The food crisis didn't come because of climate change. It came when the world's oil reserves dried up, to everyone's feigned surprise. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to ship exotic fruit across oceans and tomatoes across continents. Even industrial fishing fleets took a decade-long break while the ships were being retrofitted with sails. (A difficult task at best.) Why not nuclear reactors, you're going to ask. Because eco-dupes lied to by Big Oil had already banned them a generation before, and specialized engineers were all but extinct.
How does a street boy like me know all that? Come on, it's not like information is hard to come by; ask your parents, find a book, throw a search out on the Darknets. The more you know, the more options you have, and each option is one more chance at survival. Dummies die first.
Anyway, I was propping up the wall of a gangway one morning, looking out over the crowd that flowed down Princess Street towards River Road and Cattle Market at the end of that. Here, a Chinese family on basket- laden bicycles; there, half a dozen Roma piled up atop a horse cart. A proud White in an Indian compressed-air minivan honking at an Arab on an electric scooter. All of them, in the business of feeding the blue collars within the second ring of the city; for some reason, the downtowners prefer to buy from the city block folk. And that's us.
See, that's the nice part of city block life: we make our own food and shelter is taken care of. But for everything else, we have to trade, and the ugly part is, trade attracts crooks. That day it was two thugs pushing a kid around before taking his money and whatever knick-knacks he was selling the passers-by. Not my business... except this kid happens to be my neighbor. You don't want to explain to a couple of angry parents why you didn't do anything to help their child. So I was weighing my favorite brick, trying to figure out how to get little Dan out of that clench without getting my head ripped off, when someone decided to play superhero.
He looked the part too, dressed in white flowing robes like some Hollywood Bedouin, face hidden behind high-tech goggles and a surgical mask. A sprint and a jump carried him over a waist-high fence as if it wasn't there, then he crashed shoulder-first into one of the thugs. That was my cue: while they flailed on the ground, I crossed the five meters or so that separated me from the other guy. About halfway, he started turning, and either dodged partially or else my throwing arm failed me as usual, because he merely staggered. That was enough to pull Danny free — except the thug grabbed me instead. So now I had two problems: he was twice my size, and I no longer had my brick. The brute lifted an arm about as thick as my leg and swung it at me.
Then he cried out and fell to his knees, twitching. Behind him stood our vigilante. The fingerless glove on his outstretched hand was covered in metal plates, still crackling with electricity. "Let's go," he said, and we raced each other through the gangway, then along the maze-like alleys between ten story condos. The boy was long gone, hopefully on his way home.
"Never came out of a fight with so few bruises," I told him, panting, while he examined the surroundings curiously. We were standing between a concrete wall covered in graffiti and a playground with colorful plastic slides, barbed wire fence all around it. The long apartment building capping off the neighborhood on one side loomed in the background, its shadow reduced to a sliver. The air was stifling hot.
"Name's Vic, by the way," I added while taking off my mirrorshades and scarf.
"Laura," came the answer as the surgical mask fell.
I had been saved by a girl. Not that I was about to complain.
Big brown eyes looked at me from a round face framed by black curls. She had a deep tan, unless that was her natural skin color, and plump lips. We were about the same height and age; it was hard to tell with the robe, but she seemed more heavy-set than me.
"So," she smirked, "What's a girl have to do for a meal and a room around here?"
I eyed her suspiciously. Looking for lodging in a city block is daft. Unless she was a foreigner... neah, her accent was too good. A cop? That could spell trouble. Including for her, if she was found. Oh well, only one way to find out.
"You've just earned them," I said. "This way, warrior princess."
She chuckled, but didn't add anything else as we headed to my building.
It smelled of cooked food when we got to the third floor. Momma is the proud owner of a pellet stove and makes a point of using it. That works because the condo is one big family home on the inside. Many apartment doors never seem to close; some are missing entirely. Not that we needed to knock. Cries of "they're coming!" preceded us up the stairs, so she was already in the hallway, ready to catch me in a bear hug and apply kisses on both cheeks.
"There you are, boy. Still skinny as always. What am I feeding you for?"
Don't get me wrong, she's only ten years older than I am — maybe thirty-five — and probably half-Roma, whereas I'm as white as they come. But everyone calls her Momma around here, and she lives up to the name: big, protective and always knowing what to do. Well, almost always.
She let me go and tried to hug Laura as well. The girl promptly made a funny face and backed away. Some people aren't used to that sort of friendliness from a stranger; comes from growing up with just one parent, if you ask me. But Momma doesn't know that; can you blame her for feeling rejected?
"I don't eat little girls, you know," she grumbled. "Bathroom's over there," she added over her shoulder, "you're not sitting all sweaty at my table."
"That was for both of us," I whispered in Laura's ear. "Don't worry, we're the heroes of the day."
She looked like she needed the reassurance.
"All right, what's your deal?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, dropping heavily on my bed. I cringed, fully expecting the old thing to fall apart. It didn't.
I pulled myself the only chair in the room, after brushing off the pile of books growing on it. My lair on the top floor was quiet like a classroom on a Sunday, and only a little more comfortable. Perfect for serious conversation, not that there was much opportunity for it.
"Come on. Momma and her husband may be uncultured and untraveled. I'm neither. One: you hid your goggles and gloves, but kept the robe on. Two: you managed to avoid telling them where you're from. Three: you liked Momma's cooking. What gives?"
That earned me an ugly look. "Way to show your gratitude." She got up and checked the hallway. Even if someone knew to look for us in what was literally the most remote corner of the building, there was no way to come in without making plenty of noise. "Fine, if you really want to know."
She proceeded to unstrap her robe, and it had a good number of straps. No, get your mind out of the gutter — underneath she had hiking boots, cargo pants and a t-shirt so plain it made my eyes hurt. She also had her forearms covered in tattoos reminiscent of electronic circuits. It must have been a trick of the light, but I'm pretty sure they glowed. The goggles went back on her nose, seeming even more high-tech now I could see them clearly. After staring into space for a moment, she casually retrieved a metallic tube out of a pocket and pressed one end on her arm. There was a loud pop; she winced, then put the device back.
"You're a cyborg." I said.
"You're a long way from home."
"I bet half the stuff in you is illegal."
"So is half of that." She jabbed a thumb at the stack of electronics leaning against the wall. It included a GSM picocell, a radio transmitter and a network server, plus a few boxes I could no longer name.
"You got me there."
Outside the window, blinding sunlight turned the air into a haze. We were essentially trapped inside until sunset.
"Aren't you going to ask me what I'm doing here?" she asked.
So I did just that.
Gristmill Square is a misshapen patch of asphalt where four major streets meet, criss-crossed by aerial cables, streetcar tracks and underground passages. At dusk it turns into a brilliant light show, courtesy of its very own wind turbine and the air currents that clash and swirl all over the area. Along with nearby Cattle Market, it's also one of the few places in the city where people from all walks of life can mingle freely.
Laura stopped the bike and pulled her borrowed baseball cap lower over her goggles. "So, if we ride down Market Way and turn left on King's Avenue, we should..."
"What? I'm pretty sure the map is still good."
"I bet your map doesn't say where the cops are."
She pulled at her long sleeves as if to better conceal those special gloves. "I've got fake ID..."
"Well, I don't. And what if they decide to search you?"
She didn't say anything for a long moment.
"Come on," I called softly, "I know a safe route to the place."
We rode in silence for the better part of ten minutes, first following the line where the city used to end in 1900, then into the circle by a roundabout way.
"How did you end up friends with a blue collar anyway?"
She turned her head to look at me in the darkness, and I found myself wondering how much she could see. There wasn't a light on the street, at least from lamp posts; here and there, a lit window in one of the ancient buildings along the boulevard indicated someone too poor to move in a high-rise and too afraid to move out on the periphery.
"Why do you call them that, Vic? She's a doctor, you know."
"Because they're basically slaves, Laura. Twenty years of schooling only to end up stuck in a miserable corporate job for the rest of their lives. And for what?"
"I bet we're safer in the city blocks. And we have fewer restrictions. Have you seen their idea of an Internet?"
"My father used to call it 'glorified cable TV', whatever that is. Said it used to be just like the Darknets. Can you imagine that?"
She changed the subject. "What's your father doing?"
"Oh!" She swerved, headlight shaking violently. "What happened?"
We rode on without another word, bikes rattling over pavement stones.
It was one of those tiny three-story condominiums they started putting up like a century ago, when they first realized that oops, there's two billion of us now, time to crowd together a little. (Nowadays the figure's closer to ten, but who's counting.) There was a little fence around the front, but the entrance wasn't locked. Wires overhead suggested power came from the municipal grid. One more bill to pay... one more thing they could be threatened with.
A dim lightbulb lit up when we knocked. There was a good deal of shuffling and whispering behind the door before it opened, letting out a mix of smells that drowned the musty scent of the hallway. Inside, there was barely enough place to move among all the old furniture; a woman with rich blond hair and big nerdy glasses was leaning over a little girl who was crying, a medical kit open beside them. Nearby, a boy breathed heavily in his sleep, and another girl moaned softly as she rubbed her eyes again and again. None of the kids could have been more than ten years old.
"How are they, Chris?" asked Laura softly. She advanced into the room, flanked by the girl who had let us in — at most my age, long-haired and timid-looking — and a wiry boy, maybe fifteen years old, who kept eyeing me with suspicion.
"Not good at all, and I've run out of options. Do you have it?"
"Right here." She reached into one of her many pockets and came up with a metal box. Chris opened it to reveal a set of small syringes.
"I can't believe I'm doing this... Have you at least tested it?"
Laura nodded. "As well as we could. I know that doesn't mean much."
The woman nodded slowly. "What do you say, Lily? It could save your children."
"...Me? You're the doctor." The long-haired girl bit her lip. "What's in those syringes anyway?"
Laura coughed. "About two dozen patents from six different companies, and ten years of CPU time, give or take."
There was an awkward silence, and I looked for a place to sit down. I found it in a corner where some lead pipes and two-by-fours leaned against the wall. Then somebody started pounding on the door.
The box of syringes vanished in Chris' purse. "You didn't lock the door downstairs, Lily?"
"The lock's been broken since last week."
The pounding ramped up, along with shouts of "open up, police!"
Except it wasn't the police. Not quite.
They filed into the room: a bull of a man in a business suit, shirt and necktie in disarray, and two uniformed security guards. Two more faces peeked in from the hallway, a mature woman with a frown stuck on her face and another guy in a suit.
The pack of muscles looked from Chris to his mobile and back again. "Miss Simeonov? You have to come with us."
She "calmly" packed her medical kit. "And you are...?"
"Trapan, from Romed S.A. You work for us."
She arranged her glasses. "I'm an affiliate, Mr. Trapan. And what are you doing in this house?"
"Your neighbor gave us this address. Are you coming?"
"I don't see a police officer," interjected Lily, "or a warrant. And you are in my house."
He turned to face her like a bird of prey. "Miss Voicu, right? If I'm not mistaken, your little sisters..."
"...should be in foster care. Do you want me to call Child Protection?"
"I already talked to them..."
He waved his hand. "Your friend here committed fraud in order to obtain exotic medication at subsidized prices. Do you know anything about it?"
She seemed shocked. "Chris...?"
"I took them out on my insurance. That's hardly illegal."
"But it is losing us money, Mrs. Simeonov. And we pay for your lunch. Now, if you'll step outside..."
"How about I refuse?"
"Then I will call the police."
I took a better look at the guards. One of them was fat, the other not young anymore, and neither wore any body armor. On the other side of the room, the teenager watched them too. He was trembling with rage.
"Lily." Laura said quietly. "Take the children to bed. Now," she added more forcefully.
She nodded briskly and shuffled into the bedroom, holding the toddler while the other kids — now wide awake — stumbled along. Their older cousin? brother? instinctively moved to help.
"Teo, you stay."
He looked at Laura uncertainly. She looked at me. It was a dangerous look.
I grabbed one of the lead pipes behind my back.
It burned like hell when Chris cleaned up the cut on my forehead. I must have made a face, because she laughed. "This is real alcohol, not the scented water they sell in pharmacies."
Teo held a hand to his ribs, wincing with every breath. His left cheek was swollen, too, and he looked lost. "They just wouldn't stay down..." he muttered.
"You did well, man." I said.
He didn't know what to say to that, but his eyes lit up.
Across the street, Lily was helping the kids climb in the back of an electric van. Evil and stupid must go hand in hand, or those enforcers wouldn't have come in an unmarked ride. The remote had been smashed in the brawl, but the door lock had stopped Laura for about ten seconds. Those gloves of hers sure weren't just tasers. The ignition resisted much longer, and by that I mean about five minutes. But it wasn't all.
"There were two GPS trackers. Two! These guys don't even trust each other."
"Won't someone notice if you take them out?"
"One's on batteries, we'll just leave it here. The other, let's hope the operators will think it's broken."
I nodded and helped her strap the bicycles on top of the van.
"Won't they remember what you look like?" asked Teo.
Chris held up an unopened transdermal patch. "Not after one of these, they won't."
Laura stared at her. "What kind of a doctor are you?"
"The kind who places life above ethics. Come on, we should go."
We heard sirens more than once on the way back.
"Do you think they're after us already?" whispered Teo.
Chris shook her head. "Not before Mr. Trapan wakes up. And it'll be a while."
Laura took a hand off the wheel to flip on the radio. There was only music on all channels.
Lily shivered and pulled her jacket tighter, despite the warm air in the van. "Where are we going, Chris?"
"Out of the city. Laura can tell you better."
The cyborg nodded, keeping her eyes on the empty street. "We have our hiding places, up in the mountains."
"Hiding...? No. I can't miss classes, Chris. I'll lose my scholarship. I'll lose my apartment!"
"You'll lose the children, Lily."
"Can't you take them with you?"
"And how will you explain their sudden absence?"
She became very quiet, and Chris sighed. "I'm sorry. This is all my fault."
"We couldn't have let them take you..." Teo's voice trailed.
Lily burst into tears. "No. No we couldn't."
It wasn't until we neared Gristmill again that we saw the first police cars, flashing their red and blue lights in the square. On the radio, the DJ was saying something about a series of incidents. Gee, thanks, very timely.
Laura slammed her finger into the "off" button. "We've got to go around them. Which way, Vic?"
"Right. Then left. Rinse, repeat. It's a whole maze around the market."
She nodded and took the first turn. "Anything else I need to know?"
Small fires burned straight ahead, shadows moving in front of them. We changed direction again.
"Yeah. It's also gang territory at night."
At the next corner we ran across a bunch of thugs huddling around trashcans. Fires were burning, and it wasn't due to cold, either. They stared as we approached, then as Laura turned the wheel, came after us.
Many hands at once started hitting the sides and rear of the vehicle. Something scraped against the top, too — low branches from the trees along the narrow street.
"Faster!" yelled Teo. The kids were crying.
"Can't!" The van shook hard. "Potholes!"
She accelerated anyway, then hit the brakes. Several bodies hit the rear doors hard. More people were ahead, and Laura went directly at them before turning sharply left. But that put a tree in front of us.
Then I heard the straps snap and the bikes fell off the roof with a deafening clatter. Dozens of feet rushed that way, and in a moment we were out, racing along River Road.
Laura wiped her brow. "I'll pay you for the bikes, Vic."
"No worries. Why do you think I picked the ugliest piles of rust in the shed?"
The battery indicator started blinking right after we entered Princess Street.
"There's a charging station at the next corner," I said.
"Right. I've seen it on the way in, this morning."
Except this time there were police cars all around the place, their red and blue lights visible from afar.
"Some incident..." mused Laura, and drove the van onto the nearest side street, narrowly missing a pile of concrete blocks, then a mass of twisted, tangled steel.
I thought fast. "There's a service center down the street from my place."
There were also people gathered around trashcan fires, but this was my neighborhood; I knew them. A few words exchanged through an open car window were enough. The other passengers hardly breathed until we were at the place.
"So," I asked Laura while the car recharged, "this is it?"
"Yes. It's best we get as far as possible before they start putting up filters. How about you? Will you be safe?"
I pointed at a string of car frames, some upturned, all burned, at one end of the street. "See those? Souvenir from the last time police tried coming here in force."
"When was that?"
"Thirteen years ago."
"Let me get you something."
I brought them some food and water from home. Something else, too.
"This is your robe, if memory serves." I handed her a small white bundle.
"Keep it. I like these better." She indicated her borrowed cap and blouse.
She handed me some money, and this time I didn't object. But it seemed to weigh a ton when I saw them on their way, fifteen minutes later.
It had been a long night in the city.
Felix Pleșoianu, 4 February 2012
Second edition, 11 August 2022