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.