Chapter 7 - Full Fledged Member

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

WARNING: MURDER, VIOLENCE, MURDER COMMITTED BY CHILD, CHILD DEATH, HUMAN ORGAN HARVEST

Nike put her lessons to good use and she never had to use her blade often. With credit chits secured in her pocket, she strutted down the street munching on a steamed bun. The meat filling was salty and peppery, just the way she loved it. Burger trotted alongside her hopefully. He whined and she looked down. The mutt was good with using his big brown puppy dog eyes on her. She chuckled. With two fingers, she tore off a generous chunk and tossed it to him. His mouth stretched wide and snatched it out of the air.

“Good boy!” she laughed, licking her fingers clean of the juices and wiping them down the leg of her shorts.

“Girly!” a raspy voice said. “You’re back.”

The familiar voice jarred her from her good mood. Nike cast her eye around and saw him. The grin slid off her face. Burger pressed against her leg, sensing her shift in mood.

Miller was sitting in his chair as usual. The brown crude tourniquet stark against the almost corpse like grey of his skin. It was barely midday and he was at it already. Nike’s jaw was set, she remembered how he had scared her that first time. But she was different now, she was a new person. Months of food had filled her frame out, training made her sure in her stance.

He turned his attention back to what he was doing, ignoring her for the moment. His finger tapped against the filled syringe. It was the same red-pinkish stuff. Nike knew what it was. Multiple trips to the Underbelly had acquainted her well with it. Her mouth twisted as Miller plunged the needle into his arm. He sighed with contentment as he undid the tourniquet.

Just another Red Sand addict in a city filled with them.

Nike narrowed her eyes and tried her best to put up a veneer of disdain. She gave him a wide berth. Burger walked between her and the road as she made her way to her next stop, putting her nearer to Miller.

“Don’t be like that girly,” he said, putting his rotting teeth on full display.

His hand shot out just like it did the first time. Nike was ready. She wasn’t the scared little girl anymore. There was no hesitation. One quick motion, she bent and pulled her little blade out. One quick flick and it was deployed. She wasn’t tall, but she didn’t need to be to reach him, he was seated. Before he could regret his action, Nike stepped into his space and slid the blade between his ribs. It was textbook, exactly how Cutter showed her. This was a lesson he needed to learn once and for all.

Miller gasped, his grip on her hand loosened. His eyes were wide and wild, but he had a grin plastered on his face. His eyes rolled backwards into his head as he started laughing. The edges of his mouth just stretched and stretched. It went so wide she was afraid it might split his face. She shuddered, a chill sank in her bones as she pulled her hand free. She wiped the steel against the leg of her pants but kept a tight grip on it. The red patch against his chest grew, but he didn’t seem to care. It was like he didn’t feel a thing.

A hard tug against her shorts broke the spell. Burger growled and pulled again. “Right,” she said shakily, “Good boy.”

At Burger’s insistence she walked away. His grin seared into the back of her eyelids.


Nike hated the way Miller’s face was dogging her the entire day. She needed something to take her mind off it. And she knew just the thing. Her feet took her to her favourite place.

The building was old but well maintained especially for the Slums. A giant billboard dominated the exterior. Curling discoloured posters from years past stood proudly in their display cases. These were real antiques, most of switched out to electronic display panels years ago. Real paper posters like these were rare.

Nike looked at them, these she had scanned and learnt their names a long time ago. She ran her hand over the clean cases, reading the titles she had committed to memory. “Die Hard, Love Actually, Aliens,” she read out loud.

She was still inordinately proud to have learnt the words. Her foot steps echoed with Burger’s nails a close second behind as they entered. The tiled floor was worn but clean. The place smelt entirely of fresh popcorn. She smiled. Meg must have done a fresh batch. That only meant one thing, Love Actually was on.

She climbed the defunct escalator up to the second level. One of the massive doors was slightly ajar. Through the slim slice of light into the darkened interior, Nike could see Meg’s outline. The older woman, in all her dreadlock glory, usually would camp outside the theatre, selling tickets to movies so old most wouldn’t have heard of them cheaply. It was only when romantic movies played that she watched along.

Nike wasn’t one to question how did Meg kept the place going, she just accepted the place as her shelter away from the streets and the boys for what it was. She smiled, remembering Meg’s kindness after her first run in with Miller. Even though she had the credits for a ticket, they didn’t belong to her. She looked at her omni-tool. There was still time for her to catch whatever was left of the movie.

Muffled dialog drifted out of the darkened theatre as she inched towards it. Oh it has started! Burger ventured ahead, his nose twitching at the wonderful scent of popcorn. As much as she knew Meg wouldn’t mind her around, she didn’t want to be social right then. Plus she had no credits to actually pay for a ticket. She just wanted some time alone with her thoughts and not talk about what had happened earlier.

Nike bent down and pulled Burger close. “You see that lady there?” she whispered into his upright ear.

Burger snorted softly. “She has popcorn. If you are beg her politely, she will share,” she went on.

The dog grunted and started forward. “Wait, wait. You have to let me hide before you go to her.”

He grunted and stilled as if understanding her words. “Good boy,” she said, releasing her grip on his fur before giving him a good scratch on his chest.

Nike sneaked towards the side, knowing exactly where there was a small staircase that took her directly to the projector room. She peered over the corner back at Burger. Their eyes met and the mutt launched into action. Stealthy feet made their way up the steps. She was ready to pick the lock on the door, but she found it unlocked.

That’s unusual.

Gingerly, she turned the door knob and peeked inside. It was empty. Nike heaved a sigh of relief and entered. She dragged a chair towards the projector, making sure she didn’t accidentally step into the beam and let the cat out of the bag. As she sank into the chair, she smiled a little.

Men and women, young and old, hugging, kissing and falling in love. It reminded her of the Suncorp ads she loved. She hugged herself, drawing her knees to her chest as the theme music soared.

One day, I will find something like that.


Nike made sure to be out of the projector room before Meg came up. Burger didn’t wait for her outside but that’s normal for him. After all, he had scraps to eat, rubbish to sniff at.

All in all, it was a good day, despite her encounter with Miller. She made her way back to base. Music playing from her omni-tool, her voice clear as she sang along. Her red sneakers kicking a can down the streets all the way home.

“Where have you been?” Scars yelled as soon as she entered the sleeping quarters.

There was a flurry of activity. She ignored his question, instead she asked, “What’s going on?”

“Tenner got a lead on a little job we can do,” Cutter replied.

Frank entered with a few submachine guns in his hands, handing one to Scars and Cutter each. They looked different from the pistols she was used to seeing on the boys’ waistbands. Her eyes widened. “What is this job about?” she asked.

“Here,” he said as he turned to her, “This is yours.”

He pulled his pistol from his waistband and tossed it in her direction. She caught it without trouble. The pistol though compact in his hand, was large in hers. It weighed heavy with potent. Frank holstered the SMG in its place.

The Reds was a small outfit. They ran a protection racket. The Dowager parcelled out territory to gangs who would pay her tithe. The territory was theirs to do as they please. The larger the gang, the more they have to pay. This helped to keep the gangs from working to overthrow the Dowager, that and the Dowager had muscle, off world muscle to boot, to back her up. Those who earned her favour got prime real estate closer to the Underbelly. The Reds being on the outskirts of the Slums were among the lowest of the low.

“Things are going to change for us tonight,” Frank said. The confidence that shone in his eyes had the rest nodding along. Nike couldn’t help but grinned.

“Damn right!” Tenner said as he holstered his own SMG, “We had better make some damned credits after buying these.”

Frank turned to look at Tenner. Their eyes met. Perhaps she was the only one who saw the dangerous glint in his eyes. It was more than just ambition. There was a hunger there she had only seen the day Frank recruited her. Cutter and Scars were gearing up for whatever they were planning for the night.

“We will,” Frank promised.

“What are we doing?” she asked again.

The leader of the Reds grinned. “You will earn your amp and implant.”


“There,” Cutter whispered, pointing.

They were clustered in an abandoned building across from the Razors’ base. She eyed the others. Cutter had a rare eagerness to his actions, anticipation radiating off his frame as he cradled the beaten SMG like his baby. Tenner was, as usual, busy with his omni-tool, constantly tapping away on it. Scars bit his lip as he paced, the SMG held awkwardly in his hand. Frank beckoned them over as he sketched a rough map on the dusty floor.

“So Cutter, Scars both of you will be our frontal team,” he said, pointing at the boys and indicating where they would breach the Razors’ base.

“Tenner and I will come in from the rear while they try to escape your onslaught,” he said.

All of them nodded like it made sense to them. She looked out the empty window and then back at the crude map. The Razors’ base wasn’t large, but who knew if they had more people than the Reds did. Fuck, there are only five of us. I am sure they have double that.

“What about me?” she whispered, not quite wanting to hear the answer.

“You will be our ticket in.”

She didn’t like the sound of it at all.


Taking a deep breath, she couldn’t help the backward glance where Cutter and Scars were hiding. Her hands feeling the loss of the pistol even though she was completely unfamiliar with how to use it.

Why the hell did Frank give it to me if he wasn’t going to let me use it?

Cutter nodded at her while Scars made shooing motions with his pistol. She jerked her head back to the front. Nike took a deep breath and took the first steps towards the Razors’ base.

“Just go up there and knock,” Frank had instructed.

“It’s that simple?” she asked, she couldn’t keep the incredulity from her voice.

“They are Snatchers,” Tenner said, “they won’t hesitate if you go up to their door.”

A chill ran down her spine. Snatchers snatch kids, cut them open, rip them up. All for the bloody bits inside. It’s no wonder they are called the Razors.

As she crossed the darkened street, the chill never left her bones. And it wasn’t because she was cold. There was a lone light just next to the door Frank had indicated. A low hum came from it as it flickered on and off randomly. Nike stopped before it, sweat beading across her bead in the muggy heat of Singapore. She raised her hand to knock when the door opened on its on accord.

A girl her age was on the other side. Nike blinked. Now what?

“Who are you?” the girl asked, her voice slurring. “Where is this?”

Nike frowned as she looked at the girl. She was thin and wearing a loose dress that came up to upper thighs, hardly long enough for her height. It reminded her of how she used to look before having access to regular meals. The girl’s eyes were a little glazed over, her gaze unfocused.

“I…errr…” Nike started, but the girl turned and walked away without waiting for her to finish, muttering questions under her breath.

Ok, I guess it worked?

This was highly irregular even for lax security. Nike stifled the overwhelming urge to look back. Instead she entered cautiously, taking care to make sure the door remained ajar.

The front foyer was small and dark. A single light bulb hung above. It swung on its wire, casting dancing shadows across the walls and floor.

Her heart thudded, wishing Burger was with her. She felt braver with him around. Step by step she walked. The girl was shuffling ahead, unsteady in her gait but sure in her path. She led Nike deeper into the home turned base. Old mouldy furniture stacked in haphazard piles in rooms with no doors. Light and ventilation were precious commodity in the Razors’ base. Sweat was trickling down her back even though she did nothing but walk into the lion’s den.

The girl brought her to a narrow flight of stairs that led downwards. Nike ignored it. Instead, she looked for the back door. She knew the plan. If she could get that unlocked, it would go easier for the others. And she would be able to get out of here quicker. Her skin crawled like a million insects lived under her skin.

The girl went down the stairs without a backwards glance. Nike decided it was safe enough to break away. Hunched, she slung away just in the nick of time. A voice harsh and gruff called out from the bottom of the narrow stairway.

“Hey, one of your girls is loose again!” the voice said, “what did I say about letting one of your experiments loose?”

“I was just trying to get the dosage right,” another voice called, that one muffled.

“Get her secured. We have quite a few deliveries to make tonight,” the first voice said, “I’m going to make sure she hadn’t left the door open again.”

Nike slipped into the nearest room without thinking. She pressed herself against the wall, praying it was dark enough to keep her hidden. There wasn’t a door to put between her and discovery. She held her breath as the boots stomped past.

Her mouth went dry, her palm sleek with sweat. There was no time to think, the plan was rapidly falling apart. She had only two choices, go after the man and make sure the front door stayed open somehow or search for the back door and hope Frank wouldn't kill her for deviating from the plan.

She ground her teeth together, her heart threw itself against her ribs as seconds ticked by. Frank didn’t assign her to the back door, her job was the front door so that Scars and Cutter could distract the Razors. Nike took a shuddering breath and pulled her blade free from her shoe.

The trip into the base wasn’t long, but sneaking behind the man felt like an eternity. The man was burly and tall, bigger than Cutter and older than Frank. His mop of long oily hair hung loose. His footsteps heavy as he clomped down the darkened hallway with boots unlaced. Nike pressed her back against the wall, praying she wouldn’t step on any creaking floor board.

“What the fuck!” the man exclaimed when he got to the foyer. “Your girl left the door open again!”

She had hoped Scars and Cutter were already there to deal with the problem, but no such luck. Her blade felt too small in her hand as she tightened her grip around it. She had to do something but what?

The man’s back was facing her. There was only the darkened hallway between them. Once through there was nowhere to hide. If she wanted to act, this was the time. His thick muscled hand reached out towards the door. Throwing caution to the wind, she did the first thing she could think of.

She ran.

Her blade led the way. Her shoes stomped on the floor broads, they groaned in protest. The man turned as she leapt. His eyes bulged, his mouth gasped open and Nike slammed the blade into his half-turned back. The blade acted like an ice axe, biting into his flesh. He roared. Using it as a hand hold, she pulled herself up, scaling the man like a mountain. One hand tugging on his hair to maintain her grip as she sat on his shoulders. Her thighs clamped around his neck.

“Who the fuck are you?” he roared.

Her head connected with the swinging bulb with a solid thud. It made the orderly shadows launched into a dance. Eye-searing brightness alternated with the deepest of darkness as the bulb swung. She squeezed her eyes shut but it was too late. Her night vision was shot. The after image of the bulb throbbed behind her eyelids. Back and forth the bulb swung, hitting her at times, tangling her up with the wire at others.

Nike didn’t bother answering. She was busy trying to keep her seat. His hands scratched and pulled, trying to dislodge her. The blade was stuck, pulling at it with one hand wasn’t doing the job. It was her only weapon and she loathed to let go of it.

The man twisted violently and she slipped. A pair of hands gripped her ankles and yanked. One moment she was seated atop high, the next she crashed onto the floor. Air rushed out of her lungs in a whoosh. She scrambled to her feet. Panic and fear making her move faster than she thought possible.

My blade!

It was still sticking out of the man’s back. It was hard for him to reach so he ignored it. His lips curled into a snarl, his eyes promised death. Nike lunged towards it only to be met with a foot against her torso. She fell again, winded and sore.

“I don’t know who are you but you attempted to steal from the wrong house, girl!”

He bent and pulled her up roughly by her arm. She screamed. Gunfire exploded over her head. Something wet and warm splattered against her face and chest. The man groaned as Nike yelped. The grip on her arm loosened as he doubled over.

A familiar pair of laughter rang out from behind her. “That was a rush!” Scars crowed.

Cutter snorted in agreement. The alarm was raised. The element of surprise was lost. There was no time to lose. Both of them entered the base, splitting up at the narrow flight of stairs, leaving her standing alone at the foyer. The bulb was still swung. She stood in the light, then shadow and light again. The growing puddle of blood reached her shoes as she stared at it.

Nike felt jittery as tears welled up in her eyes. She couldn’t explain why she felt like crying. She survived, she won, She shouldn’t be crying. Angrily, she blinked the tears away and looked for her blade. The handle of the blade was still protruding from the man’s back. Her hands trembled as she tried to retrieve it. The man groaned. Nike flinched.

He’s not dead. Why isn’t he dead?

Fear fuelled her limbs. Planting one foot against his man, Nike pulled with both hands. Ignoring his groans, ignoring his batting hands that couldn’t quite reached her, ignoring the hammering heart that threatened to jump out of her mouth, she tugged and yanked. When the blade came free, she stumbled backwards and fell.

This was different. There was no Cutter ready with an approving smile, telling her she did right. This was just a pure raw need to defend herself. Her throbbing torso reminded her what a single kick did.

The man groaned and turned onto his back. The scent of iron filled her nose. With wide-eyed horror Nike watched as the man levered himself in a sitting position. Blood pouring from two distinct holes on his chest.

Art by Seo Kanori

“Stay away!” she shouted as she held the blade out in front of her

Gunfire rang out from the direction Cutter and Scars went. She jerked violently at the noise, her blade pointed haphazardly at the perceived sources. The man grunted with effort as he stood. Their eyes met as he bared his teeth. Dread stiffened her body as her grip tightened on the little blade.

Knuckles white, eyes wild, she attacked.

With the blade held straight out in front of her, Nike rushed at the man. The blood foiled her. She slipped. Her chin struck the floor so hard she bit her tongue. His foot caught her stomach. She winced and coughed as she fought to gain her feet. But his kick wasn’t as powerful as before. Teeth gritting, blade firmly in hand, she scurried around to his back. He, made slow by his wounds, couldn’t keep up.

Art by Seo Kanori

Without hesitation, Nike launched herself onto his back again. She rode him like a wild bucking horse. One arm around his neck, the other attempting to stab the blade downwards. She was past caring where she swung the pointy end as long as it found flesh. His hands frantic as he yanked on her hair. His efforts only made her more determined.

He gasped when the sharp end finally found purchase. Every inch she dragged her blade, from right to left, brought forth more warm, thick liquid. It coated her arm and made it hard to hang on. The man shuddered as she slipped onto the floor. He fell to his knees, his arms slack by his sides.

Nike panted as he slumped face down. Adrenaline felt her shaky and jumpy. Boots thumped loud down towards her. She jerked over, the blade held in a death grip.

“Woah,” Scars said. “Look at you.”

Relief washed over her, she was crying in earnest now. Hastily she dashed them away, smearing the blood all over her face. Scars raised his eyebrows at her. “You took down the guy?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, her voice quivering as she forced her arms to relax.

“Well, we’ve softened him up for you anyway but you got your first kill,” he said. “Come on, let’s go see how the others are doing.”


Nike walked through the basement. There were cages, all of them small and squat, lining the room. Wire mesh so fine she could only fit her fingers through the holes. The bottom of the cages were all stained brown and yellow, and how they stank. Gagging, she tried to hold her breath. The cages stood empty and waiting, claws sheathed and hidden.

It set her teeth on the edge as she turned resolutely towards the curtained-off area. Cutter emerged from behind the plastic sheets that hung from the ceiling. “What happened to you!” he exclaimed when he saw her.

Her entire front was coated with blood. It was drying and rapidly turning sticky. “She finished the big guy up there,” Scars answered.

Cutter grinned. As he walked past her, he clapped her on her back. “Good job! But you got a good teacher,” he shrugged.

Nike nodded, allowing a small sense of pride to ease the numbness in her chest. She pushed forward through the plastic sheets and froze. There, lying on a metal table, was a body. The harsh bright light seared the image into her brain. The girl she had seen earlier was lying on it, naked. There was no doubt she was dead. Her ribs were splayed open like tiny stunted wings made of white bone. Blood flowing down the drain built right into the table.

Nike’s guts clenched as she rounded the table. Red pieces of meat floated in stasis boxes. Frank was there with Tenner. “You’re sure you can get a good price for these?” he asked, his hand gesturing at the stasis boxes.

“Leave it to me,” Tenner replied. “I’ll need make some calls.”

“Get it done,” Frank said.

She took a shuddering breath, as heat bubbled up form her guts. Her jaw tightened as her fists clenched. Nike was angry.

This isn’t right. We are not organ farms to be harvested from.

“What happened?” she asked.

Frank turned and saw Nike. His eyes held the same hunger though it was somewhat abated. “We caught them with their pants down, it was a skeleton crew here today,” he said, “Tenner’s information had been good.”

She nodded, eyes lingering on the morbid scene before her. The plastic sheets ruffled behind her. “Holy fuck,” Scars exclaimed as he gagged.

Frank ignored the younger man and stepped over the dead Razor. His boots squelched in response. “You had your first kill?” he asked.

Nike nodded, a low grade anger burning in her chest. He smeared the blood across her face.

“And now you’re a fully fledged member of the Reds.”

Nike grinned, the numbness replaced by a burning anger at the people who had done this.

Chapter 6 - Reds’ Little Collector

 
Art by  Seo Kanori

Art by Seo Kanori

 

WARNING FOR CHILD DOING VIOLENCE, MINOR CHILD DEATH, GROOMING, NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURNING BUILDING.

Fire, everywhere. Sweat plastered hair to her brow. Her chest hurt where the fire had licked across it. High pitched cries of desperation and tiny hands thumping against locked doors ran counterpoint to the crackling inferno. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Her stomach growled. It reminded her the one time she had barbecued meat. Her mouth watered at the memory.

She coughed. The air here was thick with a strange white dust, it made her feel lightheaded but energised at the same time. A couple of kids made the same climb from one window to the other via the outside ledge. After the boy fell, not many attempted the same walk.

Another beam fell with a crash, the others whimpered and flinched. All of them were beyond screams, they were all tired and scared. She recognised the hallway, there was a flight of stairs that to the ground floor here. Hope flared. They had a chance to get out.

Where are all the teachers?

Glancing behind her, two pairs of scared eyes stared back. One of them spoke a name, but a high whine rang in her ears. She winced and shook her head, the pain lingered. A frown creased her brow as stray knowledge popped into her head. The boy, she remembered. His name was Thomas. His hair, used to be a blonde so light it was almost white. It was now all dark and grey thanks to the soot. The girl with curly ginger hair and fair skin had tears streaking down her face. “I want to get out of here,” she wailed.

She frowned. The girl’s name was a vague memory tickling at the back of her mind. “Emma?” she coughed.

Emma ignored her. She watched helplessly as the girl cried harder. Frustration and impatience made her turn away, she had no time to be coddling little girls. Instead, she looked around. Flames danced across her chartreuse eyes, making them seemed more yellow than usual. The familiar had turned unfamiliar as the conflagration threatened to seal off all their escape routes.

“There!” Thomas yelled, pointing at the stairs through the smoke.

He didn’t wait. Legs bounded towards the stairs and the girls followed. Pain and fear forgotten as salvation awaited. Short legs took the steps down fast, two at a time. Lungs heaving, taking in more and more of the strange white dust. All of them coughed harder, but it didn’t deter them. There was fresh air wafting up the stairs.

Then, an audible groan.

She froze while the other two ran ahead. The wooden stairs worn down by years of kids running up and down it felt hot under her bare feet. Before she could voice her worries, the stairs groaned again, louder this time. It shuddered under their frantic pounding feet.

“No!” she shouted.

Emma plunged feet first through the stairs. She screamed, her freckles stark against her pale skin. Her fingers digging and scrambling against the wood as she tried to find the slightest bit of grip. Her nails left bloody gorges in the wood, but it barely slowed her slide down the hole. Her arms splayed straight out were the only reason she hadn’t fell through completely.

“Help!” she cried.

The fire had reached the lower level and it was licking the stairs from the bottom, weakening it. She didn’t know how much more the stairs could take. Emma shrieked in pain while she stood rooted to her spot, frozen in indecision.

Thomas didn’t hesitate. A step forward, he flung his hand out, reaching towards Emma. Their finger tips brushing but not finding purchase. Then, a crack. She watched as Thomas’ foot plunged through the step. He tipped forward, his balance foiled. All apprehension cast aside, one hand wrapped around the bannister, the other reaching towards Thomas. She caught his arm. Her grip was firm and solid around his wrist.

“Please help me,” Emma whimpered. “It hurts!”

Thomas’ fingers flexed, inching its way towards Emma’s white knuckled ones. “I’m so close!” he yelled. “I can get her, just a little further!”

“It’s too dangerous! The stairs can’t take much more,” she cried, her arms burning with the strain. “And my arm isn’t just going to get longer!”

Thomas turned to Emma. “You’ve got to reach up to me,” he implored. “You can do it!”

Emma cried as she tried to push herself up but her elbows trembled from the mere effort of keeping herself up. With tears cutting streaks down her soot stained face she pushed herself up only to slide further down, her arms barely managing to catch herself in time. “I can’t, I can’t. I can’t do it.”

“Emma, you can do this. One quick move!” Thomas shouted, unwilling to give up.

Emma looked at Thomas and herself. With a grunt, she tried again. Her face red from the effort, her arms trembled. Emma had her arms straightened, her weight braced against them. Now all she needed to do was to push herself towards Thomas and take his arm. Her legs kicked against air and her body jerked forward.

Thomas grunted as he reached out, straining their linked hands. It was going to work, it had to. Emma’s eyes met hers. Hope and relief just less than an inch away. The tips of their fingers caught. They intertwined for a split second. Then, Emma slipped. Her hands were sleek with perspiration. She had no grip or strength left. Gravity was a harsh mistress. Without even time to scream, Emma’s fingers slipped through Thomas’.

And, she was gone.

But it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the clean end of a thump like the boy who fell from the ledge. Emma’s screams went on relentlessly. She begged and begged for help that wouldn’t come.

Thomas and herself froze in their position of safety. She wished she could clap her hands over her ears. This was hell. Her breath was caught in her throat. Emma’s high pitched screams changed in its timbre, it grew husky and then hoarse and finally weaker.

It lasted for an eternity.

Thomas’ eyes wide and stricken caught hers. Her lips trembled as cold sweat broke out across her back despite the heat. The stairs groaned again, this time the hole Emma had fell through widened as more of the stairs were lost to the flames below.

“Come on!” she yelled, finally breaking out of her shock.

Her arms felt like they were going to come off her shoulders as she pulled Thomas back to safety. He worked his foot back and forth, widening the hole so that he could work his foot free. Splinters stabbed at his ankle and the motion rubbed his skin raw, but he kept at it, hissing and wincing all through it. With a final grunt of effort, his foot came free and they scrambled back the way they came. The pair were tired, breathless and more scared than they had ever had been.

Thomas glanced around, anxiety rolling off him in waves. she had no time to sit and be helpless but smoke and flames had made her disoriented.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at Thomas’ arm. “We can’t stay here.”

The white dust was thicker here. With a hand covering her nose and mouth, she did the only thing she knew to. She picked the direction where it was cooler and walked. Thomas followed closely behind.

She racked her brains as they walked. She had explored much of the home, even the forbidden teacher’s level, via the air ducts. They had only one more level to descend. Just one more and they’ll be safe and out of this burning inferno that their home had transformed into. She spun around, scanning their surroundings as recognition hit her like a ton of bricks.

“I know a way out,” she shouted, excited. “Come on!”

Breathlessly she led the way, tugging Thomas along. She didn’t stopped at the junction, she picked the left branch without hesitation. It led to the teachers’ sleeping quarters. And they had a laundry chute that led to the basement. But between them and their escape was more fire. This time hotter than it had ever been before.

Already, she found the floor boards too hot for comfort. It was like standing out on hot tiles in the middle of the afternoon. She fought the urge to dance on the spot as she concentrated on the hallway. Parts of it had already fallen through. Exposed beams with fire licking up them. It was the only way to cross. But it wasn’t a long way to run. It was just a hop, skip and a jump away, she tried to convince herself. One hand over her nose and mouth as she tried to breathe through the smoke and dust, the other tightly laced in Thomas’

“Not there,” he whimpered.

Her jaw clenched, her heart slammed against her chest as she said, “This is the only way I know.”

“I can’t!” he yelled, pointing at his ankle. It was raw and throbbing. He had left a small red trail of bloody footsteps. “I don’t want to die.”

“It is the only way!” she repeated, as if yelling louder would convince him.

He shook his head, baulking at the prospect of heading into fire again. His breathing was coming in quick and shallow.

“Yes,” she insisted and dragged him along.

She intended to rush through the hallway as quickly as she could but Thomas’ ankle hindered their progress. Frown set between her brow, her jaw tightened, she was determined that they’d both get through this. Her grip on Thomas was the only thing that kept her from flying apart herself.

Heat and fire assaulted from all sides. The narrow beam merely one metre long, but it might as well had been a chasm. Thomas weeped and hobbled, his grip white knuckled tight around hers. “We’re going to do this fast,” she instructed, “Just follow my lead.”

He nodded tightly, cringing away from the fire. She took the first step forward, the beam groaned but held. Her bare feet unbearably painful as she shuffled. Then, Thomas yelped. One moment she was balancing precariously two feet on a hot beam, the next she was clinging onto it by her fingertips.

Their eyes met for a second before her grip failed her. She plunged to the flames below with a scream.


Nike cried out as she sat up.

“Shut up!” Cutter groaned from the side and he turned over. He pulled the flap of the sleeping bag over his head.

She ignored him as she took breath after shuddering breath. Pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes, Nike attempted to push the dream away.

I fucking hate these nightmares.

She wriggled out of the sleeping bag and rubbed her arms to fend off the morning chill. Everyone else was still asleep. Nike envied Cutter’s ability to fall back to sleep so easily. She sat still for a bit before her growling stomach forced her to seek sustenance.

Nike started the day how she usually would. With a little smile on her face, she grabbed her towel and headed to the shower. She much preferred using the showers while the boys weren’t around. It wasn’t showing her naked body that bothered her but the leering looks she was starting to get from them that made her uncomfortable with her body. It was a new thing that started recently.

I don’t think anything has really changed.

She ran the soap over her body, poking slightly at the blobs she was starting to develop on her chest. They were wisps of hair growing between her legs and under her arms. She didn’t think much of them. If it didn’t hurt, she didn’t think there was any cause for concern.

Nike towelled off and pulled on a fresh set of clothes. Even after being with the Reds for a few months, she never stopped marvelling at having clean clothes to wear every few days. Sure, washing them is a pain but clean clothes! The feel of cotton over skin was luxurious especially when they fit. Her unruly black hair was getting a little long, she pushed them out of her face but they flopped over her face again. She growled as she tied them back in a messy ponytail.

She headed back to the sleeping quarters. Everyone else were still snoring away. She pulled on her omni-tool, made sure her little blade Cutter gave her was secure in her red high top sneakers before she left.

Instead of taking the long way around to the main gate, she hoped over the fence with a quick leg up using a crate pushed right against it for that purpose. The morning air was crisp. It had rained the night before. The scent reminded her the white dust in her dream. She took a huge lungful and smiled.

“Today is a good day,” she said.

Nike turned towards the outer edges of the Slums. It was her job to do the rounds, collecting protection money owed to the Reds. She didn’t give it much thought. It was a job and she would do it. After all, Frank put food in her belly and provided her a place to sleep. Being part of the Reds was the first time Nike felt like she belonged. The tiny voice that warned her not to trust them had been quiet, lulled into silence when her needs were met consistently. As irritating Scars could be, he looked out for her. Cutter taught her blade work while Tenner taught her basic mathematics. They might be mean bastards with their words, but their actions told her, she was one of them.

Nike tapped at her omni-tool and brought up the latest list of scans she had made. She cycled through them, reading the words out loud, committing the meaning and the way things were spelt to her memory. She enjoyed learning. New words no longer frustrated her. They were a chance for her to scan and learn new things. The omni-tool had been her single favourite part about joining the Reds.

Her legs took her down the familiar street. The alleys no longer scary because these were places she would hang out if Frank didn’t need her. Small time gang members no longer gave her problems after they saw her with the others.

She had scanned most of the interesting bits along the route and once she ran through her words for the day, she was bored. With nothing else better to occupy her time, Nike pulled up some music on her omni-tool. With a tap, she put the music on shuffle. A ukulele started strumming, and a fun little tune started playing.

Today there is nothing stopping me

Nike grinned and skipped along to the beat. She had to admit she enjoyed the songs Scars had packed her omni-tool with.

There’re not red lights on the street

With head bobbing, she waited at the street corner. She made it a point to stop by the same time every day. She whistled. A brown and white mongrel with one floppy ear and one pointy ear popped his head out of some cardboard boxes. His tongue hanging out in a smile. “There you are, Burger!” she called.

Open highways there is no limits to my speed

Nike was overjoyed when she found him again. So happy she make sure to name him properly this time. He was no longer merely Dog but Burger, named after her second favourite poster.

She was sure, she had lost him for good that day when he took off after Frank and the others came upon her. He might have returned to her little hovel but she wasn’t allowed out from the base to return and check. It was completely by accident she found Burger again. And she was glad to have done so.

Come and ride with me

He trotted up to her and waited patiently. She dug into her pocket and tossed him the scraps she saved for him from the night before. His strong teeth made short work of the bones. Nike ruffled his fur and gave the dog a firm pat on the rump. He looked up at her. She shook her head at him. “That’s all I have got,” she said, “if you want more, you got to come with me.”

Burger barked. “All right,” she laughed, “Let’s go. But I got to work first.”


By the time she done with her stops, she had broken out in a sweat. The crisp morning air was replaced by balmy heat as the sun started to bake the concrete again. Burger always accompanied her on her runs. He would wander off, licking at anything and everything he could get his snout into, but he’d always come back when she was ready to move on.

“It’s that time again,” Nike called as she stood with a hip cocked facing the next stall.

Davis glared at her from inside his shop. His hand curling into a fist. Burger sniffed blithely at his wares. Nike kept her eye on Davis. She never make the same mistake twice. “You don’t want to do that, you know what happened to your neighbour the last time he threatened me,” she pointed out, fishing out the blade from her shoe.

Burger’s head perked up, picking up on the tension in the air. He growled at Davis as he flanked her. She flicked her blade open and smirked as the man flinched. Cutter had taught her and she always learnt her lessons well.


“You’re small, short and light, that’s three major disadvantages,” Cutter said as he tightened the zip-ties holding the man to the chair.

The man moaned through his gag, rocking the chair back and forth. “Shut up,” he backhanded the captive.

Nike watched closely. “Now you can’t do that since you lacked the muscles and the mass,” he went on as if uninterrupted. ‘’So you’d have to hit first, hit hard. Make sure it is bloody, make sure it is flashy. You’d only have to do it once and it is usually enough for most.”

She nodded. This wasn’t her first lesson. It had ceased to bother her, the sights, sounds or smell. “Now see this,” he said, pointing out some spots on the captive. “Avoid those if all you want is to give a little lesson. Go for them if you want the lesson to be permanent.”

Cutter handed her a blade similar to his, albeit sized for her hand. “This is small enough for your hands, we can upgrade it as you get bigger.”

The man’s eyes widened, he struggled with renewed effort. Cutter grinned at the captive as he showed her how to open the blade single-handedly in a safe manner. Nike pulled down on the lock between her thumb and index finger and swung outwards. Letting it go of the lock at the right moment to lock the blade in place. She looked up at Cutter for approval.

He nodded, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a natural.”

She grinned, repeating the motion over and over again.

“Next is actually using it.”

She looked at the blade then at Cutter. A foul smell came the captive as golden liquid soaked through his pants and dripped to the floor. She backed away, disgust curling her lips. Cutter laughed. “Look at him! All scared of a little girl.”

“I’m grown, Cutter! I am not a little girl!” she scowled, brandishing the blade at Cutter.

He grunted and tugged the blade out of her grip. “Never point the blade at someone and not be willing to follow through. A drawn blade is a promise, it is a threat. You do not threaten someone you’re not willing use the blade on,” he growled, gesturing at the wild-eyed captive. “Now let’s see how grown you are.”

Nike eyed the blade then at the captive. “Stick him,” Cutter said.

She took a deep breath and plunged the blade into the captive’s thigh. She let go when the captive tried to jerk away. She stared. The blade was sticking out of his pants. It looked almost comical and unreal if it wasn’t for blood oozing from the wound.

“Deeper.”

Nike looked at Cutter, eyes now as wide as the captive’s.

“Deeper!” Cutter repeated.

She let out a cry and pushed.

Nike remembered the feeling of steel sliding into flesh, how she needed her entire body weight to sink the blade down to its hilt. The captive’s screams grew louder and more high pitched as the red patch on his pants grew wider and wider. Nike couldn’t quite get her fingers to let go. Her hands felt stuck to the handle.

Cutter laughed, “You have got guts girl!”

He slapped her on the back, the motion jarred her fingers from the blade. She stared at it, midway between horrified and proud. “I did good?” she gasped apprehensively.

Her only answer was an approving grin.

Lyrics taken from Lucky Day by Dustin Paul

Chapter 5 - The Underbelly

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

The alleys were mostly dark. The street lights, those that still worked, flickered and dimmed at random intervals. Everything was shuttered and quiet. “There is nothing here,” Nike said as she kicked an empty can down the street.

It clattered noisily as it hopped, skipped and bounced before hitting Scars on the shin. He glared at her. The lone light overhead threw his face into deep shadow. “We’re here,” he declared.

She glanced around. It was just more abandoned structures. If she squinted she could see a couple of Nightwalkers of different genders, standing under the working lights hoping for a customer. But that was it.

This wasn’t part of her usual hunting ground, but she had been here in the day. It was no more exciting in the day than at night. It was more of the same, gang members hanging out, Red Sand addicts shooting up, kids too young to join a gang begging or scavenging for scraps.

“There is nothing here,” Nike said, frowning at Scars.

He pointed at a single level building. It was the worst of the bunch. Gaping holes that used to hold glass panels. Its entrance blocked by heaps of worthless scraps and litter. He led her down the alley that ran alongside it. There was a single red light next to an unobtrusive door. As they neared, a muffled bass line booming through it. Maybe it wasn’t as dead as she assumed. Scars stepped up and pressed on a button. He turned and looked up at a security camera aimed at the enterance. Nothing happened for a while. Then a distorted voice came through the speaker, “Who is the other one?”

Scars grabbed her by the scruff of her shirt and dragged her. “Look at the camera and smile.”

Nike shook his hand off her shirt and took pains to straighten it. She frowned at the blinking red light next the camera and she flipped it the bird.

A chuckle came through. “You got a feisty one there,” the voice said.

Then, a thunk like a heavy bolt sliding away. Nike reached out to pull the door open. It swung begrudgingly when she threw her entire weight into it. Scars snorted and pulled.

“Welcome to the Underbelly.”


“Wait here,” he told her.

The Underbelly wasn’t a single level like it seemed from outside. They took an elevator down and down and down. It went on forever. Nike couldn’t help but be reminded of the 18 levels of hell. When the elevator door retracted, her senses were assaulted by scents, sights and sounds.

This isn’t the Slums anymore.

Nike blinked. There was an entire city underground. It was a haven for the desperate and hungry. And they were everywhere, men, women, even some aliens. Her eyes were never wider. She pressed herself against the nearest solid object just to get out of the relentless flow of traffic.

Neon lights flickered and flashed, promising pleasure, fortune and hope. Food, strange and familiar, sizzled and roasted at every corner. Giant fans whirled loudly, making sure things stayed ventilated. Voices screaming in pleasure, howling in triumph and crying in fear. All of it contributing to the thumping bass line that pressed against her chest. People flocked to the lights like moths to a flame, hungry for the chance to trade their wretched existence for something better.

There was a tension in the air that she didn’t understand. The hair on the back of her neck stood on its end. Nike rubbed the back of her neck, but the feeling wasn’t going away. She craned her neck around and saw guards clad in armours and armed with rifles. They stood on higher levels looking down at the throngs of people at the central square. She shuddered.

“Girly, why are you here all alone?” one lady asked as she sauntered past.

Nike stared. Scantily clad in a dress of shimmering gold strands, a pair of shades perched on her nose despite the dimness inside the Underbelly. The lady smiled at her. Her teeth were all filed into sharp points. She shuffled backwards uncomfortably. The lady snorted at her reaction. “This is really no place for little girls.”

With that as her parting words, she wandered off on the arm of another lady. All Nike could do was staring unblinkingly at the dancing strands of gold that barely covered the lady’s round pert dusky butt.

“Here,” Scars said as he exited the shop. She closed her mouth with effort and face him. The shop was one among the many lining the perimeter of the central square. He thrusted a laden duffle bag in her direction.

“What’s inside,” she asked as she promptly dropped it to the ground and unzipped it.

More than one Underbelly denizens scowled at her. Scars sighed, dragging her and the bag to a quieter spot. “Clothes?” she asked as she pulled out a t-shirt that was closer to her size.

The material felt soft to the touch. She pressed it against her nose and it smelt fresh and clean. She couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips. Scars rolled his eyes. Nike rummaged further and found an omni-tool cuff. “This is mine?” she asked, her voice hushed, eyes bright.

He nodded. She pulled on the omni-tool cuff onto her right arm. It was so loose it went up to her elbow. Scars pulled it down to her wrist and tightened it. “Thank you,” she said, grinning at him.

Before Scars could asked if she had used one before, she was poking away at it already. Her attention completely absorbed by the new toy she had. Joining the Reds is the best decision I’ve made!

“Come on, we have to see the Dowager,” Scars said.

Nike wasn’t listening. She had found a scanning function and was busy scanning every thing in sight. “Kebabs - 50 credits each,” the omni-tool intoned.

“Awesome!” she exclaimed, realising how useful this was going to be.

“Come on,” Scars said, nudging her on.

They stepped out towards the central square. One whiff of the sizzling meat, Nike slowed. Her nose leading the way, she detoured towards the stall. Flames, red, orange and yellow flashed before her eyes. Screams and cries of another time overwhelmed her ears. She stumbled, almost tripping over. A long arm reached down and steadied her. She looked up to find a tall alien with hard plates and mandibles looking at her.

The alien growled, sharp teeth flashing, but Nike couldn’t understand the strange dual-flanged tones. She pressed the heel of her palms against her eyes, trying to rid herself the strange images in her head. “I’m so sorry,” Scars apologised profusely as he pulled her along.

She squeezed her eyes shut as she followed Scars’ insistent tugging. “What’s the matter with you,” he growled. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

“What did they say?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t have one of those fancy translator chip in my head either,” he retorted. “He? She? showed their sharp pointy teeth, that’s enough to get the point across.”

For once, she didn’t have a fast retort ready. “Stay in the queue,” he said, shoving her firmly into a long line snaking into the main attraction of the Underbelly.

With that, Scars disappeared again. The strange flash of memory was firmly pushed out of her mind when she looked at her surroundings. They were no longer near the central square. This space was dominated by a single structure. Nike craned her neck as her eyes traced it upwards. Red lights lit up the exterior. And right in the middle were words backlit with white. She smirked as she put her scanner function on her omni-tool to good use.

“Royal Palace Casino,” her omni-tool read.

Nike repeated after the omni-tool a few times before tapping at her omni-tool. It explained the meaning behind every word individually. She tried to commit them to memory. The man she was queueing behind turned around and glared at her. “Knock it off!” he snarled.

Nike bared her teeth at him as she growled. Her eyes took in the bloodshot eyes and instantly dismissed him as an addict. She peered at the queue ahead of her. Everyone in line had the same look. They were merely fodder, feeding the Royal Palace with credits. And when that ran out, the machine would demand blood and lives.

These were strata within the Underbelly. People scurried about like bugs hiding from the outside world. Guards, complete with hard looks and trigger happy fingers, watched their every move. Then there was the Dowager who towered over it all. It was the hand that take, demand and gouged, it was also the fist that governed, judged and punished.

Just as Nike got to the head of the queue, Scars appeared, munching on a stick of grilled meat. Her stomach growled in protest. Putting her thieving skills to good use, she snagged the stick out of his hand.

“Hey!” he protested.

It was too late, she ripped the meat off the stick. The juices of the marinated meat was an explosion of ecstasy in her mouth. Her tastebuds sang its praises to the high heavens. Having subsisted on a steady diet of stale bread ends and whatever she could get her hands, this was her first real experience with hot and delicious food. “It’s so good!” she gasped through a full mouth.

An attendant dressed in a black and white suit beckoned at them. Scars used her shirt sleeve to wipe her mouth clean of sauce before straightening her clothes again. “Come on.”


There were rows and rows of virtual machines where people sat at. They looked more like drones than human. They stabbed mindlessly at the machines as they feed credit chit after credit chit in. Nike’s eyes watered. There was a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. Even Scars waved his hand to clear the air before him.

Past the rows of virtual machines was a large stage. Atop it danced a mix of virtual and real dancers. Patrons only had eyes for the dancers of their choice. There, people were dressed slightly better. Nike spotted the lady in the gold strands dress strutting across the stage.

She is a dancer!

She spun on her stiletto heels to the front of the stage while patrons cheered and clapped. In an display of pure nimbleness, she folded herself in two by bending at the waist. Hints of skin tantalised the crowd, her dress swished in time with her motion. One white gloved hand stroked the cheek of a front row patron. It was the woman the dancer was with earlier. The patron grinned and flicked a credit chit between two fingers in her direction. The dancer took it and straightened. She caught Nike’s eye and sent a wink her way.

Scars straightened his spine. He smoothed his hair back and attempted to shape the sorry excuse he had for a beard. “She is not winking at you, you know?” Nike pointed out.

Scars’ eyebrows rose as he looked at the dancer. He pointed at himself. The dancer wagged her finger and pointed at Nike. He looked at Nike incredulously as she grinned at him. Nike blew kisses at the dancer as Scars dragged her away, her duffle bag bumping into the chairs of the patrons.

They skirted the outer perimeter of the stage to head towards the back. A pair of guards glared at them as they stopped outside an elevator. “You again?” one of them said, he was wearing a dinged up blue armour with a triangular logo on it.

Nike lifted her omni-tool and scanned it. “System Alliance logo,” it told her.

“Yes, we have a new member. Don’t mind her. She is a little slow. I’m taking her to the Dowager,” Scars replied. “Formalities.”

The one in the blue armour cocked his head in her direction. “Aren’t you a little young to be in the Reds? I didn’t figure Frank to be one who would pick up strays.”

“I am old enough,” she declared. “You don’t want me to punch you.”

“Ohh I’m so fucking scared,” he mocked in a deadpan voice.

“Stop messing about,” the other said, she rolled her eyes at her partner. “Always important, those formalities if you want to keep your head. She’s at the fighting ring today.”

“Thanks,” Scars said as he tapped the button to call for the elevator.

When elevator door opened at a lower level, the roar of the crowd was deafening. Nike dropped her bag and clapped her hands over her ears. A pair of fighters, one male and the other female, clad in tight shorts and a pair of sports bra in the case of the female, circled each other. Spectators cheered, some waved credit chits in the direction of the bookie, others raising their fists as they cheered the fighters on. The pair prowled the edge of the ring, eyeing each other like they were prey. Nike could almost imagine their tails slashing the air as they bounced on the balls of their feet. A shimmering wall of energy was all that separated the pair.

Scars tugged at her arm, but Nike refused to move. She wanted to see this. Her eyes were glued on the fighters. The boy was no older than she was and already fighting in the ring. What stood out to her were his brilliantly blue eyes and a patch of scarred skin across his chest and up his left shoulder. She frowned as something tickled at the back of her mind. The fighters as if by an unseen signal both looked upwards. An Asian lady with black hair and fair skin looked down, her blood red lips parted to show her teeth. “Don’t disappoint me,” she said.

Even though she didn’t raise her voice, but her voice floated above the din. The boy nodded. Both of them bowed once towards the lady and then at their opponent. The barrier fizzled out and they launched themselves at each other. Blue flames writhed across their bodies. Nike gasped. She had never seen anyone else use the blue flames before. She was so sure she was the only one out there.

Turns out I’m no special snowflake.

The fight was a blend of physical blows and the blue flame. The fighters used it in ways she never dreamt before. The power behind each punch and kick magnified. She looked at her hands, slowly clenching and unclenching them.

If I could fight like that, I don’t have to be afraid anymore. I can defend myself.

Time seemed to stretched as Nike stood and watched. Spit, blood and teeth flew. Howls of pain and grunts of exertion rang out over the bloodthirsty crowd. The finishing blow came unexpectedly as the female fighter launched herself head first at the other. She was a streak of blue as they collided. The pair slammed to the ground, unmoving. For a split second the audience was hushed. Then a hand was rose high in the air. And the female fighter stood. Cheers erupted, it was so loud it threatened to bring the roof down.

Nike grinned. A shiver ran down her spine. She felt a little lightheaded, a little giddy. It was almost as if they were cheering for her. The warrior stood bruised and bloodied, one eye swollen shut, with a grin as wide as her face. As people swarmed into the arena to hoist her up in victory, others dragged the unconscious boy out.

Scars grimaced and said, “And another one bites the dust. That’s going to put the Dowager in a bad mood.”

This time when he pulled her arm, Nike followed. He led them to a stairs leading upstairs. There were another pair of guards, more heavily armed than the pair before. There was no idle chit chat. Scars shuffled on his feet as they ran their omni-tool scanner over them. One of them nodded at Scars and said, “Leave the bag here. You can pick it up on your way out.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied stiffly. “Come on.”

Scars pulled the duffle bag out of her grip and tossed it next to one of the guards. The guard eyed the bag and kicked it to the side. “Hey!” Nike said.

That was no way to treat her stuff. It belonged to her. I finally have stuff! She was about to grab the bag protectively, but Scars wrapped his hand on her bandaged wrist and shook it. Nike yelped and kept still. “Don’t do that,” he whispered urgently into his ear. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

With tears in her eyes, she glared at Scars. Her wrist throbbed painfully. “Just shut up and follow my lead. You don’t want to get killed right?”

Scar’s voice shook a little and it sobered her right up. She gritted her teeth and spat, “Whatever.”

He jerked his head towards the stairs and she started up it, pulling her wrist against her chest. At the top, there were another pair of guards who scanned them again. Finding nothing unusual, one of the guards tapped on his omni-tool. “Two coming in to see the Dowager,” he said.

Nike glanced at Scars, he was standing perfectly still. She snorted and turned her attention to the small waiting room they were in. There was a steel door complete with a holo-lock on it. Everywhere else in the Underbelly looked no different from the Slums. Old styled doors with regular door knobs and padlocks, concrete and bricks as building materials but it was different here.

Nike’s shoes sank into the plush carpet that covered the floor. One of the guards swung his rifle over to her as she bent to touch it. Scars took a deep breath and practically begged, “Don’t do that, please.”

She straightened and shuffled closer to Scars. “They are not very nice.”

The guard snorted while the other spoke into his omni-tool, “Yeah, they are from the Reds.”

Nike eyed the holo-lock curiously and was tempted to scan it, but she refrained, if nothing else to keep Scars from having a heart attack. The guard pressed his hand against the holo-lock and the door cycled through its sequence.

Nike was sure she had seen it all. The Underbelly had been an eye-opening experience so far, there couldn’t be anything more it could possibly offer, right? As the reinforced door slid open, Nike’s jaw fell open. The plush carpet continued inside. On one side a single armchair was positioned just so to have a perfect view of the arena. This was where the Asian lady looked out from before. The glass that was clear earlier, was now tinted and frosted.

“Approach,” a husky voice called.

Nike glanced at Scars, suddenly apprehensive. He nodded, nudging her to walk ahead. At the far end of the room, there was a luxury leather sofa. On one end was an array of terminals, on the other end of the almost two metre long sofa perched the Asian lady - the Dowager. Her finger curled towards Nike a couple of times.

“Ma’am,” Scars started.

The Dowager sliced the air with her hand in a chopping motion and he shut his month. “Girl, approach,” she said.

Nike gulped and stepped forward. She shivered as she stood alone. Eyes dark and hard raked over her. The Dowager lifted her hand and catch Nike’s chin in her grasp. Her eyes flashed at Nike as she attempted to pull away. Taking a deep breath, she kept herself still, allowing the Dowager to tilt her head left and right.

“You have interesting eyes,” the Dowager commented eventually. “Is it green? Is it yellow? It seemed to change colour depending on the light and angle.”

Nike bit her lip to keep from saying something unfortunate. Scars’ fear was seeping into her brain finally.

“What’s your name?”

“Nike.”

“Hmm,” the Dowager cocked her head. “The greek goddess of victory? I hope it is a name you’d live up to, girl.”

She couldn’t help but bristled. I’m grown. I take care of myself. I am not a child.

The Dowager snorted, reading the defiance in her eyes. She turned her attention to Scars. “Is she your new member?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Frank knows his tithe will be going up with each new member he takes in?”

“Yes ma’am.”

The Dowager shrugged. “As long as he knows the rules, I have no problem. I’ll add her name to the roster. What does Frank intend for her?”

Scars shook his head. “I don’t know, ma’am.”

She sighed. “Frank should really get better help. You’re next to useless.”

Nike glanced at Scars expecting him to protest, but he was quiet and still. “All right, formalities are done. Go.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Scars bowed and turned to go.

Nike followed his lead and bowed as well, “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Call me Cixi,” the Dowager said. “I’ll be keeping my eye on you.”

Chapter 4 - The New Kid

 
Art by  Seo Kanori  on Tumblr

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

WARNING FOR NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURNING BUILDING, CHILD DEATH

Heat, so hot it hurt. Her eyes flew opened. Red, yellow and orange flames licking across her clothes. Hands slapping and beating to put it out but there was too much. She struggled out of her shirt and tossed it on the bed. The flames gobbled it up hungrily and asked for seconds. Groans echoed throughout the room. She eyed the ceiling worriedly.

“Get up!” she shouted.

The others were rousing slowly, blissfully unaware. For these kids, it was just another day.

But the air smelt funny. It wasn’t just the stench of melting plastic but something else. She couldn’t quite put her finger to it. It was the scent of clean air and rain, there wasn’t the telltale sound of rumbling thunder. The back of her throat itched and she coughed. A cacophony of coughs started as every other kid began choking.

It wasn’t safe. They had to get out. Danger screamed in her head and it rocked her to her bones. Small feet padding over to the door. “Open the door!” one of the others shouted.

Her voice joined theirs, sharp and panicked. Her muscles corded as she twisted the door knob. It rattled but it wouldn’t turn. “Teacher Mary, let us out!”

Growing heat against her back made her look. The fire had devoured their beds and bedding, and it had grown into a beast. Roaring, crackling as it demanded for more tribute. Shrieks of panic filled the air as tiny fists hammered against the door barring their escape. Fear seized her thumping heart, but she forced herself to stay calm and think.

The windows are not locked.

She pushed through the crowd and headed towards the nearest window. She wrapped her fingers wrapped around the handles. One quick yank and push the window cracked open a tiny gap. A gust of night wind swept in and threw it wide open. They crashed outwards against the concrete exterior of the building.

“Windows!” she shouted above the din. Those who kept their heads heeded her words. More hands found handles.

She peered down. The ground lay hard and unyielding below. She gulped. Glancing back to look between the encroaching flames and locked door. The heat was near unbearable as cries and screams filled the air. Smoke choked her lungs. She gritted her teeth and found a chair. It scraped against the floor as she dragged it over and pushed it against the wall. A quick hop and she had clambered up onto the sill. Sitting on the edge for a beat, feet dangling out in the cool air, she inhaled and shoved the fear down. Between the space of a single breath, a fist squeezed her heart as it slammed against her chest. Her fingers kept a tight grip on the window sill as her toes seeking the tiny sliver of ledge below, inching, reaching. Her balance tipped and she slipped completely off the edge. She yelped but her feet found the ledge. It was steady and firm.

Now what?

Eyes scanning but not finding another way forward.

I didn’t think this through.

She looked back towards the open window and tried to pull herself up. Grunts and cries of exertion were useless to the passive opening. The other kids stared back at her, their hands too weak to pull her up. There was no way back. Fingers scrapping trying to find purchase against the rough concrete, toes curling for a fraction more grip.

A explosion rocked the building.

Screams from the living and howls from the dying rang out. Glass and debris showered down on her. The window just ahead along the ledge was blown open. “All right, I can do this,” she shouted as her ears rang. “Just don’t look down.”

Fingers stretching out, toes worming forward, she inched along the ledge. She looked back at the window she came from, one of the other kids was trying to do what she did. A pair of feet coming down towards the ledge too fast.

“No!” she shouted.

It was a warning too late. Toes found air instead of purchase and the boy plummeted. In the split second between thought travelling through synapses, she jerked. Hand reaching out, then pulling back to the tenuous grip she had again.

I can’t help him. If I did, I’ll fall too.

She watched as body met ground with a solid smack.


Nike gasped as she sat up, her breaths coming hard and fast. Eyes wild as she searched for the red, yellow and orange. But it was pitch black. Sleepy murmurs and soft snores punctuated the hammering of her heart.

A dream, just a dream.

She sighed, running her left hand over her face and winced. It was heavily bandaged. Then she remembered. Frank and the others, her wrist popping and pain flashing, blue flames and a satisfying punch, the offer and now she was sleeping in the Reds’ base.

It was warm, it was infinitely more comfortable than her hovel but Dog wasn’t here. Dog always slept at her back. It made her feel safe. Without him, she had a hard time falling asleep. She didn’t know the others, let alone trust them. They might just be waiting for a chance to kill me. Eventually she shifted her sleeping bag towards the wall and managed to fall asleep after pressing her back against the cold wall.

Nike sat up, pulling her legs to her chest and rubbed her eyes. They were sandy and painful, but she knew from experience she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep after a nightmare like that one.


Tenner led them down a street. It was deeper into the Slums than she had ventured before. There were almost no kids around, everyone were older than Frank. They were the youngest around. Eyes watched her, they tracked her every move. Nike rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably. With a snarl she turned and glared. Her usual show of force did nothing. It was only met with derision.

“Look at the kid,” one of them laughed.

She was gearing up to give him a piece of her mind when she left a heavy hand on her shoulder. “This way,” Scars said, dragging her by her shirt in the right direction.

Nike focused her displeasure on Scars, lifting her good hand, making a show of punching his groin. She grinned when he flinched, his veneer of acting tough crumbling under her empty threat. But the feeling of satisfaction faded quickly. She was tired and hungry and more than a little lost. The day had been more exciting than her entire year put together. Sighing, she turned back to follow the others but stopped when someone with yellowing teeth and bloodshot eyes stepped into her path .

“Girl, walk faster,” Scars said as he nudged her from the back.

Nike stumbled but mostly remained where she stood, eyeing the man warily.

“Not so fast,” the Red Sand addict said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Are you selling the girl? How much for a turn?”

She cringed away while Scars bared his teeth, putting himself between her and the addict. “Get lost, old man,” he said, pushing the man out of the way.

The addict fell heavily. Scars ignored his cry of protest. His hand closed around her good hand and dragged her along. “Don’t ever stop for them,” he hissed as she shuffled along in his wake. His longer strides forced her to jog. “They are parasites, all of them. You’re one of us now and we take care of our own.”

In that moment, Nike felt safe. It was a feeling foreign and unfamiliar but not unwelcome. Her hand tightened around Scars’ larger one.

“Keep up, girl.”

“Nike,” she said. “My name is Nike.”

He looked down, eyes soft and sad for a moment before hardening. “Fine, Nike,” he said exasperatedly.

It wasn’t long before they turned into a dark little alley. Rats and sewage dominated the tiny passageway. “Follow them,” Scars said, pointing down the alley. “I’ll keep watch here.”

Nike bit her lip and did as she was told. She wasn’t feeling so good, using the blue fire tend to do that to her. This was one of her worst after effects. Her stomach had given up asking for food. All that was left was a deep gnawing inside her gut that hurt as bad as her wrist.

Tenner rapped his knuckles against one of the few doors that lined the alley. “Who is it? It’s too early for bloody stitches,” a voice rumbled from the inside as she caught up to the others.

“It’s Frank. Open up if you know what’s good for you.”

There was no reply and for a while nothing happened. But eventually there was a thunk as a bolt was slid back and the door creaked open. A man in his late forties, crowfeet trailing from the ends of his eyes, dark shiny hair slicked back from his forehead, opened the door. One hand scratching as his hairy bare chest. He eyed all of them before stopping at Nike.

“You’re new,” he remarked, before turning his attention to Frank. “What’s the problem?”

“Time to earn that discount you always ask for,” Cutter said and push past the Indian man.


Nike sat and swung her legs. Her oversized shoes threatened to slip off her feet. Tenner was tapping away at his omni-tool. She leaned over and caught a glimpse of a yellow circle eating dots on his screen. He glanced at her and leaned away, pulling the screen out of her view.

Cutter had left to join Scars after depositing Frank with the man. She glanced around the small space. It was clearly a clinic and a home at the same time. The stench of dried blood and antiseptic made her wrinkle her nose. Tenner glanced at her. “How old are you?”

Nike shrugged. “Does it matter?” she asked. “12?”

He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so,” he said as went back to his game. “But I don’t think you are any older than ten.”

“Do I look ten?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“How would you know? You see many kids? How old are you?”

“Kid, you talk too much,” Tenner retorted.

She sighed and went back to swinging her legs. Before she could ask more, a yelp rang out. It came from behind the curtained-off area at the back. Frank was back there with the doctor - Stitches was what they called him.

Stitches’ chuckles came through slightly muffled but clear enough. “She got you good, boy.”

“I’m not a boy,” Frank growled, “and stop talking about this so loudly.”

“You mean while I literally have your balls in my hand?”

“Stitches,” Frank’s voice got low and dangerous. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Silence reigned. Nike glanced at Tenner. He had his eyes trained on the curtained off area and he pressed a finger to his lips. She recognised the gesture and pressed her lips together.

Stitches cleared his throat. “You’re done. Right now, it’s all swollen and I don’t have the equipment to check for sure.”

“You can’t be sure? And you call yourself a doctor?”

“Frank, do you have access to an ultrasound somewhere? That’s what I need to make sure. Then surgery to repair if this is a rapture and not a bruise,” Stitches retorted.

More silence. Nike gulped but kept starring at the curtains as if she could see through them. She was the one who punched Frank. Is this going to bite me in the ass?

“Fine,” Frank gritted out in the end. “I’ll need the good painkillers.”

“Those are expensive,” Stitches protested. “You can’t just barge in and demand things.”

“Not as expensive as your clinic. It will be a shame if I sic my biotic on you,” Frank pointed out. “I got one just out there now.”

Stitches cleared his throat again and sighed. Nike stiffened. Frank had mentioned the same word in reference to her. What does that mean?

There were more rummaging sounds before Stitches pulled the yellowing curtains aside. Frank hobbled out. “Cutter!” he barked.

The stout boy entered the clinic and helped Frank out. As he past Nike, he turned to Tenner, “Get her hand looked at and get her cleaned up. She stinks too badly now.”

“What about an omni-tool?” Tenner asked.

“We’ll see. Maybe I can fix something up with the junk we have back on base,” he replied. “Oh and feed her. Biotics need more food. We need to grow our little investment. I have plans for her.”

Tenner nodded and grinned. Nike shifted in her seat at the expectant look she got from both of them. Tenner jerked his head towards Stitches and she hopped off her chair. She shuffled behind the curtained off area and sat on a stool next to a table. Stitches’ mouth twisted at her arrival. “Quite a little gang our little Frank is building,” he remarked.

Nike kept quiet, she wasn’t sure what exactly he had expected from her. He sighed. It seemed to be his go to action. She felt the need to do the same as well. Maybe it was contagious. He took a long draw from the lit cigarette between his lips. “Let me see it.”

She angled her body away from him. The curling tendrils of smoke made her eyes watered a little. Stitches huffed again, blowing smoke in her direction. She coughed. “Look, your boss extorts money and supplies from me. I don’t need to add coddling a kid to the list. If you don’t want my expert opinion on your wrist, you can go. I don’t care.”

Nike shifted to face Stitches. He took a swig from a dirty little glass bottle on his desk. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he downed the liquid inside as if it was the nectar of the gods. He smacked his lips and thumped the half empty bottle on the desk. “So what will it be?” he asked as he burped.

Nike grimaced and offered her left wrist to him. It was now swollen and had doubled in size. Stitches seized her hand roughly and she yelped. “Hold still,” he grumbled.

He prodded, pressed and manipulated her wrist. Nike bit her lip, glaring at him furiously. Eventually he stood up and pulled a roll of bandages out from one of the drawers. “Now, where is that bucket?” he muttered to himself. “Wait here.”

Without waiting for a reply, he left. “Where am I supposed to go anyway?” she muttered under her breath, feeling more tired as the minutes passed.

Eventually Stitches returned with a pail of water and a bar of soap. “Wash your arm,” he instructed.

Once that’s done, he tossed her a towel to dry off. “Hold out your arm.”

Nike thrusted her arm at him. He started to wind the bandages above her wrist downwards towards her fingers and up again, until the entire roll was used up. “Done,” Stitches declared. “Get your ass out of my clinic.”

Nike needed no invitation to leave. She didn’t like hanging around Stitches anymore than he did with her. As they left, the doctor shouted from the back of the clinic, “And don’t come back again!”


What followed was a time of firsts for her. Scars was in charge of orienting the new kid. That first day, he showed her where they took baths. It was just a big empty space with shower heads lining the wall. The water they used were siphoned directly from the underground pipes the State had put in decades before. She tried the first one and the water dribbled from shower head like a sad little stream but it was warm.

Nike exclaimed as much. Scars snorted. “That’s not all,” he said, handing her a bar of soap.

She pressed it against her nose and sniffed. It was floral with a hint of medicinal scent. “Smells good,” she commented.

“Much better than what you smell like now,” he retorted. “Only a few of those shower heads work properly so use the right ones.”

The next day was a luxurious day of sleeping in and having food readily available. Tenner was holed up with Frank most of the day, discussing something with plenty of finger pointing in her direction. Cutter took a whetstone to his blade while Scars was working out. Nike was happy to spend the time in silence. But eventually she got bored and she wandered outside.

“Don’t go too far,” Cutter yelled as she crossed the threshold.

“I won’t,” she replied.

“Scars, watch her,” she heard Frank commanded.

Their building was a stout brick one with a large “Bl--k B” painted on the outside, two of the letters too worn down to make out what they were. It was one among many identical ones, but theirs was the only one that hadn’t collapsed under years of neglect. Nike could see the blocks running from A to H. They were in a small cluster. A rusty barbed wire fence ran the perimeter, enclosing the blocks within it. It was mostly still up but parts were flattened over with old mattresses for easy entry and exit.

She walked passed the long rusted over gate. The hinges screamed in protest as she swung it open. There was a wide two lane road outside. She watched as one old petrol fuelled car puttered by as she stepped out. A short brick wall facing the road had words on it. She walked backwards away from the wall so that she could read the words better.

“No!” It was Scars.

Nike ignored him and kept her attention on the words. Cocking her head she tried to read them. It was too long for her to sound out in her head.

“You were told not to wander!” he yelled as he jogged over.

“I was just looking,” she said, rolling her eyes at him. “What’s wrong with looking?”

“You were thinking about it, I know!” he insisted. “Come on, let’s head back.”

Nike planted her feet and pointed. “What does it say?”

Scars rubbed at the few scraggly hair he had on his chin. “You can’t read?”

Nike frowned and repeated, “What does it say?”

“Jurong Youth Home,” he said quickly, just to get them moving. “Come on, let’s go back.”

“What’s a youth home?” she asked, her feet remained stubbornly still.

“I’ll answer your question and then you’re coming with me. You don’t want to get me mad,” Scars warned, putting his hands on his hips.

Nike grinned. Scars looked decidedly not scary at all, especially considering he had no scars on him as far as she could tell. Still, she was in a good enough mood, clothed, clean and fed, despite missing Dog a little. What was there not to love about being in the Reds? But a tiny voice in her head told her not to trust anyone.

“Sure,” she agreed easily.

Scars narrowed his eyes, not quite trusting her smile. Eventually he gave up. “It’s a juvenile detention center. Basically a prison for little shits like you.”

Without allowing her to speak, Scars dragged her back to base. As Nike tottered along to keep from falling, she asked, “Why are you called Scars? You have none.”

“Shut up!”


That evening, Frank tossed Scars a credit chit. “You know what to do?” he asked.

“What?” Scars caught the chit easily and pocketed it. “For her?”

“Yes, for her,” Frank replied.

“I did it for Tenner the last time. He is the rookie here. Shouldn’t he be the one doing it?” Scars protested.

Frank stood up, stiffening a little. Nike bit her lip as she watched. He looked a little bow-legged. She was satisfied, looking at the lasting effects of her punch. “Scars,” Frank barked.

The younger boy flinched, his face reddening as he stood up. The chair scrapped against the concrete floor. “Fine,” he said.

Cutter shook his head at him, while Tenner made vague shooing motions. “Girl, let’s go,” he snarled, turning to go without waiting for her.

Nike trotted along side Scars. “Where are we going?”

“The Underbelly.”

Her eyes brightened at the name. “What is the Underbelly?”

Scars glared at her. Nike furrowed her brow comically back. “What is the Underbelly?” she repeated, louder this time.

He huffed and walked faster.

Chapter 3 - The Reds

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

WARNING: VIOLENCE DONE TO CHILD, VIOLENCE COMMITTED BY CHILD

Nike stretched. Her arms reaching upwards, hitting one end of her cardboard home while her feet extending out to the other end. The flap opened and her toes hit the chill morning air and promptly planted her toes right into a puddle, the last remnant of the rain from the day before. With a hiss, she cringed, pulling her feet back inside. She levered herself upright, shivering a little. Her eyes were still slits, sticky with gunk. Navigating her tiny hovel with eyes half closed was part of her morning ritual. Nike could feel the heat and light from the small gap between the flaps of the opening. She angled her head away as her hands searched out for the clothes she laid out to dry.

Instead, she found something warm and furry. There was a quiet huff and the lump stood. A cold wet nose prodded her face and she groaned. Her hands blindly pushed the offending lump away. “Not now, Dog,” she muttered.

Her hands went on with her search. Patting to the left yielded nothing. She did the same thing on the right and it had the same result. Nike sighed in frustration. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and winced at the light. She blinked hard and rubbed her eyes. “There you are,” she murmured as she reached towards her clothes.

The dog took her moment of distraction to poke his nose at her bag of bread ends again. But Nike was wise to his ways. “No, you don’t,” she said, pushing him firmly away, tucking the bag firmly behind her.

The oversized dirty clothes were slightly cleaner from the rain. Though they were still slightly damp, Nike pulled them on anyway. As she tugged on her shorts, Dog perked up. His ear, the erect one, turned and twisted. When she could hear the scrape of multiple footsteps, the dog shot out out her home.

“Traitor,” she muttered before carefully pulling the flaps of the cardboard box close, leaving herself a small gap to look out from.

She held her breath and waited. “Walk away, walk away.”

Nike counted the step-tread noises that approached. One of them was dragging their shoes. Another was kicking at every single loose item that littered the alley. A third one had the heavy thread of someone large. And the fourth had such a light step she could barely hear it.

One of the kicked cans thumped against her home. Her nostrils flared. Then the unmistakable sound of a foot stomping against her shelter. One corner promptly crumpled. The rain did no favours to the structural integrity of her cardboard hovel, no matter how well she tried to reinforce it.

Nike’s reaction was instant. “Hey!” she yelled as she crawled out of her home. “What are you doing?”

Outside were four boys of varying ages, all of them bigger and older. They stared at her. Nike’s fists tightened as she raised them before her, mimicking a pose she had seen in some posters. They weren’t familiar faces. They must be one of the newer gangs around. Gangs were always forming, disbanding, being taken over or destroyed like mushrooms after the rain. With a snarl curling her lips, she growled at them.

The first youth was built like a wall. His frame was stout and short, hovering on the edge of adulthood. With an oily stubby ponytail and a switchblade in hand, he sneered, “Look what we've got here.”

The blade flicked open with a snap. Nike stiffened and kept her eyes on it.

The second boy was lean but short, his head completely shone. His skin was pale and pasty, almost unhealthily so. Despite having his full growth, he looked young and unsure. Her eyes flicked to his hands. She couldn’t help notice the bleeding stubs of his fingernails. They were all chewed down to bits. “Just a little girl,” the second snorted. “What about it, Cutter?”

“Scars,” Cutter laughed, “This here is prey.”

Nike’s lips curled higher. “I am nobody’s prey!” she shouted.

She didn’t dare take her eyes off either of them. She prayed, she hoped, she wished someone would come. But this was the Slums, help was as unlikely as a credit chit. Nike gritted her teeth and swung her fist at Cutter, who was the nearest. He made no move to dodge. Her fist connected solidly, it sank a little against the initial layer of fat but quickly found solid muscle underneath. She winced, quickly withdrawing, her eyes darted between the boys.

A lean olive skinned boy barked a mocking laugh. A pair of plastic glasses perched on his nose, it almost slid off the length of his nose by how hard he was laughing.

“It’s not really that funny, Tenner,” Cutter drawled, his hand massaging the spot she hit.

Nike shrank back as they advanced. Loathe as much as she was to give up her home, she didn’t want to be hemmed in by them. She was realistic, this was a fight she wouldn’t win. Scars lunged at her, but she ducked under his outstretched arms. He stuck his foot out, and she stumbled. It wasn’t enough to bring her down. She twisted and danced out of his hands. Scars growled in frustration while the others were sniggered.

Nike backed away from them but bumped against the opening to her little shelter. There was nowhere else to go. And they outnumbered her. “What do you want? Leave me alone!” she shouted, fear making her voice high and sharp.

Her eyes scanned the opening of the alley again. This time it wasn’t empty. Two pair of eyes was watching. “Help!” she shouted, but she realised it was a pair of kids. They were younger than she was. There was no way they could help. They scurried away. It was what she would have done in their shoes.

Nike gritted her teeth and tried to will the blue fire alive. Nothing happened. Her arms remained normal. There was no unseen force. There was no pulling at her core. She clenched all her muscles, trying to summon it though sheer force of will. Nike grunted, squeezing her eyes shut for good measure.

Nothing.

The three boys looked on, more curious than anything else. “What do you think she is doing?” Cutter asked, scratching at the sparse stubble on his neck and chin.

“Maybe she is taking a dump?” Scars suggested, sniggering at his own joke.

Tenner rolled his eyes. “I just want to know if she is hiding anything good inside,” he said.

Then the fourth one stepped towards the others. He was more man than boy, older than the rest. Standing at least a head over the others, he was muscled and healthy. Nike eyed him warily, giving up on summoning the erratic magic.

"This isn't the point of this trip. Why are we stopping here?" he asked, pushing himself to the front.

“Awww, Frank, “Cutter said, “we’re just having a little of fun yeah?”

"Yeah," Scars echoed, his head bobbing up and down. "We're hot shots now, aren't we?"

Frank levelled his grey eyes on the younger boy. Scars clamped his lips shut and shuffled awkwardly away from Frank. Menace seemed to radiate from him. He folded his arms across his chest, muscles rippling under his t-shirt. Nike gritted her teeth, eyes darting between all of them.

Trapped!

Her breaths came harsh and quick, fists clenched, she was ready for the first chance to escape. But before she could act, Frank sighed. "So what are you waiting for? You guys just want to rough up some kid right?"

Scars chuckled. "Yeah."

Nike's blood turned to ice in her veins. The casual indifference to petty crimes were par for the course in the Slums but this was different. This was being malicious without a cause. There was nothing she had they could possibly want. They were doing this because they could. She had nothing to offer them to stop this. Nike dashed furious tears from her face.

“Must I do everything myself?” Frank asked, bored. The other three were waiting for his permission.

Desperation forced her into action. Nike did the only thing she could think of. She charged head first at him. He caught her wrist easily and twisted. Nike screamed as her wrist popped audibly. She struggled to tug her hand free, but all it did was send waves of pain up her arm. Tears were rolling down her cheeks in earnest now despite her best efforts.

“Scars,” he said, “Search the place.”

She whimpered as she watched him crawling into her home. Judging by the noise he was making, he was finding the space too small for him. “Serves him right,” she growled through her gritted teeth.

It didn’t take long before Scars was out again with her bag of bread ends. He looked almost triumphant. “This looks important.” He smirked as he made a big show of weighing it in his hands. “Nice and heavy too.”

“That’s mine!” she shouted, reaching out to grab the bag. She yelped at the motion made her trapped wrist flared in agnoy.

“Uh, uh, uh,” Scars said in a singsong voice, wriggling his finger in her face. “This must be treasure then.”

“Open it,” Tenner approached.

Scars looked at Frank for permission before opening it. His lips curled in disgust as he tipped the bread ends out onto the ground. Nike yowled like a cat as she twisted with renewed strength, wrist be damned. Scars was out of her reach but Frank wasn’t. She didn’t care who he was.

This was food, her food. It was going last her for days and now it was wasted. She wouldn’t allow no one to get away with this. She didn’t survive two years on her own to be cowed by the likes of them.

Then, it connected. Some switch inside her flipped. It was random, had always been. Maybe the sight of Scars stomping on her bread ends, grounding them under his heel. Blue ran up her arms as she flared, brilliant and striking.

Nike wanted to feel Frank’s sharp cheekbones under her fists, but he was too tall. She aimed at the next best thing - his groin. Her fist buried itself in flesh, soft and yielding, with a force she didn’t know she had. A sharp yelp came from Frank. His legs gave out like she had taken a sledgehammer to his knees. Nike pulled her other hand free. The pain was like a drill bit grinding against her nerves. She cradled her wrist to her chest. Tears from pain, frustration, and anger spilled from her eyes.

She hesitated for a second, weighing between continuing her rampage or fleeing. Blood rushed to her face as she bit her lip in shame. Teeth gnashing, Nike turned tail and ran. Her legs pushed against the ground. Her arms pressed against her chest. Her lungs heaved.

Faster, faster, faster!

Then a pair of hands yanked on her oversized shirt, her too large shoes foiled her run and she went sprawling. The ground came rushing up towards her face. With her arms pressed against her chest, there was nothing to break her fall. Nike went down hard, right into a puddle of water. The stench of the water was overpowering but what’s worse was the taste. It was putrid and bitter. But she was too dazed to do more than kick out against whoever was holding on to her.

“Let. Me. Go!”

She tried to turn over to face her attacker but a knee pressed against her back. It felt like a building was sitting on her. Air rushed out of her lungs in a strangled cough. The pressure forced her nose into the puddle. She clamped her mouth shut so that she didn’t take more sewage in. Her wrist screamed as grit and tiny rocks dug themselves into her flesh.

“Let her up,” The voice was oddly strangled.

The pressure eased, and she took gulps of air. A hand laced through her messy black mop of hair and wrenched her head up while another hand took hold of her shirt. They hauled her bodily to her feet. Water was dripping down her entire front.

“Now you’re done,” Scar said, delight dripping from his voice from behind her.

Nike bucked like a horse, twisting to bite. What was a little less hair if she could sink her teeth on Scars? But his grip was too tight, her head too woozy to do any real damage. She cast her baleful eyes on Frank. It was with pleasure she noticed he looked pale and grey. “Serves you right,” she smirked.

Frank gritted his teeth. He wobbled on his feet and couldn’t find it in himself to straighten his back. Nike expected to find anger but instead he looked at her appraisingly. That scared her more than if she found rage facing her.

He is a Snatcher! He will cut me up and steal my insides.

Sweat beaded across her forehead not from exertion but from fear. She was too tired to fight. The day had barely begun, and she never felt more plummeted by life. Her stomach decided at that time to growl. Her eyes stared at the ground up bread ends. Anger surged again.

Frank ignored her, opting to look at the others. Cutter looked away, grimacing in sympathy. Tenner squinted and busied himself with rooting around her home. Scars was the only one sniggering. “You’re going to get it now, girl,” he said, “nobody gets away with that.”

“Scars,” Frank said, his voice still strained.

The younger boy looked up, eager for whatever orders Frank had for him. His grip tightened painfully, tugging at her hair. Nike couldn’t do anything but allow him to drag her around by her hair.

“Yes, boss!”

“Shut up,” Frank said.

He turned his disturbingly colourless grey eyes to her. Wincing, he shuffled towards her. Nike struggled, but Scars held her fast.

“Girl,” Frank said.

Nike jerked her chin up at him. “What do you want?” she snarled, her voice breaking at the last word. Her face flushed with heat.

“What do you think about joining the Reds?” he asked, his eyes staring into her own.

Nike shuddered, a chill running down her spine. It was a certainty that there was only one right answer. Before she could answer, protests erupted from the others. Scars was the loudest. “Why are we recruiting her?” he asked, giving her a shake for good measure.

Nike’s legs were rubbery by this time. Using her magical power always left her tired and hungry. And this time doing that without eating anything since the night before was taking a toll.

“Frank, I can see why you recruited Tenner but this girl?” Cutter asked, his hand gesturing wildly at her. “She is too young to be useful. She is just another mouth to feed. Our tithe would just go up.”

Tenner kept quiet, his head cocked. “Biotics,” he said almost reverently.

Frank chuckled. “And that’s why Tenner is smarter than the both of you put together,” he said. “This little girl will help us make a lot of money.”

He shuffled closer. “What do you say, girl?”

It didn’t do to just give in quite so easily. “What’s in it for me?” she snarled.

Frank rested his weight on one leg and cocked his hip. “The Reds guarantees your safety,” he said as he counted on his fingers. “Your meals, a warm bed and showers. And maybe eventually credits.”

The snarl faded as the gears in her head turned. “Food, shelter, safety?” she repeated.

Frank nodded. “All you have to do is to do as I tell you.”

“Like what?” Nike asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Well, hitting people for starters, which you’re already good at,” he pointed out.

Cutter and Scars couldn’t control their sniggers. Frank shot them both a look, silencing them. “Among other things,” he went on. “You will have us as friends instead of enemies.”

Nike bit the inside of her cheek. It sounded like a good deal. Living on the streets sounded like complete freedom, but it was a tough life. Her stomach growled, reminding her about her priorities.

“And we can get your wrist looked at.”

She glared at Frank, pulling her wrist tighter against her chest. He grunted as he squat down to her level. Without asking for permission, he ran his hand over the back of her neck and up her hair. Nike flinched and pulled away but Frank’s other hand clamped down on her shoulder. She winced and held still. Satisfied with whatever he was trying to do, he got to his feet again.

Frank turned to Tenner. “No amp or implant,” he said.

Tenner nodded and tapped on his omni-tool. It was one of those clunky cuff models. They all had one. And those were expensive. Unless they stole them. Still it spoke of some sort of organisation. More than the regular gangs she had seen in the Slums.

She observed them, properly this time, without the haze of anger and fear. They were all dressed in clothes that fit them. They were clean, cleaner than she was. None of them looked like they were sleeping it rough. The deal was looking better to her by the minute.

“So what will it be, girl?” Frank asked. “You want friends or enemies?”

Nike couldn’t bring herself to look into Frank’s colourless eyes. Behind him, Cutter was flicking the little knife opened and closed, raising his eyebrows at her meaningfully. Tenner was busy on his omni-tool, tapping away. Scars’ fingers were still tight in her hair. His breath beating down her neck. She wished she could cringe away.

Pain flashed across her face. Nike winced. Her cheek stung as it throbbed. Frank had his hand up ready to slap her on the other cheek. “What will it be, girl?” he repeated. “Friends or enemies?”

Nike exhaled, long and hard. Her green-yellow eyes finally meeting Frank’s, shuddering a little. “Friends,” she spat.

Just like that, Frank jerked his head at Scars. Without him holding her up, she sagged to the ground. Frank turned to his people and said, “So…”

He turned to look at her. “What’s your name?”

Nike considered not answering. Frank was decidedly not nice. She glared at him, but her sore body convinced her otherwise. She might as well go with the flow and see where this took her. “Nike,” she said, her tongue poking at her sore cheek from the inside.

“Nike? Like the shoes?” he asked.

She frowned. “Like the woman in the poster.”

Frank shrugged. “Right, let’s welcome our latest member, Nike.”

Scars and Cutter looked at her with doubt in their eyes, but neither spoke against it. Tenner had the same look of anticipation as Frank.

“Right, now that’s out of the way,” Frank said, turning towards Cutter. “I’ll need a little help walking.”

The four of them started down the alley. With a lingering look at her crumpled home, ground down bread ends, Nike gritted her teeth.

This is for the better.

Chapter 2 - Name

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

She trudged through the street, arms wrapped around her scrawny body. Her stomach growled angrily. The street was long and wide. Gang members perched at street corners like hawks waiting for prey. Older kids with roughly fashioned clubs or blunted blades, sporting colours of their gang affiliations, eyed her like meat. Kids younger than her with eyes made hollow by hunger and malnourishment looked at her hopefully. Their thin arms held out hopefully. She gritted her teeth and straightened. 

I’m better than them.

It was a strange sort of pride to survive on her own. Nobody took in kids like her. Too young for useful work, needing too much food, needing too much resources. She couldn’t guess at her own age. Time was meaningless on the streets anyway. If she were to guess, she figured she was no older than nine or ten. 

There was a fuzzy, vague memory of people singing a birthday song. Kids and adults clapping and singing in chorus. She shook her head, and the image faded. 

The younger kids she didn’t have much pity for. She was after all one of their number. And she had to look out for herself. It was the older kids, those that ran in packs she was wary of. 

“I am no prey,” she muttered, crossing the street to give the nearest bunch a wide berth.

Her stomach complained again reminding her why she was heading towards the city centre.

The city, a bright and shiny metropolis that had been dying by inches from neglect and lack of governance for years. Midtown and Central thrived at the expense of the Slums. It was a line that cleaved the city into halves, the haves and the have nots. 

Midtown was where regular people worked and lived. And that would be where she could get away with a little borrowing. They were better off than the folks in the Slums, a little less wary, a little less vigilant. It made them easier to steal from. Well, it would work as long as none of the older kids decided she didn’t need whatever she got. 

Her gait made uneven by shoes too large for her feet. Laces cinched up tight around her ankles were the only reason they stayed on. Sleeves pushed over her shoulders, all rolled up but they still slid past her elbows. Her shirt reached mid-thigh, while what was supposed to be shorts went past her knees. Sweat dotted her back as she walked on. Her clothes were covered with a layer of dirt and grime that the original colour was merely a fading memory. Heedless of it, she wiped her hands on her stained shorts. 

Her black hair was too messy to have seen a scissor in years. It was uneven and roughly cut as if done with a blunt knife. Her eyes scanned the streets warily. The hair on the back of her neck tingled and the space between her shoulder blades itched. She rolled her shoulders and forced herself to keep moving. Running would only invite chase. She knew it well. 

Her scuffed knees and scrapped knuckles had met the rough asphalt and sharp barb wires many times, just to keep ahead of the older kids. They laughed as they chased but she was smart. Her size was her asset, and she used it. She was growing taller though not filling out her clothes any better. Sooner or later her advantage would disappear. 

I’ll just be faster and smarter.

She huffed. It was a problem for another time. Now she was hungry, and she needed to go shopping for credits. Her legs took her passed the sad little shops of the Slums. They were merely tables with stolen wares laid out, tended by people that glared balefully at anyone walking by. Those places attracted no interest and even fewer customers. It was meaningless to try. Acid churned and gnawed at her from the inside out. Pressing a hand against her stomach, she walked on. 

The walls plastered with posters peeling with age. Her eyes followed the familiar trail of what was once colourful images. She ran her hand over them, tracing a giant golden arch on one, mouth watering at the well-worn picture of a burger next. Her mouth watered despite the grime-covered photo, her hand wiping across its length longingly. 

“One day,” she promised herself as her stomach growled in sympathy.

Her hand lingered over the burger as she read the alphabets next to it. Most of it were long gone but she could make out the B-U-R-G-E-R. She knew her letters, but reading was something beyond her. She sighed, running her hand along the wall towards her all-time favourite poster. 

A woman, unsmiling, sweat dripping from her brow and a snarl on her face. She imagined that she would be like the woman when she was all grown up. I’ll be strong, Pulling her lips back in a snarl like the poster, she flexed her arms. She growled and laughed, feeling inordinately pleased with herself. Her hand ran past the lady’s face towards the giant check mark next to her. Then, there were four alphabets. She frowned as she read the letters out loud. 

“N-I-K-E.” 

She made a sound of frustration when she could not work out how to read it. Sometimes she wished she could go to school and learnt words. She had seen Midtown kids all smiles and happiness, dressed in clean white uniforms as they entered gates of buildings with their peers. But food and water overrode everything, learning was the least of her worries. Almost reluctantly she lifted her hand from the wall and ran her hand down the front of her shirt, heedless of the trail of black her hand left. This was all part of her ritual when she headed to Midtown. Once done, she yanked her attention back to the street. 

This was still the Slums. She had to be careful. Snatchers were everywhere. Rumours of kids disappearing, never seen again, were rife on the streets. She had made the trip to Midtown often enough to notice. A familiar face missing, a younger sibling crying in the streets. It always put a chill up her spine. She knew she was vulnerable. The lone kid, part of no gang, relying on nobody but herself for protection. She didn’t have someone watching her back. She was a loner. She spent those days being more watchful than usual, staying up just to guard against phantom hands that never came until weariness took her. Quick and slippery was how she stayed ahead, and she made it work. She survived with nimble fingers and even swifter feet. 

Her stomach rumbled, like she had swallowed a mini thunderstorm. She patted her belly, slightly bulging despite having not enough to eat. “Soon,” she promised. 

Eventually she entered Midtown. There was no clear border between the Slums and Midtown, but the change was noticeable. Gangs of older kids and young adults faded and there were more working class folks decked out in the latest asari-styled smart casual out strolling. The structures lacked the drearily and drab exterior of the Slums. And things might be old but they maintained and repaired. Shops opened and tended to by people who didn’t glared at everyone. 

Here, she walked hunched over, making herself smaller and younger. Gone was the confidence, the almost swagger she had earlier. She had to make herself unobtrusive if not invisible. But her feet were unerring, they took her towards the Markets. 

Overhead, a tram rumbled. She craned her head and watched it chugged onwards on its tracks. Her eyes stared at the picture plastered across the seven carriages. A man with a wide smile hugging a woman who beamed happily. A young child holding on to the man’s and the woman’s hand, grinning. It was a smile so wide, she couldn’t imagine having the same expression on her face. Time made the pretty and clean faces all slightly grey. Still, she enjoyed looking at them and imagining herself being that happy. The advertisement had a string of words running across the carriages. It was hard to make out. She couldn’t read the words but she could sound out the alphabets. 

“S-U-N. Sun, yes I know that,” she muttered under her breath. 

She trotted a little to keep pace. Her eyes glued onto the string of letters. “C-O-R-P,” she spelt as she tried to read the letters before the tram disappeared. “I-N-S-U-R-A-N-C-E.”

She tried to sound out the words in her head, but it all sounded awkward and strange. Her brow furrowed in frustration. Her eyes lingered over the smiling faces of the three people until it was completely out of sight. She sighed and trotted towards the Markets. It was still early and already it was packed with people. Parents with arms filled with squirming, squealing babies. Teens with arms laden with bags trudging behind a grandparent. Delivery people with carts and trolleys piled high with boxes, shouting at the throng to clear the way. Vendors waving their hands at everyone passing by to look at their wares. She shuffled along and joined the flow of human traffic. 

It must be a weekend.

She pressed herself against a small niche between two stalls. The fragrance of the ripe fruits, from the stall on her left, baking in the sun made her stomach howled while the freshly baked bread cooling on trays just next to her from the stall on her right made her mouth watered. 

This is just torture.

Licking her lips and resigning herself to more hunger pangs, she sank onto her haunches and waited. Her eyes watchful and her body still. She couldn’t help marvelling at the amount of food these people were buying. “Who could eat so much?” she whispered.

Nobody answered. 

Eventually she settled on her mark. It was a man, older and heavyset. What’s important was his arms were busy with his purchases. The prize was the credit chit he had. Her eyes traced his hand earlier. It was in his back pocket. A smirk tugged at her lips. She was still small enough that made weaving between the press of flesh easy. A quick step to slide between two bodies, an agile duck under arms and she was right behind him. 

In and out, then I eat.

She bumped into the man, pretending to trip. It was quick. It was something she had done so many times before. A deft flick of her fingers and a twitch of her arm, she had the credit chit out of his pocket and in her hand. The man spun around and glared at her. 

“Hey, watch it,” he shouted.

She held one hand up placatingly. “Sorry, sir.”

The man growled, but his stuff filled his arms. Unwilling to leave without some kind of retaliation, he kicked out. She saw it coming and tried to back away. The Markets was too crowded. She had no room to duck. She twisted and his foot connected against her side. She fell heavily, her hand still keeping a tight grip on the credit chit. 

“Get your ass back to the Slums, your kind isn’t welcome here,” the man spat. 

A glob of spit landed on her face. Anger flared like a volcano with nowhere to go but inwards. She bit down on her lip to keep from giving the game away. She got to her feet quickly, not wiling to endure another kick. Sticking her tongue out, she flipped the man the bird as she scrambled off, her prize in hand. 

“There better be some decent credit in that chit.” 


As she headed back towards the Slums she muttered under her breath. “If only Dog was here, I would have gone to the station.” With the dog around, she would have tried her luck with tourists. 

Just beyond Midtown was the Transit Hub, it was the heart of Central. Three tall towers dominated the skyline, holding up the shuttle station between them. Their gleaming glass surfaces stood stark against the blue sky. The Transit Hub was a conflux of skycars, trams and shuttles. Half of the northern hemisphere’s international travel arrived or departed from this location. 

But to the girl who stared with wide-eyed wonder, eyes squinting as the glass surfaces reflected the sun into her eyes, that wasn’t the point. The key selling point was the tourists. Aliens of all shapes and sizes had to pass this place. She found a spot on the sprawling low steps that led up to one tower and sat down. The dog rested his chin between his paws and leaned against her, one ear perked up, the other floppy and down

Her stomach was growling. Normally on a day like this, she would have gotten at least a customer or two by now. But it seemed the visitors today were wise to the ways of the kids here. She sighed, eyeing the sky carefully. The dark clouds were already rolling in. It was time to decide if she was better of packing it in. 

A telltale, decidedly foreign voice rang out. 

She lifted her head and saw a blue alien stepping out of the Transit Hub. The alien had dusky blue skin, freckles that littered her face like stardust, her lips a violet purple, where one expected hair were crests like waves upon her head. 

A grin split her mouth. Finally. She waved her arms wildly, trying to catch the alien’s attention. 

The alien perked up and approached. She spoke. Her language was like water, one syllable flowing into the next and the next. Sometimes her voice shifted in pitch like a question, tinkling like water from a little stream. Other times it was like the rushing of a waterfall. The girl sat and smiled as she always did. These aliens always had these funny languages but she couldn’t understand at all. But that had never stopped her from earning a little credits. 

Dog sat up and sniffed the alien. The alien’s face lit up. This was when she knew to strike. 

“Picture?”

The alien cocked her head. Her lips flapped and more words came through. The girl maintained her smile and repeated. “Picture?”

There was the familiar frown when the alien realised she didn’t understand a single word she spoke. A nod. That was what she was waiting for. She sprung into action. Dog knew his job. He pressed his body against the alien. The alien dumped her bags and all unceremoniously onto the ground before wrapping her arms around Dog. 

She stretched her hand out for the alien’s omni-tool. The alien faltered when they both realised she wasn’t using a cuff model. It was the new implant model. The girl's face fell and sighed. But the alien placed a hand on her shoulder before she went rummaging into her bags. It took a while but the alien eventually got an orange glowing pad out. 

She accepted it from the alien and lifted it up to view them through it. The device was easy enough to use. A press of a thumb against the orange screen and it hummed. More than a little alarmed she handed it back to the alien. The alien smiled. She couldn’t help a smile of her own. The alien beckoned her to take her place. She obliged and grinned as she pressed her face against Dog’s. Dog’s folded ear tickling her cheek. 

“Me, Liara. You?”

The girl blinked. That was in English. Name. That was a loaded question. She shook her head. 

The alien straightened and stowed the device away. There was an orange glowing object in her hand. She recognised it as a holo but she hadn’t seen one in person before. The alien handed it to her. "For you."

 

Art by Naeviss on Tumblr

 

The alien’s kind blue eyes looked like an ocean she could fall into. She shook herself and took the holo. It was a picture of herself and Dog, toothy grin and all. For a moment, she felt guilty for what she was about to do. Her stomach growled again, reminding her she had had nothing for a few days. 

Tucking the holo into her pocket. she lifted her hand towards the alien. “1000 credits please.”

The alien blinked. Shock and surprise crept in over her speckled face slowly but when it hit, it creased her brow and twisted her mouth. 

She was used to this. Her sale pitch ready, she said, “For you, discount. 500 credits.”

The alien sighed. But made no move to hand over any credit chit. 

“Service, photo with Dog. 1000 credits. You special, you get discount,” she said, lifting the little cardboard she had with her and pointed. “See. 1000 credits.”

The alien looked at the ground for a moment, lost in thought. Eventually she withdrew a credit chit from her pocket. She checked the balance via her omni-tool before handing it over. Dog barked on cue. 

“Thank you!” she shouted as rain splattered down onto the ground in huge globs.

She spared the strange alien named Liara a glance as she ran for shelter, Dog hot on her heels. The pretty alien struggled with her bags as she ran back inside the Transit Hub.

The girl ate well on the alien’s credits even though her guilty conscious pricked at her whenever she looked at the holo. 

Better full and guilty than hungry and not.


The memory of that day didn’t keep her distracted for long. It was near noon and the Slums was waking up. Adults with scowls and sneers replaced the gangs of kids. This was nothing unusual for the Slums. But with credit chit in her pocket, she walked slightly faster than usual. 

Eyes bloodshot and hungry followed her as she made her way towards one stall. A shudder crawled up her spine. She glanced back and snarled. A man with oily greying hair, combed in a vain attempt to cover a bald spot, grinned. He was reclining on a chair outside an abandoned shop. It was clear this was his usual spot. He had a table next to him, cluttered with his instruments.

“Little girly, do you want some?” he asked. “I can share.”

She stared out of morbid curiosity. He had a dirty syringe filled with a red liquid in his hand as he flicked his finger against it twice. His eyes met hers. Leaning forward in his chair, he beckoned at her with his fingers. “I see you’re a curious little kitty,” he said, waving the syringe around. “Such a wee thing, just a little jab, this can send you to heaven. And it’s so happy up there.”

Snake fast, his hand shot out and clamped down around her wrist. She yelped, more out of shock than pain. “Let go!” she growled, tugging to free her hand. 

“Come on,” he said, “it will be my treat. I can be generous. Just keep still.”

Despite how frail and thin he looked, his grip was strong. She flailed and pulled, he tightened his hand in response. He drew back his arm, the needle glinted in the sun. 

Panic seized her, and she Pushed. 

She stiffened, muscles all clenching up. Her temples ached as her brain felt like it caught on fire. An energy lit up from within her, running through her limbs, squeezing her chest painfully tight. A force stronger than what she could ever manage erupted from her hands. 

This wasn’t the first time. But she never could control it. It only triggered when she panicked. And right now, she was afraid. 

Pressure mounted behind her eyes. Her vision went white as she careened backwards and landed on her butt. The man and his chair tipped end over end.. He shouted as the chair fell on him. 

“You have done it now, girly!” he yelled as he shoved the chair aside. “Here I was trying to send you to heaven.”

She scrambled backwards on her hands and butt before getting on her feet. Her eyes watered as her vision blurred. “Get away from me!” she screamed. 

As the man made a grab for her again, she half staggered half trotted out of the way. This time she made sure they were more than an arm’s length apart. “Leave me alone!” she snarled as she backed away as quickly as her wobbly legs managed. 

The man glared at her with all the power of his red-rimmed eyes, but he didn’t follow. 

She stumbled on. The alley was cool, the shadow of the building providing meagre shade. Panting, she pressed her back against the wall. Something warm dripped from her face onto her shirt. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. A strangled whimper escaped her lips when she realised it was blood. Hastily she clamped her lips shut, pressing them into a thin line. She pressed the heel of her palm against her eye in an attempt to push the pulsing ache behind her eyes away. Her teeth bit down on her lip, hard enough she tasted blood. 

“Girl,” a voice said. 

She jerked her head up, raising her fists, ready for a fight. 

“Easy, easy,” the voice said. 

It was a lady, dark-skinned, her hair all done up in long dreads, looking at her. The lady’s eyes were red rimmed but from exhaustion rather than Red Sand. “Girl,” she called again, a cigarette clamped between her fingers. “Are you ok?”

She looked up and stared into the lady’s dark eyes. Sliding along the wall, she shifted away from the lady, feeling cornered and assaulted on all directions. 

“Hey kid,” the lady called, her voice softer and lower this time, “What’s your name?”

She couched down, bringing herself down to the girl's level. “My name is Meg,” she introduced. “See I work over there.”

Meg pointed, with her hand by encumbered with the cigarette, towards a building with a giant billboard. It wasn't far from where they stood. Her cigarette left a trail of smoke in the air stinging her eyes as she followed Meg’s hand. It was a low building just three stories tall nestled among taller structure. It had letters on the facade. She frowned, her inability to read frustrating her once more. 

She flinched when she felt a pressure on her shoulder. “Hey, hey,” Meg said. “Easy.”

Meg held her hands up. “Look, you’re bleeding kid,” she said pointing at the smear of blood. “Just come and get yourself cleaned up.”

The older lady turned and headed deeper into the alley before disappearing into a door. She trudged warily after Meg. The door wasn’t one of those new ones she had seen in parts of Midtown, with the green and red holo-locks. This one was an old-styled door, complete with an actual door knob. It had cracks running the length of the door, and it was more black than its original white. The door was dented in multiple spots as if from a boot was taken to it. And it was ajar. She hovered outside unwilling to enter. Her hand tightened on the credit chit she stole. 

Meg popped her head out. “Come in,” she said. 

She shook her head. Meg sighed and disappeared into her home again. She waited and wondered if she should just go. Her stomach had stopped growling, but it was gnawing at her insides angrily. She pressed her hand against her upper abdomen and set her jaw. Then there was shuffling inside, she stiffened and backed away. Meg appeared with a pair of stools and a small pail of water. Wordlessly, she put both stools on the ground and sat down on one. The pail was on the ground next to her. Meg took a deep inhale of her rapidly shortening cigarette and gestured towards the empty stool. “Girl, do you want my help or not?” she asked impatiently. 

She scooted over to the stool and sat down. Her shoulders tense, her feet bounced as her eyes followed Meg’s every move. Meg didn’t comment and stubbed the cigarette out on the ground. She rinsed a washcloth out from the pail. The washcloth felt cool against her face. She closed her eyes as Meg ran the cloth over her face. Rough hands cupped her cheek as Meg rubbed against some stubborn spot of dirt. Meg worked wordlessly. The lingering scent of cheap cigarettes wasn’t unpleasant. Bit by bit she relaxed, enjoying the physical contact. 

“There,” Meg said, and the spell was broken. 

She opened her eyes and stared into Meg’s. A lump formed in her throat and she clenched her jaw, refusing to give in to the strange emotion. A memory tickled at the back of her mind, this all felt familiar but she couldn’t quite remember. She blinked rapidly as her eyes grew hot. 

“Now, will you tell me your name, girl?” Meg asked. 

She racked her brain. A name? Did she have a name? Did everyone have a name? She couldn’t remember. 

“Can you speak?” Meg asked cocking her head as she rested her arms on her knees. “I heard you just fine when you’re fighting with Miller just now.”

“N-I-K-E,” she said. 

“Is that your name?” Meg asked. 

She nodded and bit her lip, afraid Meg would ask her to say it. She didn’t know how to sound the word out. 

“Nike huh?” Meg said, “That’s a pretty name. And you’re a pretty girl under all that dirt.”

Nike. 

She turned the name over and over in her head. She liked the way it sounded in her head. “Yeah,” she said, the words got caught in her throat. “That’s my name. Nike.”

Meg smiled. “You’re an odd one, Nike. The colour of your eyes… Is it green or yellow?” she asked as she bent to get a better look. 

Nike baulked and scrambled out of her stool. Meg sighed and shook her head. “You’re a flighty one aren’t you?”

Meg put on a grin that made Nike’s teeth itched. She was on high alert again. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the older lady. “Now I see you have something there in your hand. Is there something you want to buy with that? Maybe we can do a little trade, huh? Maybe I’ll give you a discount?”


Nike’s face fall when Meg scanned the credit chit over her omni-tool. She didn’t know many words, but she understood numbers just fine. The flashing ten on the display told her everything she needed to know. 

“Ten?” she asked, looking at Meg, crestfallen. 

“I can scan it again but I’m afraid that number will not change,” Meg offered. 

A tap, a beep and again that number ten. Nike sank down onto the stool, shoulders slumped. Her ribs twinged and her stomach roared its displeasure. Meg got up and went inside, leaving her alone. 

Maybe I should just go home.

She sighed and stood up, ready to leave when Meg returned. “Hey,” she called out.

Nike turned back. 

“I’ll trade that ten credits for this bag,” she said tossing the bag over to her. 

Nike caught it easily. She undid the knot and looked inside. A smile plastered on her face and grinned. “Thanks!” she said as she handed Meg the credit chit. 

Without so much as a goodbye Nike was off again. She didn’t want to linger now that her business was done. She couldn’t be sure Meg wasn’t a Snatcher after all. 

Nike hummed happily. The bag was a substantial weight in her hand. She opened the bag again and sniffed. It filled her nose the wonderful yeasty smell of bread. Inside were bread ends. Pulling one piece out, she sniffed at it suspiciously. Though it looked a little discoloured, she still considered it a good trade. Tentatively, she took a bite. It was rather leathery and dry but her saliva moistened the starch up easily. She chewed slowly and deliberately, trying to make the taste last. 

This is enough to last me a few days.

The clap of thunder made her jerked her head skyward. She stiffened for a second, frozen by the noise. The sky opened up and rain fell in earnest. “Shit!” she cursed, the fat droplets of water jolting her into action. 

She took the time to make sure the bag was knotted. She refused to let rain ruined her hard earned food. What she lacked in stride length, she made up for in frequency. Nike was the only thing moving on the streets. The deeper into the Slums she ran, the emptier the street was. But it was by no means void of people, they were all merely hidden. But the rain was deterrence enough for most predators. After all she was just another kid, with nothing but the clothes on her back. 

Nike was almost home. These were alleys, streets and empty buildings most familiar to her. Home wasn’t an empty shop front. Home wasn’t a soft comfortable bed and warm showers. Home was a large tarp filched from a construction site covering a large cardboard box. It was big enough for her to lay curled on her back and still had all her limbs inside. She had collected piles of newspaper and smaller flattened cardboard boxes for warmth. Though the city was mostly a balmy 28˚C, nights were still cold outdoors. 

Nike yanked the canvas sheet covering her home open and dove in. There was a yelp of surprise and she froze. From among the newspaper a black nose poked out. She laughed. “It’s you.”

The form squirmed and stood up. Newspaper falling to reveal a dog as dirty as Nike was. It was just a dog, but it was Dog in his mismatched ears glory. He jumped and nipped at Nike’s ankle happily before he poked his nose at the bag. Giggling, she twisted the bag out of his reach. "Where were you?" she asked. "If you were here, I didn't have to try my luck at Midtown. We could have gone to the Transit Hub!"

She used her legs to keep the dog away as she checked the precious cargo. It was dry. Carefully, she re-knotted the bag and put it aside. “That’s for later,” she said, pushing the nosy dog away. 

She grimaced and stripped out of her wet clothes and wrung the water out. There was no good place to hang them so she spread them out as best she could. Shivering slightly she pulled the smaller canvas sheet over her naked body while Dog pressed himself against her back. 

“You are warm,” she whispered as she cuddled up against him. 

Nike smiled despite her trembling body and pounding head. It was a confusing day but good all around. “I got a name today,” she whispered. “My name is Nike.”