323: Half-Life 3 Confirmed

Royn was reeling. The best way to deal with someone who is totally in touch with who they are and what they’re meant to be doing is to introduce them to the idea that everything they want might be obtainable quicker and easier.

Stopping them is hard. Offer them an express ticket to get there faster, and they’ll lose interest in their own plans.

That’s the real weakness of a smug bastard. Doubt.

Not to make them think they’re wrong. They’ll resist that hard, no matter how incontrovertible the evidence. But the thought that there’s an even more unethical way to the top, and maybe others are already climbing it, is enough to induce panic.

Once I’d put the idea of becoming leader of the guilds into Royn’s head, it pushed out all his other ambitions. But the kicker was suggesting Damicar would be the one to claim the prize. Real or not, just the possibility of it happening was enough to send Royn off the deep end.

The practised languorous look he normally affected had vanished, to be replaced by the intense stare of the mad girlfriend. The boy of her dreams was tall, ripped and loaded. And she wasn’t about to let him fall into the hands of any other bitch.

“How can you possibly know what’s on Shrine Island? No one has ever set foot on it and lived.”

“The Golden God doesn’t need to worry about crazy islanders.” I was starting to see the attraction of being a religious person. Not a follower — that sucked and would leave you skint — but as a leading figure in the movement, it was great. Make whatever pronouncement you liked, offer no proof, pass it off as a test of faith if you turn out to be wrong.

Royn considered my words. “Do you really believe you can find the unification treaty?”

See? Not, What do you know? Or Do you have proof? He wanted to know what I believed.

That’s the key to handling stupid people who think they’re smart. You don’t get them to consider whether something is true or not. You get them to think about what it means. Once they think their view counts, then they want to be involved. Facts have to be gathered, but any nonsense counts as an opinion.

“I have no doubt whatsoever,” I said. “Why else would I be willing to risk my life? I know there are some people who are willing to die for their faith, but I’m not one of them. I’d much rather be slightly less blessed, and slightly more alive.”

Royn nodded. He was starting to see me as a holy man, here to share heavenly wisdom. Any minute now the Beatles would turn up and ask to stay in my ashram. I would teach them that creation and destruction were eternally linked, everything that is made can be unmade, and then I’d try to get Paul to unwrite Mull of Kintyre.

“But…. Damicar? How can he be the one to unite the guilds?” He was asking in a reverential tone. I think he was genuinely curious about what it took to win the favour of the gods.

Which is what most people want, to be favoured above others. We compete so we can prove our worth. But to who? If everyone wants to be on stage, who’s in the audience?

I wasn’t totally unsympathetic towards Royn. He was an unpleasant person, for sure, but it’s rare for someone to just be born with the decency gene missing. Most people get messed up along the way, usually when young.

Type A, what we think of as Alphas, deal with it by passing it on, finding solace in getting to be the aggressor instead of the victim.

Type B takes the Beta route and tries to protect others from suffering the same fate as them. But they have to face the Alphas. Nothing as demoralising as getting a job in Social Services where you think you can make a difference, only to find the place run by Type As looking for weak and vulnerable people to mess with.

And then there are those who never suffered growing up. They think people complain too much of their upbringing. Just cheer up and make the best of it. Type C. I think we all know what the C stands for.

I didn’t think Royn was Type C. My intuition was that he had a less than stellar childhood. Why else would he have spent so much time with Damicar?

“Damicar is the chosen one. I don’t know why, but it isn’t my place to question the divine. I expect these things will reveal themselves when the time is right.” I could keep up this level of bullshit for hours. “You could come with us, if you like. I can’t guarantee your safety, but you would get to see the power of the Golden God at first hand. No pressure.”

Royn sank into deep thought. Honestly, it’s amazing what you can get away with when you offer people things you have no power to give them. The bigger you go, the more inclined they are to believe you.

Damicar returned from the bathroom. He looked at the two of us sitting there. “What have you two been talking about?”

“The Golden God, the future of Gorgoth, the meaning of life and the politics of power.” I find the best way to not answer a question is to answer it as fully as possible. “Anything interesting happen in the bathroom, or just the usual?”

“Um, no, just the usual.”

The man Royn had sent off to arrange for our transportation came running back. I always felt a twinge of jealousy whenever I saw someone doing their job properly. If I could get hold of a few people who did as they were told, quickly and efficiently… but there’s no point reaching for the impossible. Some things are beyond fantasy.

“Leader, the ship is ready.”

Of course, I wouldn’t make people call me Leader or Master or Number One. Those sorts of made up titles are just there to flatter people who can’t face the reality of who they really are. To my people I would just be me, Victor Sifuentes.

“Victor, let’s go.” Royn was polite and deferential. Which meant he saw me as someone he could learn from, or he was buttering me up so I would more easily slide into his trap.

I hadn’t been to the docks before, didn’t even know where they were. There was an underground river that was the main route for goods leaving Gorgoth, that’s all I knew. I was more interested in getting to the island, finding whatever treasures Arthur had stashed there, and then making my next choice depending on how overpowered I was.

If there was some kind of magic sword that sucked up people’s souls and made me a berserk killer, then I might change my plans and start being a bit more sociable. Pay a few friends a visit.

Royn had collected himself and was back to his fake-genial self. He strolled alongside us as we headed towards the main city gates. His men followed, discreetly scaring the shit out of everyone they passed.

As we got closer to the gates, the noise and general level of activity increased sharply. Just like the first day I had arrived, there was a serious amount of traffic coming in through the gate.

They were all headed towards an unloading area where there were numerous large warehouses. Cargo was quickly unloaded, papers signed, money exchanged, animals moved on. It was noisy, dusty and smelly.

Royn said something I couldn’t make out, and pointed. Through the haze I spotted a group of men on a raised platform. They had large books open on stands and were barking orders to the boys who would run up to them, and then hearing the order, immediately run back.

In the middle of this group of raised men was a more portly figure. He wasn’t wearing his toga today, but I could tell it was Malmur, overseeing events.

Malmur caught sight of Royn waving — how he did that through the dust I don’t know  — and climbed down a ladder on the side of the platform. He indicated for us to follow him to the nearest warehouse.

Once we got past the entrance, which was doorless and huge, the noise and dust-levels dropped considerably.

Malmur and Royn went into an instant huddle. Plotting my downfall, would be my first guess. Second guess would be that they were planning a surprise birthday party for me. As we all know, I am an eternal optimist.

Damicar sighed heavily. “This was supposed to be my future.”

I looked around. The warehouse we were in was like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with fewer ironic undertones.

“Nice,” I said. “Very roomy. You can never have too much storage space.”

“The guild,” said Damicar. “A supervisor, an administrator. Well paid, a job for life.”

Ah, the age-old story. The boy expected to carry on the family business who tried to escape his responsibilities. Everyone thinks less of what they have than what they don’t.

“I used to hate being around this,” he said.

“And now you don’t?”

“Now, it feels… like it doesn’t matter. Ever since I met you, the things that worried me seem less important.”

Possibly he was about to profess his love for me. If he asked me out to dinner, I would probably accept. Hey, he was a bloody good cook, and it’s nice to be wanted. But his demeanour wasn’t particularly romantic. It was more one of loss.

“This change of heart, did it happen after your place burned down?” I asked.

“Yes, I think that had something to do with it.”

I thought it had nothing to do with it. More likely, it was me getting rid of the note in the Municipal Directory. The last link to his dad. Malmur’s change had been immediate, but Damicar had taken longer to be affected. The change was as profound, though. He no longer felt trapped inside somebody else’s expectations.

Malmur and Royn came over.

“Royn tells me he’s loaning you one of his ships,” said Malmur.

At least this meant Royn planned to let us leave. What would happen once we were out on the open seas was another story.

“Yes,” I said. “We shouldn’t be gone too long.”

“Are you really an agent of the Golden God?” Malmur asked. It was a direct question that deserved a direct answer. Sadly, no one ever got what they deserved from me.

“Well, no, not exactly, I wouldn’t say agent.” An agent got ten percent, and my standard commission was fuck all. “I’ve met him, though, and he did ask for my assistance.” All true.

“Where did you meet him?” asked Malmur.

“Under the big temple.” Both he and Royn looked sceptical. “It wasn’t just us two. He had three other guys with him. Well, more like balls of light, really. I’m not sure what their names were.”

Malmur’s mouth had dropped open. “The old gods.”

Sincerity is surprisingly easy to fake. You just tell the truth. People are willing to believe any old crap if it’s true.

Malmur looked at Damicar. “You are sure about this?”

Damicar nodded resolutely.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to bring him back in one piece,” I said with confidence. If we died, we died, but if by some miracle we made it back, I wanted full credit.

Malmur gave Royn a nod. If they’d made some agreement concerning this, then I would probably find out what it was later. I hoped it involved ice cream cake.

Royn led us further into the warehouse. Men were pushing around wheeled pallets piled high with sacks and crates. More men rode on top, moving things between the pallets and the shelves as they whizzed past. It looked very precarious, the stacks wobbling as they were pushed around faster than seemed safe. They had that practised ease about them you see with men working on skyscrapers and dodgem cars, skipping about carelessly, inches from death.

At the back of the warehouse was a large opening that went down into the earth. More pallets were being pushed down this slope, released to be steered by the men on top, like box car racers.

An empty pallet rolled up, piloted by one of Royn’s men. We all climbed aboard and got pushed into the yawning tunnel mouth without further ado. There were no toilet facilities on board, which was a shame as I would have preferred to shit myself in private.

It was dark for the first part, which added a nice unknown element to the terror, and then we were on a downward trajectory down the side of a massive cavern. There was water glimmering below, reflecting light from somewhere.

And in the water were large ships, like galleons. They didn’t have sails or masts, but their hulls were enormous. Unless they had discovered steam power in the last couple of weeks, I didn’t see how they got them moving.

I was too busy holding on for dear life to spend time thinking about possible forms of propulsion. We careened around a number of impossible bends and were soon on a wooden dock filled with workers loading and unloading cargo. We slowed as the ground levelled off and stopped in front of a sleek ship, smaller than the others.

“Here we are,” said Royn. “Captain! Are you there?”

A man in a toga appeared on deck. I knew I recognised the whole toga thing from somewhere. It was what the Pope’s followers wore (although not quite in the revealing fashion Malmur’s wife insisted). It was the blond wig and heavy makeup that put the pieces together for me. The whole crew was made up of Shriners. Controlled by Joshaya, and caught somewhere between life and death.

“You told the Pope?” I asked Royn.

“You both work for the Golden God,” he said. “It seemed the best thing to do.”

Great. Joshaya knew where I was now. But it wasn’t all bad news. I’d been trying to think of a way to get past the islanders without dying, and now I had the ideal crew for the job. The islanders were going to have a hard time killing people who were already dead.

“Ahoy, Captain,” I said. “Permission to come aboard.”

Subscribe to this content and receive updates directly in your inbox.