Chapter 1

This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.

Plato 

Roctate. The capital city of the Argeian Empire. Giant constructs of stone and iron tower above teeming millions. Huge stone cathedrals loom in the inner circle, monuments to the empires numerous religions (the empire had no one religion-it allowed conquered people to keep their own beliefs, and include them in the empires society). Market Street was filled with the cries of various stall owners shouting their wares, attempting to tempt potential buyers into the complicated dance of haggling, buying and selling. On the outskirts, stone houses lined every street. On the streets, people went about their business (hover cars had been banned in cities-only trains were allowed to transport inside towns and cities, as too many cars ruined the peace, and polluted too much. There was even public transport to other cities. Even military personnel travelled together in military transport).
And, in the middle of it all, stood the imperial palace. A huge monolith, a monument to law, order and the power of the emperor. You only went in for one of three reasons-receiving compensation for something, you worked there, or you committed a crime so heinous, ordinary court wasn’t enough.
To say the palace was huge was an insult. It was nothing short of gargantuan, and even that might be an understatement. It was a triangle, each point being a one hundred story tower, where everything from bedrooms, storerooms and kitchens were held. It was so gargantuan that it had over a thousand rooms, and over a hundred kitchens and bathrooms. If you got lost, you could be walking for days before you found an exit, or another person who could tell you where the exit was. The walls were an alloy of iron and stone, built hundreds of years ago through methods that had been lost to the ages. The east third of the triangle was home to the servants and cooks, the west to the soldiers and armouries (the palace was too huge for just one family-bits were converted to save space so more people could be housed), and the north was home to the imperial family. No one was allowed there without permission (a simple “I got lost” would probably get you chucked in prison for the day-the emperor was very paranoid. No one knew why-there hadn’t been a documented assassination attempt on the emperor for 1000 years!). Each wing had several entrances which opened up onto routes to a market outside the palace (you didn’t think the residents walked the best part of a mile to the market, did you? Or take public transport? They were far too important for that!)
Robert put down the apple he was looking at, and turned away from the fruit stall. The cries of stall holders bombarded his ears, as they each saw an opportunity to hock their wares, at a greatly inflated price, to an obviously rich and/or important person. Externally, Robert smiled and refused politely, but inwardly he sneered.
These pathetic marketers. He thought. Jostling and shouting for attention. They’re no better than a common beggar. They’re just dressed nicer!
Normally, Robert didn’t think or say anything that nasty, but markets always filled him with disgust. They were useful, he couldn’t deny that, but it was too noisy, too crude. The sellers would try to rip you off, and be gone before you had time to notice. And woe betide anyone that refused. They would follow you, hassle you and basically not leave you alone until you bought something. Even then, it was a piece of useless tat that would get thrown in a corner and forgotten about.
He was on shore leave. Two years in the imperial infantry division and he had finally got his two weeks vacation. Every time he had tried to take vacation before now, there had been an ‘emergency’ that needed his attention. He was part of the demolitions and constructive explosive squad. It was just a fancy name for ‘the guys who blow things up’. He had an almost unnatural talent for bombs and explosive chemicals, so he already outranked ten year veterans of the squad.
His brown eyes flicked back and forth from stall to stall, looking for something.
He spotted it, span on his heel, and disappeared into the labyrinth of market stalls that populated the street, blonde hair glinting in the sun.

                *                              *                              *

He turned a corner, and found himself face to face with an individual who looked like he had been beaten by the ugly stick-repeatedly. If being ugly was a crime, this man (if he was, indeed, a man, not some sort of dog-baboon hybrid) would certainly be put to death. His left eye was small and piggy, his eyelid swollen over it, as if he had been beaten with a stick. His one good eye was large and not proportional to the rest of his face. His nose was flattened against his face, and covered half his bitten and coarse lips. Robert almost threw up.
The dog-baboon-man growled something, but Robert didn’t hear. He was too busy trying not to retch as the stench of garlic, rotten onions and fish guts assaulted his nose.
The man growled again, and this time Robert was able to hold onto his lunch while paying attention. It sounded like: “giv’s yr mny”, but Robert wasn’t sure. The man (?) repeated it, and Robert got the impression he wanted his money, as a gun was now pointed at his head.
It was a SR-66 THUG pistol. 20 years old, but still deadly if fired. The man growled again, and this time, three more baboon-men appeared from the shadows. They looked similar to the first man, but each had a distinguishing feature. Whilst the man in front of him had a flattened nose, the man to his left had no nose at all, only a tiny stump. The man on his right had a scar where his left ear should be, and only half his right ear. The man behind him, Robert found with a quick look behind him, was just plain ugly. He had two bulges on his chest. Robert looked again, and realised, stifling a laugh, that it was, in fact, a woman.
The baboon-man grunted again and waved the gun towards Roberts face. Robert decided he’d had enough. In a motion almost too quick to see, Roberts hand shot out, grabbed flat-noses wrist (that’s what he had decided to call him), twisted so that the gun was pointing at the sky, and brought his leg up swiftly into flat-noses face, sending him sprawling to the floor.
The other three each pulled out laser-knives, and advanced towards Robert in a triangle- one to his left, one in front to the right, and one behind. Robert watched them all carefully.
They lunged at the same time. Robert ducked beneath the knives, elbowed the one to his left, swept the one to the rights legs out from under him, and back kicked the one he had elbowed, sending them both to the floor. The man-woman sliced at him, trying to catch him off guard. Robert side-stepped a slash, caught her arm, and threw her into some rubbish sacks. Robert looked around. The man with the gun was still on the floor, holding his even more flattened nose. The man he had elbowed was getting to his feet, as was the other man.
As both men charged at him, he sighed. They were so stupid.
As they got closer, he turned and ran towards the wall, picking up a piece of wood as he went. The two baboon-men didn’t notice this, however, because when they saw him turn around, they let out a triumphant bellow that actually sounded like a baboons’ cry.
When Robert reached the wall, he kept going. He jumped onto a nearby bin, sprang off the wall, and landed behind the bellowing baboons. He cracked the wood onto one mans head so hard it split, and shoved the rest of it into the other mans mouth, and kicked him so hard that he literally flew through the air to land on the flat-nose as he was, ironically, just getting up. He turned to find the man-woman facing him.
“You wouldn’t hit a woman would you?” she asked with a smirk. Robert thought that nothing could make her uglier, but the smirk proved him wrong.
“Of course not” he said. “But,” he added, as the smirk grew, “Nothing so ugly could ever be classed as a woman!”
The moment he said that, the smirk, which had frozen in its growth, transformed into a snarl of rage. She charged at Robert, knife slicing the air wildly. Robert sidestepped, and delivered a spinning kick to the back of her head, which sent her cart wheeling through the air to land in a heap among the dustbins. Robert looked round again.
“Well,” he said “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got to see a man about a mechanical dog.” As he walked past the flat nose man, he stopped, bent down and picked up the gun.
“But I’ll take this-somebody could get hurt otherwise!” and with that, Robert turned and resumed his walk.

                         *                          *                           * 

The café Robert was approaching had been there for hundreds of years. If you asked anyone who lived in the city, they’d say that it had been there as long as they could remember. If you asked their parents, they’d say the same. If you asked their parents parents parents parents they’d say the same, although at that point you’d be talking to dead people, and you should visit a psychiatrist as soon as possible.
It was located in the middle of a large courtyard near the centre of town, which was surrounded by shops, houses and botanical displays. The largest of these was a giant yok tree, which around midwinter would blossom into pure white flowers, and again in midsummer, into deep red and pink flowers.
The café itself had two large white stone walls, which had such a tendency to blind residents on bright days that it had been coated with grey paint. This dulled the majestic impression of it considerably, but no one seemed to mind. It backed onto a large bank, and had an entrance built onto it so you could move between the bank and café easily. The cafés’ front was supported by a series of large grey pillars (see above story about walls) which were placed in front of a small flight of grey stairs. There was a roped-off area just outside the main café, where customers could eat, enjoy decent weather, and indulge in the interesting habit of talking about the weather when wanting to ask some quite personal questions about complete strangers.
The café was only a story tall and was easily dwarfed by the bank behind it; however the bank was just a large box-like official building with the word BANK on the front.
The café had no name to speak of, and it was generally known as ‘the café’.
It was toward the roped off area that Robert headed. The note he had received from his friend Matt had said to look for him in the top left corner of the plaza (that’s what they called the roped-off area) of the café, and he had something important to tell him.
As he navigated the maze of tables, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. That, and he heard the clattering sound of lots of tables being overturned by someone in a great hurry, while people shouted their outrage that their daily gossip with tea and biscuits had been interrupted. Robert turned around to see what the problem was. What he was confronted with was three figures in white masks, each one having a hooked nose, two narrow slits to see through and a mouth that was filled with sharp, vicious-looking teeth. Each one had a large sack behind his back, and a gun held in their right hands. Robert looked beyond them, and traced their trail of destruction up to the café, and probably up to the door in the café that lead to the bank.
Robert stood, feet apart in front of the trio. They stopped. Looked at him. Robert looked back, his hand creeping to his belt, where the gun he had confiscated was being held. Slowly, the masked men (if, indeed, they were men) raised their guns and pointed them at Robert. In a motion too quick to see, Robert brought out his gun and pointed it at the leader, having decided that their intentions were anything but friendly.
The leader cocked his head, and then looked around, assessing the situation.
“We don’t want any trouble, Son” he said. His voice was like the sound you get if you try to grate a piece of steel against a cheese grater, and he said ‘son’ as if it was a personal insult. “So just get out of our way, and we’ll forget we ever saw you.”
“Yeah, or we shoot you good” said the large, beefy one on the leaders left. He had a slow, thick sounding voice, as if speaking was taxing his low IQ to its very limit. To be brutally frank, it probably was.
“Now, now. No need to get nasssty and fill the nissssse man with holessssss” the third man lisped. He was the skinny one, and said everything that sounded like s with a hiss.
Robert smiled. “No. I can guess what you’ve done, and I’m not moving out of the way.” He wiggled the gun slightly “you see, this might be an old gun, but it still works, and still shoots things at high speeds. And” he added “I know how to use it. So why don’t you just give yourself up, and you won’t get hurt.”
The leader looked at his comrades. “I think we’ll take a pass on that.” He said. “FIRE!” he bellowed.
Laser shots ripped past Robert as he rolled backwards onto and over a table. As one shot narrowly missed his arm, Robert got an idea. He continued to go over the table, tipping it over and landing behind it, as though he’d been hit. The firing stopped, and Robert lay extremely still behind the table. He heard heavy footsteps and tables being overturned as the big, slow guy stomped towards where Robert lay.
The big guy looked over the table, and saw Robert lying still on the floor. As he turned to tell his boss, Robert raised the gun and fired, hitting the big guy in the back of the head, sending skull and brain exploding everywhere. Robert leapt to his feet, caught the thugs gun in mid-air, and rolled behind another table, crouching low so that no one part of his body was exposed. Laser bullets again ripped through the air, and hit his hiding place, blowing holes straight through the table (that’s the thing about tables-they’re not designed to be hid behind in a laser fight in the street. A major design flaw, if you ask me). Robert sprang to his feet and ran for the nearest table, firing both guns at the thugs all the time. You see, poor cover is better than no cover in a gun fight. Quite by chance (*cough*), one of his two-shot bursts hit the skinny-snake man, and sent him flying through the air, to land in a heap by one of the entrances of the plaza. The shots stopped briefly, and Robert stood up, pointing one of hi his guns at the leader, one hanging by his side. The leader was now looking in despair at his two dead henchmen. He turned to look at Robert, and dropped the guns.
“You’ve killed my friends,” he snorted “and now you’re going to kill me. How about we do it the old fashioned way? A fight to the death?” Robert considered this request.
“No” he said simply, and fired one shot from his gun. The thug staggered, crumpled and fell to the ground, curling into a ball on the floor.
After Robert had dragged the smoking and bloody corpses into a pile, he placed the guns in a heap next to them. As he was putting down the last gun, the one he had taken from the thug, he paused.
Maybe I should keep this he thought in case my day gets any more exciting.
As he turned, he saw that the civilians had cleared to either side of the plaza. They were watching him with their mouths open.
“What?” he shouted to the assembled crowd. “You’ve never seen a man take on three bank robbers before?” he grinned. “And shut your mouths-something’ll fly into them!” Robert heard sirens in the distance. “Ah, the feds. Always around when you need them!” he muttered.

The End

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