- Fabula Argentea - https://fabulaargentea.com -

THE BOY by Shahid Khan

There was a time he believed he wanted to escape Grande Angeles forever. Get away from the hard and hungry life in the city’s lower districts. Given the chance, the boy found he missed it down here.

He never did find where he came from, but the streets he knew. They were his first memory, and his whole life. He grew up here and would likely die here—even now.

* * *

The boy watched the man in the long coat and snap-brim fedora insert his ID card and lay his palm into the lower-district security gate controls. He’d spent the past week walking the streets, wrapped in dirty brown rags with old shopping bags tied around his feet, waiting for this man, so obvious with his antiquated apparel.

He ate nothing but what he could find in bins. It wasn’t safe for him at the charity kitchens. He’d tried twice—before. He’d showed up early and was given a meal that seemed huge to his hungry eyes. Later on, after the kitchen closed its doors, the bigger ones made him pay for it. True, he could deal with them now, but it was best not to be noticed. The man in the ridiculous coat, Krantz was his name, could use that lesson.

Krantz stood and spoke with the guards at the gate before passing through. They laughed at some joke he made, their Mag-Rifles lowered casually.

“You sure you wanna go down there?” one of the guards asked.

“I hear there’s a great noodle place on South 42nd Street,” Krantz responded. “I’m a sucker for a good bowl of noodles.” He held his arms out and shrugged his shoulders, and they all laughed again.

The ease with which he spoke to the armed guards broadcast his own affiliation with the City Govs. This man, Krantz, was too visible. He hid nothing; he had no secrets. It was too easy.

* * *

The boy had long ago learned the benefits of silence and stealth in the city. No one paid him any attention, and more often than not, that was a good thing. At first he didn’t understand why people failed to notice him. As time went by, he began to get an idea. Small, sickly, and homeless, the boy reminded them that everything was not perfect. That poverty, and hunger, and its associated ills still remained. And so, he was ignored. This idea was all but a certainty to him now—and he used it to his advantage.

* * *

He removed the bags from his feet and replaced them with soft-soled moccasins. The material they were made of—a synthetic rubber polymer—deadened his footfalls and transferred the energy into his next stride. They were made to look as though they were cut from old tires; still, he wore them only when silence was a priority.

Moving between alleys, stepping carefully to avoid broken glass, old cans, and murky puddles, the boy followed Krantz. The sight of the small, rag-wrapped figure melted into the background of graffiti-covered walls and cracked sidewalks. No one paid him any attention, least of all the man he followed.

They walked below flashing neon signs and smaller vidscreens advertising sex, alcohol, and designer pharmaceuticals outside grungy storefronts. Up above it all, giant billboards hung from the massive pylons that held the city above them—like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Images of topless women, healthy men, and sunlit pool sides flashed across the billboards, accompanied by music manufactured to catch your attention. It was the promise of what lay above.

All this noise and light to make the bottom dwellers forget their place in the world: the near permanent darkness of the lower districts. The sun was obscured almost entirely by the higher levels of the city; the bulk of the illumination came from billboards, vidscreens, and the occasional functioning streetlight. This was where the unwanted and the unseen lived: the workers who did those jobs too menial to acknowledge, and too expensive to be automated; the junkies; the ones too broken to fix.

* * *

The boy had often wondered how the people above could live comfortably, knowing the lower districts existed. He had asked the old man this, years ago.

The old man, Adwobe, was a minister for the New Humanist Congregation. He had owned a small bodega on the corner of North 36th Sreet. The congregation’s meeting room was a modest concrete-walled room in the back. When he had gone-by produce, he would share it with the homeless. The boy asked the old man this question as he sat in back of the store eating a browned banana.

“It’s the opportunity, boy.” Adwobe laughed. “It’s OK that we are down here, because we all have the opportunity to raise ourselves up.”

“Does anyone? Does anyone make it up there?”

“They do.” Adwobe nodded. After a moment of quiet, he continued. “Some make it up… More often, the price is too high.”

* * *

He watched Krantz slurp down noodles from an old, chipped, china bowl. He wasn’t joking about the noodle place after all. He sat at a small metal table, painted over white so many times it was probably nothing but white paint over a thin layer of rust. A faded, green awning decorated with gold Chinese characters hung out from the building, protecting the patrons from the water that dripped constantly from above.

Krantz was an agent of the City Govs. He was down here now acting on their fear and ambition; leading them to espionage and theft. The boy understood their eagerness to thrive, and could not fault the City Govs their attempt to reach beyond their place—but he could not let it happen.

Sitting in an alley across from the noodle house, the boy sipped from a tube he pulled out from under his rags. It ran down his shoulder to his lower back, terminating in the HydroSan pack hidden under his clothes. Another tube ran down into a puddle beside him. He waited in silence, watching Krantz drink cold, yellow beer and eat his large bowl of greasy noodles. Anyone passing the alley would see nothing but another bag of garbage sitting beside a trashbin.

The man looked down at his wrist, checking the time. He had somewhere to be, the boy knew. Krantz flagged the waitress down, gave her his bit chip, and swatted at her ass as she turned to leave. She deftly avoided his hand and walked back into the store.

* * *

The boy had found his price and paid it. He didn’t find much good in the upper districts though, among the clean and posh apartments; the huge hydroponic factory farms; the blind glass towers. There were other cities on Earth, each one unique in style, yet the same in content. Between the cities lay vast tracts of wasteland and wilderness. There was no place for him in the upper cities, or outside of them.

It was in the heavens that he had found his salvation. Up above it all, in the orbital platforms visible in the night sky, he found what he needed to return safely home.

* * *

Water dripped down the stained, brick and concrete walls lining the back alley. The boy hid behind a gray trashbin, not moving, barely breathing. It was what he did best: fading into the background. His diminutive size and sickly look made him near invisible on the streets—it took little effort to disappear completely.

He had followed Krantz to this alley, and waited with him for the junkie. The two men stood not ten feet from where the boy hid, oblivious to his presence. The air conditioning units running in the building above them filled the narrow space with sound and warm puddles of water. They spoke louder than they should have to be heard over the noise, and their voices grew even louder as the conversation continued. The boy listened patiently.

“You know what I want, you crispy bastard. Now stop playing games and give it to me.”

The second man giggled to himself. “Now, Mr. Longcoat Fancy-Hat, don’t get so twisted up. I know what you want.”

The thinner of the two was a user, Janko he called himself. “Crispy” was what they called the people who used too much of the blue stuff.

The blue was a rejected military research project intended to reduce or eliminate the need for sleep. It did in fact greatly reduce the need for sleep. It also gave its users certain enhanced mental faculties, allowing them extraordinary abilities in navigating the electronic web surrounding the world and its outer orbits. The side effects, however, were deemed too severe. Now the drug lived on the streets, creating a new race of hyperactive, short-lived denizens of the virtual world.

“Give it to me,” Krantz said.

“You got what Janko wants? This wasn’t something easy to get! They don’t just leave data this pretty lying around.”

A ruffling sound, as the bigger man fished through the inside pockets of his coat.

“Here it is. All of it.”

“Ten-thousand bits? Pardon my doubt, Mr. Coat. I will need you to confirm this.”

The man grunted and swiped the proffered card through the user’s pad. There was a happy chirp from the device, and a giggle from Janko.

“Well, I can hardly believe it. Mr. Coat is true, ten-thousand bits as promised. Now here is what you want.”

The boy carefully raised his head above the trashbin. He had to witness the completion of the transaction.

Janko reached into his pocket and produced a set of keys. From this, he extracted a tiny sliver of plastic skillfully hidden within the head of an old silver and copper key. Krantz reached into his pocket and pulled out his pad.

The boy focused on Krantz’s display. The optics in his left eye zoomed in, bringing the small screen into view. He punched a key on his wrist controls, beginning a recording of the scene.

Krantz took the proffered piece of plastic and slid it into an uncapped receptacle on the side of his pad. A few key presses brought the contents of the data chip up on his screen. In his efforts at stealth, Krantz had disabled the holographic function, which would normally project a magnified image of his display contents several inches above the device, but it didn’t matter. The boy’s optics and chosen viewing angle were more than sufficient to capture the information scrolling across the handheld’s screen.

Krantz took two minutes and fifty-three seconds exactly to verify the contents of the data chip before handing the bit card to Janko. The boy had also verified the contents. The Council’s intelligence was accurate: on Krantz’s display a 3D image of a prototype gravity repulsion lift spun. The specifications scrolled up along the left of the image, describing the required components and assembly process. He recorded all this before returning his optics to normal vision and stepping out from behind the trashbin.

“By the orders of the Legal and Security Councils of the Eden Platform, I, Abel Taariq now carry out your death sentences and stand as the sole recipient of the bounty on the data you possess and any who attempt to undermine the Platform.”

Both men jumped as the boy spoke, their surprise visible in the sudden flash of white from their widened eyes. Janko laughed, not understanding the gravity of his situation, while Krantz spat out what were to be his last words:

“You fuckin’ spacers—”

A thin electro-blade flew from the boy’s wrist. It found Krantz’s neck, silencing him. The impact primed the blade, and it released its stored energy, frying Krantz’s brain stem. His body jerked once or twice as it fell to the ground.

Janko’s eyes went wide, his smile growing to match it as he watched the man in the long coat die. He laughed hysterically as a second blade found his neck and sent him down.

The boy collected the two dead men’s mobiles and verified their contents. It would be safer to return both devices intact. He searched the bodies, looking for any other hidden devices. Janko had an older model glasses unit in a pocket, two gaming chips, and a pirate-market video streamer. Krantz had nothing else but a pocket photo album. It was an idiosyncrasy the boy had experienced before. The wealthier a city dweller got, the less they seemed to trust tech.

* * *

He brought up the messaging interface on his wrist. A laser keyboard flashed on beneath the display, and his fingers danced through the light:

“Message for Council Liaison Jaena Lysen: I have retrieved the stolen information and dispatched its couriers. No additional information was found. I will be at the predetermined drop point in forty-five minutes.”

Abel looked down at the two dead men and shook his head. They wouldn’t have died so easily if they hadn’t ignored him. The old man, Adwobe, hadn’t ignored him. He’d given the boy his name, and helped him become what he was today. Now, he rested his aging body in zero g comfort—a citizen of Eden—looking down on the cities that once looked down on him.

The boy snapped the slide cover back over his wrist controls, watching it disappear into his forearm. Adwobe had found his home in the clean, polished metal world of the orbital platforms, and the boy got to come home. The cities hadn’t changed, but he had. He no longer hid in the shadows—he hunted from them.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Shahid Khan is an aspiring writer living in Massachusetts with his wife and dog, Boston. Currently he works in the technical industry, which he was drawn to by his love of Science Fiction and all things fantastic. His short story, “Level 7” was published in the May 2013 issue of Silver Blade magazine.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH THE BOY:

We take issue with author Shahid Khan calling himself an “aspiring” writer. With this excellent, sociological sci-fi tale (along with his equally excellent previous one in Silver Blade) he has proved to us that he has already moved past the “aspiring” stage.

“The Boy” casts the reader into a future where the gap between the haves and have nots is no longer on “the other side of town.” Author Khan depicts a logical and believable extension of societal dysfunction and class separation. We’d love to see more of this fascinating world and characters and would encourage the author to consider expanding his world and compelling characters into a longer work.