A Boy's World
My name is Logan and, though I didn't know the local term for it at the time, at the tender age of fourteen, I was suddenly an orphan. I stepped out onto the street in front of the SpacePort Inn and asked the door-bot where the nearest bus stop was.
"Right down there, Sir," the artificial human said, pointing down the street to my right.
I ambled diagonally down the broad steps and walked along the wide sidewalk. The air was hot and heat radiated up from the concrete. Across the street, shops, cafes and boutiques shined brightly with white lights and neon signs; above me, a dusky sky stretched, sparkling with a hundred alien constellations. In the street, sprinklers came on to water the thick grass there; dozens of vehicles, large and small, glided along on cushions of blue and green light.
I sat on a bench to await the next bus. I wasn't used to riding busses; we'd always had our own vehicles back home and could come and go as we needed. I sat there, watching the traffic slide by, four-meter air cars, twenty-meter yachts and hundred-meter cargo transports alike, but my mind wanted to go numb as I tried to think of what I was going to do next. The memory of my Mom's dead, glassy eyes kept haunting me.
I didn't know anyone here; I had no place to go, no place to stay or to call my own, even if only for the night; I had maybe half a dozen changes of clothes in my small rucksack, which I hugged to my chest; I had the credit chit with my parents' accounts on it, but I remember Dad saying there wasn't very much there because we'd spent nearly everything for the equipment and supplies, which now sat in the cargo hold of a ship that was probably already well on its way to our system.
A few other people gathered around the bus stop; a woman with tall hair, glittering jewels, zebra skirt, and five-inch heals; another, tall with long, silky, silver hair, black-stone necklace, red leopard print dress, and glittering heals; a younger man, very cute, clean-cut, gleaming copper hair, black jacket, bare chest, two gold chains on smooth, tanned skin, tight pants straining to hide rounded muscles and an impressive bulge. They chatted about where to go and what to do; I heard the young man mention the Strip and one of the ladies said that was a dirty area.
"Ooh, how dirty?" the young man asked, chuckling.
"Well, it depends on what you're looking for," the zebra skirt replied.
"I hear the laws here are very lax," the red leopard said.
"Yeah!" the other said. "You can find anything here: drugs, sex - anything!"
"Anything?" bright-eyes asked.
"In a hundred flavors!" Jewels bounced and glittered as she chuckled.
The bus glided up and settled to the grass; I followed the others on board. I heard the man ask the driver-bot if this bus went to the Strip.
"No, Sir," it replied, "but I connect with busses that do."
I slid my credit chit for bus fair and saw the remaining total on it: only sixty-four credits and change; not even enough for food for a week, let alone a place to stay! My mind continued trying to go numb as I sat and watched the city streets slide by outside. Beyond the many warehouses and office buildings near the space port, several tall rock formations reached upward like pillars to hold up the sky, which was fading into a deep purple. As I watched, the bus followed major streets that circled slowly a quarter of the way around them. Ahead, I saw clusters of taller buildings in a sea of smaller ones, and I wondered how many people lived here. Beyond, were several other stone pillars and rocky mountains.
I made the connection to a bus that was going to the Strip and soon it dropped me there in a place where I saw several other kids about my age milling about in pairs and small groups. Very short denim cut-offs seemed to be the order of the day, long, bare legs, some skinny, some muscular, some hairy, others smooth, along with torn t-shirts and tank tops, halters and bikinis. A wide assortment of hair colors and spiky styles were displayed among them, as well as many bare midriffs and belly buttons. I even noticed a couple black kids among them, which was a little unusual; I'd heard Mandalay had a reputation for being a German colony. Not that mixing was bad or anything, just unusual; the various breeds of humans tended to be more comfortable with their own kinds. As populations spread out among the stars, some colonies became known as Chinese, Egyptian, English, French, whatever, and people of those extractions gravitated to them.
I stepped off the bus into what was becoming a hot evening and I stood there, a bit mesmerized by bright lights of many colors, all advertising clubs, casinos, restaurants and an amazing variety of establishments designed to separate people from their credits. Floating in the air above the bus stop was a holographic sign, reading, 'Starlight Strip.' Cars and yachts floated by slowly, most dripping with chrome, where pools of colored light slid, swirled, mingled and flowed on.
I was still gawking at it all and wondering which way to go, when someone grabbed my hand and began dragging me along the sidewalk.
"Com' on, kid," he said. "You don't belong out here!" He was an older kid himself, maybe eighteen or nineteen, dark hair, dark blue eyes, muscular and smooth-skinned. He was a strong, handsome young man; my Grandpa would have described him as "strapping." His grip was like a vice on my arm; I didn't know where he was taking me, but he didn't seem interested in stealing from me; he didn't make any moves for my rucksack or my pockets, and he wasn't hitting me. At an intersection, he pulled me close; we waited for the light to change.
"Who are you?" I asked, but the light changed and he pulled me across the two-hundred-foot-wide street. At the center, the three-foot hedge that separated the lanes had millions of bright yellow pod-things on it and I realized it must be some sort of indigenous plant. Aside from their bright yellow color, the double-lobed pods looked for all the world like mens' balls!
On the other side, we waited again for the lights to change. "Who are you?" I asked again. "Where are you taking me?"
"You need a place to stay, right?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Wait, how did you know?"
"A kid like you, alone, one bag that you're hanging on to like it was your life, and looking around this place like you were seeing sunlight for the first time? You stick out like you got a sign on your face!"
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Rick," he said. "Don't worry, I know a safe place. Now, shut up and follow me - and stay close! You don't want to get lost around here or somebody will be picking your bones out of the desert!"
I stayed close as we continued up the Strip. We passed a hotel with a fountain out front, where a dozen naked children laughed and splashed. Colored lights began to run together behind my eyes, spiced with scantily-clad boys, laughter, profanity and a swirling river of smells. I knew I should be stressing more, but something about Rick, his voice, his confident manner - something - comforted me; though I'd never seen him before in my life, I felt safe in giving myself into this handsome young man's care.
My stomach churned and grumbled; I realized I hadn't eaten since morning. "Can we stop somewhere?" I asked. "I'm starving!"
Rick pulled a shiny blue bar from his pocket and handed it to me. "What's this?" I asked as we stopped for another traffic light.
"Eat it," he said.
I tore open the foil wrapper and bit into the bar inside; its taste was somewhere between pepperoni pizza and an industrial lubricant, with a pinch of dirt thrown in for good measure. I wondered if some of that might have come from Rick's pocket.
Several boys in cut-off jeans, shorts, jammers, and a variety of ripped, cut and holey t-shirts, stood along a dark stone wall; smooth, muscular bare legs competed for my gaze; bright smiles and sparkling eyes tugged at my heart.
"Hey, Ricky!" one called. "Got a new recruit?"
"Oooh!" exclaimed another. "He's cute!"
"Yeah, I'd do him for free!" said a third.
"Down, boys, down!" Rick smiled at them. "This one is mine!" He lead me on by the hand, holding me close, so close I could feel the heat of his body and smell his cinnamon-scented breath. "Watch yourself here, kid; this place will eat you alive!"
On the next block we passed a big casino with blue and white lights flashing in alternating rows, drawing eyes and feet into the deep, inset entrance. Above the sidewalk was a big sign in green and gold neon, reading, Golden River Casino, and high above that, I could see three huge, floating saucers in staggered formation, with rows of lights and windows. We walked on by, swimming against the sucking current of the hungry doors, and turned into an alley between the brightly lit casino and a cluster of tall, floating hotel towers. Rick slowed down as we passed into the deeper shadows.
"Why are you taking me to a safe place?" I asked him.
"I'm always keeping my eyes open for kids like you," he said. "You're lucky; I don't usually catch them just getting off the bus. I missed the last new kid by half an hour... They found his body in the desert a week later..."
"What happened to him?"
"They say..." Rick began before his voice caught in his throat. "He'd been tortured for days before they started removing his organs. Fuckin' Nirkads!"
"What?" I wasn't sure I'd heard him right.
"Nirkads," he repeated. "They're a devil cult around here. They love to take a nice young boy just like you, beat the crap our of him, supposedly to purify him, and then cut out his organs for their rituals - you know, heart, eyes, dick and balls, brain - that sort of thing."
"Oh my God!" I gasped. "How barbaric! I thought that kind of thing went out with the New Reformation!"
"Yeah, well, around here, it's back in, so watch yourself!"
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