrappy, cobbled and sometimes uncomfortable tech. They had oodles of screens, terminals, wearables and groveling assistants for keeping track of minutia. But they recognized the productivity boon, and if not encouraged the tech’s proliferation, tolerated it; even as it was one of the few techs recognized to be completely free of genius industrialist provenance, and seemed to be the detriment of one of their fledgeling own.

Archie's chemAR had now been loaded with a map of Greater Jard from the people’s Library, a woefully small collection of back issues and forgotten novels that just couldn’t compete with the stuff pumped out by the entertainment houses in Laudishian. The library did have a burgeoning atlas of chemAR codings, and was always popular amongst enthusiasts of the tech. They would be in the library slurping Giant coffee and trading code until the end of days.

The node network, on the edge of the great expanse, surely wasn’t loaded on the standard map. Archie had added the coordinates to the assumed location of the student’s boxhome after their enlightening journey to the Dean’s office.

Slightly annoyingly, the map he had chosen was a tourist map, or a map for newcomers, and would superimpose a name and description over some of the sights they passed on their way through Old Jardinian, towards the mysterious node inhabited by the Observer.

Archie didn’t bother taking his boxhome on the “road”, the C-rail to the great expanse would likely be M&G congl. property. Due to extreme lack of travelers on that stretch, ie. none, and it not being open to public, they would have to disembark the C-rail system at Sodden. He would then have to attach it to a cumbersome off-rail travel module, which was slow and unwieldy, especially for the scrublands that they would have to travel through to reach the node staging station, and then the node itself.

That, and it was still locked to the company boxhome grid, even though the company appeared to have been dissolved. He had locked the boxhome door, and had taken his only prized possession, a lucky night jaguar talon, now smelling of soup, that his grandfather had given him as a young lad. On a string it fit under his jumpsuit, the comfort of which he’d decided he quite liked. He had taken another pair of boots, agreed to bring a welding mask with goggles, and some water both at the behest of Au who didn’t relish the thought of dragging a blinded and dehydrated Archie around in the salty wastes.

For now, they took a C-rail train, popular with shoppers, tourists and revellers back down the Grand Kilo.

Archie was bombarded with information about the famed statues that entered his vision.

As they pulled into a grand station hallway down the line, he had a great eye level view of the great Naturalist, Boam Hinterland of miniature camel and Grubbin fame both. On the topic of Grubbins, Boam had been lost for years on an expedition in Paradise, Dirth Of. The fable went, that finally, out of the moist, moist darkness, he had led a troupe of hooting Grubbins. He had saved the colony of Grubbins, an affectionately named species of monkey, from merciless and unfair hunting by the Night Jaguars.

The Grubbins were so grateful that they volunteered to work for free in his eternal debt, so said the story. On the back of this wonderful partnership, he had become the lord of garbage disposal. So the fable went anyway. Apparently garbage disposal paid more than the naturalist er, industry?

Recently, there had been whisperings of a grubbin revolution, citing lack of whispered and promised bananas, which hadn’t been invented yet.

Secretly, among elite circles, it was known that the aging Boam Hinterland and Semolina Meadows, director of acropolis had been at each other’s throats for years over the delay (/unreasonable expectations of, depending on who you talked to) of the Banana, leading some to speculate that the life debt of the grubbins was really, an opportunist former naturalist eeking a fruitful partnership out of a fruitless promise.

With this species of monkey, there seemed to be a spark of intelligence there that many found eery. It was less that they were incapable of synthesizing an authentic civilization, and more that they had decided it wasn’t worth the time and waited for someone else’s to come to prominence. Likely the promise of the banana had convinced them that the loose empire of Greater Jard had it “going on”, but they were quickly becoming dissatisfied with bananaless urbane life.

Whispers had it that they wanted to re-form their own colony, devoted to the pursuit of the fortold fruit, a true banana republic.

Archie and Au disembarked at the station, a grand and expansive platform meant to impress visitors from other parts of Greater Jard (and hopefully loosen them of any remnants of frugality, to ready them for, among other things, the Big Spend, as it was known to merchants, in Old Jardinia).

The platform, linked to shops and buildings by slightly arching walkways, was several stories high. Here you could get passenger rail shuttles to anywhere in Greater Jard.

Archie's altered vision interface gave him a marker to follow through the pulsating crowds of visitors. Pushing through the lavishly bedecked well-to-do tourists, and the day travelers loaded up with tacky replicas of Old Jardinian goods, Au noticed several novelty shirts that bore her catch-phrase “Is that under budget”? Here and there, business people flitted about, staring into space accessing augmented lenses, or checking wearable displays, whichever their preference. Their micro-terminals, stuck somewhere semi-permanently on their person would seamlessly interface with both. Most people wore it on the base of their spine. Those with wearables could access function non-visually with simple, or exuberant gestures. Again, whichever their preference.

They ascended a few levels to the platforms perpendicular to the main kilometre. Here, shuttles to the seaside region of Monkey’s Back left at regular intervals, and shuttles to Sodden left whenever the rowdiest passengers had been lightly chastised and/or moderately subdued by the beleaguered conductors. They wielded shock batons of Castle Inovata design, to great effect. Mild violence aside, as travel and resources became cheaper, travel was becoming more prevalent. People had to do something between the slowly rarefying contracts after all. Curiosity of the masses was only a very recent thing.

Archie had been to Sodden once before, at a time in his life he’d prefer to forget. What made this rather difficult was a set of tattoos he’d acquired during his visit. They rode heavy upon his midriff.

As a born and bread Old Jardinian, He’d thought sodden was an interesting city, interesting in the same way as a C-rail crash (heaven(s) forbid. Boom.) One half a haven for degeneracy, and the other dominated by hundreds of temples and churches. All of it was hot, and soaking, and encroached upon by the jungle on one side, and on the other, over which the final stretch of this journey leg would take them, the great beaches of Blu’bour.

Blu’bour, his visual database ever so helpfully shared with him, upon looking at the signs for Sodden and it’s accompanying beaches, was shortened from Blubber Harbour. It was likely so named for the great packs of whales that could be seen from it’s shores. They were attracted to this warmer habitat by the continuous tolling of bells, gongs and chimes in the religious quarters, that had the effect of whalesong to their melody-seeking underwater ears.

Upon visiting many years before, Archie had initially thought it a reference to the gluttons of the eating houses (like a restaurant, but where the actual quality of food was unimportant, just the feeling of being exceptionally overstuffed), that preferred to sleep off the effects of a particularly taxing brunch on the various nude beaches poking with general affront into the pious quarter.

Most of the varied religions and cults were each determined to help balance out the copious and innovative sinning with raucous prayer and intelligible chanting, though a choice few seemed to revel in it. As a result, nobody seemed to be able to sort out a set of laws and codes that pleased everybody (or anybody).

This allowed the Sodden Aggrievement Patrol (SAPs) some creativity in pursuing their prerogatives, which were namely, protecting the freedom of Varied Worship, while protecting the Freedom of Cash & Commerce ala protecting the ability to free tourists and partiers from the burden of a heavy wallet.

Basically if a visitor did anything severely vile such that it threatened the general enjoyability of Sodden for other people, they got a little punitive. During his visit, they’d gotten a little punitive with Archie. In a whiskey, stimulant and Acropolis brand chip fuelled stupor, he’d kicked down the exalted door of the Church of the Transcendent Silence and mooned them during the Sunday morning silent, but loudly gestured choral refrain.

He then loudly proclaimed his hate for his ex-lover and then fell asleep, snoring loudly on the floor.

The church had to be audibly cleansed, and the poor reverend was never the same. The SAPs had hauled him out, worked him over a little, and programmed his Box-Home for an unglamorous departure back to Old Jardinian. He was then barred from drinking at future work functions. He’d convinced his coworkers that they were headed to a karaoke bar, as they’d all separately stated during questioning. For Archie, they’d added a lifetime Ban from Sodden, unless of course he paid a punitive fine. Money could get you just about into, or out of anything in Sodden. Au rolled her eyes, and paid his fine with general disgust after he sheepishly explained why his scan was rejected from the shuttle.

It wasn’t all his fault, he had explained, he’d gotten a hazy and vague tip from a false fortune-teller that his ex-lover had joined the church.

In reality, she’d been doing quite well as a professional athlete, an immediate call-up to one of the big Old Jardinian professional Hackit squads after an unfortunate and rampant case of athlete’s foot had temporarily disposed of several members of the top-tier squad. She hadn’t looked back, and was now one of the top members of the Old Jardinian team.

In one final bout of pettiness, after he got back from Sodden, Archie had bought premium, front row tickets to a game, along with an airhorn and a giant foam hand raised into a rude gesture. He’d gotten a hard ball squarely in the forehead for his efforts, as well as the message, and a concussion.

He looked at Austera embarrassed, “That was a few years ago, I’m a changed man now” Au had looked at him incredulously as he regaled her the tale. She sighed and looked out the window as Old Jardinian faded away. She’d have to keep a leash on Archie when they crossed through Sodden, no doubt. He had a penchant for grand gestures, in any situation. She knew that grand gestures and symbols were critical in general civic unrest.

It was a thankfully uneventful evening C-rail shuttle ride, during which Austera gratefully dozed. She’d been awake for what seemed like several days at this point, aside from the brief nap on the waiting bench, although she wasn’t entirely sure. They’d been on the move since the fateful party. Archie, for his part, contemplatively munched his chips and looked at the jungle flashing by.

They were in night jaguar territory now, and Archie thought he could see dark shapes in the fading light. He imagined them gleefully harassing the more docile fauna, and some of the more appetizing flora too.

“Paradise, Dirth Of” as the great stretch of jungle was known had been a formidable obstacle for commerce and neighbourly relations between Sodden and Old Jardinain for many, many years. Heavily defended caravans taking the long route just didn’t do it, they would limp into their destination missing an average of 10%. Of cargo, and limbs. Some decades ago, H. Levent, the inventor and Patreon of the great Levitating C-rail initiative had connected the seven cities for an era of unparalleled partnership. Flourishing Greater Jard, rose to heights unseen in a long time, longer than the language and histories of Greater Jard itself. It was singularly and continually in his debt. His statue would never be removed from the grand kilo.

Due to his exceptional blue-collar family history, Archie knew something about the project that wasn’t noted in the official literature or glossy biopics. This knowledge buoyed in him the instinctual fear of the night Jaguars, and he hid his eyes whenever he felt the primitive penetrating gaze of one flashing past the window.

His grandfather had been a construction worker for the H. Levent’s firm, Heft Cement & Misc. He had lived in the giant, mobile Box-Home grids that ferried workers along the preceding construction zones, one branching from Old Jardinian, and one from Sodden. High off the ground, on gigantic tracked tires, they crawled along during the night, following the day’s progress, built mag-line & flattened jungle. Usually, this kept them out of the paths of the revenge-seeking Night Jaguars.

Archie's grandfather was known officially as a Vegetation Retainer, and colloquially known as a “Flattener”. Every day, he set out from the mobile command point, and flattened veg with a comically-large directional sonic cannon balanced on his shoulder. He would precede the rest of the operation, making space for the construction of the line, and the constant crawl of their equipment and behemoth mobile box-home abode astride six massive tires.

His job was the one of the more dangerous in the construction firm. While the smaller veg was mostly left unharmed, the trees were essentially mulched. The night Jaguars, while not really capable of emotion in a traditional sense, were instinctually angry about the destruction of their habitats. They were smart enough, having seen the process (and for an unfortunate few, been a part of it) to key into who, specifically, was responsible for this swath of devastation. The swath needed for the mag-line and construction machinations was a few hundred meters wide. This amounted to quite a few disturbed, and righteously perturbed Night Jaguars. The C-rail line itself could be anchored to the terrain without much problem. It was just moving the materials and assembling it that provided the greatest challenge and need for open space.

Daily, the Night Jaguars would mount clumsy attacks on the workers, usually in the bright light of the day, and without the cover of jungle. They were generally easily repulsed. Once in while though, one would sneak up and score a small victory for nature.

Levent was personally commanding the Old Jardinian track extension. He was exceedingly happy with progress and reasonably low worker mortality rates (in fact, he’d allowed himself one smile each week). He proposed a shortcut through a more challenging section of jungle. This is where things began to derail.

Unfortunately, by extreme chance and devastating coincidence, the messenger airship suffered a devastating engine failure above said particularly dark and foreboding section of the jungle.

The Sodden extension branch didn’t hear about the change, and thus continued on original route. In a remarkable lack of foresight, nobody had waited for a confirmation of the message before forging ahead. Everything was just going So Well.

The two branches missed by several kilometres, and nobody noticed until a worker faking sick in the top level of the mobile box-home grid looked out his window, and saw vegetation being cleared at an alarming rate some distance away.

Enraged at the mistake, and the now massively behind schedule project, H. ordered workers to divide into shifts, and have the crew working through the night.

It was now that the Night Jaguars saw an opportunity for revenge, as the crews scrambled to align their track branches. Cries of alarm and general chewing noises echoed through the night as H. feverishly urged them forward. He was sleepless and shirtless, literally straddling a spotlight aimed at their progress. Workplace accidents increased alarmingly at the behest of the Night Jaguars. Archie's Grandfather was the last Old Jardinian “flattener” left when they finally reached the Sodden arm of the operation, signalled by rapidly fading cries of alarm as several Sodden workers took the full brunt of his sonic cannon.

Officially billed as a concession to the “scenic route”, the jarring and nonsensical curved middle section of the Shuttle line awakened recent ancestral feelings in Archie that made him shudder at the thought of a marauding night jaguar. Levent had been billed as a hero for the project, but Archie had his doubts. He’d never speak them of course, not in front of Greater Jard loyalists that dominated his social group. But privately, he had wondered, how could the genius behind the C-rail have his project fall into such disarray? The success was really on the back of his workers, and the engineers who’d fixed his mistake with great effort. He had always assured himself with the thoughts that H. was perhaps not quite as endowed with genius in the project management department as he had been in general engineering aptitude, but still…

The shuttle continued to glide to sodden, with Au still snoozing off the lingering effects of the previous bender, and Archie broadly contemplating.

The beaches of Blu’bour glistened with purpose, (or could that be porpoise? hard to tell at this distance) in the sunrise. Archie, stiff Tea in hand, greeted the day. His chemAR gave each beach a name, and labeled the functionary elements.

The waters of the salty, salty sea of Capricious lapped gently. It was shallow for a long way out, and very salty, and ruins could be seen poking out of the water. They were from a time when ships could dock at the harbour, and trade, not leisure + worship, was king of Sodden.

Eventually, southward and perpendicular to the beach straits, the sea gave way to the salt flats of the Great Expanse. General Oddities washed up on the Sodden beaches from time to time, assumed from the salt flats.

He gave Au a gentle kick in the shin across the compartment. She’d dozed nearly the whole ride, and having slept off most of the bender, was now approaching what could be described as complete cognitive normality.

Approaching, Sodden basked in the sunlight. Perhaps basked was the wrong word. The city managed to appear languid and lazy. Even this early, it sweated in the thick haze sidling down from the jungle at the head of the Sodden valley. The domes and steeples of the religious quarter ran with condensation, monks and acolytes feverishly wiping down the bells and gongs to avoid rust. They could never be entirely successful.

The arrivals station was slightly smaller than the multi-hubbed monstrosity of Old jardinian, but no less glamorous. It was marked on his chemAR with all the local paths and shuttles to the more interesting bits of the city.

One feature that he couldn’t spot was the departure platform.

The only thing that all the entities of Sodden, religious or sinful agreed upon, was that they preferred visitors to stay as long as possible.

The departures station was hidden in another part of the city, and was rumoured that it would periodically be moved around. Through accident or cynical city planning, It certainly lay beyond a gauntlet of the most enticing establishments. A general nuisance for travellers, of course, but as sizable number could be kept happy with drink vouchers and complimentary snax.

They would have to keep a sharp lookout for it. Au did not relish the idea of running the casino gauntlet with Archie in tow. His eager gaze was a little intense, and focused for her liking.

They disembarked, wading through a crowd of starry eyed gambling enthusiasts, impatient alcohol-starved partiers, and general degeneration. This boisterous collection of babel and bauble was cut with aspiring converts to one, or any, of Sodden’s choice selection of Religions, Cults, Followings, Brotherdoms, Sisterhoods, congregates and multi-level marketing firms, mostly wearing modest clothing of varying degrees of itchiness.

“Remember, Archie, just a quick pass-through. The moment we spot the departure gate, we’re gone.”

Archie nodded, appreciating the sentiment. Here, he was giving himself far too much credit for a man with his level of impulse control and penchant for a show. Already, his eyes were flitting about with too much excitement for Au’s liking. If they didn’t get out of here on the double, she worried that there was a good chance that their troubles would triple.

Out on the street, the domes and steeples competed in an ever-escalating real-estate war with the proverbial “temples” of degeneracy.

The main boulevard facade was the perfect example. The churches on the north side of the street welcomed the night’s losers, while the parlours on the south drew in last night's winners and tomorrow’s losers. All Archie needed to do was look up at a building to be given an enticing look at their services and offerings, at the time of his chemAR version publish; there of course would be rousing new tempts and innovative cocktails invented in the meantime. (The gambling & bar industries were fast paced here. One had to keep the people interested and coming back.)

Au walked ahead with purpose, as one of the few denizens who’d seen this level of opulence before with regularity, during her time as Alden Carnibus’ accountant and reluctant party-pal. (Someone had to make sure everything stayed within the admittedly absurd party budget.) She was uniquely equipped to resist it’s temptations, and as a rational soul, fairly uninterested in the religious side. She was fairly sure, if you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself. She did not fancy waiting for a divine digit to point the way. Lord knows they thought on a completely different time scale, and were likely far too busy playing chess with black holes anyway. She was confident they’d show up at least half a millenia late to do anything useful.

All around them were patrons of the gambling houses. Some were permanent fixtures of the tiny wager slots in the basement, contract workers trying to catch a break between contract jobs. The upper floors housed the real action, high-limits tables, private gambling rooms and decadent diversions for a much needed break after some hard work running the show.

They wouldn’t be seeing any true high-rollers on the streets of course, they had their own entrances and walkways. The industrialists and magnates (and higher-level hangers on) were strangely uninterested in meeting the adoring public who afforded them their livelihood.

The most vibrant and ostentatious costumes on the streets belonged to the sub-elites, themselves just below Au’s level, she mentaly admitted. These same would be high up in the great companies facing the Old Jardinian grand kilo, staying visible but with a low amount of real power. They were the ones not quite important enough for a secret entrance. They were anxious to be seen, angling for a chance to rub shoulders with the upper echelon. You could tell when someone was on a floor above their station, they tried to make the gambling losses look casual, but there was a quick flinch of pain when the chips got the rake, (not Acropolis brand, thank goodness, thought Archie, inserting himself into the exposition) and the excitement of the roll died away.

It was these sub-elites that made up the main clientele of Sodden, affluent enough to be interested in all the vices and opulence of sodden, but poor and influential enough to be want to be showy about it. This made up a very small percentage of the overall populace.

Archie, as a contract labour worker could only afford a few nights here every few years. This was a monthly affair for the aforementioned almost somthings. Unlike the true elites, Archie could at least understand these people, the minor entertainment personalities, the company executives. A hunger to be seen, to pretend that the true excess available to the Industrialist Caste was within reach. And the gambling and food houses did a good job of providing this illusion mind you - nowhere in Greater Jard was the service better, or the decor more glamorous.

The street was appropriately named Pilgrim’s Tempt, first as a nickname, and now officially recognized. It had some of the most extravagant vice palaces facing off across the wide boulevard. It was now the early morning, partiers still going strong screaming and hooting and drawing looks of derision from the early altar-bound pilgrims.

It was these moderately influential gluttons of excess that could afford to pass out on the street, be emptied of their valuables, and wire home for enough credits to continue for the next night, or just dip right back in to their healthy bank accounts.

A particularly glamorous partygoer lay facedown on the broad avenue. A city paramedic prodded them with her toe. Several others looked on in support. This would be one of hundreds of guests that they would unflinchingly resuscitate nightly, sometimes the same one a few times.

As was customary, they would relieve the party-goer of casino chips, sellable goods, and tickets for various shows and services. Most would go back to the issuing casinos, hotels and establishments, but the paramedics would keep some as a tip. They felt the gamblers would be grateful for getting them back into the fray. They kept a powerful sedative on hand in case this arrangement wasn’t acceptable to the guest.

Au looked on with interest as well, keeping a firm grip on Archie who was sneaking glances at delectable delights, editable, drinkable, and romanceable.

She pulled one of the supervising paramedics aside, the group of which had been taking bets about what combination of substances they’d find in the blood of this particular victim of vivaciousness.

“No can do pal” said one jovially when she asked about the departure platform. “It’s against bylaw.” He twirled his mustache.

Au tried to look nonchalant and slip the fellow a wad of cash. As an accountant, she was well versed in bribery - but usually didn’t take care of it personally.

He, and even his moustache managed to look affronted, “Excuse me, the emergency services of Sodden are quite above bribery.” Conversation over, he turned to watch his medical assembly continue to shake down the snoozing revealer.

Au thought fast. They couldn’t afford to stay in the city long, temporaly that is, not with events preceding as they were. Plus Archie had a history here…

Ah. She’d had a terrible, terrible idea. A naughty idea. There’s always a solution, if one is creative enough. She watched Archie gaze wistfully at the Golden Banana Casino and Beach club. Could it be done? Could they be kicked out of Sodden in under a day?

All her career, she’d never been one to back down from a challenge.

“C’mon Archie, let’s grab a drink. Have a think about our next move. A little R&R. It’s going to be a long journey after this.” She grinned like a wolf in a china shop. Or was it a bull? She’d never been one for colloquialisms.

Archie conceded that he was thirsty. His mind decided to oblige, a few moments after his body was already marching towards the door.

The Golden Banana looked promising, plenty of socialites and off-duty officials to annoy on route to Au’s planned exodus from the city. It had a gleaming dome, likely appropriated from an old palace or temple. It was one of the most exclusive, but Au knew her bank account more than qualified her for entrance, with a plus one. She’d hitched her wagon to Alden early. A savvy investor could invest money in students from Old Jardinian, betting on them to prosper upon graduation. She’d been rewarded for her faith; the royalties from Old Money in New Jardinian didn’t hurt either. The investment was the seed money graduates used to try and join the ranks of the industrialists, and lucky for her, he’d been given the Mark of Excellence, almost guaranteed to succeed. Those who’d bet on Tyton Barnes, even after the price had rose sharply after he received the mark, had been bitterly disappointed, another reason he probably didn’t want to come back. It did not do to disappoint those with means. The Guard of the Golden Banana whistled in appreciation as she allowed him to access the bank account number from her micro-terminal that she wore on the inside of her wrist, only slightly damaged after the events thus far.

Coat check was free of course, and they stowed their packs. Archie drew admiring looks for his jumpsuit, the absolute height of fashion. He of course, took it in stride.

Archie cosied up to the gleaming bar. It had vaulted ceilings, arches disappearing into the haze of affluence permeating the top floors. The supports were covered in gold. On the balconies and floors high above, where private conversations were had, people were watched subtly, and despicable deeds planned deviously. Archie took no notice. He slapped a meaty, sweaty palm on the polished surface. A small polishing child sighed in defeat. it had just scrubbed that area. It wandered off on top of the bar, dodging drinks and insults. Au tipped it generously on the way by, knowing there was likely going to be a substantial mess to clean up at some point.

The bartender looked over at her new, sweaty patreon. Despite Archie's chic duds, the bartender could immediately tell of Archie's workmanlike character. Years as a bartender in Sodden had made the tender invulnerable to facades. She sighed and resigned herself for an afternoon of Bobbit conversation and pouring awful beers.

And then Au sidled up, with the grace of a practiced cocktail enthusiast.

The bartender rejoiced! The afternoon was not lost yet. She could tell by which bottles Au searched out with her eye that she was a practiced and nuanced drinker.

He ignored Archie request for a beer. She always served the people of real style first.

Au impressed the tender with her request, a true test of cocktail artistry. A double Lambaste’ for Austera, and a double for her sweaty traveling companion who just looked enthused at the chance of getting any sort of drink at all.

The Lambaste’ was a tricky drink. The ingredients were deadly to collect, a crushed leaf snout of the Festivian’s toe nibbler (ouch), and the milk of a Boem’s Miniature Camel along with triple distilled vodka, and a dusting of crushed celery for a subtle crunch.

It was also a challenge to drink. It was a sipper, drink it too fast and the milk wouldn’t have enough chance to counteract the absurdly hallucinogenic secretions of the festivian’s toe nibbler.

Au wasn’t completely cruel. She was going to warn him about the effects of the choice cocktail.

It was just a chance win behind her, an eruption of squeaks and shouts of excitement that drew her gaze for a quick second. In this time, the bartender had delivered the drinks, and Archie had polished his off with an indelicate yet charming earnestness. Au turned, aghast as Archie slapped the empty glass on the counter, and with a strange, determined look in his eye, ordered another.

The bartender obliged, knowing that she would get a kickback from the paramedics for any passed-out gamblers within ten feet of his casino.

Au felt a bit guilty, but Archie was certainly headed down a path that extrapolation hinted would have them removed from the city, and on their way, for better or for worse. She just didn’t envy the poor guy his wild ride to come.

Au watched with worried interest as Archie took on the glassy sheen of someone who’s just polished off two double Lambastes, and put them on someone else’s tab. His pupils quickly doubled in size, and for a moment, was blinking in time with his heartbeat. He got up from the stool, stood motionless for a minute, and then took off toward the expansive gambling areas.

He had forgotten their journey for the moment, good time Archie had come calling, and without knocking, kicked down the door, as he was apt to do.

He slapped the table, excitedly gesturing for some chips. His co-gamblers hooted and hollered, slapping him on the back, welcoming another into the fray. The dealer rolled his eyes, and gave Archie some chips, putting them on Au’s tab, as was customary for the plus one.

“So”, he said blearily, “what are we playing here”. The table collectively turned and shouted as one, “The Banana’s Fife!”

The flushing gambler to his left sparkled with enthusiasm. “Well”, she said. “It’s pretty simple. First someone rolls the eight-sided die. If it lands on anything but the miniature camel with two humps, well that’s a Hung Wager wherein the roller must correctly guess the colour the ball in the spinning wheel lands on. Yellow, or green-yellow to stay, unless of course they’ve already scored a Pit’s dozen. Quite obviously, you get a Pit’s dozen by placing your chips in the corresponding areas for the first four letters that come up after the shuffle of the Prince’s Gable. It is customary to whistle as loud as you can after someone wins after the shuffle of the Princes Gable. If you’re the one with the Pit’s Dozen, you win your bet. Now, if you were to get the Two-Humper, well that’s when things get really interesting…

Archie glazed over, and arranged his chips around the table in the marked areas. His uncanny ability to do whatever the opposite of strategy might suggest completely befuddled the dealer, who was losing the house money in spades, not to mention clubs, hearts and diamonds.

Au saw the several security personnel beginning to take an interest in Archie. They had assumed he was a master Banana’s Fife player, here to pull one over on the Golden Banana. As her hope was to get them kicked out of the city, and not pulled to some dark grotto and beaten up, she tried to guide Archie away from the game. Getting bored of winning, Archie languidly complied. He had slugged several more Lambastes, to the charlatan **** delight of his increasingly jealous co-gamblers who were hoping they might get a chance to win soon. Archie was now ready for liftoff.

As the last hit his tummy, after crawling menacingly down his esophagus, he quarter turned, saluted the bartender, and shot outdoors, Au buffeted in his slipstream. He ran down the boulevard, Au stopping to grab both packs, bounced after Archie like a laden and anxious donkey.

Huffing down the street, something caught his eye, and piqued the interest of his addled mind. It was an arena, advertising some sort of competition tonight.

The city of Sodden gave a carte blanche on most activities, as long as taxes were paid, and said activities didn’t infringe on the ability of anyone else to enjoy life or worship. Recreational blood sports were popular, and completely legal, as long as all combatants were consenting adults. Archie had stumbled upon the Grippodrome, though unsurprisingly, because it was a huge, arched, and well-lit stadium with partiers and spectators streaming in and out. Tremendous excitement weighed heavy in the air tonight. The annual grand finale of Obliterball was on, and the crowd was enthusiastically awaiting the delivery of a violent spectacle. Even the judging and penetrating glares of the Attendants of the Altar Admonish across the street did nothing to quelch the queue’s lust for action.

Archie was in no mood to queue. He pushed through the waiting crowd, and disappeared around the side of the hippodrome. Au had lost him as he pushed through the moose-like musk of enthusiasm and sweat. She joined the massed bacchanal, hoping she’d be able to spot him inside. The crowd filtered in, as preliminary attractions began to take the stage. Archie was nowhere to be seen on the concourse, Au had checked the bars on the first three levels. She was pretty certain the upper deck bartenders wouldn’t even be able to make a Double Lambaste.

The Grippodrome had an impressive arched front facade, behind which the four level concourse attempted to keep it’s patrons fed, lubricated with alcohol, and on their way to the seats of the steep sloping bowl. The sides of the Grippodrome tapered off around the back, until it was just one level high. The roof was a green dome of metallic plates, with a great open portion, tilted on its axis so that it was flush with the steadily declining masonry heading towards the rear. Whether it was constructed like this on purpose, or was just a part of an even larger ancient leviathan structure that had partially fallen it was hard to say; this was beyond the curiosity of your average drunken patreon. The jungle infringement on Sodden could be seen through the tilted dome opening, beyond the lights and screens poking up from the tapered rear of the structure.

Admission was free. There was much money to be made from bets, the city taking the standard cut; wisdom dictated that tickets would just create friction and clog up the entrance. Over-capacity was solved by the extra seating lev-platforms that orbited the structure on custom C-rail track. The effect was bees circling a giant tilted bulb of vivacious green. The most desirable sections had guards, checking the bank account numbers of interested patreons. On a night like this, the qualifying number would be so big that even Au might be turned away. The number was kept secret too, whoever was in charge loved to see the upperish-class squirm as their worth was laid bare for others to judge. A rejection would result in a fit of nervous laughter from those waiting behind, those privately not quite sure that they outranked that rejected, and dejected slub.

Au wanted a mid-level seat anyay, to keep an eye out for any commotion that might signal the appearance of Archie. She made her way up to the top section of the second level, the best place to keep an eye out on the entire place, upper level or lower. Patrons eagerly awaiting the main show were able to order all sorts of refreshments to their cushioned seats, or couches if they had been affluent enough to access a luxury box. There were many microdrones flying around too. The drones buzzed at the behest of those too lazy, or perhaps too poor, to attend. Viewers could view the event from all angles, wherever they were staying. The drones would not go past the edge-ring of the performance area, nor would they congregate too close to one another, to avoid spoiling the view. Priority would be given to those at home who’d purchased the alpha-drone add-on.

Bet hawkers were traipsing up and down the aisles. They shouted to be heard against the fantastic pounding bass and frantic synths. They had odds, never good, for just about any event that might occur, winners, losers, deaths, injuries to spectators, etc. Betters were selling and buying bets as new information came to light in the pregame chit-chat. Expert personalities had taken to the presentation stage suspended above the side of the field, with full intent to comment. In a moment, the pregame acrobatics and frivolities would end as the ramp out to the presentation platform, from the dressing rooms in the side of the Grippodrome, would extend amidst generous fanfare. The sides of the presentation platform would lower to deposit the players on their respective sides of the field. The players began the walk to the presentation platform. Men and women, rippling with muscle waved to the rabid fans, their very appearance sending the numerous super-fan sections into complete screen-flag waving derange.

Drug tests had been conducted the week before the event. However in the days preceding, it was if not written, at least inherent in the rules that they could juice up however they wanted. Sometimes to great effect, sometimes to great error, it was unknown what strategies the opposing team might use in combat.

Even the attendants of the Altar Admonish had bought out a section, and were sitting disapprovingly, hands clasped in silence. One of the many criticisms by the Attendants of the Altar Admonish, who’d set up a branch to denounce this arena entirely, was the size of the athlete’s garb, smallish. The Attendants Admonish took issue with the drinking, the gambling, the small garb and the drugs of course; oddly they just didn’t seem to worry about the gratuitous violence. Few people took them seriously anyway, for some, the AAA was just another part of the show. For their part, The athletes claimed the costumes gave them freedom of movement, which to their credit, it certainly did. It also showed off their muscles quite nicely, and was possibly instrumental in drawing some viewers, in turn creating a bigger purse for the winner. The players would never admit to this line of reasoning, and were surprisingly adept at keeping a straight face when proclaiming that it was all for the love of the game, a game that often resulted in casualties.

The appropriately named sport of Obliterball was popular in Sodden, with at least fifteen teams that could pass as professionals. It was more or less forgotten about in the rest of Greater Jard, except for one day a year, the final finale, or Grand Annihilation as it was known. The proper and official name was the Aboda Smolhoem ™ _Grand Annihilation of Sodden_ with the Exceptional and Benefactory Sponsorship of Acropolis.

A unique quirk of the game made the final more interesting to casual viewers. Players had two lives, the game life, and the standard, real life. Normally, in league games, players would exit after the game life was lost. Of course they could keep playing, but if the second life was lost, well they would be dead, and for most players glory in the regular season wasn’t worth it.

The grand stage of the finale was nearly the only time some players would use the second life, and like clockwork, Jards tuned in for the increased stakes, and the emotion. There was a huge betting scene based on who would use their second life, their real life, and then, who would lose it.

There was a certain kind of pressure too, from the spectators and from teammates, to use the second and final life in the finale, if the team in question had a decent chance of winning. The drama was intense. In a split second, players would choose to barter the possibility of death for a chance at winning it all.

For some of the athletes, to be on a winning team was worth the risk. Some would refuse of course, even in the final - and for some you couldn’t be sure what they’d do until after the opportunity to get back in the fray materialized.

One or two athletes, often the biggest stars, thought nothing of risking the second life in most of the games they played during the regular season and through the playoffs. These players lived for the spotlight, and often were rudely and untimely thrust out of it - but to them, the glory and lucrative sponsorship was worth the immense risk.

The two lives rule was enforced thusly, there existed defensive field modulators available for public purchase designed by moderately successful defensive technology savant Judd Castleman’s Castle Inovata. The field modulators were impenetrable to projectile weapons, and made available to anyone in Greater Jard, police, security or otherwise. Most didn’t bother, as projectile weapons were generally hard to come by. The only legal guns were ancient single shot, scoped, heritage-style hunting guns. As the populace was entirely Jards, of all colors and sizes, but altogether still Jards, conventional wisdom suggested widespread weapon ownership would likely only result in Jard on Jard violence. Most abstained. Defensive tech was still popular in the construction and structure improvement industry, the danger of marble shrapnel and falling debris while trying to repair the still slightly misunderstood ancient buildings was a real and pressing issue.

The athletes wore these same defensive field modulators, a small pack carried on the back. When hit, data immediately was uploaded to provide endless enthralling stats for the viewers, and count the kill-points for the shooter.

The beshotten athlete had to leave the field. They then chose whether or not to return, at any point for the rest of the match, until the end. Choosing to return involved the surrender of the modulator, and as such, risking death by absurdly large-bore rifle.

Some of the finer points of strategy were lost on Austera, but helpfully re-iterated by the talking heads who sat prominently on the presentation platform for the newcomers in the crowd and at home.

“Now Al, I’ll go over a few notes for the fine folks new to our storied and ancient game. If not, feel free to mute me, and enjoy a sip or twelve of your favourite beverage. It’s the Grand Annihilation, after all. He then looked through the camera, into the soul of the reader. “Feel free to skip the rules, if you are here for action only. Look for [THE ACTION]”

He coughed, set his fashionable tie fashionably askew, and continued.

“As you can see, the grounds are nearly a perfect circle.“

The first of the two, who were evidently not Al, marked the center of the field on a feed presented to an audience far and wide. Digital marking or not, the hole in the center was hard to miss. A boring cut into the field pulsed softly, alternating between the colours of the city flag, which, for reasons unknown, was a blue and off-white dish towel with a suspicious green stain, faithfully recreated centuries on end.

Pleased with her freehand circle, the caster continued. “This is the rushgoal. The object of the game is for the team whose color matches that of the ball that drops from the marshal’s nest, to collect and throw said ball into the rushgoal. After all 16 of the balls have been dropped, the team with the most rushgoals wins. The attacking team must of course pass the ball between at least five of the ten players, before throwing a rushgoal.

To defend the rushgoal, the team whose color the ball is not, each player may have one shot with the rifle usually strapped to their backs. They may shoot the ball, prompting a new ball to appear from the bottom of the marshal’s nest, a chance to be either color. To clarify, they get a single shot each life.“

The second person, also confirmed not to be Al, continued.

“Thank you, Deppa. They may try to shoot an opposing player, who must then exit the field through the side marshal’s egress to either wait out the rest of the game, or risk it all, and surrender their defence modulator in the pursuit of glory. The defenders may block a throw with any part of a body or rifle, from at least two meters beyond the rushgoal, the closest anyone may get. If they are able to take control of the opposing team’s color ball, they may either remove it from the grounds by way of a throw, or of course, a shot. Tossing it into their own rushgoal however, will give the attacking team the point, regardless of how many attacking players have been passed to, which would be considered quite embarrassing. An own goal often results in a prompt retirement from the sport. This game is a game of perfection.

The game requires great feats of athletic precision, speed, and strength. The men and women who stand before you today are the peak of Soddenite performance. For this exclusive sodality, this is the pinnacle of achievement.”

The crowd roared in response. A few cries of “get on with it” rallied from some of the more impatient and bloodthirsty fans.

Al raised a finger, and spoke again. “Tiebreaks, though rare, come in the form of a final, randomly chosen spare ball of one of the two colors. If the attacking team scores a rushgoal, they win. If the defending team shoots or removes the ball from play, well, they win.

[THE ACTION] The announcer waited for a reasonable amount of time to build appropriate tension. Clouds of Acropolis brand mist dispersed from the micro drones and bravely attempted to cool the steaming crowd. Warring chants filled the rowdy atmosphere as the team platforms began to descend level to the field. The athletes posed and waved, milking the moment. They struck pose like only one who has been training in the mirror for years can. Rifles gleaming in holsters, and defense modulators glowing slight blue, they trooped towards the team benches where the coaches were waiting with final strategies. As Au could tell by the ostentatious graphics on the scoreboard, and the flags and chants erupting from the supporter sections, the athletic arm of the Cartography Club were in blue, and the Ordinary Fellowship of Ball + Shot in grey. Each representing a district of Sodden, this one promised to be the culmination of a rivalry between the more affluent beach districts and the less fortunate districts under the C-rail lines & in the box-home griddocks. Each team had enhanced their uniforms with face and body paint. They were referred to as the Cartogs and the ‘BSers respectively. OFBSers was, of course, too much of a mouthful.

As the athletes got ready to play, Au took stock of her fellow spectators in the second level of the Grippodrome. Most were rippling with excitement. Many of them wore the same defensive field modulators as the athletes - but some didn’t, presumably for the thrill. Amidst the ruckus, She heard snatches of conversation. Most revolved around betting, or were frank and important discussions about the attractiveness of the athletes. It seemed like the Cartogs were largely favoured to win, and as such, they were bet upon heavily. A woman turned to Au, bathing her in a fog of alcohol and drug fumes. She confided that she’d bet half her considerable fortune on the Cartogs. They were sure to win, she said. They had won the two years previous, without losing any players. And also, they were the best looking, how could you not like them? Au had noticed, in her time among the elite of greater Jard, that most of them eschewed the underdog story. She figured it hit too close to home for them. The intoxicated supporter’s partner, a much younger person with antique opera glasses and a shaggy hairstyle squinted at the field and wondered aloud if they’d started yet.

Au waved over a bet taker. “What are the odds on the 'BSers right now?”

The man looked relieved, he’d been selling far too many bets on the Cartogs for comfort. The other prop bets would cover him of course, but he was about even tonight if the Cartogs won, and he didn’t become a bet taker to break even.

“Twenty to one for an outright win”

“Done, book it,” she said handing him a modest sum, feeling a growing kinship with the concept of the underdog.

“Just under the wire too” he said, issuing her virtual slip. The one minute warning horn sounded from the marshal’s nest, halfway between the rushgoal and the wall, towards the rear of the Grippodrome. Everywhere else, other takers were announcing last call for full game result bets. Of course, they would still be traipsing up and down the aisles, taking prop bets during the course of the action, down to the final rushgoal.

The athletes took the field, lining up at their respective starting spots, each side of the rushgoal, facing the imposing, fortified marshal’s nest. The audience’s view panned towards the levels most likely to feature prominent Old Jardinian industrialists and other high-profile figures. Unusually, there were several empty seats, one that Au knew Alden had favoured in the past. Her paranoia, or did the surrounding industrialists look more nervous than usual, even more than their occasional moods of strained precariousness? Not a smile to be seen anyway, across a cross section of Old Jardinian’s best and brightest.

Never mind that. The game, the absolute spectacle, started with an amplified sounding of the game horn by the head marshal. It was low and deep. It brought ancestral memories of war, of danger and excitement. Not a single neck hair was flat. A hundred thousand hearts beat as, well not as one, because hearts are not capable of that sort of mass organization; though they certainly beat excitedly in the primordial whirl of noise and gusto.

Au was momentarily sobered by the thought that she still hadn’t seen Archie. He’d loath to miss a spectacle like this she figured, and so allowed herself to be drawn into the excitement of it all, keeping an eye out for any commotion or otherwise that might signal his arrival. One of the twenty-two balls randomly distributed in the classically ornamental giving box, immediately below the marshal’s nest, belched out. It dropped the three meters to the grass field, and bounced a little. A roving patch of jungle mist had obscured it initially, but now, as it hit the ground - it was clear, it was blue, and the game was on! Cartogs ball! The crowd, already cranked to a feverish pitch, found another level. Au wondered if the place might just combust when the first rushgoal was scored. Thankfully, they couldn’t blow the roof off, it was already open to the thick, humid air.

The Cartogs reached the ball first, as most of the 'BSers had settled into a standard defensive position, a semicircle around the rushgoal, several with one-shots drawn. The Cartogs passed it around a couple times first, so that any intrusion to the ‘BSers’ defence would come on the fifth pass, validating any ensuing rushgoal.

The Cartogs had two star players, glory-hounds each; incredibly fit, agile, and for the final match, tweaked on stimulants to the n’th degree. Of course the dosage had been calculated precisely so their hearts wouldn’t quite give out, but it was powerful enough to give them a sense of focus and drive that would rival that of a night jaguar.

Neither of them would touch the ball first, demanding only the fifth pass, to be set up for the goal. To placate them, their teammates would give one the opening goal, and one the winning goal, split evenly. It was Glorian Fyn’s turn for the opening goal, and she streaked past the first line of the ‘BSers’ defense, keeping a watchful eye on the guns aimed at her. She saw a ‘BSer aim towards her, and was already bending backwards and leaping when that player loosed a shot, catching the passed ball as the projectile cannoned behind her back, causing a commotion when it hit the front of the stands, nearly bisecting an usher, who dove for cover, causing a cloud of small snacks and alcohol. The crowd roared its approval. Dynamic Glorian still had the ball, and while nobody really wanted to loose another projectile unless she got close - they only had one each for each life - the 'BSers lined up in front of the rushgoal, hoping to block her throw.

She made motion to throw. One of the 'BSers got ready to jump to block it. As she was winding up, with one motion she grabbed the rifle from her holster with her other arm and shot one of the defenders, knocking him flat. Before landing, she threw the ball through the space she’d made, bouncing into the rushgoal. Estatic fans and wagerers alike glowed in the pyrotechnics, hugging and backslapping, leaping off couches and seats with stimulated glee.

The defender who’d been shot, trouped sadly off to the side marshal’s egress. Now the crowd waited feverishly, excited, calling for him to re-enter the field. Props flew back and forth, betting on whether he’d be the first to die - smart money was yes. To their immediate disappointment, he didn’t make a move to go back in, electing to see how things progressed.

The game progressed, and Au began to lose interest in the relative pummeling, increasingly worried about Archie, or lack thereof. The real excitement started when It was 5 rushgoals to 1, the 'BSers having lost four game lives, the Cartogs only two, having scored every time their ball came up, and successfully defended thrice. The crowd was pleased, bets were going their way, and the alcohol and debauchery was flowing. The 'BSers were on their fifth grey ball, hampered now with a numbers disadvantage. Nearly everyone had to touch the ball for a valid rushgoal.

They passed it around at the back for a hot moment, keeping options open. Wodd Woolens, the plucky smallish captain with a heck of a lot of heart, as his profile had stated in the digital programe, saw a gap where he could potentially catch and shoot. He motioned for the pass. He sprinted past the first four of the defense. With weapons training towards him, he dropped flat on his back and slid. Two projectiles came, zooming past at his previous chest height. He bounced back up, and fired the ball towards the rushgoal. In it went in on a single bounce, a highlight reel rushgoal. He turned, expecting a emphatic embrace by his team. Instead, they were looking over at the team bench area at a tragic, but not completely unforeseen event. Their coach had earlier attempted to inspire them by forgoing the defensive field modulator, an I’m with you on the field sort of gesture. This was the first time he’d tried the tactic, and the first time in his long and storied career that he’d had a projectile come within forty meters of him. And as such, it was also the first time he’d ever been punched through by a projectile. He was dead instantly. He might have even had the chance to dodge, but was too mesmerized by Wodd’s sliding throw to notice the guns aimed, by unfortunate coincidence, in his direction.

The head marshal gave them a five minute grieving break.

Because nobody had been stupid enough to chug more than three Lambastes, it was little known that quaffing the fifth lambaste would bring on a state of remarkable creative clarity. It was this state that Archie had now found, having wandered into the dressing room of the 'BSers. The first thing that caught his eye was a screen which they had been displaying tactics. The hallucinatory effects of the drinks were making the little symbols on the digital playbooks dance and flow. He felt he could weave the game as if a glowing set of threads in the ether. He felt he could get inside it and pluck it’s strings to compose a tune of victory. Archie wanted to become the game, to surround himself with it’s essence. Gradually, the sounds of the crowd began to pervade his focus. He tried wearing a spare coaches headset to block the noise, but the sounds still came. He went out to see what this was disturbing his studies. He arrived on the platform, shaking his fist at the crowd, who began to titter at this new development. Archie, mid-shake, was surprised to find himself being lowered to the field. The crowd began to roar, hailing Archie as the new coach. More than anything, they were eager to get the game re-started. Archie stepped onto the field, confused by the bright lines and the noise, and then he looked out at the pitch.

Here it was, his game come to life. His mind lept into action, envisioning thousands of possible scenarios in which a rushgoal might be scored. As he had arrived behind the grey side, he would use them to expunge the beauty of the sport. A precursory glance, well they looked a bit short handed but no matter - he had already run the scenarios for that. The players were still standing around, wondering how to possibly salvage a win. Not knowing what else to do - they looked to the man anointed as their new coach by the crowd. The show must go on, they supposed. Archie began spouting tactical wisdoms with fervour. The players formed up around their strange strategic savant, immediately thrown, but eventually recognizing tactical genius when they saw it.

Austera was shocked at first, but then the more she thought about it, had she expected anything less from Archie? He had a precedent, becoming a habit really, of falling into leadership roles that he was completely unqualified for.

In the bench area for the 'BSers, Archie was situated directly below the left side of the lounge where the industrialists and other key personalities from Greater Jard had materialized and congregated. Alden’s favorite seat was unoccupied still, obviously, maybe she could squeak in as his representative, and keep an eye on Archie. Not that she could do much to influence events, they appeared to be heading rapidly out of her control.

She made her way down, and luckily, the guard recognized her, whether from New Money in Old Jardinian or some other event she’d attended with Alden, she couldn’t be sure. After some languid substance-hazed greeting greetings, her presence seemed to reassure a few of the other industrialists, who had been hearing strong rumours of consequence about Alden and Carina Molecular.

Sitting down with three that she knew, she did her best to assuage those worries, wanting to avoid full scale panic back home in Old Jardinian. She had sat with a trio of medium-level industrialists. She tried to steer the conversation to the cryptic Mark of Excellence. When she brought it up, tactly she had thought, they just looked at each-other carefully, as if they thought they all shared a secret but weren't quite sure, and nobody wanted to be the first to say too much. They didn’t give away any information, besides that it was awarded to who the dean found worthy that year; even the sharer of that notion received a warning glance from the other two industrialists.

It was enough to confirm her suspicion of vague yet far-reaching misconduct. She didn’t pry as to the nature, it might get back to the community, and milk the proverbial udder of panic. There was guilt here; and the paranoia of forced acquaintances sharing a dangerous past. So, whatever secret relationship so afflicted Alden, it seemed to be omnipresent in the Industrialist community. A change then meant great ramifications for Old Jardinian society. Perhaps that was not such a bad thing itself, but she knew the people would be completely unprepared for any sort of catastrophe, that was being warned of in vain at Alovian. The observer seemed key to both lines of investigation. They would need to press on and hurry.

She got up, and moved around the room, listening for other interesting and telling conversations.

Most of the other talk was of mammoth bets, particularly by some characters she didn’t know, in the back of the club suite behind some blankly menacing guards. They were discussing in harsh tones about how Archie's prompt and unexpected arrival might impact their fortunes. Au had caught a few words passing by, and after talking briefly to the bartender, settled on a couch as close as she could, while still having a good view of coach apparent Archie Sandalwood and the game. The characters in question were exquisitely dressed but humbly so. This, the mark of real players in the figurative and actual arenas, political and sports respectively. They were far removed from the preening pretenders that choked the lesser sections of the stadium.

She looked back at the field. Archie had apparently imparted some sort of strategy to the players, who seemed renewed in spirit. The medical personnel were just now finishing carrying their former coach down an access tunnel. The players trotted out again to await the dropping of the next colored ball from the marshal’s nest, blue or grey, yet to be seen.

It dropped, grey again, and for the first time the 'BSers had a lead in number of balls dropped, their sixth. Archie stood stonily on the sideline, willing his tactics into fruition, as he knew deep within that they would provide. He knew his shorthanded grey team needed to score three more times to tie, he squinted, the Cartogs? What a dumb name. He was the only person in the venue beyond Wodd Woolens who believed that his adopted team would win, three down with three less players.

He shared a nod, a wink, and a wiggle of the fingers above his head with Wodd, a signal to put the first play into action. Wodd, taking the forth pass like usual, threw it in the air as far as he could towards the rushgoal. One of his teammates was streaking towards the rushgoal, one of Cartogs stepped up to shoot her down, while the rest readied to stop a catch and throw from the streaking attacker. As the attention from the Cartogs was on the falling ball, and the streaking attacker, they didn’t notice Wodd command the 'BSers to step up within range of the Cartog back line. The streaking attacker pulled off, and slid, the projectile fired far too late to even worry her. The other Cartogs stepped up to to the ball, as the attacker had peeled off. One jumped up to catch it, and was immediately struck by a shot from Wodd. The defender immediately dropped the ball, and it, still carrying some momentum, fell backwards, bouncing into toward the rushgoal. A second ‘BSer stepped up and shot one of the other defenders, who was chasing after it. The ball bounced into the rushgoal. Directed in by one of the Cartogs, even after being only touched by four 'BSers, it counted as their third rushgoal on six attempts, against five in five. The crowd erupted, fans of the 'BSers mostly in the top sections, and those neutrals who hadn’t bet dehilibating sums of money on the Cartogs. They’d evened up the numbers too, four game lives lost each.

To enormous fanfare, three of the Cartogs declared their intent to use their second lives, confident that Archie's and Wodd’s trickery would be less effective a second time. The cameras loved every moment of it, thunderous cheers came forth along with torrents of tears running down the faces of the Cartog fans upon the decision.

In response, taken by the emotion of it all, and believing Coach Archie to be their talisman, three of the 'BSers did the same. The respective crowds responded with another feverish approval. Flying beer, confetti, and snacks filled the air amidst the drifting mists and approved controlled smoke devices. Feverish approval resounded also, from the boxes of the entertainment executives; so many lives on the line in the name of sport and glory would be wonderful for ratings. The second half viewership would probably be record-breaking.

Archie didn’t even celebrate the glorious rushgoal. A nod of approval for appearances sake, but that was all. He had known with all certainty it would go in, ever since he had dreamt the play up in the dressing room. The players went back to their starting lines, to await the drop of the next ball. Three on each side knew it could also be their last ball.

The winds of chance provided the 'BSers with another grey ball.

Wodd Woolens picked it up first, directing traffic with his free hand. Archie watched on passively; to him, another rushgoal was beyond doubt. He had seen the play in his mind, it was as good as finished. Four in seven would give them a fighting chance, though Archie didn’t even know this, he was intent exclusively on scoring rushgoals and, when on defence, their prevention. Someone else could keep track, who wasn’t a creative and tactical genius such as him.

Glorian Fyn tracked Wodd Woolens from across the field. She did not have a shot left after her manoeuvre from before, but remained alert for any trickery dreamed up by the last-minute coach.

Wodd sent a teammate, Asbeth, all the way around to the other side of the rushgoal. Wary, the Cartogs adjusted to cover. Wodd then passed the ball to a teammate behind him, the fifth one to touch the ball. He stepped up and unholstered his gun.

“The idiot” thought Glorian, “he doesn’t have a shot left.”

She motioned several of the defenders to run past Wodd, and try to shoot the ball carrier. The ball carrier, seeing their advance, retreated. The defenders ran past. Guns out, looking for a bead, the carrier darted and zagged, retreating all the while. The crowd roared, smelling blood, though unfortunately for the bloodthirsty collective spirit, the ‘BSer carrier still had a game life. A third and fourth defender raced after her, moving from coverage farther behind the rush goal, attempting to flank. One Cartog made to fire.

Just before it hit, she loosed the ball toward Wodd. Who, instead of picking it up, smacked it out of the air with his gun. It sailed over the rush goal, almost directly to the player, Asbeth, he’d sent around it. She was home free to catch and throw for the rushgoal, as those who had been marking her had bit on the flanking manoeuvre.

One defender did try to spin and shoot, turning from the fallen quarry, to Wodd, and around to Asbeth as she threw a no-bouncer for a rush goal. She had been already used her game life, so she dropped immediately, avoiding any shots, which came, late and wild.

It was another rushgoal, four in seven, and the Cartogs only had four shots left for now, as one had lost a game life with a projectile unloosed. The crowd made a clamour of approval, spotlights illuminating the architects of the play, Wodd, their teammate who had been tasked as bait tramping exuberantly to the sideline, Asbeth, and finally Archie. Again, Archie nodded. Things had preceded to his satisfaction.

The Grippodrome was in glorious state of uproariousness.

It was a closer game than anyone thought. Winners and losers of micro-bets were estatic and demoralized each - both resulting in numerous exclamations and obscenities. 'BSer fans were wild with excitement, standing, climbing bits of architecture, removing articles of clothing, throwing drinks and snacks into the air. The Cartog faithful, though they were still in the lead, followed suit, not wanting to be outdone, and trying to regain some momentum.

Hundreds of safety, decency and hygiene concerns could be observed, but what Austera was most worried about was the little group murmuring darkly in the corner. They had become more and more sour as Archie's appetite for stratagem was exposed. They were making ominous sounding conversation, amongst themselves, and to listeners elsewhere. Their mundane and minimal appearance seemed ominous to her, like they weren’t here for any sort of fun, unlike most of the other revellers who were clad in team colors or garish finery and hats. Though she supposed she must look the same, and indeed she herself was not here for fun; though, she couldn’t help but cheer on the underdog team that Archie appeared to be leading from the ashes. How could one not be drawn in by the intense drama. Seven of the twenty players were now on their second, and last life.

She shuffled her chair closer to the ominous group. They looked at her as one, as sharks might look at a sinking cruise boat filled with Sodden bound buffet-goers. She sipped her drink non-threateningly. After a long moment, apparently deciding she wasn’t dangerous, they went back to their terse discussions.

As the players lined up again for the drop, it was clear the Cartogs wanted some offence. “Give us the blue balls” They chanted. And indeed, this is what they would get. A blue ball dropped from the marshal’s nest, and Wodd, as team captain, began to arrange the defensive structure that Archie had feverishly laid out, not even knowing the correct technical terms for the positions and maneuvers. His coaching ability was undeniable though, Wodd could see that.

The players with game lives pushed the ball forward, wary of defensive incursion. What they weren’t expecting, was a triple side feint. A double, maybe, but a triple? The gall. In a panic, the second Cartog star, Dynamus Reg threw it backwards, to a player on a final life. As the defenders had pulled away from Dynamus expecting this move, they were left with a clear shot at the unprepared rear-fielder catching the ball, a shot and then a clear path to the dropped ball, the second ‘BSer defender throwing it out of bounds. And just like that, the first successful ‘BSer defence came. With it, the first real death of the game. The crowd, already in a boiling state, went absolutely bananas. The death was broadcast in slow motion, incredibly high definition in many angles. The commentators, declared unanimously, that it had been Dynamus’ fault. For him, the blame of a failure, this was a fate nearly worse than death. But not quite.

Wodd told his team to be wary, they had made a fool out of Dynamus, and he would be looking for revenge, likely a death for a death.

Another blue ball dropped, making it an even seven of each color. Dynamus and Glorian had been covertly chatting before the drop, hands over mouths.

The plotting pair let the rest of their team collect the ball and pass it around, choosing instead to corner one of the 'BSers who’d already lost a game life, the farthest one from any other BS’er.

Glorian didn’t have a shot, but she had a game life, and ran as a shield. Asbeth turned, and loosed a shot from afar, hitting her and taking her out of the game for the moment. Dynamus still chased after the retreating player, now too far for any other 'BSers to help. Somewhat faster, Dynamus caught up to the ‘BSer, and shot him in the back, execution style. They had ended up about as far as you could from the main action on the field. The rest of the 'BSers had no problem defending with the two stars taken out of play. A chorus of boos rained down. This was a dirty play, and had lost the Cartogs the point regardless. The marshal signaled that Dynamus must give up his game life too, though he and Glorian would come back again for the next ball, with a single life remaining each, but loaded guns.

It had been seven balls apiece. The score was five to six. The eighth and final blue ball fell next.

Dynamus and Glorian expected the 'BSers to target them, running to the sides of the rushgoal, as if expecting a pass, while the rest of the team made an advancement. Wodd kept the defensive line steady, and a teammate was able to shoot the ball out of the air when an attempt was made.

Now, the final ball before a prospective tiebreaker. It would have to be grey. The 'BSers needed this one to tie, to force the tiebreaker. The ‘BSer fans were urging them on relentlessly. Those who’d put a long shot on them, even more feverishly so.

Archie, confident as ever, conveyed a few final instructions as they waited for the drop, forgone conclusion as it was.

The crowd dripped with anticipation. Slowly, Wodd waved them up from the back. They trouped up slowly in a line, passing the ball around. Suddenly, as they were about to be in firing range of the wary Cartog defenders, five with defensive modulators formed into a line, and ran around the side, getting closer and closer to the rush goal as they ran around it in a spiral. Asbeth ran behind it, with the ball. Wodd dropped, and so did the others one by one, but by then she was close enough to throw it by the pursuing defenders for another rush goal. The defending Cartogs had wasted all of their shots on dropping the ‘BSer blockers, but two, Dynamus and Glorian seeing what was happening and pulling back, conserving for the tiebreak.

Amidst the jubilation of a tie, and the suspense of a looming overtime ball, Austera saw the tragic characters speak to several of the guards, who promptly left the Suite.

The 'BSers had no game lives left, but everyone went back in. A total of 9, and five new shots.

For the tiebreak, the Cartogs had several modulators left, but only the two shots, constraints Archie had already visualized and planned for.

Archie was in the midst of explaining his grand plan for the tiebreaker to the 'BSers, when to the confusion of the murmering fans in the stadium, the guards Au had spotted leaving emerged from an access tunnel.

He was approached by said same and dragged unceremoniously back down the access tunnel. The sharklike figures who’d been glowering at Archie's success were already on the move. Au followed them through the concourse, and down several levels, through the darker bowels of the Grippodrome. Her strange toed shoes came in handy here, relatively noiseless.

In the background, she heard the horn signalling the beginning of the tiebreak, and the confused roar of the crowd, unsure about some of the proceedings but entirely sure that exciting things were indeed happening.They were privy to sporting history, such as it was.

Au and her followed quarries were in the main cistern now, with high vaulted ceilings with intermittent support pillars dripping with water. It echoed with the noise from above, so Au was able to follow them through the giant space without any trouble. There was almost nothing on most of the floor, except some covered stacks of crates, in the middle where it was more dry.

The cistern was directly below the field, and the space was almost as massive, the walls starting a bit sooner than the edges for the field, presumably to support the megastructure that encompassed the field. The Cistern and the Hippodrome looked like they had been built at the same time, or so long ago that the delta ceased to be relevant.

Au didn’t know what it was really for, it seemed excessive for field drainage, but who could fathom the motivations of the ancients? She had no time for architectural curiosity anyway, as Archie was likely in a spot of trouble.

Her plan was threatening to unravel with deadly consequence. A part of her wondered if it would just be easier to leave Archie to his fate, and just continue on her own. But, she’d begun to like the plucky little guy, and immediately regretted the thought. Had Alden been rubbing off on her more than she’d realized? And wasn’t Archie directly representative of the populace they were trying to serve with this expedition? To save them from whatever bitter anomaly was setting alarms off in Alovian station, or if possible, try to figure out the cause of a brewing social upheaval so that the Jards could work to save themselves? Not to mention, she’d been indirectly, if totally responsible for the orchestration Archie's recent blurry mischiefs.

The figures she’d been following went around the side of the stacked, covered crates and then their footfalls stopped. They must be just beyond.

She crept to the crates, and tried to listen. Through some cracks, she was able to see the guards holding Archie.

The Stack of covered crates made a u-shape, and she was at the round bottom lump of it. The guards, Archie, and the sinister figures were congregated in the inset of the U. Archie looked annoyed and subdued, but still struggled intermittently. They hadn’t killed him yet. His back was to her, but he looked decently blood-free.

“He’s remarkably resistant to pain” one of the guards was saying, rubbing a fist. Archie, on his worst day, could take a punch in the gut like nobody else.

By Au’s calculation, he was likely so buzzed that he didn’t even feel it.

Archie was squirming, begging to be back on the field. One of the other guards had him in a headlock and was looking quite annoyed. Archie, appalled at the liberties they were taking with the sanctity of the game, was tearing into them for the complete and utter lack of gamesmanship. “How can you even claim to be fans of this great game? An utter, utter travesty.” He was obviously distraught, even though he himself had only been privy to the finer points of the game for the better part of an hour.

One of the figures, came up close to him, sick of the commotion. “The point of this game _friend_, is our return on investment. You were making some bets look very silly indeed. We can’t have that.”

Nothing like the scent of danger to sober up a young fellow in a dangerous city. Archie felt an icy chill, though that could be attributed to the drafty space. “Er, could I ask who have I upset” Archie queried with remarkable lucidity.

One of the figure’s hoods slipped off as she bent closer.

She was an old woman. They called her Lo’ Squallo. Au recognized her now as one of the leading figures in Sodden politics, the nuances of which she had been, until this point, relatively unconcerned. They’d rubbed elbows at a few gatherings of interest to the elite of Greater Jard. She thought her to be one of the Adjournicators. Officially, there were no parties in the Parliament of Sodden, just a collection of seatholders. All of the churches, and major businesses in sodden each had a seat. It was a poorly hidden secret that there were always a few unofficial groups. Members referred to said unofficial Adjournicators for voting instruction.

The landscape of such groups would change constantly, and rarely were explicitly divided among religious and entertainment lines, leading to the complete stall of progress unless concessions to both facets of Sodden Identity were placated. Archie's some time earlier transgressions had come at a precarious time for a certain piece of legislation, that had caused this particular Adjournicator immense political grief.

“Unofficially, I am a very powerful in Sodden, Archie. I own the Golden Banana, and lead the Reticent Coalition of Casin. You’ve been a problem for us before. I had to spend some precious political capital on your case, yes I did. The Church of Transcendent Silence was none too pleased with your, er, exuberance. And, here you are again, creating problems for us. You have a knack Archie,” The Adjournicator noted with a hint of grudging respect.

“This time, I can, and I will, make you disappear without a trace.”

Au had heard enough. She stepped around the side of the little hideaway, popping around into the ingress.

“Listen, if it’s cash you want, Lo’ er, Squallo, I’ve got it. It’s just a bet. Just kick us out, you’ll never see us again.”

The conspiring figures tisked. They turned to look at her, and the guards as one swung shock weapons her way. She gulped. It had sounded better in her head.

The Adjournicator sighed, with a hint of eye roll.”It’s not my bet, I never bet with my own money. That would be absurd. After your friend’s little issue last time, I had to promise some of our most pious religious leaders continuing victory in their lavish bets, in order to pass several crucial votes. I can’t have either of you mucking this up”

“Listen”, said Au, an anxiety rising in her voice for the first time in many, many stressful situations. “Just kick us out of the city, we’ll be out of your hair forever. Dumping bodies, now that’s a pain.” She winked heartily, as if she would know. Alden had never actually involved her in Those Sorts of transactions.

Archie nodded vigorously in agreement, not wanting to interrupt her flow.

One of the guards mused, “I did just get new shoes, you know. Would be a shame to get blood on them.”Shut up” Whispered the other one, making a religious sign.

The Adjournicator eyed both guards with contempt, and then looked back at Au. After a moment, she gave Au an offer.

“Alright, here. You’re both outsiders to Sodden. I have a job that needs doing, that I don’t want it to be connected to my coalition. Do it, and I’ll lower your sentence to just “forcibly removed from the city.”

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