Ryuki grew up in Midnight City, poor and hungry. This is his story.
My bare feet slapped against the pavement, hard and fast, as I ran through Kambangang's warm, midnight air. The street around me was buzzing with movement and sound. Night walkers roamed the sidewalk, their skirts up too high and their faces covered with too much makeup. Marcus, the one-legged jazz-man, played his horn on the sidewalk.
I jumped to the side, just avoiding a tourist, who ran out from a bar to vomit in the street. His dinner splashed against the asphalt and I smelled Chen's Box Special #3- thick noodles and deep fried shrimp.
Only two more blocks to go, I told myself as I pushed my body to run faster. Three salt-shakers lay ahead of me- their eyes and skin yellow from too many drugs. They looked at me, but I don't think they actually saw me.
"Hey, I got what you need," a dealer called out from the corner. "You want that blue. You want that salt. I got that new fire salt, twist your head for days."
Inside a bar, a pimp pressed one of his girls against the wall.
"Please, daddy. You know it wasn't like that," she cried out. "It- it wasn't like that, baby."
I heard the sound of skin slapping skin as the girl kept trying to reason with him.
Kambanganag turned different colors in the light of the neon signs. The bar called 'Girls, Girls, Girls' splashed the street in a rich shade of pink. The 'Pawn shop,' sign turned its little piece of Kambangang a pale white.
Mr. Chen stood outside his shop, calling out to drunk tourists and hungry prostitutes.
"Noodle. You come eat noodle. Best food in whole protectorate, I tell you. Best cure for hangover is noodle. Come, come, why don't you?"
I waved to him as I passed and he gave me a sour expression.
"Ryuki," he called out my name as I zoomed past him. "Why you out so late! Is school night!"
Mr. Chen was always good for a little money if I cleaned up at the end of the day. And if I never caused any trouble in front of his shop, he might even give a meal.
I was huffing and puffing now, my legs burning as I moved, but I was so close- and there was so little time. I had to push it.
I saw the neon I was looking for.
The 'e' had burned out six months ago. The bouncer glared at me- the fire escape to go to the apartments was right next to the doorway for the strip club. I never understood why so many guys liked to see naked ladies. They all have the same parts. And why couldn't they just get a hologram of a lady and look at that at home, instead of going to a bar. But I didn't have any time to think about it.
I entered the fire escape without bothering to peek inside the club- I had seen my mom changing hundreds of times and none of that interested me. I dragged myself to the third floor, and then tapped on the window I was looking for. I waited a few seconds and then tapped again, louder this time.
The window opened, and Rajiana appeared. She was thirteen years old, five months younger than me. I had only recently forgiven her for being two centimeters taller than I was.
"What do you want, Ryuki?" She asked, rubbing her eyes with a long yawn.
I tried to speak, but the words were difficult to get out, with my body trying to bring so much air in.
"I heard that..." I stopped for a breath. "I heard that Dante," another breath... "Dante is going to off Chawray tonight."
"Ok," she grumbled.
"I heard it's..." another breath. "It's happening now. By the docks."
"Alright," she yawned.
I raised my hands in a pronounced shrug, waiting for her to get the point.
"So...?" She said.
"So let's go."
"Why do you want to see that? It's gross. And it's not as fun as in the shows."
She didn't get it. She was a girl- so no one picked on her. She didn't have to be tough. She didn't have to experience tough things to impress the boys at school. It's not fair, I thought, it's so much easier for girls.
"It's just... the guys at school make fun of me. If I tell them that I saw someone get killed, then maybe they'll stop pushing me around."
"Why do you care what they think?" Rajiana said with another yawn.
"Will you just quit whining and come with me?"
"Ryuki, the Inspection is coming in three months. You need to get your rest for it. It's gonna be the most important day of your-
"I know," I snapped, clenching my fists- my jaw flexing harder than I meant to.
Rajiana's expression softened. She opened her mouth to say something, but instead looked down and was silent.
"Come on," I forced myself to smile after being reminded of the Inspection for the millionth time.
Rajiana released a large, exaggerated sigh, which told me she wasn't mad at me for snapping at her just now. She then rolled her eyes, like she was so grown up, like she knew everything, and then spoke with confidence.
"I want half your lunch for a week and I'll go."
"No way," I yelled. "I came to get you as a favor."
"Be quiet," she shushed. "My parents are asleep. Besides, you're just scared to go alone."
"Am not," I said in a harsh whisper.
"Are too. Half your lunch for two days. Last offer."
"Alright, fine. But I'm not afraid. And would you hurry up!"
Rajiana grabbed one of her mother's long, tattered shirts, as well as some shorts, and put them on. She then climbed onto the fire escape, and we took to the crowded street like the wind.
"We're not going to make it in time," I grumbled as we jogged down the street. "We need to cut through the bowery."
"Are you crazy?" Rajiana asked. "That's Early's turf. You'll get us killed, or worse..."
"I know, but we're gonna miss it. We'll sneak past them. No problem."
Rajiana gave me an unhappy, doubting expression, but didn't object further. She was right though- neither of us had ever been through the bowery before- although we'd heard a lifetime of horror stories about the place. But my mom told me stories about monsters that would eat me if I didn't do my homework, and that never happened. How much of what adults say can you honestly believe?
Kambangang curved to the right, like a bend in a river, but Rajiana and I continued going straight, down a series of back alleys. There was no neon here. No street lights. No happy calls from Chen or music from the saxophone man.
We took in long slow, breaths as we moved. Kambangang, that beautiful river of light and safety, would come back again in four blocks. We only had to go four hundred meters through Early's turf before we were back in our own.
Rajiana froze, but I didn't see what had spooked her. I turned to look at her, and followed her gaze toward a man leaning out his second-story window. He was old and his skin was a leathery brown; it looked like he'd worked in the farm-land for a hundred years. He peered down at us, his eyes not showing anger or fear, or anything really. He spit down on the street, and then turned back to his dark apartment.
Rajiana released a silent breath, then kept moving. We came to the first intersection of three. Only four blocks to go, and we were a quarter of the way there. Rajiana took the lead, and looked left, then right before crossing the street. There was no one around, and she darted across. I followed.
"You don't have to be in front," I whispered, but Rajiana quickly shushed me, her eyes as serious as murder.
I hated when she did that- when she took my idea and then did a better job at it than I did. Why does she have to be good at everything, I thought.
I heard a sound coming from the bottom floor of a nearby apartment. We listened carefullly. It sounded like fighting- two men breathing heavily, whispering and muttering in the dark.
We held our breath as we tried to figure out what it was, but I realized what it was and relaxed.
"One of Early's sly boys," I whispered.
As we passed by the open window, with the sounds of wrestling and kissing coming out, I peaked inside. There were two manly figures in the dark, pushing and moaning and pumping back and forth.
We kept moving, and came to the second intersection. No one on the street.
We crossed and quickly approached the third intersection. There came a sudden, laugh out of nowhere. It was so close and sharp that I thought the adrenaline would pop out of my eyeballs. A pile of coats ahead of me moved, and I saw an old man beneath it. His face looked wild, still high off some salt-binge. His yellow eyes looked at us with wildly, puffing with red veins. Whatever that part of the eye that's supposed to be white- his was yellow.
"What's this?" the old man said in a humming, sing song tone. "Two lost, little birds?"
I tensed. I could see Rajiana as still as a statue beside me.
"Oh, don't be afraid of little, old me. I won't cause no trouble for you."
"You won't make any noise, will you?" I whispered. "We just want to pass through. We don't want any problems."
"Oh, I won't tip off Early or his boys. But you just... just got to do something for me."
"What is it?" I asked, feeling my guts twisting nervously.
"The Inspection's coming up soon. I get a little sour this time of year, ever since I... And it's been so long since, since... since I... I just want to... ... ... let me smell your hair. That's all. Let me just smell it."
I looked to Rajiana.
"Well, go on," I whispered to her. "Just real quick and we'll get through."
"Not her," the man said sharply, the humming, sing-song now turning to cold anger. "You."
He extended a harsh, bony finger at me and my spine shuddered horribly.
"Well, go on," Rajiana whispered quickly, with a snarky little smirk.
"But..." I looked from Rajiana to the old man.
Behind the stranger I could see the glow of Kambangang- the street that would protect me from anyone on Early's turf. Just a block and a half away.
"Let's run for it," I whispered, taking hold of Rajiana's hand.
"Don't get all squirrelly now," the man said, returning to his soft, melodic tone. "I just want a little taste. Can't you give that to Old Bill?"
"Now!" I barked, as Rajiana and I ran around him in a wide arc.
The stranger lunged for me, his dirty hands outstretched and menacing. I ducked into a roll as the man's fingernails scratched against the back of my scalp, but I jerked my head away. I jumped to my feet and sprinted beside Rajiana toward the light.
"Get back here, you little scum-sucking Varus!" The man screamed from the ground, his words vicious and booming. "Look what you did to me! You made the red stuff come out my hands. You made me lose the red stuff. I'll kill you! I swear to all the gods, I'll kill you!"
His horrible words echoed off the alley walls, but I just ran as fast as I knew how- I didn't care that my legs burned or that my bare feet hurt against the rough, uneven ground. Because even though I knew he was on the ground, I could still feel him on the back of my neck; I could feel him right behind me. We passed the third intersection. No one between us and the light. I heard windows around me opening as men with facial scars and wild eyes poked their heads out into the street.
We reached the neon-lit street, huffing and puffing. As soon as I felt the warmth of the busy street on my skin I stopped and relaxed, but Rajiana grabbed me and made me keep running away from the alley. I could still hear the man scream, even as we moved in the busy, bustling light.
We walked for some time in silence, the beach and the city ports now visible ahead of us. Rajiana and I walked below two, large neon signs. One read 'Hot Women,' and the other, 'XXX ladies.'
"That wasn't fair," Rajiana said, her fists clenched and her brow furrowed.
"What do you mean?" I asked, just catching my breath.
"How come when the guy asks to smell my hair, I'm supposed to just suck it up and let it happen? But when he wants to try it on you, we need to run? Huh?"
"That's just the way it is," I shrugged absentmindedly. "Plus, that guy was crazy. I saved us by running away."
"So if he wanted to try it on me, you wouldn't have run away. You would've just let him take me. Is that what you mean?"
"No, I mean..." I thought back to all the rants my uncles and classmates had given; all their hateful words against those with 'obscene' sexual preferences. "I just knew something was off when I found out he was sly, ok. I knew we couldn't trust him."
"Well, you're the one who wanted to go down Early's turf. Maybe you're the one who's sly."
"Am not!" I said, defensively. "Don't go saying things like that. I should punch you in the stomach right now."
"I'd like to see you try," Rajiana said, standing erect, making our height difference a little more obvious.
"Oh... stop messing around," I growled. "We're gonna miss it."
I took off running toward the port, with Rajiana hot on my tail.
The area between the crowded city street and the port was flat, empty asphalt. In the day time it would be flooded with food stalls, vendors, touts, and tourists lining up to visit the beach- but now it was almost barren- just a few food stalls and a handful of drunk tourists. Even though there were no street lights or neon to show the way, the moon was bright enough to illuminate everything.
Named Dauntless, the moon sat in the center of the sky like a pearl of the gods, and was visible on all but the most polluted days.
Tonight, Dauntless hung above us as bright as ever; its vast cities and roadways looked like veins on a junkie's arm. People said that if you squinted really hard, you could see the tallest building in the whole protectorate- 500 stories high. I had claimed to have seen it on many occasions, but Rajiana knew I hadn't. She only occasionally called me on my nonsense- when I was being really obnoxious about it. I hated that she always knew when I was lying.
The moon's light illuminated a large, razor-wire fence; it stood ominously between the street and the port. High above this was a single night guard, asleep with a flashlight resting on his lap. I was quick to locate the loose fence.
"Ha!" Rajiana said in a forceful, but quiet laugh, hand on her hip, just the way her mother often did.
"What?" I asked.
"You were here earlier. You found the loose fence and everything."
"You just came back for me because you were scared to go in alone."
"Would you... would you stop making problems. We're going to be late!"
She said nothing, but beamed with a victorious little smile that stabbed away at my pride. I held the fence up so Rajiana could shimmy under first. She did so, and then held it for me.
"Ah," I called out as one of the rusted, metal barbs poked me.
I looked at my scratched elbow with worry- red but not quite bleeding.
"Just spit on it," Rajiana said, as she gathered saliva in her throat.
"No way," I pulled my elbow away. "You got girl spit. That'll kill a boy. I have to spit on my own cut."
"Woman spit," she said proudly. "I'm thirteen."
"You don't look like a woman," I jabbed at her sternum.
"They're growing," she growled as she slapped my fresh cut.
"Ow, stop it," I cried.
Rajiana stood looking frustrated, hand on her hip once more, as I gently spit on my wound, and wiped it with my dirty hand.
"Is the baby ok?" she mocked.
I gave her an angry face, then got to my feet.
"Come on," I growled. "We're gonna miss it."
"Do you know which vent we take to get down there?"
"They all connect," I whispered as I located the nearest ventilation shaft.
The vents were just wide enough for an adult man to squeeze through, so it was easy for our narrow frames to fit.
We shimmied through the ventilation shafts, then stopped when we had a good view.
Below us, in a large circle of light was Dante, surrounded by close to a hundred people. Dante was large, and walked with a limp- everyone knew his story. As a teenager he'd lost his right leg in a turf-war, and spent six months hobbling around on one foot as he tried to steal enough money to pay for the replacement. He was eventually able to afford a body-mod, which would move and feel just as his old leg had, but he found that he still had the limp. So ten years later he still carried it. He bore other mods as well. Three fingers on his left hand had been lost in a knife fight, and had been replaced with mods. He had willingly given up his right eye to be replaced with a state of the art, military mod.
Dante walked in his faux-limp, circling a beaten and bloody Chawray. His hands were tied behind his back, and he struggled to sit up. I looked at the scene, soaking up every detail so that I could report it to my classmates later.
"He thinks he's one of the gods," Dante called out to those in attendance. "He thinks he's so tough, so important that he don't got to follow the rules that keep this place running. My rules..."
"I didn't know," Chawray slurred through a fractured jaw. "Come on, man. I didn't know who she was."
"You don't know a tourist when you see one? You expect me to think you're so stupid you don't know a tourist when you see one?"
"I didn't know, man."
"Who's gonna buy my product when all the tourists leave here, huh? We got so much blue, so much salt, ready to move. We got more money, more business than we've ever had. There are over 150 planets out there with people on them. Over 600 moons. Someday we could be running things all over that. Even on Dauntless. That's the real shit. But how are we gonna keep the money flowing when those rich people find out that their girls could get raped here? Huh? Who's gonna buy our product then?"
"I didn't know..." Chawray whimpered.
"You lay hands on a tourist, you get a beating. You scam a tourist, I'm gonna slap you around. But you rape... you RAPE a tourist? I mean... I didn't even know there was anyone that stupid to require that rule."
"I didn't know, man," Chawray said with a painful groan. "I didn't know she was off-limits, Dante. You gotta believe me."
"This is the moment," Dante said, producing a silver glove from his black jacket. He fitted the glove on his right hand, and several lights lit up along the knuckles. He made a fist with the gloved hand and it emitted a low, electric hum. "You decide right now. You gonna go out like a little goddess, or you gonna go out like a man?"
"You don't need to do this," Chawray pleaded, "I'll pay you. I swear I'm good for it."
"Is this how you want it? You want everyone to know you went out like a woman?"
Chawray slowly shook his head.
"So then make the call," Dante said in a low, intimate growl, something bordering on comradery. "Make the call..."
The crowd grew silent as they gathered closer. It was quiet enough that even from twelve meters above it all, I could hear Chawray take in a deep breath, release it, then pull in another. The doomed man composed himself, and in a calm, deliberate manner, got to his feet. He looked Dante in the eyes, took another deep breath, and then nodded. The long, horrible, anticipation came like a storm- so powerful that it made its spectators shake.
There came the horn of a passing car. Somewhere water dripped. A glass bottle fell to the ground in the distance, but didn't shatter.
A quick pop and a brilliant, orange flash came from Dante's gloved hand- so bright that I had to close my eyes. When I opened them, I saw Chawray crumpled on the ground, a stain of blood, brains, and skull fragments forming a halo around his headless torso. Dante stood still as he looked down at his handiwork. The crowd of people came to life then, talking, yelling, laughing, forming an otherworldly roar that echoed off the ventilation shaft around Rajiana and me.
Mag-gloves were so powerful, so efficient that they didn't just fracture bone, they eviscerated it. Chawray's head had been reduced to a pile of mush, with tiny bone fragments here and there, no bigger than a few grains of sand.
I looked down at the mess, and knew that Rajiana had been right. This wasn't at all like the shows that Mr. Chen let us watch in his restaurant. There was no heroic, drawn out fight. No music. No theatricality. There was talking, and then it was over. How could I stop death when it came so quickly? So powerfully. How could I possibly protect the people I loved from death? I looked at Rajiana, and imagined her down there, a headless mess. I felt something I couldn't control then. It was a tightness that started in my gut and pushed up toward my face. I expected vomit, but instead tears came to my eyes. I tried to hide it and turned away from Rajiana, but the tears didn't stop. I felt her rubbing my back in soft, slow circles. And then my stomach tightened and vomit gurgled in my mouth. My stomach flexed again, I dry-heaved, and green bile spilled out of me; I didn't have any actual food to spit up as I hadn't eaten since breakfast.
"Are you ok?" Rajiana continued to rub my back.
"I'm fine," I muttered. "I just want to go home."
Rajiana walked beside me in the moonlight as we meandered back toward the city. I was still crying, softer now. Beside us was a long, pristine beach, with chain-link fences and signs that read, 'PRIVATE BEACH. NO TRESPASSERS.' We could see the waves washing up along the white sand, but couldn't hear them over the sound of the city. Blaring car horns. Drunk tourists laughing and shouting. The sizzle and pop of street food stalls cooking greasy fried rice and deep-fried chicken.
"I saw someone die last year." Rajiana said softly.
"I know," I sniffled for the hundredth time and wiped another tear from my face- the water faucet seemed to be finished. "You told me."
"It was a tourist," Rajiana continued. "He smoked too much salt. He fell and cracked his head open. I saw the whole thing. And another time I saw the police officer blast a junky with his mag-glove."
I wondered if Rajiana had cried when she had seen these deaths, but didn't have the heart to ask. I knew that she probably hadn't and wasn't ready to be bested by her yet again.
"Chawray gave me five credits once," I said, the tears all gone now. "He told me to deliver a package for him, and said when I finished it, and came back, he'd give me the money. I delivered the package, and I thought that maybe he'd skimp on me- that he wouldn't pay me. But he did. He kept his word and paid me.
"I never liked Chawray," Rajiana said quietly.
"Yeah? He was nice to me. He even let me hold his mag-glove once."
"He liked to grab my mom a lot," Rajiana wrapped her arms around herself uncomfortably. "In places you're not supposed to grab."
"Did your dad ever stop him?"
"No, he's scared of Chawray. But it's not like my dad would care anyway."
We passed by a large brick building, the base of which was covered in graffiti. None of it stood out, but the top three stories of the building were covered with one, giant tag. The man-sized letters spelled out,
KILL YOUR RAPIST. DEAD MEN DON'T RAPE.
We stared at the letters for a few seconds and said nothing. Rajiana, without making a sound, reached out and held my hand. I wasn't expecting the touch and didn't know what to say, so I just looked at her.
"I'm really scared of that," she said with true fear in her eyes.
"What? A mag-glove?"
"Getting raped. It must be horrible."
I looked at the graffiti on the wall. It was done sloppily, so much anger put into each movement. Rajiana had never expressed a fear of anything. She wasn't afraid of school bullies or seeing men die. She was afraid of something I had never even thought about. I still didn't know what to say so I just squeezed her hand and kept walking.
A junky lay on the sidewalk ahead of us, his hands moving above his head, the way a kitten plays with its mother's tail.
We ignored him, and then continued walking in silence, until the city walls were around us. We stopped in front of a shop, whose neon read 'Real medical mods sold here.' Beside the entrance for the mod-shop was a metal gate that led up into my apartment building.
"Thanks for coming with me," I said sheepishly. "I know you didn't want to."
"Thanks, Ryu... I don't want to do this again."
I nodded solemnly, and then watched her walk down the neon-lit street, past dealers and pimps and belligerent tourists. She walked past a poster that said 'if they're sly, they must die. 81 days until the Inspection.' Down the street I could see a city worker pulling down the posters and putting up new ones. '80 days until the Inspection.'
On the poster was a photo of two men about to kiss, with a big, red X over it. I stared at the photo of the two men for a few long seconds. My cheeks burned hot and my stomach twisted as I imagined those two men I had seen in the bowery, writhing and kissing in the dark. I pushed the warm sensations out of my mind and then climbed the fire escape to my home.