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