Chapter One - Breaking News
If you wanted to be rich and famous, you had to be one of three things: born rich, born lucky or have a world class meka. Eli had completely missed out on the first two, but there was still a chance he could get the third.
It couldn't be just any old meka though, it had to be the best. The best in the world.
“Eli! Did you hear—”
Everything Apple said was drowned out by the engines of an airship as it dropped low overhead. Its undercarriage flared open, emptying hundreds of tons of rubbish onto the twenty-mile-wide ring of trash between city walls and the desert—the crashing and clinking and smashing was loud enough to hurt.
Apple’s lips kept moving, but his wild gestures weren’t making any sense. Eli waited until the belly of the ship was empty and its engines roared, lifting it back up into the smoggy sky.
“What?” Eli slid down the mound of refuse he had been digging through.
“It’s on the news vids,” Apple said, exasperated. He was about thirteen, same age as Eli. Skinny and dirty, same as Eli. They were practically brothers, though neither of them knew where they came from or who their parents were.
“I haven’t been watching the news vids. I’ve been out here.” Looking for anything of value in the rubbish. Rich people threw out all sorts of things. Good things. Things that could be sold to less-rich people for a little cash. Cash, that could be saved up so Eli could buy a meka.
“A thug from the Rift just robbed a bank with a meka. People were killed. The snouts are making a law so only people with citizenship can get one,” Apple said.
Eli’s gut clenched, as if something slimy was twisting up inside him. “Who says?”
Apple pointed back toward the vast wall of the looming city. “The news vids!”
Eli hoisted his bag of scavenged trinkets higher up on his shoulder, trying to remember how to breathe. “That can’t be true. It’s got to be a mistake.”
If it was true, all of Eli’s plans were ruined. Everything he had worked for all his life, destroyed in one mega pile of bad luck.
Apple nodded earnestly, though his eyebrows were quirked with worry.
Together they clambered nimbly over the scree, wary of the bellies of the air ships as they meandered overhead like growling whales. Being crushed by garbage was a common way to die on the Rim.
The edge of the shanty town was a wall of uneven, angular shapes like broken teeth, all pressed together and a uniform shade of filthy. Homes were made from signs and bits of furniture tied together with pieces of rope. Roofs were tarps or doors and the floors were dirt. Millions of people lived on the Rim, outside the city in their trash-and-dirt hovels. The sound of them, crammed together was louder even than the engines of the airships.
Eli never felt normal though, he never got to forget he was poor, because looming above everything, the city dominated the western skyline. The wall of concresteel rose up hundreds of feet into the air, curving away to the south and north. From the ground it looked like the city wall went on forever.
A few people waved as Eli and Apple reached the edge of the ramshackle buildings. Everyone here was dirty, wearing mismatched, scavenged clothes and most were very young, or very old. The able-bodied could usually find work in the Blueline, factory or sanitation jobs that sapped strength and willpower and paid barely enough to make it worthwhile. But sometimes a factory job was enough to get you citizenship and then you could sleep in the city, underground, but safely enclosed in the wall.
Eli and Apple wove their way down the narrow, dirt paths, past squalling infants and boggy puddles that stank of rotted food and piss. Dunx was the only person in this part of the Rim with a working vid screen. He was waiting for them with a big, toothless grin on his face as Eli pushed back the tarp. His hair was white and thin, growing in scraggly patches on one side of his head from chemical burns in his youth.
“Come ta see, have you Eli?” the old man leered. “Thought news about the meka might lure you in.”
"The snouts can’t do it, right?” Eli asked, crouching down in front of the semi-transparent image, waiting for the news items to cycle back to the meka story. “They can’t stop people like us from owning meka.”
All Dunx had was an old box-GAU screen. A lump of molded plastic that projected a hologram into the air, with cracked buttons and no remote control. Half the time the image was too transparent to see, but the sound was pretty good.
Through the haze and crackle of the screen, Eli's favorite pretty blonde news reporter, Tally Tamon, was all smiles, makeup and designer summer dresses. She answered the question answered before Dunx could.
“And in other news, officials are moving to pass new laws prohibiting anyone who doesn’t hold an orange citizenship or better from owning meka, after nine people, including two young children, were killed in a bank robbery earlier today. The meka’s handler, identified as Jayden Dean who is believed to live in the Rift, held no citizenship card and used his meka to bash through security check points and throw the militia hovers that barricaded his path. The footage we are about to show you may be unsuitable for young viewers.”
The image cut to a shaky handheld video feed of a typical Topside street with the skypath running overhead, the carriages nothing but a silver blur as they whipped past. The street was clean and empty, with plastic trees that sprouted from neat holes in the sidewalk, concealing tiny speakers that trilled out fake birdsong and classical music. It looked like something from a dream. Everything perfect and organized. No trash, no garbage, no rats.
Then a militia hover spun across the scene, thrown through the air with immense force. Eli winced as it smashed into a shop front, cracking the Perspex windows, the hull crumpling like foil and spitting flames.
Topside citizens came into view, ludicrous in their eccentric, expensive fashions, running and screaming, trying to hide in shop doorways or behind fake trees. Lumbering behind them was an immense meka, knuckles dragging as it walked. Its thick, shaggy fur had picked up litter and filth in the Rift, so it looked like a walking mound of trash. Tusks as long as Eli’s hand jutted from its lower jaw, and when it roared, it exposed a mess of jagged teeth. It was jarring to see something so filthy and unkempt in paradise.
Stalking along behind the beast was a man dressed in an overcoat, face dark with stubble. He was cheering as the meka hoisted a woman into the air, dangling her over its mouth before—
—the image cut back to Tally Tamon, still smiling. Eli’s breath was coming fast. He swallowed, his mouth was filling with saliva as he fought back a wave of nausea. How could Tally look so calm and pretty?
“A spokesperson from Lifesphere Incorporated joins us live from the Zenith Biosphere.”
The image on screen divided into two, the right half showing a man in a fancy suit with a flip of green hair over one eye. Finally, someone who would stand up for people like Eli and Apple. He might be another snout, but Lifesphere INC wouldn’t let this law pass.
“Hello, Ms Tally.”
“Hello, Drant Ellis,” Tally countered. “Today Lifesphere Incorporated is facing a lot of criticism, as experts claim that meka are unsafe and ownership should be illegal for those without an orange citizenship or higher. How does Lifesphere Incorporated respond to this?”
“The meka,” Drant said, “cannot be held responsible for this. They are bio-organic constructs designed to obey the will of their handler. Their personalities, behavior, even shape, size and appearance are determined by the DNA of the human they are bonded to. Yes, some people are going to have more dangerous meka than others. But that is not affected by income or location, rather variances in their handler’s genetic structure. Incidents like this one are rare, and meka are a multibillion-dollar industry. Your own vid station televises meka fights in Taramon Arena, and many of the city’s most famous handlers originated from the Blueline, Rim or the Rift.”
Eli could have hugged him.
“Could that be because people from outside the city are more inclined to violence, so are creating meka capable of greater destructive power?” Tally asked. Eli felt the words like a blow.
The image became too static to see and Dunx pounded on the side of the vid screen, swearing and jabbing at it with a screwdriver.
Eli stood silently, trying to hide the tremble in his lip. He bit his cheek until he tasted blood, but he could still feel his eyes stinging. More inclined to violence… as if anyone out here had a choice.
Dunx glanced at him. “Are yeh gonna cry, boy?”
Eli gritted his teeth, stalking out from under the tarp and back through the maze of humpies to the rising mounds of rubbish. He was going to cry, but not in front of anyone else. Pride was one of the few things he could afford.
“Wait!” Apple ran after him. “Eli?”
“Leave me alone!” he snarled.
For as long as he could remember, a meka had been his only way out. His big dream. Even someone like him could buy a meka egg, and if they had the talent and the drive, they could become famous. Rich. They could leave the Rim forever, live in a real apartment and eat twice a day. Maybe even three times a day.
Apple persisted. “Come on, don’t be like that. I’m not the one who changed the laws.”
Eli held his breath, trying to swallow his hurt and anger. Trying to swallow the tears he didn’t want Apple to see.
“We’re never going to get out of here,” Eli said bitterly. “We’re going to end up in a factory, doing nothing but working and sleeping and trying to stay alive for the rest of our lives.”
“They haven’t passed the law yet,” Apple said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe something good will happen.”
Eli threw up his hands. “When has anything good ever happened to us?”
Apple caught his elbow. “Don’t give up, Eli. You’ll get a meka. We’ll go and live on the Topside. You’ll be famous. You’ll have the best fighting meka the city has ever seen.”
“And people will say it's because I’m from the Rim. And we’re just more violent than ‘normal’ people,” he said. "They're never going to stop calling us dirt eaters."
Apple didn’t seem to know what to say to that, and Eli stalked away. This time Apple didn’t try and follow.
Maybe if he’d had a few more months to save, he could have got a meka egg. Maybe if he’d gotten really lucky, and found something more valuable, it would be enough of a boost to his savings. Maybe if he only ate every second day for a few months… but he was out of time.
He was out of luck.
# # #
It was dark by the time Eli made his way back through the towering piles of refuse to the shanty. There was no electricity in the Rim, but the looming mass of the city illuminated the world, the glow of the Topside reaching into the sky for hundreds of miles. It bathed the Rim in blue, pulsing waves and cast shadows deep into the wild reaches of the desert. Eli looked up at the lights, and hated everyone who was luckier than he was.
Here and there, among the shacks, small campfires burned, manned by those who had food to cook, rather than just noodles in self-heating cups.
Despite leaving to be alone with his misery, Eli was returning with a bag of scavenged odds and ends, clothes, broken jabbers, some sofa cushions with coffee spilt on them and a box of plastic jewelry. These were for the troupe to sell, but everything Eli owned had once been scavenged trash.
His clothes were an absurd mishmash of rejected Topside styles: a faux-leather jacket that would have cost more new than the troupe earned in a whole year; big black boots, militia issue, but with chemical burns on the soles; pants that seemed to be made completely of pockets and a mesh and cord shirt that was ‘in’ with the teenagers in Celestial Plaza who liked to look tough.
He made his way through the maze of narrow paths to the circular rat’s nest of shacks he called home. His troupe called themselves the Red Hollows and they had a core membership of eight. Eli and Apple were the oldest of the scavengers. Pink was a violent twenty-something who manned the troupe’s stall in the Blueline, selling the salvage. People bought from her because she was pretty, but the troupe liked her because she could run down shoplifters and beat them bloody. Fraggle worked the stall too, guarding it when Pink was bringing down the hurt on someone.
Yate, Dina and Pickle worked as laborers in a textile factory, the troupe’s only steady income. Old Nicholas stayed in the Rim, sorting their salvage, defending their campsite from the other troupes and keeping an eye on the other scavengers: a fluctuating array of orphan children who came and went, depending on the food supply.
There were thousands of troupes like theirs on the Rim. Individuals who grouped together to carve out some sort of life. It was hard to live alone. Almost impossible. Muggings and thievery were a way of life. Violence came on suddenly and frequently. Some people had families, but it was a hard way to live. Hard to watch your children starve. Hard to work eighteen hours a day and still not be able to feed them. Maybe that was why Eli’s parents had abandoned him.
Eli dumped his bag of salvage on Nicholas’ lap returning the old man’s murmured greeting. Pink and Fraggle were nowhere to be seen, but Yate and Pickle were huddled under blankets, sullenly eating from steaming cups. They had flaky calluses on their hands now, but when they’d first started working at the factory they’d come home with bloody fingers for weeks. Eli was going to turn out like that, always exhausted, pale, with sunken eyes and no more dreams. The sight of them was enough to make him want to cry again.
Dina looked up from where she was counting the day’s take. “Where you been?” she slammed the tin lid closed. “Runnin’ off all afternoon. We won’t come looking for you if you get buried.”
Eli glared, digging a cup of noodles out of a box and pulling the tab to heat it, before peeling back the lid. Inside was a steaming, colorless mess of noodles, now almost too hot to touch.
“There was a news story about meka today, didn’t you hear?” Apple asked.
“I heard,” Dina said with a sneer. “Don’t make no difference. Eli wasn’t going to get a meka anyhow.” She turned to Eli, “You hear that? You is stuck here like the rest of us.”
“Shut it!” Eli snapped back. “I am going to get a meka.”
She scoffed. “Maybe if some snout throws out their citizenship card.”
“You don’t know anything,” he muttered, but he didn’t even believe it himself. He ate his noodles in silence. They always tasted terrible, not much more than salty water, but tonight they tasted like ash.
“You should take this stuff to Pink and Fraggle right now,” Nicholas held up the bag of salvage. “We had a bad day. The price of noodle cups has gone up fifty cents each. We need to make another ten dollars a day, just to keep up with food and drinking water.”
Eli sighed, slurping the last of his tasteless noodles. It was a long walk into the city to Blueline markets, but it was better than sitting around here, having Dina snipe at him. He slung the bag over his shoulder.
This was his life. Might as well get used to it.
# # #
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