It wasn’t until Rory got a chance to walk around Skyslaver City, that he fully understood just why it was called that. Slaves scurried down the “lanes” that were used for streets, between the buildings on the barges, and some were even hoisted on cables in the air doing very dangerous skybarge maintenance.
The thing that was really fucked, was that all the slaves seemed happy. Rory didn’t see chains, or taskmasters. There were no collars, or whips either.
Instead, the slaves all had the glassy-eyed vacant smiles of crackheads.
And, to a person, they all had purple lips and teeth, identical to the zombies on the ground below. With mounting horror, Rory noted that the more haggard slaves already looked to be decaying, as chunks of flesh seemed to be missing; but still, they all seemed to eerily smile. There were even some purple mouthed children slaves.
Another depression began to worm its way into Rory’s heart. Strategically speaking, he knew that he should be focusing on a way to gather information and escape. But the revelation that the zombies weren’t created from some untamable epidemic broke his heart. These people were forced into that awful outcome as a byproduct of slavery. It was soul crushing. He was not in the right emotional state to scheme.
As if sensing the shift in his mood, one of the crimson armored guards leading him, turned to Rory with a smirk. “Finally caught up to ya didn’t it? The shit yer in? Don’t worry lordship, yer gonna love being someone’s whipping boy. You’ll eat shit with a smile just like all the other zombies.” the guard said with a laugh.
Rory really wanted to kill the guy, but there were too many drones and guards with guns. He decided to study the man’s face so that he might be able to punish him later (if he ever got the chance), and when he did his HUD chimed.
Suddenly, the guard had a red outline and small arrow pointing over him.
Incredible, Rory thought.
The new HUD trick turned into a much-needed distraction from the shitshow that was Skyslaver city. He began using it on random things like signs, animals, and people. Saving targets, then un-saving them was nearly as quick a process as it took for him to think about it. When he used it on a weapon, a bunch of data came up like the make and model, how much ammo it could store and the type of energy. Rory realized that he hadn’t been using his interface to its full potential and made it a point to talk with Aric about it later.
Speaking of Aric… Rory thought.
A command window popped up in his vision with a mental command. <Aric, can you see this?> he asked.
<Yes.> Aric responded.
<Good to know we can communicate silently.>
<Meh. You aren’t that interesting, I’m fine with you being quiet.>
Eventually, the guards stopped in front of a garishly decorated barge. It had a spray-painted gold railing surrounding it, with an ornately covered tarp connected to the top. The tarp was covered in clouds, purple fruit and something that looked like a squat hook-nosed angel.
Guard target #01 spoke again, “That’s yer ride.”
Rory shrugged, then stepped on the ugly barge. Then, he and the guards waited. And waited some more and continued to wait more after that.
Finally, somewhere between three and ten thousand hours later, a short squat man flew up to the barge landing from somewhere above. Rory stared at the man in disbelief.
Where hair should have been were long black feathers. A sharp beak protruded from an otherwise human face, and large dark feathered wings shot out of his back. The feathered man only came up to Rory’s waist, at about four feet or so.
Ignoring the crimson armored guards, the little guy strode right onto the barge, but stopped after looking at Rory’s face. He burst out laughing in a “caw”.
After he’d had his fill of mirth, he flicked his hand sending the barge floating high into the center of the city. Somehow, Rory wasn’t too sure on the specifics, the bird man could navigate the barge even with the absurd tent blocking his view.
<Aric, do you know what this bird dude is?> Rory asked.
<No. I suspect it is a human variant.> Aric replied.
The barge moved at a rapid pace, making their journey rather short. It finally stopped, just under the massive geodesic sphere, at what looked like a floating barge palace. Around the palace, more of the birdmen flew, soaring from tower to tower and various other platforms in the distance.
Rory stepped off the barge, but turned back toward his bird man guide and said, “I’m just gonna come out and ask: What the hell are you?”
The bird man gave him a predatory grin and said in his screechy voice, “I’m a Vaw. We are a human animal hybrid. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of us. There are all sorts of tales about us by you outlanders. Stealing babies and so forth.”
Then he strode forward from the barge saying, “Come. I take you to see our Khan.”
After an eye-opening view of the palace grounds, wherein beautifully crafted fountains and rare flowers were observed, the inside of the palace itself was a huge let down. It was stuffed to the brim with all kind of junk. Purple mouthed slaves steered around massive piles of books, gears, hover car parts, and a whole bunch of other shit that Rory couldn’t identify.
On one massive pile of junk, one of the Vaw sat in a strange shiny throne. The sitting Vaw was a lot bigger than the other Vaw Rory had seen, and his beak was strangely hooked.
The outfit he wore was absurd. He had a soft purple robe that barely covered a harness, from which several handguns showed. Luxurious dark socks were pulled all the way to his knees, with no apparent shoes. The ensemble was complete with a crown made in the shape of several animals, one of which (Rory was pretty sure) was a donkey.
The Vaw on the throne stared at Rory for a minute, before speaking, “At last we finally meet! I am the Vaw Khan, one of the leaders of Skyslaver City. I owe you a debt of gratitude. Come, join me for breakfast.”
With that, the strange Vaw hopped down from his throne, leading Rory through a pathway of junk, down a hall and into a dining area.
Despite the clutter of the palace, the Vawkhan ate at a simple table. To Rory’s complete wonder, the breakfast that was served was a burrito.
“I find,” the Vawkhan said, “that breakfast is very important to keep the brain strong and active! Active, active, active!” He then did the weird cawing laugh thing they do.
After a while, the Vawkhan resumed the conversation, “You’ve done me a huge favor. Chief Umbaktu has long been one of my rivals. When he got caged for a night, my agents were considering how best to exploit his position, but they had too many people guarding the perimeter. I find it deeply ironic that they didn’t think to guard him from another prisoner. Honestly, I’d wish I’d thought of it. It was only through pure chance that one of my spies saw him falling to his doom. We Vaw are a curious people, so my agent flew as close to the cells as he dared only to see you leap across the open air, back to your cage. A most impressive feat by the by. My question for you is: Did someone on the council pay you or offer you a favor?”
Rory swallowed the last bite of his breakfast burrito then replied, “Nope. I did it because he was an asshole.”
The Vawkhan let out a shrill and loud cawing laugh. When his mirth settled he asked, “What is your name?”
“Rory, do you know much of my people?”
“Nothing at all, actually.”
“We Vaw are a hybrid human, created long ago by some mad AI or scientist. Most humans do not treat us well. Our history has been dark, full of violence, hatred, and subjugation. Skyslaver city is the only place that we exist, relatively unmolested. And even that is only because we are immune to the effects of the Purp plant.”
“Is that the stuff that I see staining the teeth of the slaves?”
“It is indeed. The plant is a powerful narcotic to humans. One sip of its juice and your body will suffer, quite painfully, for the rest of your life if you don’t get regular infusions of it. Even as it slowly rots you from within, eventually turning you into a brainless dead thing, you will crave it. Then, you will crave only the flesh of the living.”
Rory felt a surge of hatred, his vision beginning to turn red. The fact that a human could do that to another was almost too much for him to handle.
Seeing his warring emotions, the Vawkhan said, “Of course it is not a completely bad fate, a Purp slave. Most slaves will last several years, and the drug gives insurmountable pleasure. They experience no pain, save for withdrawal.”
“I see.” Rory said, not at all mollified.
“It is only that kindness that gives me the strength to do what I do. Under better circumstances I think you and I could have been good friends. But alas, you have made yourself too big a target for even me to shield. When you killed the dear announcer Bugman Bob Leery, on Skyslaver City Holovision no less, you angered all the populace. He was treasured by many. You have been sentenced to spend the rest of your days fighting in the Skypit.”
The Vawkhan then motioned for one of his Vaw to come forward, carrying a chalice with a foul smelling purple liquid.
“I must insist that you drink all of it.”