Curveball Issue 18: A Game of Secrets

Part One: Farraday City, Downtown

When it was still a thriving beach resort the Farraday City skyline was the beach: the largest buildings were the hotels, forming a wall of concrete and glass between land and sea. They were lighthouses in reverse, guiding travelers from the lands further in to the great waters beyond.

The old skyline remains, abandoned and weathered, long since fallen into disrepair. What had once been the reason for the city’s prosperity is now left to rot, or collapse, or perhaps to one day be swallowed up by the sea itself. Until then the buildings have been claimed by two-bit slumlords and kingpins. The regular hotels are tenements, the luxury resorts have been claimed by petty crime lords with delusions of grandeur. Their fiefdoms exist only among the dregs—nobody but the Boardwalk cares about the Boardwalk, and lords of that part of the city have no standing anywhere else.

The new Farraday City skyline is downtown: the business district is new, and modern, and clean, and while the buildings of steel and glass aren’t the tallest in the world, they’re tall enough to say now the center is here.

Next to the business district is the casino district, Farraday City’s new draw. The casino district isn’t laid out like Vegas—it’s not a single strip you drive down, with all the temptations lined up on each side as you pass. It’s more like Disneyland: it’s spread out like an amusement park for adults, with casinos and clubs and restaurants and hotels scattered across a wide campus, interspersed with parks and plazas and promenades. Lights flash on every corner, neon signs shine brighter than street lamps, and the unending thump of bass rolls across the grounds, bouncing off the walls and making the windows buzz.

It’s garish and cheerful and brazen and manic, and from CB’s perch atop the Denarius Financial Building it looks like an impressionist painting created by an artist who is constantly changing his mind. He looks down on the casino district, watching the cars race around the outer loop, watching groups of people go from casino to nightclub to hotel to casino. As he watches he smokes, and as he smokes he tries to focus.

He’s very, very tired. He hasn’t slept in days. His mind is a jumble of half-uncovered facts, rumors, agitation, and unanswered questions. He smokes his cigarette slowly, patiently waiting for the nicotine to do its job. Half a cigarette later he starts to calm down, starts to focus, and by the time he’s finished his first he’s alert enough to sort through the puzzles one more time.

TriHealth. Plague. Richter. Haruspex Analytics. Senator Tobias Morgan. Magic, of all things. All connected, somehow.

All connected, though the connections aren’t obvious. Plague and Richter aren’t working through TriHealth—they’re lying low, building their own network of suppliers and local goons. CB was able to find the “outer layer,” the street thugs who acted as their eyes and ears in the city, and then after leaning on one a bit he traced their supply chain up to the Farraday City Police Department—but after that it disappears completely.

The way they’ve settled in is interesting: he doesn’t understand why they aren’t using TriHealth’s resources. There is absolutely no activity or communication between TriHealth and Richter’s group, yet somehow Richter has access to people in the FCPD—well-placed people, considering how thoroughly the trail vanishes at that point. You don’t just waltz into town and start bribing cops, even if the cops are dirty—especially if the cops are dirty and already working for someone else.

“It doesn’t make sense,” CB mutters.

“No,” a voice behind him says. “It doesn’t.”

CB tenses but doesn’t turn. He didn’t hear anyone approach, so he was either very sloppy—possible, considering how tired he is—or the person speaking is very, very good. In either case he needs to keep his cool. He forces himself to relax, takes a long drag from his dwindling cigarette, and turns around. Standing in front of him are two men, both wearing pinstripe suits and bowler hats. The smaller man is very thin, with a birdlike face, bright, sharp eyes, and a vague, empty smile. The larger man, solid and looming, looks on indifferently.

The small man tips his hat and bends into a half-bow. “Apologies.” His smile sharpens for a moment, slipping from empty to predatory, then fading back to empty again. “We didn’t intend to startle you. We simply thought this was the opportune moment to talk.”

CB flicks the remains of his cigarette onto the rooftop and says nothing.

The predatory grin returns. “Yes,” the smaller man says. “To the point. Indeed. If I may approach?”

CB shrugs. He watches warily as the small man walks up to the edge of the building and looks down over the multicolored spectacle of the casino district, just as CB had moments earlier. The larger man does not follow.

“My partner is a great believer in doing only what is necessary,” the smaller man says. “I don’t mean that he’s lazy—far from it. A true professional, that man, and his dedication to his work is nothing short of inspirational.”

The large man doesn’t react in any way to the smaller man’s words.

“What I mean,” the smaller man continues, “is that he believes in determining exactly what is necessary and in doing no more than that. You can think of it as conservation of energy, I suppose, though it’s rather more than that.”

“It’s his schtick,” CB says.

The smaller man laughs: high-pitched, full of mirth, deeply unsettling. “No! Not a schtick, as you call it. It’s him. It is proof of who and what he is, the expression of his inner being… his soul at its most basic. Though I confess…” The man’s voice lowers conspiratorially. “I confess that I once thought as you did. Not for the same reason. I thought it because of my vanity, because I believed that every part of the universe could be understood through me. You think it because…”

The small man turns to look at him then, his empty smile gone, replaced with a thoughtful frown. “Because it is tactically sound, I suppose.”

CB suppresses an urge to take a step away from the strange man. “Who did you say you were, again?”

“Oh, my name isn’t important.” The small man banishes the notion with a dismissive wave of his left hand. “What is important, for you at least, is who my partner and I represent.”

The small man turns toward the view once again.

CB regards him for a moment. “You represent whoever actually runs this city.”

The empty smile returns. “Quite.”

They say nothing else. The small man continues to admire the view. The large man continues to stand impassively at the center of the roof. CB watches both warily, waiting for something to happen.

“We’re not here to fight,” the small man says. “Not tonight. Someday we will—that is inevitable—but today, at our very first meeting, we find ourselves… allies, to a degree. Strange.”

“Allies.” CB doesn’t bother to hide his skepticism.

“Oh, I know.” The small man laughs, takes a step back from the edge of the roof and spins, throwing his arms wide as he twirls and laughs more, like a child discovering a new game for the first time. “Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but religion? It makes for the strangest.”

“OK,” CB says, “it’s been fun. Really. But I’m getting a little tired of this game, and—”

“No games, oh Cat Who Observes Himself.” The man stops spinning abruptly, facing CB and peering up at him with his bright, sharp eyes. “It’s an imprecise term, to be sure, but what else applies? Politics is a clash of what people believe should be. Religion is a clash of what is, whether people want it to be or not. And we are at odds, you see—on a very fundamental level, on a level far, far beneath all the bits of matter that fly across the universe in their strange and intricate dances, you and I represent things that cannot share the same space. And yet here we are, you and I, on the same roof, breathing the same air, enjoying the same magnificent view.”

“Uh-huh.” CB fishes around in his pockets for his cigarettes. “It’s a pretty good monologue, I’ll give you that. I’ve heard a lot worse. You’ve got a knack for it.”

The small man tips his hat again. “It’s my vanity, I’m afraid. It makes me best suited for talking to the world, but it does lead me astray…”

“Just to recap.” CB takes out a cigarette and sticks it in his mouth while he fishes for his lighter. “You’re the arch enemy I never knew I had, on some kind of fundamental level of reality I’m not aware of, but just this once we’re besties.”

“Just this once,” the small man agrees. “With so much at stake, how can we not be?”

“At stake?” CB shakes his head. “What’s at stake? What’s really going on?”

The small man lifts a single finger, bringing it up to his lips swiftly in a decisive shushing motion. “A dangerous question. The rules that govern our game do not provide answers to such questions—not without great cost.”

CB lights his cigarette. “I’ll bet. What cost is that?”

“‘My tongue cleaves to my jaws, and you lay me in the dust of death.’”

“I’m pretty sure you’re using that out of context,” CB says. “Almost positive.”

The small man ducks his head and shrugs. “The point, oh Cat, is that the rules of this game govern the consequences of discovering secret things. Learn such a secret and you will have power, but you will find yourself unable to share it with another.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” CB says.

“It does, actually. Just think of the stories.” The small man chuckles to himself. “You find it used so often that it’s practically a cliché. The old wizard gathers together a band of young, brash heroes. He doesn’t tell them directly what must be done—he speaks in riddles. All through the tale, only in riddles, and the heroes must solve those riddles to learn what must be done. And each time such a story is told, someone invariably asks why doesn’t the old wizard simply tell them what to do? The answer is that, on some level, the storyteller understands the price of such knowledge. The old wizard cannot say what is true because he is not permitted to do it. The cost of knowing a secret truth is that it will remain a secret.”

CB thinks back to his last conversation with Lieutenant Larry Hoydt. Pay attention to what I’m saying. I. Can’t. Tell you. “This is getting a little too meta for my taste. Aren’t you revealing a secret to me now? Shouldn’t the rule apply here as well?”

The small man laughs again, obviously delighted. “Yes! Yes, it should! In most cases it would. But this is an unusual situation, and in unusual situations allowances are made…”

“What situation?” CB feels his patience starting to fray. There’s something about the small man he doesn’t like, something that goes beyond the obvious act of declaring himself an enemy. He feels wrong.

“You have asked,” the small man says. The mirth drops from him like a falling curtain, replaced by an oddly respectful formality. “And so I will answer. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a war being waged between two armies. We will, for the time being, name these armies ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ They are clumsy, unwieldy terms, but within the limits of language they come close enough to the mark to be useful.”

“A war between good and evil,” CB says, voice flat. “That’s what this is about.”

“No,” the small man says. “That is what our fight is about—the one that will come, in time, if this matter is resolved. But the war is more complicated than two armies clashing on the field at dawn. If you were to focus on a single army—let’s focus on the ’good’ army in our example—then you would find that there is as much fighting within as there is fighting against its foe. Each soldier in that army heartily agrees on the ultimate aim, you see, but they do not agree on the methods that should be used to achieve it… and many disagree on what should come after, if the fight is won.”

The small man spreads his arms wide. “They argue over structure, you see. What should it look like? How much of it should there be? How does a world where ‘evil’ is defeated actually work? They argue without resolution, and eventually they come to blows, so now there are two wars, one without, one within.”

CB regards the small man warily. “And on the other side?”

“The same. The same disagreements, the same fights. And one day, one of the factions on one side notices one of the factions on the other side, and they come to realize how very similar their views on structure actually are.”

CB laughs—a short, barking laugh of surprised disbelief. “This sounds like a bad fantasy novel. What are we talking, Law versus Chaos?”

“No,” the small man says. “Control versus self-determination.”

CB doesn’t reply.

“We are not, under normal circumstances, allies,” the small man says. “But if there is one thing upon which you and I agree, it is that we believe, to varying degrees, that people must be free to choose their own way. You believe it because you think they will pick themselves up, I believe it because I believe they will drag themselves down. But the ones we oppose, oh Cat? The ones we must unite against, lest they claim the entire game for their own? They do not believe it at all.”

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