Garrett watched the sunrise from behind an old beaten up carrier that had been gutted decades ago. All that was left was the shell, a blistered, broken mass of metal that once knew how to fly. Sad, he thought, tipping back his hat and squinting into the wind. Time was he’d have maybe been a pilot himself. Sat behind a board full of pretty blinking lights and taken off, broken atmo with a smile and a purpose and money in the bank.
There was a creak followed by a muffled snap, distant and quiet, off to his left. Someone was trying to get closer. Garrett sniffed the air, and settled his hat back firmly on his head, down over his eyes. His back was aching, pressing into the ship’s old carcass, heating up with the sun as it rose.
Another creak, light footfalls skittering over the ruins of the graveyard. Woman maybe, or a boy. Young either way, starving like the weeds that sprouted up from between the cracked dirt just to wither. Whoever they were, they were getting closer and moving faster. Figured him for an easy mark, sleeping under the sky, miles from anyone who might give a fig about justice or the proper way of settling things…
A tiny rustle, hands up against the side of the boat, leaving smudges in the dust. Painting their hands all yellow, no doubt, but there was little care for cleanliness when there was food to be scrounged up.
Another step, breath coming quick now. Heart thumping like drum beats, echoing inside a spinning mind. Just a little closer, nice and slow –
“I’d still right there,” Garrett said, his pistol levelling out against his hip. He cocked it, feeling the vibrations as the coil warmed up. He raised his eyes.
He was sixteen at the outside, skin and bones, eyes darting about and fixing on everything but the barrel. He licked his lips. “Didn’t mean no harm sir,” he said, voice a whisper on the breeze. “Thought you was gone.”
“That why you were sneakin’ hmm? Or was that just a test run for when your ass makes it to the lands?” Garrett asked. He lowered the gun.
The boy settled, sat down heavily, dust kicking up around him. He sneezed. Garrett pardoned him, activated the safety and slipped the pistol back into its holster. The boy eyed it, watching the grip on the handle glint. “Makes you think I’m goin’ there?”
“No where else to be is there, and don’t get sharp. Might still shoot ya,” Garrett grumbled. “Might be a kindness.”
They shared a nutripack, the last in Garrett’s pack, and set off for the Slumlands not long after. The boy didn’t speak much, but that suited Garrett, having grown so used to being alone that the company was more a discomfort than anything. He told Garrett his name was Lase but that no one ever called him much of anything, and he had been chased out by his father over a cycle ago. Had been living with a camp till they broke, and had figured the lands were as good a place as any to lay roots.
“Maybe I’ll find myself a nice rich someone, become a kept man,” he said in answer to Garrett’s raised eyebrow.
Garrett couldn’t hold back a snort, easing over the corpse of a freighter. He offered the boy a hand up over the side, but he backed off. Garrett sighed, opening his mouth to josh him, but then the boy was taking a running leap and bouncing up off the rusting architecture. He winked at the older man, taking a quick bow. “What about you? Ain’t no rich nobody gonna wanna keep an ugly thing like you.”
Garrett made a swipe for him but it was half-hearted at best. The boy ducked anyway, laughing. “You really believe that kid?”
“What, that you’re ugly? Ugh, yeah chief, I got eyes.”
This time the hit landed, the boy almost toppling as Garrett’s hand connected with the side of his head. “That there’s anyone worth anything in the lands. What stories them campers been lettin’ you listen in on?”
The boy shook his head, matted hair falling back into his squinting eyes. “You hit hard!” he groaned, rubbing at his ear. “And they ain’t stories. Everyone knows Elyon Seers are shipping fuel back down here. They’re gonna rebuild, right? Open up the factories and get us workin’ again. Them surveyors are already settling in the lands, scopin’ the place out. I’m gonna find one and get ‘em sweet on me. Live the life, easy as see?”
Garrett listened well enough, but he didn’t offer an answer. He saw all right. Heard the same damn tales told around fuse fires on the breach coast. Some people were so damned hard up for hope they went and invented some. As though the more people they could get to believe it, the more chance of being true it became.
They made their way back down to the ground, dropping off the old hull and patting at her side in thanks for the safe passage. Their hand prints joined a dozen others, most so old the dust had reclaimed the plating already. It was custom, to thank the graves that littered the old shipping ports. Their giant, cracked remains provided shade and shelter, bridges and roads over the ruins that stretched on for as far as the eye could see. The Slumlands were beyond, a city shell dug out of old factory buildings.
Where once it had been the heart of Alith, the planet’s shining beacon of progress and industry, now it was home to strife and suffering – same as the rest of the damned planet. It hadn’t taken long for the highers to ship out; most of them came from Elyon anyway. A few took their business to Forma even, preferring the toxic clouds and poisonous plant life to the desert. Garrett couldn’t blame them really. Alith was nothing without the tech. Just a dried up spec of grit now, with them managing to stay alive enough to crawl about over it.
The Cull had screwed them all. Damned machines. What kind of thing wakes up all made of metal and decides it has a soul?
Garrett spit into the dirt, the boy following his lead as the first of those dull house units appeared on the horizon.
“That the lands?” he asked, pulling at the sleeve of Garrett’s jacket. His eyes were glassy with wonder; the stupid curve of old, re purposed junk the most promising thing he was ever likely to see.
“Start of it. Housing units got pushed out to the far ends, inside is all the markets. They put all the dealers by the hollow halls – what they used to build the bots inside of. They got checkpoints though, you wont make it there till you got something worth selling,” Garrett told him
The boy spat again, grinning up at him. “Oh, I got something worth sellin’” he declared, grabbing at the front of his slacks.
Garrett hit him again.
The first unit they stopped by was full of screaming little ones and a pair of old birds who took one look and shooed them off. The next was a wind farm, the jagged edges of the old tech in desperate need of oiling. The old fella inside waved them in and fed them, telling the boy to curl up under the window at the back of the rear compartment, where the old O2 unit still spat out cool air.
He shared a draft with Garrett till the sun set, though neither had much of anything worth saying. Garrett spent the night propped up beside the kitchen table, his feet resting on an old stool that was made out of reeds. There was chanting as the sun came up – some old prayers the Overseers had liked to sing back when they preached about grace. Before they scarpered back to their home world along with all the rest. He hollered at the faithful after a while, but they paid him no mind, carrying on until the new light chased away the cold.
The boy didn’t speak much as they entered the outskirts of the lands, but Garrett could see the hope recede and the reality settle in. Saw him gaze at the dead eyed tradesmen queueing for the checkpoints, and watch the guardsmen beat down those who spoke out of whatever turn they decided was proper for the day.
They found themselves a spot down by the old workers quarters, now a Slummer camp full to bursting. The boy stuck to his side like someone had come along and glued him there. Garrett ignored the looks and didn’t shoo him off, stepping round tents and junker shelters till he was halfway to the centre of the place. The shade from the factory units off down the way spread around them, and the tents got bigger and dirtier. Garrett peered around at all the souls trying to make a life, but recognised none of them. The flow, the noise and the smell – that though, was familiar enough.
“You lookin’ for someone huh?” the boy said after an hour of stumbling and searching through stench.
“And ain’t findin’ ‘em.” Garrett mumbled, pausing to let a little one skirt by them, calling for mother.
“They someone to ya?”
Garrett took off his hat and wiped a hand across his forehead. “Yeah, but not if they ain’t here no more. Come on.”
They dodged and ducked their way back out into the outskirts proper, finding a caravan selling dried cuts and having themselves a bite under the shade of the outer refineries. The noise was a dull, distant roar, from the Slummer’s camp to the markets on the other side of the checks. Garrett had almost forgotten it.
The boy was getting restless, fidgeting with his meat more than eating it. Garrett kicked out at one of his boots. “You gonna sell me or what?” he snapped at Garrett, eyes brighter than they had been. He wiped a hand across them angrily, chewing with his mouth open.
“Think I got the right?” Garrett asked, biting off a chunk of his own food and munching at it.
“Been keeping me fed and ain’t asked for nothing. I ain’t a Slummer. I know what’s what,” he said.
“I am,” Garrett said after a while, letting the kid stew for no other reason than he needed to learn his tone did him no favours.
“A Slummer,” Garrett told him, nodding over to the camp they’d just left. “Born and raised over there, back when I was skinny as you.”
The boy was watching him, eyes drying back up, his cheeks losing the red. “You ain’t no Slummer,” he said, hitting out at Garrett’s arm and laughing. “You’re too smart to be one. And you got marks,” he continued, nodding down to the pouch at Garrett’s belt. “Ain’t no Slummer’s got the brains to make a mark, everyone knows that.”
“That the same everyone who told you the Seers were gonna build this place back up?” Garrett asked.
The boy huffed, stuffing the rest of the food into his mouth and rubbing his hands off on his thighs. He didn’t get up, instead settling back into the shade and crossing his legs at the ankles. Apparently figuring the time was right for some shut-eye. Garrett considered getting up and leaving him there. The boy was probably expecting him to.
He tipped his hat down over his eyes.
He was startled awake before the sun reclaimed their shade. When Garrett lashed out he was pulled up by a man with more beef on him than the cattle they grew in tubes for meat packets. He was a tanned, weathered beast with grey eyes and scars all round his mouth. Garrett squinted at him, feet barely on the ground, while the boy shouted, kicking up as much fuss as dust.
“You got yourself a sidekick?” the beast laughed, freeing one hand from Garrett’s shirt to pull the boy by his hair.
“Leave off Slummer, ya hear?! Get yer fat ass back where no one can see it!”
The boy was thrown to the ground and Garrett was pulled in, the hug brief but strong, heartfelt. “How you been, son, how you been?”
The boy was spluttering when Garrett picked him back up. He sulked, crossing his arms and glaring at them both, but he stopped the racket. “My pa,” he told him, before turning back. “Boy needs a place, think you can swing it?”
“I ain’t beddin’ down with no Slummers! No chance! Leave off!”
Garrett didn’t; he held the boy fast all the way back into the camp and further on through it, following his father’s long strides. Kids swarmed them, and Garrett watched them hang off his father’s arms, swinging and laughing until they were shaken off again. Men tipped their hats, women winked at him. He still didn’t recognise any of them, but they seemed to remember him well enough.
In the centre of the tents was a large clearing, deep in the shade. There were several cooling units with young mothers and little ones huddling close by them. He threw the boy towards them and told him to stow it. The children soon distracted him, though he still gave Garrett the eye as he followed his father to a large hollowed out hanger. The metal was clean and shimmering. They took care of the old tech here, even though the life had long left it.
Inside, his father shooed out the men gathered at a large table made out of old console brackets and sat down. Garrett took a load off, easing back into a chair. “You get tired, walkin’ the world?”
Garrett shrugged. “Walked so far found myself right back here,” he said.
His father laughed again. It was a deep, bubbling sound that Garrett had loved nothing more than being the cause of, back when the camps were five or six families strong a piece. Back when they weren’t prevented from entering the markets by guardsmen and checkpoints. “Camps running large, were you gettin’ the food? The marks?”
His father’s hands steepled together, his eyes were bright in the dim. “Found myself a business,” he said with a smile.
Garrett stared at him. “Who you found stupid enough to do dealings with?”
“Don’t know in all truth, they ain’t exactly loose tongued,” came the reply. The hangar was a mess of junk and spare parts. Mostly to keep the coolers working, Garrett guessed. He’d slept in the spaces they now took up on the floor, once upon a time. His mother had fed strays from the table they sat at, back when she’d been a living breathing person and not some hazy memory he could never quite see the face of.
“What you selling?” Garrett asked.
“Little of this, little of that. You want in you’re gonna have to stay a while though boy. Can’t let no one who ain’t put down roots in on my investments, even you.”
Garrett couldn’t help but snort. Investments, sure. Sad thing was, he knew a black dealer when he saw one. Whatever was passing through the camp was bad. Illegal enough to warrant involving a man like his father and not the traders working the markets. And the man in front of him knew him better than most. If he’d gone dark, Garrett would soon put him down than participate.
“Sit a spell, reacquaint yourself, hmm? Place has grown, I know, but there’s more than enough to go round,” his father stood and nodded to the men who’d been waiting outside. They piled back in, working at the junk scattered about. One passed Garrett a small silver token, the engraving of a circuit board almost rubbed away with age, but clear enough. It would buy him passage further inside the lands, should he wish it. Or a months worth of nutripacks, so he could go for another walk.
His father’s hand fell heavy on his shoulder. “I have something more than I did before, Gar. Be lying if I said it was pretty. But I’m keepin these people alive. She’d be proud of that,” he said with a sigh, “If nothing else.”
The boy was waiting for him, sitting with his chin on his knees, staring into the fluorescent coils on the cooling unit. A little girl was drapped across his back, snoring softly. “You leavin’ me here?”
“I don’t need no boy. And you’ll do well enough. They’ll take care of you.”
The boy shifted, but not enough to disturb the girl. “Come too far to die a Slummer,” he mumbled.
“You ain’t gonna be no Slummer, too mouthy,” Garrett told him. He reached out and rested a hand on the boy’s head for a moment. He hesitated. “Watch my Pa,” he said, leaning in. “You see black, you remember it.”
The boy met his eyes and nodded.
Garrett left to the sound of him screaming all sorts of nonsense, fists in the air until the women came to hush him.
The checkpoints were made from parts of assembly lines that had been dragged clear of the factory floors. They still had the old metal arms dangling off them, swaying in the winds. Garrett had never seen them working. He’d been far younger than the boy when the bombs dropped, but his father liked to talk about the quickness of them. Of the dance as the machines created others in their likeness.
He waited in line until the sun began to dip, stepping forward now and then, watching people in front barter and beg, some making it though, others pushed and prodded and leaving with curses on their lips and downcast eyes.
When the he finally met the nearest guardsman, he held the mark in the palm of his hand for a moment before tossing it in the air. The guard caught it and waved him through.
The markets were long walkways that used to be shipping lanes. The wide, heavy walls that used to hold up the docks were now home to merchants and white traders, buying and selling all hours of the day. Hotels, bars and Holoclubs were dotted about here and there, their painted signs flying above doorways and window edges.
Trade here was mainly home-grown stuff, but a few dealt in imports, Formanian drugs and animal cuts. Forma still had open trade relations with Alith, despite the Elyon branch of the United Parliaments having broken all ties not long after the Cull. Garrett made his way along the main strip, breathing in the smell.
Nowhere else on the planet operated quite the same way the lands did. Only here did the ships come in from the rest of the system, though rarely, it was true. But whatever came in from beyond atmo arrived in the Slumlands first, and everywhere else after. Garrett ducked into a med clinic on the main walkway and tipped his hat to the woman behind the desk. The breeze inside was cool and crisp. Business must have been good.
“Need a vacpack,” he told her. “For a boy about fifteen, sixteen cycles.”
“He had one before?” she asked, slipping off her chair and walking over to a cabinet with clear planes.
Garrett shook his head. “Doubt it, chased out before he came of age.”
She placed her palm over a control panel to unlock it and Garrett stepped back out of reach of the contents, waiting. She rummaged through a draw, rifling through clear needles and coloured vials. She grunted and pulled her hand back out, smiling. She tossed a small package to him, containing a set of pills and a few small needle points, blue liquid capsules at their rear ends. “You paying in marks or blood?”
“Blood,” Garrett said, slipping the pack between his belt and slacks. He walked over to her biotube and laid back. She waited for him to settle and pushed on the casing until he was horizontal.
“You been bled before?”
Garrett nodded and closed his eyes. “Not too fond of the sight of it though, so you’ll have to excuse me,” he said.
She laughed and soon enough he felt a drone come to life beside his head. It jabbed him and connected a line, while he tried to dream.
When it was done he thanked her and declined an offer of chilled liquor. It would be a while before he’d be back here and he wanted to make the most of the time. She looked him up and down and sighed before waving him out. Garrett paid her little mind, this thoughts returning to his father. If he was dealing, someone in the markets would know about it. You didn’t ship anything off world without a link to this section of the city.
The old harbour was an hours walk through a bustling crowd, but Garrett enjoyed the journey. Things were starting to shift, day labourers shutting up shop, night workers stumbling out of their units, blinking into the dusk. Garrett stopped by a brew house, sat at a small table as the old fella handing out sweet teas asked him about his travels. Garrett told him the graves were the same as ever, and the outer camps were still scrapping with the ones along the coastal walls. Neither side had much interest in winning more turf though. Now it was all about how far down you had to dig to make a decent wage. With the Reach expanding every year, elements on Alith were less and less valuable. No one in the markets was much interested in minerals anymore.
In exchange, the old man pointed him towards the far end of the harbour, where the docking stations still ran well enough to accommodate large carriers. Word was a new player was ferrying live cargo in and out of atmo, though no one knew where he was getting it. Garrett set off after a cup of something that reminded him of the salt winds that rolled over the coast and thanked him before moving on.
Slave trade. There was no blacker way to earn a mark. There was call for it here and there, but it was a tight-lipped whisper said only when there was no one respectable around to hear it. But even the machines had been given certain rights, before they took the liberty of thinking themselves something other than what they were. Stories went the Overseers had built the Central Cities on the backs of those who had nothing, but even they had been paid.
Garrett spat. It was an industry no straight man in the lands would touch. Freedom to live and die without answering to anyone else was all Alithians had nowadays. It was a dark soul who made it his business to strip them of even that. His mother would not have approved, of that he had no doubt.
He’d put a stop to it, if his suspicions proved right. Pa or no.
Night had claimed the sky as he rounded the final block and came face to face with the docks. He could see one of the large freighters the brew man had told him about in the distance. By the looks of things, it was already being loaded. He found a quiet place up high and watched. Carrier drones were taking the bulk of the containers off the ground, but a few were being pushed by hand, groups of men and women heaving the large boxes up onto the ramps.
His father only appeared towards the end, stepping off the ship and bowing to a woman Garrett assumed was its captain.
Garrett headed back to the camps not long after.
“I saw plenty,” the boy said when Garrett dropped down beside him. “But you ain’t gonna like it.”
Garrett snorted and eased the vacpack out of his belt. He tore it open with his teeth and caught the first pill set that fell into his hands. He popped them out and handed them to the boy.
“Don’t chew ‘em,” Garrett told him, “Down in one.”
The boy rolled his eyes but did as he was told. “You gonna hit me when I tell ya what yer Pa’s been doin’?”
Garrett shook his head. “I know he’s black, saw the back-end of the operation. You see where he’s pickin’ up the strays?” He twisted one of the needle points and jabbed it into the skin on the boy’s upper arm. He flinched and cursed, rubbing the spot when Garrett retreated.
“I see him talkin’ to the loners like me, the ones who ain’t got no one. He tells ‘em something and they just follow him. Didn’t see where to though, some big fella chased me off. What you vacking me for anyway? Thought you was gonna be rid of me.”
“No rich someone’s gonna look at you twice if you’re riddled,” Garrett told him.
The boy rolled his eyes. “What are you gonna do?”
Garrett sniffed. “Put a stop to it, I guess.”
His father watched them bed down under a free tent near the outskirts of the camp. The boy said nothing, pressing his back up against Garrett’s side, watching the open flap till sleep took him. Garrett put his hat over his face and tried to ignore the weighted feeling in his gut. The one that told him things weren’t gonna go anything but sour. Mother was gonna be waiting on one of them tomorrow, he was sure. Though only the Overseers could predict which of them it would be.
Morning came and the boy was gone, off scrounging breakfast, Garrett supposed. He stretched and shuffled out into the sun, looking around. The first woman to see him looked away. Garrett fixed his hat on his head and moved through the camp with a hand on his pistol. No one questioned him, but the little ones who went to jump on him were pulled away with a stern word. The boy wasn’t in the food line, or around the cooling units.
Garrett walked into his old home to see him bound and bruised. His father sitting nearby, drinking from a tin flask he’d had as long as Garrett could remember. “You’re mine and I love ya,” his father told him. “But you’re bad for business. Always have been.”
The boy was watching them both with wide, wet eyes. Garrett tried to ignore them.
“Slaving ain’t the way to fed these people. Can’t just decide to help some and sell others. It ain’t right.”
His father stood tall, the mountain of him enough to make most men rethink themselves. “I don’t choose ‘em. This place does,” he said, nodding to the camp behind Garrett. “They all know what’s what. Come here to meet an end, whatever that might be. No one gets a blast,” he nodded at Garrett’s gun. “None of ‘em waste. They’re taken somewhere they get fed and clothed and given a use. People left behind don’t go hungry. Everyone wins.”
“You can dress it up all you want. It don’t matter, ‘cos it’s stopping. Let the boy loose.”
His father looked at him. “Say you’ll go, Gar. Take a mark or two and go for another walk. Don’t make your old man have to teach ya a lesson so late in life.”
Garrett drew the pistol. “It stops,” he said, slow and clear. “Today.”
The boy had been trying to warn him, he realised a second too late. Blinking not because he was holding back tears, but because it was his only way to let Garrett know there were men coming up behind him. He turned too late and his pistol was on the floor and being kicked away before he got a hit in. It was five to one, but he kicked out anyway. And just before the world went silent, he thought about how little had changed. And how much trouble he would have saved himself, if he’d just found it in him to stop missing home.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The above was a short story I wrote as part of my Camp Nano project last month, and served as an origin type story for one of my main characters. It’s a very rough draft, so please pardon my dust. The more I get into reworking the novel though, the less likely it is that this’ll make it in. Which is a shame, because it’s probably the part I had the most fun writing. So here it is instead. Thank you for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments, as always. :)