It was a cold, still night in Arl, and from the thasteron-stained alleys of the Old Quarter to the shimmering stadiums of the Vitaritech Coliseum, the people cried out for blood.
Except for Vaereji.
The damaya lashunta stood among the screaming throng of the Crimson Forum, oldest arena on the desert planet of Akiton, and for a professional lounge singer, he was strangely silent. With his pale skin and long antennae slicked down against his dark blue hair, he ought to have stood out among the towering, four-armed shobhads and furtive, rat-like ysoki natives, a handsome figure in his tailored black tuxedo. But tonight, all eyes were fixed on the blood sport.
It might as well have been an execution.
The rabble watched, enraptured, as a reptilian vesk lifted his opponent—a grizzled, white-furred ysoki with a mechanical arm—into the air, ripped off the prosthetic appendage, and, with a mighty hiss, tossed the dying mammal onto the reddened ground.
Yells of violent delight erupted at the totality of the kill, but Vaereji’s gasp was one of horror…not merely because the ysoki was his friend—a friend he’d bet most of his credits on—but because the fight was supposed to be a sure thing.
The barrel of the arc pistol pressed against his back certainly didn’t help.
“Better come with me, snazzy,” growled a voice at his ear. “You’ve got singing to do.”
They’d called him an adept back on Castrovel, and it was true, but Vaereji had only used his phrenic abilities to help with his music. To push his telepathic abilities beyond those of other lashuntas. To feel the emotional swell of the audience between songs, hear the anticipatory desires in their thoughts—even send them telepathic messages, if they lined up with his lyrics. His abilities helped him put on a better show, and that was all Vaereji really wanted to use them for.
It had been the ysoki’s idea to use them to cheat.
The grizzled little fighter—who went by “Rusty” in the arenas—was a regular at the Forum district clubs where Vaereji liked to perform. One night the two had wound up sharing a drink, and then another, and just like that, a friendship was born. Nothing more to it, until…
“Why do they stick up sometimes?” Rusty had asked, pointing a worn metal finger at the lashunta’s antennae.
Vaereji, then drunk, had embarrassedly slicked them back down and mumbled, “They do that sometimes, when I use my abilities.”
The lounge singer didn’t get halfway through his explanation before noticing a conspiratorial glint in Rusty’s eye, but he’d been too drunk to care. He even bragged a little, about how sometimes he could manage clairvoyance, or a true mind probe—not that he bothered with that stuff most of the time. He just wanted to put on a good show!
With a grin, Rusty assured him that he could indeed put on a good show and make a few credits on the side, if he wanted. With the right moves, he could even make enough to open up his own club! Maybe even get out of Arl—or off Akiton altogether—and set up shop somewhere classy.
“What do you have in mind?” Vaereji asked cautiously.
All he had to do was perform at clubs where Rusty’s opponents (or their managers) were drinking. Sing the right leading songs—combat anthems, usually—mixed with the right leading set banter—“who in here’s got a fight this week?”—and even the fighters’ surface thoughts and feelings were full of intel. Occasionally, the ysoki convinced him to probe someone deeper, or use a mix of song and telepathic messages to demoralize them. With the right tips and drunken secret thoughts from his opponents, veteran fighter Rusty was able to take on all comers. He started to climb the ranks, and Vaereji started to bet on him a little more freely. They picked a mark, planned the fight, and, without fail, Rusty emerged from the bout victorious.
Their intel on the vesk hadn’t been enough, it seemed, and now Rusty was dead, leaving Vaereji friendless, in debt, with a pistol at his back. Did they expect him to pay out everything tonight?
His assailant—a hulking android in dark estex—urged him on. They moved past the clinking credit tables of the bookies, beyond the red-tiled smoking rooms filled with celebrating shobhad gamblers, their eyes wide from transdimensional pesh and the thrill of the fight.
After another few minutes, the hall ended in a reinforced security door; the door slid open, and the android shoved Vaereji inside.
It was a luxury box, with vidfeeds on every wall showing looped scenes from past and current bouts. Plush chairs and low tables sat around the chamber, while recessed yellow lights made a pleasant diversion from the rusty red of the rest of the Forum. There were several androids in the room, dressed in cheap suits or hoods like the one behind him, and all of them were armed with arc pistols and nasty blades.
Except, that is, for the woman behind the large wooden desk at the back of the room.
“Hello, Mr. Vaereji,” she said. Her tone was polite, but it made the singer’s breath catch nonetheless. She had more mechanics visible than most androids, the joints of her synthetic skin lined with soft red light. Her eyes glowed the same red, and when she smiled, they shimmered. “Sorry for your loss this evening.”
“Who…who are you?” Vaereji asked. He’d been expecting to be threatened by debt collectors, not a gang of well-armed androids. He was starting to think this wasn’t just about the credits he now owed the Forum. But if not that…
“I’m the person who decides who fights who,” she said. “And until very recently, I was very good at predicting the winners.”
Who fights who? Vaereji stepped backward, eyes widening with realization.
“Stars above,” he cursed quietly. “You’re Kell-3.”
The android’s silence was confirmation enough.
“Kell-3. A crimelord working the Forum…I thought you were an urban legend.”
Kell-3 smiled, flashing more of that red glimmer.
“So did your friend, Rusty,” she said, and the lounge singer gulped.
“He thought the syndicates didn’t care about this arena. He thought that Kell-3, the most feared android on Akiton, didn’t bother with Arl anymore. He thought he knew this city better than one of its own legends.”
The secret gangster of the Crimson Forum was real, Vaereji had been ripping her off, and she knew.
“He thought wrong,” Kell-3 said.
She let the words hang in the air, until the lashunta choked out the inevitable question.
“Are you going to kill me?”
Even shaky with fear, the singer’s voice was melodious, soothing. His words hung in the air, and the room grew quiet for a moment, only the dim sounds of the final spectators above leaving the Crimson Forum in satisfaction.
Then, Kell-3’s smile returned.
“Of course not,” she said. “You misunderstand. I’m a fan.”
Vaereji was at loss for words as she stepped toward him.
“People have used their psychic abilities to fix arena matches before, of course,” the android said. “But they’re usually thinking too big—mindbreakers trying to sow doubt, powerful technomancers shorting out the implants of combatants they bet against, that sort of thing. They always got caught. But you…”
His antennae popped up again, their position beyond his ability to control, especially when under pressure. Only just now, as he resisted the nervous compulsion to smooth them back against his hair lest movement be mistaken as a threat by the room full of armed toughs, did he realize that Kell-3 was wearing a glittering green evening gown. Tight-fitting and studded with gems, it looked almost as absurd and out of place here as his tuxedo did.
“You have a very subtle approach, and I’d like to see more of it.”
Kell-3 stood, inches from him, eyes like the bright red sands of Akiton itself. He understood now why he wasn’t getting his legs broken by goons, why he wasn’t dead like Rusty. She wanted him to work for her. He had never wanted anything like this.
“I just wanted to put on a good show,” he choked out.
But it was clear enough that she’d get her way. The singer was hers now. Defeated, Vaereji met the android’s gaze, and she laughed, a high static titter.
“You heard that crowd—could you ask for a better audience? Poor Rusty was sure he’d win, thanks to you, and that confidence led to the best bout I’ve seen in months. If every match was that brutal—that dramatic—this would be the busiest arena on the planet. With your help, it will be.”
She ran her hand up Vaereji’s face, and he flinched, but her fingers only rose to press up against his antennae. He blinked as Kell-3 slicked them back with surprising gentleness.
“I just wanted to sing.” His voice was low, almost a whisper.
When she spoke, her voice, too, was soft—but full of the same violence as the screaming crowd. “And as long as you can learn to take requests, you still will. With all of Arl as your audience. This city sings for blood, Vaereji...”
Now, the arenas were empty and silent. From the thasteron-stained alleys of the Old Quarter to the shimmering stadiums of the Vitaritech Coliseum, the city was sated, but in a dark room beneath the bloodied sands of the Crimson Forum, Vaereji’s latest performance was just beginning.
“Isn’t it time you sang along?”
About the Author
Ryan Cady writes comics and horror fiction - with credits from Marvel and DC and everywhere in between. His critically acclaimed space horror series, Infinite Dark, recently concluded a two-volume run at Image Comics, and you can read his latest webcomic, Wolfsbane, for free on LINE Webtoon. Find him on twitter @rycady, where he rants about Star Wars, food, and TTRPGs.
About Tales from the Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.
Tales from the Drift: This City Sings For Blood
Wednesday, December 18, 2019