Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
It is not my place to do anything other than wait for my next order. I have no idea why she wanted me, specifically, here. I don’t know what she expects.
Her jaw wobbles. The slight movement draws my attention to the weak folds of skin at her neck and the heavy layer of cream and powders she’s smoothed on her face. Whatever this ultra-chirpy display is, I’m beginning to suspect it is just another mask.
She turns. Bright and bubbly like before. She claps her hands together. “Now that he’s gone I have a surprise for you.”
My hands curl into fists and adrenaline ramps up my heart rate. “I don’t think I can do that, buddy.” I keep my voice low and controlled.
The green-robed boy steps closer. He’s almost within reach. Now I see his face beneath the hood. His dark eyes are wide and his lips are a pale straight line. “It’s set to bone.”
That doesn’t sound good. Something like fear licks my insides. Hot and sour. Still, I’m not about to head off with some kid. I don’t want to meet Keane, who’ll make me talk. As far as I know, I don’t have anything to say.
I close the distance between us in a single step. His arm wobbles. He hesitates. Just like I knew he would. This kid isn’t a killer. If he’s someone’s hired help they’re getting ripped off.
I knock the weapon aside as he fires. A tickle grazes my side. There’s no pain, only the pounding of my heart and the kid’s sharp intake of breath. Although weaponless now, he’s not hopeless. His fingernails go for my exposed eyes, but I lift my left knee even as I grip his slight shoulders, drawing him toward me in one easy move.
Incredibly easy move. Like I’ve done it a million times
But I don’t have time to think. I act. My knee finds the boy’s groin.
“Oof.” His warm breath sprays my face. His green eyes bug and his hands go from my face to wrap around his privates. He hits the ground sucking for air. Sweat forms in fine beads across his forehead.
I step back. My heartbeat slows to normal.
Logic tells me to run, but now he’s incapacitated I need to make sure I haven’t done real damage. Images of the boy in the water stalk me.
The kid dropped his weapon and I pick it up while I wait. Recalling the strange tickle in my side moments before I landed the blow, I rub my hand there to make sure I’m not hurt but it’s not even sore. The weapon is as light as it appeared and there are several settings. Skin. Bone. Blood.
By the time I look up again, the kid seems to be breathing normally. His gaze hasn’t left me, and he scrambles back until he hits the wall.
“You okay?” I ask.
He nods slowly, still wide-eyed. I figure from his expression that most people in these parts don’t check on victims after a fight. One hand’s checking the injury. I’m guessing it’s going to hurt for a while. His Adam’s apple bobs.
I wipe my brow and am surprised when it comes away bloody from where he tried to scratch my eyes out. Then the pain follows. Nothing I can’t handle.
He chews his lower lip. “I meant your side.”
“I must have missed.” He sounds annoyed.
He didn’t miss. I’m sure of it. I’m tempted to ask more about the weapon, but I don’t want to reveal just how strange a stranger I am. I pass the weapon between my hands, reminding him I have it. “You always treat strangers this way?”
He doesn’t seem to hear what I say. His focus falls to the weapon and he pales. “Don’t shoot.”
“I’m not going to—”
That’s enough for him. He’s up and running down the alleyway in an awkward hobble. His boots slap against the concrete like a round of applause at my mercy. He’s fast and I’m not completely positive I could catch him. And I’ve no idea what I’d do if I did. I can hardly haul him around with me. So I either silence him permanently, or let him go.
I don’t follow.
I’ll have to deal with the fallout from his report to the Keane person if it happens. I refuse to sit and wait for retribution.
Happy not to have added to the body count, I turn back toward the wide street where people are moving. I head toward it at a casual pace, belying the skip of my pulse. I’m just an ordinary guy out for a walk. Except my stomach is tight, I have no memory of who I am, and I’ve left a dead kid in a shallow pool behind me.
I linger at the corner. In front of me is an open square, dominated by rows of rough stalls selling everything from dark green leafy vegetables I can’t name, to polished-up vehicle parts. At the stall nearest to me, an old lady hawks a deep fried delicacy. The honey-brown coating glistens in the early morning sun as she places it to cool on a wire rack. My gut emits a loud growl. I glance around to make sure no one hears.
The roads away from the square lead up and down hills that look like a frozen wave in the earth. Buildings are cracked, windows gaping. People’s faces don’t reflect the destruction surrounding the market oasis. No one looks my way. They are all far too busy. Buying. Selling. Hurrying about their business.
I exhale a breath of relief. I don’t even look too out of place. Others wear jackets and pants like mine, and still more people wear dark green robes like the boy’s. I avoid looking at them for too long.
One woman stands out. She wears a gray one-piece uniform and moves with an air of command that I retreat back into the alleyway, even as I observe. Her gaze scans the market and she avoids those in green robes. Curious. I’m not having much luck working out who’s in charge here. The woman stops at the old lady’s stall and points. The old lady hurries to respond and then holds out her hand for payment. It’s knocked aside by the woman and the old lady cowers.
If gray shirt is what passes for authority, I’m better off keeping my head down until I know more, considering I’ve left a body in that garden. When she takes a bite of the deep fried food and juices drip down her chin I stifle a groan.
I should be frantic to solve the puzzle of my mind, but the hunger clawing at my belly dominates everything else. I double-check the pockets of the jacket I’m wearing. Fortunately they’re empty, so my disrespect ends at stealing the dead kid’s clothes. I’m not tempted to take his money as well.
Standing here isn’t going to get me the sustenance I need. The sooner I explore the market, the sooner I’m able to escape those in green robes. Hopefully before the boy reports in and they start looking for me.
Wary and watchful, I move into the market proper, my eyes scanning for an opportunity. But there’s nothing. No leftover food. No credit sticks dropped on the litter-strewn ground. In a few minutes, I reach the other side and the stalls give way to another road. A two-foot chasm buckles the center of the roadway. As I watch, a motorcycle flirts with the edge before accelerating away.
The row of bars and restaurants on the other side of the broken road glow with welcoming neon signs. The food odors drifting in my direction make my mouth moisten.
Maybe I can work in exchange for food and water.
I cross the road, shoulders hunched. I’m taller than those around me and don’t want to stand out. I walk straight past the first building. The exotic couples in the images out front and the darkened windows make me suspicious of the services offered inside. I’m not that desperate.
The next establishment offers ‘Food, brew, and good times’ according to their sign. I don’t even get in the front door before a muscled guy with a black moustache informs me, “No credit. No entry,” in a tone I don’t care to argue with.
The next place is called ‘Gan’s Gaming Bar.’ The plain black and white sign looks new and the mottled gray windows block the view inside, but the absence of both naked women and intimidating doormen makes it worth a try. The big glass door opens silently.
Inside, a dozen cubicles line each wall, and big soft couches divide the room. Each cubicle holds a different game. In some, the players dance furiously, watching their movements on the screen. Others use real-looking weapons to fight a hologram enemy. Still others tap at a modified keyboard. There’s something for every age and taste. Young, scantily-dressed men and women move through the crowd, exchanging drinks and drugs for a swipe of a credit stick. The bar buzzes with activity even at this early hour.
In one corner, however, is stillness.
A young girl, her eyes underlined by black smudges of weary, stares entranced at a simple large screen. I turn to see what is so fascinating. On the screen are rows and rows of different colored rectangles, stacked and arranged in a complicated pattern. I’m drawn to stand and watch, despite the cramps of hunger paining my gut and the woozy sensation in my head that makes the room sway.
The girl remains unmoving while a large clock in the corner of the screen counts inexorably down. Closer and closer it gets to zero. Ten seconds, nine, eight…I find myself holding my breath, sucked in by the girl’s concentration.
She leans forward, as though in slow motion.
Two seconds…one second to go.
And touches a single green rectangle.
Nothing happens, and then the rectangles began to tumble, each one loudly smashing into pieces when it hits the bottom of the screen and then disappearing. Until there are only four remaining, each one isolated on the screen. Two purple rectangles, one green and one yellow. A message flashes in neon white across the screen, ‘Sorry, not a winner.’ The girl walks away, her shoulders sagged, her toe kicking the leg of a chair, and leaves the bar.
“Want to play a game, friend?” A gravelly smoke-filled voice jars me from my game-induced trance.
I turn toward the man behind the bar. He’s big, hairy, and looking at me. I shrug, trying to hide just how much I want to play, and shove my hands deep in my pockets. “I have no money.”
The man’s voice warms, becomes almost seductive. “We also deal in credit sticks. My name’s Gan, and this is my place.”
If he’s sensing a sale he needs to work on his victim. “I have no identification on me, Gan.”
Not to mention no idea of whether I’ve ever had money. From the ease with which I went into the fight earlier, I suspect I’m not pampered.
“You have DNA, don’t you?” He jerks his head toward the small screen on the bar.
I edge closer. ID SCANNER it says in large print across the top. Surely my identity won’t be answered this easily, but it’s worth a try.
My calf muscles cramp in protest when I finally take a seat at the small terminal. The tension of possible answers tightens every muscle. I exhale and deliberately relax each one. If nothing else, I’m safe from the green robes while in the bar and have a chance to rest my feet.
I breathe in deeply and almost taste the different foods being carried to waiting customers. Salty, sweet, and spicy. It all smells great to me. I sniff again. There’s something close. Less than an arm’s reach away, there’s a brown, ribbon-like, fried snack dusted with salt in a small white bowl.
My hand shoots out before my brain finishes registering the food’s proximity. It hovers over the bowl. I look to Gan, silently asking permission.
“Potato skins are complimentary for valued customers,” he explains, baring his teeth in what might be a smile.
“And water?” I ask casually, eyeing the slightly murky liquid in a jug.
He pours me a glass. My hands don’t betray the shakiness inside as I pick it up. I sip slowly. The bitter liquid wets my tongue and slides a relieving trail down my throat. I close my eyes to savor it. And then remember my audience. I take a gulp and slide the glass away. Only someone desperate would drink any more.
Now for food. With my mouth watering, I take a potato skin, place it in my mouth, and chew slowly. The greasy flavor makes my stomach heave but I manage to swallow it. Food at last.
With my hunger stoked, I follow the barman’s direction and place my hand, palm down, on a plastic pad connected to the terminal. I press the ‘sample’ button, and feel a strangely familiar scrape across my little finger.
I don’t even have time to hold my breath. A face appears on the screen. My face, but not the one I saw in the water’s reflection. This boy looks younger than the one I saw earlier. His hair is longer, the brown strands spiking up at odd angles and his cheeks a little more plump. He’s not smiling, I guess he’s suffering through the picture, but there’s a carefree shine to his brown eyes.
White-hot envy snakes through my chest. Who was that boy? What happened to me?
The hunger to know engulfs my physical need for sustenance. I search for more on the screen. A name. Something to answer the questions that have been building in my mind. Where the name should be is blank.
“Blank, eh?” says Gan with a smirk. “Catchy name.”
“It’s the one my dear mother gave me,” I retort. “It’s been in our family for generations.” I skim the rest of the ID report. I’m seventeen years old and the medical scan pronounces me free of disease.
The last known address is as blank as my name. Only one other field has an entry. Where my credit history should be, there’s only one deposit listed. A large one. I have no real feel for what the number means, but I’m guessing from the way Gan is looking at me like we’re long lost friends that I can afford a game or two. I act unsurprised.
His hand comes down on my shoulder. “We print credit sticks here, Blank my friend, but there’s a small fee. And of course I ask no questions.”
Small? He names a figure and I half-heartedly haggle him down, assuming he’s trying to rip me off. His lack of surprise at my lack of information is, in itself, telling.
I clear my throat. “What about the authorities?”
He glances around. “People without a history would be wise not to attract attention. The people in charge around here don’t take much convincing to match a stranger with a crime, if you know what I mean.” He turns away to deal with another customer.
He might be biased but what he said goes with my gut: I have to find answers myself.
I stare at the boy on the screen while the credit stick is processed. I’m looking for any details in his face and the edge of black t-shirt he wears that might help me work out who I am.