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.
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.
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.
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."
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.”
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.”