Don’t go up The Heights. They hungry Rems up there. The see a morsel like you. Man, they eat him up quick. Aint no chance to get away.’
I stayed clear of The Heights. I lived on the Southside, the Redside, in the slums. I lived off the scraps that fell to me from my parent’s table. At least, I guess they were my parents.
When I was old enough I ‘scrapped’. Snatching tasteless rocks from stalls and waiting in doorways with other Rem-Rats waiting for a Slot-Hed to drop an ARC. All of us falling on it at once, pulling hair, jamming fingers up nostrils. I stayed clear of the Hand-Jobs as they floated overhead on their patrols, the exhaust from their proton engines making my mouth dry. I didn’t think of this as my neighbourhood. This wasn’t my neighbourhood it was Razor’s. This wasn’t Razor’s district it was Garius’. This wasn’t Garius’ city it was Ret’s and all of it owned by the Yugi. They came to planets, took the best of us then dropped the dregs, the Remnants, in these chicken cages to rot.
I was big for my age but quick. I could snatch and run. Made my chances for survival better. As I got older I learnt to use a knife. There were no laser pistols here. Those were for the gangs. For knocking off Hand-Jobs when they couldn’t bribe them. I took what I could get, food, booze, the occasional hit of Crunk. I had fun with girls in alleyways. A brief second of pleasure and closeness before I had to hustle again. More than one told me that they were having my baby. Fine. That was their problem. I had myself to feed not a screaming Rem-Rat. I sometimes wonder if some of them survived. Those bastard Rems carrying my face. I sometimes wonder but only sometimes. With Hand-jobs floating around and other Rems ready to slice your throat for a piece of bread there are more important things to think about.
There’s no such thing as charity here. It’s survival of the fittest. The strong on top wearing the boots and the weak on the bottom being stamped on. It’s a city of runts. The smaller runts get consumed by the bigger runts and the bigger runts rise to the top and get fat. Then a leaner runt knocks off a fatter runt or the Hand-Jobs have a clean out or the bigger runt’s heart pops. If you’re quiet enough you can hear the sound of Rem’s hearts popping all over the city. The streets are choked with the stench of dead Rems whose hearts have popped. Maybe they’ve gone to a better place. There aint no worse.
When you’re small time like I was you aint gotta worry about the Hand-Jobs. They aint looking for you. Maybe you might get splattered by Hand-Jobs who feel like a bit of target practice but that’s just your bad luck. It’s other Rems you gotta worry about, especially gang members.
‘I don’t think you realise who you’re stealing from, Rat.’
I could smell the rot from his gums as he breathed into my face, his hand around my neck.
‘This is my block. You wanna hustle here you gotta ask my permission.’
He pulled his lips back over his teeth into a grin. His teeth were brown stubs, his gums, livid red.
‘Now I could kill you, boy…Or we could arrange something.’
He put his hands down the front of my pants and to my disgust I jumped to attention.
‘I see you make quick decisions.’
After that I worked for Razor. Garius’s lieutenant in my neighbourhood. He put me onto little scores which he would split with me after I’d given him what he wanted. I got food, I ate, I grew. I got hard and angry. I killed. They say you always remember your first kill. I don’t even remember my last. It’s just another body in the piles that litter the streets. This city is a city for rats. The rats eat well.
I remember one though. A Yellow Jacket. A huge Roider. If you paid Hand-Jobs enough they could get those vicious, toxic steroids that the Yugi force-fed the workers on their mining planets. Your heart could pop at any minute but you grew big, fast.
This huge Roider stood towering over me. I’d wandered into a Yellow Jacket casino following a bony ass in a tight dress.
‘You in the wrong part of town, boy.’
His brains, engorged with roids, splattered over the roulette table clogging up the wheel. Intimidation only works if you’re intimidated. I went to the bar, had a drink, took a hit of Crunk and walked out. No-one said a word.
‘Garius heard what happened at the casino. He’s impressed. He wants to see you.’
Garius was paranoid. Iggarets always were. He was crashing in a cramped room over his slot arcade in E4. He’d been living in his huge Redside palace until two Yellow Jackets had tried to take him out to impress Ret. Since then he’d changed location every month. He preferred life to comfort but it was making him look weak. Talk was that Ret was getting ready to take over his whole territory.
‘Ret wants you dead. He put a lot of time and a lot of roids into that Yellow Jacket you wasted.’
‘Waste of money.’
Garius looked me up and down and then burst into laughter.
‘You work for me?’
‘What do you mean you guess?’
‘I make scores. I give ‘em to Razor and I guess some of that gets kicked up to you. If that means I work for you then, sure, I work for you.’
‘You like working for me?’
‘I like making scores. I like eating and a skinny ass in a tight dress. I aint so keen on paying up to Razor, though.’
‘Yeah, Razor tells me he likes payday. How about you come here and we work together. No more paying that price.’
I nodded and went downstairs to play the slots. I made five thousands ARCS. Next day I got a box with a note. It said,
Inside the box was Razor’s head. I grinned.
If it’s possible to say a person could have good times in this city then these were good times. I found that my talents lay in other areas than just sliding a blade between someone’s ribs. I could plan out strategies; I had a talent for being able to put myself into the mind of our enemies, to figure out what they would do and plan our tactics from there. I became Garius’s right hand man and together we went through the city trampling those who got in our way and taking what we could. We destroyed The Blueside and The Greenside. We raided Clubs and Factories. We torched gang-owned shops and Cat Houses. The streets ran red with Blue and Green blood as we strode across the city. As we expanded into other gangs territories we absorbed them and those who showed any loyalty to the previous regime we dragged around the block behind our bikes until they stopped screaming and we dumped them in the fetid river that consumed so many of the dead.
We were strong. Probably the strongest in the city but Garius wasn’t happy. He didn’t have one thing. He didn’t have The Heights.
‘Ret wants to talk.’
The Yellow Jacket stood there shivering. You could see from the damp around his crotch that he’d pissed himself. He was no more than twelve and you could see that this wasn’t a world for him.
Garius had moved back into his Redside mansion now that his confidence had returned. He sat in a gilt throne. I stood at his right-hand side.
‘He says that he wants to figure things out. He wants a truce, he says that we can share the city.’
Garius turned to me and whispered. I nodded. Garius bellowed at the guard standing by the door.
‘Send someone to Ret. Tell him two days. Three o’clock. His place. The Heights.’
‘B-but Ret said I was supposed to take the message to him myself.’
‘I like to change things up.’
As they were carrying the Yellow Jacket’s body out of the room Garius turned to me and said,
‘This could be it. We could take The Heights.’
Since our rise, Ret had become more cautious. He was holed up on the top floor of his stronghold in The Heights. It was out of here that he ran all of his operations. It was a multi-level empire. A city within the city. A Rem could enter there and have all of his needs fulfilled.
The basement was one huge Yugi constructed vault where he kept all of the loot he had amassed over the years. Huge rooms filled with ARCS and guns. Everything that made Ret Ret was in that vault. The product of a lifetime of hustling and murdering.
The ground floor was the factory where he made the low grade Crunk that flooded the streets. There were thousands of skull-faced ghouls plunging blades into people’s stomachs just to afford Ret’s Crunk. It sometimes came into red areas but we policed our districts good. Any Crunk we found with the Yellow Jacket stamp was seized, re-packaged and sold under our flag. There was no pride in the product we sold or the product Ret sold, it was all garbage but Crunk-Heds were animals. It was okay if they lost their souls.
Above the Crunk factory was his slot-alley. Row upon row of glittering slots with Slot-Heds standing in line to get to play on them. There were so many Slot-Heds in this city that the slots made almost as much money as the Crunk. At the back of the slot hall was Ret’s private elevator that went straight to his penthouse that overlooked The Heights.
The Heights was special. In The Heights there were plants. They forced out tiny grey flowers that bloomed for a day and then choked. In The Heights if you could get high enough you could get your head out of the smog. They said that if you lived in The Heights long enough you didn’t cough anymore. You didn’t stink. They said that if you lived in The Heights long enough you stopped feeling like a Rem and more like a man. Ret had The Heights. We wanted The Heights.
‘If you cut off the head, the body dies.’
‘Yeah but that neck is gonna be hard to slice through. There is no way he’s gonna let us up there armed and you know that he’s called this meeting to kill me.’
‘Yeah, But you know, Garius that there aint no way that Yellow bastard is gonna kill you.’
‘There aint no way that Yellow bastard is gonna kill me. But how we gonna kill him?’
‘I gotta go and see a Chopper.’
He smiled as I told him my plan.
‘I think you gotta go and see a Chopper.’
‘If I give you these meds, sure, you’ll heal quick but they’ll suck you dry. They’ll latch onto your soul and they’ll burn you out in a year. I’ve never seen a Med-Hed last longer than a year.’
‘I need it healed in a week.’
‘Then you need to take the meds.’
‘I need to take the meds.’
He sliced me then injected me with black-market Yugi antibiotic. The stuff they used to heal Yugi troops who’d been injured in battle. The side effects for humans were two-fold. Firstly that repeated doses destroyed the human immune system resulting in multiple organ failure and a horrific death. The second was that it was instantly addictive.
We walked to The Heights. Garius said he wanted to taste the place one last time.
‘’Cause once I’m up The Heights I aint coming back to this gutter.’
As we walked through the city a thin drizzle fell onto my plastic rain coat. It smelled like the city. Like heavy metals dissolved in desperation. Even if a Rem managed to get off this heap he’d never get this smell out. It sank into the pores and stayed there. It smelled like home.
The slot hall was filled with Slot-Heds. It always was. Sat at stools, eyes rooted to virtual wheels turning. Other Slot-Heds behind them, looking antsy, waiting to play. Two huge Roiders were waiting for us at the elevator. The veins bursting out of their necks. Their hearts would pop soon.
‘Put your arms up.’
They patted us down to make sure we weren’t armed. They were very thorough. They pushed us into the elevator and we saw one of them flicking through Garius’s wallet as the doors shut. Garius turned to me,
‘Both of those Roiders will be dead before the end of the night.’
The elevator doors opened and two more Roiders led us to double doors at the end of a long corridor. They checked us once more for weapons. The roider patting me down said,
‘It’s summer. You don’t wanna take them gloves off?’
I said nothing. He shrugged and flung the doors open. Ret sat at his desk. Two more Roiders stood either side of him, hands resting on laser pistols. They were the biggest yet. They looked as if their skin was about to tear under the pressure of the muscles that strained beneath them.
‘Wait outside, and close the doors.’
The two roiders that had just frisked us closed the doors behind them. Ret hadn’t left this building in years but everyone knew what he looked like. His portrait hung from every street corner in The Heights and it was a pretty good likeness except now he had a scar that ran down the one side of his face. The grin though, it was unmistakeable.
‘I gotta apologise about the security. I know you wouldn’t be dumb enough to bring no guns in here but what if I didn’t search you and then you blew my head off? I’d look an idiot. Sit down. Drink?’
I shook my head, so did Garius. One of the roiders looked at me.
‘You wearing gloves. You cold?’
Ret leapt out of his chair and slapped the roider across the face as hard as he could.
‘YOU SPEAK WHEN YOUR SPOKEN TO, PIG!’
He whipped the pistol out of the roider’s hand and put it to his temple.
‘YOU WANT ME TO SHOOT YOU? HUH? BLOW YOUR BRAINS OVER MY NICE DESK?’
The roider stood stock still and didn’t say a word.
‘Good. I have to apologise gentlemen. Sometimes these apes get a little above themselves.’
We said nothing.
‘Okay. Business. You have half the city and I half the other half. Now, your half. I want it. You were stupid enough to come to my place. You were stupid enough to have your guns taken from you so my question is this: What’s to stop me blowing your brains out and just taking your half of the city?’
‘I didn’t say I wanted you to answer my question. I have the answer. The answer is nothing. There’s nothing to stop me so that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna blow your filthy alien brains all over my nice wallpaper then I’m gonna stroll into the half of the city and just take it. How does that sound to you?’
I stood up and started to take my gloves off.
‘That really wasn’t our plan.’
‘I wasn’t talking to you, BOY! YOU TELL YOUR BOY TO SIT DOWN AND SHUT-’
Before he’d finished his sentence both roiders lay dead, eviscerated by the Hand-Job cannon I’d had grafted into my palm. Garius grinned.
‘How about I blow your filthy alien brains all over your nice wall paper then I-‘
Garius fell forward, the blast from my hand-cannon turning his head into pink mist. Ret cringed in his chair as I levelled the cannon at his head…