The Lost Childhood

Chapter 13 - The Strays

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Nike forced herself to release her biotics. Her heart still slammed against her chest, insisting there was danger. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she demanded, frowning.

She counted three heads, Tiny and two unfamiliar girls. The kids were leaning against the wall on the second level of the apartment block directly overlooking the basketball court turned training ground. Though Tiny was one of the latest among the many runts hanging out outside the base, he was the only familiar face among them. Scars and the others had no qualms using him as a runner. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a spy from some other enterprising gang looking for intel.

But he looks so damn young, no older than six. A spy at six? Still, it’s probably best to be safe than sorry.

Nike reached behind, her left hand seeking the pistol tucked into her waistband. Her eyes darted towards the two exits at both ends of the basket ball court. They were still clear.

“Why did you stop?” Tiny asked, his fingers clinging to the edges of the wall to keep himself propped on the half-wall.

The older Caucasian girl with dirty blonde hair swatted at Tiny. The boy lost his balance in his attempt to avoid it and disappeared out of view as he landed heavily on the ground. His dramatic moans were loud and long as it echoed across the empty apartment block.

“What the fuck are you all doing here?” she repeated, her tone harsher.

The older girl flinched and disappeared out of view. Nike’s grip on the pistol tightened. The South East Asian younger girl with black hair was tugged down out of view as well. With all three gone, she couldn’t help the tingle of danger crawling up her spine.

“Now what?” she muttered under her breath.

She couldn’t decide if they were a danger. Well, not physically but if they were spies, she shouldn’t leave them be. They were on Reds’ territory after all. But they were just kids, what could they possibly do? Her thoughts ran in circles inside her head. I didn’t come here to have another headache.

Tiny wasn't going anywhere without a fight. “No, I want to watch! I don’t want to go home. It is so boring!” His protests loud, but midway through his whining it was muffled as if someone had covered his mouth with a hand. “Stop it! I’m Tiny now. The Champion gave me a nickname. I’m cool, not like you!”

Nike sniggered. The boy was surely a handful. A scruff of shoe against concrete caught her attention. She twisted and drew her pistol. Nothing seemed amiss, but she knew what she heard. She didn’t become one of most feared member of the Reds for nothing.

“I know you’re there,” she shouted. “Come out.”

Nothing moved. Even Tiny’s voice was silenced. Her eyes narrowed. Being on bare feet enabled her to move quickly and, more importantly, quietly. One glance at the second level yielded nothing. There were only two ways out, barring going through the abandoned apartment building. She weighed her choices. It was a single scruff, unlikely to be a rival gang’s ambush, though that had happened before. It sounded more like a solitary scout at best.

Are Tiny and the girls in on it? Being kids didn’t mean they are not acting for a gang. I was dangerous enough on my own back then.

A growl rumbled low in her chest. Whoever it was probably came for the kids or were in cahoots with them. She would have better chances of holding them hostage than seeking out the hidden fourth person. Decision made, she moved quickly towards the apartment block. There was a couple of lift lobbies, but the elevators dimmed and rusty from disuse. This part of the Slums had no running electricity for years. There was no way they were in use, so the stairs it was. Likewise there were two sets on opposite ends of the rectangular building. She studied the one closest to her and bounded up it.

If this was an ambush she wanted bodies between her and the bullets, dressed in just a black sports bra and shorts wasn’t great for handling one. Teeth clenched, she took the stairs two at a time. As soon as she hit the second level, she couched. Pressing her back against the grimy wall, ignoring the way dust and dirt clung to her wet skin, she slid along it.

It didn’t mattered they were kids. An enemy was an enemy no matter how old they were. A bullet killed as easily no matter who pulled the trigger. It was ugly, but Nike held no illusions of the reality of her life on the streets. It was never as pretty and clean as the movies she enjoyed. Finding a man and falling in love wasn’t something she had seen happened in her reality. Take or be taken, eat or be eaten. Nike knew which she preferred. Life was a battlefield and it had taught her to be decisive. Inaction was worse than taking the wrong action.

She edged out. The corridor was empty. Litter lined the place. It wasn’t a large block, just six apartments on each level. Two were behind her. Both had boarded up doors and windows. There was no getting in or out of those. Four more possibilities. She had to act quickly. There was no telling where the fourth person was. She didn’t want to feel the barrel of a gun against her head.

A furtive peek revealed nothing. She stepped out careful into the corridor, ignoring the pricks from broken glass and debris against her soles. Pistol held low, safety off. She only had a single heat sink, she wasn’t expecting trouble, but here she was creeping along instead of retreating.

First door was boarded up, so was the second. That left two on the other end, nearest to the other staircase. She rushed the nearest one. Leaving partial bloody footprints as she went, she twisted to fit her body in the small opening of the thin slat that functioned as a door. Her back got caught along it, cutting a long line across her back. She barely felt it.

Inside wasn’t completely dark. Light streamed in from between the cracks of boarded up windows. One sleeping bag was spread across what used to be the living room. The other kids must occupy the rooms then. She took in the space, dead ahead was the kitchen. One glance told her it was empty. The left was a short corridor with three rooms and no doors. Logic dictated she checked the rooms first, but instinct was screaming for her to enter the kitchen.

She hovered at the crossroads. Inaction is worse.

She always listened to her gut. It had never failed her. Quick steps down the length of the kitchen, dim light cast odd shapes around her. For a split second, the smell of blood and a little girl sliced open flashed across her mind’s eye. She flinched, blinking rapidly to shove the image out of her head.

There was another small door right at the end. Her instincts crowed its victory as she stepped closer. Her left hand holding her pistol steady, her right palm reaching out to push the door open. She was swift. The sheet metal that functioned as a door slammed against the tiled wall. Screams filled the air as she stepped inside.

Three pairs of eyes were starring back at her. Nike took in the scene. Tiny and the two girls cowering, the oldest being the Caucasian girl covering the others with her body. She had to be no older than 12. “How many of you are there?” Nike growled, watching the awe in Tiny’s eyes turned to fear.

The sight made her guts churned. She hadn’t realised she never saw herself as the bad guy until this very moment. Her jaw tightened, she would not be swayed. “Up!”

“No, no, we meant you no harm. Please!” the older girl begged, tears streaming down her face.

Too soft. How did she survive? She have to be new to the streets.

Nike cast an evaluating gaze at the trio. They were clearly unrelated. Differing ages and races, they were a Snatcher’s wet dream. They were ripe for harvesting. “Up!” she repeated. “Don’t make me say this again.”

She gestured with her pistol. The younger girl got to her feet, her face pinched and a frown creasing her brow. Nike almost laughed, it was like looking at her younger self. So hot, so brash, but smart enough to know when she’s beat. “No, Alex!” Tiny wailed. “We’re safe. Here, Ross told us to hide here. We have to stay here!”

The fourth person.

The older girl hissed and pressed her hand over Tiny’s mouth, while Alex glared at him.

“Where is Ross?” Nike asked.

Before anyone could give her an answer, there was a roar. “Leave them alone!”

Nike stepped out and slammed the door shut behind her, effectively taking the three kids hostage. Ross turned out to be a kid closer to her in age, tall, gangly. A teenager fresh to his new found height and reach. He was quick as he crashed through the main door and rushed towards her, but he wasn’t faster than a bullet. Nike aimed at his chest. He jerked to a stop, sobering up immediately. His hands clenched into fists but he held them up.

Smart.

“What gang are you a part of? The Screamers? Wraiths? Or is it the Deathriders?” Nike went down the list of the Reds’ largest rivals.

“No! No!” Ross shook his head.

Nike tightened her grip on the pistol. “Keep those hands up. Explain, you have 60 seconds.”

Ross was flustered and apparently that made him stammer. “We are not affiliated to any gang. I swear! We… I… Just believe me!”

“Is that the best you can do?” she demanded.

Then came banging. “Let us out! Ross is telling the truth!”

By the pitch of the voice, Nike guessed that was Alex. In her distraction, Ross launched himself at her, covering half the distance between them.

Fuck.

She didn’t want to actually shoot him, not while the situation was completely unclear. The threat of her pistol made useless, she unleashed her biotics. Her amp was already running warm from her training, pushing it now was probably a bad idea, but she wasn’t going down without a fight.

One hand out, she Pulled Ross towards her, yanking him off balance. He came hurtling to meet her fist. Pain exploded up her arm. The banging inside turned frantic and without her holding the door shut, the trio burst out. Ross recovered quickly, jumping on her. His arms wrapped around her waist, pushing her off her feet. Nike fell heavily, cracking her head against the floor. Stars spun, but it was anything she wasn’t used to. She Pushed again, but his grip held, taking her with him as they slid across the floor. His face was red with exertion, he fought without thought for later. It was all or nothing. Fighters in the ring know they could live to fight again, but street fighting wasn’t the same.

It was life or death.

Nike twisted and forced him to take the burnt of the impact as they slammed to a stop against a wall. Her weight against his chest forced air from his lungs. As he laid on his side, coughing to catch his breath, she got to her feet and kicked him. There was a distinctive crunch against the flat of her foot. Ross yowled like she had stepped on his nuts. She hopped backwards on one foot, grimacing. Blood sprayed from his nose as he held his hands to it.

“Please!” he begged, it came out so nasally that she laughed.

A shriek came from behind her. Like a cat, Alex climbed onto the bones of a sofa and jumped. Her arms wrapped around Nike’s neck. The added weight made Nike gagged. Finger nails dug groves into her arms and small fists thumped against her face and chest.

Memories of her first raid came flashing into her head. The man that died under her blade flashed behind her squeezed shut eyes. Nike snarled and shook her head to shove the memories back behind locked doors.

She had been trying to incapacitate them all this time. But the girl was tenacious and wouldn’t fucking stop. Nike twisted and grabbed Alex by her neck. Her blood was up. There were cries for someone to stop, possibly she was the one who should stop. There was wailing and begging, but Nike heard none of it. Her focus was only Alex.

As she dislodged the girl from around her neck, Ross smashed a fist against her back. Nike staggered. Instincts, primal and feral, bared its fangs. Biotics flaring, a blue aurora burst around her. Her amp seared her flesh, for a moment Nike caught a whiff of burning meat. It was a familiar scent.

Alex was quickly dislodged with a harsh Push. Not bothering to see how the girl landed, she turned to Ross. He was the bigger threat and needed to be put into his place. A knee accelerated by biotics launched itself into his gut. As Ross fell to his knees gasping, he cried, “Run! Run!”

Blood was streaming down his face, his nose bent and obviously broken. Nike growled, turning to them. “You should run, now!”

Without waiting to see what they did, she turned back to Ross. Her pistol was in her hand before she realised she had drawn it. Her amp sent shooting pain up to her brain, but she fought through it, like every time she stepped onto the ring.

Ross stared at the barrel of the pistol then back at her. Tears were in his eyes. “Please, this wasn’t an ambush. This is our home!”

“Liar! I cleared this place out years ago, it was fucking empty.”

“Ross isn’t lying!” Tiny wailed. “You’re the Champion, who would lie to you?”

Everyone lies. The lines are supposed to be clear. If you’re not me or mine, you’re an enemy.

“We just found this space for ourselves three weeks ago!” Ross explained. “I am unaffiliated!”

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. His explanation was getting more and more believable as the fight went on. Ross had tried to protect the others. That was a key difference. He was acting like a big brother to the other three. Nobody did that on the street. If he had been part of a gang, he would have pulled a gun on her or even a knife. He had not. Judging from his clothes, he hadn’t had a shower for weeks, and probably not eating much. It wasn’t just Ross, the others looked to be in a similar situation.

The clincher came in form of a growl from the main entrance. She whirled, pistol tracking. It was a mongrel brown and white, with one floppy ear and one pointed one.

“Burger?”

He growled, teeth bared and spittle splattering. She frowned. Is this another dog?

He barked. It wasn’t vicious, just a warning before giving a tentatively wag of his tall. She must look terrifying, glowing blue, scratched bloody and bruised. This was Burger she was sure, he had never led her wrong before. He was the only living being she trusted implicitly.

Despite what her training and experience taught her, Nike took a deep breath and willed her biotics away. Wincing, she touched the back of her neck, her amp was unbearably hot. It was a tiny volcano erupting under her skin. Fear rushed her like a wave of cold water. She knew what that meant. She was going to glitch.

I have to get away. I have to get to some place safe! Burger trust them but I've hurt them they will—

She staggered towards the door, keeping a tight grip on her pistol just in case. Burger whined but followed. Her vision was tunnelling. All the aches and pains from the day before and the fight was making her move stiffly. Panic was rising in her chest.

Shit, shit, shit!

She tried to run, taking the stairs as quickly as her feet could manage. Her head was feeling hot, her body cold. Blood was rushing away from her head and she was getting dizzy. She stumbled, one foot hooking the other.

Oh fuck...

Pain flashed behind her squeezed shut eyes. It felt like she had crashed into every possible step on the way down. The pounding in her head was a booming bass line against her temple. As the darkening edges beckoned, she felt Burger’s wet nose poking at her.

Voices hovered over her as she tried valiantly to stand.

“What's wrong with her?” The voice was decidedly high but harsh. Alex.

“Is she dead?” Tiny asked, his voice shaky and small.

Nike groaned. She dragged herself forward, muscles straining against her fading consciousness. Burger growled, at who, she didn't know.

I’m not safe. Not safe!

“She's not dead, but I think something is wrong with her,” a nasally voice said. Ross. Oh fuck, get up! I’ve got to get up! It’s not fucking safe!

Hands on her, tugging and pulling. They rolled her on her back. Her vision swarm in and out as her eyelids fluttered. Burger had one paw on her chest as if claiming her. Then an unmistakable press of cold metal against her head. A chill ran through her as she forced her eyes open. Alex held the gun as she squatted next to Nike, her eyes angry and red.

“What are we going to do with her?”

Nike felt her grasp on her consciousness fading. Try as she wanted to summon the strength to run, to struggle, to not die like this, she couldn't find any. Her fingers curled over Burger’s fur as she succumbed to the darkness.

Chapter 12 - Herald of Change

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

“What the fuck is he doing here?” Nike growled.

Frank took another swipe at her face but this one she saw coming. She ducked out of the way. He lunged after. His taller frame only served his reach. One hand snagged her hair roughly as his knee slammed into her crotch. He laughed. “That’ll teach you for losing.”

As she fell to her knees, hands pressed against the floor as she curled around the blow. Tears streaming from her eyes, she bit back a groan. Her legs were jelly as she fought to stand again. Krycek’s smirk swam in her vision as she dashed the tears furiously away.


Through the years Frank was alternatingly vicious and sweet towards her. She never really know which side she’ll get. But he’d always bring one of the street walkers home and be in a foul mood for hours later.

Nike remembered one such event.

The door to his office clanked open. The street walker scampering out, her dress in tatters, her face bruised. “Get away from me, you one testicle freak!”

Scars, herself and a couple of the younger members were present. Frank stalked through the door like a thundercloud. He was tall and muscular, his presence was always menacing. More importantly, he never took embarrassment lightly. Surreptitiously, Nike signalled for the others to go as she edged towards the door. She didn’t intend to hang around. With Frank’s mood this way, it could easily be re-directed to any one of them.

Whimpers and shoes scraping against concrete rang out as the street walker, with makeup running down her face, attempted to escape.

“Nike!”

She spun around. The street walker was headed straight for her and she was at the threshold. “Sorry,” she whispered as she caught the street walker roughly.

One punch and a twist of limbs later, Nike had the woman restrained. “Please, please, please,” the street walker cried. “Let me go. He is crazy.”

She schooled her features into one of indifference. Her answer was a tightened grip. The street walker struggled and screamed, but Nike despite being shorter had the trained strength to hold her still. Frank shot a look at the others and growled, “Get out!”

They needed no other reminder. One curt gesture at Nike, Frank turned back towards his office. The street walker locked her knees, refusing to walk. Nike lacked the leverage to dislodge her. “Scars,” she called out. “A little help?”

“You’re on your own,” came the instant reply and steps that receded as the door slammed shut.

Asshole.

“Please, just let me go, I have credits. Just take it, just take it,” the street walker begged continuously like a prayer. But Nike had no choice.

“Bring her!” Frank barked.

She pushed and met it was with more resistance. She sighed and pulled at her biotics. Her amp stuttered and spiked painfully. Stupid thing. She hissed as she tried to shove the street walker. There was zero finesse and all power. It was as gentle as she could manage. She was used to giving 110% or nothing at all. The street walker flew the entire length of the communal sleeping area, sliding to a stop at Frank’s feet. The grin on his face was primal. Nike shuddered as he dragged the groaning street walker to her feet. She watched as he retreated with the street walker to his office.

The next day, Nike saw Cutter and one of others dragged a bloody beaten pulp of a body out of Frank’s office. “Dead?” she asked apprehensively.

“Almost.” Cutter replied.

She was responsible. She knew it. I had to. I have no choice. And so, the guilt was quickly locked away and sealed.


Frank placed an arm over Krycek’s shoulder as he said, “He is the latest addition to the Reds.”

Nike’s lips curled. That’s obvious enough. Krycek and her crossed swords plenty of times. He was her first battle, her first win. He was the only other fighter in the ring that was as young as she was then. But she hadn’t seen him in the ring for the past year. She figured he had been claimed by the streets or Red Sand. It didn’t make a difference, they were the same thing.

“Despite your success, I’ve decided to take out an insurance policy on you. And looks like you have proven me right,” Frank went on.

“I am said insurance policy,” Krycek explained as if she was stupid.

Nike bristled as she straightened and sneered, “You? I’ve beaten you so many fucking times. How are you anyone’s idea of an insurance policy?”

Frank let go of Krycek and circled back to his desk. Nike watched, hoping they didn’t notice the tremble in her limbs. She was exhausted and in pain. There was nothing she wanted more than to down a couple bottles of sugary drinks and sleep. Frank opened a drawer and retrieved a vial.

Her eyes widened. She couldn’t help the gasp that escaped.

“I see you know what this is.”

A syringe joined the vial. Fear thrummed in her chest. Her jaw tightened. “No.”

Frank narrowed his eyes. “This is a formula Stitches made just for you and now Krycek. It will boost your biotics ten fold. Just a little jab, that’s all.”

Blood drained from her face. “No,” she repeated, shuffling away.

No matter what Stitches might claim, no matter what it potentially could do, Nike didn’t care. It was Red Sand at its base, pure and simple. The reddish particles swirled around in the vial. She had seen the havoc it wrecked in fighters, in regular people. It was a drug that stole credits, devoured lives and destroyed souls. Nike wouldn’t touch the stuff even if she was paid to do so.

And Frank fucking knows this.

Frank shook the vial and if she wasn’t so afraid, she might find the red particles swirling around pretty, like a snow globe. Yet another one of those things she had never seen with her own eyes before. She tracked his hand as he picked up the syringe. It was a simple stab of the needle into the vial. A smooth pull of the plunger and it was filled. He grinned, showing all his teeth, wide and predatory.

“If you can’t keep winning, this will help,” he said, advancing towards her. “Help that I can provide.”

Her heart slammed against her chest as she weighed her odds. A biotic, possibly fresh with a well filled to the brim. Frank, with his size, reach and strength. A door, solid and closed behind her. Her biotics drained and her amp burning and sparking under her skin.

I can’t run. If I didn’t glitch, it will be a miracle.

He pushed the plunger after tapping a finger against it, ridding it of air bubbles. Some of the formula squirted out and Nike flinched. Frank laughed. She pulled her hands tight by her side, her hands balled into fists. Her breaths got faster and shallower. Panic was a rising tide inside her chest.

Frank grabbed the front of her jacket. He tugged, but she planted her feet and didn’t budge. His eyes hardened. It was both a question and a warning. He tugged again, harder this time. The fight went out of her. Nike stumbled towards him. She ground her teeth together as he traced a finger along her jawline, fighting the urge to jerk away. He brushed her hair aside gently, exposing the messy scar at the base of her skull. The one that came from the surgery that almost killed her. He hissed as his finger touched the spot. “Why is it so hot?”

She didn’t answer. The contact sent a stab up her head. Krycek looked on with interest. Frank looked at her as if she was responsible for his burn, but the look came and went. He bent over. “Stitches say the best spot is…”

His mouth right by her ear. “Right…”

Words were hot air against her skin. “By…”

Needle trailed up her neck towards her amp. “The…”

The sharp point stopped right at the base of her scar. “Amp…”

Nike held her breath, praying, beseeching for an intervention. Gods didn’t existed for her. No help came.

Frank straightened, the needle withdrew. She stared at him, confused and jittery from the unspent adrenaline. She didn’t trust him enough to relax. There must be something more. Something else!

He laughed like she had done a great trick, dropping the syringe back onto the table. “Nike, Nike, girl,” he said, “this is why I keep you around. You know who’s the boss around here.”

Her eyes darted between Frank and the syringe, unable to believe her luck. He reached out and tugged her towards him again, his face shoved right against her own. “But mark my words, I will not tolerate failure. You are the Champion. Be one,” he placed emphasis on the last word. “Another failure, you know what your choices are”

Nike nodded mutely. Her shoulders slumped as she staggered away from Frank. She had forgotten all about Krycek. He swooped in and grabbed the syringe off the table and plunge it into his amp. He couldn’t quite reach the right spot, but it didn’t faze him. Before either of them could react, he depressed the plunger and the contents emptied into his blood stream. The syringe clattered to the floor as his eyes fluttered shut.

Nike backed away. There was no telling what the fuck would happened, especially with an experimental concoction like this. Frank watched with interest while she waited with horror.

Krycek remained standing though he started to sway. She could sense it before she see it. The air seemed to electrify. There was a crackle and Krycek was bathed in blue. Biotic energy made everything not bolted down hover in the air for a split second before they fell again. His eyes snapped open and he roared, “I feel good!”

Nike cringed away as he started to pace as if standing still with this much energy coursing through his veins was impossible. His eyes took on a blue hue. Biotic surged and licked across his body. Krycek flicked his hand, directing the energy at the nearest object. It slammed against the wall and shattered. The wall had a slight dent from the impact.

Frank grinned wider. He pointed at his chair. Another flick of Krycek’s hand, it rose and slammed against the wall with ease. Krycek laughed. “This works. This stuff is better than the Dowager’s. I’ll fucking show how wrong she was for throwing me out!”

Nike didn’t need any more trouble, but she didn’t want to stay and watch him crash as they all inevitably do. As she turned the knob to go, Krycek shouted, “Champion, what you won’t do, I would. We shall see who is the real Champion. You won’t keep your throne for long.”

She turned and met his eyes. The blue flickered across his irises, was unnatural and it always came with a cost, one that she wasn’t willing to pay. “Whatever floats your boat, Krycek. Welcome to the Reds,” she said and left.


Fire, heat and pain. Children staring at the only home they had ever known. Whimpering and weeping filled the air, providing a counterpoint to the crackling flames that consumed the structure.

She levered herself upright and stared. Eyes tracing what was once familiar made unfamiliar. She gasped, her burns and pain all forgotten for a moment. The lightening sky revealed the extent of the damage.

A transport craft had cut a thick path through the neighbourhood. The wing had sliced into the orphanage and cutting through it like a hot knife through butter. Fire blazed strong and hot. It had burst glass and devoured everything along at that side.

A breath of relief escaped her mouth. “Luck, that’s all just luck.”

Her sleeping hall was on the opposite side of the destruction. She picked her way through parts of the collapse and escaped. In that moment, as young as she was she knew how little she mattered.

One day turned two then three. There was no help, no emergency services. Nothing. The fire had burnt itself out. Her home was now a blackened husk, teetering on the edge of completely falling in on itself. She didn’t understand it then why there were no adults coming to help, to tell her what to do. Among the survivors, she was by no means the oldest, but all of them looked as lost as she did.

Hunger tugged at her as she absently scratched around her healing burnt skin. She straightened and winced as the wound pulled. One last look cast upon her once home, she started walking.

And she never stopped.

She was on a path long before her birth, her creation, It diverged when a woman intervened when she was but a baby. Now after the fire, her path was forking again. She set out for a destination she didn’t know, a fate yet unknown. The fire took more than a home from her, it took her name, her past and all connections to it. Her memories of the place forever sealed in her mind, too confusing and painful to sift through.

In that the moment she was born anew of flames.


Nike jolted upright, confusion rippling through her head as she groaned. She remembering speaking to Frank. The image of a needle and vial flashed, a still image pressing against her consciousness, she shuddered. Her body hurt and why was her bed so hard? She was face down, limbs sprawled out against something cold and unyielding. Rolling over she realised, she was lying on the floor. Her bed was a mere metre away her.

“Shit,” she spat as she scrubbed her face with her hands. “I glitched.”

Nike had blacked out, again. This time, she had completely missed the bed she was aiming for. Sighing, she pushed herself into a sitting position, her hands touching her amp. It was cold and inert again. Gingerly she touched her forehead and found a big bump. Nothing new there. Ever since she got her amp, she suffered from these seemingly random bouts of blacking out, or glitching as she called them. It was usually worse after she drained herself. This was exactly why she wanted to sleep before doing else.

Sleeping a kind of blacking out, isn’t it? A safer kind.

She could already feel the tightening over her temples. A headache after an episode was inevitable and she had resigned herself to it. Her muscles stiff and tight as she stood. Hastily she pressed a hand at the nearest solid object to steady herself. Her stomach growled reminding her that it wasn’t fed the entire day, unlike an ungrateful cat.

First a shower, then food, then work.

Nike checked her door and was relieved to find it still locked. Thank gods she wasn’t so incapacitated to forget about it before collapsing. There was no way in hell Frank was going to tolerate his champion being a broken puppet. One that was prone to headaches, nose bleeds and complete black outs. It was the one secret she had to keep at all cost. The Reds was all she knew. It was fucked up at times, but she was safe. She knew where the lines were. She was the top dog here, outside she was a target. Now with Krycek all ready to step into her place despite his less than stellar fight record, she had to be doubly careful.

One moment Nike was a hunched back broken figure of a Champion shuffling around in her room. The next moment, she was straight back, confident and all hard edges. There was no room for error.


Despite not needing to collect protection money any longer, it was now a job for the younger Reds, Nike still enjoyed walking the markets. Taking what she fancied and making sure everyone still knew who to fear. Frank wasn’t above using her as a boogeyman when Cutter wasn’t intimidating enough.

I guess now he has a crazy dog to help with that too.

She huffed, kicking a soda can down the street as she munched on a stick of satay.

Kick, munch, kick, munch.

When the satay was done, she made sure to lick every last bit of peanut sauce from around her lips. She flicked the stick off to the side. Her hands dug around her pockets for her cigarettes. It was a habit she picked up from Cutter and the others.

Hitting the pack against her fist a couple of times before she fished a stick out. Trapping the filter between her lips, she rummaged her pockets for her lighter. Its brushed metal finish was all worn down by use. It thunked solidly when she flicked the cover open. A quick brush of her thumb down the flint wheel, sparks flew and a flame burst to life. Nike suppressed a flinch. Fire always did that to her. She lit her cigarette. The red consumed the lit end as she sucked. She drew the smoke into her lungs and held it. Detox by retox, didn’t some lyrics say that? The sharp taste of burnt grass was bitter on her tongue. A flash of a burning building, a sudden overwhelming sense of loss flashed through her mind. She blinked and the sensation was gone.

Nike shook her head and she exhaled. With each stick burnt to the butt, she relaxed marginally. Tension from the daily battles, the blade that hung over her head and the glitch eased a notch. Clouds of smoke trailed behind her before they got taken away by the warm breeze. Despite demolishing half a pack in quick succession, she was still restless. Frank’s threat was real. He had been harder on her ever since the winning streak started.

Nike sighed. There was only one thing she could realistically do. Her muscles were sufficiently warmed up from the walk and food. She stretched and tapped her omni-tool for some music. She took a deep breath and started jogging, setting a fast pace as she went.

This was her home. Streets lined with emptied, rundown buildings. Her feet pounded the pavement hard. She ran passed the posters which she now knew were just advertisements, not the pictures of glorious heroes.

Can you feel it running inside you
Can you dream it now as if its beside you

Street walkers returning from a busy night. Red Sand addicts that had fallen asleep on the ground. She passed the advertisement that she took her name from and couldn’t help running her hand across it. The image now bleached colourless by the sun and time.

You will taste it if you can be patient
The more you believe the more you'll create it

Nike was no longer the naive girl, barely able to read. She wasn’t the fiery slip of a girl, sleeping on the streets, stealing to survive.

We'll be rising in a new horizon
A place of freedom defined by your reason

She was a biotic fighter, a champion of the ring. Feared and revered by the gangs. Apart and alone within the Reds. Nike wasn’t exactly happy, but she was content. Her life, as it was now, was something she had worked for. It was paid for in blood, both hers and others.

Take the power its yours to claim
The more you believe the more you create

But with Krycek’s arrival, Nike knew he was the herald of change.


Sweat made her hair damp, her jacket was making her too hot. She tossed onto a nearby crate. Pacing a little as she cooled off.

This was her space. A little old basketball court behind a row of what used to be apartment blocks. They used to belong to one of the smaller gangs, but the Reds had cleared them out early in their rise. Now it was hers. Frank had wanted her to get good with her biotics, but with just a command and nobody to seek help from, she fell back to seeking answers from the extranet. And it delivered, somewhat.

The wall that the basketball court was set flushed against bore marks of her training. Bricks cracked in parts, completely crumbled in others. Concrete was as scarred as her arms and legs. Every single one earned in the ring or the battle field.

Nike stripped down to her sports bra and shorts. She set about clearing her training field of loose debris, noticing it was cleaner than usual despite not visiting it in a while. Absently, she filed the observation aside. She removed her shoes and started stretching. There was a new trick she was trying to master. She wanted to put it to use the next time she faced her opponents.

She started with the basics — barriers, pushes and pulls. She used everything around her. Small debris to chunks of bricks and benches that used to be bolted to the concrete floor. She always started small before moving her way up to heavier things. It was like limbering up a muscle. And this particular muscle had been sorely taxed for months. I could have fucking won the fight if Frank hadn’t farm me out to fights like a fucking dog.

Learning how to use her biotics via the extranet was a hit and miss experience at best. Fighters of the ring hoarded their knowledge like dragons with treasure. Watching vids and listening to rank amateurs attempting to verbalise the subtleties of various techniques didn’t a fighter make. Though she did find so many funny vids of biotics gone wrong. If she didn’t have Frank riding on her about it, sending her into fight after fight, each win eked out by the skin of her teeth, she might have spent all her time watching those vids. Nike fell back on instincts and self experimentation. This court had suffered its share of her frustration fuelled tantrums, but her whoops of triumph had echoed against its walls too. At first, her studies had an edge of desperation, she didn’t want to be constantly put into sink or swim situations. But she got competent and later, good. More than fucking good.

Nike had a sheen of sweat coating her skin. Against the afternoon sun, she looked like a lean bronze statue, bathed in blue. She padded to one end of the court after positioning a can at the midway point as a marker. Once she was at the edge of the court, she took another twenty steps backwards, having to step into the grass for that. She exhaled sharply, once, twice and thrice.

She kicked off, running onto the court. Pulling at her core, her biotics flared to life. Then, she willed herself to be there. The world rushed past her in a swoosh. Nike blinked and realised she was halfway to the marker. Her heart was racing half in exertion, half in excitement.

“Fuck, it worked,” she panted. “It fucking worked.”

She traced her steps back to the starting point and geared up for a second attempt. The same steps, the same sharp exhales and the run. As she flared, a sharp whistle followed by cheering made her jerk to a stop. One hand extended, she whirled, ready for an ambush.

“Do that again!”

It was Tiny, and he wasn’t alone.

Lyrics taken from Believe by Mitch King

Chapter 11 - Five Years

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Warning: Unwanted advances from opposite gender

Nike’s arms hurt, her lungs were on fire, her head throbbed. There was nowhere she could feel pain that wasn’t screaming at her in some way.

Fuck.

Her opponent smirked, bloody teeth on full display. He was the Dowager’s latest acquisition, acquired from one of the smaller gangs. “That’s all you got? Not much of a champion are you?” he smirked.

“I didn’t win by mouthing off my opponent,” Nike retorted. She watched, wary that this was all a distraction. “I win by actually winning.”

“Tomorrow, it won’t be your name on their lips,” he declared, lifting his hands and pointing at the crowd.

The crowd roared. The stage was vibrated with its intensity. “Down with the champion, down with the champion,” the crowd chanted, feet stomping, hands clapping.

Shit. You can’t fucking please everyone.

His eyes glinted with satisfaction, his prize almost within reach. Nike knew that look, she had the same one on her face many a time. It was over confidence.

But he just might fucking beat me. Nike growled a noise of frustration. None of this shit. You’re the fucking champion, act the fucking part.

Though her strength was waning and her amp was burning, her only concession was releasing her hold on her biotics. If she didn’t watch it, she would glitch big time on stage. Fuck, anything but that. The thought sent shivers down her spine.

He wasn’t the toughest opponent she had met but Frank had been sending her out for daily fights. And the schedule was taking a toll. She sighed. It was the start of her successful run, a flawless record, that’s how the nickname came about. She liked the ring of it.

“Remember my name, you should know whose name to curse when you lose,” he taunted.

She laughed.

“Laugh it up, that hair mod will turn out to be a jinx for you,” he retorted, blushing. “Red ain’t going to be your lucky colour.”

“Fuck off, boy,” she growled. If it isn’t him, it’s someone else. On and fucking on about the hair.

Nike had gotten a hair mod at the start of her winning streak. And that started the whispers. “Red is her lucky colour. When you see red, you know you will lose,” or so it was said.

She just wanted hair that was red, hot flaming red. It cost her a good amount of credits. She even made sure to get it from Stitches, figuring he was a better bet than the ones hawking their wares down in the Underbelly. And suddenly the colour was irrevocable tied to her. If she lost now, she would never be able to live it down. Her reputation and winning streak was on the line.

He stuck two fingers into his mouth. His fingers jerked left and right. Eventually he grunted and pulled a tooth out of his mouth. “That’s all you can do, break a fucking tooth.”

Nike grimaced as he tossed the tooth in her direction. Music boomed overhead. The white enamel piece sailed in a parabola towards her.

You are a brick tied to me that’s dragging me down
Strike a match and I’ll burn you to the ground

The crowd’s chants echoed in her head. She glared. Shoulders hunched, amp flashed hot as she pulled at her biotics.

We are the jack-o-lanterns in July
Setting fire to the sky

The tooth hit the floor. Two bodies surged forward, both in a blue haze. Hurtling, barrelling, head on, fist first.

Here, here comes this rising tide so come on
Put on your war paint

Two forces clashed and the biotic energy snapped outwards like a mini nova. The crowd roared louder than ever for their chosen fighter as they battled for supremacy.


“Nike!”

Pain flashed across her face as her head rocked from left to right. She blinked and surged upright. The motion made her world spun. She promptly twisted and emptied her stomach. A thin thread of saliva connected her mouth to the small puddle of half digested food. Her throat burnt as she spat. Speckles of blood coloured the mess of yellow and brown.

“I lost?” she groaned, rolling away from the mess.

“How out of it are you? Of course you lost,” Scars spat. “Fuck, Frank is going to be pissed.”

Yeah, he is going to fucking pissed. She sat with her head between her knees, eyes squeezed shut as she prayed for the world to stop spinning. Fuck.

“I thought I had him,” she muttered. “What happened?”

“You guys knocked each other out with one of those flashy things you freaks do.”

She grunted, indicating she was still listening, eyes still resolutely shut. Shoes shuffled left and right somewhere to her left. It was Scars’ distinctive feet dragging gait.

“That sounds like a draw,” she pointed out, pressing the heels of her palms against her temples.

“Since when the Dowager do draws?” Scars retorted. “She is the boss, she ruled you the loser.”

“So I fucking lost on a technicality?”

“Fuck should I know what is a technicality, the point is,” Scars growled, “you lost. Fuck, Frank is not going to be happy.”

Something stuck her back. Nike bit back a groan. Lifting her head, she cautiously opened her eyes. It was slightly better. Her guts had stopped cramping. Her hands groped for the item that stuck her. It was her jacket. She was still dressed in her fight attire — shorts and sports bra.

Gone was the flat chested, scrawny kid. She was taller, toned and better fed. Her body had matured, it decided to grow mounds of flesh on her chest that were irritating and in the way at the best of times, sore and painful at the worst of times. It also grew hair where there were usually none. Her limbs lean and wiry, her body lithe and no longer on the edge of starvation. Five years of weekly fights would do that. She feasted when she won, denied care when she lost. It made her hard, it made her tough, it made her mean. She learnt fast to never lose. The Reds rose in their standing. They got better territory that meant Frank was happy, the gang grew, but most of all it meant Nike was safe.

But not today. I’m not safe today.

She ignored the dread that was crawling up her throat. Her hands shook with exhaustion as she dragged her arms into the sleeves and zipped the jacket up. She didn’t need men ogling at these fucking mounds of flesh. She wasn’t in any real condition to fend them off.

“I’m not going to be the one to tell him,” Scars declared, continuing to pace. The pistol clipped to his belt flapping against his hip. “This is your fucking fault.”

She concentrated on dragging her satchel towards her. Her hands were shaking hard, she needed something sweet and soon. A fight always took a lot out of her. She ripped the wrapper off the energy drink she had packed. Without pausing for a breath, she drained the bottle. Her hands were steadier now. Though her head still pounding, her body was aching all over, cuts and gashes were all making themselves known, she was mostly in one piece.

Five years, I ought to have learn how to defend myself better.

A loud smack echoed loudly in the empty fight ring. Her opponent was also being slapped awake by his handler. Even across the ring, she could see the shakes of a fellow biotic drained. The bloody mouth she gave him was a red streak across his face, she had a corresponding cut across her knuckles from his teeth. The Dowager had a larger team supporting her fighter, but the stakes were higher. One too many failure and they’ll be out on the streets before they could blink.

Nike had been managing Frank’s expectations well until now. After all, she was his fighter, his enforcer and his golden fucking goose. He needed her as much as she needed him.

Scars hadn’t stop pacing, if anything he was getting more agitated as he wind himself up into a frenzy. Five years hadn’t improved his ability to handle stress. She kept him in her peripheral vision as she watched the other team.

Her opponent, looking more boy than man under the harsh lights, was shouting. “I need it. I need it now!”

It was a familiar scene. He wasn’t the only one that acted this way after a match. His handler slapped him. She flinched as the boy’s head whipped violently to one side. It didn’t stop his crazed begging. He was crying and desperate, snot and tears streaming down his face as he pleaded. “I can’t hold on. I’m sorry I lost. I’m sorry. I will be better the next time. I will beat her. I swear. Please, please, please!”

His eyes found hers across the ring. If hatred could be made physical, she’d be dead. His wasn’t the first pair that stared at her this way. Malice and enmity fuelled by the craving for Red Sand was unstoppable. Nike was one of the few fighters in the ring that didn’t use and the only one who won consistently without it.

“Give it to him,” she shouted, she didn’t need another biotic deciding she was the reason they were not getting their fix.

The baleful eyes vanished in an instant. “Yes, give me. Give it to me. I’ll tear the bitch limb from limb the next time.”

Wow, way to bite the person trying to help you.

The Dowager’s men growled menacingly while Scars hissed in her ears. “Why the fuck did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Scars. “I am fucking friends with Ci Xi,” she replied, not bothering to keep her voice low.

The intake of breath from everyone else was unmistakable while the boy continued to claw at the handler’s legs for his fix.

Fucking Red Sand.

Scars didn’t wait. He hoisted her roughly to her feet, ignoring her yelp of pain or her struggles to pull her arm free. He all but dragged her off the ring. Nike stumbled along to keep from tripping. They made their way towards the pre-fight prep rooms. He pushed her against the nearest wall. Her arms thrown out to blunt the impact.

“What the hell, Scars?” she demanded as she braced herself against it to stay on her feet.

“Fuck Nike, you’re in enough trouble as it is why do you have to antagonise them?” he growled, tossing the satchel at her feet. “I am not going to be the one who will tell Frank. You lose, it’s your responsibility.”

Nike snorted. “Like it is your responsibility to tell him when I win?”

His eyes blazed as he grabbed the front of her jacket and pulled her close. “What about it, yeah?” he hissed. “I remembered the kid that cried about her first period. You are still that girl, don’t you forget that!” His gaze softened, turning from anger to lust in an instant. “Unless…” he said suggestively, his eyes roving towards her chest where the zipper rest between her fucking fat mounds. “You could get on your knees and blow me. I’ll be happy to report the loss in your stead,” Scars offered.

His hand on her jacket relaxed as he grinned, anticipation and desire overwrote his mind. His hand hovered reaching towards her chest as Nike gritted her teeth. Her limbs were heavy and they were more anchors than extensions of her body. But revulsion curled her lips as she growled, shoving him into the crowd gathering around them, “Fuck off Scars. You are not man enough to touch me.”

The crowd laughed, pushing him back towards her. His fair and still unblemished skin reddened brilliantly even as the bulge at his crotch grew. His hand neither retreated nor advanced while he sneered. “And what the fuck can you do about it, girl?” His eyes raked over her form lecherously making she edged away.

Nike eyed the crowd, most of them ogled, some of them eager for the impending fight. Some of them recognised her, she could see the fingers pointing at her hair. Again with the fucking hair. Those that did pulled their friends away. There was more than a few whispers of “she is a biotics, we should get out of here.”

She grinned and pulled at the tattered remains of her biotics. “This!” She flared blue and with a snap of her hand, she pressed a single finger against his chest. Nothing happened. He flicked his eyes at her and laughed. “What is this?” This is—”

He flew backwards, taking some innocent bystanders with him, like a horse kicked him in the chest. With a solid thump, he collided against the wall ten metres baxk. He landed awkwardly and screeched. Nike rolled her eyes. A bump and he was groaning like he was stabbed. She folded her arms across her chest and glared.

“Fuck you, Nike. Keep your pussy. Nobody wants it anyway. I was going to do you a favour and make you a woman. No fucking way. You’re fucked, bitch!”

“A couple more ‘fucks’ from your mouth won’t get you anywhere to getting fucked,” Nike retorted.

But the coward didn’t bother replying even as the crowd laughed at his expense. He stalked off. Her head was pounding harder than before. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

But she gritted her teeth and glowered at the crowd. “Show’s fucking over. What the fuck do you want to see? Someone’s volunteering to be the next one?” she demanded.

The crowd seemed to shrink back as one before quickly dispersing. Nike hid her grimace, her amp flared hot from that ill-advised biotic show. It was burning skin and flesh. Vaguely she wondered if it was BBQ she was smelling or the scent of her flesh being cooked from the inside out. Please don’t glitch, just don’t

Gritting her teeth she grabbed her satchel and shuffled out the Underbelly with a stick of cigarette stuck between her lips, puffs of smoke trailing after her.


Five years was a long time.

Five years since her first fight. Five years since her body decided she suddenly was a woman. Five years that proved Stitches’ warnings true. When it came to Frank she knew where she stood, the Golden Goose but at the same time the target of his ire.

The others were varying degrees of comrades. Cutter, she got along well, a shared love of blades and all manner of sharp objects was the way they bonded. That and a shared cigarette from time to time. Scars and Tenner had never looked at her the same after she came into her womanhood. And that just made her skin crawled. While Scars was merely creepy and sometimes too stupid for his own good, Tenner was always ready with his words to put her and the others down because they were mere muscle and brawn. But lines were drawn and they were clear. Nike kept within them. And she kept them all happy by winning=.

Win and you’re safe. Just win. Just never stop winning.

Well, that didn’t happened today. She stopped, one hand clinging onto the links of the fence outside the base. She hawked up blood and spat, a cut on her tongue the cause of her troubles. before limping on as best she could. The gate was within sight. She sighed. There was always a couple of kids hanging around the perimeter, too young for the Reds, but Frank and the others never failed to find uses for them. One didn’t need to pay tithe for freelancers after all.

As Nike approached, one kid hurried over. He had been hanging around for the past couple of weeks. “Champion! Did you win? Did you keep your winning streak?”

Another sigh escaped her lips, she was too tired these high-energy kids. “Kid,” the word felt like it weighed at a ton.

“Tony,” the boy replied. “My name is Tony.”

“No it’s not,” Nike retorted, leaning heavily against the gate, the look outs watching the excharge. “It’s Tiny.”

The boy was torn between annoyance having been made fun of and the thrill of the attention he wanted. In the end, the novelty of speaking with the Champion seemed to win out. “Oh man, I got to tell the others. I got a nickname from the Champion!”

Oh fuck, what have I done?

“Do you need help, do you need anything?” Tiny asked, bouncing around her. “You’re bleeding. I can help fetch some medi-gel.” The boy jumped and darted about like his pants was on fire. Nike trudged into the base, she had no patience for him.

“Boy!” she barked.

He snapped to attention, his eyes shiny and wide.

Eager, he is so fucking eager. And young. You were young once she reminded herself. But not like this. I actually had a sense of self preservation. But if he stuck with you, he would get protection from the others, her brain helpfully supplied. Fuck, I’m talking to myself. I must have taken a harder blow to the head than I expected.

Nike dug around in her satchel and pulled a credit chit out. She scanned it with her omni-tool. 30 credits the display blinked at her. A couple of taps later, the credit chit held a balance of 100 credits. Enough for a couple of days or for a couple of kids if he’d share. “Here,” she tossed the chit at him.

Tiny snatched it out of the air.

“Do you have somewhere to sleep?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Safe?”

Another nod.

“All right, keep the chit safe.”

“Come on, Champion I’ve been living on the streets, I know how to keep myself safe,” he retorted.

Confident little shit. She shook her head as the boy took off with a laugh. His mission accomplished.

I must be a fucking sap if I’m starting to hand out credit chits. Ok, no more decision making till I get some sleep.

She turned towards the base and dread was clutching at her chest again. A loss was never taken lightly. What was the good of a fighter if they lost? Having the moniker of Champion meant Nike had more to live up to. She reached up and touched the bulge at the base of her skull, it was still warm to the touch. The amp laid underneath her skin, connected to the implant that was linked straight to her brain stem. At least that was what the extranet told her. It worked and it worked well but she could never use it for extended periods. Overuse only meant glitching. The mere contact of touch on her amp sent shooting pain up her head. Hissing, she squeezed her eyes shut.

“Nike, is that you?”

She jerked her head up. She couldn’t afford a show of weakness among the Reds, especially with the new members. Despite how much her muscles and bones protested, she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders.

It was Cutter. She sagged a little. “You look like shit,” he stated, standing with his hands on his hips, making no move to help her.

“I feel like shit,” she admitted, pushing off from the gate and started limping inside.

“Do you need Stitches?” he asked as he walked next to her, scratching at the thick bush he called a beard that covered his cheeks and chin.

Nike was expected to stand and fall on her own two feet. She was 15, she had been pulling her own weight since she joined, more so after she started winning regularly. Yes, they operated in a bigger capacity. With the Dowager expected a higher cut, her winings from the ring contributed a significant part of the Reds’ operational costs. All of this was explained to her by Tenner when she wanted a larger cut of her winnings.

“Nah, I just need some medi-gel, a shower, a shit ton of food and eight hours in the sack.”

“After you report to Frank, yeah?”

She didn’t reply. She had hoped to put it off as long as she could. “He isn’t in, is he?” she asked lightly.

Cutter’s eyes met hers. Something strange flickered at the back of his brown eyes, something akin to pity. “He is in.”

Nike deflated.

“And he is not in a good mood.”

Fuck. She sighed. “All right, I’ll clean up and see him.”

“He wanted me to get you.”

“Aww, fuck,” she cursed. “Can’t I even get cleaned up?”

Cutter shrugged “He wants you now.”

She pulled the sleeves that gathered at her elbows down, covering the gashes and cuts she picked up from the fight. One cursory wipe of a sleeve over her face to clear it of any dried blood and sweat. Her hair was a mess, too short for a proper ponytail, too long to be kept effectively out of her face. There was nothing she could do to improve the news she was going to give. A loss was a loss after all. It didn’t matter how pretty the face the words are coming out of.

“Lead the way.”


Five years, the base had been steadily upgraded. The fence was mended, all ‘side entrances’ sealed. With more credits, they no longer had to share the communal sleeping space. More rooms and showers were restored. The inner circle got individual rooms with doors that locked. Not that it was much use in a gang which had some of the best lock pickers in the Slums. Nike, being one of the inner circle but the youngest, got the smallest room. She didn’t mind, she enjoyed the privacy especially when Scars and Tenner seemed to think she would let one or both of them take her eventually.

She tossed her satchel into her room and closed it. Shoulders drawn back, jaw set, ready as she would ever be for what was to come. Cutter led the way. Passed the communal sleeping area they used to sleep in, now shared among 20 other members that joined in the intervening years.

Frank kept the Reds small. He trusted Scars and Cutter to keep them in line. But in reality she was the unspoken threat if anyone stepped out of line. Biotics was after all basically magic. What they did hadn’t change. Protection money racket, defending their base from raids and raiding anyone else. The Reds grew in stature, in influence and power. All of these flew over Nike’s head. She didn’t know and she didn’t care to know. Her job as she saw it was to keep her head down and continue to rake in the credits. Her situation wasn’t fantastic, but it was familiar, the rules were clear. The fights were exhilarating, the cheering crowd that chanted her name made her blood sing. She was strong and powerful. In that space she was the queen and she ruled with her fists.

Cutter stopped right in front of the door. This door was, unlike the others, metal. He rapped his knuckles against it. It thumped solidly. There was a buzz and the magnetic lock was disengaged.

Paranoia, Nike would called it if she hadn’t defend their base against raids. With power and influence, came enemies. She had her own in the ring, Frank had his everywhere else. Cutter pushed the door opened and allowed her to enter first. All the better to prevent her from escaping, not that she would if she intended to keep her place in the Reds.

Starting over is not an option. Leaving is never possible. Being top dog is better than being prey.

Her sneakers squeaked a little against the floor. The door clanged shut up behind her. A chill ran down her spine. The first section was lined with rifles and pistols. All of them purchased from dealers beyond the Slums. All the better not pay the Dowager her due. Some of them old school, still using regular bullets. Others modern, those used heatsinks. The inner circle got the new stuff, the others got the old stuff. Nike’s own pistol was tucked in the small of her back at her waistband.

Beyond that was Tenner and his desk. It was dominated by a terminal the likes she had only seen in advertisements. He looked up as she approached. A pair of eyes raked her body, a flicker of lust made his lips curl. “I like that look on you, Nike. That red hair, man. It’s a thing.”

Nike rolled her green eyes, not deigning to give him a response. Fuck the hair. She never regretted a decision more. She wished she never had the idea in the first place, especially after Stitches told her the hair mod was a dud and was permanently stuck on red.

Tenner waited, hand stretched out towards her. He was expecting a credit chit that held their winnings. She shook her head. “I lost,” two words to explain the entire situation.

He frowned. “Fuck, Nike what’s wrong with you? You were winning. It’s an almost year long streak.”

“Hey, Tenner, if winning was so easy, why don’t you go fight?” she growled. “This shit is hard.”

“This is exactly what we keep you around for. Your losses are fucking with my plans. And you know what this means, don’t you?” Tenner spat.

He stood, straightening to his full height. Carefully he re-positioned his glasses, chest puffing but Nike was unimpressed. She rushed up to him before Cutter could stop her. Her nose reached his chin as she tilted her head up to glare at him. Her chest mere centimetres away from his. She balled left hand and positioned it right under his jaw. His pulse throbbing visibly against his temple.

“Nike,” Cutter warned.

“Stay out of this, this is between me and four eyes,” she growled, not sparing Cutter a glance.

Neither was willing to back down as the seconds ticked by. “What are you going to do about it? You hide behind us, me. You’re hardly on the frontlines. You’re always safe. What do you know about risking your scrawny neck?”

Tenner’s eyes narrowed. He snorted. “Short-sighted, that’s what you are. All brawn, no brains. You’re too stupid to understand my plan, our plans.”

Nike bristled, taking another step forward, forcing Tenner to step back or risk her fist. “Say that again, I fucking dare you. Say I’m stupid one more fucking time.” The thought of punching the smirk off Tenner’s face was getting more appealing by the second.

I should just hit him anyway. What does it matter? I’m going to give Frank bad news already. It’s not like I can get into more trouble.

But he took another step back and folded his hands across his chest. A sneer curling his lips as he looked at her pityingly. “Stupid girl.”

Indignation and fury rose in her chest. “Fuck you Tenner! Fuck you!” She surged forward, ignoring all the aches and pain. It’ll be worth it. When I smash his face in he will never think I’m stupid again. What does he know? All numbers and tech, what the fuck does he know? I fucking had to teach myself everything!

Her arm drew back, but her forward swing was halted when a large hand wrapped around her arm. Cutter put his other arm around her neck and tightened. She coughed and struggled, furious.

“Leave me go!” she rasped.

Anger could only sustain her for so long. She was spent both physically and biotically. And even as pissed as she was, she wasn’t foolish enough to unleash her biotics in here of all places. Cutter didn’t speak. He went on tightening his hold around her throat. She coughed harder as her airway got crushed under his muscled arm. Her vision was rapidly tunnelling. Nike went limp, tapping her free hand on his arm. Cutter loosened his hold a fraction. “Are you calm enough? Got your head straight yet?” he rumbled.

She nodded gasping for air when he let her go. Nike bent forward, elbows on knees as she coughed. Tenner chuckled, but it was instantly terminated when Cutter growled. “Shut up, four-eyes. She isn’t wrong. You don’t know the risks we take. You don’t get to be all high and fucking mighty on us.”

Tenner spluttered. “You—”

Cutter bared his teeth and Tenner’s mouth clamped shut. Nike smirked, rubbing her throat to ease the pain. It was fucking worth it.

Knowing he was outnumbered, he spat, “Report to Frank. He is waiting.”

Nike sobered up immediately. he nudged her and she stumbled forward. As she stepped into Frank’s office, Cutter didn’t follow.

Frank’s grey eyes narrowing as soon as she stepped in. There was no doubt he had heard every word uttered outside. “So you lost?” he asked, his voice deceptively even and calm.

Nike knew his temper was barely held in check. The tension in the room was unmistakable. She had plenty of opportunities to see his cold fury up close and personal before. What she used to think of as protectiveness, she now knew was something far more dangerous. His cold gaze fell on her. She straightened, biting back the grimace as her body protested.

“Yeah.”

He sighed and rose to his feet. Nike stiffened, desperately seeking the comfort of having her biotics buzzing under her skin. It was her last line of defence. She clawed at her biotics and found the well dry, horribly dry.

He approached, all world weary and tired. Without warning, pain exploded across her cheek. Her head whipped to the side and back again. Frank looked at the rings on his hand. One of them was stained red. Nike pressed a hand against her cheeks. It came away red. One of his rings had raked a line across her face.

“Looks like I was right to add another fighter to the stable,” he remarked.

“What?” she frowned.

“Krycek,” Frank called, ignoring her.

A door off to the side opened and a teen entered. He was no older than she was. A head filled with hair so blonde it looked white. Nike stared at him and her eyes widened. “You.”

Krycek grinned. “Yes, me,” he rasped.

Lyrics Taken from The Phoenix from The Fall Out Boy

Chapter 10 - First Blood

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

WARNING: CHILD FIGHT, ILLEGAL FIGHTING, PERIODS, MENSES

“Show time,” Scars grinned.

Nike’s jaw clenched. She looked at the domed enclosed fighting ring, a shimmering orange barrier separating inside from out. Her guts clenched. This can’t be happening.

“I have a lot riding on you, Nike,” Frank said. The smirk on his face was predatory and filled with anticipation. “Do well and you will get a cut of the winnings.”

“How much?” she countered instantly, her pacing halted.

“Keen on the profits huh?” Tenner said, licking his lips as he looked at her.

She angled her body away from him. Nike had no idea where they got the clothes. but they resembled the ones she seen fighters wore the last time. Tenner went to great lengths to find them. He made sure she knew.

“Here, wear this,” he said, handing them to her earlier.

“What is this?” she asked, a frown creasing her brow. She pulled a pair of too small, too tight black shorts and a shortened tank top from the bag.

Tenner’s olive skin flushed as he flashed her his teeth. She shifted from him, his grin verging on a leer. “These are compression shorts and a pair of sports bra.”

“Bras?” Nike cocked her head. “What are those for?”

The older boy frowned. “I… That’s…”

Words failed Tenner, somehow he flushed redder. Scars sniggered at his reaction. “Someone is embarrassed.”

“Do you want to explain it to her?” Tenner retorted. “How can she not know what are bras for?”

Cutter’s guffaw was loud and obnoxious. Even Frank was doubled over in glee.

“Why should I know about them?” Nike fired back, feeling like they were all laughing at her. Still she committed the words to memory so she could check up on them later. “Where am I supposed to learn about them?”

“But, you’re a girl!” Tenner exclaimed, as if it was answer enough.


Though the buzzing under her skin persisted, it was only an annoyance. Things were returning normal. Her rounds, her sneaking off to Meg’s. Even though she took care to ignore Burger if she was out in public, she could play with him while she was at Meg’s. The projector room was a safe haven for her. Watching movies of so many happy couples finding their happiness in each other and their families.

It was good, it was enough.

But Frank had to flip her world on its head. Instead of rounds, he puther in the front lines of raids. With each successful raid they ran, the more frustrated Frank got. She heard many a whispered argument between the boys.

“It has been more than a month,” Frank hissed. “She is supposed to be able to use her ability. She is supposed to use them.”

“I don’t know if this is how it works,” Cutter replied.

“Are you an expert suddenly?”

“No. Sorry, boss.” Cutter was back being a good little foot solider for Frank, no longer her ally. That week at Stitches was merely an anomaly.

Feet shuffled and furniture got pushed around. “Boss, the last time we saw her used her powers, she was scared and in danger,” Scars said meekly.

Frank grunted. “We take her on raids for this very purpose,” he growled.

“But she is good with her pistol and blade,” Tenner pointed out. “Maybe a little too good?”

Then silence. Nike breathed shallowly. What are they planning?

She didn’t find out because the others filed out without exchanging another word. She pretended to be listening to her music as she cleaned her pistol.

Just before the next raid, Frank took her aside. “Give me your pistol and blade,” he said.

“Why?” she asked, her heckles raised.

“We got new toys. I want to test those out,” he replied easily.

Frank pulled a brand new pistol and handed it to her. She had never seen the like before. It was blocky, it lacked the hammer she was used to and it was much heavier.

“This is a Kessler pistol from Hahne-Kedar,” Frank explained.

She examined the pistol and she couldn’t figure out where bullets went. Frank laughed. “This is new. It doesn’t run out of bullets.”

Her eyes went wide.

That night the raid started like they usually did. She would go in first and charm her way through, paving the way for the others. Frank had systemically took down all gangs smaller than theirs. But that day, they were moving onto bigger prey.

“That’s the target,” he said, pointing out the building to them.

Nike glanced at the words written on the building and she recognised them. A smirk tugged at her mouth as she read the words with pride. “Primary School.” she muttered. “It’s a school, a place of learning.”

“What did you say?” Scars asked, nudging her.

She shook her head. Frank looked at the others. “You know what to do?” he asked them.

They nodded and off she went.

The ploy was still working. Nobody rightly knew who was picking off the smaller gangs. The rumour mill at the Underbelly churned but nobody had caught on with their tactics. The Reds never took over the emptied spaces. New gangs formed to be raided when they were slightly successful. The Dowager kept silent, the Reds paid their tithe. Everything was fine.

Nike approached the base, making up excuses to get herself inside. The front door was sorted. All she needed to do was to stall for time. When the others got here, her job was done. The seconds ticked by. Her excuses were running thin and flimsy.

“What are you doing here exactly?” one of them asked her, her eyes bloodshot and angry. “Are you here to steal from us, girl?”

“If you’re not, why are you not coming in?” a man sneered, sniffing as if he had a cold.

“Cat got your tongue, girl?” another asked.

Nike tried to back away from them. Where the fucking hell are they? “I just want to hang out here?” she replied weakly.

A fourth person circled to her back. She shifted, trying to put all of them in front of her. In her distraction to keep him in her view, she showed her back to the others.

“Hey!” one of them shouted, “she is armed.”

Then all hell broke loose. Arms stretched towards her, ready to grab and subdued. Nike was faster, she had expected this. She went for her brand spanking new pistol. Two hands on the grip and she pulled the trigger.

It clicked. And nothing happened.

A chill ran down her spine. Why isn’t it firing? She pulled and pulled and pulled. It wasn’t firing. The people’s faces went from fear to glee.

“You are messing with the wrong people, girl!”

Fists plummeted and legs kicked. She screamed and struggled, her hair got yanked and her clothes pulled. Pain was the catalyst, fear and anger spurred her on. There was a pulling from her core and then she flared, bright and blue.

The shape of her magic - No, biotics. - was stronger, more brilliant than before. Suddenly it was easy, too easy. She could almost see its form in her mind. But she had no idea what she was doing, all she knew was she wanted them to back off.

And she just Pushed

The energy was released in a single explosive blast. The lights in the concourse shattered, the double door blown off its hinges and the four who hurt her slammed against walls. As quickly as the power came, it dissipated.

Nike was drained. She panted and fell to her knees.

It didn’t take long before the others walked in. She could sense their slack jaw awe in the silence.


And that led her to the fighting ring, dressed in a black sports bra and a pair of black compression shorts. She clenched her fists to keep them from shaking. “Nike,” Frank called from the other side of the orange barrier.

She looked at him. Her view of him was all tinted a bright orange. “Don’t disappoint me,” he said, his eyes hard despite the grin on his face.

Her jaw tightened, Nike cracked her knuckles, popping each in turn slow and deliberate. She nodded but she hadn’t forgotten what he had done. However, standing in a cage moments before her debut fight, she had more important things to worry about. With a grunt, she pushed everything out of her mind. Instead, she looked at the shimmering barrier that bisected the ring. There was a boy her age standing across from her.

Something about him tickled the back of her mind. He was shirtless, dressed in a similar black shorts like her. His chest had a patch of red, leathery skin running up his left shoulder. His hair was so blonde, it looked white.

I remember you!

It was the boy from the fight she witnessed during her first visit to the Underbelly. He fought and lost. Regardless, he was a veteran of the ring and of his abilities. She tracked the boy’s movements as he bounced on his feet, working his limbs loose. She took a deep breath and mimicked him, not knowing what else to do.

The cheering crowd, the curious stares and the screaming bookies, all of it was overwhelming. It was near impossible to ease her own nervousness. She spotted Tenner gesturing at a bookie, hands pointing and waving as they spoke. Then, a chime sounded. She could barely hear over the chaos.

She remembered Frank’s instructions.

“Give the bitch her bow,” he said, pointing at the window where she was supposed to bow to. “I will take her seat one day. Today is merely the start of a new era for the Reds. And you, my girl, is my golden goose.”

I’m a girl, not a damn bird.

She turned to face the window, keeping the boy in her periphery vision. The window was tinted black one moment and clear the next. A pair of sharp, calculating eyes looked down on them. Her eyes met the Dowager’s for a split second. Nike swore Cixi’s lips quirked upwards a little. Before she could process that little break in her almost bored expression, the boy started bowing. And she hastily followed suit.

Nike turned to face the boy. His blue eyes were dull and lifeless before, but had hardened when his eyes met hers. He bared his teeth at her. It was more than an eagerness to fight, underneath was sheer desperation. She licked her dry lips. He kept his eyes trained on her as they bowed to each other. The spot where her amp and implant laid under her skin tingled uncomfortably.

Time seemed to slow as she bought her fists up in a bad facsimile of the kung-fu movies she had watched in preparation for the fight. The house lights powered down, plunging the arena into darkness. A series of strong spot lights aimed at the ring, bathing the cage in orange and white.

Nike’s heart slammed hard against her chest. The roar of the crowd faded and disappeared. Music started blaring through the speakers.

*The time will come, when you will have to rise

The barrier shimmered and fell.

Above the best, and prove yourself

The boy let out a roar and rushed towards her.

Your spirit never dies

She froze. Shit. Air rushed out of her lungs as he crashed into her, elbow against her jaw.

This was something completely different from the raids. There, she had weapons, the boys and the element of surprise. In the ring, against a foe far more experienced than herself, she had nothing.

The boy didn’t press his advantage. Instead he stood and gave her space. Is he toying with me? She cupped her throbbing jaw, tears threatening to spill down her face. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to look for the others, but the darkened house lights meant she saw nothing but the pitch black.

Fists up, standing again, she let out a roar to psych herself up. Her voice was thin and high. She grimaced in embarrassment when he laughed. Her gut clenched tighter and the pain spread to her lower abdomen. Ignoring it, she reached inwards. The dark energy lay coiled and ready. It leapt eagerly at her call. She wrapped it around herself. Blue flames flared bright and eye-searing.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the crowd chanted.

She drew herself up. The roaring audience bolstered her confidence. With a Push against the cage behind her, she launched herself forward. Her fist leading the way. It connected against his torso. Fists flew, kicks landed, blows exchanged. Nike could barely figure out where she started, where he ended.

Pain seized her body as suddenly she was held aloft. “What?” she managed before even her throat froze.

She was floating in a nebulous blue cloud. In the absence of more strikes, her body was making its protests known. Blood was flowing from a gash on her forehead. Instead of dripping onto the floor, it floated next to her.

The boy glared at her, his face swollen and cut in places. He kept his body hunched as if straightening was impossible. One hand pressed against his side. She would have smirked if she wasn’t in such a strange predicament.

I didn’t know biotics can do this too.

“No more games!” the boy yelled, his voice hoarse and raspy, as if he smoked ten packs a day.

As abruptly she was yanked into the air, she fell. All she managed was a tiny scream before she landed on the floor, hard. Agony flashed across her side as air rushed from her lungs. She lay on her back gasping.

The boy advanced, teeth bared and fist drawn back. It flashed blue and came down. Panic forced her to move despite the spreading pain across her ribs. She rolled. And the fist slammed into the space her head had occupied. Fists and feet chased her, faster and faster. But there was only so much room in the ring. This was a losing battle. She was getting lightheaded. Her ribs hurt too much to take deep breaths. Her limbs were lead.

“Don’t disappoint me.” Frank’s voice echoed in her head. Stitches’ warning flashed across her mind. I don’t want to lose! I can’t lose!

Nike dug deep, summoning the dregs of her energy. Her amp throbbed and seared painfully in protest. With a growl, she launched herself at him. Her back hunched, her arms wrapped around his mid-section. She Pushed them clean across the ring. The air roared in her ears. What was seconds felt like minutes. He struggled and twisted. But her grip shifted to match. Nike locked her hands on his arm forcing it to stick out in an awkward angle. With a crash, they slammed against a column that generated the barrier.

Nike heard an audible crack. The boy screamed.

His arm was bent in an unnatural manner. She scrambled away from him, hand pressing against her ribs. Her lungs heaved as she stumbled to her feet. Blood, spit and sweat coated her body. She stared, mouth agape. He cradled his arm, shrieking in his raspy voice. As she tried to process what had happened, the crowd cheered. It drowned out all thought.

As the house lights snapped on, she realised she had won. The fight was over.

Her eyes searched for the others and found them hugging and jumping. One section on each side of the cage fizzled out. People from both teams entered. One in victory, the other in defeat. Nike stared as the boy was dragged off the ring by his handler.

She had no time for pity because Cutter hoisted her onto his shoulders. The crowd roared louder, chasing away all pain, doubts and fear. But deep inside, Nike knew. It was luck that she won. She was losing and completely outclassed. She should have lost.

Frank looked at her. He was sucking on a lollipop and he reached up to tousle her hair. “Good girl,” he said.

Despite her ribs, she bent and took the lollipop out of his mouth and popped it into hers. With a smirk she asked, “So what is my cut?”


That day, everyone learnt her name. And it was celebrated. Hordes of people roared, “Nike! Nike! Nike!”

Cutter hoisted her up and down. Despite the motion sending shooting pain up her chest, she had the widest grin plastered on her face. Her arms held up high and everyone’s acclamation rocked the Underbelly.

By the time she was back at the base, Nike was drained while the boys were riding on a high. Cutter and Scars were discussing how they were going to use their earnings, while Frank counted their winnings. Her stomach rumbled angrily as she trudged slowly behind them. In the end, she eschewed a shower, or even eating, and collapsed into her sleeping bag. Back pressed against the wall, she was snoring not a minute later.

Nike missed the knowing nod between Frank and Tenner.

But mere hours later, Nike woke with a terrible cramps across her lower abdomen and a strange wetness between her legs. She sat up, her hand patting on the wet spot. There was the unmistakable scent of iron in the air. With a groan, she activated her omni-tool. Everything was washed over in an orange tint.

She frowned. There was definitely a wet patch. She unzipped the sleeping bag and there was a larger patch underneath. Her heart quickened. The mess was the worst between her legs. Her abdomen clenched harder. She couldn’t decided if her ribs hurt worse than her abdomen.

Maybe it is something else. I can’t be bleeding. I would know, right?

Her hand quivered as she reached to activate the torch function on her omni-tool. As soon as the light changed from orange to white, she screamed. Blood, everywhere. Red stained her shorts and sleeping bag. She was bleeding and it hurt so badly. Why?

This must be a dream, another nightmare. Wake up! Wake up!

Scars jolted awake but growled, “Go back to bed, Nike. It’s too early.”

Cutter merely rolled over in his sleeping bag, mumbling in his sleep. “Go back to bed!” Frank yelled sleepily.

“No, but…” she stammered, struggling to her feet. “I’m bleeding.”

“Bleeding?” Scars parroted groggily.

“Look!” she insisted.

He activated his own omni-tool and his eyes widened. “Boss, she is bleeding.”

She hunched over as pain radiated upwards. Should she remain standing? Should she sit? The idea of sitting in her own blood repulsed her. This was different from skinning her knees while practising with Cutter, or getting cut on a raid, this was unknown, strange and unexpected. She didn’t hear Frank getting to his feet, grumbling all the way.

Scars remained an arm’s length away while the others roused from their sleep. Frank added his light to the mix. She jerked her head up and stared at him. Her eyes imploring his for answers. Something, anything to tell her this was ok. Another stab of pain made her sink into a sitting position, drawing her knees to her chest.

“What is happening?” she asked, her voice breaking.

Nike felt fear before, when she had no food for days, the slow creeping kind of fear that wormed its way into her heart, casting doubt she would ever find something to eat. There was also the heart pounding, adrenaline rush of fear when she went on raids. This was different from those. This was confusion and panic that her body had betrayed her. The one thing that worked all the time had failed her.

“You’re sure you have no wound?” Scars asked.

Nike shook her head mutedly. Frank frowned and asked, “How old are you?”

She frowned, lower lip trembling. “What does it matter? I don’t know!”

“Is this coming from between your legs?”

“Yes, maybe, I don’t fucking know. What’s going on Frank? It hurts!”

He chuckled after a beat. “You’re just having your fucking period.”

She froze. There was a name to this thing that was happening. It made things better, having a name to the problem. But there was only one problem. “What is a period?”

Frank made a face. “It’s a thing… a function that girls have.”

“Does it stop? Does it stop hurting?” she asked, her questions coming fast and frantic. “What do I do? How do I stop it?”

For once, Frank was at a lost for words. He turned and looked at the others. They either shrugged or shook their heads in response. “There is nothing you can do,” he said eventually. “It will end when it ends. It can’t hurt that much. Go back to bed. It will be better in the morning.”

Without a word of comfort, Frank turned and went back to his sleeping bag. One by one, the others took their cue from him and did the same. Scars was the last still standing. Their eyes met.

“Scars,” she called softly, her eyes wide and scared.

He shook his head and muttered, “Sorry. I don’t know how to help.”

Nike stood alone in the dark. Her omni-tool casting the only light in the vast space. The lump in her throat grew and tears threatened to spill from her eyes. Her day of triumph was ending in the worst possible manner.

Her teeth caught her quivering lower lip and she left the base. Her pace was slow at first but as the motion warmed up her limbs, she went faster. Eventually she was running, alone, down the darkened streets of the Slums. Her pounding feet took her passed the crossroads and a familiar bark stopped her dead in her tracks.

“Burger?” she called out.

Nails scraped against asphalt. And a mutt with one floppy ear, one pointed ear stepped into the street. His nose twitched as he picked up the scent. She grimaced, knowing the stench was overpowering. Burger whined a little and approached. He remembered all the times she pushed him away and ignored him while they were on the streets.

“I’m sorry.” she whispered, kneeling down.

Burger approached her cautiously. Eventually he put his head against her neck and she wrapped her hands around his fur. “What do I do?” she whispered.

The mutt pulled his head from her grip and licked her face heedless of the streaming tears and snot. His tongue lolling out of his mouth as he trotted off a little distance away. He looked back at her, tail swaying lightly. Nike got to her feet and followed.

They walked and walked. It was only when the familiar building loomed into sight, Nike realised Burger was leading her to Meg’s.

Lyrics taken from Warriors by Imagine Dragons

Chapter 9 - Pain and Fire

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

WARNING: NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURING BUILDING, CHILD IN PERIL, SURGERY, UNETHICAL MEDICAL PROCEDURES

Pain. Throbbing, stabbing and urgent. Heat. White-hot, blistering and consuming. Her eyes snapped open. Fire, everywhere. Ignoring the pain in her legs, she pulled herself up.

I am on fire.

Her ankle screamed in protest as she dragged herself away on hands and knees. She remembered falling. Looking up, the beam she fell from was no longer there.

Where is Thomas?

Heat scorching her palms and knees reminded her to get going. Shakily, she stood and tested her ankle. A sharp pain shot up her leg, it felt like a dagger of ice twisting at the joint. But she could manage an awkward shuffle with much panting and hissing. There was no time for hesitation or second guessing. The fire was coming and she had to move. Picking the direction that looked the safest, she started hobbling.

There was one silver lining despite the fall, it meant she was now on the ground level. If she could get herself outside, and away, she would be safe. Her stomach churned as she coughed, her lungs trying to expel the white dust that just seemed to be everywhere. She covered her nose and mouth with one hand, while the other acted as support, reaching out and bracing against walls or furniture that were still safe to touch.

It wasn’t just her ankle. Her back was sore, the burn across her chest angry. She had picked up a whole bunch of scratches and scrapes across her arms and legs. Still, she couldn’t allow them to slow her down. One foot in front of the other, step by step, she moved down the hallway.

The fire burnt brighter, hotter behind her. She couldn’t see beyond the devouring inferno. There was only one way forward really. The teachers’ quarters were above, she didn’t know what was below. Maybe it was more of the same? There was only one way to know for sure.

The hobble-step gait she had was slow, but it was the best she could manage. Tentatively she tested the door knob. It wasn’t hot and unlocked. Relief washed over her. Pushing through she realised it was an infirmary. She had never been in before. Most of the scratches she picked up from daily life in the home were treated with a pat on the head from the teachers and little else. She never had needed anything more. She hardly ever got sick. But now, she prayed she could find something to ease the pain.

She stumbled through, hands fumbling at drawers. Most of them were locked. Eventually she tried the cupboard at the back. The doors swung open and she pulled at the boxes on shelves she could reach.

Yes!

There was a first aid kit. Inside she found a single use pack of medi-gel. She tried to tear the pack and the plastic wasn’t giving. Sweat dripping down her face, a combination from exertion and heat.

Come on!

There was no telling how much time she wasted, she was close to tears. When the packaging tore, the tube flew out of her hands. “No!” she shouted as it landed a distance away.

The contents oozed into the ground. Teeth gritted, she hobbled as quickly as she could over. Stifling a sob as she applied what was left inside liberally over her ankle. The skin was weeping in parts and blistering in others. Tears pricked her eyes as the coolness of the medi-gel numbed her ankle. She spread whatever was left over her chest and arms.

She sighed, wishing she could rest a little, but the crackling outside forced her to her feet again. The infirmary was large, but it was also a dead end. Her original plan to climb through the ducts was unnecessary since she was already on the ground floor. All she needed now was out.

But how?

She glanced around the infirmary. Windows! If she could get one of them open, she could climb out. Wincing, her ankle bore her weight a little better than before, she staggered to the windows. The muscles on her arms corded and shifted as she worked the handles. Most were locked. Still, she tried all of them methodically. Then the window nearest the door swung open without trouble. Fresh air swept into the room. She took a deep breath and savoured it. It was her first breath of untainted air in hours.

Was it hours?

She was tired, dirty and hungry. Shaking her head to clear it, she eyed the opening. It wasn’t wide. With a grunt, she gave the window another hard shove, it wouldn’t budge any further.

Can I get through it?

It didn’t matter. She had to try. There was no way she was going to hang around any longer than she had to. She shoved a stool against the window. The metal legs squeaked against the tiled floor. Grimacing she pulled herself up onto the ledge. She leaned out and sighed with relief. The drop wasn’t high.

Crunch - an echo of a memory. A body hitting the concrete pavement with force.

Her breath hitched. Her knuckles white from the intensity of her grip. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself. With one more backward glance at the door behind her, she slipped off the ledge, heat and flames chasing her.

She landed feet first with a cry. Pain lanced up her bad ankle despite the medi-gel. She laid on her back for a while, trying to let the pain ease a little before moving.

“There!” someone shouted.

Before she registered what was going on, hands large and small were helping her up. They were half dragging, half carrying her. When they finally let go, she struggled to her feet. A small cluster of kids both older and younger than herself were staring back at her. There were no more than 20 of them. Among them there were no grown ups.

“Did you see Emma?” one asked.

“Did you see Thomas?” another asked.

Each of them had names they asked after but she had no answer for most. The words were caught in her throat. In the end she just shook her head, her lips pressed into a firm line. Turning back, she faced the only home she ever knew and watched the fire consumed it.

It wasn’t just burning. Now that she was outside, she realised parts of the building had collapsed. The entire rear of the structure had fallen in on itself. There was nothing but a raging inferno. Smoke and fire spewing from the crater. But a white haze that didn’t belong hung in the air, coating both her home and everything surrounding it.

She coughed. The white dust was everywhere, falling from the sky like snowflakes. It was a scene she had only seen in vids. Lifting her hand up in wonder, she realised everyone were mostly coated in white. She was the only one soot smudged. They must have been standing out in the open for a long time.

The wind picked up. A howl rose from the concrete jungle around them. It was a moan, low and high in turns, a dirge for the dying carcass of her only home. Despite the heat, she shivered. The smoke parted and behind it, she saw a transport craft. It wasn’t a large one but enough to cause the damage she saw. She hadn’t learn many words and flames had charred most of them from the side of the aircraft.

What was left were four alphabets. She spelt it out in her head.

E-E-Z-O

Her eyes wouldn’t look away, she was determined to commit it all to memory. It wasn’t merely the destruction of her home, it was a loss of something core to her, but she couldn’t find the words to mourn it. Her heart ached and she didn’t understand why.

Someone behind her called out, “Hey, I think you should sit down and get those burns looked at.”

She didn’t hear them. She blinked, wavering on her feet. Her vision tunnelled and her legs gave out.


Pain. Lancing, piercing and hot. Nike’s eyes snapped open expecting to see fire, but it was cold. She shivered. Everything was unfamiliar, cabinets crammed with bottles, trays filled with bloody instruments. The scent of iron was overwhelming.

Where am I?

Her jaw clenched tight to hold the misery at bay, but her guts heaved. She opened her mouth to retch but there was nothing except air. A groan clawed its way up her throat regardless. It was low and agonising sound of a wounded animal.

Her head throbbed. The worst of it concentrated where her head met her neck. Gingerly, she reached behind to touch. The slightest of brushes against the bandage sent shooting pain into her head. Tears streamed unbidden from her eyes.

Memories came back to her in bits and pieces. Frank made her chase Burger away, a talk about implants and amps, Stitches making her sleepy. She jerked upright and cried out. Her eyes searched for help from someone, anyone. The room spun dangerously and her guts clenched. She dry heaved, still nothing came up. She remembered she had not eaten that morning.

Is it still the same day? Where is Scars?

She squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to keep a lid on her nausea. The door squeaked open and she flinched away from the sound.

“You’re awake!” Stitches said, relief evident in his voice. “I thought…”

She opened her eyes and glared at him. It lacked the intensity her green-yellow eyes usually have. “What did you do to me?” she demanded hoarsely.

He held his hands up placatingly. “I know you’re in pain. Anyone would be too after the procedure. Don’t worry, it is a minor one and it went well.”

Nike narrowed her eyes, catching Stitches’ furtive glances at everything else in the room but her. Before she could call him on his bullshit, he approached. “Let me check the wound. Some medi-gel would help,” he assured.

She stiffened as she felt the wet bandage lifted from her skin. Her jaw tightened, despite her efforts whimpers broke through. Stitches hissed at whatever he saw.

“It looked fine, healing well,” he hurriedly said.

Nike stuffed her wrist into her mouth as she listened to Stitches bustling behind her. Drawers were slid out and slammed shut. Boxes opened and items retrieved then discarded. Plastic packaging rustling and ripped open. Then something cool hit her skin right at the pulsating raw spot. She cried out. Her teeth bit down on her wrist, hard.

“Almost done, just a little bit more,” he cooed.

As much as she wanted to shrug off Stitches’ attention, as much as she was pissed off at the situation, Nike knew she needed his supplies. Working for the Reds only meant a safe place to sleep, regular showers and food, some kind of camaraderie with the others. She wasn’t paid, that meant she had nothing but the clothes on her back and the omni-tool on her wrist. Though Nike was more than happy to use threats and her blade to get what she needed from shops within the Reds’ Dowager sanctioned territory, medical supplies still came at a premium.

The cool sensation spread, seeping into her skin, numbing the spot. It took the edge off her pounding head. Her shoulders relaxed a little, the tension her body held eased. Gingerly, she pulled her wrist from her mouth. There was a perfect imprint of her teeth. A couple of the marks were bleeding. She wiped spit from her wrist on the medical gown she was wearing.

Stitches covered the wound with bandages again before walking out. Nike straightened her neck and back as much as she could. With a fresh application of medi-gel she managed if she moved slowly. Vaguely she wondered if she was supposed to follow him. As soon as the thought occured to her, Stitches came back.

He had a couple of white pills in his hand. “Swallow these,” he said.

Nike took them and gave him the best glower she could muster under the situation. “These are painkillers,” he said, rattling the bottle in her face.

She popped them in her mouth and choked them down.

“Ahh, sorry. I don’t have anything but booze here,” he said. “Take this bottle and take the painkillers two tablets each time, twice a day. Ice the spot and change bandages everyday if you can. Keep the site dry.”

Stitches rattled off instructions after instructions. She was barely listening. It was close to midday when Scars turned up.

“Nike!” he called.

She could barely keep her eyes open. Hungry, thirsty and tired, it was the worse she had ever felt. It was more horrible than the time she ate mouldy food. She threw up for days on end for that. This was worse, way worse.

Scars blanched when he saw her. “Are you ok?” he asked.

She just blinked in response from her hunched position on the medical table. The doctor shoved her clothes to Scars and said, “She will need help while she heals.”


Nike didn’t how they got back to base. It was all a haze. The pain was muted, far away with the medication, but it made her mind foggy. She floated rather than walked. Cotton candy was stuffed between her ears. Hours blended into days. Vaguely she knew Scars and Cutter looked in on her. Sometimes one of them would shake her awake to eat, other times they would help her with changing of bandages. But most of the time they left her alone. The wound started to stink, she smelled because she laid for days on end in her sweat. Movement meant straightening, it meant pain and it was too much trouble. Other than peeing she never moved from her spot. When she was awake, it was agonising pain that made her threw up what she managed to force down. So sleep was her only escape but it was hard to fall asleep. With her back pressed against the wall, the only way she felt safe without Burger, she dozed. Time ceased to have meaning.

“How long is she going to be healing?” someone shouted.

“Boss, I don’t know. The wound is still raw,” another replied. “And it stinks.”

“It has been more than a week. I am losing credits like this. I’m feeding her and she isn’t working.”

Footsteps, heavy and loud strode towards her. The gait was long and loping. It was Frank.

“Nike,” he called.

She kept her eyes shut, willing him to go away.

“She is asleep, boss. Just leave her be,” the other said. She recognised Cutter’s baritone voice. “I think we should get some medi-gel. Maybe Stitches should look at her.”

There was no reply for a while. She knew this silence. It was razor sharp and dangerous. One wrong word, the powder keg would blow. She wanted medi-gel too. She wanted anything to stop the pain.The painkillers had long ran out, it wasn’t aiding in the healing. She shifted in her sleeping bag, curling up and whimpered, peeling her eyes opened to glance at them.

Nike knew she was a liability, all input and no output, worse than useless. Frank wouldn’t stand for this long, but she couldn’t just will her body to heal. She didn’t want to be back out on the streets or worse sold to the Snatchers. Will Frank really do that?

Frank stared at her. She would have flinched if she had the energy to. Cutter was rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably.

Eventually Frank sighed. “Speak to Tenner, get Stitches here,” he said.

As Cutter left, he called after the younger man, “He owe us. He botched the job!”

“Boss,” she rasped.

“You had better be worth it,” he muttered as he left.


Nike winced, shielding her eyes from the sun. She took a deep breath and exhaled in one big explosive breath, trying to push all the soreness out. Her fingers reached behind, questing for the tender wound. It was small and red but no longer swollen. It was still a little wet from the medi-gel she applied before she left the base.

She sighed and started walking again. It took her twice the time to cover her usual distance. Frank kicked her out to do her rounds two days after she got back from Stitches. “Earn your keep!” he shouted.

Stitches came and took one look at her and said, “Her wound is infected.”

And that began a shouting match over her little corner. Frank demanded to know why Stitches botched the job. Stitches pleading for his life and repeatedly telling Frank he was just a general practitioner not a specialist. In the end, Cutter carried her to Stitches’ clinic.

“Damn, girl,” Stitches said as she whimpered when he pulled the soiled bandages away. “I have to make you sleepy again.”

“Will it hurt more?” she asked.

He stiffened and forced a smile. Nike would shrink back if it didn’t set off flares across her neck and head.

“No it wouldn’t. You will go to sleep and you will be better.”

Cutter grunted. “That had better be true, doc. She is one of ours.”

After Stitches put her to sleep again, she woke up in considerably less pain than before though extremely woozy. Cutter was perched precariously on a tiny stool snoring loudly. She spent days in Stitches’ clinic, lying on the table where he put her to sleep on. Steadily she got stronger and better. The wound was still sore, but it wasn’t hot to the touch and it didn’t stink and ooze pus.

She could hear Cutter arguing over on omni-tool with Frank.

“She was a good team member before. You made Stitches put a fucking chip into her head and fuck her up!”

Some silence. Nike figured he was getting yelled at. Frank never liked being talked back to. Everyone had a fist to their face if they stepped out of line.

“But she is still healing,” he said. “If she is so important to you as your investment, you need to let her heal.”

When Cutter returned to the room, she shut her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. She didn’t know how to take his overt concern towards her. All of them were hovered in the grey area of not quite friends, not quite enemies. But Nike trusted all of them to watch her back. She was one of the Reds. Stitches’ warning was the only lingering doubt that niggled at the back of her head.

Eventually at the end of the week, no matter how guilty Stitches felt whenever he looked at her, they had outstayed even that. Cutter walked her back to the base, back to Frank’s baleful glare.

“Girl, you better hope you are worth it. You cost me a lot,” he growled.

He hadn’t spoke to her or Cutter till he put her back out on her rounds.


That first day was rough. Nike still tire easily but she was relatively pain free. She stopped at the usual spot looking for Burger. The mutt was nowhere to be seen. The worry weighed heavy against her chest. But she had a job to do, her place in the Reds was hanging by a thread.

Eventually Nike trudged on feeling incredibly vulnerable without Burger flanking her. She expected everyone to put up a fight giving over their credits. She shuffled with a scowl and her blade ready in her hand. In the end, nobody gave her trouble.

It got easier after that. She wouldn’t admit it if anyone asked but being up and moving helped her feel a little more normal. By the end of the week she was almost herself, albeit still very sore. Though she missed Burger intensely, she knew he was safer without her, especially against Frank’s unreasonable anger.

Just be safe out there. I know you’re safe.

Nike didn’t want to return to the base. The atmosphere back at the base was oppressive. She felt like she was walking on eggshells all the time. One wrong move would set Frank off. Cutter was already in the doghouse thanks to her, she didn’t want to be responsible for more shit raining down on anyone else.

Nike sighed and her legs took her to her happy place - the cinema. She glanced at the posters Meg posted outside. “Moulin Rouge is still up?” she muttered, remembering the chat she had with Meg. “But it has been more than a week.”

She had arrived way too early for a showing but there was nowhere she wanted to be. Her head was throbbing a little and the heat was taking a toll on her. She had to get out of the sun. Walking up to the projector room, she found it locked and empty. Meg wasn’t in yet. Nike went to work picking the lock. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before. Vaguely she wondered if this meant she wasn’t welcomed anymore. That thought made her sad.

Burger, first. Now, Meg too.

She exhaled, her jaw set as she went on picking the lock. As the lock clicked as it disengaged, Nike couldn’t help the grin that tugged at her lips. Even though it took longer than usual, she got it done in the end. She made a grunt of satisfaction as she sank into her usual chair, and propped her feet up on a nearby desk.

The sore spot at the base of her skull started twinging. She rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably, unable to rid herself of the strange sensation. Since the procedure and after most of the throbbing had subsided, there was a near constant low grade buzzing. It wasn’t something audible. It was more like a vibration under her skin emanating from her core. Nike wondered if she should be worried, but she pushed it out of her mind.

If it didn’t hurt, it didn’t matter.

Instead, she started searching the extranet for those strange words Stitches talked to her about. Maybe it was the heat that did it, maybe she wasn’t as strong as she thought she was, but it didn’t take long before she dozed off.

A shuffling sound made Nike jolted upright. The door opened and something rushed towards her. It bowled into her, pushing her clean off the chair. A delighted bark and her fingers found fur instead of danger. “Burger!” she cried.

Happy licks coated her face with saliva, but she didn’t care. She had missed her friend. “Where have you been? I looked for you!” she said.

Glancing up she found Meg looking down at her. “What happened? I didn’t see you for days!”

Her eyes met Meg’s. All she found there was concern, fear and relief. Meg sat down on the floor and pulled her into her arms. Nike was stiff and confused. “I thought you were taken!” Meg went on. “I heard some kids went missing again. Then there was a raid on another Snatcher hideout. When I saw your dog wandering without you for days, I was so sure that you were gone.”

Nike felt the tightness of Meg’s hug. Burger was still pushing his snout against her ribs, his tail swinging back and forth like it was never going to stop. She relaxed in parts. Her body went limp against Meg, then her arms fell loose on her lap. Her shoulders and jaw released the tension she didn’t know she was holding on to.

Meg pushed her away a little. Hands cupping Nike’s face and eyes roving over her. “Say something girl,” she said.

Nike didn’t know quite know how to explain it to the older woman. She could barely understand it herself. All the hurt, both physical and emotional, confusion and fear was released in a single exhale. A lump grew in her throat as she tried to hold it in. But it was too much, too quick. She didn’t understand the welling of emotions even as tears pricked her eyes. Meg pulled her close again, arms enclosed around her.

Chapter 8 - Baby’s First Implant

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

WARNING: SURGERY ON CHILD

“You got the stuff?” Frank asked.

“Yes, yes,” Stitches groused. “Only the best your credits can buy.”

“This is not going to get any blow back from the Dowager, right?”

“Yes, I’ve made sure to deal with people outside of our little jungle,” the doctor said. “When have I ever failed you?”

Frank stiffened at the retort. His legs shuffled. Stitches glanced at Frank’s groin uncomfortably for a moment as the younger man flushed red. A snarl ripped from his throat and he shoved the doctor against the wall. He pressed a forearm across Stitches’ throat. “Do not make me remind you when you’ve failed me!”

The older man fought to push the well muscled Frank off but to no avail. If the air wasn’t squeezed out of his lungs in panic, Stitches would have flinched at the rage in Frank’s eyes. With a feral growl, Frank released him. The doctor rubbed his neck and dragged air into his lungs.

“Sorry,” he rasped.

Frank’s snarl was replaced with a benign smile in a flash. “Don’t worry about it. Just get it done right,” he said. The smile never reached his eyes.

Stitches shuddered but nodded. “Just bring her to me.”

Frank nodded and left Stitches to his preparations. Tenner was outside waiting for him. “Are you sure about it?” he asked.

“This is cheaper and it keeps Stitches happy. Three months discount and we get the girl hooked up with an experimental amp and implant,” Frank said, “what’s not to love about this arrangement?”

“The Dowager-”

He glared at Tenner. “You run the numbers. I make the decisions. You got that?”

Tenner stifled his protests and nodded stiffly.

“All right, get Scars or Cutter to bring the girl here. It is time she makes my investment worthwhile.”


“Here,” Nike said as she tossed her leftovers at Burger.

He missed as the day old fries slapped against his snout. She laughed. “You’re just awful at this.”

There was nothing else to do today. Her rounds were completed. Meg didn’t have any of the movies she liked. “I’m doing a Tom Cruise special this week,” Meg said. “You’re not going to sneak in to watch one of them?”

The posters for Mission Impossible, The Firm and Vanilla Sky stared at her. She grinned and shook her head. None of these were her favourites. Meg stopped pretending she didn’t know Nike had been sneaking into the projector room. The door was, after all, always left unlocked for her. In turn, Nike left peace offerings in form of food. Burger was even allowed up there with her.

“No, I’ll come back next week and see what you have,” she said.

“What do you want to watch?” Meg countered.

“Anything?”

“Anything that I have.”

Nike tapped her foot and thought about it. “Do you have Moulin Rouge?” she asked hopefully.

“I may have that,” Meg replied slyly, crowfeet streaking from her eyes. “All right come back next week, maybe Moulin Rouge will be on.”

“Yes!” Nike cheered, punching her fist into the air.

With a happy skip in her step, she walked home. Burger trotting by her heels. She made a quick trip into the base to drop off the credit chits on Tenner’s overflowing desk. He would add that to their little stash. Cutter and Scars were at the makeshift range out back, trying to one-up each other. So she grabbed the bags of fries from yesterday and headed out again.

Since their raid of the Razors’ base, they were eating a little better, but the biggest difference were their weapons. Frank made sure they were always armed. Pistols for regular daily use, SMGs for when they went raiding.

The pistol was a comforting weight. Normally she kept it hooked against her waistband at the small of her back. With her back leaning against the fence, she faced the street and admired the pistol. She held it up against the light. The pistol though badly scuffed up, worked well. Her right hand was busy stuffing more fries into her mouth when Burger pushed his nose against her hand, not keen on waiting anymore. “Hey!” she protested as Burger snapped his jaw around the entire bag of fries.

Art by Naeviss on Tumblr

With one quick jerk of his powerful neck, the bag tore, leaving her a single fry in her hand. Burger danced away as she lunged for the bag, spilling fries all over. “Asshole!”

The rumble of bikes distracted her and Burger escaped with what fries were left in the torn bag. It was Frank and Tenner returning. The old petrol scooters spluttered loudly. Tenner rode straight into base while Frank turned towards her as Burger was busy scuffing down his ill-gotten gains.

Nike surged to her feet when she realised Frank had no intention to slow down. She grabbed Burger by the scruff of his neck and pulled him out of the way. The dog yelped in fright. Frank laughed. He dismounted and kicked in Burger’s direction. But the dog was faster than the boot.

“What the hell, Frank!” she shouted. “Leave the dog alone.”

“Stop wasting food on a mutt. Come on,” he said, grabbing her by her collar.

She stumbled along to keep from falling. Burger growled at Frank, food forgotten. He sighed and pulled his pistol out. “I told you to get rid of the mutt so many times,” he pulled back the hammer on his pistol lazily. “If you can’t do it…”

She struggled out of Frank’s grip and stood between Burger and the pistol. “What the fuck,” she shouted, “it’s just a dog. Leave him be.”

Frank looked at Burger, then at Nike. With a grin spreading over his lips, he said, “Get rid of the dog. We’re not a shelter. I am not asking nicely again.”

He waited with one hand on his hip, pistol held loosely. She turned her back on Frank with a little trepidation. “Go!” she shouted at Burger.

The dog cocked his head but made no move to go. Running towards Burger with her arms outstretched did nothing. He stuck his tongue out as if laughing. “Frank, hey can’t we just go back in,” she suggested.

His eyes were hard as he looked on. “No,” he said, “either you get rid of him or I will.”

The grip he had on his pistol was no longer loose but tight. And the muzzle was pointed directly at Burger.

Fuck.

Nike was careful to angle her body to cover Burger. She prayed she didn’t misread her value to the Reds. She had proven her worth, hadn’t she? Her hands were stained red during that first raid. Maybe she hadn’t helped in the same manner in the raids after that, but she had assisted. She was one of them. Right?

Jaw clenched, shoulders set, she pulled her pistol out. She didn’t allow herself a split second of hesitation. Burger watched her. His brown eyes so big, so trusting. With a grunt of effort, she raised it above her head and pulled the trigger.

The gunfire rang out, heart-stoppingly loud. Burger bolted. Nike took a shuddering breath, whispering under her breath, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

Mastering her expression before she turned back to Frank, she said, “There, done.”

Frank smirked. “Good girl,” he said. “You’re in for a big day tomorrow.”


“Hey doc,” Scars called out. “How long will it take?”

Nike looked around the clinic. Its appearance hadn’t improved. She remembered what it was like living on the streets, so she wasn’t too fussy. Frank had explained to her that she was getting an implant and an amp for the strange blue magic she could do. But exactly how it was all going to be done, he never said a word. Now that she was standing in Stitches’ office, she figured maybe it would be some kind of injection.

“It won’t be fast. At least six hours?” Stitches replied.

Six?

A thrill of fear ran down her spine. She wanted so much to check in on Burger this morning, but Scars took her to the clinic on the motorcycle. So that idea went out the window. Now she had to hang around the clinic for six hours?

“Woah, that’s long,” Scars said, before turning to her, “all right I’ll be back for you later.”

Without a backwards glance, he was out the door again, leaving her alone with Stitches. The doctor’s hands were folded across his chest. He sighed and turned to walk back into the curtained-off area. She followed.

“Sit.”

She obeyed and perched on the stool across from him. She waited.

“So I’ll need to shave some of your hair for the surgery,” Stitches said.

“Surgery?”

It was a word she wasn’t familiar with, she lifted her omni-tool to check on the word, but Stitches pushed her hand down.

“I’m going to have to put this,” he picked up a circular plastic component still wrapped in its packaging and showed it to her, “into the base of your head, so I’ll have to shave your head.”

It was the size of his thumb nail and looked vaguely spider-like with four thin and limp legs splayed out. She blinked not quite comprehending the situation. But dread was tightening around her chest.

Stitches shifted his chair closer and pressed his fingers at the base of her head. “Right about there. So I’ll take maybe five centimetres of hair off, maybe more.”

Nike jerked backwards. “I don’t want that. You’re going to cut into my head!”

He grabbed her arm. “It is not going to hurt. Don’t make this harder than it is,” he said.

It wasn’t convincing in the slightest. She struggled, fighting like a wild horse forced to the bit.

“Stop, stop, stop!” he shouted, relinquishing his hold on her arm. “Just listen to me.”

Nike glared at him cautiously. She remembered he helped when Frank sprained her wrist months ago. Pressing her lips into a thin line, she inched backwards, putting some space between them.

“Frank wants me to do this. And I have to do this. If you want to stay with the Reds, you will have to do this,” Stitches said, his arms held up placatingly.

She swallowed, turning his words over and over in her head. It made sense. Frank spoke to her yesterday. He was eager about it. The whole purpose of the raids had been to get funds for the amp and implant. Frank wouldn’t be happy if she had refused.

“It won’t hurt,” Stitches went on. “I will put you to sleep and then when you wake up it is done. It will help you control your biotics.”

“Biotics?” she parroted back to the doctor.

“Fuck,” he sighed. “How much do you actually know? Frank never said that I needed to give you a crash course too.”

He stood up and started pacing, running his hands through his thick hair. She watched quietly, committing the words to memory so that she could look them up later.

“I’ve got to do this. It’s not about ethics, I fucking work in the slums. What ethics? That’s useless to me. I have to do this. It doesn’t matter,” Stitches muttered under his breath.

Glancing at her direction, he approached again. This time, he held her hand gently and knelt down, putting him at her eye level. “Right, you’re a biotic. With this, you will be able to use it better. It is just a little nick and you’re done. Think of it this way, with this,” he said, shaking the implant in her face, “nobody can make you do things you don’t want to.”

The memory of Burger’s eyes turning from trust to fear flashed across her mind’s eye. Her heart clenched. She didn’t want to have to do that again. “I can protect Burger,” she murmured.

Stitches frowned but chose to ignore it. “So shall we get this done?”

Nike nodded. He took a buzzer to the back of her head and black hair fell to the floor. Once that was done, he led her to a separate room and handed her an adult sized medical gown

“Change into this, I’ll be back later,” he said.

She looked at the gown then at the room. The brave front she had put up earlier was rapidly crumbling. There was a medical table in the middle of the cramped room. Devices, plastic tubes and metal equipment cluttered a side table. And a large lamp hung on a retracting arm overhead. Memories of another room flooded into her mind, a girl with a ripped open chest, blood flowing, pieces missing. Nike gagged, flinching at the image flooding into her mind. She clenched her fists, her nails bit half moons into her palm.

I’m a big girl. This is a good thing. I will be able to protect myself after this. This is a good thing.

When the door opened again, she was dressed but tears were standing in her eyes. She stiffened, staring at the strange man dressed in scrubs and a mask. Only his eyes were visible. “It’s me,” the strange man said with Stitches’ voice.

She relaxed marginally.

“Get up on the table,” he instructed.

The table was hard and icy to the touch. Her only view was the lamp as she listened to Stitches shuffling around her. She tightened her jaw when her lower lip started to trembled, blinking her tears furiously away.

I’m a big girl. I will do this.

She repeated the endless litany in her head. It didn’t take long before Stitches’ face appeared overhead. “You’re going to feel a little sting,” he said.

Pain lanced up her arm as he plunged a syringe into it. Her world started spinning as her vision went hazy. She opened her mouth to speak but he pressed a mask over her nose and mouth. Her limbs twitched in a vain attempt to fight against the drugs. As her vision started to tunnel and dim, Burger’s goofy face was the last thing her disoriented brain threw at her.


Stitches worked. Sweat beading across his brow and upper lip despite the cooler temperature of the room. He snorted inwardly. It was nothing like a surgery room. This was no place to implant biotic hardware in anyone let alone a child. He was a doctor, and he knew he was nowhere qualified to do the job. His hands trembled from fatigue, his fingers couldn’t keep a steady grip on his tools. He sighed and dropped them on a waiting tray.

The girl lay still, face down, a mask over her nose and mouth. It was the only thing keeping her down. And he had made sure the dosage was high enough for a biotic, albeit a child sized one. He knelt down to check. Everything looked fine as far as he could tell.

Not girl, her name is Nike, remember that. Nike’s face was slack, she looked almost dead. No, she is not dead, she is just under. I just need to get this done.

Stitches took a shuddering breath to steady himself. He glanced at the uncapped bottle of booze sitting on the table next to the tray of soiled instruments. The straw bobbing from the mouth of the bottle was inviting him. He wasn’t stupid enough to contaminate his gloved hands by holding the bottle. That was what the straw was for. His eyes couldn’t quite bring themselves to look at the task at hand. He blinked and swallowed. His throat was parched.

Just one sip, to calm the nerves.

He nodded, giving himself permission. His mouth opened and caught the straw between his lips. Taking a deep breath, he took a single sip. He drank like he was a man dying of thirst. When he finally relinquished the straw, the originally full bottle was half empty. He sighed happily and held in a burp.

“Excuse me,” he said to nobody in particular.

Stitches held out his hand and they seemed steadier than before. “Yeah, that’s the right thing to do,” he muttered, “I just need a little break.”

Glancing at the battery operated clock, he realised he was coming up on the five hour mark. Scars would be back for the girl soon.

Nike, her name is Nike.

He sighed again and picked up a pair of retractors. Carefully, he inserted the retractors into the incision he made earlier. Blood oozed from the wound as he pulled the gauze he stuffed in to stop the bleeding. His suction machine wasn’t working so he had to make do.

This entire surgery was one massive session of making do. He glanced down, the girl’s brain stem was exposed and the site looked clear. He couldn’t help but pat himself on the back for getting it done with the limited equipment he had. He clenched his slightly shaking hand. It would have been so easy for his hand to slip and he’d lost control of the medical drill. It wouldn’t just be the girl dead, he would be as well. Frank wouldn’t just let it go if he killed the Reds’ resident biotic.

Biotics were a rare commodity. The Dowager collected most of them. She ruled simply because she had the credits and muscle to back up her threats. Snatchers made sure to test for biotic abilities before cutting kids up for their organs. Gangs would kill to have a biotic on their team. Life would have been easier with a biotic on their side. But the main reason was a gang’s ability to field a fighter in the ring. Everyone bet on the fights. A gang like the Reds could stand to win more than mere credits at one of these fights. Territories changed hands on the result of a fight. And the Dowager was the reigning winner of these fights. Simply because she had the best of the best. And her fighters were all well motivated to win, because a loss meant being cast out. The Dowager wasn’t in the business of second chances. The other gangs would snap up a failed fighter quickly but they had other methods of keeping their biotics in check.

Stitches shook his head. He had a job to do. He didn’t have time to dwell on the politics of the Underbelly. He ripped the packaging and pulled the tiny chip out. The thin wire like material was supposed to latch onto the nervous system. How? Stitches had no fucking clue. But the theory was to gain access to the largest concentration of biotic nodes - the brain. He flipped the packaging around and looked for installation instructions. Blood smearing over the white packet made it impossible to read.

“I can get access to cheap implants and mods, even some experimental ones. But I am not an implant specialist. I told Frank, does he listen?” he muttered. “No, he insist that I do it. And this implant? This is some damn experimental implant I’ve seen before. Does it even install like the regular ones?”

Stitches flipped the packaging left and right in quick, curt motions. “No, going through the Dowager is too expensive. It raises the tithe and that boy just want to juice his pet biotic up!”

Exasperated, he flung the packaging at the wall.

“So the girl ruptured his testicle and he takes it out on me!” Stitches said, his voice no longer a low mutter but full bodied and loud. “How is this my fault? I had no ultrasound to diagnose his problem. I fucking took the damn thing out. And it was only one testicle, he had another one. He should thank me! And this was months ago. The girl punched him in the balls and somehow it is my problem.”

He looked down and looked the girl again. Pity and worry colouring his gaze. Nike was the only innocent soul here. Though her time with the Reds had only been mere months, he had heard of the random bouts of violence that were slowly and surely being attributed to the Reds. Frank had always been ambitious, but he had stepped up his plans since she joined them.

Stitches sighed. He glanced at the bottle again. One more, for the road. And he finished whatever was left in the bottle. He smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Now, the package says it is plug and play, easy peasy,” he muttered, “it had better be.”

He looked into the site again. Blood was welling up again. “Shit.”

He pressed a fresh piece of gauze and it was saturated just as quickly. “Ok here goes fucking nothing, girl.”

Gingerly, he lowered the implant down. Nothing happened. Then, Nike twitched, his monitors screeched in response. Stitches flinched.

“Thank the fuck I’ve strapped you down.”

He glanced down again. “I think that worked,” he muttered as he pulled the amp out of another sealed package.

“Tab A to Slot B.”

It took more time than he anticipated. Closing the wound up, then bandaging up as best he could before he turned down the gas. Scars popped into the room when he was moving the girl onto her side. Stitches glanced at the clock, the boy was two hours late.

“How’s it going doc?” he asked.

“Just done but it will be a while before she wakes up.”

Scars shuffled on his feet. “Can I just leave her with you? She can go back to base on her own tomorrow or something.”

Stitches shrugged. “I know how to reach you if I need you to get her back,” he said.

“Sweet,” Scars smiled as he turned to go, “You’re the best doc.”

He was too tired to respond, instead he picked up his empty booze bottle and left the room, leaving Nike alone.

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.”