The crowd went silent as SquatBoy crashed into the barrier. And then the stadium erupted with cheers.
Akku gripped her dad’s sleeve, feeling the hard metal of his cybernetic arm. “I can’t see!” she lied. She was tall for a seven-year-old, and they’d scored a seat so close to the front that she could see the stains and tiny cracks on the huge barrier-screen; but a fat smelly woman was pressed against her; and behind, a couple of gopniks were starting to jostle. The air was thick with motor grease and sweat.
“Here,” said Dad, stooping to hoist her on his shoulders. “Is this better?”
Mekko Sparks was tall. Akku, from her new perch, could see over everyone’s heads. She looked across a sea of woollen caps and thick, matted hair: Blavacov was mercilessly cold in winter, and most people had long rides back to their compounds. She patted Dad’s scalp joyously as SquatBoy took another volley from the Carmine Crab’s forward guns. There was no question which of the massive machines would be the victor: Carmine Reid had been raised for this, and government sponsors paid for his maintenance. There was no way he could lose against these project engines.
The Crab’s maw opened, and the Claw Cannon emerged, lightning flickering around its barrel. Ten-thousand fists shot into the air; pumping in time with the weapon’s warbling charge. Akku joined her voice to the call:
“TAKE! HIM! OUT!”
After the match, Akku was too sleepy to walk. Mekko carried her through the underways of Battle Village. Posters of pilots flapped in hot gusts. Overhead speakers warned citizens to take the metro if their vehicles weren’t rad-shielded: the moons were particularly deadly tonight. Tow guys made thousands on nights like this.
Through the armoured skylights, interspersed by stone ceiling, Akku watched the stars. “Dad,” she said. “D’you think Carmine will go all the way to Paddra?” When her father didn’t respond, she prodded his ear. “Dad.”
“Oh,” he replied at last, his voice as distant as the lights in the sky. “I doubt it, Akku. A thousand planets enter, and only a hundred reach the main tournament. We never got that far before…”
Akku hummed and poked him again. “What’s wrong?”
He grinned, thin and sad. “I can’t hide from you, can I?”
“Alright.” Dad set her down. The metro queue was immense: they’d be waiting a while. He knelt and placed a hand on her shoulder. Akku noticed a scrap of popcorn in his beard. “How would you feel about staying with Uncle Arrow for a few weeks?”
She blinked. “Why?”
Mekko looked uncertain. “Remember yesterday’s match? Remember afterwards – those men in suits I talked to? They’re from Blavacov’s sports council. They said…well, sometimes the Humans help out planets in need. But you need to meet them face-to-face, on Paddra. They offered me a cot on Carmine’s ship, if I become his mechanic.”
Akku’s eyes lit up. She seized Dad’s wrist and smiled wide. “Let me come!” she said, heart pounding. “I’ve always wanted to go.”
He flicked her dark hair, touched her freckled cheek with a thumb. “Sorry, Akku. Like I said, Carmine won’t make it to Paddra. I can work my way as a hitchhiker, but captains don’t like extra baggage.”
“I’m not extra baggage.”
‘The disaster shocked all. Investigators could not find the source of the fire which ravaged Team Blavacov’s stable in the Finalists Compound…’
- MECHASLAM News Radio, 19K-990.
10 years later.
The year 20,000.
Akku dreaded her uncle’s absences – his ‘business calls.’ When the boss was away, Militsa had parties. That meant raised voices, smashed bottles, and the sounds of loud sex all through the night.
Salvage Yard #415 was not a large building. Pale and pasty, Militsa’s friends squatted on the hoods of stripped cars, on the stained concrete floor, and in the carriage of a junker whose rusting bulk had dominated half the workshop space for as long as Akku could remember.
She turned on her side, tucked into her curtained alcove by the garage’s back door. Stacked cushions kept the breeze out and allowed Akku to rest her head, and her mattress was soft enough. All in all, it was cosy – but privacy was rare. Akku kept a knife under her mattress.
Through the gap in her curtain, she watched a card game in progress. Lantern-lit, three men did complex things with wrists: flipping, sliding, shuffling… Eyes gleamed orange in the oil-light as money flicked back and forth. A small TV hummed nearby, so the men were only half-focused on their game.
Their conversation flowed towards Akku:
“They chose a shitty match to open with. Stadium’s full anyway. You ask me – not worth the trip.”
“You’d be there if you could afford it. Maybe after tonight, eh?”
“Bluff. I’m out.”
“Too careful, Roark. The brave win big!”
“The brave lose everything, like Militsa’s boss. I’m still out.”
Akku stretched on her back. Her limbs ached after a long day in the Scrapyard. She hadn’t told anyone about the train yet: day by day she worked on it, scraping away rubble from the buried end-car. Evenings, she searched the town library for books about the old wars: matching the train’s serial with descriptions of the monstrous engines used in the great metal shipping race.
Soon she’d breach the carriage and haul back whatever was inside. Until then, it was her secret.
Akku glanced at her comm. She’d texted Arrow about the party, but he either hadn’t seen or didn’t care. That pissed her off. Whenever Militsa made a mess, Arrow blamed both of them. Later, when the scum had wandered off to whatever they did after 3AM, Akku and Militsa would make an attempt at cleaning; but of course, Militsa would be too drunk…
A crash startled Akku. She sat and tug aside the curtain.
The gopniks had kicked in a window on one of the cars Arrow was meant to be repairing, and now they howled, piercing monkey-laughs.
Akku grabbed a weapon and then stormed from her alcove.
She shoved the window-breaker by the chest. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
One brown eye blinked at her. The other was clogged with a cotton bud. “It’s just a window, you mad cunt.” He sounded baffled: to gopniks, smashed property meant a night well-spent. “Touch me again, I’ll smack you one.”
From one dark corner, a voice called: “She’s crazy because her dad burned to death!”
Akku had heard this before. She pretended the words didn’t hurt her and squared up to the one-eyed man, though he was a foot taller. “You broke it, you pay for repairs. Fifty dollars.”
His gaze went blank, lips moving in thought before they cracked in a grin. He’d picked his ammunition. “I’ll stick my cock down your throat.”
She swung her weapon – a half-brick in a sock – as hard as she could, aiming for his good eye. He flinched, and blocked, and caught the brick with a crunch. The one-eyed man didn’t seem to realize what had happened: he frowned, looked at his bloody bent fingers, and sat down on the car hood.
Akku, snarling, realized for the first time that she was surrounded by thugs: thugs who liked nothing more than to kick the shit out of people. But they were impressionable.
Double or nothing, she supposed.
“Your wallet,” she barked, advancing on the thug; rising on her tiptoe with the other foot planted between his legs. “You think I’m some flimsy bitch? I’ll smash your balls.” Akku whirled the brick around her fist for emphasis. If this worked, she might even get a cheer.
That dark eye glared up at her. His lips made dumb nothings again. At last he shoved his good hand in a pocket, rummaged, and threw his wallet on the floor. “Fetch it.”
“Not that dumb. Fetch it yourself.”
A cold touch. Akku felt breath on her shoulder, booze-stinking. She looked down to see a knife kissing her dark belly, just under her navel. Very slowly, she took her foot off the car and turned her head.
Militsa’s huge blue eyes hovered an inch from her own. The lanky girl rocked against Akku, the touch of her knife-point enough to convince her that, even drunk, Militsa’s hand was steady. Her pompadour, dye-blonde, glistened greasily in the lamplight.
Softly she said, “It’s a seventh gear kinda night, Akku. Don’t step up if you can’t handle the fall.”
Akku was prepared to have her legs kicked out beneath her. She was ready to be surrounded and kicked until the world got foggy.
But then she smelled Militsa’s breath, the cloying stench. Whatever she’d been drinking, it wasn’t alcohol.
Akku gasped, “Don’t.”
But Militsa’s grip tightened. Slowly, holding her prey firmly in place, she dragged her knife’s tip across Akku’s belly. The world turned white, focused intensely on a slow-creeping line of pain. Akku grunted and gagged. She tried not to squirm, knowing that would only make it worse. Militsa worked carefully, a painter practising her signature, drawing Akku’s agony from hip to hip. Finally, the blade dipped back. Militsa kissed her shoulder.
“Now play nice. Apologize for breaking Josef’s hand.”
Akku dropped to a knee, panting, clutching her bleeding middle. The cut wasn’t deep, but it stung enough that she wasn’t about to go for seconds. “I’m sorry,” she wheezed.
Militsa hummed – and then Akku saw stars as the lanky girl’s boot connected with her tailbone. She fell on her left bicep and didn’t try to get up, just breathing, waiting…
She heard Militsa clap her palms together. “Good!” she chirped, walking past Akku. “Josef, how’re you feeling?”
“Uh, not good,” said the one-eyed thug. “She smashed my fingers. Look.”
Militsa crossed her arms. “Yeah, that looks pretty bad. You should find a doctor. But first…” She sat beside him on the hood, slinging a long leg over the other. “First, there’s the tiny matter of the broken window. Know who’s gonna have to fix that?”
“Uh.” The gopnik’s face spoke of hope utterly crushed, of nightmares crawling out through the pores of his soul. “I have fifty dollars. You take it, Militsa.”
She smiled brilliantly – brilliant because Akku didn’t know anyone else whose face could shine with the opposite of warmth. “I can?” asked Militsa. “Thank you, Josef. Thank you very much.” With that, she stood – maintaining eye-contact for a second too long. No sudden punches, no added threats. With Militsa, what she did wasn’t nearly as scary as what she could do in the near future. Josef had wronged her. That meant he’d left shelter, and storm-clouds were gathering, and there was nowhere he could be safe.
Militsa stooped to retrieve Josef’s wallet.
That was when Akku hit her with the brick.
On the way to the clinic, Akku lost a front tooth.
She stumbled down dirt streets, feeling along walls with her hand. She barely noticed when the latest chunk of flesh she spat happened to contain an incisor. A quick probe with her tongue raised alarms: her brain sent a search warrant. Akku pawed in the gutter mud a while before realizing it was a lost cause.
When she tried to rise, her knees gave out.
I should turn on my side, Akku thought, face-down in the muck. But her muscles couldn’t cash that cheque. She was lucky Militsa had used her fists instead of the knife. She might be the worst kind of bully, but she wasn’t a murderer.
That could change by morning.
Distant, in the echoing pits of her skull, Akku heard someone gasp her name.